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Journal of the Bible and its Reception

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The Bible and Its Cinematic Adaptations: A Consideration of Filmic Exegesis

Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch
Published Online: 2014-06-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jbr-2014-0001

Abstract

This article discusses key theoretical issues pertaining to the Bible’s cinematic reception history. It proposes the term “filmic exegesis” to describe a twofold process of interpretation, which involves both situated filmmakers (at the moment of production) and situated film-viewers (at moments of reception) as active readers of biblical texts. After tracing what has become the dominant scholarly narrative of the Bible’s history in cinema, three methodological points are considered: (1) the need for scholarship to reach beyond the hegemony of Hollywood, (2) the difficulty of establishing clear criteria to define what “counts” as biblical reception in film, and (3) the necessity of moving beyond descriptive cataloguing to critical analysis of the Bible’s filmic afterlives. Finally, this article confronts lingering academic skepticism toward the value of studying the Bible’s popular reception and explains why biblical scholars should bother with filmic exegesis.

Keywords: biblical studies; exegesis; film; methodology; modern

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About the article

Corresponding author: Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, Eastern University, Christian Studies, St. Davids, Pennsylvania 19087, USA, e-mail:


Published Online: 2014-06-06

Published in Print: 2014-06-01


While I will persist in using the expression “the Bible” throughout this article, I recognize that the biblical tradition cannot easily claim a single, original “classic” text whose history of influence can then be traced through subsequent generations. In addition to the complexities of manuscript traditions and the question of whose canonical perspective is to be assumed, there is also a very fluid boundary between the redaction history of the emerging biblical text and the reception of its so-called “final form.” Biblical reception, therefore, must be understood as a study of the ongoing, culturally specific relationship between ever-evolving texts and readers. For a discussion of these issues, see Timothy Beal, “Reception History and Beyond: Toward the Cultural History of Scriptures,” Biblical Interpretation 19 (2011), 357–72.

See the analogous use of the term “visual exegesis” in Martin O’Kane, Painting the Text: The Artist as Biblical Interpreter, The Bible in the Modern World 8 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), 34–7.

Historical surveys of Jesus films include W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years and Beyond, 3rd rev. ed. (Salem Oreg.: Polebridge, 2013); Peter Malone, Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Jesus in Television and Film (Lanham/Toronto/Plymouth: Scarecrow, 2012); Freek L. Bakker, The Challenge of the Silver Screen: An Analysis of the Cinematic Portraits of Jesus, Rama, Buddha, and Muhammad, Studies in Religion and the Arts (Leiden: Brill, 2009); Adele Reinhartz, Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford/New York: Oxford, 2007); Richard Walsh, Reading the Gospels in the Dark: Portrayals of Jesus in Film (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity, 2003); Richard C. Stern, Clayton N. Jefford, Guerric DeBona, Savior on the Silver Screen (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1999); Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film, Communication, Culture, and Religion (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1997); Reinhold Zwick, Evangelienrezeption im Jesusfilm: Ein Beitrag zur intermedialen Wirkungsgeschichte des Neuen Testaments, Studien zur Theologie und Praxis der Seelsorge (Würzburg: Seelsorge/Echter, 1997). Broader introductions to the Bible in film include David J. Shepherd, The Bible on Silent Film: Spectacle, Story, and Scripture in the Early Cinema (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Reinhartz, Bible and Cinema: An Introduction (London/New York: Routledge, 2013); J. Stephen Lang, The Bible on the Big Screen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007); Bruce F. Babington and Peter W. Evans, Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema (Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf & Stock, 1993); Gerald E. Forshey, American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars, Media and Society Series (London/Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1992); Richard H. Campbell/Michael R. Pitts, The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897–1980 (London/Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1981). Encyclopedic coverage of Bible-related films is also offered by what will eventually be a thirty-volume series by Dale C. Allison, Jr., Hans-Josef Klauck, et al., eds. Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception , vols. 1–30 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009-forthcoming).

Bakker, 13. Ironically, Kirchner was previously known for shooting pornographic films such as Le Coucher de la mariée (1896). Laurent Mannoni, “Kirchner, Albert (a.k.a. Léar),” In Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, ed. Richard Abel (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), 360.

Vehement protest surrounded a passion play staged in San Francisco by Salmi Morse in 1879. Public outrage over the idea of an actor portraying Jesus onstage forced Morse to cut the crucifixion and resurrection scenes and end the play with Jesus being handed over to Pontius Pilate. When the determined playwright obtained the backing to stage his play at the Booth Theater in New York City the following year, clergy and public opposition forced the show’s cancellation prior to its opening. Ironically, 1880 also marked the decennial performance of the Passion Play of Oberammergau, which was photographed by travel lecturer John L. Stoddard. Stoddard used fifty of these still photographs as slides in a very successful New York public lecture that was highly praised by the same audiences that had so recently condemned Morse’s live performance. Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, Vol. 1 (Berkeley, Cal./London: University of California, 1990), 208–9; Musser, “1896–1897, Movies and the Beginning of Cinema,” In American Cinema 1890–1909: Themes and Variations, ed. André Gaudreault (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers, 2009), 59–60; Pamela Grace, The Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 16–7.

Anon., Philadelphia Record (November 23, 1897,) 6, quoted in Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, 211.

The film was financed by Richard Hollaman, president of New York’s Eden Musée, who had been disappointed in his efforts to purchase the rights to The Horitz Passion Play and so decided to make his own making use of the script and costumes from Salmi Morse’s failed play. Tatum, 3–5; Grace, 17–9.

Reverend R. F. Putnam, Home Journal (February 15, 1898) quoted in Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, 216.

This list is far from comprehensive. For more information, see the compilation of Campbell/Pitts although it is at time at variance with online catalogues, such as the Pathé Filmography (www.filmographie.foundation-jeromeseydoux-pathe.com).

Musser, “1896–1897, Movies and the Beginning of Cinema,” 63–4.

Shepherd, “Prolonging The Life of Moses: From Spectacle to Story in the Early Cinema,” In Images of the Word: Hollywood’s Bible and Beyond, ed. David Shepherd, Semeia 54 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), 12–9; Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Advant-Garde,” Wide Angle 8 no. 3/4 (1986), 63–70.

For example, Pathé’s 5-minute 1905 film La Vie de Moïse creates the “burning” bush from fabric strips blown by a fan as an angel “miraculously” appears above the bush via the technique of multiple exposure. Shepherd, “Prolonging The Life of Moses,” 14.

Ibid., 27.

For example, in 1903 Pathé used a tinted stencil process to add color scenes to the originally black-and-white Le vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ (Zecca/Lucien Nonguet, 1902, FR). The film was repeatedly rereleased through 1921, each time with a greater use of color. Bakker, 15.

Curtiz combined the flood story with the Tower of Babel, the golden calf, and motifs from the Samson narrative. Unfortunately, the studio took inadequate safety precautions during the flood sequence and many extras were severely injured. Lang, 76–7. Austrian films Samson und Delila (Alexander Korda, 1922) and Sodom und Gomorrah (Curtiz, 1922/1923) also followed this strategy of parallel storytelling.

Tatum, 63–6; Bakker, 19.

The originally released version of DeMille’s film included a revealing milk bath and what became known in Catholic circles as the “lesbian dance” sequence. Frank Walsh, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1996), 78–80. Forshey suggests that the excesses of spectacle in DeMille’s Sign of the Cross encodes a response to the social and economic crisis of the Great Depression by casting the Romans as proponents of the 1920s morally lax, urban lifestyle while the Christians exemplify the rural values and personal responsibility necessary to survive the crisis. Forshey, 13–8.

There were, of course, exceptions such as The Last Days of Pompeii (Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1935) and an assortment of biblical films produced by smaller commercial companies and by religious companies aiming for church markets. Tatum, 62; Lang, 88.

As more American homes gained televisions, the film industry attempted to compete for the market by producing color films with bigger stars, more elaborate and (supposedly) historically accurate sets, greater production values, and wider screens advertising Cinerama, CinemaScope, or VistaVision technology. Babington/Evans, 7; Lang, 89–90; Forshey, 36.

Many of these movies were based on literary precursors and/or were remakes of earlier films, but the concentration of so many pictures of this type in Hollywood cinema of the 1950s is notable. Tatum, 63–78.

These words are used to describe Jesus in the opening narration of LeRoy’s 1951 Quo Vadis where the freedom associated with Christianity is contrasted with the tyranny of Rome under Nero. Forshey, 34–5.

According to Lang, more than a hundred such films were produced between 1957 and 1965, many in conjunction with French, Spanish, and American companies. Lang, 91.

See the essays in Darren J. N. Middleton, ed. Scandalizing Jesus: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years On (New York/London: Bloomsbury, 2005).

In addition to recently released films like Christopher Spenser’s Son of God (2014) and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), reports indicate that many biblical films are currently under development at the time of this article, including a film on Mary the mother of Jesus, two separate Moses biopics, a fantastical take on Cain and Abel, and films exploring the back-stories of Goliath and Pontius Pilate. Erica Orden, “Hollywood’s New Bible Stories,” The Wall Street Journal (September 27, 2012).

For critiques of Hollywoodcentrism see Shepherd, “Introduction,” Images of the Word, 3–9; S. Brent Plate, ed. Representing Religion in World Cinema (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 8–10. For an excellent example of scholarship focused of a film produced outside of Hollywood see Walsh, Jeffrey L. Staley, and Reinhartz, eds. Son of Man: An African Jesus Film (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013). See also Antonio D. Sison, “Liberative Visions: Biblical Reception in Third Cinema,” In Biblical Reception in Film: A Handbook, ed. Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (Berlin: De Gruyter, forthcoming).

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd ed., trans. J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1989), 245–53.

Hans Robert Jauss coined the more familiar expression “horizon of expectation” to describe the criteria readers use to judge a literary text. He argued that the meaning of a literary text was not determined by its reception by its first readers, because later readers with different horizons of expectation will interpret it differently. Jauss built upon Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics to establish what would become reader-response theory in literary criticism. Hans Robert Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,” New Literary History 1 (1970), 7–37.

As Mary Chilton Callaway eloquently states “[a] good reception history can send us back to the text with a new perspective that allows us to see something that our own horizon concealed. It can complicate what we thought was settled, and keep us alert to the limitations of our own readings, especially to the moral consequences of absolutizing our own horizon.” Mary Chilton Callaway, “Reception History: Theory and Practice in the Blackwell Bible Commentary Series,” Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) (Atlanta, 2010).

For discussions of Hollywood and globalization see Toby Miller, et al., Global Hollywood, No. 2nd ed. (London: British Film Institute, 2008); Franco Moretti, “Planet Hollywood,” New Left Review 9 (2001), 90–101; Scott R. Olson, Hollywood Planet: Global Media and the Competitive Advantage of Narrative Transparency (Mahwah, NJ/London: Routledge, 1999).

“Third Cinema” is an expression of postcolonial cultures that self-consciously rejects the dominance of the Hollywood model (classified as “First Cinema,” while “Second Cinema” refers to European auteur cinema). Sison, “Perfumed Nightmare: Religion and the Philippine Postcolonial Struggle in Third Cinema,” In Representing Religion in World Cinema, 183–4.

Glauber Rocha, “History of Cinema Novo,” In New Latin American Cinema, ed. Michael T. Martin, Studies of National Cinemas 2 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), 275.

Dwight H. Friesen, “The Reception of Biblical Films in India,” In Biblical Reception in Film, forthcoming.

Alice Bach, ed. Biblical Glamour and Hollywood Glitz, Semeia 74 (Atlanta: SBL, 1996). Bach comments on this distinction within her earlier book in her recent Religion, Politics, Media in the Broadband Era, The Bible in the Modern World 2 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005), 36–7.

Reinhartz, ed. Bible and Cinema: Fifty Key Films (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2013), xvi. See also Reinhartz, Bible and Cinema, which adopts the binary distinction of the Bible in film and the Bible on film as an organizing criterion.

Some of the categories that I use below parallel the brief introductory comments of Reinhartz, Scripture on the Silver Screen (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 1–4. Reinhartz notes that mainstream films frequently feature biblical quotations, plots and characters drawn on biblical paradigms, and the Bible as a prop. She concludes that the appreciation of popular culture in Western culture requires a basic level of biblical literacy.

Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, 2nd ed. (New York/Abingdon: Routledge, 2013); Timothy Corrigan, ed. Film and Literature, 2nd ed. (New York/Abingdon: Routledge, 2012); Thomas Leitch, Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to the Passion of the Christ (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation, The New Critical Idiom (London/New York: Routledge, 2006); Robert Stam/Alessandra Raengo, eds. Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005); Mireia Aragay, ed. Books in Motion: Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2005); Kamilla Elliott, Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

See the classic work by Edward Saïd on Western perceptions and representations of the Middle East. Edward W. Saïd, Orientalism, 2nd ed. (New York/Toronto: Vintage, 1979). For more recent discussion, see Saïd, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1993); Matthew Bernstein/Gaylyn Studlar, eds. Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997); Holly Edwards, ed. Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870–1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Homay King, Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

Leitch, 96–8.

Kathleen E. Corley/Robert L. Webb, eds. Jesus and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: The Film, the Gospels and the Claims of History (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2004). See also the various treatments of this film in a special edition of the Journal of Religion and Film 8, no. 1 (February 2004; www.unomaha.edu/jrf; accessed June 2, 2013).

Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1997 [1982]), 304.

This category has similarities to Kamilla Elliott’s “psychic” conception of adaptation, which claims to preserve the “spirit” of the literary source rather than the “letter” (e.g., “what Dickens had in mind”). Elliott, 136–43.

Forshey, 1–12; Reinhartz, “The Bible Epic,” In Biblical Reception in Film, forthcoming.

While children’s films transcend genre categories, they are unified by common characteristics, most especially wholesome subject matter and didactic intention. Caroline Vander Stichele/Hugh S. Pyper, eds. Text, Image and Otherness in Children’s Bibles, Semeia 56 (Atlanta: SBL, 2012).

Sanders, 97–100.

Lloyd Baugh, “Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, A Critical Reassessment of Its Sources, Its Theological Problems, and Its Impact on the Public,” In Scandalizing Jesus?, 173–92.

Leitch, 120–21; Sanders, 24. A complex intertextual web is also created when a biblical text or texts (like the gospels) are repeatedly adapted to film. Successful earlier films influence later films, which imitate particular shots, camera angles, mise-en-scène, etc.

Reinhartz, “Scripture on the Silver Screen,” Journal of Religion and Film 3, no. 1 (April 1999, www.unomaha.edu/jrf; accessed June 2, 2013).

See the insightful discussion of this film by James Aston/John Walliss, “The (Un)Christian Road Warrior: The Crisis of Religious Representation in The Book of Eli,” Journal of Religion and Film 15, no. 1 (April 2011; www.unomaha.edu/jrf; accessed June 2, 2013).

This category of reception resembles Elliott’s ventriloquist concept of adaptation, which “blatantly empties out the novel’s signs and fills them with filmic spirits.” Elliott, 146–50. Leitch describes this kind of adaptation as colonization, which might develop ideas implicit in the text or “go off in another direction entirely.” Leitch, 109–11.

The film’s title refers to the location of the David/Goliath conflict (I Sam. 17:2) underlining the thematic importance of this scene. The film ends with a second retelling of the story by David’s mother.

Thomas A. Horne, “Goliath In the Valley of Elah,” War, Literature, and the Arts 23, no. 1 (2011), 257.

This category resembles Elliott’s genetic concept of adaptation in which what transfers from the precursor to the adapted work are its raw materials and/or “deep” narrative structures. Elliott, 150–6.

The following studies attempt to establish definable criteria for the identification of cinematic Christ-figures: Baugh, Imaging the Divine; Christopher Deacy, Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film, Religion, Culture, & Society (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001); Anton Kozlovic, “The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-Figure,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 8 (Fall 2004; www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc; accessed June 2, 2013); Reinhartz, “Jesus and Christ-figures,” in The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film, ed. John Lyden (London/New York: Routledge, 2009), 420–39; Walsh, “A Modest Proposal for Christ-Figure Interpretations: Explicated with Two Test Cases,” Relegere 3, no. 1 (2013; www.relegere.org, accessed 24 March, 2014), 79–97.

Walsh points out that among other things an exclusive focus on biblical figures can lead interpreters to minimize or overlook other cultural influences in the syncretistic presentation of cinematic heroes. For example, Neo in The Matrix (A. and L. Wachowski, 1999) is not only a Christ-figure but also bodhisattva, Platonic philosopher, and Alice in Wonderland. Walsh, “A Modest Proposal,” 80–1.

Christopher Deacy, “Reflections on the Uncritical Appropriation of Cinematic Christ-Figures: Holy Other or Wholly Inadequate?” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 13 (Summer 2006; www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc; accessed June 2, 2013).

Viewers may enjoy a film without recognizing its biblical allusions but awareness of intertextual connections between the Bible and film enhances understanding. It is possible that, at some point, images and motifs loose their biblical association and become part of common cultural currency. Leitch, 121–3, Sanders, 26–32.

John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 64.

Nicola Denzy, “Biblical Allusions, Biblical Illusions: Hollywood Blockbuster and Scripture,” Journal of Religion and Film 8, no. 1 (Feb 2004; www.unomaha.edu/jrf; accessed June 2, 2013).

Walsh/George Aichele, eds. Screening Scripture: Intertextual Connections Between Scripture and Film (Harrisburg, Penn: T&T Clark, 2002), x–xi.

Leitch, 113–6. This category also bears a kinship to Elliott’s “de(re)composition concept of adaptation” in which signs of the so-called source and the so-called adaptation decompose and merge in audience consciousness together with other cultural narratives. Elliott, 157–61.

This recalls Larry Kreitzer’s now classic expression “reversing the hermeneutical flow.” Larry J. Kreitzer, The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).

Robert K. Johnston, Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).

Deacy, Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film (Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales, 2001).

Walsh, Finding St. Paul in Film (New York/London: T&T Clark, 2005).

Matthew Rindge, Cinematic Parables: Subverting the Religion of the American Dream (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, forthcoming).

See, for example, the comments of James G. Crossley, Reading the New Testament: Contemporary Approaches (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), 133–4. This perception is perhaps an unfortunate side effect of the fact that much of the groundbreaking work in reception history has occurred through encyclopedia (de Gruyter’s EBR) and commentary (Blackwell) series. While valuable resources, neither format lends itself to expansive in depth analysis of particular receptions. Hopefully, JBR will provide a forum for such critical work in the future.

“C’est parce que le film est facile à comprendre qu’il est difficile à expliquer.” Christian Metz, Essais sur la signification au cine’ma (Paris: Klinksieck, 1968), 74.

Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. T. Bahti (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 15.

Ulrich Luz, Studies in Matthew, trans. R. Selle (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2005), 275–7.


Citation Information: Journal of the Bible and its Reception, Volume 1, Issue 1, Pages 129–160, ISSN (Online) 2329-4434, ISSN (Print) 2329-440X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jbr-2014-0001.

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