Bryan Bruce’s documentary on the death of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus: The Cold Case (TV1, 24 July 2011, 8:30pm), asks who killed Jesus and why. Although Bruce moves well beyond his usual comfort zone in investigating unsolved murders from recent decades, for the most part he asks the right questions and points out most of the crucial issues. Inevitably, given the format it follows – which covers the scenery in modern Israel as much as the historical materials – the arguments are only briefly outlined and beg for more detail. Without going into more depth into some of the central issues, the conclusions may not have seemed as persuasive as they should. But Bruce has provided a reasonable introduction to the historical problem, providing a general picture that would agree with the conclusions of most mainstream scholarship from the conservative Bishop N.T.Wright on one side to the secular Maurice Casey on the other.
For a documentary on what concerns the last week of Jesus, it was strange to wait an hour before we got to Jerusalem. I have no idea why he mentioned Qumran (Qumeran in one of the graphics, later corrected) and the Dead Sea scrolls or Nag Hammadi and the Gospel of Thomas. But, unlike some biblical scholars, he did at least point out that the DSSs contain no New Testament or Christian documents and Thomas doesn’t help at all with the discussion of Jesus’ death. Discussion of what Jesus looked like and life in Nazareth, however, were of little or no relevance.
In any case, Bruce did a fair job in outlining the key historical problem: there is some obvious fiction in the Gospels and some obvious fact – so how do we distinguish them? Bruce is right that the Gospels are “hearsay”, that whatever factually correct memories are included, there is plenty of room for invention. Moreover, as Lloyd Geering rightly noted, even the Gospels acknowledge that the disciples had fled by the time of the death of Jesus, so some imagination and recourse to scriptural tradition was needed to “fill in the gaps”. Nobody in the documentary noted the female disciples, who the Gospels maintain stayed on the scene. But the inconsistencies concerning these women, their absence at any “trial”, together with the origin of their accounts in vision reports, does not make for a dependable source. The birth stories were provided as a (good) example of the Gospels simply making stuff up. Bruce rightly noted that the two birth stories were made up so as to align Jesus with David – although in contradictory ways, and that neither were true. The census story is particularly unrealistic, as pointed out, with its idea that everybody had to return to the town of his ancestors, and on this rare occasion I agreed with Spong, in his mockery of the irrealism within the story. Bruce was also right to show the development of traditions when we compare the four Gospels in parallel – even if such demonstrations of intentional contradiction never convince the more literal-minded conservatives. He did however, incorrectly, connect this with differences at the textual level of subsequent manuscripts, commenting vaguely on “substantial” changes between versions (differences in manuscripts has nothing to do with differences between the Gospels themselves). But it was one of only a few glaring errors in the tv programme. One other glaring error was Bruce’s explanation that the phrase “saved by the bell” referred to a burial practice in which the dead were buried with bells, which they could ring if accidentally buried alive. This pop-etymology of Bruce’s is false: the phrase is modern boxing terminology (see David Wilton, Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends).
There was an unresolved tension regarding the role of Jesus’ self-identification as Messiah as a contributing factor to his death. Bruce asserts it early on, although whether this was Jesus’ own identification or his followers’ is debated. I think he’s right, but some discussion was needed. This, of course, would provide some reason to go to Jerusalem to confront the existing seat of power, the reason for which Bruce is content to say is “uncertain”. Dominic Crossan is interviewed and states that Jesus consciously differed from John the Baptist, his early teacher. For Crossan, while John the Baptist was a preacher of the end times and repentance, after John the Baptist’s death, Jesus was prompted to re-evaluate his understanding of God and the Kingdom of Heaven, and emphasised the moral dimension rather than the eschatological. This all gets quite hypothetical, and Bruce does not interrogate it. But, of course, if Jesus deliberately provoked a religious-based altercation with the authorities in Jerusalem, there would be more basis for a role of the Jewish religious authorities. Bruce rather concludes that Jesus was a naive country bumpkin, for whom the political tension in Jerusalem came as a complete surprise. Yet, elsewhere, Bruce does emphasise Jesus’ own identification as Messiah, and interviews Shimon Gibson, who understands Jesus to be deliberately fulfilling his fate. Yet Crossan’s odd view that when Jesus rode a female donkey into Jerusalem, this was not a messianic sign, but a lampoon of Pilate’s entry on a horse, seems to be the documentary’s conclusion on this point. It seems that Crossan’s desire to make Jesus a nice sage rather than what might seem to some moderns (are there still some?) as an apocalyptic nutter has rather ruled his hypothesis, and Soares Prabhu is more persuasive on the reason for a female donkey as a literalistic fulfillment of prophecy. Although Bruce does not overemphasise Jesus as a moral teacher in the way that some popular treatments has done, he does tend towards this especially when relying on Crossan. Bruce’s last line in the documentary, describing the effect of the tendency of the Gospels to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus, is telling: “a theology of hate was built into a gospel of love”. However, if Jesus wasn’t all about love, but could himself be narrow-minded, bigoted, self-centred, and obsessed with apocalyptic destruction, then the theology of hate might not be so far removed from Jesus himself. At these points, Bruce would have done better if he had balanced some of the more populist writers (including Spong and, to some extent, Crossan and Pagels) for some of the more recent and balanced and less Jesus-through-rosy-eyed assessments, including those of Maurice Casey, Roger Aus, and Dale Allison.
Bruce is right to emphasise the importance of Jesus’ actions in the Jerusalem Temple, overturning tables of moneychangers, as bringing about his eventual arrest. While few biblical scholars would disagree, this should have been the focus of the documentary, and yet the reasoning is very limited. The stories of the so-called “trial” are indeed hopelessly inconsistent. But the matter was treated very fleetingly. The second trial before Herod, which Luke inserts, provides a prime example of how the Gospels simply invented aspects of the story – but nothing was said about it in any detail. Given the centrality of the “trial(s)” to the Gospel accounts and the subject of the documentary, this was inadequate. The interview with Elaine Pagels helpfully showed why it was unrealistic to think of it as a “trial” – with its meeting at night, at Passover, immediate sentence, no stoning for the alleged accusation of blasphemy, etc. But the meeting of the Sanhedrin was vaguely noted as being “against the rules of sacred Torah” [sic], which should probably have been a reference to the centuries-later Talmud, and even then of questionable relevance.
Although there may have been no trial, only a decision to execute, this does not mean that there was no place for the religious ground for seizing Jesus, which was probably a charge of blasphemy. However, this charge was made by a limited number of Jewish religious authorities, and Bruce rightly emphasised that the transference of blame, in the Gospel of John to “the Jews” as a whole marks “the beginning of a long, sad story of anti-Judaism”. More precisely, it is anti-Jewish polemic, from a sect which has separated itself from Jewish practice and identity. It therefore differs decisively from the inter-sectarian polemic which existed within Judaism, and indeed the emphasis in the Gospel of John on Jesus as sole means of salvation, against Jewish means, serves to distinguish Christians from Jews. It is, however, only the basis for later anti-Semitism, which Bruce notes developed properly only once Christians had gained political power in the Roman Empire.
Bruce explains briefly, but rightly, how the Gospels gradually shift the blame for Jesus death from the Romans to the Jews. As Pagels nicely summarises, the further you get from the event itself, the nicer Pilate becomes, even appearing somewhat Christian by the time of the Gospel of John, and conversely the more maligned are the Jews. All this becomes very dangerous once the Christians have power, and Bruce ends the documentary with an examination of the effect of reading the Gospel accounts of the passion for the last 2000 years, with its blaming of Jews. Bruce is careful to distinguish the Gospels themselves from their subsequent use. He rightly comments that Hitler could not have been so successful unless the ground had been so well prepared by theologians such as Martin Luther. In particular, Luther’s “On the Jews and their Lies” called for the burning of synagogues and driving them out of cities, which was used by Nazis to tragic effect. Bruce summarises that the story which casts all blame on Jews for the death of Jesus is “a lie that is repeated around the Christian world every Christmas”.
While anybody who knows more than the basics about the Gospels would be disappointed with the lack of depth, the documentary is successful in meeting a general public which – in New Zealand at least – couldn’t name a Gospel let alone tell you that Jesus was Jewish. Although it tends to cover a lot of only marginally relevant issues, there are few glaring errors, and the documentary does at least provide an introduction to what is an intriguing historical question. But if you really want to work out why Jesus was killed and who was responsible, try one of these books:
Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth (Continuum, 2010)
Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Fortress Press, 1998)
(and comprehensively) Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah,Volumes 1 and 2 (Doubleday, 1999)