Essays on the Historical Jesus

Evan Powell


Jesus: A Proposed Film

Film treatment based upon “Essays on the Historical Jesus” by Evan Powell


Important Note on the Age of Jesus: 

The age of Jesus has enormous implications for this film project. The author of Ur-John (the disciple John of Zebedee) believed Jesus was in his late forties at the time of his death (Ur-John 2:19-21, 8:57).  This film will depict Jesus as a dark haired, dark eyed Palestinian man who dies at the age of about 48. It replaces the western cultural fantasy of Jesus as a young, fair haired, light skinned man. This film is intended to challenge viewers to visualize and embrace who the historical Jesus actually was.

Scholars tend to set the date of Jesus’ death as either 30 CE or 33 CE. It is assumed to be 30 CE for the purposes of this film. This place the presumed date of Jesus’ birth as 18 BCE, consistent with indications in Matthew and Luke that he was born in the time of Herod.

Act One:    Sepphoris Burns (4 BCE)

At the age of 14, Jesus witnesses the burning of Sepphoris by the Roman governor Varus. Sepphoris was three miles from Jesus’ home in Nazareth. It is the birthplace of his mother, and both she and his father have extended family in Sepphoris. Some are slaughtered, others taken and sold into slavery. The town and the extended family Jesus has known since birth is destroyed by the Romans. This is the beginning of his radicalization as an anti-Roman crusader.

In his teen years, Jesus is riveted by tales of the messianic rebellion of Athronges (4 BCE to 1 BCE), following his successes and ultimate failure. He is inspired by the role model of Athronges as self-proclaimed messiah and king, but learns that there are limits to the use of violence against Rome.  

Act Two:   The Ornament of Galilee (6 CE)

By the time Jesus is 24, the rebuilding of Sepphoris by Herod Antipas is well underway. Jesus and his father are employed as craftsmen. Jesus perceives himself to be a tool of the wealthy, his labor and talent being used to produce elaborate homes for the priestly class and Sadducees. He develops an abiding moral outrage at the power of Rome and the wealth of its puppets who are destroying the traditional ways of Jewish life and replacing it with gaudy Roman opulence. There is sufficient family income for Jesus, the eldest son, to undertake some studies. He learns to read, and begins to study the Psalms of Solomon, Pharisaic writings published three decades prior to his birth circa 45 BCE. They speak of a coming messiah king who will rise up without an army. The power of the messiah’s message combined with divine intervention will rid the promised land of foreign oppressors. Jesus begins to wonder whether he might be the one anointed for this role. The Psalms of Solomon would become the blueprint for his messianic uprising against the Roman occupation.

Quirinius, the newly appointed Roman governor of Syria, undertakes a census to prepare for a methodical taxation of the Jewish people. Jesus views this as tantamount to the enslavement of the Jews, another outrage that leads him to believe that the Roman occupation of Israel is an abomination that God will not ultimately tolerate. He is sympathetic to the armed rebellion of Judas of Galilee, who leads a resistance movement against the census. Judas’ movement is brutally suppressed by the Romans, giving Jesus another opportunity to witness the ineffectiveness of armed rebellion.  The vision in PsalmsSol 17 that the ultimate successful messianic revolution will be non-violent is more compelling than ever. Jesus begins to see organized civil disobedience via mass non-compliance with the new taxation apparatus as a motivating issue that will inspire the people to resist Rome without resorting to the inevitable cycle of violence. 

Act Three:    The Rival -- John the Baptist  (26 CE)

Jesus is now 44, and has developed a close association with JBap. Both men envision the impending fall of Roman power via divine intervention; both believe that mass repentance and purification of the people is a prerequisite for God’s ultimate action. JBap has already succeeded in attracting a large following, and Jesus imagines that JBap may be the messiah anointed by God. He is baptized by John and joins his movement as a leading disciple. Initially they work together, but a disagreement over strategy and tactics develops. JBap believes that simply bringing a sufficient number of the people to repentance will cause God to honor their faith and intervene in the present political order. Jesus believes more provocative action is required; the people must not only repent but engage in active tax resistance and be willing to stand up in active, non-violent civil disobedience. He also believes the movement must be taken to the cities rather than remaining in the remote wilderness where JBap feels it is safer to conduct his operations.  JBap believes Jesus’ tactics are too aggressive and will lead to unnecessary bloodshed.  The dispute over strategy causes a split. Jesus concludes that he himself is the intended messiah king and begins to operate under this assumption.  He spins off a separate movement, taking with him a group of JBap disciples who favor his more confrontational tactics. Many followers of JBap continue to believe that he, and not Jesus, is the true messiah.

Jesus goes with his new associates to Jerusalem and stages the temple disturbance, directing hostile rhetoric toward the elite temple priesthood and those who have aligned with Rome. He challenges the people to join his renewal movement. Jesus’ actions provoke a hostile response from the temple authorities. He leaves Jerusalem before anyone has time to arrest him for the disturbance. He returns to the wilderness and begins to conduct a competing ministry of baptism adjacent to JBap’s operation, in order to attract more followers away from John and into his own movement.

Act Four:    Revolution (28 CE)

In this act the primary dramatic conflict is between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Jesus actively promotes himself as the messiah of PsSol 17, hoping to win a critical mass of followers. He stages public events that demonstrate his power. He preaches against the Roman occupation, and that God will soon act in history to rectify the injustice. He advocates mass tax resistance on the grounds that it is a sin to honor or support Caesar, and uses it as an emotional wedge to motivate the people. He encounters mixed reactions from Pharisee leaders, some of whom are sympathetic to Jesus’ fundamental anti-Roman objectives and wonder whether he can effectively bring them to fruition, and others who see him as dangerously reckless and courting disaster. Jesus moves back and forth between Judea and Galilee, taking his message to smaller villages and towns, attempting to grow a grass-roots movement throughout Israel without directly confronting the elite powers.

Initially the popular reaction to Jesus is mixed. There can be onerous consequences for non-compliance with taxes and many wonder whether this is either wise or effective. Yet Jesus continues to win adherents.  There is growing awareness among the temple priesthood in Jerusalem that Jesus’ movement is getting large enough to provoke social instability.  He becomes recognized as undesirable, and the high priest eventually concludes that he must be eliminated.  

Act Five:            A Riot Quelled  (30 CE)

Jesus believes that a critical mass of followers has been assembled. He is planning to spark a riot in Jerusalem during the Passover when the city is jammed with pilgrims and all of his followers from throughout Judea and Galilee have arrived in town. He stages the triumphal entry as a sign to his followers that the time for the uprising has arrived. He waits until the end of the week to allow for the maximum number of pilgrims to arrive before he gives the signal for the uprising. He lays low and remains in hiding, allowing his operatives to foment rebellion. The high priest, alarmed by chatter picked up by his network of spies, is acutely aware that a revolt is imminent, and he is desperate to locate and arrest Jesus before the riot is triggered. He has been in contact with Pilate and the Roman troops are on high alert with instruction to suppress any sign of revolt with brutal force.

Judas, one of Jesus’ lieutenants, is aware of impending signal for revolt. He also becomes aware of the authorities intent to suppress the revolt with deadly force. He is ultimately persuaded that Jesus’ action will lead to extraordinary bloodshed. In order to prevent what he believes will be a massacre, he decides to disclose to authorities the hiding place of Jesus. He leads a detachment of Roman soldiers to the garden. Jesus and several of his leading disciples are arrested, including Peter and John.

Jesus and his disciples are interrogated overnight. Peter and John deny any association with Jesus and are able to escape punishment. The following morning Jesus is crucified along with two of his confessed disciples, one on each side, as a public notice that the movement is finished, and that revolt against Rome will not be tolerated. 

Notes on the dialogues in the film

This film will not depict a Jesus who speaks in parables. As argued elsewhere in these Essays, the parable tradition is a second-generation reinterpretation of Jesus intended to characterize Jesus as the “misunderstood” messiah. Jesus had not protested Roman rule, or so the gospel writers would have us believe. He had been speaking not of a new political reality, but of a spiritual kingdom of God. The reason he had been widely misunderstood was that he had spoken in obscure parables that only some had “ears to hear.” Thus the parables are a rhetorical smokescreen intended to negate memories of Jesus as one who had advocated for a new political kingdom of Israel. They are part of the gospel writers’ whitewashing of the Jesus story for Roman consumption (see An Early Portrait of Jesus for more detail)

Though the Jesus of the Gospels is often misunderstood, the true historical Jesus had no trouble making himself perfectly clear. He despised the Roman occupation of Israel, and he was outraged that the Jews were being forced to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus harbored an intense disregard for the rich and powerful, including the priestly class and the Sadducees who were aligned with Roman power. He had an abiding compassion for the poor and downtrodden. He believed that widespread repentance on the part of the people, along with their faith in the God of Israel and active non-violent resistance to Rome would lead to a restoration of the sovereign kingdom of Israel. He believed he was the anointed messiah who would usher in the revolution, that he would be king of the Jews in the new order, and he proclaimed himself as such. Jesus envisioned not only a new political order, but under it a new social order in which the wealthy would be brought low and the poor would be lifted up in a radical egalitarianism that he imagined appropriate for a genuine kingdom of God.