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National Geographic Gets Theatrical with Killing Jesus

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated Mar 27, 2015
National Geographic Gets Theatrical with <i>Killing Jesus</i>


Air Date:  March 29, 2015 at 8pm EST (Palm Sunday), on the Nat Geo Channel. Encore showing on Easter Sunday, April 5, on the Fox News Channel.

NOTE: Due to scenes with sexually suggestive content, and others with brutal violence, viewer discretion is advised.

“But who do you say that I am?” That’s the question Jesus asked directly of his disciple, Simon Peter. It’s a question that has since resonated to all the world. 

Likewise, that seems to be the pertinent question for Killing Jesus, the new film adaptation of the bestselling Bill O’Reilly book that debuts this Palm Sunday, March 29th, on the National Geographic Channel (with an Easter Encore on O’Reilly’s flagship network Fox News). Who does it say that Jesus is? By design, the film intentionally avoids answering that question. 

Leaving that up in the air will, in itself, rub many conservative American Christians – Evangelicals especially – the wrong way, particularly in the details of how that vagueness expresses itself (more on that in a bit). Yet it would be unfortunate if those obstacles kept Christian viewers from checking out this worthwhile (if Scripturally sketchy) dramatization. In some respects, this is clearly not the Jesus of the Gospels. But in other respects, this is the cinematic Jesus that many Evangelicals have long been waiting for.

Killing Jesus – like its O’Reilly source material (co-written by Martin Dugard) – has no desire to define Jesus as Savior, prophet, heretic, or lunatic. As such, it works from an agnostic assumption about Christ’s divinity. Subsequently, the Jesus we see depicted here does not personally posses an all-knowing vision of his purpose and destiny. Instead, he grows into it, evolving from the non-Christian version of Jesus (a mere prophet) into the Christian one (Savior of the world) over the course of the 3-hour broadcast run. Since self-discovery is the journey this specific Christ takes from baptism to crucifixion, it’s left up to us – the viewers – to say who he is. Yet, to the film’s credit, an intriguing epilogue throws deference to the possibility of the divine, and actually does so by citing the historical – not Biblical – record.

Rather than a straight depiction of the Gospels, Killing Jesus presents the unique perspective of all the forces at play: political, religious, and cultural. Characters that have generally remained on the periphery – King Herod, his successor Antipas, the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, and even the betraying disciple Judas – are each given substantially more screen time than in the limited plot-device roles they’ve played in the past. 

This particular dramatization attempts to understand everyone’s point of view, the spheres of influence and power (and the limitations thereof), where each person is coming from, and what drove their decisions. We see how Jesus is disrupting their order, and it gives us a macro view of the competing interests that were unwittingly on an historical collision course. A credible, even logical, case is made for each party’s growing paranoia, even as Jesus is also portrayed with as much sympathy and admiration as you’d expect. Jesus isn’t the bad guy here, but now we also get to see the traditional bad guys as actual humans. These figures aren’t reduced to cruel elitists with a bloodlust for the meek Messiah. Rather – and perhaps for the first time in any Jesus movie – they’re legitimately portrayed as Jesus described them to his Father: ones who “know not what they do”.

Then there’s Jesus, and it’s a decidedly groundbreaking portrayal. Most evident is that this Jesus – played by Haaz Sleiman (who is so completely and fully invested in the role) – is of actual Arab decent, rather than a light-haired Anglo. Then, raising the stakes of that authenticity, there’s the fact that Sleiman’s Jesus defies the passive and benevolent Rabbi archetype. This one has the temperament of a true prophet.

Every moment, not just when he’s flipping tables in the Temple, is imbued with passion and urgency. This is a Jesus who challenges the status quo not just with his words but also his style. His willingness to confront builds to such a volatile point you almost get the sense that Jesus himself is intentionally orchestrating his own destiny, stopping just short of actually yelling to the Romans and Sanhedrin, “What are you waiting for? Crucify me already!” 

And yet Christ’s passion isn’t solely expressed through righteous anger; at other times, we see it in tears. When he ministers to lepers, for example, he’s not merely showing them compassion; Jesus engages them with a tender, tearful empathy that comes from a heart that’s breaking. He looks not only to bring them mercy, but also recognize and restore their humanity. The scene in which Jesus stands up for – by standing with – the woman caught in adultery, as she’s surrounded by those anxious to stone her, is another moment that’s powerfully rendered. Even then, Jesus is prepared to be persecuted – and violently, if necessary.

This broken heart also expresses itself in some surprising places, most notably the Sermon on the Mount. Previous Jesus films have, in effect, staged this as the most pastoral TED Talk of all time. But here, Christ’s impassioned urgency of the Beatitudes builds to a Lord’s Prayer that is not only instructive in word but also repentant in tone. Jesus offers this foundational prayer through streaming tears and choked emotion. In doing so, he not only educates us in what we should pray but in how we should pray it. It’s the best Lord’s Prayer I’ve ever seen, and no other version really even comes close.

Much of Jesus’s dialogue is direct Scriptural citation, and when imbued with such conviction it resonates even more. Unfortunately, this Jesus is also unorthodox in several respects. While it never veers into Last Temptation of Christ territory (that Jesus actually grieved over his own sins), Killing Jesus gives us a Christ that is often human to a fault. This starts as early as his birth, when Joseph flees to Egypt based on a hunch rather than Angelic intervention (and returns from Egypt under the same intuitive pretext). Mary, the mother of Jesus, seems to know less about her son than the woman of Mark Lowry’s popular Christmas ballad does, and even Jesus himself must initially be convinced of his divine purpose by John the Baptist

Miraculous signs are also absent, most conspicuously at Jesus’s baptism when neither a dove descends nor the Father speaks, and few actual miracles are re-enacted (and of the two that are, they could just as easily have been coincidences). Thankfully, Jesus does eventually proclaim that his Kingdom will not be of this world but, on balance, his journey to that point is imbued with too much doubt for the sensibilities of true believers. In addition, some deviations from Scripture, while inoffensive, remain total head-scratchers, like setting the two thieves crucified with Christ far off to his right rather than flanking him on either side.

So yes, while Killing Jesus has its problems, it also has its virtues – including ones that even the best Jesus films have not previously displayed. And by broadening the scope we’re also given some truly intriguing additions, ranging from King Herod being haunted by a vision of Isaiah to a lengthy examination of how Herodia and Salome manipulated Antipas into wielding John the Baptist’s gruesome fate. It also provokes thought, if you allow it, such as considering how Caiaphas’s sincere defense of Jewish temple life isn’t all that dissimilar from how some contemporary churches have commodified their campuses. 

Killing Jesus ends on a bit of a surprising note considering how it intentionally avoided labeling Jesus as the Son of God. Kelsey Grammer, who played Herod, returns in voice-over to cite the fact that all but one of Jesus’s disciples went on to be martyred rather than recant their testimony of Christ’s divinity. Sure, it’s unfortunate that this Jesus isn’t always the one that those apostles confessed or that the Gospels clearly reveal, but man, he sure acts like him.

*Jeffrey Huston is a freelance writer and film critic from Tulsa, OK.

**Published 3/26/2015