Thursday, March 05, 2015

The "Apocryphal Urge" in Finding Jesus: A Response to Tony Burke

Over on Apocryphicity, Tony Burke has a characteristically lively discussion of the first episode of the CNN documentary Finding Jesus:

Finding Jesus Episode 1: Giving in to the Apocryphal Urge

Tony argues that the episode "demonstrates the apocryphal urge", by which he means "the temptation to retell stories from early Christian texts, thereby harmonizing disparate accounts and adding new details until a new account is created, sometimes even supplanting the original stories in the minds of readers (or viewers)."

Tony illustrates this "urge" in a variety of ways, citing my voice, Obery Hendricks's voice and the narrator's voice. While I enjoyed Tony's playful post, I would like to draw attention to several phenomena that mitigate his conclusions. The key point is the importance of understanding the medium. TV documentary is not the same medium as the academic lecture, as I am sure Tony himself knows from his experience participating in documentaries like Simcha Jacobovici's recent Biblical Conspiracies: The Lost Gospel, which explores the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene on the basis of a "decoding" of the pseudepigraphical work Joseph and Aseneth.

(1) Harmonization?

Tony suggests that the film "gives in" to the urge to harmonize the Gospels, noting that the film's introductory description of Joseph of Arimathea is drawn from different aspects in the canonical Gospels. It is important, though, to grasp something of the grammar of documentary film. You could in theory tease out what each evangelist says and where they agree and where they disagree. Speaking for myself, that's just the kind of work that I love doing! I write books on that type of thing.

But in a pacy documentary where you only have so much time, you have to find shortcuts while remaining as fair and accurate as possible within those constraints. So what we are looking at is not harmony but summary. And it is impressive that in spite of its use of standard summarizing techniques ("the Gospels say" where several details are combined), the episode still draws attention to specific Gospels. Tony does not mention that the episode regularly draws attention to what a specific Gospel says, including the use of on-screen references.

(2) Embroidering?

Tony suggests that contributors engage in "embroidering" the source material, i.e. adding things that are not in the text:
Series advisor Mark Goodacre says in the episode, “the gospels describe Joseph of Arimathea as being a sympathizer with the Jesus movement. He’s fascinated with Jesus; so fascinated that even after the crucifixion he wants to make sure that the right thing is done, that Jesus gets the right burial.” Goodacre is certainly embroidering here; the Gospels say nothing about Joseph’s “fascination” with Jesus, nor the motives behind his desire for Jesus to get a proper burial.
The idea that Joseph of Arimathea sympathizes with the Jesus movement I draw from the characterization of him as a "disciple of Jesus" in Matt. 27.57 and John 19.38. His fascination with Jesus I infer from this and from the description of his actions in reclaiming Jesus' body and burying it. It is, of course, possible that Joseph was not that interested in Jesus, but that does not seem like as strong an inference from the texts as the one that I am making. The idea that Joseph is trying to do "the right thing" is inferred from Luke's suggestion that he was "righteous".

In other words, there is a difference between "embroidery" (making stuff up) and inference (teasing out what the texts imply).

(3) Influenced by Mel Gibson?

Tony also suggests that my description of the scourging of Jesus in the documentary may have been influenced by The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004). It isn't. It's difficult to know quite how to respond to this except to say that while it is true that I love watching Jesus films more than almost anyone else (OK, also Matt Page and Peter Chattaway), Gibson's film has exercised little influence on my historical imagination.

Incidentally, while Tony suggests that Gibson didn't think he was making stuff up, I'm not sure that's right. Gibson knew he was embroidering (e.g. "I felt that I had a pretty wide berth for artistic interpretation, and to fill in some of the spaces with logic, with imagination, with various other readings" [Interview here].) And chief among those other readings was Anne Catherine Emmerich, which absolutely dominates the film's screenplay.

(4) A flair for the dramatic?

Tony also draws attention to a place in the documentary where I discuss the crown of thorns:
One final point: Goodacre shows a flair for the dramatic when he says “they pressed [the crown of thorns] into his head so that you see blood trickling down his face.” Where do we “see” this? Certainly not in the New Testament Gospels, which only mention the soldiers placing, not pressing, the crown upon Jesus’ head.
I am tempted to be flattered by the idea that I have some dramatic flair! Unfortunately, the context of the comment shows it to be far more mundane. The documentary uses the Turin Shroud as a point of departure for discussing Jesus' Passion, and in the comment Tony quotes I am describing Jesus' passion according to the shroud, where blood trickles down Jesus' face from the presumed crown of thorns. I am, of course, a massive Shroud Sceptic (I know, I'm a horrible sceptic about all these things), but that does not mean that one cannot attempt to understand what it is that the artifact in question is attempting to depict.


Occam Razor said...


I saw the show and was thinking a lot of the same things Tony was. You of all people should be a lot more careful with what you are summarizing and inferring.

But even more than that, I think it is ironic that you and your buddies who mock and scorn Simcha because he is a filmmaker and has the audacity to summarize and infer things do the exact same thing on shows that are even less scholarly and less serious than what he does.

Occam Razor said...

BTW, do you ever tell the people who do the re-enactments that Jewish men in the first century almost certainly didn't look like hippies? How can anyone take seriously a show that depicts Jesus and his followers looking like "Godspell?"

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comments, Occam's Razor. As it happens, I would always try to avoid mockery or scorn, and prefer to focus on a critique of the academic content of the documentary in question. I would also encourage you to use your real name. One of the reasons that you are able to comment directly on my contributions is that I use my real name.

Occam Razor said...


I sympathize with your plight. I've been on both sides of the media equation. You get interviewed with a dozen other scholars and if you don't say anything pithy, your interview doesn't get used. Being on TV is cool. Look, I'm an expert!

The filmmakers want to say something new, but they also don't have the medium to say anything complicated, and they don't want to be the target of a Bill O'Reilly campaign that CNN is attacking Christianity. They could produce video that might he more historically accurate, but the public would be confused by a shaven Jesus with short hair.

So in the end they produce a washy-washy piece that is neither informative nor entertaining, and doesn't stray too far from anybody's preconceptions.

Most of these documentaries are the same. I saw one the other day that discussed the empty tomb scene in John as if it were the only one and if it didn't contradict the other gospels. But a bunch of academics discussing contradictions has no audience or station willing to air it.

If I have a point, it is the "people in glass houses..Yada Yada..."

Nazaroo said...

I'm sad that more obvious connections about Joseph of (H)aramethaea weren't made.
Like "Nazareth", "(H)aramethaea" apparently didn't exist in Jesus' day, at least not in Israel/Palestine.

But its a real word, appearing in Daniel 4. Its an Aramaic word (not Hebrew[?]) translated as "magician", but better rendered as "magi".
If Joseph (rich, well connected to Roman authorities, untouchable by Herodians) was one of the "magi" noted by Matthew's Nativity account, then eliminating that doesn't get rid of the Magi involvement in the attempt to place a "Messiah". It wouldn't be the first or last time IRAN/IRAQ (Persia/Babylon) manipulated Palestinian politics.
Note also the huge (OT/NT) 'hiatus' concerning the Persian Royal Family (Esther) and its involvement in the reestablishment of the 2nd Temple. You don't mention private sponsors when they are the source of your cash. The Magi brought Myrrh, Frankensense and GOLD, presumably significant amounts, and Herod felt threatened by them but hesitated an immediate attack. Clearly they had political clout.