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12 Bible Movie Adaptations for Easter & Passover: The King of Kings & The Passion of the Christ

Updated: Mar 30, 2023


In honor of Good Friday, in today's post I look at The Passion of the Christ, one of the most unflinching depictions of Jesus' suffering, and The King of Kings, a very interesting exploration of Jesus' kingship. As I note below, they contrast significantly with the more direct gospel adaptations I looked at yesterday. In my next post, I'll finish my tour of Gospel and Passover adaptations by looking at long-form adaptations made for TV.

Photo from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0335345/mediaviewer/rm778452224

Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille [The King of Kings]; Mel Gibson [The Passion of the Christ]

Starring: H. B. Warner (Jesus), Dorothy Cumming (Virgin Mary), Ernest Torrence (Peter), Joseph Schildkraut (Judas), Jacqueline Logan (Mary Magdalene) [The King of Kings]; Jim Caviezel (Jesus), Maia Morgenstern (Virgin Mary), Monica Bellucci (Mary Magdalene), Francesco De Vito (Peter), Luca Lionello (Judas) [The Passion of the Christ]

Adapting: The Canonical Gospels

Photo from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0018054/mediaviewer/rm760692480

Synopsis [The King of Kings]

When Mary Magdalene, an upper class prostitute, discovers that Judas, one of her regular clients, has taken up with a miracle worker, she goes to find him on her zebra chariot. Judas explains to Mary that he hopes to become powerful when Jesus ascends to the throne. When Jesus encounters Mary, however, he casts the 7 deadly sins out of her. We follow Jesus as he befriends children and performs miracles like the raising of Lazarus. He eventually enters Jerusalem and casts out the money changers. When Judas (and Satan) attempt to make him an earthly king, however, Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is not of this world. Frustrated and also threatened by the priests, Judas decides to hand Jesus over. After the Last Supper (which Judas secretly doesn’t eat), Jesus is taken in Gethsemane. Consumed with guilt, Judas dies by suicide. Caiaphas bribes the crowd to condemn Jesus. The crucifixion of Jesus results in a massive cataclysm. When Jesus is resurrected, the film changes from black and white to color, and he commissions the disciples.

Synopsis [The Passion of the Christ]

Jesus, praying, is tempted by Satan in Gethsemane. Jesus ultimately rebukes Satan and literally crushes the head of a serpent. Judas leads guards to capture Jesus. The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John go to see the trial. Jesus is convicted for affirming that he is the Son of God. Meanwhile, Peter denies Jesus three times and Judas is driven to suicide by guilt and by demonic tormentors in the form of children. Pilate's wife has a disturbing dream about Jesus and so Pilate tries to avoid making a judgment by sending Jesus to Herod, offering to free to free him for Passover, and finally by scourging him severely. Nevertheless Caiaphas convinces the crowd to call for Jesus to be crucified. Jesus’ Via Dolorosa is depicted with excruciating detail. Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary try to comfort him along the way and a fearful Simon of Cyrene gets conscripted to help carry the cross because Jesus is barely able to stand. Jesus is crucified in the view of his mother. On the cross, he forgives the thief crucified beside him as well as the crowd that is mocking him. Eventually Jesus dies, leading to the earthquake. Satan cries out in defeat. Three days later we see Jesus risen from the dead.


Major Influences


The Artist’s Unique Interpretation & Emphasis

In the past few decades, there’s been a greater appreciation of how the four gospels each have their own unique theological emphases. These emphases get communicated through the selection and arrangement of the episodes in Jesus’ life. While each of the adaptations that I looked at yesterday tried to capture the content, shape, and emphases of a particular gospel, King of Kings and The Passion pick and choose events from all four gospels and arrange them into a new shape. As a result, they each have their own unique theological emphases that are distinct from those of the original biblical authors.

 

Our world is uncomfortable with the idea that we are saved not simply by listening to Jesus' teaching but even more importantly by trusting in his suffering on our behalf. It’s not surprising that many were disturbed by how much attention the film gave to the brutality of Jesus’ last moments...

 

The King of Kings clearly communicates its theological emphasis through its title. The film is interested in what it means for Jesus to be the king above all other kings. We are introduced to this question through two different points of view: Judas and Mary Magdalene. Judas' first encounter with Jesus' authority inspires political ambition. Mary's first encounter with Jesus' authority and her deliverance from spiritual bondage inspires humility and faith. Going forward, the film present two opposing visions of what it means for Jesus to be King of Kings. Judas' vision of kingship is centered around political dominance. By contrast, the vision of kingship suggested by Mary's experience is a-political. It revolves around Jesus' ability to deliver people from their sins and spiritual bondage.


The film's interest in what it means to be king is also communicated by the events it focuses on and the events that it leaves out. Many of the most famous and impressive miracles are not depicted, and yet we spend a surprisingly large amount time on a couple obscure stories revolving around taxes. That's because these moments demonstrate Jesus' relationship to political power and secular government. Jesus shows little interest in Caesar's earthly authority to collect taxes. He is far more interested in another, greater form of authority. As the Pharisees and Herodians bicker about taxes, Jesus is busy working on a piece of wood that is later revealed to be a cross. Whereas the authority of earthly kings is displayed by forcing their subjects to give them taxes, the greater authority of the King of Kings is displayed by giving his subjects freedom by laying down his own life.


The theme of kingship also affects how events and motivations are framed. When Judas betrays Jesus, the film suggests that he does so because Jesus has rejected the path of earthly kingship. Judas isn't just greedy - he is disappointed in the vision of a spiritual kingdom that will not serve his earthly ambition. Satan’s temptation of Jesus is also centered around kingship. Satan's goal is to get Jesus to reject spiritual kingship in favor of earthly kingship. Again, in Jesus’ final debates with Pilate, the key question is what it means to be king.

The Passion also suggests its theological emphasis through its title. The film exists to highlight the suffering of Jesus (note: the word passion originally meant suffering). Our world is uncomfortable with the idea that we are saved not simply by listening to Jesus' teaching but even more importantly by trusting in his suffering on our behalf. It’s not surprising that many were disturbed by how much attention the film gave to the brutality of Jesus’ last moments, but this was a very intentional choice. Jesus’ teachings are included in the film, but only as interspersed flashbacks. The primary narrative is focused on the road to the cross. This suggests that that Jesus' suffering and death are the proper context for understanding and obeying his teaching.


Jesus’ suffering also gets emphasized by how the film situates our relationship to him. The Virgin Mary is the point of view character in many scenes. As a result, we take on Mary's perspective. Instead of viewing the events as detached observers, we focus on what Mary would have been focused on: the excruciating pain of her son.

Theological Tradition

Having pointed out how The King of Kings and The Passion have unique emphases, it’s important to note that these emphases are drawn from established theological traditions. Theologians have long wrangled with what it means for Jesus to not be a king of this world. The idea that Jesus was apolitical and more concerned with personal sin and transformation than he was with societal change has a long history among Protestants. It seems likely that this tradition influenced DeMille's approach to adapting the gospels. The idea of meditating on Christ's suffering and Mary’s sorrow also has a long history, particularly in Catholic spirituality. It's not surprising to see how Gibson shaped his gospel account to fit the tradition that he inherited.

 

A New Resource for Studying Bible Adaptations

If you're like me, watching a Bible film is about more than entertainment. Bible movies like The Passion provide us with fresh eyes to see the significance of the Bible and the beauty of the Gospel. That's why I'm excited to share with you a new resource that I've created to help you study biblical adaptations & reflect on how they apply to everyday life. Come and See is a devotional journal designed specifically for studying Bible movies and shows like The Chosen. It includes sections for you to take notes on each episode's plot, your favorite quotes, personal connections, questions, and, of course, Scripture references. Whether you're studying on your own or with your small group or ministry, Come and See is a perfect resource to help you dig deeper.

FYI: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Click here for my affiliation policy.

 

If you liked this post, you might want to check out some of my other posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation. I have Bible studies/discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1-3, blogs exploring how The Chosen adapts key biblical figures, and articles exploring the controversial nature of adaptation. I hope you enjoy them!


The Chosen Season 3

Adapting Biblical Characters Series

Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]


Season 3

Season 2

Season 1

Specials

The Chosen Controversies Series

Themes & Theology of The Chosen [Buy Me a Coffee Members Only]


Season 1

Beyond The Chosen

Posts on the Nature of Adaptation

Youth Ministry and the Arts



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