Bible translation is as old as the church—older, even, when you take the Septuagint into account. From Jamaican Patois to Filipino Taglish and New Zealander Māori, translators today are still seeking to faithfully render Scripture for particular communities and cultures.

Subtitling is a kind of translation too. There are whole ministries devoted to dubbing and creating captions for Bible movies and TV shows, including The Jesus Film and The Chosen.

But what if you’re trying to reach people who communicate primarily not through spoken words, but with their hands and facial expressions? How can that act of translation bring new aspects of Scripture to life?

These are the questions behind Deaf Missions, a 50-year-old organization that began its ministry by making VHS tapes of American Sign Language (ASL) New Testament translations and distributing them in the mail. In 2020, Deaf Missions finished the first-ever complete translation of the Bible into ASL. In 2018, they put out a dramatic film, The Book of Job, now available for free on the Deaf Missions app.

Now, Deaf Missions has released Jesus: A Deaf Missions Film. The movie premiered at the Deaf Missions Conference in Texas last April and will be playing in theaters across the US on June 20.

Jesus was produced by a Deaf cast and crew for a primarily Deaf audience. That’s evident in ways aside from the use of ASL. Peter sees rather than hears the rooster crow. There’s a tight close-up on the ear cut off of the high priest’s servant.

Some of the film’s scenes put a uniquely Deaf spin on the biblical story. Jesus gives Simon the fisherman a “name sign” meaning Peter. When Jesus is crucified, the loss of his hands effectively means the loss of his voice—resulting in a bleaker Crucifixion sequence than similar films have portrayed.

Film critic Peter Chattaway spoke with Joseph D. Josselyn, who directed Jesus after serving as a producer on The Book of Job. He spoke over Zoom with two interpreters—one who translated his verbal speech into signs, another who translated Josselyn’s signs into verbal speech. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why make a film in ASL? What does a film made in ASL give an audience that subtitles or captions don’t offer?

That is a wonderful question to start with. As a Deaf person, my language—our language—is sign language, and sign language includes facial expressions and body movement. I can understand English—I can read captions—but those are separate from what’s happening on screen. They’re disconnected. I have to look to see the action and then look down to see the subtitles.

Article continues below

For a Deaf person, when we see something in sign language, it’s all there; there’s no barrier. I can connect with that actor or that signer immediately. Right now, this whole conversation is a bit cumbersome because we’ve got an interpreter and there’s this lag—whereas if it’s Deaf-to-Deaf, that core connection is uninhibited.

In developing the Jesus film, what kind of decisions did you face? How did they affect the way stories were told?

To cite one example, all four Gospels talk about Jesus saying things on the cross. But when you speak in sign language and your hands have nails through them, you’re not able to speak. I thought what your film did with the Crucifixion was really interesting.

As we were developing the script, we operated with two key principles. First, we knew we didn’t want to do a direct word-for-word translation of what’s in the Bible, so to speak. We wanted to look through Scripture as a whole and really say, “Okay, what was the message of Jesus? How did Jesus show his love?”

And then the second thing that we thought about as we were developing the script was making sure that we’re true to Deaf culture by looking at the story of Jesus through the lens of a Deaf person. All the actors—all of the people involved—are signers.

Regarding the Crucifixion: We wrestled with that scene. We thought, Well, do we stick an interpreter there to sign what would be said? Or depend only on the captions? If a Deaf person has their hands down, how would they express something? You saw what we did. We wanted to be as natural as possible in that moment.

I was also intrigued by some of the narrative choices you made. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the entire story of Jesus told in a flashback from the day of Pentecost, when people come to see the disciples speaking in tongues—and that was interesting too, the fact that the film begins with sign languages in tongues.

We wrestled with the opening and closing. We didn’t necessarily want to start with the birth of Jesus and then move chronologically. And we were thinking about diversity as well. So, Peter standing there talking about Jesus—we thought, Okay, wait a minute. What if we start with that and then go back and walk through the timeline and then wrap up with that scene, too? And everybody was in agreement that that was the best way to do it.

Article continues below

So in the Pentecost scene, were the disciples speaking in other sign languages?

Yes, yes, they were. I asked the 12 actors to do research on some different sign languages. There was some African sign language happening there, a couple different countries in Asia that use different sign languages. I asked them to sign some of the same phrases but in different sign languages—“God is good,” “God saves.”

This film is graphic at times. There’s the woman with the issue of blood (Matt. 9:20–22; Mark 5:25–34; Luke 8:43–48) and also the scourging of Jesus.

Regarding the bleeding woman, we really wanted to portray her suffering. Being a Deaf audience we’re very, very visual—very dependent on that. When we did our first edit, it was a lot less graphic and actually kind of hard to see unless you knew what was happening.

Same thing with the scourging. We wanted to somehow show Jesus’ suffering for us; our team had a lot of conversation about it. Of course, we’re all familiar with the Mel Gibson movie, and we didn’t want to copy that per se, but we didn’t want to minimize Christ’s suffering either.

It seems like there’s been an increased focus on Deaf actors in films and shows like A Quiet Place, CODA, Only Murders in the Building, Echo, and Hawkeye. The Chosen has leaned into its portrayal of characters who have disabilities: Little James has a limp, Matthew is autistic. How do you see your film as part of that increasing representation of people with disabilities?

I am so grateful that more and more Deaf actors have access to Hollywood; that’s exciting.

In this particular case, one of the things that we felt that was most unique is that we’re the only full sign language production led by a Deaf production staff. There were no language barriers because we could all sign. To the cameraperson, I said, “Hey, move that down”—they understood it right away. Or I’d say to an actor, “Hey, give me a little more expression”—I didn’t have to wait on an interpreter to do that. Our cast was completely Deaf.

I’m hopeful that we’ll see more and more Deaf cinema coming out. The mainstream approach of Deaf people involved in hearing projects is great, but this was the first of its kind and we’re very excited about it.