Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Who Was Jesus? (BBC, 1977)

One of the neglected advantages of television documentary is its potential to act as archive, a resource for scholars.  On this blog I have often talked about documentaries likes a Jesus: The Evidence (Channel 4, 1984), which provides footage of many great and now deceased scholars, including Geza Vermes and Morton Smith.  In a recent article, I talked about how the Channel 4 series The Gnostics (1987) provides our only known extant footage of Mohammad 'Ali al Samman, the alleged discoverer of the Nag Hammadi codices.

Along similar lines, I have recently begun thinking about the potential of the BBC documentary from 1977 entitled Who Was Jesus? to inform us about New Testament scholars and scholarship of its day.  The difficulty, however, was in tracking down a copy.  The book based on the series, also published in 1977, is fairly easy to track down on the second-hand book market and I picked mine up for about £4.00 a couple of weeks ago (and it has "35p" pencilled into the inside cover).  The book is co-authored by Peter Armstrong and Don Cupitt and it is published by the BBC.

I think my parents had a copy of this book too since it looks very familiar to me.  I am also pretty sure that my mum (who was an RE teacher) made an audio recording of the series because I have some memories of having listened to it back in the day.  And I recall hearing John Fenton's voice, something that I now find confirmed by looking at the list of consultants, about more of which in a minute.

The book itself is an excellent, popular level introduction to historical Jesus study, clear, well-written, nicely illustrated and surprisingly contemporary in feel.  In fact, those who think that the study of the historical Jesus has made significant progress in recent years would be well-advised to take a look at this book written 36 years ago, with chapters on "the Jewishness of Jesus" and discussions of Jesus' apocalyptic, eschatological message, and stress placed on the Temple incident.  And those who think that interest in the idea that Jesus never existed is new will be surprised to find the book opening with a study of the question, "Did Jesus Live?"

Information on the documentary itself is less easy to come by, but according to the BFI website, it was two hours long and it was presented by Don Cupitt and produced by Peter Armstrong.  There is an impressive list of consultants: John Fenton, Nahman Avigad, L. Y. Rahmani, George Caird, Christopher Butler and Sydney Carter.  Given John Fenton's listing as a consultant, I am really hoping that my memory of his appearance is accurate and that I will get to see my former teacher  on film.

Anyway, this post is of course brought on by Peter Armstrong's released yesterday of a fascinating eighteen minute clip of the programme (Caird, Flusser and Cupitt on Who Was Jesus?).  Dare we hope for more?


Drastic Plastic said...

Be a little careful here. My memory of the period is that Cupitt was a nutcase, and widely regarded as such: well out of the mainstream. The BBC gave him lots of airtime as part of their general policy of Christian-baiting (as was remarked at the time).

If so, it's unlikely to be the case that theology as a whole at the time held the views he put forward. What seems more likely is that theology studies today have adopted all the daft views that were being touted by the freaks back then.

The same could, after all, be said of our society as a whole. Hey, who on earth was touting "gay marriage" even in 2010? David Cameron, I'm looking at you...

Geoff Hudson said...

One of the early books I read was Don Cupitt's Sea of Faith. It was recommended to me by a friend. There is no indication in the book of Cupitt being a nutcase, far from it, he is a brilliant philosopher and has an extraordinary ability with words. He was searching for answers. Geoffrey Jackson in the Catholic Herald wrote of Cupitt: "When traditional dogmas have been dissolved away, we find ourselves quite alone, with no resources but those we can muster from within ourselves." ...."and accepting the twentieth century view that Christianity should now be practised without dogma, as a spiritual path, an ethic, and a way of giving meaning to life." I have often wondered if my friend followed this philosophy, but I dare not ask him. He even looks like and speaks like Don Cupitt. Have we moved on?