I will admit up front that I approach nearly all popular media attempts to deal with biblical material with a chip on my shoulder. I think a scholarly and critical approach is essential to understanding the biblical writers and hearing the proclamation of God’s message therein. So when I first heard of History Channel’s Jesus: His Life I promised myself to stay as far away as possible. However, after screening the first two (of eight) episodes, I discovered that, although I have some issues with the program, it exceeds my expectations.
The series is structured to tell the story of Jesus through various people who knew him (Joseph, John the Baptist, Mary. Caiaphas, Judas, Pilate, Mary Magdalene, and Peter). I have seen the Joseph (the Nativity narratives) and John the Baptist (the beginning of Jesus’ ministry) episodes. There are enactments using actors along with commentary by various scholars and pastors who cover a wide range of perspectives. That range is important because we approach this story from many different points of view. That also means that we may find different versions of Jesus. That possibility makes it very important that many voices are heard to open up possibilities that we might not otherwise have considered.
My main concern when approaching biblical oriented projects like this is to what extent they will allow critical scholarship, or at least the conclusion of such scholarship, to be heard. In the episodes I’ve seen, there is evidence that most of those providing commentary have at least dealt with those issues. That is reflected not only in the commentary, but also in the way the story is told onscreen. For example, in the John the Baptist segment, questions arise as to why Jesus would be baptized, what does it mean that Jesus was John’s disciple, and what actually happened at Jesus’ baptism. It also recognizes the political situation with Herod Antipas and how John’s stance differed from the stance Jesus would take as he began his ministry.
But as I watched I also considered all the things I would want to add if I were using these episodes as teaching tools. I think to fully appreciate this series some foundational information is needed on ideas such as the synoptic problem which deals with the similarities and differences of the Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The commentary in the series often refers to variations in the story, but never quite gets to how those variations create different understandings designed to speak to different audiences. Nor does it go into why we have four gospels (but don’t accept some of the other ancient writings about Jesus).
Because of the limited episodes I was able to screen, I can’t comment on some other issues I consider important, such as if Judaism is portrayed in a fair light, or how various ideas of Jesus (sage, revolutionary, miracle worker, eschatological prophet) lead us to hear his message in different ways. I’d also be interested to see if the series tries to tie the historical Jesus (which seems to be what they are trying to convey) to the Christ of Faith (which I expect many of those watching are interested in).
Jesus: His Story may not be as deep an examination into Jesus and the gospels as I would like, but it serves as a starting point that can provide perspective into Jesus’ life that people may not have considered and encourage them to find out more.
Photos courtesy of A+E Networks/History