The Jesus-film is a much more complex reality than one might at first suspect, and this complexity is directly due to the subject. The film-maker who chooses to explore the Jesus-theme is obliged to face a series of decisions, choices and difficulties that are quite unprecedented in the history of cinema. It might seem a truism to say that the Jesus-film is based on the New Testament or the gospels. But even this fact, this "choice" made by the film-maker, is complex and fraught with ambiguity. The film-artist who wishes to tell the story of Jesus in the Bible must decide among the four quite distinct portraits of Jesus in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, the Jesus presented, if indirectly, in Acts of the Apostles and in the epistles, and the Jesus announced and even described in some of the books of the Old Testament. The artist may choose to represent only one of these Jesus-portraits, or a kind of synthetic, composite Jesus, including elements from all the biblical sources.
Having made this first and basic decision regarding a biblical Jesus, the film-maker faces a further series of problems. The New Testament, the gospels, were neither biographical nor historical documents, at least as we in the twentieth century conceive of "scientific" history and biography, but rather they were faith proclamations, and the number of straight biographical details in them is limited. Clearly the Gospel provides no physical description of Jesus. Further, the individual gospels are not always in agreement among themselves. At times, in fact, they seem to contradict one another. The style of the gospels is characterized by ellipses: details connecting separate episodes are lacking, time is telescoped, the stress is often on the spoken words of Jesus and often the concrete circumstances of his preaching and his miracles are not described. Only Luke has the infancy narrative, an account which is extremely elliptical, and the gospels reveal little or nothing about the first thirty years of Jesus' life. Finally, something obvious in regard to the gospels but of no little import in a Jesus-film, the "story," and especially its conclusion, is well-known. In the film, on the level of content therefore, there can be no surprises, no tension, no suspense, and this a clearly a disadvantage for a medium like cinema that requires a dramatic structure.
Another element in this delicate balance that is the Jesus-film, is the point of view of the film-maker towards the biblical material regarding Jesus. Is the artist a Christian believer or not? If yes, then what is the quality of that