Jesus of Nazareth (miniseries)

Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth VHS artwork
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
Cinematography Armando Nannuzzi
David Watkin
Editor(s) Reginald Mills
Running time Original: 382 minutes
Edited version: 270 minutes
DVD edition: 374 minutes
Production company(s) ITC Entertainment
Original network Rai 1 (Italy)
Original release 27 March (1977-03-27) – 24 April 1977 (1977-04-24)

Jesus of Nazareth (Italian: Gesù di Nazareth) is a 1977 British-Italian television miniseries directed by Franco Zeffirelli and co-written by Zeffirelli, Anthony Burgess, and Suso Cecchi d'Amico which dramatises the birth, life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. It stars Robert Powell as Jesus. The miniseries features an all-star cast of famous American and European actors, including seven Academy Award winners: Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, 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

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; 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's laments: "Now it begins. It all begins".


Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth


Guest Stars


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 an 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 Djerba.[4] The city of Monastir served as 1st Century Jerusalem.[9] 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.[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] The 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. This 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.

The Region 1 DVD is the original 1977 broadcast. The Region 2 Carlton DVD released in the UK is substantially cut and runs at 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).

The UK Precision/Polygram video featured the full 386 min version and was released on 4 tapes. The 2000 Carlton video (also issued on DVD) was a heavily abridged print running 270 mins. Although the 374 minute 2006 Granada DVD is billed as the unedited print it is actually missing two scenes: a scene where Zerah persuades Judas to bring Jesus to the Sanhedrin and the opening section of the Last Supper sequence where Jesus tells Judas to perform his betrayal. This is the version that is telecast most often.

For Easter 2016, the UK's Sky Arts channel showed one part a day over the 4 days of Easter. They used the extended 4 parts of 120 minutes each version, totaling 8 hours with advertising.

The mini-series ran on NBC as "The Big Event" in two three-hour installments with limited commercials on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Additional footage was added for a 1979 re-run and broadcast in four two-hour installments. In the 1980s and 1990, the film was re-broadcast on NBC in three installments of two and three hour episodes...released on VHS and DVD as one complete presentation with one set of credits.

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:


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 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, and Dr. Bill Bright, because he 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.[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, 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, by showing the empty tomb with flashbacks to Jesus discussing his death and resurrection.[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


  1. 1 2 Falk, Ben; Falk, Quentin (2005). Television's Strangest Moments: Extraordinary But True Tales from the History of Television. Franz Steiner. pp. 131–132. ISBN 9781861058744.
  2. "Zeffirelli Recalls Paul VI's Help With "Jesus of Nazareth"". Zenit News Agency. 5 November 2007. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  3. Zeffirelli, Franco (1984). Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus: A Spiritual Diary. Harper and Row. p. 4. ISBN 9780060697808.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Reinhartz, Adele (2012). Bible and Cinema: Fifty Key Films. Routledge. p. 151. ISBN 9781136183997.
  5. Burgess, Anthony (1986). But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen: Homage to Qwert Yuiop and Other Writings. McGraw-Hill Book Company. p. 35.
  6. Llewellyn, Dawn; Sawyer, Deborah F. (2008). Reading Spiritualities: Constructing and Representing the Sacred. Ashgate. p. 214. ISBN 9780754663294.
  7. 1 2 Ostling, Richard N. (4 April 1977). "Franco Zeffirelli's Classical Christ for Prime Time". Time magazine. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  8. Bsteh, Petrus (2012). Wegbereiter des interreligiösen Dialogs. Lit. pp. 178–179. ISBN 9783643503329.
  9. Jacobs, Daniel; Morris, Peter (2001). The Rough Guide to Tunisia. Rough Guides. p. xiii. ISBN 9781858287485.
  10. Borgnine, Ernest (2009). Ernie. Citadel Press. pp. 195–196. ISBN 9780806531502.
  11. Denby, David (24 September 1979). "Oh, Bug Off!". New York Magazine: 98. ISSN 0028-7369.
  12. Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (1977). Presbyterian Survey. 67: 28. ISSN 0032-759X. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  13. British Broadcasting Corporation (1977). The Listener. 97: 518. ISSN 0024-4392. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  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. "Mastermind on the BC Trail". Third Way. 1 (2): 10. 27 January 1977. ISSN 0309-3492.
  16. 1 2 3 Cyrino, Monica Silveira (2009). Rome Season One: History Makes Television. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781444301557. p. 18.
  17. 1 2 Grade, Lew (1987). Still Dancing: My Story. Collins. p. 219. ISBN 9780002177801.
  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. 1 2 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. ISBN 9780807835722.
  20. O'Brien, Catherine (2011). The Celluloid Madonna: From Scripture to Screen. Columbia University Press. p. 4. ISBN 9781906660277.
  21. 1 2 3 Houlden, James L. (2003). Jesus in History, Thought, and Culture/ 2, Entries K - Z. ABC-CLIO. pp. 289–290. ISBN 9781576078563.
  22. Casadio, Gianfranco (2007). I Mitici Eroi : Il Cinema Peplum nel Cinema Italiano dall'avvento del Sonoro a Oggi (1930-1993). Longo. ISBN 9788880635291. p. 198.
  23. 1 2 Langkau, Thomas (2007). Filmstar Jesus Christus: die neuesten Jesus-Filme als Herausforderung für Theologie und Religionspädagogik. Lit. ISBN 9783825801960. p. 20.
  24. Grasso, Aldo (1992). Storia della Televisione Italiana. Garzanti. ISBN 9788811738190. 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: Independent Broadcasting Authority (1978). Annual Report and Accounts: 1977: 29. OCLC 1789175. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  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?". Third Way. 1 (8): 29. ISSN 0309-3492.
  27. 1 2 3 King, Susan (27 March 1994). "Family Channel's Pilgrimage: Cable Network Airs the '77 Miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth" for Easter Week". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  28. 1 2 Angelini, Sergio. "Jesus of Nazareth (1977)". BFI Screenonline. Retrieved 21 February 2013.
  29. Unspecified writer (5 April 1977). "TV 'Jesus of Nazareth' Draws Major Audience". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 February 2013.
  30. Bianco, Robert (11 November 2004). "Catastrophic 'Category 6' is a ratings 1.5". USA Today. Retrieved 21 February 2013.
  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. ISBN 9780812907216. p. 217.
  33. Bennet, Albert (1978). Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia: 1978 Yearbook. Funk & Wagnalls. ISBN 9780834300071. 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. ISBN 9780824070991. p. 705.
  38. Media Decisions. 13 (1): 67. 1978. ISSN 0025-6900. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  39. Bates, Stephen (27 February 2004). "Gibson Film Ignores Vow to Remove Blood Libel". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
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