Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Secrets of the Jesus Tomb, on Five

Last night, the British channel Five (one of the five network channels in the UK, and the youngest) aired a new documentary produced by CTVC (who have a short page on it here) entitled The Secrets of the Jesus Tomb. According to The Guardian, it achieved 1.4 million viewers, which is probably about par for the course for a Five documentary. Five documentaries are not aimed at a high brow audience and in general are relatively undemanding, with plenty of exposition and repetition, some over-simplification and a straightforward structure, a narrative with talking heads and some drama. This documentary sits soundly in that sub-genre. If you were looking for a BBC4 style documentary, you would be disappointed. If you are a New Testament scholar hoping to see something new or different, you would almost certainly be disappointed. But the casual viewer, with a limited knowledge of the subject area, with the telly on in the background while doing the washing up, would find it pretty easy viewing. That casual viewer might have found it enjoyable and even informative.

For those who have followed the Talpiot tomb controversy over the last eighteen months (covered extensively on this blog), this documentary would not have provided any surprises, but for those looking for an introduction to the story, it would have been useful. And the absence of Simcha Jacobovici, and a more sceptical conclusion to the documentary made it much easier viewing than the Discovery Channel original Lost Tomb of Jesus that aired in the US in March 2007.

This documentary told the story of the discovery of the Talpiot Tomb, featuring reminiscences from Amos Kloner and Shimon Gibson, and it then developed the theory that this could be Jesus of Nazareth's tomb with visuals of each ossuary, and the writing translated to English. The middle section of the documentary made the case for that identification with extensive comment from James Tabor who was apparently filmed in Jerusalem. The narration in this section featured a lot of oversimplification and side-stepping, especially the confident assertion that Jesus had sisters called Mary and Salome, and that his brothers Judas and Simon would not be in this tomb because they were still alive after 70CE. And the (I think weak) case that the so-called Mariamne inscription points to Mary Magdalene was overstated (see my posts on Mariamne, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, Mariamne and the Jesus Family Tomb, Mariamene and Martha, Stephen Pfann, The Statistical Case for the Identity of the "Jesus Family Tomb" and others in the series) as were several of the other elements in the case.

The middle section of the documentary was peppered also by comments from Bart Ehrman and Tal Ilan, who also appeared in the final, sceptical section of the film in which the idea that this could possibly be Jesus of Nazareth's tomb was seriously questioned. The statistical case was discussed and broadly dismissed, though unfortunately without contributions from those like Randy Ingermason who have published on this. By the end of the programme, the case for the identification was left looking pretty deflated, and our casual viewer who had held on all the way through, now having finished his washing up, might have wondered whether it was really worth spending the time on a case that seemed weak. Still more should have been done on the sceptical side, though, and I was disappointed by the lack of involvement of several experts who have contributed to the debate, especially Stephen Pfann.

The documentary makers should, however, be lauded for avoiding sensationalism and for sounding fairly reasonable, at least by the end of the programme. A few features showed some sensitivity to scholarly conventions, like the use of "BCE" and "CE" (unexplained in the programme) rather than "BC" and "AD", but at other points repeated cliché (Christianity rocked to its foundations) and banality (Jesus was not a Christian) will have turned away the educated viewer. And if they said that ossuaries were bone boxes once, they said it a hundred times.

I always look at the credits on programmes like this, not least so that I can see if I know any of those involved. One disappointment here was that there was no historical consultant or advisor listed. I think it is a mistake for documentary makers not to employ proper historical consultants. They are inexpensive, they can be a gold mine of valuable information and there are things that experts can see that the programme makers will miss. It is a way of improving the quality of the final product, avoiding errors and holding yourself to account.

Some have reacted unfavourably to the documentary, most notably Andrea Mullaney in today's Scotsman, who calls it "moronic" -- Real Life Stupidity on a Biblical Scale (HT: Jim West). Since Mullaney is rightly unimpressed by the claims explained in the new documentary, one wonders what she would have made of the original Discovery channel documentary, produced by Simcha Jacobovici, that allowed so little room for dissenting voices. Andrew Billen in The Times was not much more impressed:
The programme displayed a surer mastery of the obvious. “One of the most famous figures in history,” the commentary explained about Jesus, “the truth about his life remains a mystery. But one thing is certain: Christ was not a Christian. Christianity only came into being after he died.” The conclusion that this feeble documentary more or less arrived at was something else obvious: the tomb probably wasn't Jesus's at all.
Robert Collins in the Telegraph was a little more positive, though he ends with the comment that "Like all Turin Shroud-esque conspiracies, it’s irresistible until the contradicting evidence comes along to spoil all the fun."

Update (Friday): Matt Page comments on Bible Films Blog.


Anonymous said...

One interesting question is Why this find has been unkown to the general public for aeveral decadesx.

Matt Page said...

Well the makers of last year's film claim it was recent discovery that the Patina in these tombs matched that of the James Ossuary that made all the difference. Until then there wasn't much of a story.

What I can't work out / remember is why the story resurfaced in 1996, 16 years after the original discovery, but still 6 years (I think) before the discovery of the James Ossuary.


Esther de Boer said...

Thank you so much for your description of the programme and your comments. I hope it will be possible for you to review the other parts as well for those of us abroad. I was interviewed for the Mary Magdalene part so in the end I shall receive a copy of the MM part but it is nice to know something of the whole propgramme at the time when it is broadcasted.
Esther de Boer