The rise of Simon Peter is an unusual one. He shared more or less the same humble roots as Jesus, but whereas Jesus died in almost the same obscurity and with the same low rank as he began, Peter, if the traditions are to be believed, rose to become the leader of the church across the largest and most influential city of the Empire: Rome.
It's this unlikely rise that David Suchet charts in his latest two part documentary for the BBC David Suchet - In the Footsteps of St. Peter. Suchet starts in Rome with an introduction not dissimilar to the one above, before returning to the Holy Land for the rest of the first part of the documentary to examine Peter's life up to the point of Jesus' death.
Suchet starts his investigation in Bethsaida, where Peter, then still known by just his Hebrew name, Shimon, was reputed to have grown up. Culturally it was a very cosmopolitan town with a mixture of Jews and other traders from across the empire, indeed Suchet learns that the archeological evidence suggest a very mixed diet was consumed, much of it non-Kosher. Bethsaida was known for its fishing and we're shown fishing net weights and needles that fisherman such as Peter would have used, although the Sea of Galilee has now retreated from where it stood 2000 years ago.
From Bethsaida to Capernaum, the alleged site of Peter's mother-in-law's house and a far more Jewish settlement than Bethsaida though still one with a strong fishing industry. Suchet gets to visit the, so called, Jesus Boat and learns a bit about how fisherman like him would have clubbed together with others to go into business. Boats such as this needed crews of five and fishing licences and other expenses would have made the cost quite high. Somehow the notion seems to get accepted that Peter was a middle class business owner, but it does rather seem to beg the question.
Another key site on the Sea of Galilee is Caesarea Philippi where Peter, now a firm follower of Jesus declared that Jesus was the messiah and Jesus replies that on this rock he would build his church. But the rock Suchet stands in front of is a large, former pagan shrine. Suchet uses his experience as an actor to draw out some of the ambiguities of the raw text. Did he mean the rock behind him or the man in front of him? Was he pointing at himself or just referring to Peter's words.
It's one of the many strengths Suchet brings to his role. As well as his affability with his guests there's a real passion for the subject and an interest in the material. He carries a notebook around with him, but, as the camera occasionally reveals, it's more for sketching than writing, and there's an ongoing sense that Suchet is getting behind the character, trying to understand the character and pick out the drama and humanity in the story. There are some nice moments where Suchet offers a dramatised telling of the story.
But the success of this documentary also lies in the way it uses the visuals to make an impact. There is, of course, many a BBC documentary where a presenter goes around getting to see and handle the artefacts that accompany their story, but in addition to this, here the Galilean landscapes and the Roman architecture really add to the scene of this incredible transition. And in HD the overhead footage of Jerusalem looks incredible.
One particularly powerful moment in this respect is the visit to Mount Hermon. It's not a scene that appears in many Jesus films and most of those that do portray it were made on quite small budgets. So in my mind I picture a small hill at best. However, the footage of Mount Hermon really brings home the size of it and just as Suchet is dwarfed by the size of the mountain, seeing this new context makes me realise how the disciples must have been dwarfed by it as well, but also of the appropriateness of such a setting for a moment that so emphasises Jesus' divinity.
From the Mount Hermon to Mount Zion where Suchet hears about Passover, the temple and learns the context around that strange part in Luke 22:38 where Peter tells Jesus he has two swords and Jesus says that this should be enough. First century Jerusalem, and particularly the countryside around it, was not particularly safe so travellers would bring some form of self defence as standard.
Suchet then joins Shimon Gibson on the site of one of his current excavations - a house in Jerusalem. They're there to get a feel for Peter sneaking into the high priest's enclosure where he would deny Jesus. Both Suchet and I are struck by how small the courtyard area is. Whilst it's not hard to imagine the high Priest might live in a slightly grander house than this one, again I find myself having to recalibrate my previous mental images of the scene. Gibson points out that just entering such an enclosed, intimate, yet potentially dangerous space was an act of significant bravery.
The final, and all too brief, segment of the first part of the film looks at Jesus' death and burial and the empty tomb on the following Sunday. The key location here is a first century tomb, but there's no mention that being entombed was exceedingly rare for those crucified, and the mention of Peter and the empty tomb, particularly for a documentary running over Easter weekend is particularly lightweight. Part one ends with Suchet offering his thoughts and concluding with the question "so how does Peter get from this, the possible lowest point in his life, to becoming, what some people call, the Pope of Rome?"
The answer to this question would seem to lie with both the resurrection and Pentecost and, sure enough, part two opens with the story of Jesus appearing to Peter and six of the other disciples on the beach (John 21). There's a lovely shot of fish cooking over an open fire on shores of Lake Galilee, but he discussion about the resurrection is rather scant. It's true that Pentecost (which we come to next) was also very significant to Peter's about turn and that the encounter with Jesus on the beach was personally redemptive. Nevertheless, it's a shame the programme doesn't actually mention that the gospels claim that Peter witnessed the risen Jesus at least three times in the presence of the other disciples and once on his own. The veracity of that claim can be disputed. There are a range of positions on what "resurrection" actually means, and on the veracity and verifiability of those claims. I must admit that I personally am unsure what exactly is to be made of them. But surely the remit of a documentary like this that it should at least examine the crucial moments in the story, even if it ultimately finds them wanting, or, as it more often the case, concludes that whether you believe it all or not is a matter of faith.
Following the discussion of Pentecost we move onto Peter's encounter with the Roman centurion Cornelius - "a huge moment for Peter". There's a brief retelling of Peter's escape from Herod's jail before Suchet picks up the trail in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). There's some footage of the stunning frescoes carved into the rock in the old St Basil's monastery there and reflections on how the monks there followed the sort of approach that Peter advocated. A brief reference is made to the early chapters of Acts and 1 Peter 3:8-9 is recited.
From Cappadocia the story returns to Jerusalem and the council that debated Gentile admission to the church. This felt a little under done, but it's perhaps of less interest in such a visual documentary as this as those parts of the story where historical artefacts or artistic interpretations are quite so stunning.
Which brings things nicely to Rome and the Appian way. The focus here is very much on Peter's leadership of the Roman church. Was it likely and how might he have influenced things there? The programme's theological consultant Ed Adams suggests Peter didn't actually found the church in Rome, even if he led it at some point, so the programme moves to the most likely time for Peter's leadership of the church around the great fire in 64 AD. Various experts discuss this informing us that Nero was prone to scapegoating, that he liked making examples of the prominent leaders, but that any such reprisals were more likely to be by burning, beheading or garrotting than by upside down crucifixion. Furthermore, had Peter been upside down it may have been by his request or by the soldiers' own cruel initiative.
And so we arrive at the inevitable tour of the catacombs. It's easy to get blasé about yet another documentary trip around the tunnels and chambers underneath Rome. Yet it also seems that every documentary seems to somehow find a fresh part of this underground world that I've not seen before. It really brings home just how unfathomably large the catacombs are and Suchet certain finds some good points of interest in the bit he chooses on which to focus.
Having covered a great deal of ground on a horizontal axis, the film's final transition is vertically, back up to the surface and into St Peter's square. Here Suchet chooses to sum up, against the backdrop of Peter's most recent spiritual ancestor arriving in his pope mobile. Even with the current incumbent's drive towards a more humble faith, Suchet cannot escape the disconnect between the finery of today's Vatican and Peter's humble beginnings on the Sea of Galilee. He leaves us with the question that is already in our minds: "What would he have made of all this?"
Overall David Suchet - In the Footsteps of St. Peter is a strong and fairly enjoyable documentary owing to a combination of Suchet's affable enthusiasm, a strong range of knowledgeable experts, an impressive selection of interesting artefacts and some impressive photography. It's a shame that the events of the first Easter are rather short changed, but there's much here that even well seasoned fans of Bible documentaries will learn and enjoy.
I've got into the habit of writing down all the experts' names when I watch documentaries like these and so, having done so here, it seemed a shame to exclude them even though there are so many of them that embedding them within the review itself would rather ruin the flow. The list is rather impressive, not least because I don't recall the majority of them appearing in one of these programmes before. And it has admirable breadth, encompassing archaeologists, theologians, fisherman, rabbis, seminary students and art historians. So here's the full list in order of appearance:
Kate Raphael, Eugenio Alliata, Orna Cohen, Kurt Raveh, Menahem Lev, Claire Pfann, Karen Stern,Ronny Reich, Guy Stiebel, Shimon Gibson.
Stephen Pfann, Joan Taylor, Gil Gambash, Daniel R Schwartz, Freda Barut, Helen Bond, Arnold Nesselrath, Edward Adams, Riccardo Di Segni, Thomas Cunnah, Ryan Day, Peter Stoddart, Valerie Higgins, Candida Moss, Jerry Brotton.