Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D.
Professor of Biblical Studies & Early Christianity

Jesus of Nazareth in Film & History (RL 306.1)
last update: 20 January 2010

Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D.
Office: Admin B250e
Phone: 216-397-3087
Hours: follow this link

Prerequisites: RL 101, RL 205
Meets: W 6:30-9:15 pm
Classroom: AD 230

COURSE DESCRIPTION:  Just as there are four gospel portrayals of him, Jesus likewise has been the subject of a multitude of film portrayals. This course will provide the opportunity for viewing and discussion of a variety of film portrayals of Jesus (from 1953-present) in comparison with the canonical gospel accounts and current "historical Jesus" research. We will discuss the socio-historical context of this "Jesus material" and analyze its message(s) for contemporary culture.

COURSE OBJECTIVES:  Through the successful completion of this course, a student will be able to:

  1. Define the key terms relating to biblical study
  2. Identify & give dates for significant personages in the four canonical gospels
  3. Outline the key themes & characteristics of each of the four NT gospel portrayals of Jesus
  4. Discuss the significance of each of these four views of Jesus as the messiah
  5. Discuss the cultural appropriation of these canonical portraits in popular films of different eras
  6. Evaluate the gaps and spaces in that appropriation as well as the positive use of the canonical images
  7. Explain the meaning and significance of the key christological doctrine: "fully human, fully divine"


REQUIRED FILMS & SECONDARY SOURCE MATERIALS (in addition to class handouts and web page information): RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

CLASS FORMAT:  The course will be conducted in seminar style. Formal lectures and student presentations will be complemented by active, critical student discussions on the basis of the primary texts, films, and secondary literature. Class participation is essential to the course, and is graded based on quality and quantity of input in seminar discussions as well as attentiveness and receptivity to the ideas of other in the seminar. This presumes keeping pace with the readings in the primary and secondary literature assigned for each session.

ASSUMPTIONS regarding prior coursework.



Students will write two CREATIVE HISTORY PAPERS will be written on the topics outlined below . Please try to keep your answers under 1000 words. Students have the option of doing these projects in collaboration with one other member of the seminar. The word limit would remain the same, though a higher degree of proficiency would be expected; both collaborators would share the same grade.

These are exercises in "historical imagination," that is, exercises based on historical data and using the imagination to view and understand those data in a new way. To do these exercises well, you must be willing to enter fully into each historical situation -- feel the dust, taste the salt, hear and smell the animals in the market, see the veiled women and bronzed men, the glorious buildings in Herod's cities and the dirt floor dwellings of the country peasants. You must also be as familiar as you can with the data themselves -- in this case, details about the Jesus of history, his friends and enemies, and the social environments in which they lived. To support your point of view, it is helpful to do as much explicit discussion of the Jesus material as possible (always remembering to give references for your ideas). Follow this link for a sample paper (which is not necessarily a perfect job), and this link for the grading protocol.

PAPER #1 (due session #3): To prepare for writing this paper, carefully read the infancy narrative in Matthew 1-2. Then compare and contrast it with the story of the birth of Moses in Exodus 1-2. Note the role of the women in the stories (remember that "Miriam" is the Hebrew form for "Mary"), and their relation to the central male figure (i.e. Moses or Jesus). Based on this information, write a letter detailing your response to this situation.] Imagine that you are Jesus' elderly mother, reading a rough draft of Matthew's infancy narrative. What would be your reaction to this story? For example, what kind of advice would you give the author? Would you want to make the story more historically accurate? If so, what sorts of changes would you want to see?

PAPER #2 (due session #7): You are an early Christian writing an account of the "unknown" Christians, the ones who received little or no attention in the four canonical Gospels. You are faced with three accounts of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany—Mk 14:1-9, Mt 26:3-13, and Jn 12:1-8—and a similar story in Luke 7:36-50. You are writing your story about the woman who annointed Jesus. Assume that you know what modern scholars do about the order in which the four Gospels were written, and the aims of the individual evangelists in writing their Gospel accounts. Then, write your story about the woman. Include such details as her religious, economic, and social background, and tell about how she spent her life after this event (e.g. where she was during the crucifixion, and what she did after Jesus' death). Remember to use as much direct reference to the primary material as possible to support your stance.

A FILM CRITIQUE (2-3 pages) on one of the "exploratory" feature-length films used in the course may be substituted for one or both of the creative history papers. The critique should include such topics as: (1) how this presentation compares with your prior understanding of Jesus; (2) what questions it raises that can be answered by historical research; (3) what questions or challenges it raises for current theology. As always, you are welcome to add other points of interest and/or questions you would like to discuss in the seminar. Due dates for the assignments remain the same. Follow this link for further information.

The FINAL PROJECT (due last session). I envision four alternatives for this, which we can discuss at the first class meeting:

  1. One option would be a collaborative endeavor involving the entire seminar.the object of this project would be to develop an outline of our own life-of-Jesus film (based on the canonical gospels, the secondary literature, and the Jesus films used in this course) and expand on a few segments by creating "Storyboards" ofthe action, set, etc— everything necessary to indicate how that segment would be produced. These storyboards for the project would be developed by 2- or 3-person teams (a pair of graduate students, or one undergraduate and 1–2 grad students). Group labor should be divided equitably, butit is up to the team to decide how that would be done. (E.g., a team might decide that the undergraduate would have primary responsibility for the visual aspects of the storyboard, while the graduate student(s) would have primary responsibility for the content.) Regardless, all the team members will be assumed to be working together on the complete project, and would receive one group grade.
  2. The second option would be a collaborative endeavor similar to the above option, but more focused. Instead of doing an entire filmscript outline, teams would choose one scene or event in the life of Jesus and develop a set of three or more different scenarios for how that might have developed; the way it is presented in one or more of the existing Gospels could represent one of the options, but at least one of these scenarios should present a novel way of viewing that scene or event in Jesus' life. As with the preceding option, "Storyboards" would be generated to detail how those scenes/scenarios would be staged.
  3. The third option would be to do a traditional synoptic analysis of a gospel passage and compare it to how that text or scene was used in 2–3 life-of-Jesus films.The essay would culminate in a discussion of the theological significance of the changes as they relate to the socio-cultural develops of that same period.
  4. The fourth option would be to write an essay that surveys an image or character in the life-of-Jesus genre as it develops over a period of time, preferably the 20th century, with an exposition of why you think those changes were made and what is their theological significance.
  Written Assignments 40%
  Final Project 30%



The CLASS SCHEDULE gives due dates for all readings, writing assignments, and examinations.

If you have any questions about any of the items on this Syllabus, feel free to ask.

Return to Dr. McGinn's home page

Return to JCU Religious Studies home page