Banned in Mexico: The film didn't premiere in Mexico until 2005 because the government perceived it as a direct attack against the Catholic Church, who, in the 1980s, had a strong moral authority almost on par with the federal government's.
The film is still banned in Chile, Philippines and Singapore.
Scorsese had long wanted to make a film about Jesus, and after being introduced to the novel in The '70s this became his dream project, but the combined controversial and uncommercial aspects of the film meant that it spent a long time in Development Hell. At various points Christopher Walken, Robert De Niro, Eric Roberts and David Carradine were under consideration for Jesus.
Paramount greenlighted it in 1983. It was given a $14 million budget, locations were secured in Israel, sets were constructed, and the cast was finalized. Aidan Quinn was going to play Jesus, and several well known singers were going to fill the other main roles: Ray Davies as Judas, Sting as Pontius Pilate, and Vanity as Mary Magdalene (Colorblind Casting since she was half-black). But due to religious controversy the studio pulled the plug at the last minute. When Scorsese finally got to make the film he approached Quinn to play Jesus again but he said no.
Jeff Bridges was a big fan of the book and when he heard it was being made into a film he actively sought out the part of Judas, even writing a personal letter to Martin Scorsese.
Christopher Lloyd turned down a role as one of the Disciples, a decision he later regretted.
Kim Basinger and Sally Field were offered the role of Mary Magdalene. Basinger turned it down and Field was pregnant.
David Bowie was advised to give Pontius Pilate a Scottish accent, since some historians believe Pilate was from Scotland, but he refused.