Days before Jesus was nailed to a cross of wood, he entered Jerusalem to cheering crowds. He explained to his followers that if the people did not herald him, the rocks and the stones would cry out. A few nights later, he took bread and wine and announced that they were his body and his blood. A sign fastened to the cross declared him “King of the Jews” in various languages.
Jesus and those who killed him were not the only ones focused on material objects. When the devil had come years earlier, he tempted Jesus to change rocks into bread and that if Jesus would bow down, the city and all its materials would be his.
The release of Son of God and the exceptionally successful Bible miniseries from which it was born, have left film critics and media outlets once again focused on the story of Jesus, mostly emphasizing the actors who play the roles. Among the trending topics on Twitter is #hotjesus, which refers to the Portugese model-turned-actor Diogo Morgado who plays the lead role. In the History Channel miniseries, the internet nearly exploded when some felt that the Satan figure bore an eerie resemblance to President Barack Obama. In the film version, the devil (who actually resembled countless dark-skinned devils and Satans in American visual and media history) hit the cutting room floor.
The focus on the bodies and appearances of the actors in these biblical sagas is nothing new. Ten years ago, for the Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson digitally altered actor Jim Caviezel’s eyes from blue to brown and had him wear a prosthetic nose to make him look more Jewish, and hence more like Jesus. The androgynous and almost albino devil confused many critics, while Jesus’s mother Mary was dressed to look like a Catholic nun.
Before that, the 1961 version of The King of Kings was mocked incessantly for the boyish-looking Jeffrey Hunter as Christ who, despite being in his 30s, looked so young that the film was dubbed, “I was a teenage Jesus.” Decades before that, some critics were scandalized in 1927 when King of Kings featured a Jesus with short, closely cropped hair.
Obsessions with the bodies of the Bible characters, however, have obscured the stories of the stones, wood and other material artifacts that have also helped to tell the story in films both past and present.
DeMille’s King of Kings used wood to balance whimsy with prophecy, the human side of Jesus with the divine element of Christ. At one point, a group of children approach Jesus (the iconic, “let the children come” moment). Having heard that Jesus has the power to heal a little girl presents him with a wooden toy whose leg had been separated from its body. Looking around to see what he can do the clever Christ finds a stick, breaks it to the right length, and uses it to mend the toy. The girl hugs Jesus and him kisses her on the forehead.
This moment of levity, however, followed directly one of the film’s most ominous moments. Leaning on a wooden beam that appears to help uphold a home, Jesus thwarts the logical traps of the Pharisees by telling those who listen that they should “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Matthew agrees to follow Christ, and all seems well until the beam is revealed to be a cross. Jesus shifts from leaning on the wood to holding it in his hands. He stares at it. A fellow Jew explains to him, “I make many crosses for the Romans—they pay me well.” The mood darkens and Christ’s face foreshadows his gruesome end: he will be placed upon that beam.
Decades later, Godspell used material artifacts more creatively and with more depth than any other Jesus film. After Jesus and his merry band of friends skip into a junkyard, they take the discarded objects and teach the world how to live just and caring lives. Holey socks become parable-preaching hand puppets. Broken down cars and musical instruments become the vehicles and horns of the gospel story. Forty years before the Occupy Movement would seek to reclaim and redeem urban spaces, the figures in Godspell were doing so in the abandoned lots of New York City.
Martin Scorcese’s adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) didn’t just trouble the biblical accounts of Jesus by layering in the possibility of marriage and sex with Mary Magdalene. The film began with Willem Defoe as Jesus making a cross, setting it up, spreading his arms across it, and mimicking what it would look like to be crucified. This Jesus didn’t simply die on a cross, he made the crosses on which others would be put to death.
Later in the film, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus encounters a crowd of Jews who are beginning to stone a woman (one of the many “adulterous women” stories in the gospels). While biblical accounts emphasize Christ’s quietness and then writing in the sand, this Jesus grabs two of the stones. Members of the crowd pull back; they fear Jesus will stone them. He doesn’t, but the threat of a violent Jesus runs through the rest of the film.
The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s controversial take on the Jesus film from 2004, took the material tools of the horror genre and set them to work on Christ’s body. Whips, chains, and thorns pierce Christ’s body, but the most provocative use of material objects may have been its most subtle. In a flashback scene, Jesus is with his mother as he builds a tall table. Diners would no longer have to sit on the ground. They could be more comfortable. Mary is mystified by this innovation and tells him that it’ll never “catch on.” We know Gibson’s Christ is battered and bruised, but we forget that he was also an innovator and entrepreneur of dining comfort and cleanliness.
Son of God casts the same material artifacts as characters, but does so in unique and striking ways. When we first meet Pontius Pilate, we observe his mercilessness as he instructs his men to forcibly remove a wagon that blocks the road sending a young boy toppling to his death; later, Jesus drops his stone as he averts the stoning of the adulterous woman and kisses the cross he’ll be crucified upon.
But in Son of God the stones and the wood are ultimately minor material characters. Instead, coins and the temple push the narrative forward. After a brief survey of the Bible—from Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham to Samson and finally to David in about 2 minutes—we encounter Roman rule over the Jews. The empire is defined by taxation and we’re drawn to coins time and again.
When Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers, their coins clatter on the ground; when Jesus explains that the people should render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, he flips the coin to a soldier who catches it and examines it; and after Judas has betrayed his leader and Jesus has been condemned by Jewish leaders, Judas throws his bag of coins for all to see. In slow motion, the silver pieces float across the screen hitting a Jewish leader.
If the coins reinforce the message that Christ’s kingdom is not obsessed with money, the temple stands as the macro reminder that it’s not about any particular nation-state either. After the first hour, we begin to see Jerusalem and the temple every five or ten minutes in broad, sweeping, panoramic images. Instead of commercial breaks we now get three to five seconds of the temple.
Moreover, the Jewish leaders are obsessed with the temple. They continually denounce Jesus for claiming it will be destroyed and they fear that Pilate will close it during Passover. The temple functions as a surrogate for their existence as a nation-state with Jewish leaders claiming repeatedly that if it’s destroyed so will they be as an organized civil society. When Jesus is finally set to be crucified, his oppressors ask whether one can see the temple from there, and at the moment of his death an earthquake tears through the town shaking the temple, sending rocks and stones flying.
Stones tell stories. Crosses and coins convey messages. Son of God is unlikely to break box office records or displace The Passion of the Christ as the most-viewed biblical film, but attention to the inanimate characters may lead to some insights as well.
With the temple and coins, the Son of God presents the story of a Jesus who transcends the trappings of money and national power. A cynic may read some of this as indicative of contemporary conservatism’s disdain for taxes and “big government.” But it also seems to fit into a broader and older evangelical anti-statism that, as Matthew Avery Sutton details in his forthcoming book on evangelicals of the twentieth century, has them supporting the nation generically, but fearful of the state specifically.