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Mysteries about “Mysteries of the Bible–Jesus”

March 30, 2015

Last Friday evening here in the UK the TV programme, “Mysteries of the Bible–Jesus” showed (Channel 5, 9 pm), and already I’ve had one commenter asking why I allowed myself to be included in the programme.  So, a few comments are in order.

First, when you’re approached by researchers for such a TV programme (at least in my experience), you’re not usually told the larger storyline or sweep of the programme.  They simply say they have some particular questions that they’d like to interview you about. So, you can deal with those questions but never know in advance where the rest of the programme is going, or even if they’ll use all or any of your own interview.  I, therefore, have no responsibility for this or other programmes for which I’ve been interviewed.

But let me now turn to some matters that made me feel glad not to be responsible for the programme.  First, why did they devote such a large amount of the programme to the absurd notion that Jesus as a young man travelled to England, where he learned stuff from the “Druids”?  No scholar takes any such notion as credible in the slightest.  I guess the producers thought it would add what they regarded as something sensational.  To their credit, they did allow a couple of scholars to debunk the claim.  But we didn’t need the length of time given to the loony notion.

By contrast, for example, why no reference to something that is widely accepted by scholars, and regarded as historically significant:  Jesus’ relationship to John the Baptizer?  Now there are some interesting trails to follow up there.  Or why no mention that Jesus gathered a body of twelve who seem to have had a special symbolic significance?

I also found it a bit curious that the programme made Jesus’ crucifixion quite so crucial.  In one segment, Ehrman appeared to claim that it was essential that Jesus was crucified, not simply executed.  And the programme then wound up making Jesus’ crucifixion the basis for subsequent Christianity.

But, so far as I can see, any form of violent death would have done as indicative of Jesus as martyr and obedient to the divine plan.  Indeed, there are indications that Jesus’ crucifixion was from early on a potential difficulty in early Christian proclamation (e.g., Paul’s reference to the notion as a “stumbling block” for many).  That Jesus was crucified meant that he was executed by the State, his execution, thus, for a political crime, and that is both historically significant and potentially relevant for Christian faith.

But as for the interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion as redemptive, as part of God’s plan, all this was not as a self-evident result of the crucifixion, but as a result of the powerful conviction that erupted shortly thereafter that God had raised Jesus from death and exalted him to heavenly glory.  It’s curious (to put it mildly), therefore, that the programme made no reference to this. It wasn’t necessary for the TV programme to endorse the claim that God raised Jesus from death (that’s a theological claim); but it was beyond strange for the programme not to have indicated that this conviction (whatever you make of its validity) was in fact the historical ignition-point of what became “Christianity.”

So, we wind up with some mysteries about the programme itself.  For some reason, TV producers seem reluctant to take advice on the preparation of a programme from scholars in the subject.  Friday’s programme shows the results.  Let’s hope for better results next time.

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  1. Interesting programme, although many of the ideas have been raised before. However, I was waiting for Episode 2, which was advertised on Channel 5, but it has not appeared. Any idea when?

  2. Jamie Houghton permalink

    Dear Dr. Hurtado,
    I want to extend my thanks for your scholarship and for what you make available here on your site.
    I have benefited much from your writings, and I think it is great that you continue to give yourself to this task even as one who is retired! (Keep going!)
    Not living in the UK means I have no idea what the TV program was like and would normally not comment.
    However, I am curious about your comment on the crucifixion, in particular
    “so far as I can see, any form of violent death would have done as indicative of Jesus as martyr and obedient to the divine plan.”
    How does this view fit with what Paul says in Gal 3:13?
    “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.”
    Does that leave room for “any form of violent death”?
    Maybe there is more going on in the text than I am aware but this seem to be more restrictive and hence my curiosity as to how you understand Gal 3:13.
    I would greatly value your comments, as they might change the way I see the crucifixion!
    Blessings and thanks once again.

    • Jamie: I’d think (and I think most/many NT scholars would agree) that Paul’s reference to Deut 27:26, “cursed is anyone hung upon a tree/stake” is one of the OT texts that may have been used by Pharisee Saul originally to portray Jesus’ death as that of an accursed man. In Gal 3, however, the former opponent-now-advocate of the Jesus-movement cites the text to make Jesus’ accursed death redemptive. Note, however, that the Deuteronomy text isn’t originally to do with crucifixion, but with hanging an executed malefactor up on a stake. But by Roman time the text was also used to refer to crucifixion.

      • Jamie Houghton permalink

        Thanks Larry,
        I agree with what what you have said, and that is how I have understood Gal 3:13, that’s why I find your comment curious; given what you have said, doesn’t that rule out “any form of violent death would have done”? It seems to have required a certain type of death, in particular one on a tree/stake/cross. I’m trying to understand how it could have been any other form?

      • Jamie: Paul cited the Deut text retrospectively, in light of Jesus’ crucifixion. There is no evidence that it functioned as a prediction of any messianic figure previously. Events shaped the earliest Christian searching of their scriptures. Theoretically, if Jesus had been put to death by some other means, they would not have cited the Deut text. But they would have had other OT texts.

  3. Jas permalink

    From my own experience with TV and radio, the idea for the show starts in the office. It gets the go-ahead and only then do they get together a few people to interview and ‘use’ as meterial to fit the agreed design. The design can’t change because it’s been agreed – so you’re made to fit – and you get cut until you do!

    On Jesus in England – Most strikingly, they failed to present the connection with the hymn “Jerusalem”. Many know the hymn but I find that -even among Christians- few understand the poem, because they don’t know the origins linked with this fable. I imagine the England connection was a “USP” in the office: “That’ll keep the interest of viewers!” But no – it was lame!

    Finally, on the need of “curcifixion”. I got the impression that Bart was merely trying to emphasise the extent to which the crucifixion defines the Christianity we have today. It would not be at all the same had Jesus been killed in some other way:-

    1) If he’d been stoned by the Jews then the Gentiles would not be to blame, so the message of Peter in Acts 2 (blaming Jews) would not have been able to extend to include Gentiles (The passion predictions in Mark show such extension of blame). What message would have taken its place and how effective it would be nobody knows!

    2) If Jesus had died paying the penalty of a ‘lesser’ crime – if somebody could have suffered a worse penalty – then it could have been said that he did not pay the full price, that some people were still guilty beyond the price he paid and therefore are beyond his ability to redeem them. Philippians’ “even death on a cross” shows the extremity of his suffering. Any less would have changed quite a few scriptures and could have caused a few problems down the line – especially during the Protestant Reformation re: grace.

    3) If he’d been hung, then his blood would not have been shed – no ‘sacrifice’ – So, no fulfilment of related rituals and prophecies, and a very different faith that might have found it harder to step away from Judaism. Again, it’s hard to imagine what it would have become.

    4) Psalm 22’s pierced hands and feet. To what degree is the crucifixion, as described in the Gospels, shaped by allusion to this Psalm? We would find out if Jesus had died a different way. The accounts of his death could be very different not only because of the different death but because of the allusions that were being brought to the Gospel audience’s attention through allusion to Scripture. For example – had Jesus been fed to the lions, we would certainly see more allusion to Daniel 6!

    So maybe Bart had in mind the HUGE difference it’d have made?

    • “Jas”: Re your #1: I don’t see your logic. Even though Jesus was executed by Roman authority, in early Christian texts Jewish authorities are blamed also. It made no difference who killed him.
      As for your #2, again, you assume too much. In NT texts what made Jesus’ death redemptive was not the way he died but that God MADE his death redemptive.
      Likewise, for #3: In NT texts what made Jesus’ death effectual was God’s response, not how much blood was shed. (That’s all medieval mystical stuff.)
      Finally, it is only in GJohn that we learn (retrospectively) that Jesus was nailed to his cross. The Gospels are reticent to give the gory details. So, Psa 22:16 (LXX 21:17) isn’t in fact cited in the passion accounts. And, by the way, neither the Hebrew nor the Greek of the Psalm refers to “piercing”. The Greek verb = “to gouge”.

      • Jas permalink

        I’ll step backwards in my response –
        Although Psalm 22:16 isn’t explicitly cited in Mark, Psalm 22:1 is – and acts as an allusion to the whole Psalm. The many parallels between the passion narrative and Psalm 22’s contents did not need spelling out to the earliest Jewish hearers of the Gospel. It is more likely than unlikely that they reflected on the Jewish song (Psalm 22) in relation to Jesus’ death even before the Gospel was crafted. It wouldn’t take decades to stumble upon Psalm 22:16. They didn’t rely on GJohn for that.
        Many discussions about the LXX/MT variant readings of ‘pierced’ are not a big issue. Gorged / “dug out” can accommodate the effect of the nails on Jesus’ “hands and feet”, so a 1stC fulfilment-seeking Jewish Christian would have not problem seeing this as prophecy about the cross.

        #3,2,1 From your replies, I think that I need to explain where I’m coming from.
        I’m not saying that God couldn’t have created a Christianity without a cross – I’m not contemplating the theological impact. I’m looking at this in terms of how the Gospels and NT teaching developed – which is more likely where Bart was coming from.
        My point is that the NT authors can, and do, use the cross as evidence for the three points I raised –
        #1 the guilt of ALL
        #2 the ultimate sacrifice for ALL sins
        #3 Religious practices of the Church and how they differ to the original Judaism
        Had Jesus been put to death in some other way (stoning? hanging?), NT teachings would have been very different. Jesus’ death would not have been sufficient to support some of the teachings we find in (or that led to) the NT. The “Christianity” we find there is very much dependent upon, and very much shaped by, the cross. We could not simply swap one form of punishment for another. So, if that’s something like what Bart had in mind, I could understand where he’s coming from.

      • Jas: It remains the case that there is no citation of Psa 22:16 in the Gospels. Let’s let this one go.
        Obviously, the NT authors make Jesus’ crucifixion important! But we simply can’t know what they would have done with other forms of execution. The NT emphasis isn’t on the mode of Jesus’ death as the key thing, but on God’s raising Jesus from death and exalting him to heavenly glory. That provided the premise for (re)interpreting Jesus’ crucifixion as redemptive. Let’s let this go now.

      • Ted permalink

        Certainly the events, if not explicit citations, recall passages like, also, Zech. 13.1-7?

  4. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,
    I initially was going to respond along the lines of the above comments, however I realized that anytime I watch one of these shows I complain that the producers never seem to include any scholar with a different take then the ones they typically use. Therefore, I want to encourage you to continue to accept these opportunities with the hope that your interview gets aired and brings a different approach to the show.

    I know from experience that the right words even in the midst of ‘absurd notions’ can lead someone to actually study the topic for themselves!


  5. Hi Larry, you write

    “First, when you’re approached by researchers for such a TV programme (at least in my experience), you’re not usually told the larger storyline or sweep of the programme. They simply say they have some particular questions that they’d like to interview you about. So, you can deal with those questions but never know in advance where the rest of the programme is going, or even if they’ll use all or any of your own interview. I, therefore, have no responsibility for this or other programmes for which I’ve been interviewed.”

    Well then why not ask? Why not require that you be allowed to see the final product before you agree to take part?

    • Well, you can ask, but in my experience they typically respond that they’re making it up as they go along, and so don’t know quite what the programme will be. On the other hand, there are cases where it became clear that there was some (often loony) agenda being pursued. In those cases, I’ve tried to “throw a spanner into the works.”

      • joezias permalink

        ‘Making it up as they go along’, its total BS. After yrs of being involved with the media I only heard it once and that was from a US film maker, inexperienced, unlimited funds,  who drove myself , the crew we put together and a well known prof. absolutely crazy. When asked what are we doing tomorrow, their reply was, ‘we want to shoot everything’ which they attempted.  Little did we know that we were being misled as to whom we were working, we thought we were working for a well known US Evangelical college, keeping them ‘honest’  but  that winter, Xmas time,  the film was being promoted by Benny Hind and co. Luckily we were not on camera.  Joe Zias Anthropology/Paleopathology/Guide

        Science and Antiquity – Jerusalem Jerusalem, Israel

  6. Whereas I , RC (severely ‘religiously challenged’) usually agree with you on many religious matters, esp, how the media abuses the profession and how colleagues enable and have been enabling this to happen for decades, you don’t get a pass on this one.

    First of all, one must ask who is doing it, funding, their track record, and what is very important, who is appearing. You have not only a right but an obligation to see where its going so as not to say, after your appear on screen ‘well I didn’t know”. One can tell well in advance where it will lead by asking these simple questions and don’t, don’t ever fall for that non-disclosure agreement as it’s a way of muzzling you and frequently they have one sign it, take the money and run to the bank and so what if it got bad reviews, the money is in the bank and on to the next film. Also, tape your interview and when you sign the release have them sign a doc. saying that even if you end up on the cutting room floor, at least they give full attribution to your ideas. This is true esp. working with American TV. For years now I have turned dn more TV work than accepted as aside from that fleeting moment of fame and fortune, it does nothing whatsoever to help ones career or standing in the academic world.

    In fact, one of the BAR Crowd once told me, while talking to him in Qumran, that the media finds me troublesome, as I cannot be controlled. I took it as a compliment and within a week the BBC reporter covering the ‘dig’ for one day, wrote that ‘when it comes to the Dead Sea, there are things that stink more… I think he was talking about their famous John the Baptist find, with a head attached. Tomb 18. By that time I had ‘walked’ away from ‘fame and fortune’.

  7. Chris Porter permalink

    Out of interest, and not being in the UK, is this part of a larger pre-Easter series?

  8. ‘Twas absolute rubbish as most of these programmes seem to be. Makes Christianity seem so out of touch with reality.

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