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We all owe Pope Paul VI a great deal of gratitude for the part he played in what I believe to be the greatest depiction of Jesus Christ on either the big or small screen. When British media proprietor Lew Grade met with the Pontiff to celebrate his success on a 1974 television miniseries Moses the Lawgiver, it was the Pope’s idea for Grade to make his next miniseries about the life of Jesus.  


In 1977, with Grade’s production company behind him, director Franco Zefferelli tried his hand at creating something even more timeless than the Shakespearean movies he had already become widely known for. Zefferelli and crew put together an unbelievably star-studded cast for this new miniseries about the life of Jesus: Ernest Borgnine, Laurence Olivier, James Earl Jones, Anne Bancroft, and Ian McShane just to name a few. Nevertheless, despite God’s commandment “thou shalt not steal,” Robert Powell “stole the show,” so to speak, as the lead role of Jesus of Nazareth.


This miniseries has three main parts – the first part is the Immaculate Conception and nativity of Jesus, the second part is Jesus’s ministry, and the third part, is Jesus’s death and resurrection. There is an interesting moment right as the second part begins. Up to this point, we have yet to see Robert Powell as Jesus and we are already nearly an hour and a half into the six hour miniseries. Nonetheless, at the start of the second part, we are brought to the Jordan River where John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing. One cannot help but be struck by the image of this figure -- His powerful rhetoric, his long brown hair, his beard, his piercing blue eyes. Why wouldn’t they cast just this actor as Jesus, one cannot help but wonder. He seems perfect. Why isn’t he the Christ?

Just then John the Baptist locks his eyes on a figure approaching him. It is at this moment when we see Robert Powell as Jesus. We know instantly why the actor playing John the Baptist didn’t get the lead role. Powell is unmistakable as Jesus. I do not mean to be sacrilegious in anyway when I say this, I only mean to compliment and affirm goodness; Robert Powell’s face, eyes, demeanor, etc. so perfectly represent Jesus and how we have come to accept him in our collective imagination that I believe that when some read the Bible today, I am sure they are unconsciously picturing Robert Powell. 

Interesting to note here, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were the original choices to play Jesus, however they did not fit the standard image of Jesus to which the public has grown accustomed. The 1941 Head of Christ painting by Warner Sallman was the quintessential image of Jesus, and it is the depiction that Zefferelli and crew used to choose Powell over actors with much more fame and notoriety.   


Let me further temper my last few statements where I compare Powell to Jesus by stating definitively that Jesus is the Son of God, and Robert Powell is just an actor playing a character – Nonetheless, the point I am trying to make is that God was definitely working through Powell as he portrayed this monumental role. The role of Jesus deserves a larger-than-life treatment, and in Jesus of Nazareth we get that -- not only from Powell, but also from every single other person who worked on this production. And you can tell just by watching it, there must have been thousands of people involved in the making of this miniseries. 

The narrative of Jesus of Nazareth presents a nice harmony of the most famous stories from each of the four Gospels, as well as a few creations and alterations that were made for television purposes. Jesus of Nazareth also contains some extra-Biblical stories, but they in no way take away from the overall storyline of the Gospels. If anything, they enhance and expand upon them. 

What I find particularly poignant and interesting is that the Bible tells us that many people mistakenly thought that John the Baptist was actually the Messiah. That is, until he clarified his role as the messenger saying, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:25). Likewise, as I watched Jesus of Nazareth for the first time, which was over twenty years ago now, I still remember momentarily thinking that the actor, who played John the Baptist, should have been the one who was cast as Jesus. That is, of course until I saw Robert Powell enter the scene, rendering my previous thought moot. For you see, that is what Jesus of Nazareth does, it not only shows you the Gospels, it makes you experience and feel the Gospels as well. 




This miniseries is a masterpiece. It is the pre-eminent depiction of Jesus on any screen in the world, and furthermore, it is the production against which all other depictions are measured. It is truly a work of God, and it deserves a perfect score.

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