Follow a day in the life of a theme-park Jesus

At a biblical park in Orlando, Michael Job has taken on the role of a lifetime: Jesus. But is he just acting?

Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic
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For the past decade, Michael Job has played Jesus at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

Under a small but imposing skyline of faux-ancient pillars peaks, Ron and Chris Job prepare to watch their son in the role of a lifetime: Jesus Christ. For the past decade 44-year-old Michael Job (pronounced like the Book of—) has donned a crown of thorns and a loincloth they call “the diaper” at the Holy Land Experience, an immersive biblical theme park in the epicenter of American amusement: Orlando, Florida.

Before his first role of the day, Michael descends the stairs of King Herod’s temple (a replica supposedly one-third the size of the original) and starts to intercept a stream of visitors leaving Mary’s House, where they’ve just watched Mary discover she’s pregnant. In the nearby Bethlehem set, three camels are being led into their hay-filled enclosure as speakers pipe songs from the show. “I found my kiiiiing,” an operatic voice soars. “I am forever his.

Michael is in the sweeping tan robes he wears to play a Bethlehem innkeeper. Around Christmas grown-up Jesus makes only a brief cameo (there’s concern it would confuse the audience to see him alongside baby Jesus), but it hardly matters; people know Michael as Jesus whether he’s in “the diaper” or the embroidered shawl of a Jewish high priest.

“Does anyone need a prayer?” a woman with a dyed blond afro and frosted pink lipstick asks her friends, pointing at Michael. “He plays Jesus sometimes.”

“How did you know?” Michael asks.

“I come here all the time,” she replies.

With collarbone-length locks framing his long face and Rasputin-like blue eyes, the costume is an accessory. Even without it Michael gets recognized in malls and restaurants around town. “I wear my hair back,” he says, “but they still know.”

Michael's parents stand nearby and observe the growing circle of visitors around their son. “It’s a great line for cops: Be careful my son’s Jesus!” Ron says, laughing uproariously. “How about this one: My son has a job where he gets crucified daily. And people say, ‘Why doesn’t he quit?’ Well, he loves it!”

At the Holy Land Experience, which was founded by a Jewish man named Marvin Rosenthal as a living biblical museum in 2001, the music is catchy, the sets are elaborate, and many of the performers are veterans of Disney and Universal productions. Audience members wander through mini-plays depicting the birth of Jesus, hit golf balls through a biblical course, and gawk at ancient parchment in the Scriptorium, a museum displaying a large collection of bible artifacts. Each theatrical segment finishes with a woman’s voice encouraging the audience to move along: “God bless you and shalom.” (Read about the cloak-and-dagger search for sacred texts.)

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Job walks between a replica of the Qumran Caves, a site in the desert of Israel where the first Dead Sea scrolls were found.

The venue—part theme park, part Broadway set, part museum—draws people from across the world to central Florida to watch tales from the bible play out before them and interact with biblical characters.

Groups of Buddhist monks, Hare Krishna, and even an atheist association have walked through the ancient-looking gates and into the first century A.D. (“You’d say ‘God bless you,’ and they’d say, “Have a nice day,’” Michael recalls of the atheists). When the park used to offer season passes some people would visit every single day to immerse themselves in biblical times. After a variety of owners and remodels the park’s current owner is Trinity Broadcasting Network, the world’s largest Christian television network.

During a weekend in December church and school groups roamed 13 acres of theaters and sets built in tan Jerusalem stone, mixing with theme park hoppers, Disneyworld and Universal Studios are nearby, and those who had come to Orlando just for the Holy Land Experience (“Before we can get to the real holy land,” one couple said, “which is a little more expensive.”). They seek entertainment, education, and—if they cross Michael’s path—a personalized blessing from Jesus.

Michael is originally from upstate New York, but his voice takes on the rich rise-and-fall of a southern gospel preacher. He prays to alleviate the knee pain of a woman from Virginia in an electric scooter. He prays for the arthritic knees of a burly man in Harley Davidson-branded denim. “Not as bad,” the man shrugs, shaking out his feet. He encourages people to stand up from wheelchairs and put weight on feet secured in orthopedic boots. As he prays for a visiting group’s safe journey back to Pittsburgh, two women quietly bend down to touch the hem of his robes. One stage manager says they’re constantly pulling him away from park visitors and onto stage right before the curtain rises. (See a map of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus.)

The History of the Bible, Animated Time travel in this animation through the history of the Bible. Made with clay, wire, and recycled paper, the characters come to life in frame-by-frame motion.

Jesus should be unseen, Michael admits. But the audience demands to see him. “Am I qualified to play him?” he asks. “No. Who could ever measure up?”

Over a barbeque pork sandwich from Esther’s Banquet, the park’s cafeteria, Michael describes his unusual credentials. He has a master’s degree in vocal performance and sings in bass-baritone. At one point he played Captain America at Universal Studios and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast at Disney World. He also has a master’s in ministerial leadership. The Holy Land Experience merges these distinct backgrounds into one role: Jesus.

He beckons to 80-year-old Jewell Cooper, who’s serving lunch behind the food counter. She comes to our table to describe how she was cured from blindness as a little girl by her grandmother’s prayers. “I’ve seen people’s eyesight come back,” says Cooper, an Alabaman who everyone calls Miss Jewell. “I’ve seen people with canes walk out of here holding their cane in the air.”

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Visitors to the Holy Land Experience snap photos with Job in front of a replica of King Herod's temple, which claims to be one-third the size of the original ancient structure.

Miracles happen at the Holy Land Experience, Michael says—up to 40 a day. He’s documented some on his YouTube channel, with titles like “Stage 4 colon cancer healed!” and “Totally healed! In Jesus name.”

“Remember that girl in the wheelchair?” Michael asks his dad. A couple years ago he was conducting a healing session when his parents were visiting—they come four times a year—and in the audience was a woman who’d been thrown from a car years earlier. “Dad is always saying don’t raise people out of wheelchairs, you’re going to get in trouble,” he recalls now. But when he got to her wheelchair he heard a voice telling him to lift her up. “My dad’s going to kill me,” he thought. It worked, he says—she’s walking now. “The thing is, you can’t make this up,” Ron says approvingly.

Later, sitting in the audience for a show about King Herod, nestled next to the Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh gift shop, Ron confides that he wasn’t convinced of Michael’s abilities until his prayers cured nerve damage in his legs that was so debilitating Ron couldn’t drive. “He always brings it up when I look skeptical,” he says. (Read how King Herod transformed the Holy Land.)

Michael considers himself an evangelist who happens to act, but for a long time he was just an actor trying to make it. He spent three years auditioning and working side gigs in New York: catering, leading Central Park bike tours, and dabbling in real estate. Then, at age 28, he found God in Times Square. Michael says his religious epiphany occurred in a former Broadway theater-turned-church and he dedicated his life to Jesus when he stepped out of the subway that night. “He delivered me out of depression and lust,” he recalls. “I had joy. I wanted to roll around in church and not in the clubs.”

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Job walks toward the Scriptorium, a museum that holds one of the largest biblical collections in the country.

He came to Florida and joined the amusement park circuit. He says he was reprimanded multiple times at another park for talking about God backstage. “I didn’t stop talking.” At the Holy Land Experience he doesn’t have to.

Backstage, the actors—who include a classically trained Cuban ballerina; a descendant of Holocaust survivors; and a military veteran-turned-biblical scholar—bow their head in prayer. Then they move toward the stage for the Christmas show. Sequin-covered kings and bloodied peasants and silk-swaddled ladies rush around the wings.

“What I live for is the audience,” Michael says, propped on a couch and swathed in burlap robes to play a leper. “I’m not here for the play, I’m here for people to encounter Jesus.” Sometimes, he says, God speaks to him while he’s acting—providing a forgotten line or a singing boast. “He gives me talents I’d never have on my own.” Suddenly he’s up: Michael runs on stage and lays down in a leper colony. Behind him, a projected video shows him as Jesus curing the lepers’ open wounds.

Later, after clocking out, Michael retrieves his phone from a back office in the gift shop and opens Facebook. If playing Jesus is a job, he never stops working and his social media is evidence of the busy life of an evangelist who often wears white robes. There are photos from a Christmas caroling excursion to the Orlando jail; advertisements for guest preaching spots at local churches; and videos of a recent trip to Nigeria and Poland, where he walked the streets in his Jesus robes and bridged the language gap with his evangicube—a rubix cube-like toy illustrated with Bible stories. Leaning on a table of manger figurines and gilded harps, Michael points to a recent profile picture, his arms are outstretched and blood is pouring down his chest: “That’s me on the cross.”