Study Materials for Religious Education

Section 09: Key issues for teaching about Jesus across the K – 12 religion curriculum
This section complements and follows up theological studies of Jesus that may be undertaken in various theology units by focusing on the key issues for teaching about Jesus in religious education. It looks into the key difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Christian faith -- or the difference between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post--Easter Jesus. Paralleling the quest for the "historical Jesus" attention will be given to the quest for the "cinematic Jesus" – what sort of Jesus was being presented in the film's and stage productions on Jesus?

As for all sections, view the introductory video. Then listen to the content lecture audio while attending to the main text file on this page. Arrange to have the audio file and the text page open together so you can work your way through both in an integrated fashion.

Introductory video to this section

1. Introductory video giving an introduction to the content covered in this section.

Click the icon or here to view the introductory video in streaming mp4 format. Or right click if you want to download the video using the "save link" option

Brief overview of content of this section

The unit commences by identifying some of the most important principles and issues that teachers would need to keep in mind to give some panoramic perspective on how to go about teaching Jesus across the school religion curriculum.

Firstly there is the need to see the relationship between studying Jesus and interpreting both the theology and the historicity of the Gospels – the principal source of information about Jesus. Scholars have pointed out that the Gospels, while describing the life of Jesus, were written from a "post-Easter perspective". In other words, they were presuming that the readers would be interpreting the story from a stance of faith in Jesus as the Christ, the son of the living God. Not recognising this difference from the "historical Jesus" creates problems with the interpretation of the new Testament.

Practical approaches to the study of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith can make use of film studies – study of the first Christian films going back to the late part of the 19th century through to the more recent Jesus films and stage productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. These studies help demonstrate that the four Gospels are primarily testaments of faith and that they were written with strong symbolic and theological overtones – they are not just stories of the life of Jesus.

Audio mp3 file lecture of this section

2. The audio file lecture
This presents the content for this section -- the main presentation and principal source of information on the topic. The audio lecture ( 47 minutes) will refer every now and again to particular parts of the accompanying text below that will easily be identified -- here you will need to pause the audio and look at the pertinent parts of the text. At times you will also need to pause the audio to look at particular sub-presentations such as video clips and powerpoint presentations. The audio lecture and the text go together. Click the icon or here to listen to the mp3 audio lecture or to download the complete file, right click and use the "save link" option.


The historical Jesus and the formation of the Gospels
Distinguishing the Jesus of history (the pre-Easter Jesus) from the Christ of faith (the post-Easter Jesus)
Studies of the new Testament texts and the historical Jesus studies
The four different gospel portraits of Jesus
Hearing from key scholars involved in the historical Jesus studies talking about the historical Jesus
The quest for the cinematic Jesus: "Who was Jesus?" Explored in film and stage productions
Recommended sequence for study of the film clips from the Jesus films

  The earliest Christian films from the late 19 th century
After the silent films -- sound and colour films of Jesus from the 1950s onwards
Realism and symbolism and theology in the Jesus films??
The stage productions of Jesus

A discussion of symbolism and realism in the quest for the cinematic Jesus and how this relates to the Gospel texts
Christian theology as evident in the evolution of the crucifix in Christian piety and in paintings of Jesus


Teaching about Jesus across the religion curriculum

This section is about what teachers of religion need to know about when it comes to teaching across Jesus at any particular level of the school religion curriculum. also, it will be practical in orientation. Some of the materials used here could be tried out in classroom religious education.

The historical Jesus and the formation of the Gospels

It is essential to tie in teaching about Jesus with the study of the New Testament – particularly the Gospels. And in particular, the way the Gospels were written and accepted by the early Christian community as documents of faith . They were historically based – but they were primarily about confirming the faith of the early Christian believers.

The gospels as Testaments of early Christian faith : The Gospels are very complex documents of faith, written within the early Christian communities for articulating and confirming their faith. They were based on historical facts that are verifiable from history but they were not primarily historical documents in the sense that we would understand historical documents today, in terms of the thinking about history in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Firstly there was the disciples direct experience of Jesus of Nazareth. Then there were verbal recollections and stories of the sayings and doings of Jesus. Then there were pieces of writing where some of these early memories were committed to text . And finally there were the Gospels that incorporated both oral and early written traditions into narrative structures . The 4 canonical Gospels (accepted by the early church) were authored over a period of 50 perhaps to even 100 years beginning round about 50 – 60 A.D. The Gospel of Mark is thought by scholars to be the first of the four to be written. Canonical gospels – means these were accepted as divine revelation by the early Christian church.

Teachers need to avoid teaching something as more simple than it really is -- which would mean it has to be "un-taught" at a later stage. For example, Scripture scholarship for many years now has pointed out that it is highly likely that the Apostles or evangelists whose names have been attached to the Gospels were not the actual authors. The different gospels were associated with particular early Christian communities and they were named according to those traditions, which may have had special earlier associations with those particular apostles. As was noted above, the gospels were not first-hand descriptive accounts of the life of Jesus. Neither were they dictated to the authors by angels or by God himself. Also, it is important to note that most of the letters of St Paul – actually authored by Paul himself – were written and circulated before the four Gospels were written.

The Gospels were written from a post-Easter perspective . They were written by Christians who believed that Jesus was the son of God and he was the one through whom people would be saved. This needs to be distinguished from what you might call the pre-Easter Jesus or the Jesus of history – what Jesus the man was really like, what he said, what he did, where he travelled etc.

Religion teachers should never present a simplistic account of the Gospels : It is essential for religion teachers not to use words that are inconsistent with this complexity to the Gospels and to the early study of Jesus. In other words, teachers should never talk about the Gospels as if they were exact eyewitness accounts of people who were there, writing a strict historical record of what was actually happening day by day. As one teacher said, the Gospels are not like a "ball by ball description of the play".

Teachers need to find ways of talking about the Gospels as complex pieces of religious literature even with young children in the primary school years. It is not beyond children of that age to understand that storytelling is important – they love stories. And they can see that the Gospels are the stories of the early Christian communities put together in memory of Jesus to explain how they thought of him to be the Son of God and to encourage each other to have personal faith in Jesus and to live according to the example he set.

This would mean that something needs to be explained to the students about how the Gospels were written and how the historical fits in with the faith purposes . The Gospel writers would often use stories and even change details and sequences, locations and times to highlight particular points. They used what might be called today ‘poetic licence'. The Gospels are really like dramatic plays (like Shakespearean plays) with a highly refined text meant for meditative reading and for use in liturgies. Each gospel presents a distinctive portrait of Jesus.

The Gospels also reflect the socio-political situation of the early Christians at that time. For example, scholars think that it is possible to identify some elements of anti-Semitism in parts of the Gospels where negativity about Jews and Judaism was being felt. Some early Christians were excluded from the Synagogue and they were unhappy about this. Eventually they formed their own religious community around faith in Jesus rather than stay as a sect within Judaism – which was where the early Christians started. Hence there was some ill-feeling about Jewish religious authorities. In terms of young people's understandings, the gospel authors at times reflected a mentality where the Jews were more readily considered to be the "bad guys". In particular, the Pharisees were ‘bad mouthed'. This is not consistent with studies of Judaism at the time of Jesus where many Pharisees were exemplary of the genuine Jewish faith tradition. It is likely that Jesus even had friends who were Pharisees. Over a long history, you can see how the word Pharisee and the use of the adjective pharisaic have come to mean being hypocritical. These negative associations that Christians have with Pharisees came initially from the gospels.

Distinguishing the Jesus of history (the pre-Easter Jesus) from the Christ of faith (the post-Easter Jesus)

Religion teachers should always try to talk about the formation of the Gospels in a way that reflects this reality that is so important to take into account when it comes to interpreting the Gospels. Even though written in a narrative structure as if it were a historical record, the Gospels are written almost exclusively from a post-Easter perspective. The faith of the early Christian community is written back into what appears to be the original narrative, making it complex to read and somewhat difficult to understand. For example, the gospel narratives tend to give an impression that Jesus knew in advance everything that was going to happen to him. This is unlikely. He was not acting out a tightly prescribed script. This is just the impression that the Gospel faith-writing style gives. The authors were writing more about what Jesus and the events meant to them as believers at the time, than it was about describing past events in meticulous detail. This question could be an important research study for older students done as a more systematic way where they try to find out more about the Gospel writing process and its theological purposes. They would then be in a better position to also study the Jesus of history.

Studies of the new Testament texts and the historical Jesus studies

One can understand how there are literary scholars studying the new Testament books -- their authorship, their timing, their theological and faith purposes, their literary styles etc. Complementing the textual studies, have been the studies of historians concerned with peeling back the layers of the new Testament to find out more about the historical Jesus – what Jesus was actually like as a human being in Judea and in Galilee at that time.

There has been some change and evolution in this scholarship. For example, in the early to mid 20th century, prominent in the thinking about the historical Jesus was that he was a type of eschatological (concern about the last things) and apocalyptic (sudden catastrophic change) figure – something like John the Baptist, talking about the “repentance” because of the imminent end of the world. There was a little of this is eschatological thinking in the writings of St Paul -- he gave an impression that he thought the world was going to win reasonably soon. When this did not happen, the early Christian thinkers then seemed to settle in the expectation of a ‘long history' for Christianity – and this was reflected in their writings of the Gospels. Later on the Jesus scholars pointed out that the Gospels actually compared and contrasted Jesus with the Baptist, suggesting that Jesus was quite different in approach from the ‘fire and brimstone Baptist'. Jesus was very different from an eschatological or apocalyptic figure.

So a number of theories have developed about what was the best way of describing the historical Jesus. Recent scholarship tends to look at him more as one of the wisdom figures or wise men, who was also a healer . Just how many miracles Jesus actually worked and just how many miracles in the Gospels were like exaggerations by the new Testament authors pointing out how God-like Jesus was is a difficult question to answer. But it is a question that scholars are trying to unravel.

There is a need to recognise that there is a natural uncertainty in the insights of the historical Jesus scholars. But nevertheless, the portraits that they have painted of him are particularly interesting. Two scholars in particular have been very prominent. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Just to provide some preliminary contact with them and their thought, this section includes some of their lectures on the historical Jesus – have a listen to some of this even if there is not time to hear it all. Marcus Borg died early in 2015 – a great scholar RIP.

The 4 different gospel portraits of Jesus

At some stage, religion teachers need to get across to their students, at an appropriate age level, that the four different Gospels each gives a distinctive gospel portrait of what the historical Jesus was like, even though most of their emphasis was on the Christ of faith. Note, all the Gospels were written in Greek. So one can see that there had been some change and evolution away from the Aramaic language which is most probably the one that Jesus and his disciples spoke most of the time. It is likely that the original sayings and memories of Jesus appeared in fragments of Aramaic writing which eventually were transposed into Greek and were drawn upon in the writing of the Gospels.

For example the gospel of Mark – sometimes called “Mark the stark” – seems to be specially interested in showing that for Jesus to be the Messiah, he had to ‘walk the way of the cross'. Jesus was not the successful PR man selling a religious message. He was absolutely committed to the welfare of the ‘little people', the ‘anawin' (poor and marginalised). And he ‘stuck to his guns' on these commitments even if it upset the authorities to the point that he was assassinated for his commitments. For the gospel of Mark, there was no messiah without the carrying of the cross . For example, scholars think that the original Gospel of Mark did not have the post-resurrection stories in it that were added later – Mark's gospel was thought originally to end with the ‘finding of the empty tomb'.

The gospel of Matthew was apparently written to support the early Christians who had been worshipping and participating in the Jewish synagogue. When they were expelled, the Gospel of Matthew was written to help provide readings and a sense of identity for this community that could help them develop a new sense of Christian identity not so dependent on Judaism. One can understand why there is ill feeling towards the Jews expressed in Matthew's Gospel -- is community had been expelled by the Jews. Also in Matthew's Gospel, there was a systematic effort to compare and contrast Jesus with Moses – he was like the new Moses the new saviour of the people.

The gospel of Luke was written later and is like the ‘humanist' gospel that appeared to be written to appeal to the contemporary Greco- Roman communities pointing out that Jesus could be seen to be the best model of what it means to be really human in that culture. It was written with a more sophisticated Greek language than what appeared in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.

Contrasting with the three more descriptive or Synoptic Gospels was the Gospel of John . The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are said to be the Synoptic Gospels because they shared many of the same descriptive stories of Jesus in a roughly similar sequence, even sharing some of the same wording . The tended to tell the story of Jesus from the same sort of narrative perspective – but it was a highly theological and symbolic narrative. And this contrasted with the Gospel of John which was written more in reflective, dramatic theological language – as if ‘more spiritual' a view of Jesus than the descriptions in the Synoptic gospels. John paints a more mystical and spiritual portrait of Jesus . Jesus was the divine word of God who existed with God before he appeared on earth. The Gospel of John has long monologues by Jesus which are clearly creations of the gospel author talking about the significance of Jesus for the early Christian community; and these appeared in long Shakespearean-like monologues which were statements of faith. For example the “I am the way the truth and the life” sequence; and the “I am the bread of life” sequence were examples of dramatic statements of early Christian faith – like hymns or texts to be said in liturgies.

Each of the Gospels gives a different portrait. Each has a different emphasis related to the context and purposes of the author. The literary scholars are unravelling these contexts and purposes. The 4 gospel portraits need to be taken together and not played off against each other as if John was the latest therefore the most important. For a while there was some anxiety and uncertainty about John's Gospel because it had some similarities with Gnostic literature. The Gnostics were about secret knowledge and some were regarded as being heretical in the early Christian church.

The apocryphal gospel literature – the other gospels that were not accepted officially into the Christian collection of canon of gospels

In the discussion of Jesus in the Gospels, there is also a need to note that there were a number of other gospels written at the time like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalen etc. These were not accepted by the early Christian church as the ones that they regarded as specially inspired by God (the 4 canonical gospels). The ones that were not accepted were known as the apocryphal gospels. They are part of a wider body of literature call the Apocrypha. There were also some Hebrew Bible apocryphal books that are not included in what the Catholic Church regarded as the canon of the Hebrew Bible or old Testament.

Hearing from key scholars involved in the historical Jesus studies talking about the historical Jesus

The number of new Testament scholars have set out to try to reconstruct what they think the historical Jesus would have been like. This rests primarily on historical literary criticism of the new Testament. It also takes into account sociopolitical and cultural data about the times of Jesus as well as looking into archaeological material.

These scholars have come up with a theories about what the historical Jesus was like.

if you have time you might briefly look at a little of what is said about this topic by two of the significant scholars, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.

Click the photo or below for a lecture on the historical Jesus by John Dominic Crossan (about 2000)

Click the photo or below for a lecture on the historical Jesus studies by Marcus Borg

The quest for the cinematic Jesus: "Who was Jesus?" explored in film and stage productions

Just as earlier in this section attention was given to the quest for the historical Jesus by the historians of the new Testament, it is possible to look at the quest for the cinematic Jesus. In other words, what sort of Jesus is being portrayed in the film depictions of Jesus across the 20 th century.

This will mean looking at material from a range of Jesus films and Jesus documentaries to see what can be learned, especially about the context of the films and the purposes of the director. In other words, what sort of Jesus were the film directors trying to project . This could also be a research study that students could follow. The material below will be described as a study for unit participants which could be used with students, with appropriate modifications according to their age level.

The study of Jesus in the Jesus films is one interesting way of getting students to think about how Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels, the historical Jesus, and the Christ of faith.

The material below has clips from a number of Jesus films. Students could be asked to look at these and to interpret what they think the director of the film was trying to convey. What particular portrait of Jesus with a trying to project? What were the particular qualities of Jesus they were trying to emphasise? And these could be compared with what students see as the portrait of Jesus and the qualities of Jesus that emerge from a direct study of the Gospel texts, and also from a study of the meaning of the texts as interpreted by Scripture scholars.

Students could do this as a research project. They can write up their interpretations and these could be discussed in class. Materials from and information about a number of Jesus films and pertinent documentaries can be readily searched and found these days on YouTube.

Preliminary work: It would be important to have done some work on the formation of the Christian Gospels, as noted earlier in this text, before doing the film study. The students would need to know before looking at Jesus films that the Gospels themselves – the prime records of Jesus – are not strictly historical documents in the same sense that we would talk about factual / historical / scientific documents today.

One of the crucial learning points from the study could be the following issue: filmic representations of Jesus often depend much on the realism that films naturally convey. If the Jesus films follow the literal meaning of the text in the Gospels, they may end up missing the point of the Gospels are not primarily historical they are primarily theological expressing the faith of the early Christian community in the risen Jesus . And the Gospels, especially the 3 Synoptic gospels, even though they have many stories about Jesus' life, are really stories of his life rewritten from the perspective of the post-Easter Jesus – the Christ of faith. As discussed earlier, the Gospels are more about the Christ of faith than they are about the Jesus of history .

The students may even give some consideration to the possibility that the realism in the Jesus films tends to reinforce a literal and perhaps fundamentalist interpretation of the Scripture ; and this might inhibit their capacity to focus on the theological and faith messages that are primary are the primary concerns of the Gospels.

Recommended sequence for study of the film clips from the Jesus films

NOTE: There is no need to follow all the links to film clips. Just cover the main ones as indicated, and look at any others according to interest and time you may have available.

The earliest Christian films from the late 19 th century

Look at the first short extract from the documentary film – Jesus Christ movie star . This helps show how the Christian churches were the first to strongly embrace the possibility of the use of film for recruiting people to a cause or belief system . The churches used films in the late 19 th and in the 20 th centuries to promote Christianity and for reinforcing the faith of Christians. It may well have been that they thought that a strict, literal, factual and scientific like presentation of the life of Jesus would invite faith and would reinforce faith. How might this question be looked at critically today?

Something about early Christian films and Jesus films late 19th century and early 20th centuries

Click image or here for video. Students need to know that this is a clip from a documentary film which takes a value position about the whole question of Jesus in film. Its value is that students can see examples of the earliest films about Bible stories and the earliest films about Jesus. Note in particular the film by the prominent early 20th century film director in Hollywood DW Griffith. It refers to the controversial film Intolerance . Later, a more detailed study of the documentary Jesus Christ movie star (the full long version) might be a concluding part of the film study. This clip of examples came from the documentary Jesus Christ movie star A Canadian-British 1992 documentary about the history of Jesus in film

DW Griffith silent film Intolerance made in 1916

There is no need to look at this film because an extract from it was shown in the clip from the documentary noted above. It is just important to note that this was one of the first so-called "Hollywood blockbusters" that focused on the life of Jesus. This film did look into some other questions as well as Jesus. The Hollywood production distinguishes this film from the many Bible story films and short films about the life of Jesus that were made and distributed by the churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as noted above. You will also note above that there was a subtle suggestion that the churches may have used their early Bible story films is a form of propaganda to promote an interest in Jesus. For any who are interested in glimpsing at the original Griffith film, the YouTube addresses given below.

After the silent films -- sound and colour films of Jesus from the 1950s onwards

NOTE: The next part of the sequence would be to get students to look at the extracts from two particular films – The Robe and Ben Hur .

The Robe 1953

The Robe is a 1942 historical novel about the Crucifixion of Jesus written by Lloyd C. Douglas. It was made into a film in 1953 -- the first in Cinemascope.

Film with Richard Burton, Jean Simmons and Victor Mature Click the image or here for the video clip from the film.

The clip here shows the slave Demetrius (Victor Mature) puzzled about the impact of Jesus who was pictured on a donkey going into Jerusalem. This is the event that is remembered on Palm Sunday in the Christian calendar where palms are usually distributed as part of the liturgy. What feelings were being portrayed by the director in these scenes?

Ben Hur 1959
First made as a silent film in 1907 and then again in 1927, it was remade with Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins in 1959. (Yet another new version was made in 2016). Just view the 1959 video clip. What feelings are shown by the Centurion who confronts Jesus after he give Ben Hur water to drink? What was the director saying about Jesus in this scene?

Ben Hur 1907 Silent film

The first film of Lew Wallace's novel Ben Hur, 1907

You Tube link to the film


Ben Hur Silent film 1925

A remake also in silent film format

YouTube link to the trailer of the film

NOTE on showing the face of Jesus in film: After making their interpretation of what the directors were trying to project about Jesus in these two scenes, the question can be asked as to why do these films not show the face of Jesus? Why does the audience only get to see the back of Jesus or Jesus in the distance? It can then be explained that after the controversies relating to the W Griffiths Intolerance , and other films about Jesus in the 1920s and 1930s, the British Film Board of Censorship made a ruling that films about Jesus should not show the face of Jesus close up because this might lead to possible manipulation. This was an agreed requirement that the film industry generally kept to. And you could still see this influence in both the Robe and the Ben Hur scenes showing encounters with Jesus.

It was not until the remake of King of Kings in 1961 by MGM Studios that this ruling was no longer adhered to. The producers of King of Kings went to many Christian church leaders, persuading them that the film about Jesus would make him better known world wide. They suggested that the film would be helpful for the cause of the church by making Jesus more widely known and more popular. The church leaders agreed and he was able to show the face of the character portraying Christ in the film without the ban coming into effect. The producers proposed that the film would have an evangelising contribution to the churches. Before this for many years, no Jesus film was allowed to show the face of Jesus.

King of Kings 1961 Shows the face of Jesus close up

There is no need to look at this film. For reference, the YouTube viewing of the trailer of the film is linked into the photograph

Just for interest --

The original King of Kings by Cecil B de Mille made in 1927

No need to look at this. But if you are interested the image links to the You tube viewing. The King of Kings is a 1927 American silent epic film produced and directed by Cecil B De Mille.

Some clips from other Jesus films

Jesus of Nazareth by Franco Zeffirelli, 1977

This was one of the last big budget Jesus films. It was produced by Sir Lew Grade. he too got the churches onside with the production. Have a look at the video clip of Jesus as a boy in the Temple. What was the image of Jesus saying? what about the blue eyes and blond hair?

The Gospel according to St Matthew. By Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964 Did it have a contemporary message for Italy in the early 1960s?

Pasolini said that he was a communist and not a Christian believer. But he felt that the story of Jesus in the Gospel of St Matthew had something to say to the social and political situation of his time. He felt that the Gospel words themselves were so dramatic and poetic that to change the wording to try to make the film more realistic would be counter-productive.

No need to watch this film. But for interest the YouTube link is attached to the image

Realism and symbolism and theology in the Jesus films??


As in the gospel according to Matthew by Pasolini, some of the Jesus films have just used words taken directly from the Gospels. Have a look at this clip and see whether you think this is a realistic account of what Jesus might have said at the time. Is there some problem of congruence between having realism in the film and having dramatic/poetic/symbolic language from the actual Gospels? When put in a film with realism, does this then sound like a pious sermon? Is this what Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the rye called 'Holy Joe language'? (See below for further discussion of this question)

Did the historical Jesus talk like in real life? A clip of Jesus talking near a lake (from a Jesus film)


This clip goes for realism, prompting the viewer to imagine what it would have been like watching Jesus set out to cleanse the temple from the commerce that was described in the gospels, .

Jesus cleanses the temple -- filmic realism to the gospel story
From Last temptation of Christ by Scorsese, 1988


The stage productions of Jesus

Jesus Christ Superstar 1970 / 1973
Emphasis on symbolism and drama rather than on realism. Jesus Christ Superstar 1970 music album recorded. Clip from film produced in 1973

Jesus Christ Superstar is a 1970 rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The opera is a musical dramatisation of the last week of the life of Jesus life. Some have suggested that the film Superstar is not anywhere near as engaging as the stage productions, particularly the Australian stage productions done by director Jim Sharman. Click here to see some photographs of the Australian (1972-1974) production. Compare the simple stage craft with the large scale film version seen in the clip above. And think about the issues that are noted at the start of this page about symbolism and realism -- and how a production that emphasises the former may be closer to capturing the drama, symbolism and theology in the gospels.

Godspell 1971

GODSPELL was a rock opera in the tradition of Hair which first appeared in the UK and on Broadway in 1971. Written by John-Michael Tebelak with music Stephen Schwartz. It also opened at The Playbox Theatre in Melbourne in November 1971 and closed after 504 sold-out performances in December 1972. It drew on the gospel of Matthew.

Its songs were new but it used gospel texts for mimes of the parables and in some of the interactions between characters (Gospel of Matthew). A film was made in 1973.

While Superstar was a dramatic account of the last days of Jesus which tried to capture some of the popularity he had as well as the drama and intrigue of his betrayal, Godspell was more of a celebration of belief in Jesus -- in the tradition of the Gospel of St Matthew. See column on the right for links to video clips of Godspell. An additional performance of the 2011 Broadway cast on a TV show A revival called Godspell reimagined was staged in both Sydney and Melbourne in 2016.

While Superstar the stage production had simple sets but with lavish costumes, Godspell had the stage production with an absolute minimum of props.

Broadway stage version 2016
Below-- Godspell the movie 1973

Something different -- the play the Son of Man -- see the discussion below about realism

The son of man, a play by Dennis Potter 1969

Yet another variation in the Jesus film genre is the play the son of man written by Dennis Potter. What Potter tries to do in the play is to recreate what might have been all of the human drama experienced by Jesus, without using any of the standard Gospel language. In other words, the playwright opted for realism – he wanted to show as realistically as possible the drama and how this played out in the thoughts of Jesus the man. This piece of work opted for both realism in set, context and costume; and it also tried for realism in contemporary language which he hoped would capture some of the stress and trauma that Jesus experienced in working out what was his authentic mission.

Have a brief look at part of the play just to get an idea of how it contrasts with the clips viewed above.


A discussion of symbolism and realism in the quest for the 'Cinematic Jesus' and how this relates to the Gospel texts

One of the natural difficulties I have when looking at the Jesus films and stage productions is that it is telling a story that I already know. This is different from the situation where I am watching a new story for the first time. When I see or hear something that conflicts with the understanding I already have of the Jesus story in the Scriptures, then this creates a problem for me. For example: I know that the infancy narratives are not strictly historical. They were created late in the development of the Gospels and were primarily symbolic – about Jesus being the light of the world and in stark contrast with the powerful figure Caesar Augustus. So when I see the infancy being projected in a realistic 'documentary-like' fashion, it does not seem to fit with my understandings of the Gospels. However, the story as it is told still has lots of meaning for people apart from the symbolic meaning intended by the Gospel author. For example the humility of Jesus being born in a stable. This is consistent with the way Jesus presented himself in life – he was not a politically powerful figure seeking more power.

So for me there is a problem with a projection of Jesus that seems to be implying realism that conflicts with what I would understand as how the real historical Jesus would have presented himself.

The natural expectation you might have of a Jesus film and a Jesus stage production would be that you would get some insight into what the historical Jesus would have been like. But again you naturally have the problems with the Gospels which are theological and symbolic documents of faith -- much like dramatic plays articulating the faith of the early Christian communities, and not documentaries about Jesus.

So you can understand why the clip above with Jesus using the words from John's gospel in a sermon at the lake is not very engaging for me, because I know this is not how the real historical Jesus spoke. Whereas in Superstar the intrigue and drama, the tension and betrayal that is built up in the production seem to me to capture in a rock opera format something of the drama of the last days of Jesus. I would not expect that the stage production has to try to be perfectly congruent with what is said in the Gospels to be both challenging and engaging (for example the special new role given to Judas in Superstar).

On the other hand, the play Son of man by Dennis Potter which set out to explore how Jesus may have felt about what was going on in his life seem to me a valuable attempt to explore the personal drama of the Jesus of history. So in this instance, the realism of the documentary -like feel of the play seems to be appropriate for exploring what the author felt might have been the conflicting feelings of Jesus the man.

In Godspell and in Superstar there seems to me to be some congruence between the symbolic/theological trajectory of the Gospels and the symbolic/rock opera format of the stage production. It was clearly not intended to be accurate in the sense of a contemporary documentary. Viewers can readily see that Godspell is like the celebration of faith in Jesus by a Christian community. It is not setting out to give a documentary -like account of the life of Jesus. And so the actual words of Matthew's Gospel fit into the presentation quite comfortably – a congruence between symbolism in the Gospels and symbolism in the stage production. And you can see why for many of the Jesus films I think there is a lack of congruence between the original Gospel documents and the way their Gospel language has been used as if it were the real words used by Jesus in a contemporary documentary about his life.

So it seems to me that we can learn a lot from looking critically at both the films and stage productions to do with the life of Jesus.

If I had to pick which were the most engaging and enjoyable presentations, I would opt for Godspell, Superstar, the Son of man and Pasolini's Gospel of Matthew. I did not like either of the film versions of Godspell and superstar – for me they seemed to stray too far from the natural symbolism and imaginative performances, and the intimacy of the presentations in the stage productions by moving the sets too much larger geographical locations. When the stage plays were enacted on a stage rather than on location sites, the imagery and symbolism seem to come through more strongly and imaginatively. In the stage production of Godspell, there were no complicated sets -- just a few carpenter's tools and a small fence around stage. The Jesus character was dressed as a clown and many of the gospel stories from the Gospel of Matthew were enacted in mine-like form.

The subtle point that might be made here for senior students is that the Gospels were written like dramatic plays with highly polished theological language (even in simple words). The dramatic Gospel texts could be read in liturgical settings. When the Gospel texts were transferred to the 'realism context' of many of the Jesus films, somehow, in my opinion, the drama and some of the symbolism and theology got lost in the descriptive and documentary-like portrayal of Jesus. As noted above, Jesus did not give long sermons like "I am the bread of life etc." "I am the light of the world etc." These Christian faith statements, were put on the lips of Jesus by the by the early Christian community associated with the writing of the Gospel of St John, articulating what was their committed faith interpretation of Jesus as saviour. These images and symbols were used to elaborate their theological faith position. They were never simple records of what Jesus might have actually said. So with many of the Jesus films you have a conflict between the dramatic, theological and symbolic characteristics of the Gospel texts and the way they have been forced to function like realistic descriptions of the events in Jesus' life. For me this tends to create a discontinuity between the purposes of the Gospel texts and the way in which they have been used descriptively in some Jesus films.

Whereas, in the stage plays Godspell and Superstar, the story is portrayed with a lot of drama and symbolism and it is perhaps this dramatic symbolism that is more in tune with the theological/symbolic/faith purposes of the gospel texts. So between the presentation of Godspell and superstar and the purposes of the dramatic gospel texts you have a degree of congruence.

The Mel Gibson film the Passion of the Christ. My recommendation is not to show any of this film to students as an example -- even though they would have ready internet access to it. WHY?? I consider that the theological position behind this film needs explanation, relating back to the people in the Middle ages who started the pre-occupation with the suffering of Jesus. Gibson represented a particular interpretation of the Passion of the Jesus of Jesus that arose in the Middle Ages where the great emphasis was on sympathy for, and identification with, the pain and suffering that Jesus must have gone through. And there was the added theological view that it was the severity of this pain and suffering that redeemed people from sin and in a sense this was some payment for the guilt of people's sins. These views are totally at odds with the new Testament accounts of Jesus passion which do not dwell at all on the suffering of Jesus; and the idea of being saved by Jesus that came through in the early Christian church had nothing to do with the intensity of his suffering. As will be shown later, for centuries, the first Christian crosses were symbols of resurrection and new life -- they were adorned with jewels -- only later did the crucifix with the figure of Jesus on the cross emerge,

None of the Gospels dwells in any detail on the pain or suffering of Jesus. Neither do they dismiss it. They indicate in a matter-of-fact way how he was betrayed and assassinated. What the Gospels were about primarily was that Jesus was faithful unto death.

He was committed to the welfare of the 'little people' and to helping them understand that God was like their father. And it was this fidelity that was a life-saving example of people as to how to make sense of their lives in the light of Jesus' life. The Gospels never give the impression that it was Jesus' suffering that was redemptive. In the Gospel of John, you get an impression that the passion is something of a triumphal procession that Jesus is leading on the way to the cross.

So students could be helped to see that the emphasis given to the pain and suffering of Jesus in Mel Gibson's film had little to do with the reality of the early Christian communities' memories of who Jesus was and what he meant to them. Even the Stations of the cross, which dwell on the suffering of Jesus did not come from the early Christian church or the Gospels. The devotion of the stations of the cross evolved from the mediaeval Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem remembering the passion and death of Jesus as related to sites in Jerusalem. It appears that the word stations of the cross did not formally appear until the mid-15th century.

Some people today and some cultures still cultivate a special interest in the suffering of Jesus. You can see people in the Philippines who walk the whole length of the church on their knees in memory of the suffering of Jesus and the suffering is often evident in the portraits and statues of Jesus which can seem to overemphasise the suffering. The point to be made for the students is that this is not part of the core Christian message about Jesus as saviour.


An optional additional resource

Concluding video. This is the full version of the documentary film Jesus Christ Movie Star. A short extract from the film was shown at the start of the material on the queest for the Cinematic Jesus.

The full length documentary may be useful for any student discussion of this topic,





Christian theology as evident in the evolution of the crucifix in Christian piety and in paintings of Jesus

The material here looks at the evolution of the crucifix and of the painting of images of Jesus with a theological implications. The crucifix material came mainly from the book a Friday noon which also provided some information on interpreting be evolution of the crucifix as a Christian theological symbol.

Click here for presentation on the cross and images of Jesus . Download before opening the powerpoint file.

There are three separate files with information on the evolution of the crucifix and something on icons. First file: Jesus the cross and the icon part 1
Second file: Jesus the cross and the icon part 2
Third file: The cross and its symbolism.

The powerpoint also has examples of Byzantine Christian icons.

Below the icon of the Transfiguration -- a special starting point for the artists who begin work as iconographers.

Material like that in the PowerPoint could be used with students at an appropriate age level to help them learn something about the way that the crucifix evolved in Christian piety.

For the various paintings of Jesus, they can understand that there was something universal about the Jesus of faith who could be portrayed as being part of the local culture. In Africa the Jesus is Africa looking, in Japan – Japanese looking and so on. What does this say about the universality as well as the uniqueness of Jesus?



Some additional references
Click here for list of additional references

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