Biblical Authors as Artists

Biblical Authors as Artists February 17, 2018

I really enjoyed learning from student blog posts not only what they are finding engaging in my class on the Bible and music, but also what they are finding frustrating. One example of the latter was my mentioning in passing of historical questions, doubts, and debates related to the stories of the crucifixion of Jesus as found in the Gospels. I found the student’s blog post about this interesting because it stemmed from the student’s Catholic faith, and yet Catholicism on the whole is fairly open about the results of academic historical study of the Bible and the challenges this raises to the historicity of various details, in a manner that – if it reached ordinary Catholics – could eliminate such objections, which more naturally reflect the approach of conservative Protestantism.

I don’t want to focus on a historical approach to the Bible in and of itself in this class, since that is more of a distraction from the intersection of the Bible and music than something directly relevant to it. But on the other hand, musical settings and cinematic portrayals lead naturally to engagement with questions of historicity from a different angle, highlighting the role of storytellers of all sorts as artists. Getting students to think about the Gospel authors as artists, as creative writers even when writing about historical events, was a fantastic opportunity to approach students’ discomfort with historical questions about the Bible from a different angle.

And so, as a class activity, I broke students up into groups and asked them to write up filmmaker’s (and composer’s) notes for one scene from the Bible. Since we had recently been talking about settings of the passion, I suggested that the crucifixion story be the default choice, but that anything else within the Bible is also fine. In our conversation after class, we talked about their choices about what sources to draw on, what to add or leave out, what music would accompany the scene, how many extras would be needed, wide angle vs. zoom, and a variety of other matters. I related this to the Gospels, in particular highlighting the Gospel of John’s explicit statement that the author didn’t try to include everything, but selected material for a purpose.

I then shared these two renditions of the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, the second of which (from the Lumo Project) speaks explicitly about the filmmakers’ choices, and the lack of “stage directions” in the Gospels.

I have blogged about the Lumo Project and its movies before. I have yet to manage to get hold of copies and watch them in their entirety. But I am extremely grateful for the featurette about this particular scene, as it was perfect for use in my class.

What do you think of this activity? Do you ever use movies and/or musical settings as a way to get students to engage with questions about biblical literature and history from a different angle?

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  • John MacDonald

    Music is always a good mnemonic device to accompany content (because of the way human memory works) – and hence aids in remembering topics and details. I had a friend in University who used to apply content to music in order to help prepare for exams (the exams at the time were usually three one-hour questions which the professor provided before hand).

  • John MacDonald

    James said:

    One example of the latter was my mentioning in passing of historical questions, doubts, and debates related to the stories of the crucifixion of Jesus as found in the Gospels.

    It’s interesting to question the historicity of the various elements of Mark’s crucifixion narrative. Regarding this, the 2nd edition of “The Jewish Annotated New Testament (text box, pg. 99) ” points out:

    “Mark highlights a number of events in such a way as to fulfill passages from Psalms and Isaiah:


    14.1 Kill by stealth, Ps 10.7-8
    14.10-11 Betray him, Isa 53.6, 12
    14.18 The one eating with me, Ps 41.9
    14.24 Blood poured out for many, Isa 53.12
    14.57 False testimony, Ps 27.12; 35.11
    14.61;15.5 Silence before accusers, Ps 38.13-14? Isa 53.7?
    14.65 Spit, slap, Isa 50.6
    15.5, 39 Amazement of nations and kings, Isa 52.15
    15.6-15 Criminal saved, righteous killed, Isa 53.6, 12
    15.24 Divided his clothes, Ps 22.18
    15.29 Derided him and shook their, Ps 22.7; 109.25
    15.30-31 Save yourself!, Ps 22.8
    15.32 Taunted him, Ps 22.6
    15.34 Why have you forsaken me, Ps 22.1
    15.36 Gave him sour wine to drink, Ps 69.21

    These connections call into question whether the events Mark depicts actually occurred or whether they were introduced into the narrative to establish that Jesus died in “accordance with the scriptures (1 Cor 15.3-4).

    To these passage identified in the 2nd edition of the “Jewish Annotated New Testament,” I would add that some think the actual act of the crucifixion of Jesus itself may be unhistorical, and ultimately derived from scripture:

    (1) The implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24) may derive from Psalm 22:16b. The Septuagint Greek reading “dug” in Psalm 22:16b, which The New Testament writers would have been familiar with, might be thought to prefigure the piercing of Jesus’ hands and feet in Mark 24.

    (2) Paul understanding of the crucifixion as Christ dying “according to the scriptures” is one of Jesus being “hung on a tree” in the sense explained in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul writes: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree (Galatians 3:13).” This is Paul’s interpretation and application of Deuteronomy, which says “His corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:23).”.

    It seems reasonable to admit skepticism about the historicity of any or all of these elements. On the other hand, none of this is relevant to the question of the historicity of Jesus himself, since legendary embellishment is just as much expected on the historical Jesus theory as it is the mythical Jesus theory. And, of course, Paul met Jesus’ brother (Galatians 1:19), which on its own invalidates Jesus mythicism.

    • John MacDonald

      One last thought. There is no question, like the impaled, just man of Plato’s Republic (Plat. Rep. 2.362a), Jesus was a good man who died by impaling crucifixion. However, because this very crucifixion was (very early) interpreted theologically in terms of Psalm 22:16b (Mark’s use of the Septuagint in Mark 24) and Deuteronomy 21:23 (Paul’s “Hung on a tree in Galatians 3:13), it is possible that Jesus himself felt it was his theological mission to die of crucifixion to fulfill such scriptures as Deuteronomy and Psalms, just as he probably felt it was his mission to fulfill Zechariah 9:9 with the way he entered into Jerusalem.

      • John MacDonald

        I had another thought. As I said, Jesus may have thought it was his theological mission from God to die by crucifixion because he had the same interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:23 that Paul had in Galatians 3:13. Jesus may have acted in his life to try to bring about his own crucifixion to fulfill God’s mission for him, even though the outcome terrified him (as evidenced by the Gethsemane episode). And, the Septuagint rendering of Psalm 22:16b may have further inspired Jesus along this way (Jesus would not have read the Greek Septuagint, but its rendering rendering of “dug” may have been noted around Jesus’ time because of the similarity to the Roman act of hand/feet piercing crucifixion).