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Jesus of Nazareth (miniseries)

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Title: Jesus of Nazareth (miniseries)  
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Subject: Franco Zeffirelli, James Farentino, ITC Entertainment, Murray Salem, Regina Bianchi
Collection: 1977 British Television Programme Debuts, 1977 British Television Programme Endings, Biographical Films About Jesus, British Television Miniseries, Depictions of Herod the Great on Film, Depictions of John the Baptist, Film Scores by Maurice Jarre, Films Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, Films Shot in Tunisia, Italian Television Films, Portrayals of Jesus on Television, Portrayals of the Virgin Mary in Film, Screenplays by Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Television Programs Based on the Bible, Television Series by Itc Entertainment
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Jesus of Nazareth (miniseries)

Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus of Nazareth promotional poster
Written by Anthony Burgess
Suso Cecchi d'Amico
Franco Zeffirelli
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Starring Robert Powell
Theme music composer Maurice Jarre
Country of origin Italy
United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
Producer(s) Lew Grade
Vincenzo Labella
Editor(s) Reginald Mills
Cinematography Armando Nannuzzi
David Watkin
Running time Original: 382 minutes
Edited version: 270 minutes
DVD edition: 374 minutes
Production company(s) ITC Entertainment
Original channel Rai 1 (Italy)
Original release 27 March 1977 (1977-03-27) – 24 April 1977 (1977-04-24)

Jesus of Nazareth (Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer (subsequent winner), Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger, and Peter Ustinov.

Extra-biblical traditions were used in the writing of the screenplay and some characters (such as Zerah) and situations were invented for the film for brevity or dramatic purposes. Notably, Jesus of Nazareth depicts Judas Iscariot as a well-intentioned man initially, but later as a dupe of Zerah who betrays Jesus largely as a result of Zerah's false platitudes and pretexts. However, in accordance with the Gospels, the film depicts Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea as sympathetic members of the Sanhedrin. Many of the miracles of Jesus, such as the changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana, the transfiguration, and the calming of the storm are not depicted, although Jesus healing the blind man and the crippled woman on Sabbath, the feeding of the multitude, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead are presented here.

Jesus of Nazareth premiered on the Italian channel Rai 1 on 27 March 1977 and was first aired in the United Kingdom on the ITV on 3 April 1977. It is generally well-praised, but was not received without controversy.


  • Plot summary 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
    • Powell's portrayal of Jesus 3.1
  • Subsequent broadcasts and versions 4
  • Narrative deviations from the Gospels 5
  • Reception 6
    • Awards and nominations 6.1
    • Quasi-sequel 6.2
  • Controversy 7
  • Further reading 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Plot summary

The storyline of Jesus of Nazareth is a kind of cinematic Diatessaron, or "Gospel harmony", blending the narratives of all four New Testament accounts. It takes a fairly naturalistic approach, de-emphasising special effects when miracles are depicted and presenting Jesus as more or less evenly divine and human. The familiar Christian episodes are presented chronologically: the betrothal, and later marriage, of Mary and Joseph; the Annunciation; the Visitation; the circumcision of John the Baptist; the Nativity of Jesus; the visit of the Magi; the circumcision of Jesus; the Census of Quirinius; the flight into Egypt and Slaughter of the Innocents; the Finding in the Temple; the Baptism of Jesus; the woman caught in adultery; Jesus helping Peter catch the fish; the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32); a dialogue between Jesus and Barabbas (non-biblical); Matthew's dinner party; the Sermon on the Mount; debating with Joseph of Arimathea; the curing of the blind man at the pool; the Raising of Lazarus (John 11:43); the Feeding of the Five Thousand; the Entry into Jerusalem; Jesus and the money changers; the Last Supper; the betrayal of Jesus by Judas; Peter denying Christ and repenting of it; the judgment of Jesus by Pilate ("Ecce Homo"); the Johannine Passion Narrative (John 18-19; including the Agony in the Garden); the Carrying of the Cross; the Crucifixion of Christ (Laurence Olivier's Nicodemus recites the "Suffering Servant" passage [Isaiah' 53:3-5] as he looks helplessly on the crucified Messiah); the discovery of the empty tomb; and an appearance of the Risen Christ to his Disciples. The film’s storyline concludes with the non-Biblical character Zerah and his colleagues gazing despairingly into the empty tomb. Zerah's laments: "Now it begins. It all begins".


Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth


"Guest Stars" "and"

"Also Starring"




The miniseries was conceived when Lew Grade was received by Pope Paul VI, who congratulated him on the making of Moses the Lawgiver (1974), a television film starring Burt Lancaster and which was produced by Grade's ITC Entertainment and the Italian television network RAI. At the end of the interview, the Pope told him he hoped his next project would be about the life of Jesus. Two weeks later, while dining with a RAI executive, Grade told him he intended their companies to prepare such a film.[1] The role of director was offered to Franco Zeffirelli - a religious Roman Catholic who knew the Pontiff from his days as the Archbishop of Milan, when he often visited Zeffirelli's school - on the Pope's initiative, who insisted that either he would make Jesus of Nazareth 'or no one else'.[2] The director rejected the proposal at first, but Grade finally convinced him to agree;[3] he accepted the job shortly before Christmas 1973.[4]

Scriptwriter Anthony Burgess later recounted the launching of the project in an essay entitled "Telejesus (or Mediachrist)":

The notion of making a six-hour television film on the life of Jesus Christ was proposed by an enobled British Jew, with the golden blessing of an American automobile corporation. The project struck some as blasphemous, others as ecumenical. Lord Grade, who was then merely Sir Lew Grade, presided over a massive press conference in the Holy City, (Rome), and said all that was available to be said — namely, that there would be this film, that Zeffirelli would direct it, and that Burgess would write it. Fired by this announcement, the Romans laid on a great, as it were, First Supper, which the Chief Rabbi of Rome attended, as well as odd cricket-playing British ecclesiastics. Sir Lew Grade was made a Cavaliere of the Republic. The Pope was noticeably absent.[5]

Both Grade and Zeffirelli insisted their adaptation of Jesus's life should be 'ecumenical', coherent, even to non-believers' and 'acceptable to all denominations'.[6] To ensure the film's accuracy, the producers consulted experts from the Vatican, the Leo Baeck Rabbinical College of London, and the Koranic School at Meknes, Morocco.[7] However, when Zeffirelli asked Rabbi Albert Friedlander to help him create Jesus's Bar Mitzvah scene, the latter replied that such ceremonies were practiced only from the 15th Century. Yet the director insisted on having it, and Friedlander tried to teach child actor Lorenzo Monet to read a short portion of the Pentateuch in Hebrew, though he mumbled it and the director was not satisfied (in the film, boy Jesus reads mostly in English).[8]

Principal photography was carried out in Morocco and Tunisia from September 1975 to May 1976. The synagogue scenes were shot with extras from the Jewish community in the island of Cornelius the Centurion, recalled that since regulations required hiring local extras—most of whom with poor English—for many of the smaller roles, they had to be dubbed. Zeffirelli decided to avoid recording sound altogether in many parts, and simply send the principal actors to dub their own characters in the studio later.[10] The standing sets of the film were later used by the British comedy troupe Monty Python for their religious satire Life of Brian (1979).[11]

There are various reports regarding the size of the miniseries' budget: Presbyterian Survey stated it was $12 million,[12] The Listener cited the figure of £9 million[13] (roughly $16 million),[14] while Third Way stated it cost £11.5 million[15] (roughly $20 million). Other sources give the sum of $18 million.[4][16] In his autobiography, Lew Grade wrote that "in the final accounting, Jesus of Nazareth took $45 million."[17][18]

Powell's portrayal of Jesus

The producers at first considered choosing a well-known star, who would draw a large audience, for the role of Christ. The first actor thought of was Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino was also a candidate. However, the filmmakers feared that their looks would not match the popular perception of Jesus held by the American public. Eventually, the character's North European appearance in the series was influenced by Warner Sallman's famous Head of Christ: Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum wrote the show 'put Sallman's imagination in motion'.[19] Virgin Mary, too, was depicted "without regard to historical or ethnographic accuracy" by the "definitely Caucasian Olivia Hussey."[20]

The idea to cast Robert Powell originated with Lew Grade's wife, Kathie Moody, who told her husband the actor had 'wonderful blue eyes' after watching him perform in a BBC television adaptation of Jude the Obscure. Powell came under severe criticism from religious groups for 'living in sin' with his companion, dancer Barbara Lord of 'Pan's People, while intending to portray Jesus. The couple married shortly before production began.[1]

Powell almost never blinks throughout the entire film; he mimics H.B. Warner in 1927's The King of Kings, and Max von Sydow in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told. The effect was a deliberate decision by Franco Zeffirelli: James Houlden commented that the result was 'a penetrating, unrelenting eye contact with Jesus'.[21] A dark blue eyeliner was applied on set to accentuate Powell's blue eyes.[19] Powell's portrayal has since become an often-used image in popular devotional art, and 'defined the visual image of Christ in the minds of the audience... Perhaps more than any other Jesus film.'[21]

Subsequent broadcasts and versions

NBC rebroadcast the series in 1981 and four more times through 1990. It was originally released as a three-tape VHS edition in the early 1980s under the Magnetic Video label. It was released later under the mainstream video label of CBS/FOX in 1986. Another three-tape VHS edition was released by LIVE Home Video in 1992 and once more on 22 February 1995. Artisan Entertainment released the DVD version on two discs on 6 December 1999. In the UK, the original 1986 Polygram VHS (4 tapes) was fully uncut and featured the full 386 minute version. The 2000 Carlton video (2 tapes) featured a heavily abridged print running 270 minutes. Although the Granada DVD is credited as the unedited print it runs for 374 minutes and misses out 2 scenes - a private meeting between Judas Iscariot and Zerah, and the opening betrayal sequence during the Last Supper.

The mini-series is broadcast every Easter and Christmas in many countries, including Greece on ANT1, and in the United States on History Channel and TBN.

Narrative deviations from the Gospels

Although the film has been received as generally faithful to the Gospel sources, and more comprehensive than previous film versions, Zeffirelli and his screenwriters found it necessary to take some liberties with the scriptures for purposes of brevity and narrative continuity. Some of these deviations have a basis in time-honored, extra-Biblical traditions (e.g., that the infant Jesus was visited by three "kings" [the Bible calls them "magi" or "astrologers", yet does not state how many there were]). Other deviations were invented for the script:

  • Perhaps the greatest liberties taken in the screenplay are interpretations of the motivation of Judas Iscariot in betraying Jesus to the authorities prior to his arrest and execution. In contrast to the Gospels—which vilify Judas as a thief who stole from the Disciples’ money purse (John 12:6) and betrayed his Master simply for money (Luke 22:5)—the film portrays Judas as a much misunderstood political person who, in several scenes, conspires with the Zealots for the sake of Jewish liberation in a way that could be interpreted as honorable, albeit misguided.
  • The film introduces a number of fictional characters. Of these, Ian Holm's Zerah has the most screen time. (Zerah is used primarily to supply Judas Iscariot with a motive for his treachery: he persuades him that an appearance before the Sanhedrin will offer Jesus an opportunity to prove himself.) Other invented characters include Quintillius, Yehuda, and Amos.
  • In the Bible, the only mention of Jesus in childhood is his trip to the temple in Jerusalem as a 12-year-old. In the film, the boy Jesus is also portrayed at his bar mitzvah which is interrupted by a raid of Roman soldiers plundering supplies. The boy Jesus is also portrayed as climbing a ladder and looking out over the landscape of Judea after Joseph makes the analogy of a ladder reaching to heaven.
  • The prostitute and the woman who anoints Jesus's feet with ointment and her hair are combined into one person. The Bible indicates that Mary Magdalene (who is never actually said to be a prostitute) is the woman from whom seven demons were cast out, while the ointment-bearing woman is Mary of Bethany, a sister of Lazarus (John 11:2).
  • In the film, Nicodemus visits Jesus in the late afternoon, not at night as in John 3:3.
  • The Apostle Andrew introduces Simon to Jesus as "My brother, Simon Peter." But "Peter" is the name that Jesus later gave to Simon (John 1:42, Matthew 16:18) after he was well acquainted with him, not his original given name. Later in the mini-series, Jesus does give Simon the surname of "Peter".
  • The Apostle Thomas, prior to his calling, is depicted as a servant of Jairus, the synagogue leader whose 12-year-old daughter Jesus raises from the dead. Nowhere in the three gospel accounts of this resurrection is Thomas described as Jairus's servant. This was done in the movie to conveniently introduce Thomas as the doubter when Jesus said Jairus' dead daughter is "only sleeping."
  • Barabbas is portrayed in the film as a Zealot (political extremist and agitator). The meeting and dialogue between Jesus and Barabbas are made up.
  • The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is used as a plot device which simultaneously redeems the disciple Matthew and reconciles him to his bitter enemy, Simon Peter. Although not in the Bible, this has been praised as one of the film’s particularly felicitous innovations. (The Gospels do not record either a conflict or a particular friendship between Matthew and Simon Peter.)
  • In the film, Pontius Pilate, having convicted Jesus of treason, sentences Him to be crucified. The Gospels record that Pilate acquitted Jesus, but sentenced Him under pressure from the crowd.
  • The Gospels and the film both relate an account of a Roman centurion who petitions Jesus to heal his sick servant. The film, but not the Gospel, presents the same officer (portrayed by Ernest Borgnine) as one of the soldiers standing at the foot of the Cross, where he sympathetically allows Mary to approach her son.
  • In the Bible Judas is paid 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus. Full of remorse, he later gives the silver back to the priests (Matthew 27:3-5). In the film, Judas is given silver coins as an afterthought by Zerah; he does not return them and they are shown lying on the ground under the tree from which he hangs himself.
  • The film depicts a scene which shows Joseph dying. The Gospels never mention anything about Joseph after the story of Jesus, as a boy, in the Temple.
  • The scene of the blind man who was healed in the movie, where Jesus spat on dirt and rubbed mud in the blind beggar's eyes, was set in the temple; but in the bible (John 9: the entire chapter) this healing took place as Jesus had left the temple, and was "walking along."


Jesus of Nazareth premiered on the Italian channel RAI 1 on 27 March 1977. It was broadcast in five episodes, one shown every week until 25 April.[22] On Palm Sunday, 3 April 1977—the date of the airing of the second episode—the Pope endorsed the program in his public address for the holiday and recommended the faithful to view it.[4] The series enjoyed high ratings: the German Dominican friar and film critic Ambros Eichenberger reported that according to local surveys, 84% of the television owners in the larger cities watched the series.[23] For example, the number of viewers for the third episode, aired on 10 April, was estimated to have been 28.3 million.[24]

In the United Kingdom and in the United States, it was broadcast in two parts, albeit in different lengths, by the network ITV in the UK and NBC in the US. In both countries, the first was aired on 3 April and the second on Easter, 10 April 1977.[25][26][27] During its original showing in Britain, Jesus of Nazareth had an estimated viewership of 21 million spectators.[28]

When the first episode was broadcast in the United States, it was a major success. The New York Times reported it "swamped all competing programs on Sunday night", with overnight Nielsen ratings of 46% of the total audience in New York and 53% in Los Angeles.[29] The miniseries as a whole received a Nielsen rating of 30.8 points,[30] with each point representing approximately 712,000 television-owning homes,[31] and an audience share of 50% nationwide,[27] on both nights.[32] The company calculated that Jesus attracted about 90 million viewers.[16][27][28][33]

In West Germany, it was broadcast by ZDF in four episodes on the 19th, 21st, 23rd and 24 March 1978;[34] 40% of the audience have viewed it.[23]

Jesus of Nazareth turned into a massive commercial success, and to one of the most widely marketed and best known productions about Christ's life.[4][16][21] Lew Grade stated that it made "a net profit of $30 million."[17]

Awards and nominations

Jesus of Nazareth received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Special Drama or Comedy. Additionally, James Farentino, who portrayed St. Peter, received a nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Special.[35]

The miniseries was nominated for six British Academy Television Awards: Best Actor, Best Cameraman, Best Single Television Play, Best Editor, Best Costume Design and Best Sound. It won none.[36]

However, Jesus of Nazareth won awards for Best Cinematography to Armando Nannuzzi), Best Costume Design to Lucia Mirisola and Best Production Design, to Mirisola again, from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists.[37]

Powell collected the TV Times "Best Actor" award for the same performance.


The success of this miniseries led, in 1985, to a kind of sequel, A.D., which wove a fictional story set in 1st century Rome into Biblical and extrabiblical material based on the Acts of the Apostles. Although many of the same crew members worked on both series, the only key cast member to return was Ian McShane, playing a different role.


Before its initial broadcast, Jesus of Nazareth came under ideological fire from some American Protestant fundamentalists, led by Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Zeffirelli had told an interviewer from Modern Screen that the film would portray Jesus as "an ordinary man—gentle, fragile, simple". Jones interpreted this as meaning that the portrayal would deny Christ's divine nature. Having never seen the film, Jones denounced it as "blasphemy." Others picked up the cry and 18,000 letters were sent to General Motors, which had provided $3 million of the film's cost. Sacrificing its investment, GM backed out of its sponsorship.[7] Procter and Gamble eventually took it over, buying the U.S. rights for a relatively low price of some $1 million, and their financial support allowed the miniseries to be screened.[38]

In making his film, Zeffirelli explicitly wished to deemphasise the traditional accusation of deicide against the Jews. Some 26 years later, Zeffirelli criticised The Passion of the Christ (2004), which was produced and directed by Mel Gibson, for its portrayal of who "...was to blame for all the bloodshed".[39] Zeffirelli had previously directed Gibson in Hamlet (1990).

Further reading

  • Barclay, William. Jesus of Nazareth (1977, Collins). ISBN 978-0002506533.
  • Burgess, Antony. Man of Nazareth (1979, McGraw-Hill). ISBN 978-0553133189.
  • Zeffirelli, Franco. Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus: A Spiritual Diary (1984, Harper & Row). ISBN 978-0060697808.


  1. ^ a b Falk, Ben; Falk, Quentin (2005). Television's Strangest Moments: Extraordinary But True Tales from the History of Television. Franz Steiner.   pp. 131-132.
  2. ^ """Zeffirelli Recalls Paul VI's Help With "Jesus of Nazareth.  
  3. ^ Zeffirelli, Franco (1984). Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus : A Spiritual Diary. Harper and Row.   p. 4.
  4. ^ a b c d e Reinhartz, Adele (2012). Bible and Cinema: Fifty Key Films. Routledge.   p. 151.
  5. ^ Burgess, Anthony (1986), But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen: Homage to Qwert Yuiop and Other Writings, McGraw-Hill Book Company, pg 35.
  6. ^ Llewellyn, Dawn; Sawyer, Deborah F. (2008). Reading Spiritualities: Constructing and Representing the Sacred. Ashgate.   p. 214.
  7. ^ a b Ostling, Richard N. (4 April 1977). "Franco Zeffirelli's Classical Christ for Prime Time".  
  8. ^ Bsteh, Petrus (2012). Wegbereiter des interreligiösen Dialogs. Lit.   pp. 178-179.
  9. ^ Jacobs, Daniel; Morris, Peter (2001). The Rough Guide to Tunisia. Rough Guides.   p. xiii.
  10. ^ Borgnine, Ernest (2009). Ernie. Citadel Press.   pp. 195-196.
  11. ^ Denby, David (24 September 1979). "Oh, Bug Off!".  
  12. ^ Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (1977). Presbyterian Survey 67: 28.  
  13. ^ British Broadcasting Corporation (1977).  
  14. ^ The exchange rate of the Pound/U.S. Dollar in 1976 was £0.55651 to $1."Pacific Exchange: Foreign Currency Units per 1 U.S. Dollar, 1948-2011" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-09-11. 
  15. ^ Unspecified writer (27 January 1977). "Mastermind on the BC Trail".  
  16. ^ a b c Cyrino, Monica Silveira (2009). Rome Season One: History Makes Television. John Wiley & Sons.   p. 18.
  17. ^ a b Grade, Lew (1987). Still Dancing: My Story. Collins.   p. 219.
  18. ^ This figure might be adjusted to inflation by 1987, and also include costs that were not directly invested in production but in marketing, etc.
  19. ^ a b Blum, Edward J.; Harvey, Paul (2012). The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. University of North Carolina Press.   pp. 256-257.
  20. ^ O'Brien, Catherine (2011). The Celluloid Madonna: From Scripture to Screen. Columbia University Press.   p. 4.
  21. ^ a b c Houlden, James L. (2003). Jesus in History, Thought, and Culture/ 2, Entries K - Z. ABC-CLIO.   pp. 289-290.
  22. ^ Casadio, Gianfranco (2007). I Mitici Eroi : Il Cinema Peplum nel Cinema Italiano dall'avvento del Sonoro a Oggi (1930-1993). Longo.   p. 198.
  23. ^ a b Langkau, Thomas (2007). Filmstar Jesus Christus: die neuesten Jesus-Filme als Herausforderung für Theologie und Religionspädagogik. Lit.   p. 20.
  24. ^ Grasso, Aldo (1992). Storia della Televisione Italiana. Garzanti.   p. 339.
  25. ^ "Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth... In its international début held unprecedented UK audiences for a total of six hours on Palm Sunday and Easter Day". Quoted from:  
  26. ^ "This six-hour film on ITV shown in two three-hour parts on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday". Quoted from: Martin, Linnette (21 April 1977). "Lion or Lamb?".  
  27. ^ a b c King, Susan (27 March 1994). "Family Channel's Pilgrimage: Cable Network Airs the '77 Miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth" for Easter Week".  
  28. ^ a b Angelini, Sergio. "Jesus of Nazareth (1977)". BFI  
  29. ^ Unspecified writer (5 April 1977). "TV 'Jesus of Nazareth' Draws Major Audience".  
  30. ^ Bianco, Robert (11 November 2004). "Catastrophic 'Category 6' is a ratings 1.5".  
  31. ^ Gorman, Bill (28 August 2007). "US Television Households by Season". TV by the Numbers. Retrieved 21 February 2013. 
  32. ^ Brown, Les (1977). The New York Times Encyclopedia of Television. Times Books.   p. 217.
  33. ^ Bennet, Albert (1978). Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia: 1978 Yearbook. Funk & Wagnalls.   p. 327.
  34. ^ "Jesus von Nazareth (1976)". Lexikon des Internationalen Films. Retrieved 22 February 2013. 
  35. ^ "Jesus of Nazareth". Retrieved 22 February 2013. 
  36. ^ "Jesus of Nazareth". Retrieved 22 February 2013. 
  37. ^ Bentley Hammer, Tad (1991). International Film Prizes: An Encyclopedia. Garland.   p. 705.
  38. ^ Media Decisions 13 (1): 67. 1978.  
  39. ^ Bates, Stephen (27 February 2004). "Gibson Film Ignores Vow to Remove Blood Libel".  

External links

  • Jesus of Nazareth at the Internet Movie Database
  • Jesus of Nazareth at AllMovie
  • Jesus of Nazareth at the TCM Movie Database
  • webpages dedicated to the movie called "Jesus of Nazareth" by Franco Zeffirelli
  • Jesus of Nazareth at the Arts & Faith Top100 Spiritually Significant Films list
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