There is only one narrative that can lay claim to being “the greatest story ever told” and we hear that very phrase, immediately and perhaps predictably, at the beginning of “Jesus: His Life,” the eight-part History series beginning on Monday, March 25. Who can argue? Well, as it happens, some of the people who appear in the show.
Much about this ambitious series, produced by the U.K.-based Nutopia studio (“Finding Jesus,” “Civilisations”), hews to the established History aesthetic: Dramatic re-enactments that no one will ever confuse with the work of Cecil B. DeMille and background music that roils and swells like an angry Red Sea. But there is also an intellectual integrity at work, and a structure that provides a fresh way of looking at the world’s already most studied life.
A new series on History approaches Jesus and his followers as humans rather than as stained-glass icons.
Beginning with “Joseph: The Nativity” and continuing with two more episodes each Monday through Lent, “Jesus: His Life” chapter-izes the Christian biography according to its key personalities—Mary, John the Baptist, the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene and St. Peter. Devoting the first show to Joseph not only provides an avenue into Jesus’ birth and earliest years but it affords an underappreciated figure his due via in-depth commentary by biblical authorities, academics and writers. (They include James Martin, S.J., editor-at-large of this magazine and author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage.)
Judging by the first two episodes (the only ones made available to critics), they also approach the figures being addressed as humans rather than as stained-glass icons. Mary’s post-Annunciation reveal that she was pregnant “must have ripped Joseph’s heart out,” offers Robert Cargill, assistant professor of Judaism, Christianity and Classics at the University of Iowa. The re-enactment of an enraged Joseph (Ramin Karimloo), trashing the house he has been building for his betrothed, is good; it knocks his halo askew. It also prompts a viewer to ask how he or she would respond to what one witness concedes would have been a “ridiculous” story. Professors Shively Smith and Mark Leuchter, she of Boston University, he of Temple University, address the severity of ancient Jewish law and the capital crime of adultery; Joseph might have “outed” Mary if he were a lesser man. Which he was not.
“Jesus: His Life” addresses the New Testament as history and literature—even benign propaganda.
“Jesus: His Life” addresses the fleshy humanity of its subjects but also the New Testament as history and literature—even benign propaganda. This is where the arguments between experts get really interesting, especially in their comparative study of the Gospels. Take, for instance, the Roman census ordered by Augustus, which is what prompted Joseph and the pregnant Mary to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. Historically, it occurred 10 years after Jesus’ birth, says Cargill, who adds that, in any event, no one in the Roman Empire would have been required to return to their ancestral home—which in Joseph’s case was Bethlehem. But Luke, he says, needed to use the census to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the city of David, in order to cement the connection he wanted to make between Jesus and another Jewish king. (Likewise, in the Nativity story, shepherds visit the newborn Jesus; David was a shepherd.)
Cut to Professor Ben Witherington III, of Asbury Theological Seminary, who counters by saying it is “perfectly plausible” that some kind of taxation edict forced the holy couple to return to Bethlehem. His evidence is circumstantial, and not as strong as Cargill’s, but the existence of such debate puts life in the program. One of the events discussed is the Slaughter of the Innocents, of which there is no historical record. But according to Cargill, Matthew was “obsessed” with connecting Jesus to Moses, and their mutual escape from a massacre—Moses’ instigated by the Pharaoh, Jesus’ by Herod—helped him do that.
The same experts appear in subsequent episodes, No. 2 being “John the Baptist,” who is introduced as the link between the Old and New Testament and is played by a brawny, convincingly zealous Doug Rao. (Jesus, as an adult, is played by Greg Barnett.) This means, of course, that we are already encountering Jesus as a grown man, and that, in turn, the narrative over the course of the series will be non-linear. (The “Mary” episode, presumably, will also include the Nativity.)
But given the academic rigor evident in the first two chapters, the series seems a useful way to examine the points of Jesus’ life in a thorough and authoritative manner—without reflexive adoration and perhaps even with a little a bit of cheek. “John the Baptist was a giant pain in Herod Antipas’ backside,” notes Adam Marshak, author of The Many Faces of Herod the Great. No beating around the bush, burning or otherwise.