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Hollywood goes biblical

ct cover 12-2-11By Dr. Richard Freund

Dr. Richard Freund is director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. He has consulted on dozens of biblical archaeology movies and has himself appeared in 17 documentaries for National Geographic, PBS, CNN, Discovery, History, NOVA and BBC films. According to Freund, a consultant helps the filmmaker understand the period’s languages, customs, religious traditions, costumes, food, locations, houses, dishes, shoes, make-up and clothes. (Weirdest question ever asked by a producer, says Freund, was whether Roman Centurions wore underwear. They did.) They also offer advice on the “big” questions: e.g., questions about architecture and theological considerations…even how to depict God’s voice.

Freund is presenting an illustrated lecture on “The Real Noah and Jesus in Film and Archaeology” on Sunday, Feb. 23 at the University of Hartford. Here, he explains what to watch for in a biblical movie…and why it matters.

2014 will be a banner year for biblical-themed movies. Filmmakers are betting that it will entice you to spend $10 (or more) to see a feature film that feeds your eye and your spirit. Bible

Dr. Richard Freund at the archaeological dig site at Bethsaida. Photo: Sarah Rutman

Dr. Richard Freund at the archaeological dig site at Bethsaida. Photo: Sarah Rutman

movies can be spectacular flops and winners. The crop of Bible movies this year is betting on the latter. The five big ones are: “Son of God,”“Noah,” “Heaven is for Real,” “Mary, Mother of the Christ” (the so-called prequel to the “The Passion of the Christ”) and, finally, the new version of the “Exodus” set to open in December 2014 in the Chanukah-Christmas window. This season of biblical movies may set back biblical movie-making for a decade if the presence of high-priced stars, expensive CGI-directed miracles and eye-popping visuals are not enough to draw the public in to see them. One bad movie, for example, could also stop people from going to see the others. It will be an interesting year at the biblical movies.


Movies and TV matter because they are some of the most influential and potentially dangerous vehicles for understanding our world and especially the Bible. Good movies are not only movies that present information in an aesthetically and entertaining manner. They may be the first line of biblical education that our students receive. Good and bad biblical movies need to pass a test that I call the “baggage” test. The “baggage” test looks at whether the producer/director is up-to-date with insights that have emerged from biblical research and whether he/she brought their own religious “baggage” into the making of the film.

As someone who has been teaching Bible at the university level and making documentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament for the past 30 years, I can say that what the university teaches about the Bible is fundamentally different from what denominations of Judaism and Christianity say about these same Holy Scriptures. It does not mean that either is better or worse. The two settings are just so fundamentally different from one another that, when I teach in a synagogue or a church, I am always aware of how that particular faith community is reading the Bible, even when I am presenting something that is totally foreign to them.

At the university we readily acknowledge that the Scriptures are complex, ancient, written documents that were written down in a particular period and edited in ways that we analyze. We include historical and linguistic comparisons from non-biblical contemporaneous literature and archaeological discoveries to create an historically accurate version of an Abraham, Noah, Moses, King David, Jesus or any other person from the Bible in his/her particular period. Often our university reconstructions of these individuals does not exactly resemble the traditional figures as they were venerated by Judaism and Christianity; but today we can provide filmmakers with a lot more background information than ever before. I feel it is incumbent upon us as academics to make filmmakers aware of how differences might manifest themselves in the film based upon our new understanding of a period.

I studied ancient shipbuilding with a marine archaeologist one summer and it changed the way I understood ancient boat stories from Noah’s Ark to the boat upon which Jonah sailed. Noah, and the entire flood epic in the book of Genesis, for example, is very complex. There are invariably two different Noahs that emerge from my reading of the book of Genesis at the university. One is a sympathetic but not particularly competent individual who gathers animals and follows orders; and another Noah is a brash and obsessive character who is an outstanding individual. This Noah is one of the most ancient characters for which we can create a full-bodied character and therefore has been a favorite of filmmakers. He has always been the symbol for the person living in an “end-time” and has become a metaphor unto himself. In the 1928/9 film “Noah’s Ark” (silent and talkie), the movie moves between characters living in what they perceived to be an end-time. The movie moves back and forth between the First World War and the ancient cataclysm of the biblical Flood. By the 1930s, archaeological discoveries in Iraq had yielded new information on Noah and new attitudes towards how to understand the historical Noah embedded in the book of Genesis. The Dead Sea Scrolls from the 1950s and 1960s have also given us a richer, more meaningful Noah.

So, when I look at the Noah in the 1966 TV series, “The Bible: In the Beginning,” John Huston was the very flawed Noah (post WWII and nuclear war are all around him) even if his boat is not very big (this was before CGI).

Jon Voight’s TV series “Noah’s Ark” in 1999 was a slightly better version of a flawed Clinton-era human leader facing a catastrophe and rising above it. But Noah had the climax of the humanized biblical figure in Steve Carell’s 2007  “Evan Almighty,” where he is clearly a symbol for the environmental mismanagement movement. On March 28 we will get to see a new Noah: Russell Crowe. He will be the epitome of the modern anti-hero: a gladiator, father of Superman, an American gangster, gunslinger, boxer, whistle-blower, and now Noah. I am interested to see what Russell Crowe’s Noah will show about what Hollywood makes out of the Noah character and to see how it is used to tell us about our own leaders today.

When we in academia add in the multiple versions of a story circulating in the ancient Near East about a similar character — known as the “Epic of Gilgamesh” — who experienced a similar catastrophic flood and who built a similar massive boat to save animals and friends alike, we begin to understand just how significant the ancient story was. These stories were etched into clay tablets in a language called cuneiform, which preceded use of the Hebrew alphabet by about a thousand years. Thanks to linguists and careful archaeology, today we can assess what others in the ancient Near East thought about why god(s) decided to inflict this flood on humanity.

And the information is still emerging. Only last week we read that a new tablet had been translated at the British Museum that told about how the “ark” was round (not like the rectangular ones that others reported) and that this “Noah-like” figure also brought on the animals “two by two” just like the biblical text.

richard freund Movie in Israel

Richard Freund being filmed for the 2008 Discovery documentary, “God vs. Satan.”

As for me, I am interested in how ancient boats were built, what woods were used, what skins were appropriate for clothing and shoes, what kinds of animals were existent in what regions (in what periods).  I can often tell when a narrative is written down based upon the animals it names, since many different animals were not domesticated in the Middle East until later times. I am also interested in understanding how people worshipped in an ancient context and what the purpose of animal sacrifices was in general.

I am also looking to see in the new Noah film whether he is portrayed as the competent or incompetent Noah. Is he inherently good or a flawed and inherently evil individual? When we read the different versions of the flood, the people are either innocent or guilty from the start. They are either being purposely punished or are victims of the indiscriminant destruction of an imperfect world; and they suffer thanks to natural forces that are part of the world. Is God an active, wrathful destroyer of the world or is the destruction of the world just a product of its physical decomposition and God is portrayed as purposely not coming to save the original creation. Both are products that are found in different parts of the literatures and evidence. Noah can be presented in films as one or the other. The film and its message can be used as it has been to make people sad or happy, fearful or faithful, hopeful or hopeless about the world we live in today.

This is why the four chapters of the biblical book of Genesis that include Noah matter – even today.


The blockbuster movie “Son of God,” which opens nationwide on Feb. 28, will be the first test of what the season may be like. Filmmaker Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey have had a good test over the past year on their small screen version of the Bible. “Son of God” is intended to be a full length feature film — and it is very important for Jews to pay attention to. The name of the movie matters. Jesus, for Christianity, became “the Son of God.” He is fundamentally different from the historical Jesus the Jew of the New Testament. Thus, it will be interesting to see how the filmmakers have gotten there.

There have been over 100 portrayals of Jesus over the past 100+ years in the history of film. Some did less to educate people positively about Jesus and the New Testament than they did to create more anti-Judaism. The first movie on the subject was made in 1898 and was a 19-minute version of the infamous Oberammergau Passion Play, which has been performed there since 1634. It is complete with all of the anti-Jewish lines on screen for people to take in. By the time the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille film “The King of Kings” presented the story, some of the anti-Judaism attitudes had been toned down. In the post-Holocaust era, Hollywood went out of its way to create movies about the New Testament that took out some of the overtly anti-Jewish elements and created a more historically accurate Jesus. By the 1970s, Hollywood had created a very human Jesus with Franco Zeferelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” and “Godspell: Jesus the Musical;” they had created a very down-to-earth Jesus that fit the times. But later, in 1988, Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” began to tell a tale that seemed in a way to be offensive to main-line Christianity.

The 2004 “Passion of the Christ,” which opened 10 years ago this February, was Mel Gibson’s foray into biblical movies and was seen by some as a rather violent “corrective” to the direction of most biblical movies in Hollywood. It was timed, just as the new “Son of God” movie is timed, to coincide with the Lenten season and Easter.

“The Passion” inspired a lot of controversy and ill-will. It focused on the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, while “Son of God” focuses on the career of Jesus. Very different subject matter. “Passion” caused a tremendous backlash from the Jewish community because in his movie Gibson put back in all of the ecumenical elements that had been removed over the years from Jesus movies based upon new historical research and new understandings of problematic texts by the Church. Although Gibson said he was attempting to make a more authentic movie, in fact, it is clear even ten years later that he presented a view that had simply turned back biblical scholarship over 100 years.

I can point to small inaccuracies that consultants should have caught. Gibson says he went out of his way to have the Jews speak in Aramaic (one of the languages of Judea at the time) and the Romans spoke Latin. The movie was subtitled throughout to give you the feel of watching a documentary and although I could quibble about whether the Aramaic was indeed the correct first century CE dialect spoken by Jews, there is no doubt that his Romans were not speaking the language of the time. Romans used Greek in the eastern Roman Empire, not Latin, and the Latin that Gibson used in the movie was medieval Church Latin rather than the dialect of Augustinian Rome.

But there were larger problems as well. There is a scene in the “Passion” movie that still gives me nightmares: That is, when Judas is attacked by a group of Jewish children wearing yarmulkes who suddenly transform into devils. This is not only NOT in the New Testament, it plays into some of the standard canards of anti-Semites. The connection between Jews and the devil are to be found all over the Internet.

Consultants like myself look for small problems: e.g., soldiers wearing sandals that are inappropriate, Jewish head-coverings (usually from the 20th century synagogue), women in the entourage of Jesus who are veiled to look like medieval nuns, background music that is from medieval Jewish synagogues or Christian churches, and people having businesses open on the Sabbath. These are small anachronisms. It is important to look for the bigger issues.

The bigger problems are when a single catalytic character is so different in traditional religion and in the academic studies. Pontius Pilate is an excellent example of how academic studies have changed our view of him. Filmmakers feel free to use one of three models. Pilate was the Roman official in charge of the Roman province where Jesus was prosecuted and crucified. Pilate was responsible for many Jewish crucifixions in the first century. We know him from archaeology, ancient manuscripts and the New Testament. Perhaps better than any other individual from Rome, we can assess him as an historical figure. He was far from a shrinking violet when it comes to assessing what he would and would not have said. It is not surprising, therefore, that filmmakers have had two or three different possible ways of depicting him on screen. He can either be a villain and pure evil who manipulated the crowds to get them to do what he wanted them to do; a hero who stood above the very law he was in charge of executing and who might have been a “closet” believer himself; or a true Roman bureaucrat of the time, mostly bewildered by the whole affair in Jerusalem, who did not want to dirty his hands with the mobs.

Having seen most of the major Jesus movies, I have a lot more to say about what and how we can understand about the historical Jesus. From the portrayal of Pilate, Judas, and the scenes regarding the “passion/suffering and scourging” of Jesus by any given director/producer, I can assess the film’s attitude towards the Jews of their own time. The films, therefore, are just as much a reflection of the producer/director’s attitudes about Jews in the modern period as they are about the Jews in the ancient period.


In the beginning, filmmakers in the 19th and up until the mid-20th century clearly demonstrated their theological and image biases using medieval commentaries and paintings as their guide. They did not have the body of wisdom that has been gathered by Christian and Jewish scholars over the past century. These films had a very clear quasi-anti-Judaic bent, based upon the commentaries and medieval images available to filmmakers in the early 20th century.

I continue to watch the 1959 “Ben Hur “ film with the awe-inspiring Charlton Heston, fresh from his success in “The Ten Commandments.” The fictional account of “Ben Hur” covers most of the story of the New Testament. This story of the Roman oppressors against the Judeans in the first century can be used to unite or create animosity between Jews and Christians in the modern world. Much of this is in the hands of the producer/director. This is my own interest:  These films can be the widest and most effective vehicle for biblical education — or they can be used to create even more divisiveness. When people come to see my own presentation of the “real” Noah or Jesus from past and present films, I am interested to see what they see and feel when they see these films, now knowing that the same verses in the Bible can be used to present a positive or negative view.

“The Real Noah and Jesus in Film and Archaeology” with Dr. Richard Freund will be presented on Sunday, Feb. 23, 7 p.m., at the University of Hartford, Dana Hall, Mali I, Space is limited. To reserve a seat call (860) 768-5018. FREE and open to the public.







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