In “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis famously argued what is sometimes known as the “Lewis trilemma” — basically, that the one thing people cannot say about Jesus Christ is that he was a great moral teacher but not the Son of God.
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher,” Lewis wrote. “He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
Agree or disagree with Lewis’ argument, it is exactly that sort of middle ground that National Geographic's adaptation of “Killing Jesus” tries to find, portraying a Christ whose divinity is left ambiguous, at best, in an effort to make him a more relatable, human figure.
“Killing Jesus” is not without value, but in order to present this version of Christ, the filmmakers are forced to take some pretty major liberties with the gospel texts — including with what Jesus did and didn’t say — that may alienate some of the film’s core audience.
This Jesus, played by Lebanese-born actor Haaz Sleiman, is not the miracle worker of, say, History’s “The Bible” miniseries. In fact, the filmmakers are careful never to show him doing anything that could be called miraculous. He doesn’t heal the sick or raise the dead, and when Peter cuts the ear off of the high priest’s servant in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:10), it stays cut off.
On the other hand, scenes such as Jesus washing his disciples’ feet are included in full.
On the overall spectrum of how Jesus has been portrayed in film through the years, “Killing Jesus” falls closer to “The Last Temptation of Christ.” He is conflicted, prone to anger and profoundly unsure of himself.
Moreover, his preaching is watered down to little more than calls for religious and political reform couched in simple platitudes. In other words, what’s missing is the gospel itself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
Based on what’s shown on screen, at least, it’s difficult to believe that this figure could have been the originator of a movement that has grown, as mentioned in the film’s epilogue, to include more than 2 billion people worldwide.
Of course, “Killing Jesus” may be worth watching for other reasons. It incorporates some welcome historical details and, overall, does an effective job of portraying the political backdrop that in part led to Jesus’ crucifixion — the infighting among the Jewish leadership, the tension with Rome, etc.
Oddly enough, many of the other characters are handled more effectively than Jesus himself, including side characters such as Pilate (Stephen Moyer) and Herod Antipas (Eoin Macken), who are given moments that make them relatable. Even Caiaphas (played by perennial bad guy Rufus Sewell) becomes somewhat sympathetic after his specific reasons for targeting Jesus become clear.
While not all of these creative liberties work as well as others, they at least provide a fresh vantage point for a story that, when put on film, sometimes runs the risk of feeling too familiar.
Shot on location in Morocco, "Killing Jesus" looks nicer than most TV movies. The predominantly Middle Eastern cast is also a welcome change of pace after so many whitewashed depictions of Jesus as some kind of Norse demigod.
All in all, “Killing Jesus” is neither the best nor the worst portrayal of the story of Christ in recent years. There are a lot of elements that will undoubtedly rub Christian audiences the wrong way. The choice to leave the question of Christ’s divinity open-ended, while not inherently problematic, here feels too much like a compromise designed to appeal to everyone at once. Unfortunately, it could end up having the opposite effect.
Other elements, though — and other characters — are handled much better. For people able to look past some of the liberties taken with the gospel texts, “Killing Jesus” might be worth watching if for no other reason than as a different perspective on “the greatest story ever told.”
"Killing Jesus" premiered Sunday, March 29, on the National Geographic Channel and drew big ratings. According to a news release Monday, the 3.7 million viewers who tuned in gave the cable network its highest-ever total viewership.
According to the news release, Fox News Channel will air "Killing Jesus" on the evenings of Good Friday, April 3, and Easter Sunday, April 5. "Killing Jesus" is based on the best-selling book by Bill O'Reilly, host of "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News, and Martin Dugard. Encore presentations are also scheduled to air on National Geographic Channel on April 10 at 6 and 9 p.m.
"Killing Jesus" is rated TV-14. Due to some violent imagery, including brief scenes of torture, it may not be suitable for younger audiences.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University.