Sunday, April 09, 2006

Gospel of Judas documentary

The documentary on The Gospel of Judas is airing at the moment on National Geographic. So far: enormously enjoyable. Standard ancient history documentary fare, with lots of close-ups of the documents, a couple of soundbites from scholars involved, nice bits of reconstruction drama, and over-dramatic narration. The first three minutes were identical with the trailer that you can view on the web site. Only ten minutes in and the first commercial break: this is going to be a long evening.

Second ad break 20 minutes in. Those of you who are videoing this to watch later: good on you. So far, a nicely done documentary. I am pleased to see actual coverage of the way that the document was reconstructed, with interviews with those concerned. It is interspersed with some discussion about Judas in the Canonical Gospels, including an interview with Bart Ehrman. The dramatic reconstructions are clearly influenced by The Passion of the Christ: they have found a James Caviezel lookalike for Jesus, and the colouring is very similar, though of course much cheaper.

Third ad break 33 minutes in. An enjoyable section in which Marvin Meyer goes to Egypt and finds a cave like the one in with the Gospel of Judas might have been discovered. There was some explanation of the related Nag Hammadi finds, and shots of both the Apocryphon of John and the Gospel of Thomas. Minor gripe: Irenaeus was shown writing at a desk, as always in these documentaries. I have one minor source of pride here, in that the BBC / Discovery Channel documentary on the Apostle Paul, on which I was consultant, did not have anachronistic desks and scribes.

Fourth ad break 47 minutes in. This section was primarily an introduction to the variety of early Christian gospels, and to Gnostics and Gnosticism in general, with comments from Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, Craig Evans and others. The highlight here was the reconstruction of an early ?Gnostic preacher reading out some of the Gospel of Thomas in Greek, in a kind of modern Greek tongue, with English subtitles. There were the fairly standard comments too on "Why did the Church reject these other dozens of Gospels?" and so on. Just before each ad break, the Gospel manuscript's title in Coptic morphs nicely into "The Gospel of Judas".

Fifth ad break, 57 minutes in. This section focused on Stephen Emmel from Müster. O, a short break. Back to the programme.

Sixth ad break, 21.06: more on how the four gospels became dominant, with Elaine Pagels suggesting that their narrative format made them more popular and Bart Ehrman commenting on Irenaeus's four corners of the world and the four Gospels. On the previous section, what I was going to say was that Emmel was dramatized in a meeting sixteen years ago along with the Egyptian dealer who had the manuscript and who kept it in a bank vault in New York. Emmel the scholar commented as the drama was played out. He talked about how the price quoted by the dealer was $3 million, and how after examining the manuscript, he got into the toilet to make notes about what it contained, and this too was dramatized.

Seventh ad break, 21.07: primarily focusing on the carbon-dating of the text, confirming its date to c. 280 CE, give or take. I would say here that there needs to be more distinction made between the one extant manuscript we have and the original text; I'm not sure that viewers unfamiliar with the subject matter would have been able to distinguish clearly between authentic manuscript and authentic text.

Eighth ad break, 21.34: extensive discussion of Judas in the Gospels, explaining how he has been used as a symbol of anti-Semitism, and especially in Nazi Germany, the Oberamagau Passion plays, and the holocaust. I am hoping that we actually get to the text of the Gospel of Judas soon.

Ninth ad break, 21.50: the section that deals at some length with what the Gospel actually says, at least with respect to the Jesus-Judas exchange. A lot of this was done in the obvious legacy of The Passion of the Christ, with reconstructed Aramaic and English subtitles. There were more comments from Bart Erhman, Elaine Pagels and Craig Evans. For some reasons, Craig Evans seems to be sitting in a graveyard.

Finish, 10.00: As the programme loops around and starts again, my concluding reflections. This last section asked the question about the historical Jesus and the historical Judas. Craig Evans says: it tells you nothing at all about the historical Jesus or the historical Judas. Elaine Pagels respons with "How does he know?" Of course Pagels's comments may have been taken out of context, but it is surprising that she does not also make it quite clear that the Gospel has nothing to tell us about the historical Jesus.

A good documentary, a little drawn out at points, as is the norm, and with the standard American style unseen narrator (I rather like the British style seen narrator, walking you through and presenting a point of view). Nice reconstructions, some good interviews with Evans, Pagels, Meyer and Ehrman, and not over-sensationalized. For those of us interested in early Christianity and its development, we might have appreciated less of the introductory material about the Gospels and the formation of the canon, but that's inevitable and it's right to include it. What I would have liked to have seen more of would have been proper distinctions made between document and text, and much more of the oddities of the text, which in the end the viewer does not know as well as s/he might have done after two hours. But a good achievement overall, and a compelling enough narrative, and pointers throughout to the website so that the viewer can explore further should s/he be so inclined.

9 comments:

Matt Page said...

Bit of a side issue, but you mentioned your minor gripe - that Irenaeus was shown writing at a desk, as always in these documentaries.

Surely, we know from TPofC that a modern day style desk or table was invented by Jesus long before Iranaeus' time?

Seriously though, do you mean simply that desks as we know them wouldn't have existed so scribes wouldn't have used them (they'd have used stone blocks or something similar), or do you mean something entirely different? From memory I think the Apostle Paul documentary used a scribe at a stone slab, but I'm not completely sure!

Matt

Anonymous said...

Maybe I am being a bit sensitive, but I thought the dramatic representations greatly distorted the (non)relation between the Gospel of Judas and the historical (canonical?) Judas. To have the Coptic Gospel of Judas dramatically portrayed in Aramaic gives the impression that it is historical. And as Mark noted, Pagels is edited in such a way that she suggest the Gospel of Judas could represent a historical tradition. But, of course, it would not be as sensational if the idea is not entertained. I wonder if these sorts of programs actually lead to misinformation and confusion. Moreover, I find myself getting annoyed at these type of programs; they're predictable, over-hyped, and at times misleading.
Derek

Anonymous said...

"and over-dramatic narration"

I really I agree with that observation. The media tends to go overboard with religous manuscripts, going for the line that some secret is unearthed and that some ancient conspiracy is all of a sudden debunked. It seems controversy has become the goal of most reporting. I think Bart Ehrman has done a really good job by putting the main ideas out in a way which most people can understand. But a lot journlists still go for hyperbole.

Jonah

R. L. Vaughn said...

Question: in one paragraph you write, "Seventh ad break, 21.07: primarily focusing on the carbon-dating of the text, confirming its date to c. 280 CE, give or take. I would say here that there needs to be more distinction made between the one extant manuscript we have and the original text; I'm not sure that viewers unfamiliar with the subject matter would have been able to distinguish clearly between authentic manuscript and authentic text."

I didn't see the documentary, so your comments leave me slightly confused -- or perhaps I'm missing something. I assume the carbon-dating had to be done on the one existing manuscript? How does this date the original text? Thanks.

Justin Jenkins said...

Thanks for the play-by-play Mark, I tivo'd it but haven't been able to watch it --- I won't until at least tomorrow --- sadly :(

I was surprised you didn't comment on Friday's 20/20 interview of James Tabor/D.A. Carson in regards to Tabor’s Jesus Dynasty book? Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

The version I saw was only about 45mins long. Was a shorter version shown in the UK?

Mark Goodacre said...

In reply to R. L. Vaughn, I meant to distinguish between a document and its manuscript witness, and to say that the carbon dating gives us the date of the manuscript witness, but not the date of the original document. But I didn't say it very well because writing in a rush.

Mark Goodacre said...

In reply to Matt Page, I mean that they used to write on their laps, or on the floor. There is no evidence of desks in this period, and certainly not of the kind depicted in this programme.

Mark Goodacre said...

In response to anonymous, I hadn't realized that the UK version was shorter. Perhaps they made two versions of the programme, one 90 minutes and one 45.