Saturday, March 15, 2008

How Jesus was crucified: Sunday Telegraph's negative spin on The Passion

On Thursday afternoon, I had a fifteen minute chat with a reporter from the Sunday Telegraph about the way that Jesus' crucifixion is portrayed in The Passion. You can see the way that it is done in a shot in the trailer. It is somewhat different from traditional depictions, but I explained that there is no actual description of the way that Jesus is crucified in the Gospels, and the traditional depiction, with arms outstretched, is not derived from the Gospels. I drew the reporter's attention to a passage in Josephus, War 5.11, which describes victims being crucified in a variety of poses. When he asked me about John 20.24-29, which mentions wounds in Jesus' "hands", I pointed out that the Greek word χείρ, used here, can refer to the arm or the forearm. I also talked a bit about Jehohanan, the one crucified victim we have archaeological evidence of. Little of this conversation actually appears in the article in this morning's Sunday Telegraph, which attempts to put a particular negative spin on the way that Jesus' crucifixion is depicted:

Why the BBC thinks Jesus did not die this way
By Jonathan Wynne-Jones, Religious Affairs Correspondent

There are several problems with the article and I would like to draw attention to some of them here. Wynne-Jones writes:
But now the producers of a BBC drama about Christ's final days have challenged the traditional representation, saying they believe Jesus probably did not die that way.

Instead of portraying Christ with his arms out wide and his legs straight down, The Passion will show him nailed to the cross in a foetal position, with his arms above his head and nails through his arms - the way, the producers claim, he may well have been crucified by the Romans.

Leading theologians accused the BBC of "misleading" the public and said it was ignoring the Biblical account of the crucifixion. But the makers of The Passion insist their ideas are based on new historical evidence.
This is not carefully worded. The makers of The Passion are not saying that they "believe Jesus probably did not die" in the way traditionally depicted; they are presenting a drama in which an alternative possibility is presented. After the quotations from me, Wynne-Jones adds:
He added that he thought the Bible did not actually explain in any detail the form of crucifixion employed.
I don't think that; I know that. Anyone who looks at the Gospel accounts will see it to be the case. The article goes on to quote my friend Paula Gooder, though putting a somewhat negative slant on her remarks too:
"They have clearly decided to go for this option because it's unusual and will jolt viewers and challenge them about their assumptions," she said.

"Their portrayal causes a problem as it seems to ignore what the Bible says."

In the Book of John, Jesus says to Thomas: "Put your finger here; see my hands."
I think that it is easy to over-interpret the reference in John 20 and I don't see it as contradicting the way that Jesus is crucified in The Passion (see above). The article goes on:
The Reverend George Curry, who is the chairman of the Church Society, said: "They are misleading people by distorting the facts.

"That's a serious and dangerous thing to do, but sadly utterly predictable and regrettable. Jesus's nails went through his hands, not his forearms. We should be true to history and the events that occurred."
This too is somewhat overstated. It is incorrect to speak of "distorting the facts", not is there anything "utterly predictable" about this. On the contrary, the BBC have gone to great lengths to think seriously about the history in The Passion and it is a shame that this article does attempt to take that seriously.

Update (16:05): Doug Chaplin has some very helpful comments on Metacatholic. I have also been chatting to Paula Gooder this afternoon and, as I suspected, this is a case of selective and misleading quotation. Paula writes:
It is the best portrayal of the crucifixion and resurrection that I have seen for a long time. The drama as a whole including the crucifixion scene draws on some of the best scholarship available. I simply said to the Telegraph that I supposed that some people who didn't like new ideas might find it challenging, they shouldn't but they might!
Update (24 August 2014): URL for the Telegraph article updated.


Chris Weimer said...

Hey Mark,

Becoming popular comes at a price dare you to defy traditional mores/symbolism.

They're unfair to you, and I wonder just how deceptive the article really is? Have you talked to Paula G. yet?

I've yet to see the documentary, but really the criticism seems out of touch with scholarly convention.

But then again, that's what journalism is all about, isn't it?

Take care,

Chris W.

Geoff Hudson said...

The phrase 'the history in the Passion' might be misleading to many as meaning the truth about the Passion. One can make 'the Passion' fit the recorded or historical possibilities until the cows come home, but that doesn't prove that 'The Passion' happened and is not a fiction. Historically, it was much more likely that the prophet was stoned to death, and the account in Mark certainly contains some hints that this was indeed a traditional method of execution. The court was Jewish and the mode of execution was Jewish. This was a period in which priests were persecuting prophets.

The one crucified victim for which there is archaeological evidence was probably executed by Romans during war.

Geoff Hudson said...

I have just seen the clip from Newsnight Review. I was immediately struck by the 'teacher of the law' (presumably a priest) asking the prophet the question which was the most important commandment. Apparently, ‘the teacher’ agreed with the prophet that the prophet’s answer to his question was more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices (Mk.12.33). Now our understanding of the commandments is that they make no mention of burnt offerings and sacrifices. Nor does the Shema (Dt.6.4,5). Yet the implication of the teacher’s apparent statement in Mk.12.33 is that the priests thought that the OT command to offer burnt offerings and sacrifices was the most important act that could be done by anyone, presumably for cleansing of sins before God.

So the argument was not about the ten commandments or the Shema as the editor would have us believe. And we are into what the prophet was all about in his disputes with the priests, and the source of the conflict between priests and prophets. It was of course related to the temple cult of animal sacrifice for sins. The teacher (priest) was trying to force the prophet’s hand to say what he thought was the means by which a person could be made clean or pure before God. Thus there was no first and ‘second’ commandments as in Mk.12.30,31 linked to the Shema. There was only one commandment which I suggest was: obey the Spirit of God with all your heart. I further suggest that in an original document, it wasn’t the teacher speaking in Mk.12.33, but the prophet who said something to the effect: “To OBEY THE SPIRIT with all your heart, IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN ALL BURNT OFFERINGS AND SACRIFICES."

Doug Chaplin said...

've commented on this and the story at some length over at my blog

Geoff Hudson said...

That the ‘most important commandment’ (Mk.12.28) had something to do with the Spirit is implied shortly after in Mk.12.36 by the prophet’s words: “David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit.” This reference to the Spirit is blatantly removed by the editor of Luke who has: “David himself declares in the Book of Psalms.” (Lk.20.42) - which substitutes ‘declares in the Book of Psalms’ for ‘speaking by the Holy Spirit’.

If David was speaking by the Spirit in Mk.12.36, who was the prophet referring to in the words of Mk.12.37: “David himself calls him Lord”? I suggest that the prophet implied that David called the Spirit Lord in the words: ”The Lord said unto my Lord”, in effect, implying that David said: “The Lord said unto me by his Spirit.” Thus the question asked by the prophet in Mk.12.35 could not have been: ”How is it that the teachers of the law (Pharisees in Mt.22.41) say that the Christ is the son of David?” The phrase “the Christ is the son of David” is a later interpolation, and the original words were something like “the Spirit is the Spirit of God”. The dispute with the so-called Pharisees or teachers of the law (really the priests) was whether or not the Spirit the prophet proclaimed and possessed was the Spirit of God that should be regarded as Lord – the overarching commander to be obeyed.

Mk.3.22 has: the teachers of the law said, “he is possessed by Beelzebub“, ie that the prophet’s spirit was not God or the Lord, but Satan. The prophet responded by implying that he did indeed possess the Spirit of God: “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy spirit will never be forgiven.” (Mk.3.29).

Eric Rowe said...

The Daily Mail has an article about the same issue with some direct quotes from you Dr. Goodacre, here:

In reply to what you said, it's true that the Bible does not describe Jesus' position on the cross. But one of our earliest Christian documents that is not in the Bible, and that was part of the Bible as understood by Clement of Alexandria and Origen does describe his position as one with arms outstretched. This is in Epistle of Barnabas 12:2-3.

Gail Dawson said...

Mark, I've been catching up with the reviews, BBC web pages, and other links that you've posted regarding _The Passion_. Thank you for all these, and for your work on the series--I'm looking forward to seeing here in the U.S. next year.

Some of the comments raised in the Telegraph (and elsewhere) concerning historicity brought to my mind the same kind of reactions found within the narrative framework of _Jesus of Montreal_, no?

Fine work you and _The Passion_ team did--congratulations!