One of the strengths of Beckford's previous programmes is their sense of narrative, but Secrets opts for a slightly different approach. Rather than telling one overarching story, or moving towards a particular conclusion, Secrets is more of compilation of smaller pieces, examining the fate of the original twelve disciples. In a way it acts as a compendium of stories around the margins of orthodox Christianity, many of which have enjoyed some sense of prominence.
First to the plate is a look at the disciples known as Simon, James and Jude (also known as Thaddeus). Beckford notes how these three disciples share their names with three of Jesus's four brothers (the other being Joseph), and contends that perhaps they were the same people. Here Beckford is revisiting his previous work in The Secret Family of Jesus and touches on the recent Jesus Tomb controversy - both of which relied heavily on James Tabor. Noting how it's initially James that heads up the church in Jerusalem, Beckford speculates that originally the brothers of Jesus were far more prominent in early Christianity, but later got moved to the sidelines by a church that based its legitimacy in its leaders' succession from Peter.
This is then followed by a closer look at Peter himself. Beckford notes how heavily the early Roman church relied on the idea that Peter had been the first Bishop of Rome, and that he was buried in Rome itself. But his efforts at testing the legitimacy of this claim are somewhat foiled by Vatican staff, though he does manage to find a tomb in Palestine that also claims to have been that of Peter.The next two sections look at Thomas and James son of Zebedee - both of whom are purported to have gone abroad as missionaries. Thomas is, of course, linked to India, but Beckford finds evidence that suggests that when the established churches sent missionaries to India they try to suppress the Thomasian version of Christianity they found was already there. In contrast Beckford questions the ancient tradition linking James and the shrine at Santiago de Compostela in Spain which, incidentally, features in Buñuel's film The Milky Way.
The film's presentation of John son of Zebedeeis slightly different again and considers his corpus of writings. The traditional view - that John wrote a gospel, Revelation and three epistles - has been questioned many times over the centuries, going right back to at least the third century. Beckford briefly explains the textual difficulties with the "traditional" view before examining some of the more extreme interpretations of Revelation.
However, no survey of the disciples, and particularly not one which challenges traditional views, would be complete without considering Judas. Surprisingly, though, Beckford doesn't go into the recent 'Gospel of Judas' controversy. Instead he finds that the greek word for "betray" should really have been translated "hand over". In other words, perhaps Judas may not have been a traitor: if Jesus's death was necessary then perhaps Jesus actually asked Judas to hand him over. Hence even though 'The Gospel of Judas' isn't discussed, the programme ultimately comes to similar conclusions.
The Judas section is of special relevance to this blog as it also features footage from four different Jesus films. Silent films are usually in the public domain so are popular targets for use in such documentaries. So it's no surprise to find something from The Life of Christ (1898) / The Death of Christ (c.1900). Also in the public domain is The Living Bible series, which also makes an appearance. But the other two I find myself unable to name. One of which looks like it is from the Golgotha era and features Judas receiving his 30 pieces of silver (see below) not in some temple backroom, but in a large open hall. Unless this scene is from Golgotha and I've just forgotten it, I'm at a loss as to what it might be, and I'm totally at a loss for what the other film is. I did write to the programme's producers, but they were struggling to locate the staff who sourced the clips. If they ever get back to me I'll be sure to post the details.The final section of the film looked at whether there would have been any female disciples. There was some discussion of Mary Magdalene of course, but far more interesting to me, at least, was discussion of Thecla "apostle and protomartyr among women" (sorry no ref.). Having served under a female church leader for about 13 years now, I've done a lot of research into women in leadership and I was astounded that I'd never really heard of her. I can only imagine that as the sources I looked at came at the issue from a evangelical-ish perspective, their perceived opponents would be unlikely to be swayed by such extra-biblical examples. But then perhaps I just wasn't paying enough attention. After all, it's from the 2nd century work 'Acts of Paul and Thecla' that we get the description of Paul as being "of a small stature with meeting eyebrows, bald [or shaved] head, bow-legged, strongly built, hollow-eyed, with a large crooked nose". On the other hand, the film makers point is precisely that women such as Thecla have been marginalised. Indeed at times this appears to havehas been a deliberate act. In Thecla's case Beckford visits a fresco of her and Paul where someone has scratched off her eyes and her right hand. We can see just enough of her hand to tell that it was in the traditional pose signifying that the person in question was a teacher. Yet again there's a whiff of conspiracy in the air.
This can all feel rather like Beckford is trying to attack the church, and in particular the Roman Catholicism. These days there's (rightly) a strong emphasis on church unity, such that many outside the Roman church perceive an attack on them as one on all Christians. At the same time, though, today's Catholic church is very different from that in the periods that Beckford is examining, and many of those in the protestant tradition tend to forget that this very tradition only came into existence because of objections over very similar issues.
At the heart of Beckford's philosophy is an ideology that is suspicious of power, particularly in the church. In his essay 'Find the Power' he explains
We need to be suspicious in the best sense of the word. This means that we approach a biblical passage believing that there are hidden power-dynamics at work within the text that we need to decode. To find the hidden power dynamics the reader has to 'read against the text', that is to consider who gains and who loses from the particular way that a passage is presented an understood.1Once this is understood it becomes clear why Beckford approaches these subjects as he does. "Jesus aims to empower the 'little people' of his day" and this seems totally out of keeping with the power and dominance of the church over much of the last 2000 years.2So Beckford is significantly different from the array of other documentarians trying to knock the church, not least because of his repeated claims that he is a Christian and that all of this is personally meaningful for him. Essentially, he's trying to reform the church, rather than damage it, whilst at the same time trying to engage and challenge those who have rejected traditional Christianity precisely because of issues such as these.
It's fitting, then, that the film's final section moves away from such conspiracy-esque theories to look at what it means to be a disciple today. Having travelled all over the Mediterranean region, Beckford now finds himself on the streets of inner city Leeds meeting workers from the Joanna Project. These women, he insists, show us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus today. Their work with prostitutes is what faith is all about - reaching out to ordinary people rather than trying to build an empire. It's an inspiring conclusion and perhaps the strongest part of the film.
It's hard to know where Beckford will go next. Having revisited so many of these issues over the last few years it's difficult to see what's left for him to explore. Nevertheless he does seem to have the knack of finding new material, and, clearly, there is very much still an audience for it.
1 - 'Find the Power', Robert Beckford, pp. 42-43 from "Reading the Bible", Howard Ingham et al. (eds.) SCM Press (2006).
2 - 'Find the Power', Robert Beckford, pp. 42-43 from "Reading the Bible", Howard Ingham et al. (eds.) SCM Press (2006).