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.
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 Massacre 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; dialogue with Nicodemus; 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 laments "Now it begins. It all begins".
StarringRobert Powell as Jesus
AndOlivia Hussey as Mary, mother of Jesus
Also StarringCyril Cusack as Yehuda
Ian Holm as Zerah
Yorgo Voyagis as Joseph
WithIan Bannen as Amos
Marina Berti as Elizabeth
Regina Bianchi as Saint Anne
Maria Carta as Martha
Lee Montague as Habbukuk
Renato Rascel as The Blind Man
Oliver Tobias as Joel
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 an RAI executive, Grade told him he intended their companies to prepare such a film. 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. The director rejected the proposal at first, but Grade finally convinced him to agree; he accepted the job shortly before Christmas 1973.
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 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 various cricket-playing British ecclesiastics. Sir Lew Grade was made a Cavaliere of the Republic. The Pope was noticeably absent.
Both Grade and Zeffirelli insisted their adaptation of Jesus' life should be 'ecumenical', coherent, even to non-believers, and 'acceptable to all denominations'. 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. However, when Zeffirelli asked Rabbi Albert Friedlander to help him create Jesus' Bar Mitzvah scene, the latter replied that such ceremonies were practiced only from the 15th century. The director, however, insisted on including it, and Friedlander tried to teach child actor Lorenzo Monet to read a short portion of the Pentateuch in Hebrew. Monet, however, mumbled it and the director was not satisfied (in the film, boy Jesus reads mostly in English).
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 Djerba. The city of Monastir served as 1st Century Jerusalem. Ernest Borgnine, who portrayed Cornelius the Centurion, recalled that since regulations required hiring local extras—most 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. The standing sets of the film were later used by the British comedy troupe Monty Python for their religious satire Life of Brian (1979).
There are various reports regarding the size of the miniseries' budget: Presbyterian Survey stated it was $12 million, The Listener cited the figure of £9 million (roughly $16 million), while Third Way stated it cost £11.5 million (roughly $20 million). Other sources give the sum of $18 million. In his autobiography, Lew Grade wrote that "in the final accounting, Jesus of Nazareth took $45 million."
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'. The Virgin Mary, too, was depicted "without regard to historical or ethnographic accuracy" by the "definitely Caucasian Olivia Hussey."
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.
Powell rarely blinks throughout the entire film, mimicking, in this respect, H.B. Warner in 1927's The King of Kings and Max von Sydow in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told. This effect was a deliberate decision by Franco Zeffirelli. James Houlden commented that the result was 'a penetrating, unrelenting eye contact with Jesus'. A dark blue eyeliner was applied on set to accentuate Powell's blue eyes. 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.'
For the crucifixion scene, Powell starved himself on a diet of only cheese for 12 days prior to shooting "in order to look worn".
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 again 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 (four tapes) was fully uncut and featured the full 386-minute version. The 2000 Carlton video (two tapes) featured a heavily abridged print running for 270 minutes. Although the Granada DVD is credited as the unedited print, it runs for 374 minutes and misses out two scenes - a private meeting between Judas Iscariot and Zerah, and the opening betrayal sequence during the Last Supper. This is the version that is broadcast most often.
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.
The Region 1 DVD is the original 1977 broadcast. The Region 2 Carlton DVD released in the UK is substantially cut and runs to 270 minutes. The Dutch DVD release (also Carlton Region 2) has a running time of 365 minutes (the 399-minute running time stated on the cover is a misprint).
For Easter 2016, the UK's Sky Arts channel showed one part a day over the four days of Easter. The version they used was the extended four-part edition, totalling eight hours with advertising.
The mini-series ran on NBC as "The Big Event" in two three-hour instalments with limited commercials on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Additional footage was added for a 1979 re-run and broadcast in four two-hour instalments. In the 1980s and 1990, the film was re-broadcast on NBC in three instalments of two- and three-hour episodes, released on VHS and DVD as one complete presentation with one set of credits.
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. On Palm Sunday, 3 April 1977 – the date of the airing of the second episode – the Pope endorsed the programme in his public address for the holiday and recommended the faithful to view it. 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. For example, the number of viewers for the third episode, aired on 10 April, was estimated to have been 28.3 million.
In the United Kingdom and in the United States, it was broadcast in two parts, albeit in different lengths, by the ITV network in the UK and by NBC in the US. In both countries, the first part was aired on 3 April and the second on Easter, 10 April 1977. During its original showing in the UK, Jesus of Nazareth had an estimated audience of 21 million viewers.
When the first episode was broadcast in the US, 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. The miniseries as a whole received a Nielsen rating of 30.8 points, with each point representing approximately 712,000 television-owning homes, and an audience share of 50% nationwide, on both nights. The company calculated that Jesus attracted about 90 million viewers.
In West Germany, it was broadcast by ZDF in four episodes on the 19th, 21st, 23rd and 24 March 1978; 40% of the audience have viewed it.
Jesus of Nazareth turned into a massive commercial success and one of the most widely marketed and best-known productions about Christ's life. Lew Grade stated that it made "a net profit of $30 million."
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.
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.
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.
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, and Dr. Bill Bright, because they felt the TV movie had to have the resurrection of Jesus Christ to be true to the Gospel account. 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. Procter and Gamble eventually took it over, buying the U.S. rights for a relatively low price of some $1 million. Their financial support allowed the mini-series to be screened after a simulated resurrection was added at the suggestion of Dr. Ted Baehr, a theologian and media pundit, who was friends with the producer, Vincenzo Labella, and acquainted with the protesters. The scenes showed the empty tomb, with flashbacks to Jesus discussing his death and resurrection.
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-honoured, 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 honourable, 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' 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 film does not depict Pilate remanding Jesus' case to Herod Antipas and Antipas sending Jesus back to Pilate.(Luke 23:6-12)
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 Gospels, 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 that shows Joseph dying. The Gospels never mention anything about Joseph after the story of Jesus, as a boy, in the Temple.
The healing of the blind beggar scene, where Jesus spat on dirt and rubbed the mud in the blind man's eyes, was set in the Temple; the whole of John 9 places this episode after Jesus had left the Temple, and was "walking along."
The success of this miniseries led, in 1985, to a kind of sequel, A.D., which wove a fictional story set in first-century Rome into Biblical and extra-biblical material based on the Acts of the Apostles. Although many of the same crew members worked on both series, the only key cast members to return were Tony Vogel, Ian McShane and James Mason, all playing different roles.