The Envelope, Please: Best (and Worst) Portrayals of Jesus in Movies

by J. Lee Grady/

Hollywood doesn’t always treat religion with respect, but Jesus still does pretty well at the box office when He’s the star. The new film Son of God raked in $26.5 million on opening weekend despite bad reviews. Some critics complained that the guy who played Jesus was too good-looking!

All the concern over actor Diogo Morgado’s hotness prompted two questions: Do we have any clue what Jesus really looked like, and has He ever been portrayed accurately on film? Those who insist that Jesus was not attractive usually quote the prophet Isaiah, who said of the Messiah, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2, NIV). But theologians argue that this was not saying Jesus was ugly—it simply means He was not a rich or powerful leader that people would naturally follow.

All we really know about Jesus’ appearance is that He was born of a Jewish mother and that He seemed to fit in well in Nazareth for most of His life. While Jews living in Israel tend to have olive-colored skin and darker hair, some Jews have lighter skin. And since Jesus didn’t take any selfies in the first century, it is left to our imagination whether He had a beard and long hair or if He had an athletic build because He was a carpenter’s son.

Filmmakers have tried to fill in these blanks for us, and the results have ranged from tasteful to laughable. Here are 10 of the most well-known portrayals of Jesus on film. If you don’t agree with my ranking, from best to worst, feel free to share your opinions.

1. Ben-Hur (1959). There was a time when Hollywood had so much respect for Christianity that it didn’t want to show Jesus’ face. That less-is-more approach worked in this blockbuster, which won the Oscar for best picture. I still get chills during the scene when Jesus gives Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) a drink of water. You only see Jesus from the back, and He never says a word, but Ben-Hur’s life is marked forever by the two-minute encounter.

You can watch the scene here.

2. The Robe (1953). The same subtlety was used in this epic, which was nominated for best picture. Jesus is shown from a distance in two scenes; then during His crucifixion, we only see His legs and feet. The fictional plot tells what happened to a Roman military tribune (Richard Burton) who gambles for Jesus’ robe at the foot of the cross and then suffers from a guilty conscience until he becomes a Christian himself. The movie is way too melodramatic for today’s standards, but it still offers one of the best portrayals of Jesus.

3. Jesus (1979). Critics called this movie “dull” and “monotonous” because it attempted to faithfully recount the Gospel of Luke. But today it is the most-watched movie of all time. Campus Crusade for Christ, which funded its production, says 200 million people have come to faith after seeing it, and it is available in more than 1,000 languages. Remarkably, the guy who played Jesus, Brian Deacon, a Shakespearean actor from England, is a lapsed Catholic who does not describe himself as a Christian.

4. The Visual Bible: Matthew (1993). Few people saw American actor Bruce Marchiano play Jesus in this word-for-word version of the Gospel. The son of a Syrian mother and an Italian father, Marchiano was one of the most believable Messiahs—and his laughter and smiles made Jesus both human and approachable. He was featured on Charisma’s cover because of his talent.

5. The Passion of the Christ (2004). Producer Mel Gibson got in hot water for injecting anti-Semitism into his bloody retelling of Jesus’ crucifixion. Gibson reportedly warned the actor who played Jesus, Jim Caviezel, that taking on the role of Christ might hurt his movie career. But Caviezel’s portrayal remains one of the most memorable, as long as you don’t hide your eyes during the graphic whipping scene.

6. Son of God (2014). The star of this year’s film, Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, was likely chosen because of his darker features. But mainstream critics have complained that he is way too attractive for the role. One columnist for The Daily Beast said Morgado “put the carnal in incarnate.” But to his credit, Morgado gives warmth and nice-guy accessibility to Jesus. He even seems friendly when He’s denouncing the Pharisees or overturning the merchants’ tables in the temple.

7. Jesus of Nazareth (1977). The actor who played Jesus in this classic six-hour TV miniseries chose a more stoic, somber approach. British actor Robert Powell reportedly ate only cheese for 12 days … Read the Rest at: Best (and Worst) Portrayals of Jesus in the Movies …

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  • Mario

    Didn’t an actor by the name of Jeffery Hunter play Jesus in a movie, not long before he died? The movie was made after “The Robe”, and it was said at the time, that this was the very first movie about Jesus, where the face of Jesus would be shown… In those days, many biblical films were made, and made well.

    • oldgoatee

      That would be King of Kings. Personally, I think Jim Caviezel’s potrayal is the best I have seen so far. He kicks butt in Person of Interest too! And he hasn’t let his conservatism or Christianity destroy his Hollywood career although he could have had one more like Matt Damon’s had he been so inclined…

    • redwolf6911

      Jeffery Hunter did an excellent job as far as I was concerned. It is still my favorite, but the latest one is excellent as well.

    • stephanie wilson

      yep! it was called ”king of kings” love that one too

  • Webpreacher

    What we learn about LORD Jesus in God’s revelation to mankind, the BIBLE, has never been and never will be anything close to the TRUTH, “Hollywood has put out, concerning the LORD’s appearance and character, nor the divine Authority KING Jesus manifested while His precious feet kicked up the dust of his Earth !
    For one thing, God’s Word teaches, that LORD Jesus had NO appearance that he should be desired by his looks,(Isaiah 53:2, “…he hath no form nor comeliness {looks}; and when we shall see him [future tense], there is no beauty [outward appearance] that we should desire him”), also, he would not have had long hair,(1 Corinthians 11:14, “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him ?.”) nor was the KING of kings, a blue eyed blonde. we also learn, the LORD confessing himself, that he did and spoke, ONLY that, which was given him to do, and speak from God the Father, nothing more, nothing less : (John 12:49-50, “For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak,” v.50 ” And I know that his commandment is life everlasting; whatsoever I speak therefore, even as the Father said unto me, so I speak,” John 14:10, “Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.”)
    2 Timothy 2:15, ” Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, RIGHTLY dividing the word of truth.”

  • selahgreene

    Good choice on the #1, Mr. Grady. The scene with Jesus giving the water was indeed powerful; and to think that the producers managed to create that power without any CGI.

  • Memphis Viking

    “Those who insist that Jesus was not attractive usually quote the prophet Isaiah, who said of the Messiah, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2, NIV). But theologians argue that this was not saying Jesus was ugly” Attractive and ugly are at opposite ends of the spectrum; they’re not the only two possibilities. I believe Jesus was an average looking man.

    “it is left to our imagination whether He had a beard and long hair” No, we know he had a beard, because the Bible says it was plucked out during the crucifixion.

  • stephanie wilson

    i love them all! great movies!

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