10 Best Jesus Movies You Should See
By G. Connor Salter, Crosswalk.com
Jesus may not be the most portrayed historical figure in movies. That honor may go to Napoleon. However, Jesus is unquestionably in the top five, especially if you factor in animated Bible movies. There have been movies that used the Gospels verbatim. There have been movies that told completely fictional stories about him. There have even been some interesting movies that placed him in a new setting (what would Jesus be like if he came to earth today?)
The following is a list of 10 excellent Jesus movies from across the spectrum. All of these movies stick fairly close to the biblical account, but not all of them are your typical Sunday School fare. Some are great for kids learning Jesus’ story for the first times. Others are for adults who want to reflect on what they may have missed about Jesus’ teaching. Each has interesting insights and even a few surprises.
Each entry contains links indicating the movie’s rating, whether it is recommended for small children (Maybe indicates a movie with some elements that might make it best for teenagers and up), and where to watch it on streaming services.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/carlosphotos
1. The Bible Collection: Jesus
The Bible collection produced over a dozen Bible movies during the 1990s. Not all of them look great compared to today’s peak TV trend, but they are consistently better than most Bible TV shows and movies. The Bible Collection: Jesus is one of the best offerings in the series and can be found either as a two-part TV movie or a condensed 100-minute movie.
This film has various good points—good casting and a well-constructed story that accurately depicts the conflict between Jesus and the various authorities. Its largest attribute is it captures the fact that Jesus was (as the Nicene Creed puts it) fully God and fully human. Several scenes in the Gospels indicate this wasn’t always easy. Jesus never sinned but was tempted (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus knew he had to die, but at least once in Gethsemane, he wished there was another way. His human side struggled with what he knew he had to do. Several films (most notably Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ) have tried to capture this idea. Matthew Page argues that this film explores Jesus’ human side more palatably. Like every Bible movie, it fictionalizes some elements (imagining Jesus having to reject a woman he knows he can’t marry) to show Jesus as a man with simple human desires that he must give up. He also comes across as thoroughly relatable—harsh with hypocrites but fun-loving and personable. Newer Bible TV shows have explored some of this territory (most famously The Chosen). However, few explore the concept in such a condensed, compelling package.
Photo Credit: Lux Vide-Lube /Five Mile River/Kirchmedia/Quinta
2. The Star of Bethlehem
Rating: Not Rated
There have been more than a few animated movies based on the life of Jesus. One lesser-known one that is well worth introducing to children is The Star of Bethlehem. The animation style sounds simple: cut-out paper figures shown in silhouette, moving across elaborate backgrounds. However, animator Lotte Reiniger had a special talent and skill that made these figures much more lifelike than your usual puppet show.
The Star of Bethlehem tells the story of Jesus’ birth in under 20 minutes, from Mary and Joseph reaching Nazareth to the Magi presenting baby Jesus with gifts. The narration covers the Bible story’s high points without many deviations. The background colors are rich, and the animated figures still have a surprising detail and charm that other animation styles don’t provide. A great example of how animation doesn’t have to mean second-rate kiddie entertainment, even if it’s the movie you use to introduce kids to the Christmas story.
Photo Credit: Primrose Productions/Cathedral Films
Rating: Not Rated
Made in France (you may find an English-dubbed version titled Behold the Man), this was the first Jesus movie with sound. Being a black-and-white movie from the 1930s, it has elements (stage acting, dialogue that often sounds copied and pasted from the King James Bible) that haven’t aged well. However, it’s actually aged far better than most of the early Bible movies. It’s only 90 minutes long, has a good pacing and lots of clever camera work, and cleverly plays with an old restriction.
For centuries, especially during the Protestant reaction against theatrical Catholic-style church events, Christians debated whether it was proper to show Jesus in a play. The result was many Passion plays, and early Jesus movies, implied Jesus (an arm appearing in the background, or a man obscured by something) rather than showing him. Golgotha plays with this heritage—it starts with Palm Sunday and Jerusalem residents talking about Jesus’ arrival. Jesus doesn’t ride into Jerusalem until 10 minutes in, and viewers don’t see his face until 20 minutes in. Once Jesus is fully seen, he is portrayed as kind and fascinating, but the movie is just as much about people reacting to him as it is about him. Like the later movie King of Kings (but shorter and less grandiose), it gives viewers a strong sense of context—what culture did Jesus live in? Why did people either hate him or love him? This makes Golgotha a great Jesus movie for discussing why Jesus shocked so many people.
Photo Credit: Fan poster by G. Connor Salter
4. The Greatest Story Ever Told
Other than The Ten Commandments, it’s hard to imagine another biblical epic that so defined the genre. At over three hours in most versions (the original was over four), this isn’t the most accessible Jesus movie ever made. However, it may be the most earnest Jesus movie ever made—so earnest that the director commissioned over 300 oil paintings of Bible scenes to plan out his scenes. The plot rarely deviates from the biblical text—the biggest change is Satan appearing in background scenes, such as shouting “crucify him!” at Jesus’ trial. Jesus comes across as definitely divine, carrying himself with otherworldly grace. While some viewers will quickly pick up on the fact the scenes are shot in the American southwest instead of the Middle East, many shots have a majestic feel that fits the movie’s style.
Taste changes, and many viewers will argue whether biblical epics seem bloated and overly serious by today’s standards. However, if you want to see the style at its most unapologetic, this is the film to see.
Photo Credit: United Artists
5. The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Rating: Not Rated
On the opposite end of the Jesus movie spectrum from The Greatest Story Ever Told, this movie may initially shock viewers because of how low-key everything seems. There are very few special effects. Costumes resemble some famous biblical paintings, but you may not notice unless you’re paying attention because everything is filmed in black and white. The camera work is very unflashy, almost like Jesus asked someone to make a home movie about his travels.
However, this restrained style has a point. Instead of emphasizing the setting, it emphasizes the people. Viewers see the famous scenes (the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper) but think more about what Jesus is saying than about the fact it’s an important moment. Jesus’ message comes across as a bit more shocking than in some movies—his harder words, telling his disciples about the dangers they will experience for following him, calling out the rich and powerful, take center stage. This is definitely a revolutionary Jesus, an intense man whose love for the unwanted drives his mission.
Many Jesus movies emphasize Jesus’ kindness or his divinity. The Gospel According to St. Matthew emphasizes that Jesus was the teacher who didn’t fear offending his audience and left people either loving or hating him.
Photo Credit: Arco Film Lux Compagnie/Cinématographique de France
6. The Miracle Maker
While The Star of Bethlehem is a great example of telling a section of Jesus’ story as an animated film, The Miracle Maker is a great example of telling the main Jesus story efficiently and intelligently. It begins as Jesus prepares to start his ministry and ends with his crucifixion. Since it was made by several animation companies working together, it finds a clever way to mix several animation styles. Most of the story is told using stop-motion characters. Then, key moments (Jesus remembering his childhood visit to the temple, demon-possessed Mary Magdalene seeing monsters everywhere) switch to hand-drawn animation.
As the title suggests, the movie emphasizes Jesus’ miracles but doesn’t make him out as a superhero. One of the people that Jesus healed becomes a main character, interacting with him throughout the story. Each time, Jesus comes across as kind, a man who cares for the people no one values. The surrounding characters are handled with equal depth—for once, Pilate and Herod both seem crafty, not caricatured bad guys. Multiple times, side characters (like a certain Pharisee named Joseph) return later and turn out to be important figures with their own moments of revelation.
There have been plenty of animated Jesus movies, but few come close to this one's depth and quality.
Photo Credit: British Screen Productions, Icon Entertainment International, Sianel 4 Cymru
7. The Visual Bible: Matthew
Matthew Page observes in 100 Bible Films that this movie marked a shift in Jesus movies, and also the start of something surprising. Previous Jesus movies had emphasized Jesus’ tenderness, otherworldliness, and sometimes his anger. There were very few Jesus movies that made him seem, well, human. This film changed that not by changing what Jesus said, but by picking a particular actor who changed how things were said. The script is taken straight from the Gospel of Matthew with no omissions (hence the “Visual Bible” in the title). Unlike most Bible films, there are no fictionalized extra scenes to make the story feel more like a standard narrative: just the lines from the Bible. However, Bruce Marchiano says almost every line with great joy. He sometimes seems worried (like when being tempted in the desert) or sad (like when he’s being crucified). However, there are very few moments when this Jesus seems solemn. He comes across as a joyful man who loves life and loves people no matter the circumstance.
Bruce Marchiano went on to play Jesus in at least 12 movies or TV shows (possibly the world record), and paved the way for other Jesus movies on this list. Whether it’s the grounded-yet-goofy Jesus in The Bible Collection movie or the paternal Jesus in The Miracle Maker, every Jesus portrayal since has carried some of this movie’s legacy.
Photo Credit: Visual Bible International
8. Last Days in the Desert
Most Jesus movies follow the biblical account fairly closely. However, every Bible movie fictionalizes something—giving Noah’s wife a name, maybe speculating how Bathsheba felt about David. Further along the spectrum are stories that look at a Bible story from a fictional character’s perspective or imagine what happened in between the scenes the Bible mentions. These stories may work best for viewers who already know the Bible stories, but they can be great ways to reconsider what the Bible’s themes are. Last Days in the Desert is a challenging movie that imagines what else might have happened during Jesus’ testing in the desert, pushing viewers to think about what Satan really offered Jesus.
The movie opens with Jesus walking through the desert, occasionally meeting Satan (played by the same actor). Satan mocks Jesus, asking him why his heavenly father would ask so much for him. Jesus then meets a family living in the desert, and their struggles—a strict father demanding much from his son, a son struggling to do his father’s will—underline the struggle that Jesus feels about his divine mission. Meanwhile, Satan’s commentary about God highlights how Satan was once an angel that God favored (a rebellious son who’s never forgiven his father for casting him out).
Yes, treating Satan like God’s child is provocative. Jesus is an uncreated being, while angels are created beings, so the parallel isn’t exact. However, the “rebellious child” idea fits the Bible’s description of Satan as an honored creation who arrogantly rebelled against God. Further, if Satan’s sin was thinking he knew better than God, then in the desert… he was offering Jesus a chance to become like him.
A provocative movie that underlines how Jesus’ trials were essentially about obedience, humility, and learning to trust his father’s will.
Photo Credit: Broad Green Pictures
9. Son of Man
Rating: Not Rated
Every Bible movie is informed by when it was made, and some clearly have a subtext. For example, several critics have seen David and Bathsheba, which depicts King David as a sad warrior haunted by his friend Jonathan’s death, as a way of talking about WWII soldiers returning home with battle trauma. Son of Man (taken from the biblical description of Jesus’ role as judge) takes the topical retelling to a whole new level. Filmed in South Africa with an all-African cast, the plot happens in a modern-day African state called Judea that militants are terrorizing. The supernatural elements (angels talking to Jesus’ parents, miracles he performs, even Satan appearing in the background like some scenes in Passion of the Christ) are all there. However, the new setting allows for some interesting possibilities. When Jesus preaches in a shantytown of tin-roofed houses, the two men simply pull the tin roof off to let down their disabled friend.
The story has a few moments of battle gore, and it plays fast and loose with some events, but for a clear purpose. The movie is just as interested in using Jesus’ story to talk about modern-day Africa (about systemic poverty, dictatorships, and apathy for the hurting) as it is in challenging how viewers see Jesus (breaking the cliché of portraying Jesus as a white European). It may be best seen by audiences who already know the Gospels well, but it pushes any viewer to consider what the Gospels really say.
Photo Credit: Spier Films
Rating: Not Rated
While this film may not follow Jesus as a main character, it fits into the group as Ben-Hur: a movie where Jesus appears at the story’s margins, but everything revolves around Jesus’ actions. His face is never seen, only how characters react to him… and yet the story becomes very much about how he changes people’s lives. The difference is this movie picks up about where Ben-Hur left off. Viewers see Barabbas in prison, his shock at being released, then a brief encounter with Jesus as he leaves prison. The meeting leaves Barabbas confused, unable to forget this man he knows nothing about. He brushes it off as a bizarre moment, and jumps back into his gang of criminal friends, only to discover that his old flame has become one of Jesus’ followers. When she announces three days later that Jesus’ tomb is empty, Barabbas doesn’t know what to think. He tries to bury his questions on new activities, becoming a failed revolutionary, a prisoner working in sulfur mines, and eventually a gladiator. No matter what profession he chooses, he can’t seem to die. His recurring meetings with Christians make him wonder if the man they called Christ was more than just a stranger who died in his place.
The movie refuses to follow some of the usual tropes. Barabbas spends most of the movie resisting faith, and in many ways, the movie becomes more about how the Christians he meets push him to consider what faith really is, than about how his own spiritual journey will end. However, these complexities don’t make the movie unfocused. Instead, they make the movie a great meditation on salvation and how much God will pursue us to claim us as his own.
Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures
Honorary Mention: He Who Must Die
Rating: Not Rated
Rather than being a Jesus movie, this might be called a movie about Jesus movies. It opens in the 1920s, in a Turkish-ruled village with a small Christian community. They hold a secret Passion play every seven years, which the Islamic authorities know about but tolerate. This year, they finally get permission to do it publicly. The church council announces who it has selected to play the main cast. Some results are expected—a woman with a dubious reputation gets cast as Mary Magdalene. Others are shocking—a shepherd with a stammer is cast as Jesus. When Greek refugees arrive in town seeking help, the Christians wonder if they can help these “beggars” without damaging the delicate power balance.
There’s some earthy comedy (people squabbling, gossiping about everyone’s marriages), making this definitely a movie for grownups. Viewers willing to take the earthiness and consider what the movie’s really saying will find it’s a great meditation on what Jesus taught. It becomes clear the villagers are living out the themes of the story of Jesus. Who is worthy to play Christ… and what does that remind us about Jesus’ teachings about worthiness? Is it proper for simple people to play saints… but didn’t Jesus choose simple people to be his followers? Do Christians really honor God by putting on a big religious festival… when they’re ignoring the least of these?
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Photo Credit: Fan poster based on film trailer. Poster by G. Connor Salter