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?