Monday, January 12, 2009

'Jesus the Jew' on Channel 4

Last night at 7.00 Channel 4 television aired the first in their series 'Christianity: A History'. Entitled 'Jesus the Jew', it was presented by the novelist Howard Jacobson, who describes himself as a "devout Jew". While it was an interesting film, it was deeply flawed. First of all, it displayed one of the biggest weaknesses of modern documentary television in that it was written as a 'personal journey' by a personality, rather than being presented by an expert in the subject. As a result this idiosyncratic film told us more about Jacobson than it did about the subject. Facts that are common knowledge were presented as startling, while archaeology that confirmed the Biblical accounts was presented as amazing because it disproved certain unsubstantiated theories of the 'History-of-religions' school who hypothesised that a large Gentile presence in Galilee led Jesus to combine elements of Greek philosophy with Judaism to create Christianity.

In fact the scholarship of this programme was definitely on the cutting edge of the 19th century. Central to the story was the 'Jesus und Paulus' theory. As the Times reviewer, Paul Hoggart, put it:
"The Apostle Paul was the main culprit, he argues, in stripping Jewish traditions out of Jesus' teaching and laying the foundations for generations of virulent anti-semitism." (The Knowledge, Saturday 10th January, P. 41
The trouble is, in Jacobson's film Paul is not discussed in context. We hear nothing about Paul the Jew, the Rabbi from Tarsus who always made the synagogue his first port of call when he came to a town where there was one, who always went to the Jews first. Jacobson's film also skims over the question of Paul's conversion. Here was a man who was the bitter enemy of Christianity, yet became one of its leaders How? Paul was not a man believing what he wanted to believe, but rather what he did not want to believe! There was no discussion of the conversion of Paul, but it was skimmed over lightly. And in the end that was the problem with this film. Jacobson edited the evidence to fit the story that he wanted to tell. You know that a film's going to be bad when James Tabor appears on screen, with the title of his work of sensational pseudo-scholarship The Jesus Dynasty on screen. And then when he announced that Christians would find the fact that Jesus and his followers were not baptised as Christians would be shocking, you switch off and stop listening when Tabor comes on screen. Remember Tabor's part in the 'Jesus tomb' business a couple of years back? Exactly.

But the single fact that was most skimmed over was the resurrection. Now Christianity is quite inexplicable without the resurrection. A Jesus who taught for three years, then died and remained in the tomb could not have founded Christianity. Nor could his followers have done so. The empty tomb is the fact that lies at the centre of the Christian truth claim. If Christ is not raised, then we are of all men most to be pitied, because we are still in our sins. Yet Jacobson ignored all this. There was no attempt to explain why, if Christ did not rise from the dead, the disciples, portrayed as broken men after Jesus' arrest, were suddenly bold as lions just a month or so afterwards. Every one of the New Testament writers assumes the resurrection. If you are going to say that Christ did not rise from the dead, you must explain Christianity without that fact. It has never been done successfully.

Of course, one expects a film about Christianity by a devout Jew to be in the nature of a Jewish apologetic, and that is what this programme really was. The level of scholarship was slight, and I cannot see how this can be seen as a serious contribution to scholarship. Anti-semitism is a wicked thing, and the abuse of Jewish documents like the New Testament to support it is absurd as well as wicked. Marcion, who edited the New Testament to remove as much 'Jewishness' as possible was at least more consistent than those who try to use the Jewish Gospel of John to give some shadow of credence to their hatred of Jews. A dislike of the unlike is sadly part of our fallen humanity.

One final thought. This film certainly demonstrates that it is more and more the case in this country that for the media the Roman Catholic Church is Christianity. It certainly felt like all the 'Christian' scholars interviewed were from the Church of Rome.


Zigmund said...

Thanks for your article on Jesus the Jew on channel4! Your article was really well put together. Do you have further comments on Jesus the Jew, in general? best Ziggy

pandahands said...

hi, i was challenged by your program on tv and by what you said. I could see where you are coming from and have thought about your claims about christ and about paul but am not sure that you are right about either. I really don't think you are right about Paul and his intentions or his message actually. I have just read Ephesians 1 & 2 in the Message Bible which speaks a different story to the one you related to me over the tv. Ephesians 2 14-18 is particularly relevant,exciting and gracious. It talks about how christ "The messiah has made things up betweens us, so that we are now together on this both non-Jewish outsider and Jewish Insiders" how he has "tore down the wall that we used to keep each other at a distance" and how Christ "brought us together through His death on the cross. The cross got us to embrace and that was the end of that". We are new creations in Christ, Paul goes on in verse 16-18 "Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He Treated us as equals and so made equals. Through Him we both share the same spirit and have equal access to the Father." "Thats plain enough, isn't it! You're no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now you home country. You're no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He's using us all - irrespective of how we got here - in what He is building." there more its great there are no outsiders because of Christ and what He did on the cross.