Thursday, January 2, 2014

From Jesus to Christ (United Productions/PBS, 1983; U.S. version, 1998)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a rather fascinating documentary on the PBS Frontline series called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” — or rather the second half of it, since the first half had been broadcast on Christmas Eve. It was a compelling show about the early history of Christianity and, like a lot of other PBS documentaries, was apparently structured so it could be shown either in two two-hour segments or four one-hour ones (it’s the latter form in which the Web site lists it). The half of the show that was on New Year’s Eve began with the failure of the so-called First Revolt of the Jews in historic Palestine against their occupation and rule by the Roman Empire, which led to the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Much of the first half of this show was devoted to the writing of the canonical Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (at least according to the scholars interviewed, that’s the order in which they were composed, with Mark being the earliest, dating to 50 C.E., just 20 years after the year in which Jesus is presumed to have died) as well as the inferral of the existence of “Q,” a now-lost manuscript collecting the sayings of Jesus Christ (which made me think it was a sort of Christian version of the hadith, the record of Muhammad’s preachments about God ouside the Koran) which was apparently incorporated into both Matthew and Luke, since as the commentary by Marilyn Mellowes (read in this version by the authoritative, comforting tones of Frontline’s main narrator, Will Lyman) said, some of Jesus’s sayings appear in Matthew and Luke in word-for-word identical form, indicating that there must have been a common written source the authors of Matthew and Luke both drew on, since they wrote in Greek and Jesus actually spoke Aramaic. The argument is that if they had been translating independently from an Aramaic original, the authors of Matthew and Luke would have shown subtle differences in their text, even if the overall sense was the same; instead, their versions of some of Jesus’ most famous quotes were identical, indicating that a previous author had already gone to the trouble of collecting Jesus’ quotes and translating them to Greek, and both Matthew’s and Luke’s authors drew on this source and essentially copied a lot of it.

The total story told in this second half of From Jesus to Christ took the Christian religion from the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans (which led not only to the separation of Christianity from Judaism but the replacement of the Temple hierarchy with the rabbinical tradition that has governed Judaism ever since) to Emperor Constantine’s official support of Christianity that not only ended the Roman persecution of Christians but gave heavy government subsidies to Christian churches and congregations — though the filmmakers, Mellowes and director William Cran, are as uncertain as everyone else as to whether Constantine ever formally became a Christian himself. The price for Constantine’s support was that the Church had to submit to the council he called to resolve the differences between the various strains of Christianity — in which the Gnostic movement was suppressed, as was Martial’s breakaway church (which regarded only one Gospel as canonical — one Martial had rewritten from Luke to make the story even more anti-Jewish; one interesting point this film made was that each new rewrite of the Jesus story made the Jews out more and more as the villains), and in the end Constantine’s council was the group that decided Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would be considered the authoritative sources for Jesus’ life and death and the other Gospels would be consigned to historical oblivion — and except for the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, they probably would have stayed that way.

I was familiar with some of this history from recently having read Bart Ehrman’s Forged — about how fake Gospels and testaments were created and some of them may have slipped into the Bible we know (of the 20 letters from Paul in the official New Testament, Ehrman argued only about 12 were authentic) — in which he noted that the way the story of Jesus was told, retold and told again was shaped by the propagandistic intents of the authors, who weren’t above writing their own prejudices into their texts and attributing their views to Jesus or Paul to bolster their positions in religious conflicts that post-dated both Jesus’ and Paul’s lives. The show lamented the intensity and degree of the separation between Judaism and Christianity but only hinted at the suffering Christians would inflict on Jews over the next 20 centuries with their religion (and in particular the allegation that the Jews had killed Christ) as the pretext — perhaps Cran and Mellowes assumed that we knew that part of the story already and didn’t need it rehashed. I was surprised when I saw that this was a relatively old production — the copyright date was 1998 and, according to, the show was originally a British release from 1983 (the 1998 date presumably related to the PBS version, with Lyman’s American-accented narration replacing whoever did it originally in the U.K.), and it was interesting that though Elaine Pagels, who’s written extensively on the Gnostic Gospels, was interviewed, Bart Ehrman wasn’t — and the show ultimately came down on the side of the participants in Constantine’s conference who decided to make Matthew, Mark, Luke and John the only Gospels given Scriptural authority, mainly because they were the oldest. This was obviously a show meant to reaffirm people’s traditional beliefs about Christ and Christianity, rather than to challenge them.