Is Hollywood giving moviegoers an accurate portrayal of Christ?

A Canadian academic believes Hollywood—with its obsession for commercial success— has altered Jesus Christ’s story, particularly in relation to Judaism.

In a lecture titled “Jesus and Judaism in the Jesus Film Genre” at the Thomas Aquinas Research Complex last July 16, Prof. Adele Reinhartz said viewers are getting a vastly different image of Christ on film.

“Since the beginning of cinema in the late 19th century, the life of Jesus was a favorite subject of the filmmakers around the world,” said Reinhartz, who is teaching in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa.

Reinhartz, whose study titled “Jesus of Hollywood” was published by Oxford University Press in 2007, claimed Jesus movies are historically inaccurate as filmmakers had movie revenues in mind.

“We need to recognize [the alterations in the movies]. We have to see that the movies are fictional adaptations … they really belong to [the] Hollywood and film genre as such,” she said. “These movies differ in the portrayal of Jesus with regard to His physical appearance, His behavior, and His importance for humankind.”

Reinhartz claimed most movies about Jesus have failed to show His “compelling” figure to the people.

“The kind of Jesus that is presented in most of these movies is so uncharismatic and uninteresting that you would wonder why anyone would bother being a disciple,” she said.

Reinhartz, who was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2005, is an expert in early Christianity and Judaism, the Gospel of John, Bible and film, Jewish-Christian relations, and feminist Biblical criticism.

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Fr. Rodel Aligan, O.P., Faculty of Sacred Theology dean, said people looking for the real Christ should go beyond the movies.

“Believe in Jesus but do not believe so much in these films about Jesus. Better read and study the Bible and see Jesus’ cultural background. Let that be your point of departure in looking at Christ,” Aligan said.

Jesus as a Jew

Jesus was a Jew, but many scholars and filmmakers have only been “remotely comfortable in this aspect of Jesus’ identity,” Reinhartz noted. She noted that over the centuries, Jews have been accused as “Christ-killers,” which shows in the “anti-semitism” of some movies.

Anti-semitism is the hatred of or discrimination against the Jews because of their religion and ethnicity.

“The Gospels place a large measure of the blame on the Jewish authorities. Many Jews today, myself included, have had the experience of being accused as Christ-killers,” Reinhartz said, adding that filmmakers must be attuned to the attitudes of the audience.

Reinhartz said the “blood curse” of the Jews started when they replied “His blood be on us, and on our children,” after Pontius Pilate washed his hands and proclaimed himself innocent of Jesus’ blood in Chapter 27 of the Book of Matthew.

Chapter 8 of John, as portrayed in Mel Gibson’s film “Passion of Christ,” associated the Jews with the devil, as seen when Jewish children suddenly turned devil-like and mocked Judas on the streets, the professor said.

Although Gibson did not mean to portray the Jews negatively, the movies are permanent and may give the wrong impression to the audience, she added.

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“We should watch these [movies] for entertainment. For theology, we really have to go back to the scriptures and the history of our traditions,” Reinhartz said.

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