Screening the Temptation: Interpretation and Indeterminacy in Cinematic Transformations
of a Gospel Story

by David B. Howell

Group Notes

1. See Werner Kelber’s work The Oral and the Written Gospel (1983) for the most complete statement of this argument. He bases his work primarily on theorists such as Walter J. Ong. See his book Orality and Literacy (London: Metheun, 1982).

2. Ingarden, Roman, The Literary Work of Art, transl. George Grabowicz ( Evanston, IL: Northwestern University, 193), 1973

3. Iser, Wolfgang, “Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response,” in Prospecting: From Reader-Response to Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989), 28.

4. Iser, Wolfgang, The Act of Reading (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978), 137-38.

5. Pier Paolo Passolini, in fact describes his film as “simply the visualization of one particular Gospel, that of St. Matthew.” Quoted by Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine. Jesus and Christ Figures in Film (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1997), 95.

6. Act of Reading, 176-77.

7. Ibid, 177,182-83.

8. See Gertrude Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, 2 vols, transl. J. Seligman (Greenwich, CT: New Graphic Society, 1971) for the development of different images of the devil or Satan.

9. Paul Flesher and Robert Torey in their essay “Filming Jesus: Between Authority and Heresy” in the Journal of Religion and Film, Vol 8, no. 1 (2004), 5-7 argue that Jesus films use a method analogous to targumic approach to Scripture to insert non-biblical material and offer theological interpretations into their films.

10. See W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 1997), 93.

11. W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies, 91 points out the devil gets mentioned in the credits as “the dark hermit.” The other scenes in which he appears are the attempted stoning of Mary Magdalene, outside Jesus’ house in Nazareth, when Judas goes to the priests, as one of Peter’s accusers when he denies Jesus, and in the crowd crying out for Jesus’ crucifixion.

12. Both W. Barnes Tatum (92-97) and Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 143-45 make this point. Richard Walsh, Reading the Gospel in the Dark: Portrayals of Jesus in Film ( Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 154 argues that “Stevens mythologizes the Jesus story to render it meaningful to moderns.”

13. Cited in David Lyle Jeffrey, ed. A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 753-54.

14. Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, Biblical Epics, 155, point out that John Milton in his Paradise Regained has two devils suggest that Christ could be tempted sexually, although Satan ends up dismissing this strategy. Nikos Kazantzakis and Martin Scorsese are thus not the first to raise the issue.

15. Miles, Margaret R. Seeing and Believing. Religion and Values in the Movies (Boston: Beacon, 1996), 36.

16. A classic interpretation reflecting this view is found in Birger Gerhardsson, The Testing of God’s Son, transl. J. Toy (Lund: Gleerup, 1966). A more recent exposition of this view is found in Jerome Murphy-O’Conner’s article about Jesus’ temptation in the August 1999 issue of Bible Review.

17. I have used clips of the temptation from Jesus films in a number of classes over the years. See the short entry by Marianne Meye Thompson in the recent volume Teaching the Bible: Practical Strategies for Classroom Instruction, ed., Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray ( Atlanta: SBL, 2006), 261-62 for a good, brief discussion of one strategy for using these stories in film.


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