Finding Jesus– Review of Part One


When you are dealing with a docu-drama, sometimes it’s hard to get the balance right between education and what is dramatically effective on the screen. The first episode of Finding Jesus was indeed well filmed, the cinematography was excellent, and it involved a nice array of voices as the talking heads interspersed between the recreations of the scenes related to the burial shroud of Jesus. Obviously, the focus was on the shroud, now called the shroud of Turin. There was a nice balance of clergy and scholars involved, though no Jewish scholars were involved, which would have helped to have a different voice. David Gibson, whom I’ve worked with before, is really excellent in dealing with these kinds of subjects, and he has written the accompanying book, also entitled Finding Jesus.

As to the drama a few points: 1) despite Christian art, it is entirely unlikely that Jesus attempted to carry a 300 pound whole cross through the streets of Jerusalem. The normal practice was just to carry the cross piece, not the whole thing. Indeed, I would suggest no one in that condition could have carried a WalMart sized cross through Jerusalem after flogging; 2) the flogging of Jesus, it may surprise you to know, is barely mentioned in the Gospels, in some cases only in a half verse. Nothing in those verses suggests he experienced the ‘viberatio’ the most severe kind of flogging done with a cat of nine tails as depicted in this episode. Indeed, the Lukan account suggests a light flogging to teach a lesson, prior to Pilate trying to release Jesus. The crucial point here is when the flogging happened, before or after Pilate’s judgment that Jesus should be executed. If it’s before, then it’s unlikely to have involved the severe flogging, which was often done to hasten death on the cross. 3) despite various email exchanges from me, the drama part got the titulus wrong, in that it did not merely have the Latin word ‘inri’ on it. It had a phrase describing the crime he was accused of– in this case claiming to be king of the Jews in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew/Aramaic. 4) it was also surprising that there was no depiction of the women at the empty tomb, but perhaps that’s because they are not said to see the shroud as the men do when they look in the tomb.

As for the interviews, they were well done, whether one agreed with the judgments expressed or not. The point was to present something of a diversity of views but in a way that respected the seriousness of the subject matter, and the show was successful at that. Here are some of my concerns with what actually made the cut in the show: 1) if you are doing a whole show on the shroud of Turin, and you fail to mention the shroud went through a medieval fire that singed the cloth, and certainly could skew the carbon dating of the cloth, then you’ve left our something very important. There was no mention of the fire. This was a serious oversight, even with the time constraints of a 42 minute show. One can debate whether the fire changed the dating or not, but not that there was a fire that singed the cloth. 2) there was no mentioned of the tests done on the cloth in regard to pollen, the weave of the cloth etc. all of which point to a Judaean provenance for the shroud, not a European one. 3)my understanding is that when in 1988 the cloth was allowed to be carbon dated, obviously only pieces from the edge, not the image of the cloth were allowed to be snipped off and tested. Nothing is said about the fact that the cloth had been repaired after the fire around the frayed edges, but this is in many of the books written about the shroud. To this day, I do not know whether the portions of the shroud carbon tested were from the repair, or from the original. But someone should have checked. 5) I thought the comparison with the face cloth housed in the cathedral in Spain was well done, showing a possible similarity in the pattern of the blood stains which since the sudarion dates to well before the middle ages calls into question a medieval date for the shroud of Turin. 6) much less convincing but a new and interesting suggestion was the camera obscura suggestion. As David Gibson pointed out however, if this technology in fact existed in the middle ages, why is the shroud the only surviving example of it being applied? I found the discussion interesting but there were some dodgy bits as the British would say: 1) the image on the shroud is a double image, both front and back head to toe, toe to head. It would impossible with the camera obscura to reproduce such an image since it could only photograph one side of the body at a time. My point is that the shroud is not two pieces of cloth sown together, but one long piece of cloth with a frontal and dorsal image on it. There is also some question about whether in the middle ages they knew about the right chemicals and how to mix them and soak the cloth to produce any kind of image on the cloth. What was especially unconvincing was the argument that the blood would have been applied to the cloth after the image was created. But if that’s so, why is the blood stain (and it is clearly a blood stain, that’s been tested) only on the surface of the cloth. I was also unconvinced that someone concocting the cloth in the middle ages would have been satisfied with producing a ‘negative image’ on a cloth, if he wanted to pass it off as a holy relic with a possibly recognizable image of Jesus on it.

Finally, there have been some interesting art history documentaries done asking the question where exactly the standard depiction of Jesus first came from. The very earliest depiction I know of is of an image of Jesus as like Apollos, the sun deity. But well before the middle ages we have this standard image of Jesus, hair, beard, prominent nose, etc. and the question is where did it come from? One answer that some of these art history shows have conjured with is, that the earliest artist had seen the shroud. If that’s possible then a medieval date for the shroud is impossible.

Let me say again, that as a docu-drama, I thought this was better than many of them, and I look forward to the remaining five episodes.

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