Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Vol 42, No 4 (2013)

A Cinematic Approach to Teaching the Synoptic Problem

Jeffrey Staley
Issued Date: 13 Nov 2013


For ten years I taught an undergraduate Theology course called “Hollywood Jesus.” This essay is an outgrowth of that course, and is based on a research topic that I often had students explore in papers.
Utilizing the first two miracles in the first three Hollywood Jesus movies (Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), and George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) this essay argues that these three Hollywood Jesus films are nearly as closely intertwined as the Synoptic Gospels themselves. Viewing these films in conversation with each other can raise students’ awareness of how the Synoptic Gospels themselves might be inter-related, and how they might be reshaping their sources for changing circumstances. My thesis, in part, is that the changing location of the films’ miracle stories reveals an increasing movement in American culture towards a privatization of religious experience—one that moves from the public arena, to the home and “the church.” While the gospels themselves do not exhibit this same movement, nevertheless, careful attention to the different gospel texts reveals comparable socio-political and theological changes. For students, “seeing” the similarities and differences in the cinematic representations can turn into “believing” that similar strategies might be at work in ancient written texts like the gospels.

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DOI: 10.1558/bsor.v42i4.37


DeMille, Cecil B. 2004. The King of Kings, 1927. Criterion.
Gibson, Mel. 2004. The Passion of the Christ. Newmarket Films.
Ray, Nicholas. 2003. King of Kings, 1961. Warner Home Video.
Stevens, George. 2001. The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965. MGM Home Entertainment.
http://uldineutley.us/. Utley. Cloud of Witnesses Presents: The Uldine Utley Pages.
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=21692485. Find A Grave.Uldine Mabelle Utley.
Walsh, Richard and Jeffrey L. Staley. 2007. Jesus the Gospels and Cinematic Imagination: A Handbook to Jesus on DVD. Westminster.
Walsh Richard, Jeffrey L. Staley, and Adele Reinhartz editors. 2013. Son of Man: An African Jesus Film (The Bible in the Modern World, 52. Sheffield: Phoenix.


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