• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

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    Tuesday, August 15, 2006

    Bible Films and their Social Contexts

    Tyler Williams posted an interesting piece whilst I was on holiday last week called The Strange New World of the Bible. The heart of the piece is a summary of Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh’s "Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels", and Tyler lists a number of differences Malina and Rohrbaugh find between our industrial world and the agrarian world of the Bible.
    * In agrarian societies more than 90 percent of the population was rural. In industrial societies more than 90 percent is urban.
    * In agrarian societies 90-95 percent of the population was engaged in what sociologists call the "primary" industries (farming and extracting raw materi­als). In the United States today it is 4.9 percent.
    * In agrarian societies 2-4 percent of the population was literate. In industrial societies 2-4 percent are not.
    * The birthrate in most agrarian societies was about forty per thousand per year. In the Unites States, as in most industrial societies, it is less than half that. Yet death rates have dropped even more dramatically than birthrates. We thus have the curious phenomenon of far fewer births and rapidly rising population.
    * Life expectancy in the city of Rome in the first century BCE was about twenty years at birth. If the perilous years of infancy were survived, it rose to about forty, one-half our present expectations.
    * In contrast to the huge cities we know today, the largest city in Europe in the fourteenth century, Venice, had a population of 78,000. London had 35,000. Vienna had 3,800. Though population figures for antiquity are notoriously dif­ficult to come by, recent estimates for Jerusalem are about 35,000. For Capernaum, 1,500. For Nazareth about 200.
    * The Department of Labor currently lists in excess of 20,000 occupations in the United States and hundreds more are added to the list annually. By contrast, the tax rolls for Paris (pop. 59,000) in the year 1313 list only 157.
    * Unlike the modern world, in agrarian societies 1-3 percent of the population usually owns one- to two-thirds of the arable land. Since 90 percent or more were peasants, the vast majority owned subsistence plots at best.
    * The size of the federal bureaucracy in the Unites States in 1816 was 5,000 employees. In 1971 it was 2,852,000 and growing rapidly. While there was a political, administrative, and military apparatus in antiquity, nothing remotely comparable to the modern governmental bureaucracy ever existed. Instead, goods and services were mediated by patrons who operated largely outside governmental control.
    * More than one-half of all families in agrarian societies were broken during the childbearing and child-rearing years by the death of one or both parents. In India at the turn of the twentieth century the figure was 71 percent. Thus widows and orphans were everywhere.
    * In agrarian societies the family was the unit of both production and consump­tion. Since the industrial revolution, family production or enterprise has nearly disappeared and the unit of production has become the individual worker. Nowadays the family is only a unit of consumption.
    * The largest "factories" in Roman antiquity did not exceed fifty workers. In the records of the medieval craft guilds from London, the largest employed eight­een. The industrial corporation, a modern invention, did not exist.
    * In 1850, the "prime movers" in the United States (i.e., steam engines in factories, sailing vessels, work animals, etc.) had a combined capacity of 8.5 million horsepower. By 1970 this had risen to 20 billion.
    * The cost of moving one ton of goods one mile (measured in U.S.:dollars in China at the beginning of the industrial revolution) was: Steamboat 2.4; Wheelbarrow 20.0; Rail 2.7; Pack donkey 24.0; Junk 12.0; Packhorse 30.0; Animal-drawn cart 13.0; Carrying by pole 48.0; Pack mule 17.0. It is little wonder that overland trade at any distance was insubstantial in antiquity.
    * Productive capacity in industrial societies exceeds that in the most advanced agrarian societies known by more than one hundredfold.
    * Given the shock and consternation caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the forced resignation of Richard M. Nixon, we sometimes forget that this sort of internal political upheaval is nothing like it was in the agrarian world. Of the 79 Roman emperors, 31 were murdered, 6 driven to suicide, and 4 were deposed by force. Moreover, such upheavals in antiquity were frequently accompanied by civil war and the enslavement of thousands.
    Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg, particularly when you consider there was a very different religious and political context which needs to be taken into consideration as well.

    I was reminded of Tyler's post last night when reading some of Jesus's parables in Nikos Kazantzakis' "Last Temptation", and in particular the Parable of the ten Virgins from Matt 25:1-13. There are a whole host of strange cultural practices going on here. For example, what is the role of these virgins? Why is the bridegroom not arriving until a lamp is required? Why are the late virgins locked out? Having recently read Geza Vermes' "Jesus the Jew" (the latest version of which coincidentally features a picture from the film of Last Temptation) I also wonder what exactly is meant by virgin in this context.

    Anyway, it strikes me that these questions are also the ones that face filmmakers looking to make films based on the bible (whether they choose to confront them or not!). The types of bible films we face can, broadly speaking, be split into two camps: those that attempt to show the events in a setting that is apparently the first century (or whichever period the events happened in), and those that offer a more stylised presentation. In the first group of films the challenges are more straightforward, but the success with which the filmmakers answer them is more obvious to casual viewers. In the latter category, on one level it is easy for the filmmakers to "get away" with not considering these questions, but if they are to take them into account they have a far harder task.

    Malina and Rohrbaugh's questions also provide a filter for looking at bible films. For example, simply reading through the bullet points above reminds me of Pasolini's Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew - 1964). Pasolini's neo-realist use of non-professional actors taken from agrarian southern Italy feels far more authentic that George Stevens's cast of Hollywood stars (even though both were filmed almost two thousand years after the events they depict).

    The point about more than half of all families seeing one or more parent die during the child-bearing and child-rearing years also stuck out. I cannot recall a film which features Jesus's earthly father Joseph as present during his ministry. I assume this is largely because scripture never mentions him outside the birth and childhood stories (other than verses such as John 6:42). That said, there are a couple of Jesus films which actually show Joseph dying, the longer cut of Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Jesus (1999). Both films use this event as the catalyst for Jesus to start his ministry.

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