This passionate intellectual journey through the first two centuries of Christianity is the perfect antidote to the operatic hysteria of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. By combining the latest archaeological discoveries with New Testament scholarship and textual analysis, Marilyn Mellowes and her production team explore the genuine historical mystery of Christianity’s origins: how the tiny band of followers of a wandering miracle worker and political martyr created a transcendental figure who continues to inspire millions two millennia later.
A cast of highly articulate scholars ensures the vivid delivery of complex historical and literary scholarship as if it were headlines drawn from The New York Times on a very good day, while the commitment of PBS’ Frontline to a four-hour running time permits a focus on nuanced judgment and textual minutiae that sustains controversial interpretations. This richness, alas, also proves a liability, as one lengthy interview sequence after another suggests a lack of directorial vision, especially as nothing on the visual side of the equation shows any inspiration whatsoever. This lucid reinterpretation of conquest of the Roman Empire by a marginalized Jewish sect suffers from debilitating longuers which would try the patience of even a fascinated viewer.
Yet there is no doubt about the compelling arguments delivered in each of the four episodes. For example, the first focuses of the life of the historic Jesus, arguing from archaeological evidence that Nazareth lay only four miles from the thriving Galilean city of Sepphoris, “an upscale city in the making,” and the capital city of Herod’s oldest son, Antipas. This episode’s scholars ascribe to Jesus a more sophisticated background than that conveyed by the “humble carpenter” tag. Certainly, he would have known some Greek, and would have received some education, simply in order to conduct business in Sepphoris. The shift in social class begins to explain the influence he exerted among his peers, and the fear he aroused in the Roman authorities when he arrived in Jerusalem, among thousands of other Jews, for Passover.
The third episode analyses the activities of the “storytellers” of Jesus’ life,” the four evangelists of the New Testament. This exposition of what more than one contributor calls the “Jesus movement” within Judaism delivers one surprise after another, at least to the non-specialist in this field, by locating the Gospels firmly within the political and social contexts in which they were written. For example, in the first decades after Jesus’ death his followers expected the imminent end of the world, the clash of the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness,” promised in the books of what Christians call the Old Testament. The contributors to this episode argue that Mark’s Gospel, the earliest record of Jesus’ life and one of the primary sources for the gospels of Matthew and Luke, seems to be shaped specifically to give renewed meaning to the Jewish followers of Jesus of the ‘70s CE.
They were not only wallowing in uncertainty as decades passed and the “end of days” showed no signs of appearing, but also had to deal with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Roman’ crushing of the Jewish revolt, and the subsequent political repression. Mark turns Jesus into a new kind of Messiah, one whose death reveals the secret of life, one who, like the Jews of this period, died believing that God had forsaken him. In Mark, a Jesus of cosmic mystery replaces a Jesus of the apocalypse, and the other evangelists follow suit, culminating in the John’s mystical vision of Jesus as a denizen simultaneously of Heaven and of Earth.
Even elliptical moments in some of the programs’ discussions offer new perspectives on this traditional story. For example, the third program mentions that the ascription of the cry “Crucify him” to the Jews as a group appeared only in the Gospel of John, the Gospel most concerned with defining Christianity in opposition to Jewish teaching. In Mark, the earliest narrative, only the unidentified “crowd” cried for Jesus of Nazareth’s death. Elaine Pagels draws on her own research into the Gnostic Gospels to uncover early second-century Christianity as a heterodoxy of competing and widely divergent beliefs, which drew the iconography of Jesus and his mother, Mary, from representations of the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and the celebration of Jesus’ birth in December from the worship of the Persian god, Mithras.
Too many times, however, such thought-provoking revelations and tangential illuminations lurk within lengthy, intercut interviews, the indisputable sign of a producer, writer, and director who have grown too close to their material to exhibit the ruthlessness all good art requires. At some culminating moments in the story, such as the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, or provincial Roman governor Pliny’s genuine moral confusion as to how he should treat these orderly, peaceful citizens who somehow kept refusing to acknowledge the Emperor as deity, the accretion of one detail after another in a polyphony of passionate voices heightens the drama considerably. But in other places, it is just plain repetitive.
Some decisive cutting could have created a punchier narrative, and reduced the director’s need to rely on almost every visual cliché in the uninspired film-maker’s book.: slo-mo close-ups of flickering candles and menorah, a relentless return to a static, soul-less model of Jerusalem, the same nail trembling in the same piece of wood and, worst of all, a variety of lurid sunset skies which would have gladdened the heart of any Romantic seeker of the sublime. If budgetary constraints cut the time for location filming, or limited the amount of library footage the production team could buy, the answer should be imagination, not visual wallpaper.
These are serious cavils, for investigations of the foundation myths of the world’s dominant religions, and explorations of their suppression of individuals’ faiths in the interests of creating institutionalized hierarchies, are probably more relevant now than they have been in the last hundred years. Such stories require not only the highest standards of research, which this series amply meets, but also the highest standards of filmmaking, to communicate to as diverse and as global an audience as possible.
Here, fortunately, new media comes to the rescue of the old. PBS’ accompanying website, an extensive compilation of interview extracts, essays, extracts from hard-to-find primary sources, such as the Gnostic Gospels, photographs of locations and artifacts, and detailed, but pithy, interpretations, fluidly cross-linked thematically and chronologically, is a real joy. If the films pall, go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion and feel the first two centuries of Christianity come alive in the participants’ own, and sometimes very unexpected, words.