Ten years ago, I compiled a list of my ten favorite Jesus movies for CT. Several new Jesus films have released since then, with more coming out this year: Risen (February 19), The Young Messiah (March 11), and a new version of Ben-Hur (August 12). But I've never felt a need to update the list. The original still holds up pretty well, I believe.
That said, while none of the newer films have nudged their way into my all-time top ten, some of them have highlighted aspects of the Gospels that most other films miss. Indeed, one of the things I value more and more, as I study this genre, is the way some films highlight aspects of the Gospels that are often overlooked—not just by other filmmakers, but also by teachers, preachers, and other Bible readers.
So I wanted to supplement my earlier list with a newer, more particular list of ten stories that usually get ignored by Jesus movies—and the (often obscure, sometimes edgier) films that have actually dramatized those stories. Here they are, in more or less biographical order.
1. The Circumcision of Jesus
On the eighth day of Christmas, Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised, just as all Jewish boys are (Luke 2:21). This event is significant because it underscores the humanity of Jesus. Art historian Leo Steinberg has shown that many Renaissance artists drew attention to the genitalia of the baby Jesus to emphasize the fact that God had become human even to the point of having physical gender. Not only that, this event highlights Jesus’ vulnerability. Some theologians have argued that this was the first time Jesus shed blood. So, in some sense, it marked the beginning of his sacrifice for our redemption. Finally, it underscores Jesus’ Jewishness.
The best-known film to depict this event is probably Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which makes a special point of emphasizing the Jewish rituals that Joseph and Mary would have followed and that Jesus would have been raised with. The man who performs the circumcision even declares that “this is the seal in flesh of the covenant between the Lord and his people,” which neatly sums up all three of the theological points I mentioned above. Zeffirelli’s film receives extra points for combining this story with another story that is often overlooked: Jesus’ consecration at the Temple (Luke 2:22–35), which would have happened over a month later.
More recently, a Palestinian film called The Savior (2013) also depicted the circumcision of Jesus. (Though it doesn’t show the actual procedure, it includes a close-up of the foreskin being dropped into a bowl!) Notably, this film was produced in a part of the world where circumcision is fairly common not only among Jews and Muslims, but among Christians, too.
2. The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus
The Gospels tell us that Jesus had four brothers and an unspecified number of sisters (Matt. 12:46–50; 13:55–56; Mark 3:31–35; 6:3; Luke 8:19–21; John 2:12). The Gospels also tell us that the brothers of Jesus did not believe in him during his ministry (John 7:2–10). However, the rest of the New Testament indicates that his brothers became active participants and leaders in the early church (Acts 1:14; 12:17; 15:13–21; 21:18; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 2:11–13). Two of them, James and Jude, even lent their names to two of the canonical epistles.
Few films about the life of Jesus, however, have depicted his siblings—possibly because doing so would require the filmmakers to choose between the dominant Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic traditions, which disagree on whether these siblings were the half-brothers of Jesus (i.e., the children of Mary and Joseph), the step-brothers of Jesus (i.e., the children of Joseph from a previous marriage), or the cousins of Jesus.