Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Favourite -- and least favourite -- Jesus Films

Every couple of years, I teach a course on Jesus in Film at Duke. Last time I taught the course, I ran a fun poll at the end in which I asked students "What is your favourite Jesus film?" I posted the results here.

This year's results are now in! Amazingly enough, the academics' most hated film of all, Passion of the Christ, gets the most votes, albeit only a fifth of the class (6/30). As before, Jesus Christ Superstar gets a good showing, as does the wonderful BBC Nativity. Newcomers Young Messiah and Risen do surprisingly well:

(1) Passion of the Christ [6 votes]

(2) Jesus Christ Superstar
The Nativity (BBC, 2010)
Young Messiah [4 votes each]

(5) Jesus of Nazareth
Life of Brian
Last Temptation of Christ
Risen [2 votes each]

One vote each:

The Gospel According to St Matthew
The Miracle Maker
The Passion (BBC / HBO, 2008)
The Bible / Son of God

This time I thought to ask them several additional questions, including "What is your least favourite Jesus film?" And here there is a clear winner!

(1) Godspell [17 votes]

(2) Life of Brian [3 votes]

(3) Greatest Story Ever Told
The Bible / Son of God [2 votes each]

One vote each:

King of Kings
Gospel According to St Matthew
Last Temptation of Christ
Killing Jesus
The Star

Further Response to Alan Garrow

I am grateful to Alan Garrow for responding to my post on Garrow's Flaw (details and links here) over on Bart Ehrman's blog.

I had pointed out that Garrow's model diagnoses high verbatim double tradition passages as the result of Matthew's copying of Luke alone. "High DT [double tradition] passages," he says,"are best explained by Matthew’s copying of Luke without interference from any other entity.” Low verbatim passages are the result of Matthew conflating Luke and the Didache. The claim is foundational and explicit in Garrow's work:
"[W]hen Matthew copies Luke without distraction he produces High DT passages. When, however, Matthew knows differing versions of the same event he conflates them – resulting in a Low DT passage."
In my response, I pointed out that Garrow's own list of "High DT passages" includes several cases of Matthew actually working not from "Luke alone" but from Luke and Mark. In other words, his claim that Matthew produces high verbatim passages when working from Luke alone is contradicted by his own model. 

Garrow responds by arguing that Matthew's behaviour is "consistently plausible". I quote the paragraph in full:
A good solution to the Synoptic Problem is one that allows each Evangelist to behave in a consistently plausible manner. To rebut my thesis, therefore, Goodacre must show that, under my proposal, Matthew is required to do something that is essentially implausible. The unbelievable behavior he identifies is that Matthew (according to me) sometimes very closely conflates two or more related sources (e.g. The Sin against the Holy Spirit, where Matt. 31.31-32 conflates Mark 3.28-30, Luke 12.10 and Did. 11.7), sometimes switches between sources at intervals (e.g. the Beelzebul Controversy, where Matt. 12.22-30 alternates between Mark 3.22-27 and Luke 11.14-23), and sometimes decides to forego the labor of conflation where the rewards for doing so are limited (e.g. John’s messianic preaching and the sign of Jonah: Matt. 3.12 // Luke 3.17 and Matt. 12.38-42 // Luke 11.16, 29-32 respectively). I must leave you to judge whether this variation is so extraordinary as to justify Ehrman’s view that this is a ‘completely compelling’ reason to declare that Matthew could not have known Luke.
This does not respond to my point, which is not a question about degrees of plausibility, but a question about the consistency and coherence of Garrow's model. I do not have a difficulty with the issue of variation in degrees of verbatim agreement; indeed, as Garrow points out, I have myself written about this. The issue to which I am drawing attention is straightforward: Garrow claims that high verbatim agreement in double tradition is diagnostic that Matthew is working form Luke alone. I am pointing out that on his model, high verbatim agreement does not illustrate this.

Garrow adds some general criticisms of the Farrer theory, including the old chestnut about "unpicking", which dates back to F. Gerald Downing. I have little to add here to the excellent critiques by Ken Olson and Eric Eve on this issue, but I will say that no critic of the Farrer theory has yet successfully isolated a single occasion where an advocate of the Farrer theory uses the term that they consistently put in quotation marks. I generally try to avoid putting things in quotation marks that are not quotations, but I realize that practices vary. 

Garrow concludes with his favourite quotation from me, "The theory that Matthew has read Luke … is rarely put forward by sensible scholars and will not be considered here" (The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze, 109), where I was of course just describing the field at the time of writing, a description echoed by Garrow himself three years later, "“The possibility that Matthew directly depended on Luke’s Gospel has not been widely explored” (The Gospel of Matthew's Dependence on the Didache, 228 n. 10). I should perhaps let on that my engagement with Alan's work began long before Evan's wager; that just gave me the opportunity to share work in progress. What's been fun has been the demonstration that people really are interested in the Synoptic Problem.

Review of The Star by Emily Waples

It's fun to be teaching a course on Jesus in Film when a new Jesus film comes out! The Star (dir. Timothy Reckardt) was released in November in time for the pre-Christmas crowds. I gave my students the opportunity to write a review of the film for extra credit. One of them was so good that I asked her if I could reproduce it here:

Review of The Star
Emily Waples

The Star (2017), directed by Timothy Reckart, begins with a Pentatonix rendition of Carol of the Bells. The Nativity story that unfolds is as rethought and modernized as the opening a capella song. A subtitle appears on screen, immediately tipping us off to the films historical inaccuracy: 9 months BC. Then again, in an animated film featuring talking animals, were we expecting much regard for historicity?

The film begins with Mary in Nazareth (faithful to Luke 1.26) and the angels apparition to her. At its onset, the angelic apparition is not unlike that in Jesus of Nazareth, if more fantastic: a bright light fills the room, taking on a vaguely angelic form. The light crystallizes as stuff best described as stardust. Later, the same stardust indicates the angels apparition to Joseph, a scene omitted from the film (perhaps to save time, perhaps to avoid more discussion than necessary of Marys inexplicable pregnancy parents dont want questions about the birds and the bees. Marys quick acceptance of the angels words serves the same purpose). The plot proceeds and, like in Jesus of Nazareth, Mary goes to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1.39), a visit only detailed by Marys return to Nazareth with her cousins (6 months later, the subtitle tells us), just in time for her and Josephs wedding feast. Somehow a single shawl hides her pregnancy. When Joseph does discover her pregnancy, hes not angry, as in The Nativity (2010). If he was, again with the unwanted questions. Josephs character develops to be a worried but good-hearted father-to-be, one who several times prays to God for a sign. And that sign is Bo, the donkey.

The films few (and, for the most part, secondary) human characters are worth examining with regards to their biblical origins (or lack thereof). Following the Disney princess trope, Marys morality is established through her uncommon kindness towards animals. The primary recipient of her care and the films central character is a donkey, whom she names Bo (voiced by Steven Yeun). Both she and Joseph are depicted as Jewish. The part of the plot revolving around Mary and Joseph reflects a more Lukan influence: Nazareth, Elizabeth and Zechariah, census, manger, though it balances the Lukan emphasis on Mary with the Matthean focus on Joseph so that the two share the spotlight. With regards to the shepherds (Luke) and the Magi (Matthew), the latter play a more substantial role, if only because the addition of three camels to the cast of animal characters must have been irresistible to writers Simon Moore and Carlos Kotkin. Still, the film does not neglect the shepherds: the apparition of the heavenly host to them is included, relying heavily on Ruth, the sheep who befriends Bo and Dave the dove (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) (Luke 2.8). For his part, Herod is a classic baddie. The wise men (Matthew) visit him, and while their conversation takes a backseat to the camels antics, the film at least alludes to the darker aspects of the Matthean nativity narrative: Herod sets his helmeted hunter (hes dressed as a Roman soldier) and his two dogs (they provide a voice for the silent assassin) after Mary, and, consulting a scribe, remarks, If you cant kill this one child, Ill kill them all. This is the closest the film comes to the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2.16), but it is an appropriate choice given the intended audience.

Though I could not sympathize with the complaints of famous actors serving as distractions in Jesus films like The Greatest Story Ever Told, in The Star, familiar voices frequently take you out of the action: Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) as Mary, Zachary Levi (Disneys Tangled) as Joseph, Aidy Bryant (SNL, Girls) as Ruth, the peppy sheep, and Oprah Winfrey as Deborah, the strangely prescient camel whose reverent remarks about the baby Jesus frequently set goofball fellow camels Felix and Cyrus guffawing (Tracy Morgan, SNL, and Tyler Perry, the Madea movies, respectively). A host of popular singers join them: Gabriel Iglesias as Rufus, Kelly Clarkson as Leah, Kristin Chenoweth as Abby, and Mariah Carey as Rebecca.

The film relies heavily on slapstick, screwball and situational humor (chase scenes are frequent in the film). It is at times quite self-conscious (or self-referential), taking advantage of popularized Nativity elements to allude to the made-up plot revolving around Bo. For example, the older donkey tells him, We grind grain, we dont carry kings and you know Bo will prove him wrong and carry the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem (a popularized image not biblically founded). Bo, turning away from his dream of joining the so called royal caravan comes to help Mary and Joseph on their trip to Bethlehem (like The Nativity and The Nativity Story (2006), The Star has a significant road trip sequence).

Humor aside, The Star pushes broad Christian tropes: forgiveness (of Rufus and Thaddeus, the soldiers dogs) and the power of prayer (at times, the speed and way with which God seems to answer Josephs requests makes you wonder if the film is pointing to coincidence, rather than divine intervention; more likely, however, the film is remarking on the unexpected way God is said to answer prayers: Joseph, who is not fond of Bo, asks God for help and the donkey appears). Reckart includes a subtle commentary on the meaning of Christmas: the royal caravan, which Bo seeks to join, is represented by the unmistakable sound of jingle bells. You almost expect Santa to show up. But what is the true meaning of Christmas? Bo gives a definitive answer, turning his back on the caravan and the jingle bells, returning to help Mary. The story has an evangelical bend, too, in the story of Ruth, who leaves her flock to follow the star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2.2). The message is spelled out for us: following God requires sacrifices. Mary and Joseph verbalize the same idea: Just because God has a plan doesnt mean its going to be easy. Christian platitudes? Yes. But they suit The Star.

The end credits contain a disclaimer that the filmmakers sought to create a playful, fun story while striving to capture the values and essence of the story. If I judge The Star by these criteria, Im inclined to declare the film a moderate success. Its a childrens movie, far more so than any of the films weve seen this semester. It outdoes Godspell (1973), in a good way, and strikes a more humorous tone than The Miracle Maker (2000). The worthwhile comparison with The Young Messiah (2016) is between that films Jesus and Bo, who both display a remarkable ignorance of the divinity of Jesus. Only after everyone else has put two and two together does Bo realize that the baby is king, just in time for him to bow down along with the Magi, shepherds and host of animals (its a pretty nativity picture, though not as impressive as that in The Nativity Story. Perhaps because animation, far easier to manipulate, is not as impressive as a live-action shot). Within its own genres comedy, animated, children’s – The Star is a success. But, revolving around a made-up story about animals, it does not fit well in a classic canon of Jesus films. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Garrow's Flaw

Over on Bart Ehrman's blog, there has been some fun relating to the Synoptic Problem. A commenter promised $1,000 to Prof. Ehrman's blog's charities if he engaged with Alan Garrow's work on the Synoptic Problem. Since I have read and thought about Dr Garrow's work, I thought I'd offer to write a post on it, drawing attention to what I see as one of the flaws in the argument. Prof. Ehrman has posted those comments today, and I am cross-posting them here.

I've enjoyed the social media reaction to this, with comments also on Alan Garrow's blog, The Logos Academic Blog, and no doubt elsewhere.

Please note that I do this to encourage people to visit and subscribe to my friend and colleague's blog, with the hope that others will support these great causes, including one local to us, The Urban Ministries of Durham.


In a recent comment on Bart Ehrman's blog, "Evan" suggested that Alan Garrow's arguments are so compelling that he effectively "proves beyond any doubt that Matthew used both Mark and Luke". He says that it is "virtually impossible to believe in the Q theory once you’ve seen this data". The same commenter goes on to offer $1,000 for the charities on the blog in return for an assessment of Garrow's case, asking in particular for "holes in his arguments." As a self-confessed synoptic nerd, and as one who has spent some time with Garrow's work, I thought I would offer this critique by way of response. Since "Evan" is particularly interested in holes in Garrow's case, I thought I would focus on one particular flaw that places a major question mark over this model.

I should point out that while Bart and I are on different sides on the Synoptic Problem, he a staunch supporter of the Two-Source Theory and I an advocate of the Farrer Theory, we are both agreed that Matthew did not know Luke, which is what is under discussion here. I have enjoyed reading Bart's recent blog entries (and the multiple comments!) on these issues, and I hope to find a moment to respond, even if just to provide an excerpt from something I have written. But back to the immediately pressing issue.

Alan Garrow has made his case in a series of videos on his blog, Streeter's 'Other' Synoptic Solution: The Matthew Conflator Hypothesis and An Extant Instance of Q, and it is these videos that "Evan" is referring to. Garrow's more detailed, scholarly argument is laid out in two articles by the same names recently published in the premier journal in the field, New Testament Studies. The fact that one of Garrow's articles is entitled "An Extant Instance of Q" illustrates that it can hardly be the case that "Alan Garrow has compiled an extremely compelling argument that Q never existed" (so "Evan", on Bart's blog). Garrow is actually arguing that Matthew and Luke did use Q, and that we can see exactly how they used Q, because Q has not been lost. Q is, in fact, the Didache! The Didache is a fascinating early Christian work, first published in 1883, but Garrow is the first -- to my knowledge -- to identify it with the hypothetical Q.

Garrow's synoptic model works with Marcan Priority (something shared by Bart and me) but he adds a couple of further elements: (1) Matthew and Luke both know and use Q, which is now unveiled as the Didache; and (2) Matthew also knows Luke's Gospel. In his videos and articles, he works with the analogy of a multiple vehicle car crash. All the data, he says, need to be explained. He then pays special attention to a key element in the car crash -- the variation in rates of verbatim (word for word) agreement between Matthew and Luke in the double tradition (i.e. in passages found only in Matthew and Luke). He points out, quite correctly, that sometimes Matthew and Luke have very high verbatim agreement with one another, and sometimes they have rather low verbatim agreement with one another. This variation in verbatim agreement, he says, demands an explanation.

Garrow argues that his model provides a good explanation of both the high verbatim and the low verbatim passages. High verbatim passages are the result of Matthew directly copying from Luke. They are places where Matthew has just Luke in front of him. Here, Matthew is copying Luke "without distraction." Low verbatim passages are the result of Matthew conflating Luke with Q (=the Didache), i.e. places where Matthew does not agree as much with Luke because he is distracted by one of Luke's sources, Q (=the Didache). As he expresses it, "High DT [double tradition] passages are best explained by Matthew’s copying of Luke without interference from any other entity.”

Garrow is right that the spectrum of agreement in Matthew's and Luke's double tradition requires an explanation. Anyone studying the Synoptic Problem should certainly make sure that they have a good account of why Matthew and Luke sometimes agree very closely and why they sometimes provide the same material in very different words. But is Garrow's diagnosis correct? I don't think so. The difficulty is that it is contradicted by his own model. Several of the passages with very high verbatim agreement in Matthew and Luke are passages where Matthew, on Garrow's own theory, is also copying from Mark, passages like John's messianic preaching (Matt. 3.12 // Luke 3.17), the Beelzebub Controversy (Matt. 12.22-30 // Luke 11.14-23), and the Sign of Jonah (Matt. 12.38-42 // Luke 11.16, 29-32). In passages like these, Matthew and Luke can be remarkably close in wording, and yet these are passages where there are also parallels in Mark.

In other words, Garrow has constructed a model where Matthew is supposed to be agreeing very closely with Luke when there is no distraction, in places where only Luke has the passage in question. And he is supposed to agree with Luke much less when he is distracted by another source, the Didache (or Q). But this is sometimes manifestly not the case. We can test Garrow's thesis by asking how Matthew behaves when the evangelist is copying from both Luke and Mark. And since these passages (usually called "Mark Q Overlap passages") feature a lot of very high verbatim agreement between Matthew and Luke, it is clear that "distraction" has nothing to do with it.

Garrow summarizes his own argument by saying that, "[W]hen Matthew copies Luke without distraction he produces High DT passages. When, however, Matthew knows differing versions of the same event he conflates them – resulting in a Low DT passage." But on Garrow's own thesis, Matthew is quite capable of producing high verbatim agreement when he "knows differing versions of the same event." It may be worth adding that there are plenty of low verbatim passages in Matthew and Luke where there is no parallel in Mark or the Didache, i.e. Matthew is perfectly capable of producing a low verbatim passage on his own with just one source. Whatever we might make of the wisdom of comparing one's synoptic model to a car crash, it has to be said that high verbatim agreement is simply not diagnostic of an author working from only one source, just as low verbatim agreement is not diagnostic of an author working from more than one.