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The Young Messiah: A Messy Mix of Fiction

April 15, 2016 No Comment

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by Ted Giese

The Young Messiah, an adaptation of Anne Rice’s 2005 novel Christ The Lord: Out Of Egypt, tells the story of a seven-year-old Jesus returning to the Holy Land following a time of exile in Egypt. Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and their extended family return following Joseph’s dream that Herod the Great is dead.

Since Scripture is mostly silent on how this unfolds, The Young Messiah enters into the same sort of territory as the 2014 film Noah in which the biblical character Noah must, for the sake of the film, be given dialogue even though Scripture records no words from him until after the flood. Likewise, Jesus and His family are given dialogue here despite Scripture’s silence. For both Christian and non-Christian viewers this is a very important detail to remember. Unless the film quotes some part of Scripture, everything spoken by the characters on the screen is fictional. Indeed, many characters will also be fictional or at least fictionalized.

To create a story based on minimal Scriptural details is undoubtedly daunting. What extra-Biblical avenue can a writer take to “flesh” out the story of Jesus’ incarnation at such a young age? Will it be pop-psychology or liberal Biblical scholarship with its higher-critical-methodology? Will it be solid historical research into first century life with an emphasis on Biblical archaeology? What will a seven-year-old Jesus sound like? How will Jesus act? Will Jesus just be a smaller version of the Jesus known from the later period of His public ministry following His Baptism as detailed in the Gospels? Will the film be faithful to the Anne Rice novel Christ The Lord: Out Of Egypt? Of more importance: will The Young Messiah be faithful to Holy Scripture? And even if it employs a certain amount of artistic licence to tell its story, will the story it tells be true? These are good questions to ask when viewing films like this.

Will The Young Messiah be faithful to Holy Scripture? And even if it employs a certain amount of artistic licence to tell its story, will the story it tells be true?

Emptied of His Omniscience?

In Rice’s book, Mary and Joseph have kept from Jesus events like the Annunciation, the Nativity, the visits of the Magi from the east, Herod the Great’s treachery, and the circumstances of the family’s exodus to Egypt. The drama hinges on Jesus putting together the details of this mystery. Readers then go along hearing Jesus’ internal thoughts, seeing everything through those young eyes, wondering whether He will figure it all out or will someone need to fill in the details. Will the mystery be revealed? This premise is built on two things: first and foremost, a specific interpretation of Philippians 2:7. There Paul explains that Jesus emptied Himself, “and made Himself nothing, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” As portrayed by Rice, this “emptying” that Jesus undergoes includes His own knowledge of being the Son of God.

There is also here the speculation that Jesus’ parents were silent on the matter of His divinity, not knowing how to approach the topic. Abandoning a purely first-person narrative style, Nowrasteh maintains the “mystery” element of Rice’s book while adding a competing plot where-in the son of Herod the Great, now ruling in Jerusalem, sends a Roman Centurion to track down and kill the rumoured seven-year-old child Jesus.

So where the recent film Risen focused on a fictional Roman Tribune Clavius’ search for the “missing” body of Jesus following the crucifixion, in The Young Messiah viewers have another fictional Roman soldier, Severus, tracking down Jesus. As far as Scripture is concerned, the Romans were not preoccupied with tracking down Jesus every moment of His life. There is no indication such events ever took place. This is fiction.

After settling back in Nazareth, Jesus and His family travel to Jerusalem for Passover amidst political upheaval and regime change. Evading entanglements with Rome and with anyone who might have memory of the events surrounding their flight to Egypt, they press on all-the-while running interference concerning Jesus’ questions about the past. And while the story sounds compelling, there are some significant concerns that must be addressed.

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Both The Young Messiah and Rice’s book rely on incidents described in the 2nd century text The Infancy Gospel of Thomas—an apocryphal book not really written by Thomas but instead by Gnostic heretics. Rice and Nowrasteh adapt parts of this text, telling the story of a boy who dies during an incident with Jesus and whose death Jesus is accused of causing. In the film, this event ends with the seven-year-old Jesus raising the boy back to life—paralleling another story in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas where Jesus brings twelve clay birds to life. These stories are not part of Scripture and actually contradict Scripture: the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:11).

Remembering this, The Young Messiah’s accounts of the child Jesus raising people and animals from the dead, healing illnesses, or giving the blind their sight become speculative at best and at worst a contradiction of Scripture. There even seems a desire to infuse the seven-year-old Jesus’ life with incidents that occur in His later public ministry. Did Jesus heal the blind? Yes. Did He heal the blind when He was seven? Scripture says nothing to that effect. This comes up over and over again. As a result, the film turns Jesus into a boy trying to master the unlimited powers of Divine omnipotence while repeatedly running up against a brick wall when it comes to the unlimited knowledge of Divine omniscience. This is where the general premise of both the book and film—that Jesus doesn’t know who He is—presents a problem. As Francis Pieper explains, Jesus’ “oneness with the Father and the Holy Ghost was not interrupted by His incarnation.” His omniscience need not have been hindered in a negative or troubling way following the incarnation, the way this film depicts.

The film turns Jesus into a boy trying to master the unlimited powers of Divine omnipotence while repeatedly running up against a brick wall when it comes to the unlimited knowledge of Divine omniscience.

In the Gospel of Luke, at the age of twelve, Jesus knows who He is. Explaining to His parents why He was in the Temple, he says: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” By asking the question, “What did Jesus know and when did He know it?” the film, at best, seems to extrapolate what Luke records: that as Jesus grew, He “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52). At its worst, the film represents the young boy Jesus in a counter-scriptural manner. Since this fictional plot has Jesus searching for answers to burning questions, the very premise of The Young Messiah sets it up on a collision course with the Scriptures themselves.

In the film’s third act, Jesus and the rest of the family are shown travelling to Jerusalem for the Passover. Becoming aware of the Roman threat and fearing for the safety of the family, Joseph decides to turn back to Nazareth. The next morning Jesus is missing and the older James—Joseph’s son from his deceased first wife—informs the family that Jesus had overheard their plan to turn back. Because of their silence, He had set out to go to the Temple alone to find answers. This shows Jesus as impatient, not waiting for the film’s version of Mary and Joseph to explain what had happened in due time.

It also depicts Jesus as disobedient. What seven-year-old child, especially in ancient Israel, would set out alone to walk to Jerusalem without their parents’ permission, especially knowing that the family was turning around to go home? Having a young Jesus breaking the Fourth Commandment (“Honour your father and your mother”) is a giant problem as Scripture confesses Jesus to be “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

By the end of the film, Jesus has the answers to His questions and the mystery is solved… sort of. Jesus isn’t an “angel-boy” like the devil says; Jesus is the Son of God. Viewers may still be asking why God the Father sent this only begotten Son in the flesh in the first place. At the end of the film, this fictional Jesus interprets the story of his miraculous birth. In his telling, Jesus came into the world in order to experience life in the same way that everyone one else experiences it: good things and bad, joyful things and pain. To its credit the book does one better. Rice includes Jesus’ realization/revelation that everything is born into the world to die, and for the young Jesus it would be no different. This at least motions towards a picture of the true purpose of the incarnation and the atonement. Nowrasteh, however, sidesteps this in The Young Messiah, avoiding any knowledge on the part of Jesus that death in general, and ultimately death by crucifixion, is coming—indeed, that that such a death is necessary for the salvation of fallen humanity.

The Young Messiah avoids any knowledge on the part of Jesus that death in general, and ultimately death by crucifixion, is coming—indeed, that that such a death is necessary for the salvation of fallen humanity.

Is the film well made? It has slightly higher production values than Kevin Reynolds’ Risen. Generally, the acting is a bit better too, especially Lazzaro as the Virgin Mary. However, as seems to be the case in these films, actors from the UK crop up everywhere, including the young Jesus who is Caucasian with a British accent. Also, in a rather heavy-handed way, the character of the devil is greatly expanded in this film. The devil in The Young Messiah is one of its least successful elements.

Television mini-series like A.D. The Bible Continues and recent films like Son of God, Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and this year’s Risen are often hard to recommend. While they have their moments of faithfulness, they are often riddled with poor theological musings, biblical contradictions, omissions, and confusion.

People are free to watch films like The Young Messiah but should do so with some caution. Jesus may be a child in this film, but it’s not a movie for children. And honestly, there really isn’t anything adults will learn from it either: whatever is good about it is scuttled by having a boy Jesus who, at the most critical moments, is depicted as disobedient. Viewers looking for a true picture of the young Messiah Jesus will best be served by searching Him out in Holy Scripture (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2) and avoiding this messy fictionalized concoction.

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Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church (Regina, Saskatchewan). He is a contributor to Reformation Rush Hour on KFUO AM Radio, The Canadian Lutheran, and the LCMS Reporter, as well as movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program.  Follow him on Twitter @RevTedGiese.