• 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


    Wednesday, May 02, 2018

    Jesus' Female Disciples (2018)

    About ten years ago, Channel Four was a reliable source of documentary films about the Bible. In particular Robert Beckford hosted various programmes that enabled the station to cover both it's mandate to include some religious content and it's charge to produce provocative work and promote alternative points of view. Sadly, eventually things ran out of steam; for a while Channel 5 took on 4's mantle and churned out the odd religious conspiracy doc; and then that too seemed to pass. The last few Christmases and Easters have seen rather threadbare.

    It's a welcome return then, to see that this year Channel 4 broadcast Jesus' Female Disciples: The New Evidence as its Easter offering. Fronted by Prof. Joan Taylor (Biblical Adviser for this year's Mary Magdalene movie) and regular contributor to biblical documentaries, Prof Helen Bond, the programme takes a look at the first female followers of Jesus.

    As would be expected much is made of the first few verses of Luke 8 which names Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna as those who "provided" for Jesus and his followers "out of their resources". Unsurprisingly then the first section focuses on Mary Magdalene. It does well here to avoid getting bogged down to much in Pope Gregory and the Da Vinci code, the presenters dismiss the smear job on Mary with a few good-humoured eye rolls. Instead it looks more at Mary's origins. Mary's name may indicate that she haled from Magdala, but which of the many? Having journeyed to one of the more likely candidates they go on to talk about how Magdala is Aramaic for tower. This leads to a particularly interesting point. Just as Simon was called Simon Peter, the rock, and James and John were known as Boanerges (the sons of thunder), might "tower" be Jesus' affectionate name for Mary?

    After the break move onto the next woman on Luke's list, Joanna. Joanna, Luke tells us was the wife of Herod's steward Chuza. This takes Taylor and Bond to the city of Tiberias, the location of Herod's palace, a place we have no record of Jesus visiting and, as is pointed out, somewhere very different to the small towns and villages Jesus is normally found in. Bond also suggests, a little speculatively, that it was probably Joanna (rather than Mary) who provided the lion's share of the money for Jesus and his followers.

    At this point I was rather expecting the programme to move onto Susanna, but of course little else is known about her other than her name. Instead Bond and Taylor move on to another passage of the Bible, Mark 6:7-9. This is the passage where Jesus sends his followers out to spread his message two by two. Noting how the phrase "two by two" recalls the story of Noah's ark, where the words very much mean one male and one female, Taylor suggests that this would be the natural interpretation here as well. After all, given cultural boundaries between men and women, it would hardly be appropriate for men to be ministering and baptizing women.

    Having looked at the texts the presenters then move on to look at some of the archaeological evidence for female followers, disciples and leaders. First of all they find an early shrine to St Salome (The Cave of Holy Salome), who the Gospels identify as being at both the crucifixion and the resurrection. The cave - one of the earliest remaining Christian churches - where they find a graffitied prayer to the saint. They then relocate to Napoli where they find late 5th century paintings of Cerula complete with evidence suggesting she was a bishop.

    Having opened with a volley of Jesus film clips, this documentary got off to the perfect start, but the rest of it was well worth staying around for. Having watched many of these films over the years, as well as being involved in biblical studies for most of my adult life, it's always good to come away with something new; this time there was a good deal I hadn't heard before. As you would expect from the Middle East and Rome the visuals were pretty good and the traits that I suppose should really be thought of as the genre conventions (going on a "journey", academics pretending for the camera they don't know stuff they plainly do, the overly dramatic language) were largely kept under control.

    What's more whilst the majority of TV documentaries still tend to have only a single presenter, or two men (the buddy-doc) it was good to see two female presenters working together and playing off each other to get their respective points across. Some will find it too speculative, but this is the nature of working around the margins of ancient texts that are, even at best only a partial reflection of what really happened. To that end, the programme explored some interesting and fresh ideas and theories based on the limited evidence: It's good to have Channel Four doing this kind of thing once again.

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