By: Thomas Verenna
In lieu of writing a much longer piece for an online journal, I have thought it useful to open up some to a conversation concerning the History Channel’s ‘The Bible’. Recently lots has been made about the inaccuracies of the miniseries, as well as Glenn Beck’s (racist?) comments about how similar is their Satan character to “that guy”. But not much has been said in its defense.
This is problematic; while there are inaccuracies, I am not sure that it diminishes from the quality or historical contexts that are present. Before Jim West gets flustered (don’t hate me Jim), let me explain my meaning.
As students of the past, there is one constant fact to all of our ancient literature that I’m sure many of my readers will already know: they contain elements of what some would call ‘truth’ (in a philosophical or theological sense), elements of cultural memory/social memory (historical or otherwise), and lots more mythological constructs–fictions, to be blunt about it. In the Gospels, this is probably the most clear-cut. We have four canonical Gospels and dozens of noncanonical Gospels, some contain similar elements between each other (Matthew and Luke contain something like 90% of Mark’s Gospel with their own additional, unique content).
I often wonder how early receivers of these Gospels understood them. As a literary critic at heart, reception history is an important function of any text; yet somehow I don’t think that Luke’s first readers grumbled on about how little it matched up with Matthew’s accounts. I mean, you don’t generally find early Christian apologists complaining about how much Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives contradict each other. (critics of Christianity certainly did, but not generally the believers–which is telling) Somehow four Gospels were, for the most part, accepted into a canon and appreciated as they were–with all of their complexities and nuance, with their competing theological narratives, with their chronological disparities.
Now not everyone appreciated this, and we have examples of some later scribes attempting to unify the four versions (i.e., they attempted to ‘correct’ the disparities). But these attempts were widely unsuccessful (so far as we know); we still have four Gospels in the canon, contradictions and competitive elements included. So at some point, along the line, these were still appreciated for what they were: rewritten narratives, tradition ‘history’. Most of my readers who are academics themselves will undoubtedly be aware of all of this. And in many respects, probably still accept the Gospels–begrudgingly or otherwise–with their many challenges and puzzling alterations.
But isn’t it interesting that when a miniseries does the same thing as the Gospel authors, many of us just cannot deal with it? So the producers have a square script in the wrong period. So what? Matthew includes a scene where Herod goes about ordering the killing of a bunch of infants (which never happened). Luke feels it is completely acceptable to add a census at the wrong time. And lest we forget, Josephus and Philo were quite capable of rewriting the Bible in bizarre and inaccurate ways; Josephus has Alexander the Great reading the book of Daniel for goodness sake; a book which at that time would not be inked for another 160 years or more! Philo has Heraclitus stealing philosophical ideas from Moses; if you want to talk about inaccuracies and historical improbabilities, look no further than the first century CE.
Many have had a (understandable) problem with how white Jesus is portrayed in the film. But Jesus has been portrayed as white for generations–not that this is an acceptable argument, because it isn’t–but he has not only ever been portrayed this way. Some of the very first depictions of Jesus are him as a Greek (as Orpheus) or as a Roman (on a Roman sarcophagus where he is portrayed with no beard, a tunic of high quality, and thick, curly hair).
Certainly some early depictions of him appear closer to what one might imagine; painted on a catacomb wall, there stands Jesus–unbearded, olive-skinned though still clearly Caucasian, and in the desert near a tomb–with a magic wand conjuring up a dead Lazarus, for example. But isn’t that just another example of an artist taking a personal liberty in their own portrayals of Jesus?
Let’s be plainly honest: There is no way to know what ethnicity Jesus had been; one might like to imagine him as an approximation of what the popular concept of ‘Jewish’ was like in antiquity, but as Thomas L. Thompson has aptly pointed out, “Jewish” is not an ethnicity. He may have been a black man, he may have had a Greek ancestry, he may have been an Egyptian, he may have been something else entirely–he just shows up out of nowhere in Mark with no birth narrative or discussion of ancestry (and Luke and Matthew included ancestry for theological reasons–not historical reasons). Paul may or may not suggest that he was from the line of David (I tend to think not), but even so that does not ipso facto mean every descendent of his was ethnically tied to the region. Some scholars would like to think so; but this is really sort of a moot point in some ways, isn’t it? The earliest Christian communities didn’t care about Jesus’ racial background and portrayed him as whatever they saw fit for their communities. After all, God does not have an ethnicity (nor a gender, for that matter).
Does History’s ‘The Bible’ contain errors, contradictions, inaccuracies, etc…? Yes, absolutely. But look at the material from which it is drawing inspiration. When your actual source material is conflicting, inaccurate, vague, or diversely interpreted, any retelling or rewriting of that narrative will contain those elements. It is patently unfair to criticize the miniseries for being ‘untrue to the source material’ when even our earliest interpreters were unconcerned with such anachronistic notions. ‘The Bible’ is a modern day retelling, in the same vein as Josephus or Philo, of any of the Gospel authors, any of the apologists and scribes of antiquity. Do you understand what it is you are watching?
If you truly do not like what the program offers, don’t watch it. Or, better yet, watch it and use it in your classrooms. Use it in your presentations and lectures to show, through example, how a text can be reinterpreted to fit a modern, synchronized world–but also how it was reinterpreted in the past. Use it, don’t just thump your chest and brow-beat it. We get it; you went to Seminary or a research institution and you want to prove you know what you’re talking about. We know you’re smart. So use that intellect and turn ‘The Bible’ into a learning tool, rather than shunning it.
The tools have changed, but the process is essentially the same; it just takes less time to achieve the same result.
Just my two-cents. More to come.
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