Prof. Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D.

Office: AD B250d

Tel: 216-397-3087

Jesus in Film & History (RL 506.1)

MTR 6:30–9:20 PM

Classroom AD 225

COURSE DESCRIPTION:  An introduction to the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, especially through material from the recent “quest” for the historical Jesus. The course will focus on the words and deeds of Jesus as they would have been understood by his own contemporaries, and at new attempts to write a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. We will further ask whether such attempts are truly valid, given the factual knowledge at hand. Finally, we will investigate the relevance of such work for the Christian of the late twentieth century. Comparisons will be made to how Jesus was later understood and portrayed by his followers and in popular media (e.g., art, literature, cinema).

COURSE OBJECTIVES:  A student who successfully completes this course will be able to:

1.     Define 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”


·       The Bible—a study edition with cross-references and annotations, not a paraphrase. Good study editions are available for the NAB, RSV, or NRSV.

·       Aland, Kurt, ed. Synopsis of the Four Gospels. Revised English Edition. New York: United Bible Societies, 1985. ISBN #0826705006. If you already own another Gospel parallels text (i.e., Funk or Throckmorton), there is no need to buy this one. If you are on a tight budget, this text could be shared with a classmate; there also are on-line synopses, including ones with the Gospel of Thomas. See Dr. McGinn’s Bible web for links. If you have or would like to develop facility with the original Greek texts, the alternatives of choice include:

o   Aland, Kurt, ed. Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum. [Greek texts with Latin forematter] Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1997. ISBN #3438051309. [$69.99. Available on-line at the ABS site.]

o   Aland, Kurt, ed., Greek-English Edition of the Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum Synopsis of the Four Gospels, Tenth Edition. [Greek and English on facing pages, with Latin forematter] New York: United Bible Societies. ISBN #3438054051.


·       Books or other print resources:

o   Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: Harper, 1994, 1995. ISBN #0060616628.

o   Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. Revised and Updated. San Francisco: Harper, 2002. ISBN #0060616342.

o   Tatum, W. Barnes. Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years. Polebridge Press; 1998. ISBN #0944344674.

o   Van Beeck, Franz Josef. “Professing the Uniqueness of Christ,” Chicago Studies 24 (April 1985): 17–35. (This is posted on the class Blackboard site.)

·       Films:

o   Arcand, Denys. “Jesus of Montréal.” Orion Classics, 1989 (French), 1990 (with English subtitles).

o   Bronston, Samuel. “The King of Kings.” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1961. (Cf. Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 version)

o   Greene, David. “Godspell.” Columbia Pictures, 1973.

o   Jewison, Norman. “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Universal Studios, 1973.

o   Monty Python, “Monty Python's Life of Brian.” Handmade Films, 1979.

o   Pasolini, Pier Paolo. “The Gospel According to Matthew.” 1964 (Italian), 1966 (with English subtitles).

o   Scorsese, Martin. “The Last Temptation of Christ.” 1988.

o   Stevens, George. “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1965.

o   Zeffirelli, Franco. “Jesus of Nazareth.” RAI/ICT Entertainment, 1977.


·       Baugh, L. Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film. Sheed & Ward, 1997.

·       Borg, Marcus. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith. San Francisco: Harper, 1994.

·       Burridge, Richard A. Four Gospels, One Jesus? A Symbolic Reading. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994. ISBN #080280876X.

·       Catechism of the Catholic Church, tr. United States Catholic Conference. Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana; Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist, 1994. ISBN #0809134349.

·       Charlesworth, James H. Jesus Within Judaism: New Light from Exciting Archaeological Discoveries. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York/London/etc.: Doubleday, 1988.

·       Charlesworth, James H. and Walter P. Weaver, eds. Jesus Two Thousand Years Later. Faith and Scholarship Colloquies 6. Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 2000.

·       Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.  San Francisco: Harper, 1991, 1993. ISBN #0060616296. Strongly recommended.

·       Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN #0195124731. Strongly recommended.

·       Fredriksen, Paula. From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus. Second ed. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000. ISBN #0300084579.

·       Funk, Robert W. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

·       Harrington, Daniel and James Keenan. Jesus and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges Between New Testament Studies & Moral Theology. Lanham, Md. & Chicago: Rowman & Littlefield/University Press of America, 2003.  ISBN #1580511252.

·       Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 3 Vols. New York, etc: Doubleday, 1991 (Vol. 1); 1994 (Vol. 2).

·       Miner, C. E. The 'Filmlical' Jesus: A Critically Evaluative Review of the Jesus Film Genre (Dissertation, School of Theology at Claremont, 1995; Dissertation Abstracts International 56, no. 12, June 1996)

·       Moxnes, Halvor. Putting Jesus in His Place: A Radical View of Household and Kingdom. Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox, 2003.

·       Neuner, Josef & Jacques Dupuis, eds. The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, Rev. Ed. New York: Alba House, 1982. ISBN #0818904534. Seventh revised and enlarged edition, 2001. ISBN #0818908939. Chpt. 6: “Jesus Christ the Savior,” 143–198.

·       O'Grady, John F. The Four Gospels and the Jesus Tradition. New York/Mahwah: Paulist, 1989.

·       Oursler, Fulton. The Greatest Story Ever Told. 1949.

·       Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. New York/London: Penguin, 1993.

·       Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Albert Schweitzer Library; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN 0801859344. [On-line text: Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Translated by W. Montgomery. From the First German Ed. Von Reimarus zu Wrede, 1906. With a Preface by F. C. Burkitt. First English Ed., 1910. Published in Great Britain by A&C Black, Ltd.]

·       Stern, Richard C., et al. Savior on the Silver Screen. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist, 1999. ISBN #0809138557.

·       Vermeś, Geza. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Rev. & Ext. Fourth Ed. New York/London: Penguin. 1995.

·       _______. Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973, 1981.

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. Discussions and essays will take the place of written quizzes or examinations, although students may opt for a written final examination instead of the course project.

ASSUMPTIONS regarding prior coursework. Students with limited NT background are encouraged to consult one or both of the following texts: Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1980); two volumes. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad, 1984, 1994). In particular, these books may be helpful to students who are uncertain about their NT background.

STUDENT RESPONSIBILITY includes the following writing assignments:

1.     One CRITICAL REVIEW (due session 7) of a crucial book-length study of the Jesus of history (preferably one of the recommended texts or one of the “classics” of the early quest) OR a foreign-language article/essay/chapter OR two English-language articles/essays/chapters. (To ensure variety, choices will be made in consultation with the instructor and other members of the seminar.) Each review should follow the basic structure outlined in the “How to” page. In sum, the review will include three main sections: (1) a concise statement of the author's thesis; (2) a summary of the author’s supporting evidence; (3) an evaluation of the persuasiveness of the author’s argument. This should be followed by 2–3 questions suitable for class discussion of the reading.

2.     FILM CRITIQUES (due sessions 4 & 9) on two of the feature-length films used in the course, including at least one of the “exploratory” type. Each critique should follow the basic structure outlined in the “How to” page. In sum, this means it will include three sections: (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.

3.     Students may elect to substitute a CREATIVE HISTORY PAPER for one of the film critiques or a critical review of an article/essay/chapter. (Follow this link for the description of this kind of assignment.) The due date for the CHP would be the same as the assignment for which it is a substitute.

4.     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“ of the 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, but it 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 film-script 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.

GRADING: 20% Attendance & Participation.; 40% Written Assignments; 40% Final Project

ATTENDANCE is mandatory.

ACADEMIC INTEGRITY is fundamental.

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

The CLASS SCHEDULE gives due dates for all readings and other assignments.