Developmental Divinity: a Review of “The Young Messiah”

The Young Messiah, a film based on a novel by Anne Rice, is about Roman soldiers in the employ of Herod Antipas looking to hunt down a boy named Jesus, a rumored miracle worker, who seven years previously may have escaped Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents.

Sean Bean, who is so often killed off in movies and (as in Game of Thrones) on TV (IMDB actually keeps a list), plays Severus, a Roman soldier who is an almost direct analogue to the Tribune, Clavius, in another 2016 film, Risen. And like that later Roman, Severus is investigating a mystery, except it’s not the man’s disappearance but the boy’s reemergence. Whereas Clavius was out to quash rumors about the Resurrection of Jesus; Severus is charged with making sure He will not live to have a Bar Mitzvah.

So already you see one of the problems at the heart of this listless mess of a movie that the producers claim “seeks to present a realistic portrait of Jesus as a child both grounded in faith and consistent with the adult Jesus revealed in the Bible.” Director Cyrus Nowrasteh tries to use the pursuit of Jesus by the Herods, senior and junior, to build the kind of tension that propels action films. But how can it? We all know Jesus won’t be caught and killed.

And that’s only what makes the movie boring – that and the snail’s pacing, reliance on narration for exposition, and lackluster acting that, as Mrs. Parker once quipped, runs the gamut of emotions from A to B; ‘A,’ in this case, for apathetic and ‘B’ for bombast. The script (by Nowrasteh and his wife, Betsy Giffen) ricochets between the clichéd and the silly. For instance: men argue about the complicity of Jesus in another boy’s death, even though the young Jesus has just raised the other kid from the dead:

“He was dead!” one man insists.

“Well,” another man says, stating the obvious, “he’s not dead now!”

If that sounds vaudevillian, believe me: the scene evokes no other Biblical film than Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

In their first confrontation – a scene similar to the one in Risen in which the Legion battles Zealots (done much more convincingly in Risen) – Severus, who has yet to receive marching orders from Antipas, spares Jesus, who has stumbled upon the fight. Severus says to Him and Mary and Joseph: “Next time, there’ll be no mercy.” An idle threat, of course.

The movie’s best sequence is the “Jesus and the teachers” scene, although here it’s set at the synagogue in Nazareth, not in Jerusalem and not during that Passover when the Lord’s parents realized the boy was not with them in the caravan, a reminder that “revealed in the Bible” may be sundered by structural convenience. And it doesn’t even make sense, since there’s a pretty good scene later on shot on a Jerusalem-temple set (during Passover), depicting a final confrontation between Jesus and Severus.

Sean Bean as Severus
Sean Bean as Severus

The Bible is often quoted in the film – sometimes at length – but to cite Scripture, which the Devil may do, is not to understand it, and this points to a much bigger problem than bad moviemaking. The Young Messiah‘s Christology is appalling.

The movie fails to grasp the truth about Christ’s knowledge of Himself. It suggests that this confused, questioning prodigy had to be taught that He is God. But were that the case, as it clearly is in the film, the boy would not be God.

Here’s a précis from the filmmakers’ website:

When the mystery of Jesus’ divinity begins to unfold in His early years, He turns to His parents for answers. But Mary and Joseph, in an effort to protect their child, are afraid to reveal all they know.

It is heresy to assert that His divinity was ever hidden from Jesus, that His awareness was developmental.

As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put it in a 1966 document about “popular” errors following Vatican II:

A certain Christological humanism is twisted such that Christ is reduced to the condition of an ordinary man who, at a certain point, acquired a consciousness of his divinity as Son of God.

In Gaudium et Spes (paraphrasing St. Paul in Hebrews 4:15), the Council fathers wrote that Jesus, “[b]orn of the Virgin Mary. . .has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin.” How could the 7-year-old Jesus have avoided sin if He were unaware of His divinity? (For a clear exposition of this infallible teaching, consult “Jesus’s Knowledge” by Fr. William G. Most.)

As the closing music swells, Jesus addresses his Heavenly Father: “Someday you’ll tell me why I’m here.”

To be clear, Pius XII wrote in Mystici Corporis (1943) that there was never a question in our Lord’s mind about his identity, never a moment of doubt:

For hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when He began to enjoy the Beatific Vision, and in that vision all the members of His Mystical Body were continually and unceasingly present to Him, and He embraced them with His redeeming love.

My wife actually fell asleep during the film, and was still rubbing her eyes as we were leaving the theater.

“Whatja think?” she asked.

I showed her my gravest countenance: You have to ask?

She nodded and shrugged.

“Well,” she yawned, “at least Sean Bean didn’t die.”

Actually, I suspect he did a little when he saw the final cut of The Young Messiah.


The Young Messiah is rated PG-13. There’s a bloody sword or two and several men crucified. With Adam Greaves-Neal as Jesus, Sara Lazzaro as His mother, and Vincent Walsh as Joseph, her husband. A bleach-blond Rory Keenan plays “The Demon.” The movie was filmed in Matera, Italy and at Rome’s Cinecittà studio.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.