Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Secrets of the Cross, Episode 2: Who Really Killed Jesus?

The first episode of this series of four documentaries, Secrets of the Cross, was called Secrets of the Jesus Tomb and was broadcast on the UK network channel Five on 2 September (and reviewed here). The second documentary went out last Tuesday, so I am a little late with my review here.

Matt Page has provided an excellent review on Bible Films Blog and also on rejesus. Matt gets this one exactly right. There were some real strengths here -- the team of experts selected (Helen Bond, Ann Wroe, James Tabor, Shimon Gibson and one or two others) were excellent, the use of location shooting was well done, and on the whole the documentary approached its subject matter in a historically responsible way, albeit with an occasional unnecessary black-and-white history vs. theology contrast.

This documentary, which like the previous one is made by CTVC, avoided the extremes of fundamentalism on the one hand and sensationalism on the other, and it packed a decent amount of historical detail into the narration and the expert interviews without becoming convoluted. We heard about the Pilate inscription in some detail, and there was an enjoyable scene where Helen Bond, who was on screen more than anyone else, drew the key part of the inscription in the sand by the sea. As well as the experts, there was some newly filmed silent drama, in the modern documentary style, featuring a black Jesus, lots of blood, some Roman soldiers and several scenes with Pilate. It was quite well done, though it is difficult not to find it a bit distracting, especially if one is familiar with the inevitably superior film portrayals of the same events, which are of course too expensive to use in documentaries like this.

On the whole, the programme avoided cliché, though at one stage Jesus' actions "set him on a collision course" with Rome. The history was in the main responsibly done, and it avoided condescending to the audience. Among other virtues, the programme makers did not shy away from addressing the difficulty of the evangelists' portrayal of the Passion, especially Pilate's hand-washing and the crowd's blood guilt line in Matthew. The only minor criticism I would want to make would be that it presented a rather hard-and-fast line, explaining to the audience how things were without allowing for the inevitable difficulties of doing ancient history, with room for contrasting views among different scholars. Documentary makers sometimes underestimate the extent of the audience's interest in the process of doing history, and of weighing contrasting opinions.

After this greatly superior second entry in the series, I am looking forward to the third documentary, Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner, which aired tonight and is repeated on Sunday at 11am, and which is also available free to UK users on Demand Five.

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