Movie Review

The Young Messiah

By Jeff Laird

How do you tell your son He's God incarnate?

That's the dilemma facing Mary and Joseph in The Young Messiah. In this fictional account, family members argue over how — and if — to explain the seven-year-old's origins. Meanwhile, Jesus questions His supernatural powers. News of His miracles inspire threats, including a Roman Centurion charged with finding and killing Jesus on orders of the family of Herod.

As the recent film Risen showed, it is possible to fill in biblical gaps without refuting established truth. Scripture says not every single detail of Christ's life is recorded (John 21:25). And the Bible says that Jesus experienced some form of growth and learning when he was a child (Luke 2:52). In light of those two verses, there's a clear difference between "things the Bible doesn't say," and "things which contradict the Bible."

Christian skepticism about the content of The Young Messiah has still been high. Story points echo various Gnostic, non-Biblical sources. The screenplay is based on a novel by author Anne Rice, whose bibliography is mostly vampires and erotica. Rice is best known for her Vampire Chronicles novels. This series was also given film treatment, most famously Interview with the Vampire in 1994. Excluding a brief stint in Catholicism after a near-death experience, Rice has lived most of her life as an avowed atheist, with never more than a tenuous connection to Christianity.

As it turns out, there's little in The Young Messiah to object to on scriptural grounds. That doesn't mean it's fault-free, and some of those errors are glaring. Yet, in contrast to cinematic slaps in the face like Noah or The Last Temptation of Christ, the film at least comes across as well-meant and respectful. Whatever specific differences may exist between the film and Rice's book, Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt, are beyond the scope of this review.

There are plenty of positives to be taken from the film. The acting is above average, particularly in the portrayals of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. It's refreshing to see Jesus portrayed with full humanity, including simple childhood delights like running down a hill or playing with friends. Jesus' profound wisdom, shown in discussions with Rabbis, was likewise well-played. Rather than coming across as detached or intimidating, Jesus' personality is "human," in an endearing way.

Some tidbits of The Young Messiah aren't so much "wrong" as "strange." At one point, Joseph says the Romans should fear Mary — which is odd, since she doesn't really do anything in the film other than cry and chase Jesus. Satan is portrayed as a creepy bleached-blonde visible only to Christ. Severus, a cookie-cutter "Good Roman," is for some reason taking direct orders from the slimy — and Jewish — young Herod. At one point, Roman soldiers are seen wandering around inside the Jewish temple, which Acts 21 suggests would not have gone over well.

Where The Young Messiah goes wrong, it does so subtly and without fanfare. Unfortunately, it does so on some important points. A major aspect of the plot is that young Jesus performed miracles. According to the Bible, this is false. Making a long explanation short, the original Greek of John 2:11 says Tautēn epoiēsen archēn tōn sēmeiōn ho Iēsous en Kana tēs Galilaias...This literally means "This beginning of His signs (miracles), Jesus did in Cana of Galilee..." In other words, the Bible is specific that Jesus' first supernatural act was turning water into wine (John 2:112). The idea that He'd performed miracles as a child is contrary to the Scriptures.

Beyond that, there's a theological problem with how these miracles are portrayed. In the Bible, every "true" miracle comes with a very specific context. This is why John refers to them as "signs" (sēmeiōn); they are meant to send a message. In the film, Jesus has no idea who He is, what He is, or what He's meant to do. His childish miracles are just that: childish, impulsive, and random. The idea of being an unwitting conduit for power sells in superhero origin stories. It's theological nonsense when applied to Christ.

Hand-in-hand with that perspective is the problem of publicity. In The Young Messiah, just about everyone who knows Jesus brands Him as the Messiah. His miracles are seen as overt proof of His prophetic status. Even His enemies, such as Herod, make these points. Yet this reflects a post-Christian understanding which the Gospels clearly show was uncommon at the time. According to the Bible, Jesus' own relatives and hometown neighbors had a hard time believing He was the Promised One, at first (John 6:42; John 7:5).

Surprisingly, scriptural hang-ups over miracles aren't the film's biggest mistake. According to biblical Christianity, Jesus was sinless, throughout His entire life (Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 5:21). I have a son about the same age as Jesus in this story. There were at least three moments in the film where, had my child acted exactly as Jesus does towards Mary and Joseph, I would have considered it direct disobedience.

In the first, a passenger on a boat questions Him about His age. After Mary replies that Jesus is "too young to talk to strangers," Jesus leans over and holds up seven fingers, continuing to engage the man. In the second, Jesus is told by His parents not to ask His uncle, Cleopas, any more questions. Jesus promptly looks at His uncle and continues to press the issue. In the third, Jesus sneaks away from His parents, in the middle of the night, after finding out they've decided not to go to Jerusalem for Passover.

Parenting aside, Jesus' origins don't actually let Him "pull rank" in these scenarios. That'd be a superficial and non-biblical excuse (Luke 2:51). Doing something His parents did not understand, such as staying in the temple (Luke 2:4150) is not nearly the same thing as doing exactly what your mother just told you not to do. I was expecting to be a little put off by Jesus' miracles in The Young Messiah. Instead, of all things, I was most bothered by His mischief!

Granted, the tone of these incidents isn't as blasphemous at it might seem, reading them in print. Error is error, however. Both the suggestion of pre-gospel miracles and the thought of Jesus gently defying His parents are incompatible with the Scriptures.

And that's too bad — which was not the reaction I expected, heading into the film. The characterizations of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were legitimately inspiring. In terms of putting a human face on those Biblical characters, The Young Messiah hits the nail right on the head. As a story, it's reasonably interesting, though it's not likely to hold a non-believer's interest for very long.

I completely agree with the assessment of one of the film's Rabbis, who declares this cinematic Jesus "is a good child. I like this child." No matter how well-intended, though, the picture is a scriptural and theological near-miss.

The boy portrayed in The Young Messiah is really good, and yet merely good — not truly, biblically God.

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Current-Issues  | Jesus-Christ  | Reviews-Critiques

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Published 3-14-16