At the end of October, the National Geographic Channel flew a group of journalists, myself included, to Morocco to visit the set of Killing Jesus, the then-filming, cinematic adaptation of Martin Duggard and Bill O’Reilly’s book of the same name. I wrote the following article on my third day of the week-long trip. Killing Jesus premieres on the National Geographic Channel Sunday, March 29, at 7PM CST. I still haven’t seen the film, but Peter Chattaway, who was also on the set visit, has, and Peter is the single best source for information about cinematic adaptations of Biblical (and extra-Biblical) material. Check out his website for all sorts of fascinating converage on this and other Biblical films.
On the first day, I boarded an airplane in San Diego, flew to New York City, boarded another airplane, and flew through the night to Casablanca, Morocco.
The second day began on that airplane to Casablanca. We landed, boarded yet another airplane—this time it had propellers—and flew another hour south toward the equator to Ouarzazate, the “Doorway to the Sahara.” We landed, got on a bus, drove to our hotel, spent a few minutes there, and then drove to a fake Jewish temple to watch hundreds of people make a movie about Jesus. We were there for seven hours. While there. we interviewed Kelsey Grammer, Eoin Macken, Klara Issova, John Rhys Davies, and Haaz Slieman, or, as they will be known in National Geographic’s production of Killing Jesus, “Herod the Great,” “Herod Antipas,” “Mary of Magdalene,” “Annas,” and “Jesus of Nazareth,” respectively. Then, we went back to the hotel, cleaned up, walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner, walked home, and, at 10 PM, after I had been awake for thirty-seven straight hours, fell into bed. “Exhausted” is too small a word to describe how I felt, but John Rhys Davies had called me a “dwarf” and complimented my red beard earlier that day, so I was happy.
On the third day, my alarm clock blasphematically called me forth as if it was Jesus and I was Lazarus mouldering in the tomb. I complied, but in all honesty, I was enjoying the paradise of my bed. Shower. Socks. Slacks. Shirt. Coffee. We got back in the bus and drove back across the desert to the movie temple in movie Jerusalem and settled in for a second day of set visiting.
Jesus is turning over tables on Caiaphas’ (Rufus Sewell) front porch. The press core of which I am a part is sitting in plastic chairs on the temple steps out of the camera’s line-of-sight, of course, but very near Mr. Sewell, watching the action from above. Caiaphas is angry. I am bleary-eyed, sipping from my water bottle, brushing aside the flies that have risen from the pens of sheep and goats below, and pinching my nose to keep the dust and the smell from tickling.
The clapboard is clacked. A hush settles over the set. Jesus and his disciples enter the courtyard and begin weaving their way through the tables and animal pens. Suddenly, Jesus comes upon a couple of money changers. As scripted, he upsets them and then turns his attention to the birdcages. The stunt doves are hesitant to fly no matter how Jesus goads them, but he does the best he can.
The sheep and the goats are penned to Jesus’ right, my left. He strides over to them, unloops the catch from the fence keeping them in, and sets them free. Unexpectedly, my chest tightens, and I begin to cry. He’s setting the captives free, the sheep and the goats, and I am among them, captured, caged, destined for death, and He is setting me free.
I’ve read this story hundreds of times, and I’ve seen it portrayed on television and in film dozens of times, and it’s never affected me like this. I’ve never been struck by the metaphor before, by the performance art of Jesus’ table-overturning and livestock-liberating. Jesus sets free the sheep and the goats and directs the high priest’s condemnation toward himself. “What I came to do, is done,” Jesus says just before the director says, “Cut.”
I have no way of knowing whether this film will be any good or not. There are a lot of steps between this set and the broadcast. I don’t know if, when we see it assembled on the National Geographic Channel on March 29, we’ll think it ably represents out faith and the Son of Man at the heart of it. In many ways, I don’t think that really matters, because Jesus and his story doesn’t belong to us. We belong to it, and no proliferation of “Bible movies,” stacked like so many Roman coins on the money changers’ tables, can change the actuality of who Jesus is and what He accomplished. Killing Jesus won’t kill the Christian faith, and it won’t resurrect it either. The Christian faith depends on Jesus. He holds all things together, and He’s not stopping.
However, these “Bible movies” might show us something familiar in a new way. This cast and crew of many faiths—yesterday, we interviewed two Christians, a spiritualist, an agnostic, and a Muslim, and as Morocco is a Muslim country, most, if not all, of the extras are Muslim—might be able to inspire our individual Christian faiths in surprising ways, to help us see the old story anew.
On the third day of this trip, I saw myself in the sheep and the goats. As the extras teemed below and hailed the “King of the Jews,” I said a brief prayer of thanks to the King of my Heart, the liberator of my soul, a man who couldn’t be kept down even when they killed him and put him in the grave, Jesus, the Christ, the Savior of the World.