Beliefs Culture Ethics Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Why a Muslim actor plays Jesus in Bill O’Reilly’s ‘Killing Jesus’ TV special

The Lebanese-born Haaz Slieman says he was excited to portray Jesus, a person he describes as “the ultimate teacher” who has “heavily influenced” his life. - Image courtesy of the National Geographic Channel
The Lebanese-born Haaz Slieman says he was excited to portray Jesus, a person he describes as “the ultimate teacher” who has “heavily influenced” his life. - Image courtesy of the National Geographic Channel

The Lebanese-born Haaz Sleiman says he was excited to portray Jesus, a person he describes as “the ultimate teacher” who has “heavily influenced” his life. – Image courtesy of the National Geographic Channel

“Bless you for playing Jesus, peace be upon him.”

This was the reaction of Lebanese-born actor Haaz Sleiman’s mother upon learning that her son had been cast as Jesus in National Geographic Channel’s “Killing Jesus.” The three Abrahamic religions will collide on March 29 when the television special premieres, and the 24-year-old Muslim actor stars as Jesus, the Jewish rabbi that Christians believe was God in the flesh.

The television movie is adapted from the New York Times bestselling book by Fox News host and Roman Catholic Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Sleiman digested the book among others in preparation for the role. He says he was excited to portray Jesus, a person he describes as “the ultimate teacher” who has “heavily influenced” his life.

Both the book and film retell Jesus’ crucifixion and accounts of his resurrection. Muslims do not believe either of these events occurred, and although Sleiman says he was not aware of these historical discrepancies prior to accepting the role, they were not concerns for him.

“As an actor my number one focus was to be on the same page with the writer, director, and producers,” he said.

Image courtesy of Henry Holt & Co.

NatGeo’s TV special is adapted from the bestselling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard – Image courtesy of Henry Holt & Co.

Christians believe that Jesus was both divine and human, while Muslims accept only his humanity. The script’s focus on this aspect of Jesus is something that Sleiman said was important to him.

“The idea that we got to focus on the humanity of Jesus was very inspiring and empowering to me,” Sleiman said. “It is what Jesus came to show us, the beauty of humanity and the love we are capable of having towards one another; even to love your own enemy.”

When Sleiman was asked for his reaction to any disapproval from conservative Christians to a Muslim playing Jesus, the actor replied, “I cannot speak for Jesus, but I can quote his teachings and he said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’… How would he react to me playing Jesus? He wouldn’t judge it. He wouldn’t judge his own enemy … playing this part highlights his teaching in a very nice way.”

But even some conservative Christians who are uncomfortable with Sleiman playing Jesus should be pleased by the effort to cast a person of Middle Eastern decent in its lead role. Ridley Scott, executive producer on “Killing Jesus,” was widely criticized for casting white actors to play Egyptians and Hebrews in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and for saying it would have been impossible to finance the movie by casting “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”

Scott’s reasoning didn’t seem to apply to this film, and during the week preceding Easter, television audiences can decide for themselves whether it was the right choice.

Sleiman says that he hopes people of all faiths, including Muslims, will watch “Killing Jesus” on Sunday, March 29 at 8 pm on the National Geographic channel and be transformed by Jesus like he has been.

“Today more than ever we need to apply [Jesus’] teachings in our lives,” he said.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • That Muslim is going to be in big trouble with jihadists for promoting what they call Christian lies – the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. But Muslims do believe that Jesus ascended into heaven.

    Perhaps this movie will provoke Muslims to do a Muslim version of the life of Jesus (and Mary, he’s never mentioned in the Quran without being associated with his mother).

    I think Muslims who see this movie might have their faith undermined. And so would Christians who saw a Muslim version of the life of Jesus. And others would grow skeptical about the competing Gods of different religions.

  • I am excited about seeing this movie and very glad they finally cast someone of Middle Eastern descent to portray Christ. Jesus hailed from Palestine and I’ve never understood why this has been such an issue in dramatic portrayals of his life.

    I’m also excited about the focus on Christ as rabboni (teacher). As a Christian I do indeed believe Jesus was 100% God and 100% man, and his death and resurrection was the central purpose of his coming. Yet I also find His teaching very compelling, and I know many Muslims and Jews also do, as well.

    I would like to organize some sort of a discussion group where all three religions were represented, so we could talk about our perceptions of the movie and how it aligns with holy Scriptures of all three faiths. Rather than a “collision” of the three major faiths, perhaps it could be more like a convergence?

  • Jonathan, have you ever wondered why so many movies and Television specials are on the beating, crucifying, and killing Jesus? Sure they have been some attempts to show the life of Jesus, but why all the interest in crucifying Him? Yes, this is the Easter season, but isn’t it being overdone? Could it be we want to just keep Him on the cross and be sorry for the pain He suffered instead of doing what we find painful. You know, actually attempting to live out what He taught. Actually giving Christ’s message by living it out. Accepting everyone, not stand in judgment of anyone.

    Remember Kermit the Frog, “it’s not easy being green.” When I mess up so bad that my humility actually overcomes my ego, I’m reminded, “its not easy being Christian.”

    Leave Jesus on the Cross? No, because I do like Easter Sunday, the wonderful hope of the empty tomb. The resurrected Christ speaking to the disciples. It’s just this going on to Jerusalem and wait in an upper room for the Holy Spirit is not so inviting. Well experiencing the Holy Spirit is great, but…its just that then I have to go and live out the commission and the teachings of Christ. I wonder how long I can just stay and pay rent on that upper room. Nah, boring, maybe give it a shot.

  • The man is an actor..-not Jesus. Jesus is honored by Muslims, and the story of the life of Jesus took place some 700 years before Islam came about.

    He needs to be afraid of his own people, though, they are not the clearest thinkers today.

  • The script’s focus is on the humanity of Jesus.

    That’s nice, but for a man who spoke mostly about heaven, healing, His heavenly Father, salvation & His death and resurrection – I say, “What’s the point”?

    It’s like producing a movie on Barak Obama’s love of hopscotch! Nice but….?

  • Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:16

    He’s either a liar, a lunatic or Lord – he can’t be just a “man” like the muslims believe.

  • “Try one on one eyeball to eyeball, loving them and giving the gospel which is still the power of God unto salvation.”

    That’s precisely what I mean by “convergence.” Collision says (to me), “Let’s fight.” Convergence says, “Let’s talk.”

    “just to cuss and discuss Jesus being just a teacher” …

    Jesus was not “just” a teacher, and I think I made that clear. But, if the power of His teaching draws me and others to sit at His feet and listen, isn’t that a good thing?

    “Rick Warren has beat you to it.”

    I knew there was something I liked about that guy!

  • Mr.Lewis,I’ll tell you the same thing I told someone on another post who mouthed similar nonsense: You don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.

  • Yawn…I find it fascinating when a person doesn’t realize how unutterably boring and tiresome he/she has become in their fulminations against that which is simply beyond their grasp…YOU grow up,Atheist Max.You’ll NEVER, EVER win this Don Quixote-esqe quest of utter futility.I must confess,I simply do not get what you’re trying to prove here.Men (and women) far smarter and presumably way better educated than you or I have tried to overthrow the TRUE and LIVING GOD,and they’re all in their graves and Christ endures,and will endure.You cannot,and will not win.

  • It just seems that since Muslims are committed to conveying the truth about Jesus that a Muslim could not in good conscience fill the role portraying Jesus as something he knows is not consistent with Islam. It may be the Muslim actor is committing Islamic Shirk, or possibly committing apostasy or blasphemy by misrepresenting Prophet Isa (Muslim Jesus), since Isa wasn’t crucified and didn’t die on a cross.

  • So…according to YOU,Mr.Eyrich,”Isa”,the muslim”jesus”wasn’t crucified and didn’t die on a cross …and your point is what, exactly? Whoever this”Isa”was,that’s probably true.But my question is: What does that have to do with the Crucified,Resurrected Jesus the Christ? Whoever you’re referring to,this “Isa”,has nothing to do with Yeshua Ha Mashciach,The Saviour of all mankind,The True Son of the Living God,someone the 600-year after-the-fact Quran can say nothing meaningful concerning.So…Big Fail,try again.

  • Naive and ridiculous. Yeshua is not the Isa of Muhammed’s Quran. They believe in a false Jesus. Jesus Christ is the LORD God. John 10:30, He did not say he was like the Father, if so, the Jews wouldnt have taken up stones to kill Him. The Muslim is right about one thing, the book Killing Jesus is pagan heresy; God, Elohim, would be separated from care about a pagan in a pagan play or movie.

    Repent! Repent from your sins, forsake old ways, trust your life completely to the Risen Lord God, Jesus Christ. Luke 24:45-47, 14:33, John 3:14-15. All will submit to the Lord Jesus Christ one day, not to Muhammed’s Allah. Philippians 2:8-10, Revelation 20:15. It is to love one’s enemies by telling the truth.

  • LC Ringo, u are so right to tell Atheist Max that God will never be overthrown by the likes of him! Every knee WILL bow & tongue confess Jesus Christ is Lord.
    I watched a pile of crap last night on tv called The Atheists”…DeWitt and others who are pretending to be so happy as atheists that they just can’t leave us Christians alone in our true happiness. They want company in hell or are afraid to go , so they try to convert as many of us as they can to join them. They are the ones w/no peace. Atheist, stay
    within your own group. Quit trying to make us as unhappy as u are and lying about it!
    I am disappointed that Bill O’Reilly would agree to let a Muslim even depict our Lord & Saviour. That’s not going to get any Muslim saved. Only God pouring out His spirit of grace and supplication can do that. Many Christians probably won’t watch “Killing Jesus”, for that reason.
    The Quran is very clear on slicing the necks of Christians. Watch Dr Jack Van Impe to really learn about Islam.

  • Philip, according to Muslim teachings, they have an Isa Muslim Jesus who comes in the future and comes to takeover from our Christian Jesus. I don’t know how to explain it but heard Dr Jack Van Impe talk about it. He appears to be more knowledgeable on the Quran; has memorized portions of it and teaches weekly about the future and Islam & how they oppose Christianity.

  • Larry, are u crazy to think Rick Warren has the right idea to combine Islam w/Christianity and make a new Bible recognizing the Isa Muslim Jesus who comes to denounce our Jesus and set himself up as the Muhammad savior of the world and kick our Jesus out. Rick wants to call the combined religion Chrislom. He’s turned coat! God says there will be NO OTHER GOD before Him!! What part of that don’t u understand???? There’s NO converging of these two EVER! Get real. Rick Warren is SICK….

  • Helen, I’m unsure you’re aware, or not, that this is what you are doing: but the Bible clearly condemns those who spread false and malicious rumors.

    Simply Googling “Rick Warren” and “Chrislam” (which is the correct spelling) tells the sad story. Many disreputable sites are perpetuating this malicious rumor. Reputable sites are dispelling it. For instance, Warren addresses the Van Impe lie directly on Charisma News: “The so-called ‘Chrislam’ rumor is 100 percent false. If the guy who started this libelous myth, or anyone else who passed it on, had obeyed our Lord’s command (Matt. 18:18-20) to come directly to me, and then asked what I actually believed—they would have been embarrassed to learn that I believe the exact opposite. As a fourth generation Christian pastor, my life and ministry is built on the truth that Jesus is the only way, and our inerrant Bible is our only true authority.”

    And validates his defense:

    “Does Rick Warren endorse Chrislam? No. Period. ‘Mature’ Christians should really be more discerning. It’s funny how often I hear Christian leaders encourage believers to be more “discerning” about doctrinal error and how we should be “exposing” false teaching. I agree (and so does Rick Warren), but what’s sad is that there doesn’t seem to be any expectation that mature believers should be equally discerning about malicious, unfounded gossip.”

    So please stop it.

  • If Jesus is honored by Muslims why are so many Christians being slaughtered in Muslim Countries? I he is honored, they should respect the people who believe in him.
    The answer is that Jesus is one of many prophets in the Koran, that’s all. Their mandate from their Prophet is hate, and violence toward anyone who does not believe and no matter what you do to serve Allah you still are not guaranteed admittance to their earthly heaven which apparently has only hedonistic pleasures of lust as eternal paradise. The only way to get there for sure they are taught is to commit violent jihad against all who don’t believe what they do. So what is the reward for Muslim women in paradise? I don’t think they care to have lustful sex for eternity, that sounds like an earthly man’s fantasy.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if the person who is playing Jesus sees the light and converts to Christianity.

  • Well, Mr. Larry, you pretty much have to buy into Rachel Maddow’s whole liberal political agenda to connect the dots on that one. But smear away if you must.

  • I think it’s a damn disgrace that Director Bill O Reilly would have a Muslim play the part of Jesus clearly all mr O Rielly cares about is money. I don’t care how good of an actor this guy is ,I care about the fact that Muslims hate Jews Muslims are beheading and murdering Christians and Jews every chance they get . This is an insult and a slap in the face to all Jews and to all Christians …. I will not watch this disgraceful movie and my opinion has changed of Mr O Rielly !!!!

  • Religion is stupid. The idea of following a book that has been poorly deciphered and had Man pick and choose which chapters were kept and thrown away. Not one person that is Religious really follows the ‘Word’, so what is the point of living a contradictory life? Lying to yourself that your going to heaven. When behind closed doors your just as sinful as those that claim no religion. The burden of proof is on the believer-
    I just think it is sad that Religious people will use Science everyday in their lives- Food-Water-Time-Car-House-Phone-Computer-etc
    Religious people will accept and use 99% of what Science provides and says is true-
    But the .1% that Science says is not real and could not of happen they believe more than anything else. Its Ironic that Religious people will use Science to try and disprove Science.
    Sorry. It doesn’t work like that.
    Religious people are really weak minded people that were programmed as children to believe in something that is not real, and has absolutely no effect on your life other than Questioning your own beliefs. Im ok with knowing when I die, thats it. Theres no place to go. Think of the trillions of people that have already died on this planet.
    Like I said, the burden of proof is on the believer.
    Not one person in these United States would be accepted into heaven.
    Every religious person I have ever met is Hypocritical, Condescending, And believes they are going to Heaven…
    Hope theyre skinnier than the eye of a needle…

  • I am trying to keep an open mind about the Muslim actor portraying Jesus Christ. However, after seeing Bill O’Reilly’s interview with the actor, I am disappointed and a little insulted that this Muslim actor can make comments as he did. He said that Jesus was “playing the game” and acting out the parts to fulfill the prophecies – such as the scene in the Temple when Jesus overturned the money changers tables. Jesus did what was in his heart – he fulfilled the prophecies as a result of following what was in his heart. He turned over the moneychangers tables because he was furious at what they were doing to the sanctity of the Temple. How did Jesus “play the game” by being born in Bethlehem and being in the lineage of David as was foretold in the prophecies? Someone who was raised Muslim and reads a script to portray Jesus does not know the Lord and, certainly, does not know his heart.

  • Take a deep breath, dude;you’re hyperventilating…Wow.Are you related to Atheist Max? You and he both sound equally boring and tiresome.Get over yourself,Richard Paige III.

  • Quran 4:157 clearly tells the anyone in Islam believes that Isa was neither crucified, nor killed. It says, “And because they said (in boast): “We killed the Messiah, Isa (Christ, Jesus) the son of Maryam (Mary), the messenger of Allah;” — But they did not kill him, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ in this (matter) are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge; They follow nothing but idle talk, for sure they did not kill him”

    The Bible, and all first century testimony, is clear that Jesus was crucified and died by the same. Only 600 years afterward does Islam appear telling otherwise. Interesting that the Quran admits that people did claim and believe Jesus died by crucifixion, even if it claims those people are in error.

    I prefer to stay with the earliest witnesses, among whom are the apostles, and Paul, saying the same message as recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:

    “1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; 2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. 3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: 5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: 6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. 7 After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. 8 And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. 11 Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.
    12 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: 14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. 15 Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. 16 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: 17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. 18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”

  • Please see my comment/reply to Helen below.

    1 Peter 3:15 But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:

  • Good stuff, Mr.Eyrich!! (Sorry if I misunderstood you earlier; sometimes my passion for the Lord God’s honor overwhelm’s me,and I forget 2nd Timothy 2:24-26,LOL!).At any rate,God bless you,and as always: Stay on your face (In prayer!),and stay in The Word!

  • Hmm…Your supposed”version”of Islam is just as strange as those you presume to excoriate,Alya.Since you admit you’re not a Muslim,I’m not sure what makes you think whatever knowledge of this religion you’ve gained,perhaps from some alternate sources heretofore unknown to standard Islamic scholarship,is somehow more accurate.Sure,it can be admitted that to a great extent the narrative of Islam has been somewhat skewed,but Muslims themselves are largely to blame for that.But that’s for another time.The sentence you wrote that caught my eye was this:…”Apostasy in Christianity is also punishable by death”…Sorry,but I have to insist that you prove that statement by verifiable Scriptural citations.Otherwise,you will show yourself grossly ignorant of the subject matter you’re presuming to be knowledgeable about.I await your reply.

  • So why is killing people such a pastime for so many who follow Islam? And why are there so few following Islam who condemn those doing the killing?

  • For starters you left out some stuff.
    Free choice, because we are NOT slaves to God.
    Sin, because God is good, and only good. Everything else is not of God.
    Satan, because without the rouge angle we might have never known sin.

  • I will not watch the show. Jesus was a Jew. to have a Muslim portray Jesus is a sacrilege. But why am I not surprised! a Muslim was elected president twice.

  • Am I the only one who think it’s a really good idea? When I read the comments, I see only hatred for muslims and the work of a Christian. Just: why???? Muslims are our neighbors and God calls us to love each one, bless our enemies, and pray for those who do evil.
    Well, apparently, love is not very welcomed even by “christian” people… Can’t you just rejoice because God is using unexpected people to glorify Himself? Personaly, I worship Him for this great opportunity!!

  • “Am I the only one who think it’s a really good idea? ” I would hope you were the only one but unfortunately you are not.

  • I would really be concerned if I thought this O’Reilly piece of junk actually was worth any thing, O’Reilly is an arrogant self absorbed man who does not believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. He believes Genesis is a fairytale. He is not even a good Roman Catholic as if that would allow him to escape the wrath of God to come. By the way he talks he actually thinks his book is more factual than the Bible. What a poor blind lost man..

  • I will not be watching Killing Jesus! I noticed O’Reilly looked a little uncomfortable when the Muslim actor who plays Jesus (oxymoron) , told him what his mom said about him playing Jesus. For awhile there, I thought this guy was going to start praising Allah and praying like that other guy in the Rose Garden. Very ackward! My choice to watch or not. That scene, where the mob is about to atone the adulterous woman and the Muslim playing Jesus, telling the mob, the he who is without sin, throw the first stone, is EPIC!! Isn’t this what Islam teaches, stone the adulter. I’m glad Christianity has moved on from the Old Testament to the New, all due to Jesus. ISLAM is a much older religion, I wonder why they insist in living out this archaic barbaric religion, cult, ideology. My opinion, O’Reilley made a bad decision to choose this guy, I’m positive there are many talented actors that could have played Jesus, who believe in Him as Lord and Savior of at the very least one that does not represent a Religion that beheads Christians.

  • I can’t believe this! It’s an insult to Christians. We go from Mel Gibson’s – Jim Caviezel a good Christian man, to a muslim, come on Bill, this is a new low, even for you.

  • Katia, you are absolutely correct. Isn’t it the devil himself that enjoys slander, division, anarchy, arrogance, vanity, and pure hatred? Shame on all of you who revile others. Jesus was a Jew, but preached the gospel to enlighten those of faith (The Jews) to a new faith that 300 years later will have its own book, “The Bible”. He spoke Aramaic, a language still spoken in modern day Bethlehem and Nazareth in the West Bank. He looked more like this actor than he did “the blonde depiction”. Anyone here trying to reengage in fighting the crusades, does not represent true Christianity.

  • wonderful suggestion i’m a muslim i don’t understand why christian, muslim and jews fight so much while our books, scripture, prophet are same and we all believe in same God

  • Yes, Tariq, the world would be a much better place if we focused more on our commonalities, and less on our differences, wouldn’t it? God bless you!

  • Would you rather that Yeshua play a blue eyed Blond head hippy white man.
    And do not forget White people have hung and killed thousands of innocent African American people and hung them on trees. Each African American they hung in a tree, beat and killed, they did it to the Son of the Living Yahweh the living God. It was refreshing to see a Christ who would have look like he was suppose to look, although at that time Yeshua would have been much darker and features much heaver and ethnic. He was not mixed with any other nationality for He was a descendant of Abraham a Hebrew. American Hollywood want to keep Yeshua white and so many of you, because your racist hearts refuse to worship Yeshua who was a man of color and more dark than olive. Scriptures prophesied that Christ would not be good looking on the outward appearance but what was inside him his people would know him. What is clear in these last days those who call themselves Jews, Christians, Muslim….all will have to have a experience like Paul in the last days where the scales fall from their eyes, that they become blind so they can see and gain a new perspective who the risen Yeshua is and what He wants us to do. Those who are led by the Spirit are the True sons of the Living God.

  • So Alex, in your ignorance you have watch liars in Hollywood create a false blond head and blue eyed Jesus and white people have slaughter millions of African Americans only a few hundreds years ago. Some of your ancestors would kill African Americans on Sunday and then go to Church and worship their white Jesus. You are deceived if you believed like this. For in essence they were not worshiping Yeshua the Son of Yahweh the living God. They were worshiping a false imagine and picking and choosing what they wanted to in the Scriptures. Those who hate other nationalities are murders in their hearts the scriptures says. So you hate the POTUS and anyone else that makes you a murder like your ancestors who are in Hell with Hitler who kill millions of Jews.

  • Katia what you see is blind people who are only religious evil Pharisees full of murder in their hearts. These murderers who accuse the Muslims of what they are doing, ancestors not to long ago have killed millions of African Americans in heinous ways. They have the same spirit as their ancestors claiming to be Christians bur have deep concealed hatred in their hearts. Yeshua would called them vipers and murders for it is in their hearts. You hear it in these post. These people are stumbling blocks for those who do not believe.

  • What is clear in these last days those who call themselves Jews, Christians, Muslim….all will have to have a experience like Paul in the last days where the scales fall from their eyes, that they become blind so they can see and gain a new perspective who the risen Yeshua is and what He wants us to do.
    Does this include you also?

  • Larry is not going to listen to you Helen, he is drowning in Rick Warren’s slobber over chrislam and other false teachings.