The Good Man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ

Some time ago, I was asked to draw up guidance for a filmed version of Philip Pullmann’s book. I found some of my notes today and thought they looked entertaining-

The Director/Producer had a background in tv comedy and Philip Pullmann pulled out.

Essential problem lies in the history of Christ on film:

The life of Brian dominates any effort to film the Christ story, and the Monty Python analysis is classic- that everyone speaks sententiously…

3 options:

Either Avoid entirely or fully embrace humour

The passion of the Christ ducks this choice by doing really nasty violence, which is another solution!

Is there humour in Pullman? Certainly, but much of it is the narrative voice which does not translate naturally into film.

Historical issues: can film help? Yes:

1) fill out the multicultural environment of Nazareth

a) Geography: Nazareth is Very close to Sepphoris/zippori (5 km away)

It was considered the capital of Galilee and as such, the absence of any ref in the bible is telling. (Herod the Great makes Sepphoris the capital in 47BC, tho the ROMANS already called it the effective capital from conquest in 55BC). It was recaptured by Jewish zealots in 46 and then taken by Rome again under Verrus, burnt and all inhabitants enslaved. Herod Antipas rebuilt and fortified the city. It was then called Autokratoris (autonomous city)

A direct road connects Sepporis(Saffuriyya) to Legio (Meggido) the military Headquarters in Galilee and also to the sea to Tiberias.

Now, although it was Legio that was the major garrison, the Talmud records on a number of occasions that Sepphoris was the major garrison of the area (b Shabbat 121a: this is about a non-Jew who helps extinguish a fire on the Sabbath. “it once happened that a fire broke out in the courtyard of Yosef ben Shimai in Shihin. The Roman garrison (Gastra) of Sepphoris came to extinguish it because Yosef was the guardian of the kind, but he did not allow them to because of honour for the Sabbath. A miracle took place and rain fell and extinguished the fire….”

In AD 67, there was a garrison of 6000 soldiers in Sepphora mentioned by Josephus under the leadership of Placidus. Otheres followed so that in the end, when Titus arrived the garrison numbered some 60,000 men. This may have influenced Talmudic accounts…

b) Mary’s story:

Silence may suggest that the story of Mary’s rape/ seduction by a man the Talmud calls “Ben Pandera” (son of a Panther) or Pantheus, a Roman legionary, may be true. (this is the section from the Talmud Shabbath 104b tractate:

Rabbi Hisda said: ‘The husband [of his mother] was Stada, the biological father, Pandera…The mother [yet another rabbi says] was Miriam, the women’s hairdresser…It’s like they say in [the Babylonian yeshiva town of] Pumbedita: She cheated on her husband.’

The Aramaic word M’gadla is “hairdresser” so there is confusion in this story between Miriam/mary the mother of Jesus and Mary magdalen.

Pantera may be a joke about “parthenos”, virgin. The greek work Parthenos was apparently very difficult for an Aramaic speaker to pronounce and “Panther” became a mangled corruption.

There is also a reference in ORIGEN that the Jews claim Jesus was the son of a married Jewish woman and her Roman lover

The Talmudic story is set in the 2nd Century but the writing seems to go back only to the 6th Century

2) Other sects:

Essenes: meaning expectant. Was Jesus an essene? Was John? (certainly this is implicit in Kazanzakis)

dead sea scrolls hidden around 70 AD

Nag hammadi library hidden around 200AD to keep away from Irenaeus’ heresy hunt

Archaeology: ossiaries have been found in Talpiot with names of Miriam, Joseph, Joshua and James

Gnostics. A great scene in the book (Christ and the prostitute) suggests Paulician, Waldensian or cathar beliefs about degradation of the body to hasten the judgement,

  • the devil made the world and corrupted the teachings of Christ by making the system of the church
  • -you cannot eat eggs because they are a result of sex
  • all sex is the bad but masturbation is particularly bad, and worse than rape, but gay sex was better than heterosexual sex because it could never lead to progeny. There was a belief that only the mind can sin, so any activity below the waist was not permanently sinful. The lower orders of the Cathars were in slavery to the devil so anything they did was ok because it was not their responsibility! They were saved through the efforts of the elect who had taken a special baptism to free them from slavery to the devil and the world.
  • belief in reincarnation
  • the Heresy of the Free spirit: a corruption of Sufi thought in France – if God created everything then he also created evil: blind obedience to a master and total freedom of action: the individual is above the law, there is no afterlife. Heyday between 1250- 1330

(in the East, there was a similar heresy called the EUCHITES)

Mary’s annunciation:

Rasputin’s sect were called :”the men of God” or Khlysty and they had naked parties, singing, drinking and dancing onto a trance-like state followed by orgies which led to pregnancies. The resulting children were said to be “begotten by the Holy spirit”!!

GREEK! establish Christ as a Greek name, why would Mary opt for a Greek (ie: Roman) name.

(remember the lingua Latina of Ancient Rome was Greek…)

Maybe the Magi speak to Mary in Greek…

Jesus is sometimes referred to in Yiddish as Yoyzl (Hebrew name would be Yeshu, a shortened version of Joshua) Yoske Pandre, little Jo (yoysif) Today, rabbis will say that the word Yeshu is an acronym for “y’mach sh’mo ve-zichrono”, may his name be forever forgotten.

Again, links to Sepphoris would allow for greater use of Greek.

Sepphoris represents the urban elite: Jesus is described as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners and there was a rich young man in the audience (Mk 10:17-22) and a tax collector among the apostles (Mark 2: 13-17); there is even a steward of the royal household among the followers( Chuza, steward to Herod Antipas who is rebuilding Sepphoris…luke 8:3)… does that imply he dined in Sepphoris?? Grin…(maybe he visited John in prison there: Matt 11:2)

Capernaum: needs to be brought into the story. This is where Jesus “settled down”

Fisherman (Matt 4:12-22)

Toll house (mark 2:13-14)

Centurion garrisoned there (John 4:46-54)

Ambiguity : need to preserve ambiguity of the angel/ stranger. Maybe link to soldier Ben Pantera.

Pullman explains the temptation story but not the prayer in Gethsemane. Could the angel be linked to this prayer as a dialogue?

The gethsemane monologue is very important in turning Jesus into a wholly likeable figure.

What should have been, improving the narrative – think of the trinity addition to end of Matthew 28. 19..(vs Acts 2.38 baptism in Jesus’ name only…) no texts contain chapter 28 before 4th century tho the trinitarian formula linked to this text to baptize existed by the time of Ignatius of Antioch, letter to the Philippians (107-112), Irenaeus Against Heresies (130-200) and Tertullian (He commanded the eleven others, on His departure to the Father, to “go and teach all nations, who were to be baptized into the Father, and into the Son, and into the Holy Ghost“) the Prescription Against Heretics 160-220.

  1. History and truth- stupendous
  2. Stolen body from the tomb (the legion of angels/ satanic horde “my name is legion”)

Albert Schweitzer (1906) thinks Jesus was deluded, thought the kingdom would come soon and thought he would usher it in as a triumphant messiah. He expected to be saved from the cross. I think this is the source of much of the Pullman book. What Schweitzer wrote still has relevance today and anyone writing about Christology or the “life of Jesus” is frankly writing footnotes to Schweitzer.

scweitzer by Tim

It is Schweitzer who inspires kazanzakis.

Christ is Judas. Christ is a nickname. A fairly routine idea actually and also routine would be the idea thatJesus is the twin of Thomas- hence the name didymus, “Twin”

Jesus or ‘Isa?

Jesus is mentioned in the Koran 154 times in 19 stories, more than the Prophet himself. Mary or Miriam, his mother, dedicated to God from childhood and serving in the Temple in Jerusalem, is actually mentioned more in the Koran than in the Bible -she is spoken of 100 times. Of course, the Muslim narrative differs from the Christian while both maintain their sometimes conflicting  accounts are wholly correct.

In Islam, Jesus is the messenger of God and his servant, as is Mohammad. He is a sign (ayat) and a mercy from God.  Jesus’ principle message to both religions is one of truth- do not do one thing and be another, do not pretend to be religious with a great show of reverence when you are not inside. Honest humanity is exactly like honest architecture: when Pugin rages against the Georgian theatrics of Bath, he is saying the same thing: the facade should honestly reflect what is going on inside.

For Islam, Jesus/’Isa is “the son of Mary” (I count 22 times and she is the only woman mentioned by name in the Koran), as he is also described in Mark 6:3: οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ τέκτων, ὁ υἱὸς τῆς Μαρίας, ἀδελφὸς δὲ Ἰακώβου καὶ Ἰωσῆ καὶ Ἰούδα καὶ Σίμωνος; καὶ οὐκ εἰσὶν αἱ ἀδελφαὶ αὐτοῦ ὧδε πρὸς ἡμᾶς; καὶ ἐσκανδαλίζοντο ἐν αὐτῷ. Of course, in Mark’s account, while it can be understood to be a reference to the Virgin birth, it might also suggest the locals were suspicious of Jesus’ true paternity, and the Talmud elaborates on this elsewhere. ‘Isa is also called the “word of God” Kalimat Minhu and “the spirit of God”. ‘Isa is an icon and an example of humility and poverty, owning nothing and giving up the world, an important message to a society dominated by consumption and obsessed with wealth. ‘Isa had three things- a robe, a bowl and a comb. He subsequently gave away the comb and the bowl- what do I need these for when others could use them?

‘Isa is the prophet of the end times, returning as the Messiah (Al Masih): this was foretold by the angels. He is described as Messiah 11 times in the Koran.

إِذْ قَالَتِ الْمَلآئِكَةُ يَا مَرْيَمُ إِنَّ اللّهَ يُبَشِّرُكِ بِكَلِمَةٍ مِّنْهُ اسْمُهُ الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ وَجِيهًا فِي الدُّنْيَا وَالآخِرَةِ وَمِنَ الْمُقَرَّبِينَ

Differences and the Nativity

(Al Emran 45) The Koranic story differs from the Christian story in the absence of a stable, a manger and Joseph, but so much of the Christian infancy narrative is fairly loose, with contradictions between Matthew and Luke, a complete lack of any infancy narrative in John and Mark and some very picturesque details added from the Protoevangelium of James, (later reworked in Armenian and Syriac) to form the christmas crib scene popularised by St Francis of Assisi in 1223 and painted by everyone from Giotto onwards. The ox and the ass are also in icons of the nativity, together with a midwife who arrives a bit too late, but helps to bathe the baby. There is also the legend of Aphroditianus and the “Revelation of the magi” where the various visitors see the Christ-child in different forms, as a throned king, a warrior and a martyr. In the Revelation, there are 12 magi, one of whom comes from Shir or China. In the Arabic Infancy narrative, the magi take back with them the swaddling cloths which have mystical powers akin to the shroud of Turin and now on display in either Dubrovnik Cathedral or as the “Windel Jesu” in Aachen Cathedral. One tradition in the late middle ages sees the swaddling clothes made from Joseph’s underpants, rather coyly represented in a 1400 painting, now in Antwerp, by Joseph Malouel as a stocking.

nativity-museum-mayer-van-den-bergh

The site of the nativity is celebrated in the ruins of the church of the Kathisma of the theotokos, about 3 miles outside Bethlehem. This follows exactly the narrative of the Protoevangelium of James where even before the Holy family get to Bethlehem, Mary asks to get off the donkey and Joseph locates a cave in the middle of the desert. In the centre of the church is a rock where Mary rests before giving birth.

While celebrating the Virgin-birth, Islam does not say that this also means Jesus is divine. this is where the two traditions start to divide and indeed where the controversy arose a few weeks’ ago in Glasgow. Again, while calling Jesus “Word of God” Islam is not attributing Divinity to him.

In both Islam and Orthodoxy, choosing to do what is right, Mary is seen as the perfect model of what our life can be. In this, Orthodoxy avoids the pitfalls of Augustinian original sin and therefore of the “Immaculate conception” and shares with Islam in presenting Mary as a role-model not only for women but for everyone. She is a symbol of purity, obedience and dignity. In Islam, Mary is alone, giving birth to ‘Isa under a date-tree in the desert and as in the biblical narrative, she suffers gossip because of the scandal of giving birth without an identifiable father.

Miracles

There are miracles attributed to ‘Isa that do not appear in the canonical Gospels, but they are certainly found in the Apocryphal texts, that he talked from his cradle, that he brought clay birds to life, cured the blind, lepers and that he raised the dead- in the case of the Koran, one of the sons of Noah. One of the big debates that tends to pop up is completely mistaken- that the miracles point to Jesus’ divinity. In fact, throughout the New Testament, Jesus routinely attributes the miraculous to God- as indeed the early teaching in Acts 2:22 attests: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you…”

Crucifixion

Where things really start to get complex is in the death of Jesus. For the Christian, this takes place on a cross at the age of 33. For the Muslim, it takes place in serenity surrounded by angels at the age of 120. The Koran even acknowledges the Christian claim (4: 157) and explains that this was a deception. Some accounts talk about a replacement for Christ, a rescue operation that leads Judas to be arrested and killed rather than Jesus.

In this, Islam is paralleled by the 3rd Century Gospel of Basilides and the Apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas:

“God, who had decreed the issue, reserved Judas for the cross, in order that he might suffer that horrible death to which he had sold another. He did not suffer Judas to die under the scourges, notwithstanding that the soldiers scourged him so grievously that his body rained blood.

“So they led him to Mount Calvary, where they used to hang malefactors, and there they crucified him naked, for the greater ignominy. Judas truly did nothing else but cry out: God, why have you forsaken me, seeing the malefactor has escaped and I die unjustly? Truly I say that the voice, the face, and the person of Judas were so like to Jesus, that his disciples and believers entirely believed that he was Jesus; wherefore some departed from the doctrine of Jesus, believing that Jesus had been a false prophet, and that by the art of magic he had done the miracles which he did: for Jesus had said that he should not die till near the end of the world; for that at that time he should be taken away from the world.”

But the Gospel of Barnabas was probably a 16th century forgery.

The crucifixion story is not very reliable

Pauline Theology (beginning in 1 Cor 15) is dominated by the crucifixion, so the Islamic account appears to challenge the core belief in Christianity. I was listening to someone talking about the crucifixion event the other day, however, and was astonished by his claim that the account of the crucifixion is one of the most accurate testimonies to an actual execution in the ancient world. Well, yes and no. What the New Testament account does is to spin the story with enough graphic detail that the vital legal questions remain unasked and unanswered. It seems to me that it is not at all clear why Jesus merited a death sentence under Roman law at all. There is a hint that the apostles were armed in the Garden of Gethsemane and if Jerusalem were under lock-down, then maybe a case can be made against them, but not really against Jesus. There is no evidence that he was armed. Beyond that, while there might just be a case for the Jewish authorities to stone Jesus to death for blasphemy, again there is no good reason in the narrative why that does not happen and why instead Jesus is handed over to the Roman authorities.

Despite this, and perhaps most importantly in a defence of the historical reliability of the Gospel testimony, it is improbable that the crucifixion event would ever have been invented. Why would any group want to glorify a sadistic and shameful execution especially when the incarnation narrative, which was already emerging, provided quiet sufficient evidence of an intervention in history by God?

If we move to the Reformation and the emphasis placed by the reformers on the Atonement, then the crucifixion swings even more mightily centre-stage. More than that, the ever-present image of Jesus as a shepherd merges into an image of Jesus both as Paschal lamb and as scapegoat – one event, the crucifixion combining the festivals of both Passover and Yom Kippur.

The Gnostics

Just as there have been Christians who have questioned the Virgin Birth (the Bishop of York, for instance in the not-so-distant past), so too, quite demonstrably, there have been Christians throughout history who have questioned the reality of the crucifixion or the centrality of that event. It is not such a shocking claim.

Islam is certainly not alone in denying that the crucifixion was real. The Gnostics had already done this. Here is the relevant paragraph from the Nag Hammadi scriptures-

It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was another upon Whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.

Modern literature

The idea that Jesus survived the crucifixion is brilliantly done in the Kazenzakis book, “The Last Temptation” and in the film – I remember the scene where St Paul confronts Jesus and says he invented Christ, “I don’t care whether you’re Jesus or not. The resurrected Jesus will save the world…I created the truth out of what people needed. If I have to crucify you to save the world then I’ll crucify you and if I have to resurrect you, then I’ll do that too, whether you like it or not…. My Jesus is much more important and more powerful.”

The same story of survival, incidentally, is also told in “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln) and its sequel, “The Messaianic legacy”, even “the Passover plot” by Hugh Schonfield (a Glasgow academic and one of the original Dead sea scrolls’ academics, slightly given to the sensational and less glamorous than Geza Vermes but who authored a very competent reworking of the gospels  “The Authentic New Testament”) -it lies behind the dreadful “Da Vinci Code” stuff. It is implicit in the Philip Pullman novella “The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ” which in turn, I think, is a fantasy based on the idea, already suggested by Leonardo’s twin Jesus painted in the Last supper, that Thomas, the twin (Didymus)  was the brother of Jesus and took his place on the cross, a theological version of the 2006 film “The Prestige” with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. I was asked to look at the Pullmann book a couple of years’ ago to see what could be done to turn it into a film. A tough call but in the end, Pullmann got cold feet and pulled out of the project.

after-persian-minature-armaggedon-by-tim

And finally there is  the AntiChrist, المسيح الدجّال Dajjal, the one-eyed opposite to everything ever preached by Jesus. This cyclopedic travesty of goodness will rule with brute force, atheism and deceit. Muslims and Christians agree that Jesus will descend and defeat the anti-Christ. What Islam does that Christianity does not is to provide specifics- ‘Isa returns in eastern Damascus to confront injustice, his hands resting on the shoulders of two angels, and his hair dripping with oil. When he tosses his head, the beads of oil will fly off like pearls. He will destroy the cross and kill the pig. When the Dajjal sees ‘Isa, he will dissolve “like salt in water”.