Review – Paul Verhoeven’s Jesus of Nazareth

"A Realistic Portrait"

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Overview

Synopsis Dutch director Paul Verhoeven discusses the life of Jesus from a materialistic and historical point of view, absent his miracles.

Author by Paul Verhoeven, In collaboration with Rob Van Scheers, Translated by Susan Massotty
Publisher Seven Stories Press (Reprint Edition)
Genre Theology, History

Length 304 Pages

Release Date 2008 (Netherlands), 2010 (United States)

Paul Verhoeven, the director of films like Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct, and Show Girls, has been back in the news lately. In the past five years, he’s resurrected his career working on French-language dramas like Elle (2016) and his newest film Benedetta (2021). His resurrection has already brought controversy. The 83-year-old Dutch director took a lot of flack when he revealed that his newest film, dropping this month of December, will be a movie about nuns learning about sexual experimentation.

The subject matter did not go over well. Despite some generally positive reviews (be aware the linked article has some strong language), many on social media have decried the film’s sex scenes and subject matter as blasphemous and disgusting. To that end, Verhoeven dismissed all of his critics as “puritans“.

Certainly, Verhoeven is not a director who is afraid to court controversy. Most of his Dutch and French films are known for their confrontational themes and controversial depictions of rape, misogyny, and violence. When it comes to the subject of religion, Verhoeven is no different. He’s extremely opinionated and has satirized religion several times in his work. Most bizarrely, he even wrote his own biography on the life of Jesus Christ.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: The book is a historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus Christ and explores/critiques Christian ideas
Violence: Discussion of rape, military violence, and executions
Language/Crude Humor: Course and rough language
Sexual Content: Some frank discussions of sexual themes including rape and prostitution
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Other Negative Themes: Ideas will likely make orthodox Christians uncomfortable and frustrated
Positive Content: Significant historical backing and context makes elements of the book very useful, even for conservative Christians

Director Paul Verhoeven on the red carpet

Review

As stated above, Paul Verhoeven is not a man who is afraid to court controversy. That’s very true in his bizarre 2007 pseudo-history book Jesus of Nazareth. Though not widely remembered now, the book was released to moderate acclaim upon release. It was well-regarded among more spiritually-minded filmmakers like Paul Schrader, who wrote that “Verhoeven is careful to separate personal speculation from consensus conclusions.”

The book is a kind of biography on the life of Christ, but it’s a very unique one. Unlike most Christian approaches to the subject, Verhoeven approaches the Messiah with the unrelenting skepticism of a materialist who wants to clear away the brushes and leaves of religion to find what he considers the historical Jesus as he existed. He makes no quarter for the concept of miracles, doesn’t give any credit to the concept of the resurrection, and dismisses all of the gospels as extremely flawed texts written by early Christians with political agendas.

Many commentators have attempted to find traces of the original story in it, but their attempts have never been convincing. Whatever was there originals has been obliterated by numerous rewritings. Only by reasoned guesswork can I try to make a logical story out of it.

Page 141

Verhoeven assumes that the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were storytellers first and hardly historians. They may have believed in Christ, but they weren’t speaking to the truth. Thus, they fell back on literary allusion and dramatic license to make the story of Jesus into what we know today.

It was not until 1973 that scholars realized that 2 Samuel served as a blueprint for much of what Mark wrote about in the last night of Jesus’s life. It is not difficult to see Mark’s tactic: King David was transformed into Jesus, Ittai the Gittite became Peter, Ahithophel was transformed into Judas, David’s army and servants were replaced by Jesus’ disciples and finally Absalom was represented by Pilate and Caiaphas.

Page 167

For what it’s worth though, Jesus of Nazareth is an interesting book if only for two reasons. First, Verhoeven actually did put the research into the book. He was the only atheist admitted into The Jesus Seminar and actually put the effort in trying to understand the Gospels and their historical meaning. He has the Gospels memorized so well that he seems to be able to casually cross-reference them in their original Greek without trouble. He’s clearly familiar with contemporary Christian scholarship and understands the historical context for Roman Judea and the world Christ would’ve lived in.

The other reason is that Verhoeven doesn’t fall into most of the most common atheist arguments. For context, Jesus of Nazareth was released in the vicinity of Christopher Hitchen’s God is Not Great, Dawkin’s The God Delusion, and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. The book could well have played into the New Atheism craze that was the fad of the intellectual moment. Unlike them, Verhoeven actually seems to take the Bible seriously, if not literally. Instead of dismissing religion as a mind virus for the weak-minded and a delusion for the ignorant, he takes it for granted that Jesus Christ was a real human being who thought he was the Son of God. He doesn’t take the easy way out by acting snide and dismissive.

Unfortunately, we must assume from a purely secular point of view, that God concerned himself neither with Jesus’ fate nor with the political objectives of his adversaries. I hope that I am wrong, but if such a thing as God does exist, he appears to take no interest in our existence and does not seem inclined to intervene directly in our world.

Page 153

Verhoeven’s book, despite being supercilious, ego-driven, self-righteous, heretical, unimaginative, and frustrating to read, is unquestionably fascinating.

So how does a materialist approach the life of Christ? For Verhoeven, he starts with a basic premise and works his way backward. He believes Jesus was real but that a modern person can’t believe in silly things like miracles, demons, and coming back from the dead. Using the Gospels and other historical sources, he simply tries to reverse engineer a new scenario that loosely fits onto the structure of the Scripture, one that can explain how and why Jesus and his disciples might’ve thought he was the son of God and how this man’s ministry would’ve created the circumstances for his crucifixion. The picture he paints is of a man who thought he was the son of God, radicalized himself, started to believe his own hype, fell into intense cycles of paranoia, and then died fairly unromantically.

In Verhoeven’s story, Christ is born not of a virgin but as a child of rape. Borrowing the infamous theory by the Jewish historian Josephus, it’s supposed that Jesus was conceived when his mother was raped by a Roman soldier. Jesus is then swept up in a religious movement led by John the Baptist, becomes his follower, a political radical, and then a fugitive from the authorities. When John died, he fled scared into the desert for 40 days and returned ready to overtake his mentor’s ministry. Verhoeven keeps many elements from the Gospels in, such as the feeding of the 5000 and the exorcism of demons, but provides materialistic explanations for these feats, like suggesting Christ’s exorcisms were a kind of psychological placebo.

Jesus of Nazareth book display

By the end of the story, there’s no great revelation to Christ’s life. He realizes that he’s rapidly approaching a point where something needs to happen and that his actions are necessary for bringing about the kingdom of heaven on earth. Knowing that, he comes to terms with his death and lets himself be arrested, charged, and killed. His body is then pulled from the cross and may or may not have been fed to the dogs as was the usual case for men executed by the Roman state. It comes to an unromantic end without the possibility of a resurrection.

Jesus had not played the pivotal role he had envisioned for himself. On the contrary, he had been brutally, though almost casually, executed. To mask the disillusionment, the Evangelists disguised Jesus’s expectation that he would play the leading grove in God’s kingdom… so that Jesus… could be cast in the starring role.

Jesus is dead. His spirit has been extinguished, like that of Mozart and Einstein. His body did not rise up from the grave.

Page 129 + 187

Again, Jesus of Nazareth is a unique reading experience. It’s a book that ultimately says more about the internal thought processes of Verhoeven than it does about the life of Christ. It’s a work of incredible effort and unfiltered thought, peppered with indulgences. For instance, he complains about the eccentricities of the Bush administration, liberally compares the life of Christ to that of other radicals like Che Guevara, and compares his circumstances to the plight of modern Palestinians living in Israel.

Much of Verhoeven’s presuppositions are intended to be dramatic in nature. He admits that part of his formulation for reimagining the life of Christ is part of an effort to make the story more materially accurate, insofar as he sees it, while keeping the drama and tension of Jesus’s life intact. That’s not an accident. He’s talked about wanting to adapt his ideas about Christ into a movie that he hopes could prove to be the most historically accurate Bible epic ever made.

So far no one has made a realistic movie about the life of Jesus, one that portrayed him as a mere mortal, a human being whose “miracles”… are a physical impossibility. Such miracles should either be left out of a movie script altogether or given a different slant… Maybe I’m the right person to make such a movie. After all, no other director or screenwriter would be crazy enough to study the material in as much depth as I have.

Page 24

And there’s certainly truth to his last claim, at least. If nothing else is clear, Paul Verhoeven is a deeply curious man who wants to scrape down to the core of the thing we call “Jesus Christ” and understand him. He’s clearly so wrapped up in his personal hang-ups that he isn’t open to Christ the way most Christians are. If nothing else, it makes a book like Jesus of Nazareth a totally unique reading experience. Nobody but Paul Verhoeven would ever be crazy enough to write it.

Positives

+ Deep Historical Knowledge
+ Surprising Moments of Insight

Negatives

- Ego-Driven, Heterodox Approach to Theology
- Some potentially offensive content to some audiences

The Bottom Line

Jesus of Nazareth is frustrating, yet fascinating. It's a whirlwind text by one of the best filmmakers alive but also a bomb thrown into the orthodox and inerrantist views of Christ held by most Christians. Still, it delivers nuggets of insight.

 

Story/Plot 6

Writing 8

Editing 9

7.7

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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