The JESUS Film: Why Is This Film Historically Significant?

jesus film on a projector in front of a crowd in africa

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There is a lot of competition for the top-grossing films of all time. The earliest film you’ll see in the top 100 of history’s most-lucrative movies is 1994’s The Lion King. And eight of the top ten have come out since 2010. 

But did you know that the most watched and translated movie ever came out in 1979? By today’s standards, the JESUS film’s $6 million budget seems laughable. But it helped finance a remarkably accurate film focused on the clothing, pottery and props that faithfully depicted the culture of Jesus’ origin—even being filmed in Israel. 

A good example of this attention to detail can be seen in the fact that three whole days of filming were re-shot because eucalyptus trees were seen in some shots, and eucalyptus trees weren’t introduced into Palestine until long after Jesus’ time. 

Over time, this film, which is focused on the Gospel of Luke, was able to accomplish something that films with much more exorbitant financing and bigger celebrity names were not. 

The most-translated film in history 

In 2012, the JESUS film made the Guinness World Records for the most translated film of all time at 817 languages. As Jesus Film Project® has continued to add languages, this record has been beaten repeatedly. 

In 2022, we announced that, with the translation of the Zo language, the JESUS film had been translated into 2,000 languages.

It’s interesting to recognize that when JESUS was publicly identified as the most-translated film in history, it had been translated into 817 languages. In the 33 years between 1979 and 2012, 41 percent of the current translations had been completed. This means 59 percent have occurred in the last 11 years.

Over time, we’ve really dialed in the translation process, and new technologies and tools are helping us overcome obstacles in the process. We’re as committed as ever to presenting Jesus’ story to people for the first time in their heart language, and we’re constantly refining and streamlining the process.  

The most-watched film in history

By Hollywood standards, JESUS was a box-office failure when it was released in 1979. The film’s producer, John Heyman, created The Genesis Project intending to film the entire Bible. He approached Bill Bright from Cru to help fund the first film, a dramatic retelling of Luke’s Gospel. 

In 1977, Heyman, along with Paul Eshleman, the first executive director of Jesus Film Project, completed the JESUS film script—working with a committee of hundreds to do so.

Two years later, Warner Bros. released the movie in 250 theaters across the United States–a fairly comprehensive distribution plan for such an overtly Christian film. While it was popular with churchgoers upon its release, it failed to attract a broad audience, leaving Heyman’s Genesis Project deeply in debt—but God had other plans. 

The film quickly started racking up viewership internationally. It was first shown in Hindi to 21 million Indian viewers, and then the first JESUS film teams launched in the Philippines. To date, it is one of the most-watched films in the world, and most of these viewings have been pulled off by tiny crews showing the film on portable projectors and screens in town after town—village after village. 

With the advent of solar-powered battery chargers and equipment, the ability to bring the film to even more remote locations became a possibility. The rapidly expanding number of translations and the ability to share the film via solar-powered equipment, tablets, and the Jesus Film Project® app, ensure the audience for JESUS will only expand.

Making an eternal impact  

We are continuously humbled by the impact that JESUS has had around the world. The impact we’ve seen would be impossible if not for God’s gracious provision, and for our partners around the world who courageously share JESUS with others.

In an article entitled “‘The Passion’s’ Precedent: The Most-Watched Film Ever?” John Carpenter, the then provost of Calvin College, shared about an evangelist he met in Nigeria who planted 30 churches in non-Christian areas through screenings of the JESUS film. 

Carpenter said, “In Nigeria, people consume most of their media in English. When people see Jesus speaking in their tongue, they instantly identify with Him. He seems sent to them.”

When people experience Jesus’ story in their own heart language, it moves them. Since the release of the JESUS film, we’ve grown our collection of films in many languages, and more than 600 million people have decided to follow Jesus after viewing one of our films. 
If you’re interested in helping Jesus Film Project communicate the gospel to the unreached world, you can directly support the translation work and film teams in many ways. Let’s tell the world about Jesus.