I love movies, the larger than life stories it can create (e.g., the Star Wars mythos), the liberties it can take at times with alternative realities (e.g., superhero movies) or creating new twists for old stories (e.g., flipping the climatic scene from Wrath of Khan in the Star Trek reboot Into Darkness).  There certainly are new twists in the new movie, Young Messiah, and it certainly attempts to be larger than life in the telling of the story that is Life itself.  I went to see the movie primarily because I thought I might have some students watch it and ask questions about it.  (Or worse, just accept the story within the movie without question.)  As a warning, the remainder of this blog will contain spoilers.

My biggest concern isn’t with the movie itself.  Yes, the pacing of the movie is poor and the acting isn’t much better.  I’ve never enjoyed an other-earthly Jesus.  As much as there are some images of him laughing and playing, overall he seems detached.  (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s review effectively and humorously deals with the pacing/acting issues.)  If you are looking for a better paced/better acted movie, see the almost concurrently released Risen.  On the other hand, the visuals of the Young Messiah were very good.  The costumes were well designed and the scenery was much more authentic than the constant desert landscape offered in Risen.  (Who could farm in the Galilee if it truly was as desolate as one sees in that movie?  Its filmmakers seem to envision the Judean wilderness as definitive for all Israel!)

Now, please note that any attempt to imagine the silent years of Jesus will require imagination and creativity.  I think that is fine and enjoyed the premise of viewing the gospel from a different perspective, but it needs to be done within a biblical and historical framework.  I don’t even have a problem per se with how it seems modified versions of stories from the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT) are used in the movie.  After all, I see no reason for Anne Rice to create a new story whole cloth when  she could weave a new story around elements of preexisting legends.

In fact, I entered the theater expecting so much worse than what I found.  Knowing the stories from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, I feared Jesus would be portrayed as the impish wildchild found therein–a boy unchecked in his emotions with powers far beyond his control.  For example, the movie picks up the idea of Jesus being bullied, raising dead children back to life, and making dead birds live.  In IGT, Jesus curses a bully who shouldered him roughly in the street and the bully falls dead.  The parents react in fear and tell Joseph to move away or at least teach his son not to kill children.  Joseph reprimands Jesus, who then causes his accusers to go blind!  (This is hardly turning the other “shoulder” or going the extra mile, is it?)  Joseph then tries to find a teacher for Jesus, but Jesus confounds these teachers with obscure statements about the nature of letters before cursing one, striking another dead, and laughing at a third (though he seems pleased with this one’s realization he has been bested by Jesus).  At some point in the stories, Jesus will undo the curses he has brought upon the people, but he seems to be power-mad in these stories, using miracles to invoke fear and/or worship.  (There also seems to be some anti-Semitic undertone running through parts of them.)  Jesus does raise some to life in IGT: a boy who cut his foot with an axe and bled to death, a playmate who fell from a roof (though Jesus mainly raises this boy as a character witness that Jesus hadn’t pushed the boy off to start with!), an infant in his mother’s arms, and an old man who then worshiped Jesus.

In the movie, by contrast, Jesus is much closer to the adult Jesus we find in the four gospels.  It is the Demon shadowing Jesus who causes Jesus’ bully to trip on an apple, crack his head on a stone, and die.  Yes, the crowds react in fear and demand Jesus’ family leave, but Jesus doesn’t strike them blind.  Instead, he sneaks past them, into the dead boy’s room, and raises the bully back to life.  So the movie blends these resurrection stories with the bully story, presenting Jesus as a concerned and compassionate little boy, not a wildchild acting in anger and demanding worship.  Similarly, the dead bird on the beach seems to be a revisioning of the IGT story of Jesus playing in the mud making clay pigeons on the Sabbath.  In that story, he brings the dead birds to life to “show off” in response to the criticism of a rabbi who asks Joseph why his son works on the Sabbath.  In the movie, it is again the compassion of Jesus that drives his restoration of life to the dead bird.

My biggest concern about the movie is actually how many leading Christian voices have embraced the movie as “orthodox” or “biblical” despite important differences that exist between the movie’s view of first century Judaism and Jesus and what we know from history and from the four gospels.  (Again, the imaginative approach is fine with me, if done within an historical context with biblical themes.)  I think the portrayal of Jesus himself as a compassionate child growing and enjoying life nicely fit Luke’s statement about Jesus’ growth as a child.  I also agree with the movie’s view that Jesus wasn’t aware of his unique status as Son of God.  My problem is with the movie’s portrayal of all the people around Jesus knowing this “secret”–Mary and Joseph, Salome and Cleopas, as well as James and Miriam.  I would even be ok with that if their view wasn’t that Jesus was a divine being, “more than human” as I recall Cleopas saying to Joseph at one point.

You see, the first century conception of the Messiah was not that he would be divine at all.  The Jews expected God to raise up a human descendant of David to re-establish Israel and deliver the Jews from their enemies.  The idea of Messiah as conquering king is properly mentioned in the movie, but their belief that Jesus was divine simply because of the virginal conception doesn’t fit with the gospel stories.  In Mark, for instance, Mary and Jesus’ brothers thinks Jesus is out of his mind and goes to take charge of him .  When Peter makes his great confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God,” we can see that Peter does not mean by this that Jesus was a divine being.  For immediately after this confession, Jesus begin to teach his disciples for the first time that he will suffer and die.  At this new teaching, however, Peter rebukes Jesus!  If Peter believed Jesus was divine, he certainly would not think Jesus could err.  Instead, Peter believed Jesus would be a great conquering human king.  Jesus’ response is to rebuke Peter (get behind me, Satan!) for thinking of Messiah as humans conceived him (the conquering king) and not as God (the suffering servant).  This idea that the King of the Jews was the Son of God goes back to the time of David.  God promised David a dynasty, where his son would reign.  “I will be his Father and he will be my son,” God says, but then he continues, “when he does wrong . . .”  How could it be a divine son if he does wrong and must be disciplined by God?  From what we can tell, every king of Israel was proclaimed Son of God at his coronation through the use of  Psalm 2, especially verse 7.  Even after the resurrection, the disciples still conceive of Jesus as the one to bring in a restored kingdom.  It is only after the Spirit descends on them at Pentecost that they begin to understand that Jesus was more than a human being.  He was indeed God made flesh.

In addition, the four gospels do not indicate Jesus had miraculous powers as a child.  The movie has him doing miracles, yet wouldn’t this have called attention to him if he had?  (The movie itself indicates that it did.)  The only thing unusual about Jesus in the gospels is that he talked to the teachers in the temple at age twelve and impressed them with his questions and answers.  Yet even this isn’t the “shocking” knowledge Jesus displays in the movie at age seven or eight, when Joseph goes to a rabbi and asks him to take Jesus on as a disciple.  Instead, the Bible indicates Jesus grew as any other child and “discovered” his divine calling as Messiah at the baptism, around the age of thirty.  Mark says the heavens were torn open (the same word used for the temple veil at Jesus’ death).  In the movie, Mary tells Jesus he heals because he is divine.  But Elijah and Elisha perform miracles such as Jesus and the Bible never says those men were divine.  The response of people at the time of Jesus to his miracles was not, “Look!  A divine being!”  Instead, their response was that he was a prophet (like Elijah).  As opposed to the movie, the gospels emphasize the role of faith the people had as being the key to healing, not anything intrinsic to Jesus himself.  For example, Jesus wasn’t able to heal when people didn’t believe (in him?).

Closing on a related but somewhat random thought . . . did anyone else notice the Harry Potteresque ending to the movie?  (Even though Chris Columbus was producer for both films, I don’t mean to imply this was intentional.)  You have the climatic confrontation between the Boy (from Bethlehem) Who Lived and his “enemy” named Severus, a man who apparently serves a master fascinated/tormented with serpents yet in the end Severus is revealed to be an ally who protects the boy.  Unlike the presentation in the movie, however, the people weren’t spreading rumors about the “Boy Who Lived” nor were authorities trying to hunt him down.  Jesus, the young boy who would one day be revealed as Messiah, grew up in obscurity as any other human, for he was like we are yet without sin.

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