Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Last Days of Jesus (Blink Films, Associated Producers Ltd., PBS, Channel Five Television Ltd., SBS Television Australia, Zoomer Media Limited, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on a quite interesting and brand-new documentary on PBS called Last Days of Jesus (note the absence of a definite article on the title). I had assumed this was just one of the reruns they routinely trot out during Holy Week or the run-up to it, but this was a new program, directed by Peter Oxley and produced by the usual array of companies — Blink Films, Associated Producers Ltd., PBS, Channel Five Television Ltd., SBS Television Australia, and Zoomer Media Limited — presenting a provocative new view of Jesus’s life and especially his death. One of the arguments Oxley and his sources made is that Jesus was probably a member of the middle class of his time — the word describing his and Joseph’s occupation that’s usually translated as “carpenter” could also mean what today is called a “contractor”, and the fact that he was able at age 12 to sit in the Temple and hold his own with the adult rabbis in discussing the Bible suggests that he had an education at a time when school was definitely a luxury item — and that he was recruited by John the Baptist to join what amounted to an insurrectionary movement against the Temple hierarchy, the Sadducees (the real religious establishment of the time — Oxley argued that the Pharisees were really reformers, essentially the Reform Jews of their time to the Orthodox Judaism of the Sadducees). Oxley’s biggest and most radical claim was that the events the Gospels describe as happening in just one week — from Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his condemnation, execution and resurrection — actually occurred over six months or so.

His case begins with the point that Jesus could not have staged a big entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday during the week before Passover because the only time that many palm fronds would have been relatively easy to obtain would have been just before the Jewish holiday of Tabernacle — i.e., at the start of fall instead of the start of spring — and if we take that clue and attribute Jesus’s entry in Jerusalem to September 31 C.E. instead of March 32 C.E., and thereby stretch the events described in the Gospels over a six-month period, the time frame crosses one of the most politically fraught periods in the history of the Roman Empire. The third key figure in the story as Oxley and his experts tell it, besides Jesus himself and Herod Antipas (whose great ambition was to reunite the Jewish kingdom which had been split by the Romans at the time of the death of his father, Herod the Great, and which Antipas wanted to reunite under his control instead of having to share it with his siblings), is the Roman proconsul Lucius Aelius Sejanus, head of the Praetorian Guard (which began as the Roman equivalent of the Secret Service but soon gained independent power and eventually ended up determining who would be Emperor, including killing the incumbent if they thought it was time for a change) and second in command to the Emperor Tiberius. The history books record Tiberius, direct successor to Augustus, as one of the better emperors — under his rule Rome was at peace and he built up a government surplus his scapegrace successor, Caligula, squandered — but at one point he lost interest in governing and retired to a villa on the isle of Capri. According to this show, Tiberius survived an earthquake on Capri near Naples (then, as now, the most seismically active region of Italy) and Sejanus’s body was found on top of his, with both still alive despite being buried under a pile of rock. Tiberius took this as an omen that 1) he should never return to Rome (he never did) and 2) he should trust Sejanus as his second-in-command — essentially his H. R. Haldeman, Karl Rove or Steve Bannon. So Tiberius hung out on Capri and, according to historian Suetonius, indulged in various sexual perversions (including having a bunch of young boys around he called his spintriae, who were there to give him blow jobs under water as he swam) while Sejanus lived in Rome and essentially ran the Empire under Tiberius’s name — until somehow Tiberius got wind that Sejanus, in order to succeed Tiberius as emperor, had arranged the murder of Tiberius’ son.

Tiberius wrote a letter to the Roman Senate and arranged to have it read aloud there, and Sejanus, thinking it was the promotion he was expecting to co-emperor, was horrified as the reader went through the missive and it turned out to be an edict finding him guilty of murder and treason and sentencing him to death. Oxley’s argument was that Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate had both been political allies of Sejanus, and as part of their overall plan had tolerated the Jesus movement and Jesus himself, to the point of preventing the Jewish authorities from busting Jesus when he threw the money-changers out of the Temple — a direct hit at the Sadducees, whose principal source of income was the money pilgrims to Jerusalem had to spend to buy animals for sacrifice as the price of admission to the Temple. Once Tiberius ordered Sejanus’ execution, he issued another edict to the effect that procurators in the Roman territories were now supposed to give the local religious authorities power to enforce discipline — which meant that the Sadducees were now in the driver’s seat again and Pilate had to curry favor with them or risk being summoned back to Rome and executed himself. So he gave the Sadducees the biggest thing they wanted — he signed the death warrant for Jesus and had him crucified. The case presented in Last Days of Jesus is persuasive if not utterly convincing — it’s certainly true that the version told in the Gospels, which compresses historical events that may have occurred over six months into one exciting, action-packed week, is just better drama, as well as having become the foundation myth for one of the world’s largest and most influential religions — though if nothing else it underscores how much events in any imperialist dominion are conditioned by political developments in the imperialist power’s capital of which the people in the territory may not even be aware.