Movie Review - The Greatest Story Ever Told

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George Stevens
George Stevens Productions

Does the movie line up with the Bible?

I ought to let you know right up front that no movie based on biblical events could ever get a Recommendable from me, no matter how much I enjoyed it. There would always be the chance that I had missed some serious infidelity to the biblical account and had recommended a film that would lead people into error. The Greatest Story Ever Told, however, was not one that I found particularly Enjoyable, so that becomes a non-issue. My taste in film had me thinking from the first ten minutes that it was Not Worth Watching Again, and I would go so far as to say that The Greatest Story Ever Told was Not Worth Watching for other people, as well. In fact, I would have definitely said that it was Worth Avoiding, but even that doesn’t say it quite strongly enough, after all, and there’s still one category left below that one.

So, have you thought lately about how serious blasphemy and heresy are?

The addition of details is something you can’t escape, when you transform a written story into movie. Giving Jesus blue eyes in a film or a painting (or even our imaginations) is a less than advisable addition, but, because it’s possible that he did have blue eyes, it’s just as unadvisable to declare positively that he had brown eyes. The addition of “subplots” to a story that was already full of real-life subplots is at best foolish—especially since the events and characters that were added in to The Greatest Story Ever Told were less interesting, less humorous and less life-like than the events and people they were trying to replace. Of course, it could also be that the director thought that tampering with the Word of God for the sake of appealing to the audience was something he was allowed to do, in which case “foolish” isn’t quite strong enough, either.

omission of other details is even less excusable—even ones as seemingly “insignificant” as the absence of a sign over the cross, the absence of a cock crow after Peter’s third denial (from which imprecations were absent), the absence of false witnesses at the trial, the absence of boats for Simon, Andrew, James and John to be absent from. These (and many more like them) are all rejections of the truth of the Bible, whether they were intended to be or not. If the Bible has Pontius Pilate putting up a sign, George Stevens has no right to take it down.

The omission of details that we would all recognize as significant are more offensive. The
absence of angels, of demons, of the voice of God, of the Holy Spirit—these probably ought to have tipped viewers off as to the real purpose of the movie. The deliberate de-supernaturalizing of the darkness at the crucifixion and the tearing of the veil of the temple, by means of a violent but natural thunderstorm; of Satan, by means of a distinctly human manifestation called simply “The Old Hermit” in the credits; of Jesus himself, by means of firm denials that anything other than the crippled man’s or sick woman’s personal faith was involved in their healing; are all just examples of the way in which Christ and his Word are maligned in this movie.

Those are some of the blasphemies—just some. The heresies are more insidious. Have you thought lately about just how bad an idea it is to misquote Jesus Christ? And they could have done that just by misplacing emphasis or using a wrong tone of voice.

Jesus said that if someone took your coat, you were to let him have your cloak also, not that you are to “Go and find that thief1, give him your cloak also, and give him anything else he wishes within your power to give him, for he is poor in spirit… Thieves and murderers walk in darkness. You must be their light, not their judge.” I don’t believe that Jesus could have said things like that, or like “Our God is a God of salvation, not of revenge,” or “In the eyes of God no man is a cripple except in his soul,” because the scriptures appear rather to refute these statements2.

The way the Pharisees and scribes start quoting wrath and judgment passages from the Old Testament and then transition seamlessly into their own philosophies, so that when the latter are condemned the former are condemned along with them—the way the Old Testament prophesies are presented as contradicting one another—even the replacement of “Verily, verily” with “All I’m saying is…”—they all teach the audience to discredit the authority of the Bible.

The Greatest Story Ever Told privatizes and personalizes the kingdom of God… and God. “The kingdom of God,” the main character says, “is here within you,” pointing to Peter’s heart, twisting the quote and taking it out of context. The answer he gives to Matthew’s question, “Where is your Father?” is “In my heart.” God the Father is never said in the Bible to be located in our individual hearts, and the context of the question and the tone of the answer don’t merely suggest that God is very near to us, but that his reality to us is limited by our perception of or belief in him.

But the issues of misquoting the Lord God, and of robbing him of his power and authority really come to a head in the resurrection of Lazarus. We must never allow ourselves to stop analyzing movies second-by-second, just because we know that there is a miracle coming up next that has “always” been associated with the power of the Deity, and there are two reasons why this must be so. The first is that we ourselves will be led astray. The second is that we as Christians take too many things for granted, when we watch religious movies, and so we will lead other people astray. We know that the raising of Lazarus was a divine miracle, but if we come away from The Greatest Story Ever Told thinking that it portrayed a level and kind of power that agrees with the biblical account, it is because we have read too much of our own worldview into the movie.

The character in The Greatest Story Ever Told who “raised Lazarus” from the dead was not a miracle worker, as we understand the term. He was a mystic. The power did not come through him, but from around him. The prayer before the resurrection of Lazarus, even though it’s not the same one that Jesus actually prayed at that time, is calculated to put us off our guard, because the character ascribes both glory and power to the Father, but once the filmmakers have persuaded us to stop doubting their motives, the adoration stops and the petition begins, and the prayer switches addressees. “Come from the four winds, O Breath, and breathe on this man, that he may live.”

The power for Lazarus’ resurrection, according to The Greatest Story Ever Told, was mystic, not divine. It might seem like a good idea, given that fact, to proceed to ask where the power for Jesus’ resurrection came from, according to The Greatest Story Ever Told, but we can’t do that, properly, without reading our own beliefs into the movie again. We cannot even establish the Resurrection itself, in The Greatest Story Ever Told. We know that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but the portrayal of that third day—even of the crucifixion—in the movie leaves alarmingly comfortable room for several heretical alternatives to a literal resurrection.

The first heresy accommodated by The Greatest Story Ever Told is known as the Swoon Theory—the theory, as the title suggests, that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, but merely swooned. The character in the movie does not cry with a loud voice (Matthew 27:50), and he “dies” with his eyes only half closed. He is never stabbed with a spear to verify his death (John 19:34).

The second heresy is the Stolen Body Theory, which was first spread among the Jews by the chief priests and elders themselves (Matthew 28:11-15). It is sanctioned by The Greatest Story Ever Told in the anti-biblical assertion that the guards at the tomb claimed that they saw nothing unusual at all, because, say the fictional priests, the guards knew that sleeping on their watch was a capital crime. The idea? That the guards actually were asleep, giving an opportunity for the body of Jesus to have been stolen.

The third and fourth heresies for which The Greatest Story Ever Told was well adapted are the Mistaken Tomb and Hallucination Theories. The first theory suggests that the early Christians based their belief in the resurrection of Jesus on nothing more than the emptiness of a tomb, and that the tomb happened to be the wrong one. The first part of the scenario is exactly what did not happen in history as recorded in the Bible (see Mark 16:1-8), but is exactly what did happen in The Greatest Story Ever Told. The disciples and Mary Magdalene rush to the tomb expecting to find it empty (another anti-biblical idea), and, free from all skepticism, proclaim the resurrection without further evidence. We are left at that point to our own conjectures as to whether they had the correct tomb or not. You will observe that this might have been somewhat resolved, of course, if we had seen a living Jesus after the alleged resurrection. You will also observe the very powerful word in that last sentence—If. There are no post-crucifixion appearances of the character in the movie, until the ascension, a scene composed of a larger-than-life image of the character superimposed on the clouds, and a handful of gazing believers that look like they might have been hallucinating, or even just fondly reminiscing.

The Greatest Story Ever Told, so called, did no favors for Christianity. It is the kind of religious film that disturbs me the most: the kind that makes Christians think that Hollywood likes us. Hollywood only likes Christians insofar as our money is as good as anybody else’s, and Hollywood has learned that the majority of Christians will still rush to give up their money and their time, with feelings of honor and excitement, for the fun of watching the execution of their own worldview.

I have one category left, in our usual list of film ratings. It’s generally referred to as Not Appropriate for Any Viewer, and it means that you shouldn’t just treat the movie like poison—something that you can simply label properly and keep out of reach of children—something that isn’t for regular ingestion, but that may have its purposes. In this category, you treat the disc or cassette with about as much caution and consideration as if it had come in contact with the Plague. You destroy it, one way or another, if you have the mixed blessing of being the proper owner of the copy. But even that category, as strong as it may seem, does not say quite what I would have it say about The Greatest Story Ever Told. Our categories are based on suggested action. If your friends want to show you this movie, I suggest you refuse. If your church shows it, I suggest you walk out… and that you don’t come back. In my judgment, The Greatest Story Ever Told has the potential to be one of the most destructive films in history, with or without Christian endorsement.

1 The context in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 5, verse 40) indicates law-suit, not larceny. I have added the italics to the quotes from the film to draw attention to the points of controversy.

2 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 (the same Greek verb “to judge” is used in verse 3 as in Matthew 7:1, and here toward a sin that was
not deemed criminal by the civil authorities at the time; the remainder of the passage does not indicate a course of action consistent with the intention of the quote from the movie); Deuteronomy 32:5, Psalm 94:1, Romans 12:19, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, Hebrews 10:30; Leviticus 21:18-21

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