Greatest Story Ever

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EFL Movie Study Guide for: The Greatest Story Ever Told


Story: This simple man never held a government post, led an army, wrote a book or did any of the things normally associated with greatness, but it is said that he did more to change human history than anyone else. See “the supreme epic and definitive screen version” of the life of Jesus, from his humble birth 2006 years ago (“Christmas”) to his horrible death and glorious resurrection (“Easter”). MANY of the best actors of that day begged to be in the all-star cast: Max Von Sydow as Jesus, supported by Charlton Heston, Jose Ferrer, John Wayne, Sidney Poitier, Telly Savalas, Angela Lansbury and more. (1965, historical drama; 5 Oscar nominations) The film is about 3.3 hours!

Note: Since this is a movie about a time in history very different from our own, it has many unusual words. If you become familiar with these terms before watching the film, you will get more out of watching it.


Since the international calendar dates back to the birth of Jesus, the time is around 0 AD to 30 AD. Israel has just finished a brief time of independence, but now Rome has conquered the area (and most of Europe and northern Africa). The Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) means that Greek is spoken “worldwide” and Rome’s army has built roads and maintains shipping lanes to make travel easy. But the people of Israel are stubborn; rebellions threaten “the Peace” and Rome deals harshly with these rebels by enslaving or killing them (one common and especially cruel form of death is nailing people to a cross). The movie starts by showing us that it is also a time of crime and poverty. Israel’s religious community has two major parts. The religious leaders have been forced to cooperate with Rome, and thus cannot really obey the Bible, although they do practice the traditional sacrifices and Temple-based worship that the Bible commands. Many common people are deeply religious, and are praying for “the Deliverer” whom God promised to send someday (see below).

The main source for this story was the Bible, but movie makers often change things and rearrange events in order to squeeze a person’s life into a few hours. The Bible assumes that readers will understand that God is at work in the world He created—it never “proves” such “obvious” supernatural things as the power of prayer, God’s role in some dreams, voices of people you can’t see, prophecy, the Truth of Scripture, etc. If you can temporarily suspend your own thoughts about such things, and think from the perspective of those who lived 2000 years ago, you will gain a deeper understanding of the story.

Note about “old English” and Biblical language. Throughout the movie, people quote sayings from the Bible (often chanting them in the background as prayers). The movie director tries to show us which quotes are “old” by using “old English.” For example, “thee” and “thou” used to mean “you,” and many verbs had “-est” or “-eth” endings that are no longer used. Here are some examples.

“But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. My soul doth wait for the Lord. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Thou shalt do homage to the Lord they God and serve Him only.”

“I am the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)

A few terms (vocabulary):

amnesty: an official order by a government that allows a prisoner to go free

adultery: the crime (according to the Bible) of having sex between someone who is married and someone who is not their wife or husband. (In the movie, Jesus tells someone who had been “caught in the act of adultery” to “Go your way and sin no more.”)

blasphemy: something you say or do that is insulting to God or people's religious beliefs. (Jesus was “charged with blasphemy” for saying that he was God’s Son when he used the holy Name of God to refer to himself, that is by answering “I Am.”)

burden: something difficult or worrying that you are responsible for

burial: to put a dead person into a grave. (In the movie, Mary pours expensive perfume on Jesus, and he says she is “preparing me for my burial;” this showed that he knew that he was soon going to die before it happened.)

crippled: someone who is unable to walk properly because their legs are damaged or injured (this term is now considered offensive, but it wasn’t when the movie was made). In the movie, Jesus says “walk in the light,” and a crippled man says “I cannot walk; are you mocking me?”

cross (verbs: to crucify/crucified): a wooden structure criminals were nailed to as a form of execution (i.e., used by the Romans to kill prisoners). You will see that the Romans did this often, and on at least two occasions they did it to hundreds of rebels—and lined the road with the dying bodies. It could take from a few hours to a few days to die, depending on how much they torture you before crucifixion.

disciple: a student who traveled with his teacher in order to learn what he taught and how he lived, with the goal of someday passing on to others “all that the teacher did and said”

gold, frankincense, myrrh: three expensive gifts that were given to Jesus when he was a baby (frank-incense was burned to make a king’s home smell good; myrrh was especially used when a king died)

heresy: a belief that disagrees with the official principles of a particular religion

homage: see worship

imposter: someone who pretends to be someone else in order to trick people

miracle: an action or event caused by God, which is impossible according to the ordinary laws of nature. (The Bible teaches that miracles can happen when people put their faith in God into action.)

mourners: people who are expressing sadness after a loved one dies

pilgrims: a religious person who travels a long way to a holy place (such as those who make the annual trip to Jerusalem for the Passover festival)

pious: showing strong religious belief through the way you live (opposite: impiety)

prophesy: see “people” prophet

sacrifice: when you decide not to have something valuable, in order to get something that is more important; in a religious context, a “perfect” animal was killed to “pay” for the giver’s sin, thus showing God that you understand how valuable forgiveness is. One important quote is, “God desires love not sacrifice” (that is, as important as sacrifice is, loving God and loving your neighbor is an even better way to show that you are pious)

sedition: speech, writing, or actions intended to encourage people to disobey a government

sin: according to the Bible, sin is every human act that falls short of the perfection God intended for humans; all sin separates people from God, and the only way to “pay” for sin was through blood sacrifice

sorcery: magic that uses the power of evil forces (contrasted with “miracles”)

superstitions: practices based on the belief that some objects or actions are lucky, are unlucky, or cause events to happen (this is different from “religious practices” based on a belief that some actions are right or wrong according to God or religious teachings)

treason/treasonous: the crime of being disloyal to your country or its government, especially by trying to replace the government. (When Rome heard people tell Jesus “You are our king” they considered it treason.)

worship: something you do to show love and respect for God; formal (old): to do homage


A few verbs (more vocabulary):

to baptize: to put people in water (or pour water on them) after they promise to turn away from sin. (A person who does this religious ceremony is called a baptist.)

to crucify/crucified: see cross

to fast: to eat nothing for between several hours to 40 days, esp. to show or build religious faith or before a medical procedure (“I’m fasting”)

to flee: to run away

to repent: to turn from sin (often spoken as a command “Repent!”)

to save (salvation): to rescue someone or make someone safe from danger, harm, or destruction (salvation means to be saved)

to tempt: to try to get someone to want or to do something, even though they know they really should not


People and proper nouns:

Andrew, Peter, John, James: Jesus’ four closest disciples

Augustus Caesar: The Roman leader in charge of a vast empire at the time of Jesus’ birth

Governor Pilate: The Roman governor who ruled in Jerusalem, and who ordered Jesus to be executed by being put on the cross (for the crime of treason)

(the) grand Sanhedrin: the highest court in the Jewish religion of the first century; a part of the Sanhedrin convicted Jesus of blasphemy and sought to have him executed by the Roman governor

Lazarus, Mary, Martha: a family who lived in Bethany; they had a particularly close relationship with Jesus

Jesus has many titles, including “The Word,” the Nazareen, Master, Messiah (see below), Christ, etc.

Judas Iscariot (Judas betrayed him for money, according to the scriptures; a writing that dates back to the 3rd century claims that Judas was Jesus closest friend and makes him a more likable character—this movie tries to make us pity Judas)

King David: Israel’s first and greatest king (about 1000 BC); prophets had said that one day a descendent (“David’s son”) would be the Messiah, who would rule forever

King Herod the Great: King of Israel when Jesus was born. He was a particularly cruel man who killed some of his own sons to keep them from taking his kingship. When Herod died, Rome divided his kingdom into four parts (each called a tetrarchy) and one was ruled by Herod’s son Herod Antipas (who was the ruler of Galilee when Jesus was killed)

Lord Caiaphas/ the High Priest: the highest Jewish leader, who didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah and thus pressured Governor Pilate to execute Jesus on the cross

(continued in other column)

(continued from other column)


Mary Magdalene: a woman who Jesus set free from many demons, and who later became his follower. (A popular book/movie called The Da Vinci Code tells the untrue story of Jesus marrying Mary and then living a “normal” human life, and of how the early Christians lied about this marriage. The popularity of the book had led many people to think it is true!)

Messiah, the Promised One, Son of David, Son of Man, Son of God, Deliverer, Christ: These are all titles for a descendent of King David who would one day come to restore God’s kingdom on earth, first as the “suffering servant” whose self-sacrifice could buy forgiveness (to restore personal union with God), and then later as the King of the Earth; many religious leaders in Jesus’ day thought both of these “times” would be at the same time, which is part of why they didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah

Pharisees: a Jewish leader who tried to strictly obey God’s law; but many misunderstood God’s law and Jesus often spoke about their misunderstandings

priest: a religious leader or teacher; someone who is supposed to bring people closer to God (In the movie you will see that some are good, and others have this title but do not act the way they should)

prophet: a man who people in the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim religion believe has been sent by God to lead them and teach them; prophets told people “what God is saying” and sometimes God used them to say what would happen in the future (called prophecy)

Rabbi: a title of respect for Jewish teachers

Satan has many names: the devil/the tempter/the father of lies/the author of sin, etc. He is usually invisible—actually he is a fallen angel—but he’s illustrated here as an old man you meet on top of a mountain and then see at other times, sometimes in the background. Note: in general, since he is a liar one should believe the opposite of what he says; e.g., at one point he tempts Jesus by saying “Life should be easy, not difficult.”

Your Majesty: the title you use to address a king

(The) Day of the Lord: the future time when the prophets said the Messiah would come to restore justice throughout the earth, bringing all evil to a violent end (thus it was to be a “wonderful, terrible time”)

(The) Last Supper/Communion/the Bread and Wine: Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, the night he was arrested; it is now a religious practice that helps all Christians worldwide remember that Jesus’ sacrifice saved them and unites them, regardless of their differences (Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, which is shed for the forgiveness of sins.”)

Passover: an important annual Jewish festival, remembering when their ancestors were saved from slavery in Egypt

Palm Sunday: the day Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem with a special parade and great joy, just a few days before he was crucified


Selected quotes:

(This is a modern version of the Bible text used at the start of the movie) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness grasped it not (i.e., did not comprehend it). John chapter 1:1-5

Ravens neither sow nor reap yet God feeds them. How much more are you worth than birds? Luke 12:24

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. John 8:7

Blessed are…the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9

My house shall be a house of prayer (for all nations) but you have made it a den of thieves. Mark 11:17

Peter, before the cock crows you will have thrice denied me. Luke 22:34

My Kingdom is not of this world. I came into this world that I might give witness to what is true, and everyone who loves the truth listens to me. John 18:36-37


Intermission thought and preview:

The Passion—the rest of the movie depicts what is sometimes called “The Passion of Jesus”--a series of illegal trials and severe beatings, torture, and crucifixion. Before the Romans crucified a criminal (i.e., nailed his hands and feet to a cross), they scourged him—a “scourge” is a special whip with many leather tongues, each of which has bone fragments in it; the scourge tore off a man’s skin and caused severe bleeding, which helped the victim to die in less time once he was crucified. This horrible torture isn’t shown in this movie because children would be watching this film. Mel Gibson’s film The Passion shows the horror, but it is not for people with a weak stomach. After being scourged, Jesus carried his cross through the streets, fell, and an African (from Cyrene) was forced to help. Once he was nailed to the cross, one of the most remarkable things he said was: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” When he died (about 3 pm) it became as dark as night, there was a terrible storm and an earthquake. He was put into a tomb. The next day was the Jewish holy day, so people were not allowed to go to the tomb; however the Jewish and Roman leaders guarded the tomb so that no one could steal the dead body. On the third day he rose from the dead. Forty days later (after teaching his disciples many things) he rose up into heaven.

The way most Chinese people think is very different from the way Jewish people thought in the first century (and the way Christians continue to think today worldwide). To understand this story from their perspective, maybe you should think this way: “What if this were true? A good God gave people freedom to act good or bad (called freewill—this is important because without freewill there can never be ‘love’); people chose bad (called sin) as much as they chose good/love; their sin was destroying the ‘good’ world God had made; so what could God do to fight the effect of sin without taking away the freewill he prized so highly? That is, if God wanted to demonstrate the path of love, goodness, and self-sacrifice, what would it look like?”



1. After Mary, Martha and Lazarus met Jesus, one of the sisters said: “I fear for him; he’s too good.” What do you think she meant?

2. The film description says: “This simple man never held a government post, led an army, wrote a book or did any of the things normally associated with greatness…” However, what other things does Jesus have in common with history’s “great” people? In other words, what was it about him that deeply affected the people around him?

3. One of the things that has made his teachings popular for 2000 years is that the stories he told were memorable. See if you can retell (in your own words) any of the stories or sayings brought up in the movie (or that you have heard somewhere else).

4. The film description also says: “…but it is said that he did more to change human history than anyone else.” See if you can explain this statement, and give some reasons for why it is true. In what ways has Jesus “changed human history”? If he has changed your life, tell us about it.

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© 2007 Michael Krigline, all rights reserved. As far as I am concerned, people are allowed to print/copy it for personal or classroom use.

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