Jesus: His Life (2019)

There is a scene early in the first episode of Jesus: His Life, where Robert Cargill cavalierly announces that the census which requires Joseph to take Mary to Bethlehem on the eve of Jesus’s birth never happened. The actual census was years later and the evangelist(s), concerned to bolster claims that Jesus was the messiah, fudged the dates to make his biography align with Old Testament prophecies.

The claim itself is not particularly shocking to anyone who has been exposed to source criticism but it grates that it is presented with the sort of blithe conflation of assertion and evidence that would probably have earned me an “F” if I had done the same on an undergrad history paper about a secular event.

All is not lost for true believers, though, because here comes Ben Witherington III to make the counter argument. There wasn’t just one census in the ancient world and the description of the practice in the gospel text is consistent with the historical evidence we do have. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, particularly when dealing with events in the distant past.

How you feel about these two early comments will make an easy litmus test for whether or not you wish to climb on board for the whole series. I have spoken to at least one colleague who appreciated the fact that modern, skeptical interpretations of the New Testament are balanced with more nuanced, thoughtful and traditional ones.

But if, like me, you are tired of the conflicting experts style of news and education, there’s something about the give-every-side-their-say attempts at comprehensiveness in the series that may stick in your craw. The contentious United States election of 2016 has brought renewed scrutiny to the ways in which American media too often fails to point out that not all truth claims are equally supported or equally valid. In such an age, the practice of looking for a spokesperson for the other “side” to “balance” one’s coverage looks more naive than high-minded. Now here’s a word from our sponsor, the Childhood-Hunger-and-Poverty-is-Really-a-Good-Thing-Society.

Please don’t misunderstand my point. I’m not saying that Cargill is insincere or even wrong (though I think he is). That’s a discussion for scholarly articles and New Testament classrooms. What I am saying is that if you are going to ask me to invest multiple hours into series that purports to historically contextualize the life of Jesus, at least adopt a point of view. Even if it is one I disagree with, I’ll probably be the better for having to articulate those disagreements than I will be endlessly listening to both sides of an argument without ever being reminded that if one of them is true the other must, by necessity, be false.

When the first episode veers away from historical scholars debating context to (mostly African-American) pastors explaining how Joseph’s story provides a counter-cultural portrait of godly manhood, it fares a little better. I would be lying if I said I didn’t wonder whether the racial segregation of themes — Whites talking about the historicity of the census, Blacks talking about how real men raise their wives’ children — wasn’t something more than incidental. But just as I’ve never taught a New Testament history class, so too I’ve never pastored an African-American church. Nevertheless, as a White viewer, the way the episode presents Joseph’s story as being particularly relevant to Black men made me a wee bit uncomfortable. Your mileage may vary.

One could argue, perhaps even should argue, that this divided focus is right and proper. I was always taught that a good sermon recognizes the diversity of the audience and tries to include something for everyone rather than always and only preaching at the long-time members in the pews.

There’s probably a little something for everyone in Jesus: His Life, even if it is not quite, as its commercial claim, the story you know told in a way you’ve never heard before. Each episode of the series will allegedly (I’ve only seen the first) focus on a figure other than Jesus in order to contextualize his life and tell it through the eyes of those who knew him. That actually sounds to me a bit like how the story has always been told. Jesus: His Life is more like listening to the audio commentary on a DVD of a movie you love and have seen many times than it is like watching a reboot of that film’s story.

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