Whether or not you take it as Gospel truth, the birth, life, and death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ remains one of humanity's most widespread and influential stories. Beyond the Bible, his tale has been told in many a medium, most notably film and television. Producers, filmmakers and stars have interpreted the Christ myth through a number of lenses — straightforward historical dramas, arch reinterpretations, even filtering the passion play through comedies and musicals.
Among the dozens of blockbusters and TV specials and everything in between, we've collected a few of the best Jesus movies made throughout the decades — some hearkening back to the earliest days of the art form. To paraphrase the Good Book (Matthew 18:20), where two or three are gathered in His name, there are these Jesus movies among them.
1. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Often, the best Christ films paradoxically earn the ire of the very community that clamors for them. That's certainly true of Martin Scorsese‘s epic retelling of the life of Christ, protested by Christian groups at the time for blasphemy. And yet, Scorsese's work remains a deeply personal, honest exploration of his own faith, through a Christ (an incredible Willem Dafoe) faced with the option to escape his prophesied fate and life a quiet life with mary Magdelene.
2. Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
They say nothing is sacred, and the iconic British comedy group Monty Python bear that out in perhaps their most incisive of satires — Life of Brian, an arch take on the Christ tale centered around an ordinary Judean (Graham Chapman) who lucks his way into becoming a messiah. With the Python gang's acid wit and unapologetic aim at targets ranging from religious zealots to feckless bureaucrats, Life of Brian becomes one of the most successful — and enduring — Jesus movies of all time. Blessed are the cheesemakers, indeed.
3. Ben-Hur (1959)
At nearly $16 million, Ben-Hur had the largest budget and sets of any film at the time. And what a spectacle would result: in the film, a tale of a Roman commander (Charlton Heston) who falls from grace and must work his way back up to glory, freeing himself from slavery and serving as a witness to Jesus' crucifixion.
4. The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)
Pier Paolo Pasolini, ever the cinematic alchemist, retold the story of Jesus through the Gospel of St. Matthew in a fascinating neorealist style. Set amid black and white footage filmed with documentary immediacy, The Gospel According to Matthew allows Pasolini to reckon with the sacred through the forms of the secular, which makes it a truly unique take on the story.
5. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Max von Sydow plays a decidedly serene Christ in George Stevens' four-plus-hour epic, against a huge ensemble cast of big names including Jose Ferrer, Charlton Heston, Martin Landau, and Claude Rains (in what would become his final film role). Look out for a cameo from John Wayne as the Roman centurion who witnesses the crucifixion, drawling the infamous passage, “Surely this man is the son of God.”
6. King of Kings (1961)
Jeffrey Hunter (aka the first captain of the Enterprise) plays Jesus in Nicholas Ray's comprehensive Biblical spectacle. Going through all the major touchpoints of Christ's life and death, it remains a serviceable — if somewhat repetitive — entry in the '50s and '60s boom of religious studio epics.
7. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Hardly the first musical take on Christ, but maybe the most assured, Jesus Christ Superstar adapts the 1970 rock opera from stage to screen. Ted Neeley's crooning Christ literalizes the long-haired hippie vibes of the counterculture, while Carl Anderson makes for a suitably scheming Judas. The songs — “What's the Buzz,” “Everything's Alright” — remain as catchy as a catechism.
8. Last Days in the Desert (2015)
Rodrigo Garcia's meditative Christ tale casts Ewan McGregor as both Christ and Satan, honing in on the era of Jesus' life where he wanders through the desert to find God. In the abyss of the desert, Satan tempts Jesus with water, women, and the overwhelming fear that what he does in the present will not affect the future. An abstract but rewarding take on the spiritual dimensions of Christ's life and teachings, and unique among Jesus movies.
9. The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ (1906)
At thirty-three minutes, this short film from Alice Guy-Blaché (arguably the first female filmmaker in history) tells the life of Jesus through 25 unique tableaux. While its content is a traditional run-through of the Christ tale, its short length and visual imagination — George Melies likely took some notes — make it a powerful version of the myth, and an iconic moment in cinema history.
10. Mary Magdelene (2018)
Garth Davis (Lion, Foe) directed this haunting, minimalist take of Christ's life, as shown through the eyes of Mary Magdelene (a sensitive, wounded Rooney Mara). With Joaquin Phoenix as Christ, and an atmospheric score from Jóhann Jóhannsson — the last before his death — the film tackles Mary's stigma and outcast nature with remarkable reverence.
11. Risen (2016)
12. Barabbas (1961)
Following the Roman prisoner whose life Pilate spared in his decision to crucify Christ instead, Barabbas fleshes out the life and career of the man in suitably lavish spectacle. Anthony Quinn imbues the titular figure with appropriate guilt over his role in Christ's death, wracked with shame and haunted by Jesus' image before becoming a follower himself.
13. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson's controversial take on the Passion Play took in over $600 million at the box office, and helped revitalize the Christian film as a viable vehicle for counterprogramming in Hollywood. Violent, gorey, and deeply earnest, Gibson's take relishes in the pain and torture that Christ (Jim Caviezel) endured, as if to impart that divine agony onto his audience. However, accusations of antisemitism and criticisms of its violence haunt it to this day.
14. The Miracle Maker (2000)
This Welsh-Russian stop-motion animated film tells the story of Jesus with remarkable imagination and visual inventiveness. Moving from stop-motion tales of Jesus' present to flashbacks and parables using hand-drawn 2D animation, the film presents a visual feast to those looking for a more vivid way to consume the Gospel.
15. The Milky Way (1969)
Master French social satirist Luis Buñuel turned his jaundiced eye to Jesus in this dramedy about two traveling vagabonds who take the titular pilgrimage from northern Europe to Spain. Along the way, they see Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and a host of other abstract encounters that span the whole of Christian history. His Christ, rather than an abstract object of light, feels real and relatable, an intentional move by Buñuel to humanize him in the eyes of a similarly flawed populace.
16. Mary, Mother of Jesus (1999)
This made-for-TV Biblical drama views Jesus through the eyes of his mother Mary (Pernilla August and Melinda Kinnaman at varying ages), seeing how her boy has grown, and been shaped by, her influence. This film deserves note for casting a young Christian Bale as the Son of God, and positing that many of Jesus' parables were based on stories Mary told him as a child.
17. The Robe (1953)
Richard Burton and Jean Simmons star in Henry Koster's sprawling, CinemaScope-shot religious epic, centered on a Roman military tribune (Burton) responsible for Jesus' crucifixion. Here, Christ's robe serves as a kind of tell-tale heart for Burton's Marcellus, a reminder of the crime he has committed against God, leading to his conversion to a follower of Christ.
18. Godspell (1973)
Much like Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell is a Christ tale filtered through the counterculture impulses of the 1970s. But David Greene's adaptation of the Stephen Schwartz musical trades historical trappings for postmodern costumes, transplants the story from Jerusalem to New York City, and tosses in some vaudeville bits for good measure. Still, there are few other chances to see Victor Garber play Jesus.
19. Son of God (2014)
A ten-hour miniseries remade as a two-plus-hour film, Son of God takes footage from the show and rearranges it (alongside new footage not originally included) to offer a modern, prestige adaptation of Christ's life. However, it came under fire for footage including a version of Satan (played by Mohamen Mehdo Ouazanni) who carried an offensive resemblance to Barack Obama.
20. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Robert Powell's deep blue-within-blue eyes are more than enough to make him feel like the perfect Jesus for Franco Zeffirelli's lush adaptation. One of the biggest twists to this version, however, comes in the story of Judas: No longer an active player in Christ's death, the film inserts a new character (Zerah) to dupe Judas into betraying Christ. Once trumpeted as the greatest of all Jesus movies, today it feels more than a little melodramatic.
21. The Nativity Story (2006)
Catherine Hardwicke's (Twilight) Biblical epic focuses not on Christ himself, but the struggles of his parents — Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) — to usher in the birth of Christ. While the film's focus hones in more on the Nativity than Christ's life proper, Isaac's gentle performance is appropriately Christ-like, as if to serve as a spiritual model for the man and messiah his boy would become.
22. The Messiah (2007)
The rare Christ film to come from a Muslim perspective, Nader Talebzadeh's 2007 film shows Jesus' life as told through the Islamic view — that Christ is the penultimate prophet and messenger of God. Cut from a ten-hour miniseries into an 80-minute film, its theatrical version feels somewhat rushed. But as an indicator of how other Abrahamic religions viewed Jesus, The Messiah offers a fresh perspective for those accustomed to the usual tales — there's nary a cross to be seen.
23. The Day Christ Died (1980)
Focused purely on the final 24 hours of Jesus' life, James Cellan Jones' TV movie dramatizes both Jesus (Chris Sarandon) reckoning with his impending death and the struggles of Pontius Pilate to figure out what to do with the man in the wake of calls for Barabbas' release. Notably, the man who wrote the 1957 book of the same name, Jim Bishop, disowned the film and called it “cheap revisionist history.”