Critique of PBS Documentary, “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”

By Daniel L. Sonnenberg, 2002.
 The PBS Documentary, “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians,” although demonstrating high production quality and detailed research into early Christianity, contains a number of misrepresentations and cannot conceal its writers’/producers’ presupposition that scripture does not speak authoritatively on matters of faith or history.
The high quality of the production of this series is obvious from beginning to end. Although there does not seem to much actual footage of the Holy Land itself, the extensive use of scale models, footage of landscapes and statues, computer graphics, sound effects and other special effects, underlain by Near Eastern sounding contribute to a very Mediterranean ambiance. Even the scholars were not filmed in the Holy Land setting, but in locations that appear to be historic buildings (likely on their own campuses), often with palm-like foliage in the background which blend well with the aforementioned segue effects. The scholars appear to represent a variety of ethnic backgrounds, represent both sexes and are distributed among a large number of universities and seminaries. (However, they do seem to represent basically one presupposition that the scriptures are not authoritative). The seamless character of the audio and video, shifting from scholar to scripture reader to narrator, kept my attention throughout. I was impressed with the depth of scholarship (however misguided in places) that went into the production of this series. They brought out little known historical elements attested to by the first century Jewish historian, Josephus as well as recent archaeological finds and dealt with a number of literary issues such as the dating of the writings of the New Testament, their intended audiences and the motivations of the writers. Of particular interest to me were such historical elements as the alleged city of Sepphoris, said to have existed four miles from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth; the party and community of the Essenes who were said to inhabit Khirbet Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered; the detail found in the accounts of Josephus as an eyewitness to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.; the Jewish Diaspora communities that developed after that fall; and the so-called Second Revolt of the Jews against the Roman authorities, to name a few.
All that said, there were a number of things that disturbed me about this series. The first is actually the one I noticed last. As the credits rolled, I noted that there was a script writer. Just one. Well, one and a half. Marilyn Mellows wrote and produced the entire series. Her boss, senior producer and director, William Cran, helped write the “Narration.” I assume the Narration is the text read by the person called Narrator that weaves its way through the script. So that means two people wrote the entire script. Then I began to wonder about the scholars from the various universities and seminaries and the way the script flowed. When they spoke, it appeared they were having a casual conversation with some producer off camera discussing a variety of subjects offering their own insights into the issues being discussed. However, the script flowed from one scholar to another without a break as though they were all having a conversation on the same subject in the same room. But they weren’t. They were in different cities! Could it be that they were simply reading the script being held for them off camera, pretending to have a discussion with someone, maybe offering an insight or two of their own, but mostly keeping to the script, to keep the flow going on to the next person? I assume these scholars generally agree with the presuppositions of the script writers or they wouldn’t have wanted to participate (or been asked to do so). Could these knowledgeable people have simply been talking heads like a newscaster?
The second problem for me is that the views represented a bias against the authority and divine inspiration of the Bible. Prof. Michael White, University of Texas, Austin, who according to the credits, served as the Principal Consultant, started it off in the first five minutes when he said, “The problem for any historian in trying to reconstruct the life of Jesus is simply that we don’t have sources that come from the actual time of Jesus himself.” So much for the Gospel accounts. They seem to be dismissed as having no historical accuracy at all. In this production, the works of Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, “Q,” and other unnamed archeological and historical research are portrayed as authoritative, but the Bible seems to come up short on authority. They are represented as “very improbable stories,” “construct[s] of the early Church,” and “words put in Jesus’ mouth.” The Narrator asserts regarding the birthplace of Jesus, “The Gospels claim Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Historians think it more likely that he was born and grew up near the sea of Galilee in the village of Nazareth.” The Biblical accounts are represented as constructions of either the individual writers themselves or the early Christian communities to meet their own needs. Prof. Harold Attridge claims that the early Church constructed the concept that Jesus was the one predicted by John the Baptist to account for the embarrassing text that tells us Jesus was baptized by John. Prof. Paula Fredriksen states that little is known about the crucifixion of Jesus beyond the Gospel “stories,” implying that these are merely stories, more like myths, not based on fact. [Italics mine.] She claims that the Gospel writers “shaped their narrative presentation of the crucifixion” based on the texts quoted in the Psalms to help their readers gain meaning in their own lives. Further, she refers to “…words …put in Jesus’ mouth in Mark, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’…” implying that Jesus did not utter these words himself. [Italics mine.] Rather, she alleges, Mark took them from the Psalms and built the story of the crucifixion around them. Later, Prof. Fredrikson asserts, “What they do is proclaim their individual author’s interpretation of the Christian message through the device of using Jesus…as a spokesperson for the evangelist’s position.” Prof. Crossan follows with “they [are] all intended…symbolically and we’re so dumb that we’ve been taking them literally[.]” [Italics mine.] Later he comes right out and says, referring to the difficulty of harmonizing Jesus’ “agony in the garden” in Mark and John, “Neither of them are historical. I don’t think either of them know exactly what happened.” The words of these two professors are illustrative of others in the documentary who hold to the view that the Bible is not authoritative, nor divinely inspired, but simply stories fabricated to help the early Christians cope with their situation.
Finally, there seem to be several factual inaccuracies either stated or implied in the piece. First, after the discussion of the alleged construction of the crucifixion narratives, Prof. White states, “The plaque that was nailed to the cross is one of the few pieces of historical evidence that we have.” Wow! Does this plaque exist in a museum somewhere that I haven’t heard about? Second, they seem to possess a large volume of knowledge about “Q,” the alleged source behind some of the texts common to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke not found in Mark. At first, Prof. Elaine Page states, “Nobody ever found this source written,” then talks about reconstructing it based on guesswork. Immediately, the Narrator intones, “’Q’ was composed before the war. It would have presented Jesus as an apocalyptic figure, the very image of the messiah…” This is followed immediately by two alleged quotations from “Q” which in the transcript read, “‘Q’ 13:28… There will be weeping and gnashing teeth…” and “’Q’ 12:27…Consider the lilies…” Then the Narrator says, “’Q’…only contains his [Jesus’] sayings….” The section concludes with the assertion that “Q” was likely written in Palestine, but that scholars disagree on where Mark, Luke and John were written. This gives the impression that “Q” is an extant document in spite of the disclaimer that began the discussion.
Originally written for Dr. Allen Mawhinney, Gospels, Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando), May 2002.

Categories: Gospels, Seminary writings

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