The play received critical attention for its exploration of gay themes in Christianity. It was also condemned by Catholic League, a Roman Catholic watchdog group, for what they viewed as blasphemy, sacrilege, and anti-Catholic bigotry.
Playwright Terrence McNally, a gay man, received death threats when it was staged in the U.S.
The planned production of the play in New York City was canceled and then reinstated. Because of protests, the producer of the play, the Manhattan Theatre Club, withdrew the play in May 1998, worried about possible violence. They then quickly reinstated it, stating that they did not believe in censorship but also noting that security precautions would be taken. The play opened Off-Broadway in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at New York City Center Stage 1 on October 13, 1998, directed by Joe Mantello, and closed on November 29, 1998.
It received its British premiere in 2000, produced by Theatre 28 and directed by Stephen Henry. When it was produced as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Anglican bishop Robert Forsyth considered the play to be offensive and historically incorrect.
The play was revived by the Off-Off-Broadway Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, running in October 2008. Jason Zinoman, reviewing for The New York Times, wrote that the premiere production was "an earnest and reverent spin on the Jesus story, with some soft-spoken, gay-friendly politics thrown in." He further noted that the play was "fragile, heartfelt" and "seems more personal than political, a coming-of-age story wrapped in religious sentiment." The New York Times also published an article linking the uproar in 1998 to the death of gay student Matthew Shepard.
In March 2010, a student performance of the play was cancelled at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. The university had received many complaints about the play's scheduled performance, but its president, F. Dominic Dottavio, citing freedom of speech, declared that the play would be performed. Dottavio's condemnation of the play in the same letter, though, has been criticized by campus free speech groups as giving encouragement to people trying to shut down the production. After Texas's Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst weighed in saying, "No one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans," the performance was cancelled citing safety concerns.
The planned staging of the play in Athens, Greece, in October 2012 caught the attention of right-wing extremist organizations including the fascist parliamentary party Golden Dawn. This led to violent protests by party members and clergymen, with journalists and audience members being banned in the theater, and the premiere was cancelled.
A film about the staging of the play and its reception, titled Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption, was released in 2011. It was previewed at the Atlanta Film Festival on May 7, 2011.
For many years, rumors of a film of the play had circulated as an urban legend, calling for e-mail petitions to stop the film.