The "Jesus" Film: A Contribution to World Evangelism

By Eshleman, Paul A. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2002 | Go to article overview

The "Jesus" Film: A Contribution to World Evangelism

Eshleman, Paul A., International Bulletin of Missionary Research

On Saturday night, August 19, 2000, following an address by Pope John Paul II at the World Youth Day in Rome, the "Jesus" film was viewed by over one million young people. In the preceding four days, 694,000 videocassettes of the film were distributed to young people at eighty-five locations throughout the city.

During the period between Christmas 1999 and Easter 2000, over 700 million people saw telecasts of a special millennial edition of the "Jesus" film. Shown on national television in 122 countries, the film contained tributes from thirty-two world leaders.

And on February 10, 2000, seven-year-old Amber watched the new children's edition of the "Jesus" video in her living room and prayed the prayer at the end to receive Christ as her Savior. The video film was a gift from her new parents, who had just adopted her.

For a million young people in Rome, for the nations of the world, or for a seven-year-old orphan, Jesus and his incomparable Gospel is still the greatest news ever announced to our world. And the way that many have been seeing, hearing, and understanding the message has been through the "Jesus" film, a two-hour documentary outlining Jesus' life and teachings.

Roots of the Project

I began working on this project in 1978. The vision for using a film on the life of Jesus for evangelism first came to Bill Bright, founder and president of Campus Crusade for Christ, in 1945. Over the years he never found a film on Jesus that he could use, nor-until 1978-was it clear how funds could be secured for the production.

In the early 1970s a similar idea about making films based on the Scriptures came to the well-known Hollywood film producer John Heyman, who produced or funded numerous award-winning and best-selling films (Saturday Night Fever, The Longest Yard, Black Sunday, Heaven Can Wait, Gandhi, and others). Heyman had lost dozens of his Jewish relatives in the Holocaust. As he read the Scriptures, he saw in them the basis for our system of law and justice, and indeed for the foundations of our society. He felt that the best thing he could do for the world was to bring these truths to the motion picture screen. With funding secured from investors in his secular projects, Heyman began what he called the Genesis Project. The goal of the project was to portray every scene of the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, as accurately as possible.

Heyman began with the Book of Genesis. As the characters spoke Hebrew, a voice-over narration in English provided the biblical text verse by verse, without alteration. All the filming was done in the Holy Land, as close as possible to where the original events took place. Costumes were designed according to the drawings found on the pyramids showing the dress of Hebrew slaves. All the cloth used in the film was hand woven.

Yemenite Jews were selected as actors because their facial features are thought to have changed little over the millennia.

After Heyman had completed eight fifteen-minute films covering the first twenty chapters of Genesis and two additional films covering chapters 1 and 2 of Luke, one of his consultants encouraged him to seek the assistance of Campus Crusade for Christ in marketing these films to churches. This led, in 1976, to a meeting with Bill Bright. I met Heyman at this time and we struck up a friendship. Then, at Bright's personal request, I was seconded to the Genesis Project offices in New York, where I helped in the distribution of the first episodes of these Bible-teaching films. They were promoted as the New Media Bible.

The Dreams Realized

During 1977 Heyman began thinking about producing feature films on the Bible that could go into commercial theaters. It was hoped that the profits generated would be sufficient to produce the remaining films on Genesis and Luke and then to go on to the Books of Exodus and Acts, and so on through the whole Bible. …

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