• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Friday, January 25, 2008

    Goodacre's 'The Synoptic Jesus and the Celluloid Christ' Now Available Online

    A couple of weeks ago I looked at one of the ways Bible films can aid those engaged in studying the Bible, even in an academic context, in my post Bible Films and the Two Halves of the Brain. Coincidentally, that day Mark Goodacre posted a link to Google Books which has recently uploaded a number of titles from the 'Library of New Testament Studies', including some of his own. It appears that amongst them is his 'Case Against Q', chapter 6 of which is called 'The Synoptic Jesus and the Celluloid Christ: Solving the Synoptic Problem through Film'.

    I first read this chapter several years ago, and I still consider it to be one of the most significant pieces of writing on the study of the Bible in film. Until recently, the article has only been available to subscribers of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, and even then it was slightly different from the version that appears in the book. Now much of the chapter is available to all, although, as is Google's general policy, a few pages are missing here and there.

    So what do Jesus films have to offer the debate about the synoptic problem? Well, Goodacre is a Q sceptic, preferring the Farrer Theory instead (which argues that 'Luke' did not write independently of Matthew's gospel, but used it as one of his sources). In response to the Farrer Theory, those who, like the majority, continue to believe in the independence of Matthew and Luke (and thus require additional source, Q, common to both authors) have raised a number of objections to it, including the argument that no-one, on reading Matthew's magisterial Sermon on the Mount, would then chop it into bits and distribute it throughout their own gospel.

    'The Synoptic Jesus and the Celluloid Christ' seeks to demonstrate that this argument is unfounded. As it is, essentially, based on a modern aesthetic value judgement, does that judgement hold up to scrutiny?

    So Goodacre took the (then) five most widely available dramatic Jesus films and looks at how they use the material from the Sermon on the Mount. Using King of Kings (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964), Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) he examines how they treat Matthew's sermon. Significantly he finds that there are numerous examples of the makers of these filmmakers shortening the sermon, and, in several cases, breaking it up and redistributing throughout their own, filmic, gospel. In other words the very thing that many scholars have argued would be highly unlikely had happened time and time again.

    There can sometimes be too little emphasis on the artistic value of the Biblical texts. We all know that they are literature of some sort; we recognise they contain allusion, imagery and comparison, and that they are the product of an active, thoughtful and deliberate mind. But the assumption is often that the works of the biblical writers are the works of those akin to modern theologians. Whilst this is truer for the gospels than, say, the wisdom / poetic literature in the Old Testament, there are still a good number of differences.

    What Goodacre does is view the texts through a more creative lens. The filmmakers in question primarily think like artists, rather than theologians, and the result is that the modern aesthetic value judgement is shown to be too great an assumption.

    It seems to me that this process, of using Jesus films to throw new light on theological connundra, is important fresh territory, which begs the question "where else might movies based on the Bible be of assistance?" I've been chewing it over ever since I first read this article, and, I'm afraid to say, I've yet to come up with many possibilities other than my posts on The Early Jesus Film Synoptic Problem, Thomas on the Road: A Comparison of the Gospels of Cash and Thomas, and a still in the process of being written piece on Magdalena: Released from Shame which all look at the similarities between the formation of the ancient gospels and modern filmic gospels. To be honest, none of these quite do what Goodacre does, but hopefully there will be more substantial examples of this approach being utilised more widely in the coming months and years.

    Those interested in this discussion may also like to seek out F. Gerald Downing's response "Dissolving the Synoptic Problem Through Film?", and Goodacre's counter response, both also in the 'Journal for the Study of the New Testament'.


    • At 3:16 pm, January 25, 2008, Blogger Mark Goodacre said…

      Thanks, Matt, for this post. You have summarized the article very well, and have reflected on it in helpful ways, and I appreciate it. Most of those who have responded to the piece in print have misunderstood or misread it. I do think that there are other possibilities for using films to shed fresh light on historical and exegetical problems, and I have one idea I have been toying with for some time, related to the ways in which films could help in the quest of the historical Jesus. I found your piece on the Galatians 2 / Acts 15 thing in film very useful, by the way, and have been using Peter and Paul in teaching, attempting to show how it can help us to think through some of the issues imaginatively.

    • At 8:43 pm, January 25, 2008, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks Mark,

      Your new ideas sound intriguing. Glad the Acts 15 / Galatians 2 thing was helpful.



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