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Jesus Reimagined in Modern South Africa

By Benjamin Guyer

Son of Man is a 2006 film that reimagines what the life and ministry of Jesus might have been like if he were born in modern-day South Africa. It has won multiple awards at film festivals in America and Europe.

Although based on the life of Jesus, Son of Man is not a retelling of the New Testament. The film begins with the temptation of Jesus in the desert by Satan. After overcoming the devil’s temptations, Jesus throws him down a sand dune, but Satan defiantly declares that the world is his. The film immediately moves to the sound of gunfire and sight of flame in the fictional war-torn province of Judea, South Africa. Mary first appears here, running from heavily armed men; she hides in a schoolroom where multiple dead bodies have been stacked. Suddenly, a child appears and declares that Mary will give birth to Jesus. The child is the angel Gabriel, but he is not portrayed in ways familiar to Western art; he has feathers on his body but no wings. Upon learning the news, Mary is stunned but then breaks out in song, praising God.

We see little of Jesus’s childhood, but when his ministry begins, two things are noticeable. First, although he performs several miracles found in the New Testament, none of his teaching comes out of the Gospels. Rather, his message is clearly intended for his modern-day South African audience. It was difficult, while watching the film, to escape the nagging sense that my own ignorance of South African history prevented me from fully understanding both plot development and the appearance of certain forms of imagery, such as the wearing of face paint.

Second, there is no Jewish presence in the film. Herod appears as a tribal warlord; Caiaphas is the same. While Jesus’s message in the New Testament was religious with a political payout, in this film, Jesus’ message is fundamentally political — he stands up for the oppressed and against corrupt political figures and processes — but only his miracles witness to anything religious about his mission. This is not a complaint but an observation. While it would be unfair to criticize the film of anti-Judaism, Son of Man’s Jesus is certainly non-Jewish. If we remove Jesus from his Jewish context, how much of his religious teaching or even his identity really remains?

Christians have long struggled with seeing Jesus as Jewish. Yes, Christ becomes more relatable once “incarnated” in a specific cultural context. Consider the devotional value of Christian art; whether we look at Coptic iconography or the artwork of the Northern Renaissance, the presence of Christ in all forms of artistic representation renders the incarnate Word both ever-familiar and ever-foreign. And yet, the human Jesus is not merely a subject of devotion but a subject within space and time, with particular teachings rooted in his first-century context. Films are not dogmatic statements, but Son of Man might inadvertently point to the theological limits of cultural adaptation.

By reinventing the historical context, other elements are also changed. Some of these are quite clever, such as the use of video cameras to record Jesus’s deeds, and the painting of murals to show his miracles. Other changes make sense given the modern-day re-contextualization in South Africa. For example, Judas’s background story is that of a child soldier, and Jesus is not crucified but shot. So too, the devil is present in many scenes where no presence is noted in the Gospels. Perhaps this reflects the widespread belief in spirits found in many African nations and religions.

Despite its free and selective adaptation of its New Testament source material, the film is a compelling reminder of the central paradox of Christianity: that a child from an impoverished background would become the object and subject of faith and devotion for billions. Whatever its arguable theological drawbacks, the film will still make you think. I highly recommend it.

Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin.



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