In a break from what has become the standard format for such documentaries, rather than having one (usually photogenic) expert both narrating and interviewing other experts, this programme was narrated by David Suchet (Poirot, minus the accent) but the on-screen camera work was performed by nine different scholars who occasionally met to pass on the baton to the next there were other experts involved as well (I counted 19-20 in total) but these nine had a far greater screen time than their counterparts. After years of seeing the same, increasingly tired, old format, it was good to see a new approach being tried and the hand-overs, which took a bit of getting used too, were an effective way of moving things on.
Part 1 of the series began by looking at the textual evidence for the gospels and their reliability. Tom Wright was very much to the fore here, explaining how the earliest scraps of the scriptures and far more contemporary with the originals than other written sources from the time.
After that Simon Gathercole was introduced and he guided us through the nativity story. There's talk of Herod and the Magi and rather than giving an astrological answer to questions about the Star of Bethlehem, a textual one is given: it's evoking a quotation from Numbers 24:17 "a star has come out of Jacob". The discussion begins to be illustrated with dramatised footage and it's rather good. The lighting, filters and film stock result in high quality footage and the choice of predominantly near / middle-eastern actors (or those of near / middle eastern descent) gives an extra sense of realism. Mary here is perhaps the most convincing looking Mary I've seen, and her performance is pretty decent as well.
The impressive casting also extends to Jesus himself, played by Big Book Media's Selva Raslingam who is almost as far from the traditional Hollywood Jesus as one can get. Having been taken briefly through archaeological finds in Sephoris and Nazareth by James Strange we come to Jesus' ministry. There's talk of John the Baptist (featuring nicely-restrained use of time-lapse photography), and the symbolism that flows out of the story of the Wedding at Cana. We're told that there are two Greek words translated as "miracle", one of which means "sign". In the story of the Wedding at Cana the miracle is called Jesus' first "sign" and alludes to passages from the prophets predicting that water flowing down the mountains will turn to wine. Greg Carey is leading things through now and he highlights the abundance theme in many of the miracles, pointing to God's new kingdom, a place of abundance. There's a brief mention of the roughly contemporary Jewish miracle worker Honi. The first episode comes to a close with Greg Carey discussing the Transfiguration and it's perhaps the first time that the dramatised footage has been a little disappointing.
Whilst from a narrative angle part two picks up from more or less where the opening episode left off, thematically things are very different. It's the turn of Obery Hendricks to present now and his focus is very much on Jesus' radical, political message, rather than this spiritual one. There are small sections on the synagogue at Magdala, and his parables and teaching, and then we're into the events of Holy Week.
The leading expert for this section is Ben Witherington III, although occasionally the location footage oscillates between him and Helen Bond (whose focus is mainly on Jesus' death). It's here that the information being presented is most well known, and as a result least interesting for those who know the subject well. This isn't improved by limiting the viewpoints that are expressed to produce a reasonably conservative position. This is as much in the editing of the experts' soundbites as their viewpoints. Bond is not nearly as conservative as Witherington, but the quotations that are left don't really demonstrate the difference. There's also no more sceptical voices such as that of John Dominic Crossan who claims (incorrectly in my opinion) that most of what is contained in the passion narratives is prophecy being historicised.
Finally we return to Wright again who nicely summarises his defence of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. People in those days knew that dead people stayed dead, Jesus undoubtedly died because the Romans were expert executioners and that when first century Jews talked about resurrection they solely meant bodily resurrection. Suchet wraps things up, though his closing summary is rather poor. Overall however, this is a solid introduction to Jesus' life, handsomely photographed (barring the flyovers of models which were a bit distracting) and well acted, defly providing a traditional view of the story of Jesus and his extraordinary life.