God in the Details: The Cleansing of the Temple
in Four Jesus Films

By David Landry


1. The level of detail at which this analysis proceeds necessarily means that references to previous scholarship will be minimal, only because so few scholarly analyses of Jesus films scrutinize (any) individual scenes so minutely. In many cases entire book chapters are devoted to a given Jesus film without mentioning the cleansing of the Temple scene at all. For example, W. Barnes Tatum includes chapter-length analyses of all four of these films in his Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1997). But the chapters on Jesus Christ Superstar and The King of Kings mention the Temple cleansing scene not at all, and Tatum's comments on the cleansing of the Temple scene in The Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal are limited to one or a few sentences. Adele Reinhartz' Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) is organized differently, with sections about Jesus, his family, his friends, and his foes, and chapters about individual characters who fall into these categories. In each chapter she mentions how various Jesus films—including all four of the films chosen for this analysis—portray these various characters. But in only case does she examine how a film portrays the cleansing of the Temple (Jesus of Montreal) and then only to determine if there is evidence of a sexual relationship between Daniel (Jesus) and Mireille (Mary Magdalene).

2. "'The Last Temptation of Christ' Screenplay by Paul Schrader," http://www.weeklyscript.com/Last%20Temptation%20Of%20Christ,%20The.txt (modified to reflect actual dialogue in the film).

3. On this point see, for example, Bryan Stone, Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), 73-76.

4. Carol Iannone makes this same point about some other aspects of the film, namely Jesus' ability to withstand temptation. Because Jesus is fully human, it is not easy for him to resist temptation, but quite difficult. "For Scorsese, if Jesus was so easily, so effortlessly, so unambiguously divine, 'then when the temptations came to him, surely it was easy for him to resist them because he was God'" (Carol Iannone, "The Last Temptation Reconsidered" First Things (February, 1996).

5. Although The King of Kings was a silent film, it did have a musical score (written by Hugo Reisenfield) that was played by a live musician or musicians as the film was exhibited. When the technology was developed that enabled sound to be added to motion pictures, a development that took place shortly after the release of the film, Reisenfield's music was eventually (in 1931) synchronized with the film. This synchronized version is the basis of subsequent releases of the film in various formats. So the current DVD version of The King of Kings provides an experience that is not essentially different from that of the original theatrical audiences.

6. Many reviewers simply did not notice. Frederick James Smith, in Photoplay (June 1927) wrote: "DeMille has followed the New Testament literally and with fidelity. He has taken no liberties."

7. As Stephenson Humphries-Brooks writes: "The most obvious bridge for the audience is the genre itself; rock and roll was invented by the younger generation for the younger generation... The film plays exclusively to that young audience of spiritual seekers with little regard for mainstream sensibilities" (Cinematic Savior: Hollywood's Making of the American Christ [Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006]).

8. Peter Chattaway points out that many people saw Jesus Christ Superstar "as an attempt to make Jesus relevant to youth disenchanted with the institutional church" (Peter T. Chattaway, "Jesus in the Movies" Bible Review [February, 1998], 34).

9. Jesus Christ Superstar lyrics are available on many web sites, some of which transcribe them inaccurately. These lyrics for "The Temple", which appear to be correct, were found at http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/jesuschristsuperstar/thetemple.htm

10. James M. Wall's review of the filmin The Christian Century (27 June 1973), although not referring specifically to the cleansing of the Temple scene, reflects this same judgment about the Jesus Christ Superstar as a whole, arguing that it "accomplishes something I have never seen in a biblical film: it portrays Jesus in a first century setting with twentieth century sensitivity."

11. Stone appreciates how the film casts Christian religious authorities as the opposition to "Jesus" instead of the usual Jewish scapegoats of Jesus films. "This historical 'scapegoating' can easily distract Christians from perceiving our own unwillingness to accept the Christ and to recognize where he is at work today... As Arcand hints throughout the film, Christians today may not be all that different from the Pharisees of Jesus' day, and it is possible that Christ is being crucified all over again - this time by the Church" (Stone, Faith and Film, 60).

12. Stone agrees: "The religious overtones to the beer jingle reinforce Arcands' indictment of the idolatrous nature of the advertising industry" (Stone, Faith and Film, 54).

13. See Stone, Faith and Film, 53: "Arcand... pits Daniel against the materialism and consumerism of Québec society."

14. Richard Walsh argues that Arcand's film is "apocalyptic" throughout. In Walsh's view, the cleansing of the Temple scene is just one of many that expose the corruption of the world and its institutions. Similarly, the church and its authorities are portrayed as part of a selfish conspiracy to keep the truth about Jesus hidden, and artists are continually tempted by sleazy lawyers to "sell out" their integrity (see Richard Walsh, Reading the Gospels in the Dark: Portrayals of Jesus in Film (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003).

15. Chattaway agrees with this interpretation: "Coulombe recognizes a bond of shared futility between himself and the Jesus of his reconstruction" (Chattaway, "Jesus in the Movies," 45).

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