Hitting theaters this weekend, right in the heart of Lent, is a new movie ostensibly about the childhood of Jesus Christ, “The Young Messiah.” With any movie about our Lord and Savior, it comes with its share of controversy; therefore, if you are considering seeing this film, here is some food for thought, especially for parents and families.
The Fun: “The Young Messiah” is not theology. It is not Gospel. It is only loosely historical. However, it is fun! It is a family adventure of biblical proportions, it’s a coming of age film about the King of the Ages, and it’s a road movie with donkeys and boats instead of a Winnebago or the family station wagon. Seen in the light of entertainment, the film is sweet, heartfelt and thoroughly enjoyable.
Warning! There are some scenes that may be too intense for little kids. The devil appears, played by Rory Keenan.
Though he is never named as Satan and looks more like an ‘80s rock star with long blond hair rather than the horned Lord of the Flies, he is spooky and menacing. So is King Herod Archelaus who keeps seeing snakes everywhere.
Also, there are depictions of people being crucified. The last is shown in a mostly bloodless, sanitized way; however, seeing any living person hung from a cross may be too intense for any child below a certain age. Actually, Mary averts the gaze of Jesus in the movie, and he is supposed to be seven years old at the time. Perhaps this is a good guide for parents, so you can be warned depending on the sensitivity of your children.
Aside from these aspects, the film has definitely been created for families and was produced by the same company, 1492, with Christopher Columbus, that brought us the first “Harry Potter” movies and another children’s book series, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”
From the standpoint of family entertainment, “The Young Messiah” is certainly worth watching, and as you will constantly hear me preach, go see the film its opening weekend, or very soon after, because a movie’s opening box office means everything to Hollywood. This is the way to ensure that more faith and family films will come out in the future.
The Facts: While this film provides engaging family entertainment, Do NOT look to it for the facts. Do not assume that this is a biblically or historically accurate portrayal of Christ’s childhood. The movie tells the story of a year in the life of a seven-year-old Jesus, but it is a fiction.
Of course, this is largely not the film’s fault. The simple truth is we know very little, for sure, about the life of Christ between his birth and Presentation at the Temple and the beginning of his public ministry, usually understood to take place after Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan by his cousin, John the Baptist, when Christ was about 30 years old.
The one exclusive exception is when Jesus visits Jerusalem with his parents when he is 12, and stays behind after they leave, forcing them to search for him for three days before finding him in the temple.
What we do know about Christ’s birth and childhood can be found almost exclusively in the Gospel of Matthew — Chapter 1, Verse 18, to Chapter 2, Verse 23; and in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, Verse 5, to Chapter 2, Verse 52 — that is the sum total. It is upon these less than 200 verses that our knowledge about Christ’s childhood rests.
Getting back to the Facts, what the movie is based upon is a book titled “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt” by Anne Rice, an author probably best known for her “Interview with the Vampire” series. Rice wrote the book in 2005 shortly after a re-version back to Catholicism that took place in the early 2000s (and which, unfortunately, ended in 2010). Rice based her fiction novel on historical texts about Egypt and the Holy Land during the First Century A.D., and books from the Apocrypha, specifically the Gnostic Gospels.
If you have never heard of these books, that is in part intentional, because they often claim to be by same famous disciple and claim to reveal some part of Christ’s life, but are in fact of dubious authorship, dubious authenticity, dubious historical accuracy and are simply dubious in general. Some of the most famous of these books are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
One of the reasons we don’t give them much weight is that the earliest versions of these texts date to the Second Century, and since Christ died between 28 and 40 A.D., and his disciples died in the First Century, these books are written by authors who certainly never met Christ and almost as certainly never met the people they are claimed to be written by – whoops!
However, sometimes there are interesting tidbits to be taken even from ancient works of fiction. They include interesting stories such as a young Jesus bringing a dead bird back to life, which is shown in the film, and more disturbing stories, such as Jesus killing another boy by accidentally using his “God powers” and then bringing him back to life. This is also depicted in the film but in a sanitized way.
In fact, we don’t even know Christ’s age when his family returns from Egypt. The film says seven years old, but he could have been far younger since the Bible says they returned after Herod’s death during the reign of Archelaus in Judea, and Archelaus was king from 4BC to 6 A.D., so the oldest that Christ would have been is seven. The key thing is to not take the movie as historical truth, and don’t get bogged down by the dates and exact facts. In that light, the film is loosely historically accurate but mostly just fun.
Two additional fun facts to note:
1) To show the universal power of Christ’s story, one of the primary producers of the film is Michael Barnathan, who is himself actually Jewish. He points out that is the story of a Jewish family, which is correct. Though, it is the story of the very first Christian family, as well.
2) If you are wondering why everyone speaks with a British accent when they are supposed to be Middle Eastern, that is a fair question. The fact is that the producers looked at over 5,000 boys to play the role of Jesus. The child they chose, Adam Greaves-Neal — whom I think gives a solid performance for someone so young, and who is supposed to be the son of God — is from England. The producers then cast around him, keeping everyone with similar accents to maintain consistency and avoid a mish-mash of voices.
Finally, Faith: To be clear, “The Young Messiah” is not a theological treatise on Jesus, and should NOT be taken as Gospel truth. If you want to see Gospel truth, please take a look at the links above – to the actual Gospels.
That said, the film can raise a number of questions, one of the most obvious being, what did Jesus know about himself and when? To answer this most simply, Catholic doctrine is that Jesus the Christ is fully human and fully divine, fully man and fully God. Therefore, he knew he was the Son of the God and the Messiah. That being said, exactly how much he knew and when he knew it is not quite so clear.
We do know, again by the Gospels, that when Joseph and Mary found Jesus in the Temple at the age of 12, they asked Him what He was doing, and didn’t He know they would be looking for Him? He responds, “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Notice, he‘s not in a carpenter’s shop working on some furniture (which would make sense if He thought He was Joseph’s child). Instead, He is in the one and only Temple of the Lord God, debating with the Jewish teachers. Clearly, He knows quite a bit of who He is by that age.
Also, it says one verse later, that His parents “did not understand what He said to them,” showing that He had this knowledge by some means beyond His parents.
To further clarify, some people claim that Christ did not know He was God, or the son of God, or the Messiah, until the Resurrection and possibly not even then. That is NOT backed up by the Bible and that is certainly NOT Catholic teaching. However, could Christ’s knowledge of himself been fuzzy before He was 12 and in the temple? It is possible, and certainly there is enough wiggle room where one can watch “The Young Messiah” and not worry about it being heresy.
Therefore, if you have the time, take your family and enjoy the film. If you have questions, take this as an opportunity to open a Bible – with a Catholic good commentary – and share the Good News of Our Lord and Savior with each other.
*NOTE: the US Council of Catholic Bishops provides not only the entire Bible online, but it is accompanied a pretty good commentary.
Please feel free to ask us any follow up questions as well. Happy watching and have a blessed Lent!