What might Jesus have been like … when He was 7? That intriguing question provides the narrative foundation for The Young Messiah, a movie adaptation of Anne Rice’s 2005 novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.
Scripture provides few details regarding Jesus’ life as a child. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke record that Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt from Bethlehem to escape Herod’s plot to snuff out the young Messiah’s life. And we know that the couple returned years later, settling in Nazareth, then journeying to Jerusalem for the Passover. Rice’s fictional take on Jesus’ youth, brought to life here by writer and director Cyrus Nowrasteh, fills in the speculative details of what little Jesus’ might have been like … as well as the thorny questions about when exactly He knew that He was, in fact, Immanuel, God With Us.
Jesus, as He’s depicted in The Young Messiah, is like any other 7-year-old. He loves to laugh, run and play. He doesn’t always get along with his older, adopted brother, James. He has a run-in with a bully.
But He is also depicted to be unlike any other 7-year-old child before or since. When Jesus’ youthful tormentor trips, hits his head and dies, Jesus gets wrongly blamed for causing the catastrophe. So the Savior of the World creeps into the mean boy’s house and resurrects him, after which come, of course, accusations that He’s a bewitched agent of Satan.
Sound familiar? (If not, read Matthew 12.)
Joseph, meanwhile, has been told by the angel that Herod is now dead and that it’s safe to return to Nazareth. So he and Mary decide the time has come to leave Alexandria, Egypt. Accompanying them is Mary’s brother Cleopas and his wife, as well as that couple’s young daughter.
Homecoming journeys are supposed to be joyous events. But as we know from Scripture, journeys from Egypt to the Promised Land rarely go as planned.
Word of a miracle-working boy returning to Judea begins to spread. Herod the Great’s son, Herod Archelaus, puts the puzzle pieces together: This child, he believes, is the same would-be king his father tried to assassinate. He’s determined to finish the job, tasking a world-weary Roman centurion named Severus to carry out another brutal, politically motivated put down. And if that threat to Jesus and his family wasn’t bad enough, a crafty demon (possibly the devil himself) is whispering lies in people’s ears as he tries to make young Jesus’ residency in Nazareth a perilously short one.
All the while, Jesus keeps asking his parents why He can do things no other boy can. It’s a simple question with a destiny-shaping answer, one that Joseph and Mary aren’t sure their son—who they know is actually God’s Son—is old enough to hear just yet.
Joseph and Mary are determined to protect Jesus as He grows up. For Joseph, that protection includes giving Him a chance to be a “normal” little boy for as long as possible. Joseph is convinced that Jesus is too young to understand the implications of His true identity. Mary hesitates, too, though she’s a bit more willing to engage Jesus’ questions. Uncle Cleopas, meanwhile, believes the boy deserves to immediately know the truth. He repeatedly tells Joseph that Jesus isn’t going to stop asking hard questions until He gets real answers.
It would indeed be a familial conundrum of divine proportions. And the exploration of it here uncovers quite a few positive lessons—many of them spiritual—along the way.
Steadily homing in on Jesus, Severus, meanwhile, shows us how haunted he is by his participation in Herod the Great’s killing of 2-year-old boys in Bethlehem five years before. And he’s clearly queasy about the assignment he’s now been given. That, of course, ultimately leads him to spare Jesus’ life. Several characters willingly offer to sacrifice themselves to cruel Roman soldiers if it will spare their families from further harm. At Jesus’ urging, Joseph agrees to let a young female slave join their family group.
In an utterly speculative story, there’s actually little that directly contradicts Scripture’s testimony about the Christ. Much of it, in fact, confirms the solid theological tenet that Jesus was and is the Son of God, born of a virgin, and destined to save all of mankind.
Mary ultimately tells young Jesus the story of His divine conception. In doing so, she directly and emphatically reiterates and affirms the Gospels’ teaching about her virginity at the time of his birth, saying plainly, “God is Your Father.” Similarly, James tells Jesus the story of how three kings from the East came to visit him when he was a baby. (They arrive when He’s a newborn in James’ rendition.) Other events foreshadow Jesus writing in the dirt, His baptism, His temptation and his crucifixion.
And then we’re back to that curious question: When did Jesus know He was God? Did He always know? Even when He was lying in that lowly manger? Or was His divinity revealed to Him in bits and pieces, as He “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people,” as is noted in Luke 2:52?
The Young Messiah takes the latter tack. Onscreen, Jesus can do miracles, but He doesn’t yet understand the full scope of His abilities, much less His divinity. We see Him pick up a dead bird on a beach and bring it back to life. When the aforementioned bully trips and dies, Jesus resurrects him with a touch and a plea. And as Cleopas nears death from an unnamed disease that leaves him gasping horribly, Jesus, with a prayer, washes the sickness from the man’s body in the Jordan. We watch Jesus heal a blind rabbi at the Temple.
The satanic character (named Demon in the credits) can usually only be seen by Jesus. But, as mentioned, he repeatedly whispers suggestions and lies in people’s ears, influencing them to pursue his dark ends. The demon directly confronts Jesus in a dreamlike sequence while Christ is unconscious with a fever, saying, “You’re no child. Who are you?” Jesus responds, “You don’t have the answers. You don’t know what is going to happen. You don’t know how it’s going to end.” The demon’s response? “I may not know the future, but I know that your mother’s a whore. And your father’s a liar. … Your little miracles aren’t going to save these foolish people.” Before vanishing, he taunts, “Chaos rules, and I am its prince!” (It’s an eerie reflection of Ephesians 2:2 and John 10:10.)
Also as mentioned, Jesus is falsely accused of being “possessed” and “bewitched.” While in the demon’s company, Jesus prays for Jerusalem, which is supernaturally portrayed as being on fire. And He steadfastly refuses to be cowed by the demon.
Jesus and Mary are both shown praying. And when Mary questions whether she’s strong enough to be a good mother to Jesus, Joseph assures her that God made the right choice. When the family walks up a road lined with crucified men, Mary prays Psalm 23 out loud and tries to shield Jesus and the slave girl from the horrific scene surrounding them. Other Jewish people talk about their hope in the coming of the promised Messiah and the importance of trusting God.
Herod, meanwhile, employs pagan magicians in his court whom he at one point disparagingly labels “witches and lizard eaters.” Severus says mockingly of miracles, “There is only one miracle, and it’s Roman steel.” An elderly Jewish woman makes a joke about the gods of Olympus. Passing reference is made to the ascetic Jewish sect known as the Essenes.
We see a man push a young woman down in the tall grass in a scene designed to communicate his intention to rape her. Herod employs a woman who dances for his sexual pleasure, and it’s implied that she does other things for him as well. (He pulls her onto his lap. Her costume reveals cleavage.) There’s a brief, veiled reference to menstruation. Men are seen bathing in the river with their “loins girded up.”
The slave woman about to be raped stabs her assailant to death from underneath him. She tells Mary that the man murdered her master and his wife.
Jesus is caught in the middle of a small battle between Jews and Roman soldiers. Men fall on both sides of the conflict, killed by swords, knives and spears. One is impaled. Jesus is spared when Severus stays the hand of one of his men. Other children are threatened at swordpoint.
The dead and dying men on the crosses may not be as hard for us to see as they were for Jesus and His family, but the gruesomeness of the situation is plain. We watch as soldiers raise one such implement of execution. And Severus later interrogates a man who has been hanging on a cross for some time. Desperate to die, the man says he’ll provide information about Jesus in exchange for Severus killing him quickly to end his suffering. Severus obliges, listening quietly and then stabbing the man twice, thrusting his sword far up into his chest. We witness a flashback to the night Severus participated in the murder of children in Bethlehem. (It’s dark, and mostly we see soldiers moving furtively and hear the cries of wailing mothers.) Herod sticks a knife into a snake.
The bully we’ve already talked about sits on top of Jesus and wails away at him with his fists. And when Jesus brings him back to life, the boy promptly resumes the beating he had been giving Jesus. In between, we see the other kid trip, fall, hit his head and die.
One exclamation of “d–n.”
Herod drinks wine. The old woman gives soldiers wine as a bribe of sorts, trading it for the lives of her family.
James vents frustration to Jesus about how difficult it has been to be His brother. “I hated You before You were born,” James says. He’s mad that everyone acts as if “You’re the only one who really matters.” Lies are told and actions covered up. (But never by Jesus.)
Imagining what Jesus might have been like as a 7-year-old child is the kind of territory only someone who’s really comfortable with criticism would willingly wander into. Someone like Anne Rice, who rose to fame as a writer of erotica and then vampire novels before returning to her Catholic roots at least long enough to write the book on which this film is based. (She’s since renounced her association with the Church again.)
But the dramatic license taken by Rice, as interpreted by director Cyrus Nowrasteh, comes across as wholly different from the likes of recent biblical epics Noah and Exodus. Those films deliberately take significant—and unorthodox—theological missteps as they radically upend beloved biblical stories. The Young Messiah carefully imagines the life of Jesus in a way that (despite drawing some of its inspiration from extra-biblical texts, including one known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) hews rather closely to orthodox teachings. The result, as mentioned earlier, is a story that strongly affirms the virgin birth and Jesus’ unique, salvific identity as the Son of God.
Those are no small issues in a world that largely rejects both claims.
“I seek to present a realistic fictional portrait of Jesus inspired by Scripture and rooted in history,” says Nowrasteh. “Most important to us was that we present a child who is consistent with the character of Jesus as revealed in the Bible. … The challenge of making this film was to present Him as both fully divine and fully human. … [And] we wanted to portray young Jesus acting in a way consistent with His adult ministry. Therefore we show a child who reacts to situations similar to how the Bible tells us about how Jesus reacted to like situations as an adult.”
Will moviegoers be inspired to explore mystical, non-canonical add-ons to Scripture after seeing the movie? Maybe. Hopefully, though, they’ll pick up the Bible itself. They’ll certainly come away with a deeper sense of the context in which Jesus grew up. Namely, a country on the verge of civil war with its brutal occupiers, filled with a Jewish people who are devout and oppressed in equal measure.
Some of that oppression is shown here, of course, and scenes of armed conflict and crucifixion will push the film out of bounds for some families. For others it will reinforce the reality that Jesus did indeed grow up in a brutal world, a world He came to love and to save. And it will prompt many to consider anew just who the Son of Man really was. Who He really is.
Scripture tells us in John 2 that Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana was his first, which “revealed his glory.” So it would seem the film takes liberties with presenting the miraculous nature of His childhood. Whether he knew He was God as a baby, as a young child or as a young man, though, no one can truly know for certain.
But we can know Him now. And this film carries the promise of inspiring us to want to know Him more.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.