Friday, March 29, 2013

A Celebration of Mary Magdalene in The Bible series

Amber Rose Revah as Mary Magdalene
I have been blogging for some time about The Bible series currently airing on History Channel.  We are now eight hours into the series, with the final two hours to come next Sunday (Easter Day).  In this post I would like to turn to a feature of the series that has so far gone without comment in other reviews, the depiction of Mary Magdalene.  I will not hide from the reader just how thrilled I am with the way that Mary Magdalene (Amber Rose Revah, left) is played.  In order to explain why, I will need to reflect first on the depiction of Mary in other Jesus films.

Throughout the history of Jesus films, the depiction of Mary Magdalene has been disappointing.  And that's an understatement.  Some would say that it has been scandalous.  It has been absolutely standard to depict her as the repentant prostitute, harmonizing Luke 7.36-50 (anonymous "sinner") and John 8.1-11 (anonymous woman taken in adultery) with references to Mary Magdalene (Luke 8.1-3, Mark 15.40-41 etc.).

In Jesus Christ Superstar (dir. Norman Jewison, 1973), Mary (Yvonne Elliman) is the repentant prostitute, who now does not know how to engage with Jesus ("I don't know how to love him").  The character combines elements from all of those stories.  Jesus castigates Judas for being judgemental, "If your slate is clean, then you can throw stones; if it is not, then leave her alone".  Without her sinful past, there is no story.

So too in The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988), Barbara Hershey's Mary Magdalene is depicted in the brothel, and her repentance is part of the action of the film.  As in so many Jesus films, she becomes the woman taken in adultery found in many of our textual witnesses in John 8. She is dragged before Jesus and presented to him in a scene that is absolutely standard in Jesus films.

Even Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ (2004), which focuses the action solely on the Passion Narrative, manages to insert a flashback to the story of the woman taken in adultery.  Monica Bellucci's Mary is humbled by her experience, at the feet of Jesus, now beginning a new life with him:

Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene in Passion of the Christ

When one is so used to this cliché, one almost comes to expect it in a new Jesus film.  Surely, once again, we will see Mary Magdalene, the repentant prostitute, the "sinner" who comes to Jesus to anoint his feet, the adulterous woman who was nearly stoned but for Jesus' intervention.  It is so standard a part of the grammar of Jesus films that it would be surprising not to include it.

But of course New Testament scholars have been at pains for years in trying to rescue Mary's reputation.  Books by Karen King, Jane Schaberg, Esther deBoer, Robin Griffith-Jones and others have underlined that the evidence for Mary the prostitute is nil.  There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that Mary was a prostitute.  Moreover, the discovery and publication of the Gospel of Mary, alongside a critical appraisal of other early Christian texts in which Mary features, has served to rescue her reputation over the last generation or so.

It is therefore a matter of great joy to see The Bible series reflecting the best scholarship on Christian origins and depicting Mary as one who follows Jesus and ministers to him from Galilee (Mark 15.40-41; Luke 8.1-3) all the way to Jerusalem, following him to the cross (Mark 15.40-1, John 19.25), his burial (Mark 15.47) and his resurrection (Mark 16.1-8; John 20.1-18).

Amber Rose Revah as Mary Magdalene in The Bible

There is no part in the story where Mary is made to appear like a repentant prostitute.  When we get to the famous scene found in some witnesses of John 8.1-11, the pericope adulterae, far from being the woman at the centre of the action, she is depicted comforting the woman's son; that's her just behind Jesus and the woman in this production still:

The Woman taken in Adultery, The Bible

Mary is depicted throughout among the band of Jesus' disciples, a key part of the action, in the boat at the Walking on the Water pericope, at Jesus' side as he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and so on, and always there in the group shots like this (also a production still):

Jesus and disciples, including Mary Magdalene, The Bible

Of course the Gospels depict Mary as one of several women who travelled with Jesus -- Joanna, Susanna, Mary of James and Joses, Salome among them (Luke 8.1-3; Mark 15.40-41 etc.) -- but the narrative benefits from homing in on one key character, just as The Bible series singles out Peter from the inner group of Peter, James and John.

In a recent talk ("Myths of Mary and the Married Jesus"), I suggested that while popular culture often provides the context for the reception of scholarly claims about Mary Magdalene, there are important ways in which the scholarship has begun to change popular culture.  This has happened on at least one other occasion in recent history, when Paloma Baeza played Mary Magdalene as a disciple of Jesus in BBC / HBO's The Passion (2008), and again not as a prostitute:

Paloma Baeza as Mary Magdalene, The Passion (BBC / HBO)

I remember the late Esther de Boer writing to me back then to express her delight that finally there was a Jesus film that did not depict Mary Magdalene as a prostitute.  I only wish she were still alive, and Jane Schaberg too, to see Amber Rose Revah's wonderful portrayal of the character in The Bible series, and I dedicate this post to their memory, with great affection and gratitude for their scholarship.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

NT Pod 65: The Women at the Cross

It's about time we had a new episode of the NT Pod. I've just released NT Pod 65: The Women at the Cross. Details over on the NT Pod page.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Understanding Caiaphas -- The Bible Series

The Bible series continues on History Channel tonight and introduces, among others, the character of Caiaphas.  The character of Caiaphas presents one of the greatest challenges for any Jesus film or Passion play, and many have failed the test, making Caiaphas a cartoon, caricature baddie who makes no historical sense and who is offensive to boot.

There are, however, exceptions.  When I consulted on The Passion (BBC / HBO, 2008), I was delighted to find that Frank Deasy, the writer, and Nigel Stafford-Clark, the producer, were eager to make all the characters in the drama understandable, even sympathetic.  This is Frank Deasy discussing how he wrote Caiaphas:

One of the elements that I found so admirable in Deasy's script was the idea of giving Caiaphas a family, a wife and daughters, and allowing us to see something of his life.  Ben Daniels himself reflects on the role in a BBC video interview here.

The Bible series is in the same tradition.  Although it cannot give as much screen time to Caiaphas as something like The Passion, it still works hard to try to understand the character and the historical context.  I know that Helen Bond's book Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus? (Louisville: Westiminster John Knox, 2004) was used by the production team in order to help them to understand and so to write the character, and Helen herself was one of the consultants on the series.  (For those not familiar with Helen's work, a great place to begin is her online piece Joseph Caiaphas: In Search of a Shadow).

Caiaphas in The Bible is played by Adrian Schiller, one of several Doctor Who alumni to appear in the series.  Schiller played Uncle in the magnificent 2011 episode The Doctor's Wife, penned by Neil Gaiman.  You can see him interviewed about playing Caiaphas, with several clips, here:

Schiller shows a fine understanding of the historical issues here, with the crowds that would have been in Jerusalem at Passover.  A couple of quotations:
"There is no reason to think that he was anything other than utterly sincere in his beliefs and his adherence to his religion . . . .

Well, the challenge I wanted to meet was to present a reasonable man, an intelligent man, a man with a problem. And I hope that people watching the series will be sympathetic to difficulties he was faced with.

Simply because the influence of these stories is so enormous and so widespread, it's important people know more of the detail, whatever your views about religion or God or morality. You can't ignore these books, so don't!"
Here is the preview for tonight's episode:

Oh, and Doctor Who fans should also look out for Paul Marc Davis, the Trickster from the Sarah Jane Adventures (and Chieftain in Doctor Who episode "Utopia"); he plays Simon in The Bible.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Bible Series -- Drama and Historical Context

While I realize that the only thing people seem to want to talk about at the moment in connection with The Bible Series is the alleged resemblance between a still of Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni and President Obama, I will risk talking about several other features of the most recent instalment of the drama, which was broadcast in Sunday evening on History Channel.  Here is a recap of the episode (courtesy of the History Channel website):

One of the aspects that I appreciate in the New Testament episodes of The Bible series is the attention paid to historical context.  One of the challenges for film-makres on this kind of project is to provide some explanation of the historical context without weighing the narrative down with turgid exposition. I talked about this a little in relation to BBC's The Passion in 2008 in a piece that also found its way onto the DVD, "The Passion" and Its Historical Context.

The Bible nicely illustrates the political situation at the turn of the era by drawing in an incident from Josephus's Jewish War 1.33.2 (648-655), the cutting down of the golden eagle over the great gate:

Josephus describes the young men as gaining courage from the report of Herod the Great's ill health.  The Bible series depicts that bad health in an extraordinary and memorable scene where Sam Douglas as Herod lies bloated and in agony with leaches all over his body.  This scene is a great adaptation of the story from Josephus and, as I commented the other day, Sam Douglas's Herod is up there with Peter Ustinov's iconic depiction of Herod in Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977).  Here is Douglas:

While Herod is suffering away in his palace, the viewer gets to meet Mary and Joseph for the first time, in Nazareth in Galilee.  The viewer is treated to an imagination of a first century BCE synagogue.  This, of course, is difficult to imagine given our lack of detailed knowledge, but I was delighted to see Mary and Joseph sitting down next to one another, in a scene that depicts the meeting of their eyes.

Since several people have asked me about the role of an academic consultant, this is the kind of thing that one comments on.  There was a question, for example, over whether or not to depict Mary and Joseph separated into different parts of the synagogue, a male section and a female section.  This is where a consultant points out that there is no evidence for that kind of segregation in this period.  It is one of those areas where history and drama come together -- the scene works better as drama if the two are side by side, but it coheres at the same time with what we know of the history.

This is not, of course, to suggest that attempts to provide historical context trump the drama.  The Biblical texts are what drive the narrative, and one of the ways that the episode dramatizes the Birth Narrative is to combine Matthew's story about the Magi and Herod (Matt. 2.1-12) with the context previously established.  Although the narrative provides the traditional three wise men (to coincide with the three gifts, Matt. 2.11), just one of them consults with Herod, and he is given the traditional name Balthazar:

Focusing on one character among the several from the Biblical text is something that often happens elsewhere in order to generate a story that is easier to follow; compare the miraculous haul of fish later in the episode (based on Luke 5.1-10) where only Peter is present .  This Balthazar is similarly the spokesman for the magi in the nativity scene itself.  The whole clip is available on Youtube here.  It begins with Balthazar seeing the star:

The depiction of the Nativity is traditional, harmonizing elements from Matthew 2 with elements from Luke 2, but it's very effective, very moving.  Leila Mimmack's Mary is just sublime in this scene.  I tweeted the other night, while the episode was being broadcast, that you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by her performance here (after which several respondents responded that they were indeed in possession of hearts of stone).

Once the narrative moves forward by a few years, the political context requires some further explanation.  Once again, turgid exposition is avoided and instead we see an encounter between Pontius Pilate, the newly arrived governor of Judea, and Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea.  The encounter between them sets the scene nicely for the drama to follow both in the immediate context -- John's baptism and death, and the broader context -- the trial and crucifixion next week:

The conversation between the two men not only establishes the politics of the region and the period but also the question of a "Messiah" and what this language means.  It reminds me of Peter Ustinov's Herod the Great in Zeffirelli's  Jesus of Nazareth, who tells Proculus (a fictional character from Rome), over a sumptuous feast, all about the dreams of a "Messiah" figure and what this means.  But by having this kind of conversation just before the beginning of Jesus' mission, The Bible is able to segue neatly straight into John's baptism and messianic preaching.  "You need to keep an eye on your Messiah", Pilate says, as the film cuts straight to Jesus walking along the side of the River Jordan, with snatches of what I think is a kind of "Jesus theme" in Hans Zimmer's score, here heard for the first time in the drama:

And when it comes to Jesus' walking, I can't help thinking of Martin Scorsese's comments about the importance of making sure that your Jesus walks normally, and not a couple of inches above ground.  He loved Pasolini's Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) in which Jesus clearly just walks.  Diogo Morgado, who plays Jesus in The Bible, gets this right too.  He does not glide; he does not float; he walks.  In fact, there is a lovely moment towards the end of the episode where Jesus sploshes through the water to get to Peter's boat for the miraculous haul of fishes story.

There are many others things I would love to discuss about this episode of The Bible, but I will conclude with just one.  Although it came in for a lot of criticism from academics and others, one of the things that Gibson's Passion of the Christ did well was the "point of view" shot, whereby the viewer would see events as Jesus sees them, often the trigger for a flashback, a flashback that was often Jesus remembering something.  Here in The Bible, there is a great point of view shot, as Jesus goes down into the waters of baptism, and we see things as he sees them:

He is looking at John, as he emerges from the water.  It's an impressive scene not least because this is the kind of area where one could end up being really crass and cheesey.  In the Synoptics' narrative, a dove descends and there is a voice from the heavens.  The Bible does not attempt to depict that directly, but simply suggests Jesus' epiphany by showing a shot of the sky as he emerges.

(Note: the above pictures are mainly screenshots taken from episode 6 with a view to illustrating the points I am making; the second picture (of Sam Douglas as Herod) is a publicity still from History Channel).

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Bible Series - into the New Testament

The Bible Series has continued to have massive ratings, with over 10 million for last Sunday's second two-hour instalment. Next Sunday's two hour instalment features Jeremiah and Daniel, Exile and Return, in hour one and the Nativity story, John the Baptist and Jesus in hour two. There is a new trailer available:

I must admit that I have never quite known how to picture Jeremiah in my mind.  Has there ever been a depiction in a mainstream film or TV series?  Somehow, Raad Rawi's depiction in The Bible really works, though, sufficiently that I might almost be imagining this face in future readings of the text.

A couple of things are worth looking out for here. I think Sam Douglas makes a great Herod, rivalling Peter Ustinov's iconic portrayal in Jesus of Nazareth (dir. J. Franco Zeffirelli, 1977). And I love Leila Mimmack's adorable portrayal of young Mary, which rivals any portrayal of Mary in film and TV that I have seen, including Olivia Hussey in Jesus of Nazareth, Keisha Castle-Hughes in The Nativity Story (dir. Catherine Hardwicke, 2006) and Tatiana Maslaney in The Nativity (BBC, 2010).

The preview also shows glimpses of a remarkable scene that dramatizes Josephus's narrative of the cutting down of the eagle over the gate of the temple -- definitely one to watch out for in the episode.

There is a shorter preview available here:

And speaking of young Mary, there is an interview with Leila Mimmack here, interspersed with clips from the episode:

It is probably worth adding also in this context the longer clip of the Nativity episode that they released last Christmas:

I must admit to finding this facetious comment on Entertainment Weekly a little amusing: " Next week, the mini [series] could get a ratings boost by the addition of a new fan-favorite character — Jesus Christ joins the show once The Bible gets into the New Testament."

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The End of Google Reader

I am very disappointed with the news that Google Reader is coming to an end. USA Today reports that Google Reader is shutting down in July, and the news is widely reported elsewhere.

Since I moved over from Bloglines to Google Reader some years ago, Google Reader has been part of my every day way of experiencing the internet, especially blogs and podcasts. Google Reader also generates the blogroll I have to the right of this blog.

So we have until July to find a good replacement. Does anyone have a good recommendation? It has to be free, it should not have a magaziney-type interface, and it must at least have the functionality of Google Reader, ideally with the ability to generate a nice blogroll for a specifically chosen group of sites. I suspect I'm asking too much?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Late Antiquity Made New Symposium: The Poster

Thanks to Maria Doerfler for this fantastic poster for the symposium celebrating the work of Elizabeth Clark, coming soon at Duke!

Blog notice here. For more see details here.

Thomas and the Gospels Reviews and Inteviews

I am grateful to Christopher Skinner for posting an interview with me about my book Thomas and the Gospels over on his Peje Iesous blog.

Interview with Mark Goodacre (Part 1)

Interview with Mark Goodacre (Part 2)

I am also grateful to Tony Burke for this fair, appreciative but critical review over on Apocryphicity:

A Review of Mark Goodacre's "Thomas and the Gospels"

Speaking of reviews, I somehow failed, inexcusably, to mention this essay by Loren Rosson III over on The Busybody:

Retrospective / Review: Q, Thomas and Killjoy Scholarship

It looks back at my Case Against Q and forward to Thomas and the Gospels. I kind of like the term "killjoy", though I have tended to use the term "spoilsport" in the same context in the past of that kind of reluctant scepticism that I find myself cursed with.

I have also been lucky enough to be reviewed over on Matt Page's Bible Films Blog:

Book Review: Thomas and the Gospels

I am a big fan of Matt's blog and I am looking forward to hearing his reviews of History Channel's The Bible in due course.

And Rafael Rodriguez reviews the book, and has some really nice things to say as well as some helpful criticisms here on Verily, Verily:

Goodacre, the Synoptics and the Gospel of Thomas

I'd love to find some time to interact with some of Rafael's points in due course.

Thanks also to Michael Bird, Jim West, Thomas Creedy, and I think also James McGrath (but can't find the link, soz) for appreciative mentions.  Apologies to any I have missed -- please let me know in the comments below.

Thomas and the Gospels is available from Eerdmans, SPCK,,  There is an Eerdmans interview (8 minutes) as well as a book trailer (one minute).

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Bible Series a Massive Ratings Success

I expected The Bible Series on History Channel to debut strongly last night, but I had no idea just how well it would do.  Apparently, it had a massive 14.8 million viewers on the night, 13.1 million of whom watched the first broadcast between 8pm and 10pm.  Details here:

To put this into some kind of context, other cable shows like Doctor Who on BBC America get a couple of million viewers.  Over 14 million puts it up there with the top rated, prime time shows on the main networks.

Congratulations to all of those involved!  #TheBible was also trending world-wide all evening, and #NinjaAngels made an appearance too!  You can catch a few short clips of those NinjaAngels, in this short video:

The series continues next Sunday on History at 8/7C.

Previous blog posts on The Bible here.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Bible Series: The Consultants' Role

I have been blogging off and on for a few weeks on the forthcoming History Channel series, The Bible, which begins airing in the USA tonight, 8/7C.  There are ten episodes and two are broadcast each week, culminating with the final two on Easter Day, 31 March.  There are now tons of video clips available, but here's one of my favourites, a nice montage of scenes set to The Script's "Hall of Fame":

One of the reason for scholarly types to be encouraged is that the executive producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, did hire a large group of academic consultants.  The group is so large that I must admit that I don't know everyone who was involved, but I can confirm that I was involved, and so were  Helen Bond, Craig Evans, Joshua Garroway, Paula Gooder and Candida Moss.

Garroway comments on his experiences as a consultant in an article on CNN's Belief Blog:
Another consultant was Rabbi Joshua Garroway, an assistant professor at the Hebrew Union College and an expert on early Christianity and the Second Jewish commonwealth (circa 530 B.C. to 70 A.D.) Judaism. He was a paid consultant on the project.
“One of the issues that came up frequently in the comments was the goal of the production was to remain faithful, or at least as faithful as possible, to the narrative and text of the Bible, as opposed to a historical critical approach,” he said.
“The series is not meant to be a historical feature but as a representation of the biblical narrative which is at times historical and at times not,” Garroway said.
One reason Garroway thought he was brought in was because in parts of the New Testament, “there are less than generous depictions of Jews, Jewish leaders and Jewish traditions.”
One of several Jewish scholars involved, his role as a New Testament scholar was to help the production stay faithful to the text but also “diminish as much as possible scenes or statements that could be construed as overly negative toward Jews and Jewish judgment.”
While he thinks the project has an overall Christian orientation, “I think they did well.”
“I don’t think it will run into the same problems that Mel Gibson’s movie ("The Passion of the Christ") did because the producers have been somewhat conscientious about forestalling some of the things that could produce that effect in the Jewish community,” he said, referring to perceptions of anti-Semitism from the 2004 film.
Craig Evans comments in an article in the Herald:
Craig Evans, professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, was one of about 40 consultants and faith leaders recruited from around the world to ensure the show’s historical and scriptural accuracy.
“We have loved our relationship with Craig,” said Downey, adding that the well-known scholar and his wife became close friends as Evans guided the New Testament parts of the project with his “expertise and love of Scripture. … He’s been a great blessing.”
Evans’s task involved reading and re-reading the script, initially to correct mistakes and then to examine dialogue and the authentic representation of the culture and history of the Middle East in New Testament times.
“This was a challenge,” said Evans, who has previously consulted for National Geographic documentaries, among other projects. “How do you work it all into a movie?”
And I talked to the Huffington Post about the project the other day:
Mark Goodacre, a New Testament scholar at Duke University who was one of several academics who consulted on Downey and Burnett's script, said there are bound to be questions of interpretation, accuracy and “what's included and not included” in any Bible adaptation.
“We tried to make sure things held together historically, but in any adaptation that's a compelling drama you have to draw lines and make connections through dialogue, scenes and narrative,” said Goodacre, who noted the series relies on a mix of Biblical translations with dialogue that appeals to modern viewers.
“You don't want people talking King James English, but there are recognizable lines and, of course, iconic places," he said. "But [Downey and Burnett] are also not afraid to provide some linking pieces and do things that are not direct. It's very naturally done.”
Broadly speaking, the role of the consultants began back in 2011 when planning on the series was beginning.  I first met the producers in Greenwich, London, in July that year.  Our main role was to look at scripts as they were produced and to offer comments, but also to answer emails and phone-calls, and to advise on details in the scripts from the scholar's perspective.

Last year, in the autumn, we got to view early cuts of the episodes and once again to offer comments, and to draw attention to anything we thought required special attention.  It was a fascinating experience because it gave you an insight into the world of TV production to see the partially finished episodes, and to watch things coming together.  I had the same experience watching these early edits that I had when watching the BBC / HBO Passion in 2008 -- it's a profoundly moving experience to see scripts with which one has become very familiar now becoming reality.  And although these were early edits, and one watched them out of sequence, I have to say that I was not disappointed.  It's a superb series.

The consultant's role is always, inevitably, a very minor role in something like this.  The producers themselves are the ones calling the shots, and they don't need to talk to people like us at all.  And it must be frustrating for them to be talking to people like us who really don't know anything about film-making.  But it's greatly to their credit that they were willing to spend so much time asking the views of academics and taking their views seriously, and I was impressed throughout the experience with the time they took to listen to all the little suggestions we had.