Saturday, December 30, 2006


40+ tv channels and nothing good on, what do you do? You turn to CNN or N24 hoping for a documentary. I was not disapointed, since CNN was showing a documentary on early Christianity called "After Jesus". I tuned in just before 21:00 CET (about halfway through) as the narrator (Liam Neeson, apparently, though minus his gorgeous accent in "Love, Actually") got to the Simon bar Kochba revolt and anounced that in the next part (after the commercial), we will be hearing more about the conflicts in the early Church, especially gnosticism. And that's where my bullshit Dan Brown radar went off.

Regrettably, I was right. One would think one had nothing to worry about seeing that CNN decided to consult authorities such as Richard A. Freund or Bart Ehrman who were, naturally, great. Yet the narration framing the entire documentary was all wrong. There are things one could just let go, like equating gnosticism with mysticism. But no matter how impressive Liam Neeson's Aslan voice is, a large number of the statements made in the narration (which accounts for cca. 70% of the entire program) were either misleading or plain false. Just a few examples:

- The narration states that the texts in the Nag Hammadi library were authored by the monks of the nearby St. Panochius monastery. Not only is this not true (the general opinion is that the monks were only hiding the texts from the orthodox church), but also it implies that these works are a product of a small fringe sect and not a popular movement or movements within the early Christian church.

- The narration states that the apocryphal gospels offer a different biography of Jesus than the canonical ones. The chief example it gives is the Gospel of Thomas - which does not contain any biographical information on Jesus at all.

- Once the narration got to explaining what is so important about the gnostic gospels, the first on the list was - you guessed it - the role of women and especially Mary Magdalene in the early Church, accompanied by the now famous saying 114 from the Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to them, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life."
Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."

- The narration described the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library as "perhaps the greatest threat" to Christianity in the last 2000 years. I'm sure many a theologian would strongly disagree. Moreover, the writers seem to believe - mistakingly, as many have repeatedly pointed out - that people's faith would be shattered with the discovery of documents which post-date Jesus by at least two centuries.

Besides sensationalism so typical of the media (et tu, CNN?), the last two clearly show the effects the gospel according to Dan has had on the perception of the history of Christianity. One cannot help but wonder why the creators of the documentary bothered to talk to actual scholars if they were not ready to provide them with enough space. A skilled director could have let the experts speak and used the narration to introduce their comments and tie them together. Instead, the writers of "After Jesus" resigned themselves to repeating the currently popular wisdom and used the scholars they interviewed (and the names of their institutions) to give the program an air of seriousness. The result was another opportunity missed.

I had my doubts about BBC's "The Lost Gospels", too. They might have as well named it "The Bart Ehrman Show", since it was apparently based on Bart Ehrman's "Lost Christianities" and featured a lot of Bart Ehrman. But for all of its deficiencies and the difference in scope and subject, it made a much better job of explaining the actual issues and the historical context. Not to mention the lovely cinematography. And we got to see the original text of the Gospel of Thomas.

Here's a more comprehensive review of "After Jesus", this time from an evangelical perspective and with a lot of actual quotes from the program.


Anonymous said...

I see that they managed to interview all of one Catholic scholar for this--and that someone I've never heard of.

bulbul said...

Funny, I didn't even notice. But it does not surprise me. What would surprise me, however, would be an Orthodox theologian in a program like this. Ah well, too much to ask probably...

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