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A Truncated Last Supper in the Movie 'Son of God'

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By Robert A. J. Gagnon, Christian Post Guest Contributor
March 19, 2014|9:23 am

The new movie "Son of God" produced by Mark Burnett (known for such television series as "Survivor," "The Apprentice," "The Voice," and "Shark Tank") and his wife, actress Roma Downey, is creating a splash. The movie is only partly new. It's actually a reedited two-hour version of the parts on Jesus in the 10-part miniseries "The Bible" aired by the History Channel in 2013, to which was added "enhanced special effects, a new musical score and additional scenes." The film has drawn widespread support from many high-profile evangelical Christians (such as Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Jim Daly, T. D. Jakes, and Joel Osteen) and some Catholic leaders (like Cardinal Wuerl).

It is not my purpose here to argue that this is a bad movie that Christians shouldn't bother seeing or that God can't use for evangelistic purposes. On the contrary, the movie has positive value. Without reviewing the movie as a whole, I would like to comment on issues that I have with the portrayal of the Last Supper, which readers can access on YouTube.

Even allowing for "artistic license," there are two particularly disappointing elements in this reenactment of the Last Supper. By way of setting, the story is being told mostly with John 13:21-30; 14:1, 4-6, 12-18 in view, into which is spliced the words over the bread and cup found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke).

(1) The film shows Jesus saying, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), which is of course wonderful. Unfortunately, no mention is made of the critical follow-up, "No one comes to the Father except through me." There seems to be no reason to leave out this line except for the negative implications of judgment for those who do not believe in Christ. Arguably, the second part is implicit in the claim that Jesus is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." Yet the fact that Jesus is the Way will not be understood by many as an elimination of all other ways. That is an essential part of the gospel message.

(2) The words over the bread and cup are severely truncated to "This is my body. This is my blood. Remember me by doing this."

Now the saying over the bread is acceptable. Mark and Matthew record only "This is my body," though Paul/Luke add the atonement theme, "which is (being given) for you." As regards the words over the cup, however, there is no justification for limiting to "This is my blood." Mark/Matthew have: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out [or: shed] for many." Matthew adds "for the forgiveness of sins" to make even more explicit the atoning effect of Christ's death.

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"My blood of the covenant" alludes to the covenant-inaugurating act of Jesus' death, superseding the covenant-inaugurating act at Sinai when Moses' splattered sacrificial blood on the Israelites and announced, "The blood of the covenant that Yahweh has cut with you" (Exod 24:8). The filmmakers might have alluded to this through a flashback to this episode at Sinai, which first-centuries Jews would have readily recalled.

The saying over the cup also echoes the Suffering Servant text in Isaiah 53:12: "He poured out his life to death … and bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors," a clear reference to an amends-making (atoning) death. Again, the filmmakers could have imaged this through a flashback, showing the prophet penning these words. A biblically literate audience might even fast forward to Hebrews 9:18: "Not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood."

Had the writers of the film thought these allusions too obscure, they could have had recourse to the Paul/Luke version which interprets Jesus' words over the cup for a Gentile audience. Paul's version in 1 Cor 11:25 reads: "This cup is the new covenant in (= ratified or inaugurated by) my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, for my remembrance." Luke merges elements from Paul and Mark in his version: "This cup is the new covenant in (= ratified or inaugurated by) my blood which is to be poured out (shed) for you" (22:20).

Clearly at some level the film writers were drawing on Paul's version when they included the words, "Remember me by doing this." Why, then, leave out the crucial interpretation of Christ's death as an amends-making, covenant-ratifying act on our behalf?

Of course in a movie of this length some things have to be left out. For example, they don't include among Jesus' words his vow of abstinence from wine found in the first three Gospels: "I shall certainly no longer drink from the produce of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God." It is an important statement, showing that the new covenant awaits full consummation in a coming, transcendent manifestation of God's reign on earth. But I can understand why, with limited time, it would be left out. It is important but not as important as the announcement about the import of Jesus' death for the world.

The only conceivable reasons why the writers would leave out the atonement statement associated with the cup are, first, that they don't understand it; second, that they didn't think the audience would understand it (but, as I noted above, there were many ways in which they could have made it understandable); third, that they thought it would offend some of their potential audience; or, fourth, that they don't agree with the concept of Jesus' atoning death or at least see it as unimportant. However one views it, its omission is stunning.

The atonement interpretation is the key to the whole story of Jesus' death. Omitting it leaves the uninformed without any understanding of the purpose of Jesus' death, other than as a senseless tragedy that God forgives anyway. For Paul remembrance of the Lord's Supper meant primarily remembering these words that Christ died "for" us. Ironically, the writers of this film seemed to have forgotten the most crucial part of the meal: the explanation as to why Jesus had to die, not just the prediction that he would die or even his courage and compassion in the midst of that death.

A less significant point but one still worth mentioning is the portrayal of Judas at the Last Supper. The picture both of Judas's response to Jesus and of Jesus' response to Judas is considerably softened. The scene appears to be drawn primarily from John 13:21-28, though the writers have taken considerable license with the story. There are many small details that are at odds with the presentations in the Gospels (the sequence, the fact that no one is reclining, the type of blessing used by Jesus, etc.) but here I will focus on the salient points.

In the film, Jesus announces that "one of you here will betray me" (John 13:21). After a "Who?" from John, Jesus tears off a piece of bread and turns to Judas with a piece of bread with the answer, "Whoever eats this." This is close enough to the account in John 13:23-26, where Jesus responds to the beloved disciple with the words, "That one is the one to whom I will dip the small piece of bread and give it to him," and then does precisely that.

However, in the film a watery-eyed and obviously disturbed Judas protests, apparently sincerely: "I will not. I will not betray you!" There is nothing quite like this in the Gospel accounts, which depict Judas' betrayal in much harsher terms than Peter's denial that he ever knew Jesus. Indeed, John's Gospel at this point reads: "And after the morsel then Satan entered into that one" (13:27a). In Matthew Judas asks, "Surely I am not (he), rabbi?" (26:25)-a question that Matthew probably intended readers to understand as Judas's attempt at deception (compare Matthew's portrayal of Judas in 26:14-16, 47-50; 27:3-10).

The film then portrays Jesus gently putting the bread in Judas's mouth, tenderly touching Judas's face, and looking compassionately into his eyes while saying, "Do it quickly." In John 13:27, Jesus does indeed say to him, "What you are doing, do quickly." Yet John doesn't portray Jesus as commanding Judas to do what Judas is reluctant to carry out. Again, "Satan entered into that one."

In Mark Jesus says about the betrayer, "It would have been better for that one not to have been born" (14:21); in Luke, "Woe to that person through whom [the Son of Man] is betrayed" (22:22). This kind of presentation of the interaction of Judas and Jesus doesn't fit with a desire to portray Jesus as an ever-mild figure who never pronounces severe judgment.

Oddly, in the film Peter is aware of what Judas is going to do and tries to stop him from leaving. Jesus tells Peter, "Let him go." Again, nothing of the sort happens in the Gospels. As it is, John's Gospel is the clearest of the four in portraying the disciples as oblivious to what Judas was setting out to do. "And none of those who were reclining knew why [Jesus] said this to [Judas]. For some were thinking, since Judas had the money box, that Jesus was telling him, 'Buy what we have need of for the feast' or 'To the poor' so that he would give something" (John 13:28).

On that note, thankfully, we don't have to "let this movie go" as if it were betraying Jesus in anything like the way that Judas was setting out to do. I believe that the producers wanted to honor Jesus and at points they achieve that goal. Yet the tendency to shape Jesus in our image is great and Christians should not "let go" an ability to reflect critically on the film when it obscures key points of the message of Scripture.

Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D., is a professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (gagnon@pts.edu)
 

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