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Risen the Movie: a scholarly review and comparison

The film Risen retells the story of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension through the fictional Roman tribune Clavius, who supervises both Jesus’ crucifixion and the investigation into what happened to his missing body. Clavius’ encounter with the crucified Jesus, his interviews with enthusiastic disciples and other witnesses, and finally his encounters with the risen Jesus lead him to embrace faith.

Risen has ancient precedents. Early Christians created fictions of their own, testifying to Jesus through the perspective of Pontius Pilate. The Acts of Pilate and the Epistles of Pilate show a Roman prefect deeply troubled by Jesus, whom he sends to the cross. In the Acts of Pilate, Roman standards bow when Jesus enters the room, attesting to his holy identity. The Epistles of Pilate even portray him as a Christian convert. Risen, like its ancient predecessors, proclaims the gospel through the eyes of the Romans who killed Jesus.

Risen strings its story line through bits and pieces selected from the gospels, and as each of the Christian Gospels presents its own interpretation of Jesus, so does the film. One might describe this Jesus as “romantic”; he compels faith through the force of his presence. Jesus speaks little in the film, but even a look into his dead face takes hold of Clavius. Pontius Pilate sends Jesus to the cross but orders his legs broken in order to shorten the agony. (In John’s gospel, Pilate does so to placate the Jewish leaders.) Clearly shaken by his encounter with Jesus, Pilate issues this order while washing his hands. Jesus does take moments for one-on-one mentoring. When he does so with Clavius, he comes across like the perfect pastor or therapist, asking just the right questions and offering support.

The Jesus of Risen is largely spiritual. His teachings boil down to simple love. And he is harmless. One wonders why anyone would want him dead, since he poses no direct threat to the authorities. Pilate himself remarks on this: “It’s as if he wanted to be sacrificed.” The idea that Jesus sought his death may be common in popular piety, but it is foreign to the gospels.

Like most Jesus movies, Risen picks and chooses among the gospels to create its narrative. During the crucifixion, we witness Matthew’s earthquake and overhear Jesus’ triumphant last words from John: “It is finished!” We do not hear his final cry from Mark and Matthew: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The resurrection story includes the cover-up plot from Matthew, as well as two disciples’ encounter with the risen Jesus from Luke. As Jesus prepares to ascend, he utters quotations from John, Acts, and Matthew.

Such harmonization creates awkward moments. Risen quotes the promise (from Mark 16:7) that the risen Jesus will meet his disciples in Galilee. But only the author of Luke narrates Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and Luke places Jesus’ resurrection appearances in and around Jerusalem. In Risen, Jesus’ ascension very much resembles a space launch, but it occurs in Galilee. Mark knows nothing of Jesus’ ascension, and Luke describes no resurrection appearances in Galilee, but Risen blends the two. This kind of selective blending obscures the distinctive witness of each gospel, and it results in a Jesus who resembles none of the four gospels.

Risen does have its silly moments. The Shroud of Turin appears twice, with Jesus’ image burned into his burial cloth. We encounter the common portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, for which there is no biblical evidence. In one scene, Claudius asks how many of his troops know Mary, and one by one his soldiers raise their hands. We have chase scenes and a battle scene; Risen portrays the period as if, fueled by messianic fervor, Jews were waging pitched battles against the Romans.

There were no such battles, and we do not know how many Jews expected a messiah or what exactly they expected. As in the gospels, the film portrays the temple authorities as hopelessly hypocritical and manipulative. Pilate even calls them out for visiting him on the Sabbath. Almost all Jesus films convey an anti-Jewish bias, and though Risen does better than most, it still conveys the impression that Jews missed out on the messiah due to their own cluelessness and their leaders’ duplicity—an assumption that has accompanied great evil over the centuries.

Like the gospels, Risen tells the Jesus story in order to inspire its audience through its interpretation. Unfortunately, although it does draw upon these gospels for its portrait of Jesus, the Jesus of Risen doesn’t much resemble the one we meet in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

Image Credit: “Affreschi di Gaetano Bianchi sulla lunetta della Cappella Gentilizia Corsini (Villa Le Corti), San Casciano Val di Pesa” by Vignaccia76. CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jo Lutton

    I had decided early on NOT to see the film and now, I vehemently do NOT want to see it!
    Thanks, Greg, for your critique.

  2. James DiGriz

    Thanks for the balanced review, I’ll check it out.

  3. Jebaraj,A

    I agree that biblical accuracy may not be of the high standards in the movie.The line “the idea that Jesus sought his death may be common in popular piety, but it is foreign to the gospels” seems to indicate that this author has not read the gospel himself or is completely oblivious to accurate tools of interpretation. How many times does Jesus repeat words to the effect of he came to die and he lays down his life off his own accord. Even just before his death he proclaimed that he could call down legions of angels and destroy those putting him to death.

    Please tell me this is not an official oxford university blog? Poor scholarly standards.

  4. Ann B

    I am glad I didn’t read this view to determine whether I should go to the movie or not. Anyone who believes that Hollywood produces movies of “fact” should really examine their idea of reality.
    The movie is not focused upon Jesus, but rather the transformation of a non-believer. Did it happen, no, could it have happened, maybe.
    It also doesn’t claim to be from any one gospel. No Christian looks to only one gospel for their determination of who Christ is. Our Christmas pageants would be rather different if we did.
    I did not go to this film looking for facts or even truth. What I found was a movie that was inspirational, but not far fetched as some of them have been. Ten Commandments, a classic, is as unbelievable as they get, and yet every Passover/Holy Week it is rerun on TV because of what it inspires. And Hollywood’s Noah put a stowaway on the ark, which was only one of many “cheesy” moments.

  5. Albert D. Malone

    The fabrications do mar this account; but, there is value in considering the questions raised in the movie. I would love to see more movies about early Christianity and the problems faced by the early disciples. Poetic license should not be abused for the sake of a better story.

  6. David Varnon

    I am sad that some will read this blog post and decide not to see Risen. I struggled with my faith and then came back to Christ. I can see my struggle in Clavius. I truly enjoyed and was touched by Risen.

  7. John Sanchez

    I did not watch this movie to be a critic of its accuracy to the gospel or gospels as even they are all different. I allowed the plot to carry me along and I enjoyed the story of the Roman becoming a believer. Something very similar could have happened and who is to say otherwise. The portrayal of Jesus was well done. The kind of man that would produce followers indeed.

  8. Glyn Rees

    I agree with Jabarag. The review clearly overlooks the fact that Jesus himself foretold his own death on more than a couple of occasions (as recorded in the Gospels). He entered Jerusalem for his final Passover knowing full well he was going to his death. I enjoyed Risen and although Clavius is a fictional character found the story line very plausible as many people besides his disciples, were witnesses to Christ’s resurrection.

  9. Thomas Reed

    I was actually quite pleased with the movie. Of course no film will reflect the truth of times, but the message, that’s what is important. When skeptical Clavius sat beside the Lord and the Lord repeated the thoughts of Clavius back to him, the soul of Clavius opened and so did his eyes.

  10. Care Byron

    Obviously written for other NT scholars! Yeshua is depicted exactly how I know Him to be. Love, but you got that part!
    Not a word about Him being a Man of the common man. Nor a word about the excellent script, cast, acting, cinematography, soundtrack, authenticity of costumes ect…and overall feel of this film??? This movie does the good Lord justice and given that it leaves the uninformed with a real sense of curiousity and good feeling, I believe that this movie will win more souls for God than any made to be “entirely accurate Biblicly”. After-all, HOW Many books were Left Out of the Bible??? Many indeed!

    Favorite scene: Bartholomew and all scenes he’s in! Least liked: the scene where the soldiers raised their hands when asked about Mary. How many of those were secretly On the side of the 1 true God?
    Love. Love, Love the movie and the message. Way to go all who were involved in it’s making!✝‼️

  11. Erik

    I enjoy taht movie. I didn’t have any aprori.
    I liked the simplicity of it, it’s honesty.
    Joseph Fiennes did a very good acting job.

    The movie offered another point of view, a new angle at history. It didn’t do harm, I found inspiration in it.

  12. Phil Cole

    Its easy to carp. I found this robust reaffirmation of the resurrection inspiring, beautiful and deeply moving. We all form our view of Christ from all four gospels, why should not the film makers?

  13. Vladimir Markovic

    I saw the film and found it beautiful and inspiring, although my standards are quite strict when someone interpretes the Biblical text. The only confusing moment is in the begining of the movie – Barabas was captured by tribune Clavius and brought to Pilates when Jesus was already crucified. This critic establishes that no such battle took place, and that Clavius character is fictional. If we discard this minor distortion of Gospel order of events, everything else in this movie is a somewhat romanticized narrative about the beginning of Christianity.

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