• 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.

    Matt Page


    Thursday, April 28, 2011

    Digging Out the Talpiot Tomb Debate

    Back in 2007 there was a documentary and a great deal of subsequent discussion about the so-called Jesus Tomb at Talpiot. I wrote a few posts on the claims here, as well as a couple at ReJesus, but Mark Goodacre provided the most coverage.

    I was reminded of these discussions today when listening to the podcast for the BBC Radio 4 maths show "More or Less". Towards the end they discuss the probability of five people meeting whose fathers all had the first names John Charles. The initial calculation comes out to be one in several billion billions, but what's significant in this case is that this is not theoretical, "but" as the narrator says in Magnolia "it did happen".

    The team however quickly whittle down this astounding statistic down to something much more reasonable, and you can hear their reasoning about 23 minutes into the podcast (actual file here).

    A number of these reasons are also relevant to the Talpiot Tomb question. Firstly it was an actual discovery, so that changes the statistical calculations altogether, secondly the location appears significant, but various other locations would have given rise to a similarly apparent significance. Thirdly, the smaller and smaller the probabilities get the more likely it that a reality blip changes everything.

    Coincidentally I was also musing on a related point again this weekend, how we tend to find names cluster together rather than occur at random. I once commented on Mark Goodacre's blog that a modern day example might be the cluster of names Seumas, Mary and Patrick. Individually the probability wouldn't be that high, purely on the basis of their popularity in the population as a whole. But in reality because they are all Catholic names the likelihood of finding such a cluster would be much higher than this simple basis for the calculation. If you searched for it in a Catholic part of Belfast you'd get a much higher number of families than if you searched in Kent, or a Protestant part of Belfast. Given how sectarian Judaism was at the time, it's reasonable to want to know about these names relate to each other before assuming the probabilities are all independent.

    Which leads me onto another question. During the Radio 4 podcast the expert says that looking at the 40s and 50s he had difficulty finding "the distribution" even though they had the rankings. So if we're lacking this key piece of data for just 60 years ago, how accurate is the data that was used to calculate the probability regarding the Jesus Tomb? If I remember rightly, the overall figure was calculated my multiplying the assumed probability for each name individually. Now the probability for each name was drawn from other ossuaries found in the region from around the same period of time. The problem with this is that it's not representative of the whole, at best its representative of those rich enough to have a bone box. But Jesus and his family were not rich. Were this to be their tomb then it would only exist because Jesus' life had elected their status. We have no reliable information of the distribution and occurrence of names of people within Jesus' social class and so this is another flaw (amongst many) that the programme makes.


    Monday, April 25, 2011

    The Story of Jesus (BBC)

    This Easter's biggest piece of religious programming was BBC1's two-part documentary The Story of Jesus.

    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.

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    Thursday, April 21, 2011

    A Few Thoughts on The Passion

    My wife and I are working through the BBC/HBO version of The Passion (2008) this week. I think it's the first time I've seen it since the year it aired, so it was interesting to see it again properly. One of the things that's interesting about watching so long after it aired is that some of the actors have moved on and become much more well known for their roles in other programmes.

    Take, for example, Tom Ellis, playing Philip here. Since recording The Passion Ellis has gone on to star as the love interest in Miranda (a hilarious sitcom simultaneously sending up and revelling in the style of 80s sitcoms). As a result it's impossible to take him seriously in this. Likewise, I'm much more familiar with Bleak House than I was back then (which features Annas and the captain of the temple guard in different roles), and I've seen Paloma Baezan in 1998's Far From the Madding Crowd as well. All of these roles change the perception of these actors and the roles they fill here.

    One thing I've noticed this time around is how manipulative the character of Caiaphas is. Overall its a very sympathetic portrayal, but episode 2 contains at least two instances where he subtly alters the facts to make his argument more persuasive. It's a subtle touch, but exactly the kind of thing you see politicians doing on Question Time every week. First up he starts by objecting to Jesus' critique of the law, saying that without the law the Jews will become no different to the Romans, but then he somehow turns this round to say that this will lead to the Romans coming down more heavily. The logic doesn't really hold up, but the way in which it is argued is very persuasive. Likewise Joseph of Arimathea gets similarly worked over later on. Caiaphas, dressed in all his priestly regalia, subtly alters Jesus' words as overheard by the bird seller. He claims that Jesus said he would destroy the temple, rather than merely predicted that it would be destroyed.

    The quality of the writing is similarly evident throughout this episode (2) not least in the words of Jesus. The late Frank Deasy did a fantastic job here making the words sound fresher and more immediate. Sometime, I'd really like to take a closer look at the way Deasy had Jesus say certain things. I noticed a nice reference to Jesus Christ Superstar at one point as well.

    Another interesting scene in this episode is the anointing of Jesus' feet. Here it's performed by the prostitute Jesus reformed in the first episode, not Mary Magdalene or Mary the sister of Lazarus. This fits with the Synoptics, and Luke in particular, but goes against John (who identifies Mary as the anointer) and some church tradition (which has often, wrongly identified Magdalene). What really struck me this time around was the way that the only people the camera shows in the scene are the disciples. Judas and Philip are appalled by her actions and Jesus' failure to condemn her. The absence of external observers works to put a distance between Jesus and his followers who are soon to be upset by Jesus prophesying his own death, This is another great scene shot with a nice blue filter and in atmospheric light.

    The visual aspect of this episode is really strong actually, the colour scheme - a variety of light browns punctured by the occasional red Roman Road or black priestly turban - emphasises the poverty of most of the people of that day and stresses the gulf between them and the elite. The external scenes in particular are still very nice to look at.

    Tomorrow we should cover the crucifixion episode (3) which has been pre-figured today by the "trials" of Barabbas and the two robbers we met right at the start of episode 1. They already have slightly different approaches, one is definitely more terrified by what is happening to him and almost seems to act as if he is innocent, or at least didn't expect things to go so far. I can't remember which repents though, whether they continue along these tracks, or bring a surprise twist and making a more surprising twist - the bad robber being the one who repents.
    Anointing just disciples


    Saturday, April 16, 2011

    Easter UK TV Schedule 2011

    It's that time of year when I like to do an overview of the Bible film related telly that's on over the Easter period. There's a few things on this year although more documentaries than dramatised films about the scriptures. That said, given the absence of a major new dramatised series, there's a fair bit on this year.

    Palm Sunday - Sunday 17th April
    Does Christianity Have a Future?, BBC1 22:25

    Rowan Williams is all over the telly this Easter, although this is really about frumpy politician turned popular reality TV "dancer", Anne Widdecombe. Having reinvented herself, Widdecombe ponders the question of whether the church can reinvent itself to ensure its survival. There's a look at the Alpha Course, Catholic immigrants and the resurgent black pentecostal churches, as well as a look at the longer term future.

    Good Friday - Friday 22nd April

    What's the Point of Forgiveness, BBC1 09:00

    Williams again, this time teaming up again with Bettany Hughes, who made the excellent The Day Jesus Died this time last year. The programme is looking at forgiveness in a variety of contexts from Jesus' words on the cross, to the widow of one of those killed on 9-11.

    The Story of Jesus: Part 1, BBC1 10:00
    This is the first of a two part documentary looking at the life of Jesus. Part 1 covers Jesus' birth, ministry and the miracles whereas the second episode, on Easter Day, will cover the passion and resurrection. As with The Miracles of Jesus the programme will be using time lapse photography. It's to be hoped that this is slightly more restrained here than in the original series. It's directed by Big Book Media's David Batty and given that Jesus is also played by the Jesus from that project, Selva Raslingam, it all sounds quite promising.

    The Prince of Egypt, BBC1 13:30
    Before Pixar raised the bar in animation, Dreamworks looked poised to become a major force in animation. The Prince of Egypt was a decent first outing. Whilst not ideal from a biblical point of view, it was generally well made and did well at the box office. The massive, and unforeseen, success of Shrek and the disappointment of Joseph, King of Dream moved Dreamworks in another direction, but 13 years on The Prince of Egypt still looks pretty fresh, and the hieroglyphic sequence remains arguably the most impressive moment from any of the filmed versions of Moses' life.

    Barabbas, C5 14:20
    Barabbas' eerie crucifixion scene, famously shot during an actual eclipse, is a great choice for Good Friday a film about the way the events that day change lives. It's a far more complex exploration than the other Jesus cameo films from the era and well worth a watch.

    Easter Sunday - 24th April

    The Story of Jesus: Part 2, BBC1 11:35

    Part 2 of the series wheels out the bigger hitters, with Ben Witherington, Helen Bond and Tom Wright amongst the nine experts featured. Whilst this episode starts with more of Jesus' ministry, I suspect it will be Jesus' death and resurrection that are the major foci of this episode.

    Flight of Faith: The Jesus Story ITV1, 23:15
    Laurence Vulliamy steps out from behind the camera on Time Team to narrate this journey through the life of Christ. It's major boast seems to be its use of aerial photography, though I'm not quite sure how much can be done with that. Nevertheless, it's American release was well received by various Christian outlets. There's an interview with Vulliamy available on YouTube.

    Lastly, Chariots of Fire will be showing on Film4 at 6:40pm on Easter Sunday as well.

    Incidentally you can see other festive seasons' religious programming all together or individually - Easter '10, '09, '08 and '07; Christmas '10 '09 '08, '07 and '06).


    Friday, April 08, 2011

    More Non-Western Jesus Films

    Over the years, my friend Thomas Langkau has been an invaluable source of information to me, hunting out all kinds of obscure Jesus films and sending me the information. So it's him I have to thank for drawing my attention to the following films, all of which originate from non-western countries.

    The first (pictured) is the 1996 Philippine film Kristo. It starred Mat Ranillo III as Jesus and is based on John's Gospel. Ranillo has been starring in passion play / theatre versions of the story since 1977. It's well known enough to have its own pages on Wikipedia page and IMDB, although photos are rather scarce. You can however watch it all (unsubtitled) on YouTube.

    However, this is not the first Philippine Jesus film. It appears that there was also one made in 1952 called Kalbaryo ni Hesus. There are quite a lot of press cuttings (including some photos) on this film at the Pelikula blog. According to IMDb, Jennings Sturgeon played Jesus.

    Lastly there's A Ultima Semana (The Final Week), which is another Passion movie from Brazil. There's not much on this one aside from an IMDb page. It's not even entirely clear who played Jesus. More may come to light on this one however as IMDb claims it was released on video in 2007. There's no evidence of that at Amazon, but perhaps a copy will come to light at some point in the future.

    Thursday, April 07, 2011

    Biblical Studies Carnival: Mar. 2011

    Photo by Tim Parkinson, used under a Creative Commons Licence

    Dreadfully late with this one, partly because it took me a while to find, and partly because I wasn't sure whether to post this here or on my Facebook channel. In the end I decided that seeing as the carnival is about blogs, I should keep it here.

    Anyway Darrell Pursiful of the Dr. Platypus blog has posted March 2011's Biblical Studies Carnival. He's given it a basketball theme - a sport I used to be half-decent at mainly due to my height, but a lot of the terms fly, er, over my head. Nevertheless, it's a fun theme and it's nice to be mentioned.

    Next month it will be the turn of Dr. Jim’s Thinking Shop & Tea Room to host the carnival. I do occasionally peruse Jim Linville's blog so it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.


    Monday, April 04, 2011

    Testament: Ruth

    I recently came to the realisation that Ruth is one of my favourite books of the Hebrew Bible. It's fine reading about kings and prophets, mighty leaders and spiritual giants. Inspiring even. But, as is no doubt clear, I am not such a person and the chances are that you aren't either. For those of us lesser mortals, Ruth is our kinswoman. It's true she ultimately became the great grandmother of Israel's most famous king, but, at the same time, it's unlikely that she lived to know it.

    What I find inspiring about Ruth is that she is so ordinary. She didn't seem to aspire to greatness, indeed I doubt she would have been able to conceivable of any way in which she might still be talked about 3000 years later, and her achievements must have seemed modest. And yet three generations later her loyalty, faithfulness and love have had huge implications.

    The second thing that draws me to Ruth is the way she makes the right choices in the toughest of circumstances. Her story is told against a backdrop of famine grief and broken dreams. All she has left is her mother-in-law, and, watching this yesterday (Mother's Day in the UK), I was struck by what a fantastic example this is of how to honour one's mothers or strive for the best for one's (adult) child.

    At the same time there is a huge cultural gap between the story of Ruth and today, which both the text and Testament's adaptation of it highlight without losing the story's relevance for all cultures. It's a culture of where the thought can cross your mind of remarrying in order to have another son to marry your widowed daughter-in-law. It's a world of sealing contracts by taking off your sandal, gleaning etiquette and making sexual advances by uncovering the other person's feet.

    Other versions of this story never really capture the essence of this other world, but this film does it admirably. A key factor here is the choice of medium. The 3D puppets that the animators use lend the film a sense of nostalgia and tradition. Furthermore using an animated format from another culture, albeit a different culture from the one in which the story is set, heightens the feeling of otherness. At the same time the skill of the animators make Ruth an incredibly appealing figure capturing her vulnerability without making her seem a victim.

    The film's lighting and use of colour also heighten the power of the story. The early scenes of famine and the death of Naomi and Ruth's husbands are dark and at times fairly mono-chromatic, which contrasts with Ruth's brilliant blue robe. There are also a couple of other visual links to the Virgin Mary – another woman who gives birth to a "royal" son in Bethlehem. But the film as a whole makes use of a broad colour palate, often quite dramatically, whilst still maintaining that sense of the past, which is so critical even in the text's original context.

    It's also to the film's credit that it portrays Naomi as a little cranky early on. Again it's easy to portray Naomi as a helpless victim, but giving her this personality not only reflects the bitterness of her recent experience, but also gives her a sense of fight and strength of character. It also suggests that Ruth's actions not only provide for her mother-in-law, but draw Naomi out of her grief and bitterness.

    Whilst Ruth, through no fault of its own, lacks the dramatic source material of other films in the Testament series, it's poignant character study and visual form make it possibly the best entry in the nine-film series, giving a sense of what an ordinary life can look like when lived by the most unordinary values.

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