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Biola University Theologians Discuss The Young Messiah in Round Table
Biola University Theologians Discuss The Young Messiah in Round Table

Biola University Theologians Discuss The Young Messiah in Round Table

By James Vargo 

The recently released The Young Messiah, a film depicting a year in the life of Jesus as a seven year old boy, was shown to some of the faculty from Biola University's Talbot School of Theology, followed by a Q&A session with the film's director Cyrus Nowrasteh. The film will release to home entertainment on June 4th. 

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The Young Messiah was controversial in some circles for its portrayal of Christ during a period in his life during which the Bible is silent, and includes Jesus' performing miracles as a teen and his coming to understand his divinity. Its release has intensified the debate over the freedom of artistic license that many filmmakers have exploited in recent years with films like Son of God, Risen, and especially director Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. 

Nowrasteh who was raised in a nominally Muslim household before converting to Christianity as an adult encountered positive feedback and questions from the theologians during the Q&A. The first thing that caught their eyes was the look of the film. 

“I really appreciate the high production value,” pointed out Zachary Bortot, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies (Theater) at Biola, who was also asked to join in the screening. “I enjoyed the examination of what it would mean for a human child to come to terms with the concept of being the Messiah.  The approach encourages high-storytelling standards from like-minded artists.”

As the panel delved deeper into the theology of the film, the question arose about whether Jesus’ divinity was revealed to him or always known, an issue that is central to the film. 

“A way theologians have answered this question is that Jesus always perfectly knew he was the Messiah, but he knew it the way babies, toddlers, children, and adults know things.  His understanding of his identity, and everything else, grew in his normal human development,” said theologian Dr. Erik Thoennes, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies and Chair of the Biblical and Theological Studies Theology Department.

“This question arises out of the affirmation of a fundamental teaching of the Bible, that the eternal Son of God took on the limitations of a full human nature when he became man.  The first chapter of the gospel of John says that he was with God and was God and took on flesh and took up residence with us.  This means that he “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and Man” (Luke 2:52), and “was tempted in every way – like us, yet was without sin” (Hebrews 5:8).”

Given this understanding, many of the faculty enjoyed Nowrasteh’s artistic interpretation. 

“I appreciated the approach to showing Jesus learning and growing,” noted Dr. Doug Huffman, Professor and Associate Dean of the Biblical and Theological Studies Division. “[The book of] Hebrews says that Jesus learned obedience, and this portrayal helped embody that.”

“We think of Jesus as having known everything always, so it’s interesting to see an identity development," noted another attendee, Dr. Dave Horner, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies and Philosophy. "These are things we don’t know for sure, but seem plausible.”

“The film did a great job of progressing both through Jesus’ internal knowledge of the world, led by the Spirit, and external ways of understanding from the events and circumstances of his life,” added Dr. Thoennes. “It’s much in a similar way that the biblical authors were both inspired by the Spirit and affected by the physical events themselves.” 

Dr. Thoennes did point out that he doubted that Jesus would have performed the miracles shown in the film, because scripture reports Jesus as a man telling his mother Mary when she wanted him to do a miracle at the wedding at Cana that his time had not yet come (John 2:4). “But if they did happen, they would probably show up like that,” he concluded, referring to the film’s portrayal.

“I liked the personification of evil,” said Doug Geringer, Associate Professor of New Testament Language and Literature and Associate Dean of Talbot. “In our culture the devil isn’t really a person, evil is perceived as non-personal. So I thought it was very good.” In a discussion of the extra-canonical miracles, he brought up the instance of Jesus resurrecting a dead bird, “After thinking about it, it really resonated with me. It represented well Jesus’ heart for life.”

Details such as the age of the character of James and his relation to Jesus, or the interactions between Mary and Joseph, were pointed out and discussed by the faculty, but ultimately found their place in the film due to the text from which it was adapted, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice. 

Additionally, the subject of the British accent found in all the characters was brought up. “The accent was actually determined by whatever child we would find to play Jesus, and this boy was from London,” commented Nowrasteh, “the whole movie was relying on that casting, and everything else had to revolve around him.”

Regarding different audiences, Nowrasteh said that he had anticipated pushback from religious communities, that some would object. When asked about the role of the centurion Severus, played by Sean Bean, he replied, “I try to make sure every story has a ticking clock. And this aspect really helps put the more non-religious audiences, those questioning the miracles and spirituality, in the mind of this character.”

Nowrasteh added that he made the film a PG-13 rating, so that families would be able to show their kids, if they so chose. The concern was expressed that children might translate this interpretation into biblical truth, but Nowrasteh gave that responsibility of explanation to parents, saying, “I would leave that up to you to explain it to them.”

For his part, Nowrasteh was grateful for the chance to interact with the theologians from Talbot:

"Artists need theologians to help guide us and I valued their input as I valued the theologians who gave us feedback on the script early on in the process," said Nowrasteh. "I wanted to take the admiration I have for Christ as my Savior and marry that with my imagination of what he might have been like as a child. I was grateful that this group of experts in the Bible understood my heart." 

The Young Messiah will be released to DVD June 14th.

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