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A discussion of symbolism and realism in the quest for the cinematic Jesus and how this relates to the Gospel texts
Teaching about Jesus across the religion curriculum
This section is about what teachers of religion need to know about when it comes to teaching across Jesus at any particular level of the school religion curriculum. also, it will be practical in orientation. Some of the materials used here could be tried out in classroom religious education.
It is essential to tie in teaching about Jesus with the study of the New Testament – particularly the Gospels. And in particular, the way the Gospels were written and accepted by the early Christian community as documents of faith . They were historically based – but they were primarily about confirming the faith of the early Christian believers.
The gospels as Testaments of early Christian faith : The Gospels are very complex documents of faith, written within the early Christian communities for articulating and confirming their faith. They were based on historical facts that are verifiable from history but they were not primarily historical documents in the sense that we would understand historical documents today, in terms of the thinking about history in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Firstly there was the disciples direct experience of Jesus of Nazareth. Then there were verbal recollections and stories of the sayings and doings of Jesus. Then there were pieces of writing where some of these early memories were committed to text . And finally there were the Gospels that incorporated both oral and early written traditions into narrative structures . The 4 canonical Gospels (accepted by the early church) were authored over a period of 50 perhaps to even 100 years beginning round about 50 – 60 A.D. The Gospel of Mark is thought by scholars to be the first of the four to be written. Canonical gospels – means these were accepted as divine revelation by the early Christian church.
Teachers need to avoid teaching something as more simple than it really is -- which would mean it has to be "un-taught" at a later stage. For example, Scripture scholarship for many years now has pointed out that it is highly likely that the Apostles or evangelists whose names have been attached to the Gospels were not the actual authors. The different gospels were associated with particular early Christian communities and they were named according to those traditions, which may have had special earlier associations with those particular apostles. As was noted above, the gospels were not first-hand descriptive accounts of the life of Jesus. Neither were they dictated to the authors by angels or by God himself. Also, it is important to note that most of the letters of St Paul – actually authored by Paul himself – were written and circulated before the four Gospels were written.
The Gospels were written from a post-Easter perspective . They were written by Christians who believed that Jesus was the son of God and he was the one through whom people would be saved. This needs to be distinguished from what you might call the pre-Easter Jesus or the Jesus of history – what Jesus the man was really like, what he said, what he did, where he travelled etc.
Religion teachers should never present a simplistic account of the Gospels : It is essential for religion teachers not to use words that are inconsistent with this complexity to the Gospels and to the early study of Jesus. In other words, teachers should never talk about the Gospels as if they were exact eyewitness accounts of people who were there, writing a strict historical record of what was actually happening day by day. As one teacher said, the Gospels are not like a "ball by ball description of the play".
Teachers need to find ways of talking about the Gospels as complex pieces of religious literature even with young children in the primary school years. It is not beyond children of that age to understand that storytelling is important – they love stories. And they can see that the Gospels are the stories of the early Christian communities put together in memory of Jesus to explain how they thought of him to be the Son of God and to encourage each other to have personal faith in Jesus and to live according to the example he set.
This would mean that something needs to be explained to the students about how the Gospels were written and how the historical fits in with the faith purposes . The Gospel writers would often use stories and even change details and sequences, locations and times to highlight particular points. They used what might be called today ‘poetic licence'. The Gospels are really like dramatic plays (like Shakespearean plays) with a highly refined text meant for meditative reading and for use in liturgies. Each gospel presents a distinctive portrait of Jesus.
The Gospels also reflect the socio-political situation of the early Christians at that time. For example, scholars think that it is possible to identify some elements of anti-Semitism in parts of the Gospels where negativity about Jews and Judaism was being felt. Some early Christians were excluded from the Synagogue and they were unhappy about this. Eventually they formed their own religious community around faith in Jesus rather than stay as a sect within Judaism – which was where the early Christians started. Hence there was some ill-feeling about Jewish religious authorities. In terms of young people's understandings, the gospel authors at times reflected a mentality where the Jews were more readily considered to be the "bad guys". In particular, the Pharisees were ‘bad mouthed'. This is not consistent with studies of Judaism at the time of Jesus where many Pharisees were exemplary of the genuine Jewish faith tradition. It is likely that Jesus even had friends who were Pharisees. Over a long history, you can see how the word Pharisee and the use of the adjective pharisaic have come to mean being hypocritical. These negative associations that Christians have with Pharisees came initially from the gospels.
Religion teachers should always try to talk about the formation of the Gospels in a way that reflects this reality that is so important to take into account when it comes to interpreting the Gospels. Even though written in a narrative structure as if it were a historical record, the Gospels are written almost exclusively from a post-Easter perspective. The faith of the early Christian community is written back into what appears to be the original narrative, making it complex to read and somewhat difficult to understand. For example, the gospel narratives tend to give an impression that Jesus knew in advance everything that was going to happen to him. This is unlikely. He was not acting out a tightly prescribed script. This is just the impression that the Gospel faith-writing style gives. The authors were writing more about what Jesus and the events meant to them as believers at the time, than it was about describing past events in meticulous detail. This question could be an important research study for older students done as a more systematic way where they try to find out more about the Gospel writing process and its theological purposes. They would then be in a better position to also study the Jesus of history.
One can understand how there are literary scholars studying the new Testament books -- their authorship, their timing, their theological and faith purposes, their literary styles etc. Complementing the textual studies, have been the studies of historians concerned with peeling back the layers of the new Testament to find out more about the historical Jesus – what Jesus was actually like as a human being in Judea and in Galilee at that time.
There has been some change and evolution in this scholarship. For example, in the early to mid 20th century, prominent in the thinking about the historical Jesus was that he was a type of eschatological (concern about the last things) and apocalyptic (sudden catastrophic change) figure – something like John the Baptist, talking about the “repentance” because of the imminent end of the world. There was a little of this is eschatological thinking in the writings of St Paul -- he gave an impression that he thought the world was going to win reasonably soon. When this did not happen, the early Christian thinkers then seemed to settle in the expectation of a ‘long history' for Christianity – and this was reflected in their writings of the Gospels. Later on the Jesus scholars pointed out that the Gospels actually compared and contrasted Jesus with the Baptist, suggesting that Jesus was quite different in approach from the ‘fire and brimstone Baptist'. Jesus was very different from an eschatological or apocalyptic figure.
So a number of theories have developed about what was the best way of describing the historical Jesus. Recent scholarship tends to look at him more as one of the wisdom figures or wise men, who was also a healer . Just how many miracles Jesus actually worked and just how many miracles in the Gospels were like exaggerations by the new Testament authors pointing out how God-like Jesus was is a difficult question to answer. But it is a question that scholars are trying to unravel.
There is a need to recognise that there is a natural uncertainty in the insights of the historical Jesus scholars. But nevertheless, the portraits that they have painted of him are particularly interesting. Two scholars in particular have been very prominent. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Just to provide some preliminary contact with them and their thought, this section includes some of their lectures on the historical Jesus – have a listen to some of this even if there is not time to hear it all. Marcus Borg died early in 2015 – a great scholar RIP.
At some stage, religion teachers need to get across to their students, at an appropriate age level, that the four different Gospels each gives a distinctive gospel portrait of what the historical Jesus was like, even though most of their emphasis was on the Christ of faith. Note, all the Gospels were written in Greek. So one can see that there had been some change and evolution away from the Aramaic language which is most probably the one that Jesus and his disciples spoke most of the time. It is likely that the original sayings and memories of Jesus appeared in fragments of Aramaic writing which eventually were transposed into Greek and were drawn upon in the writing of the Gospels.
For example the gospel of Mark – sometimes called “Mark the stark” – seems to be specially interested in showing that for Jesus to be the Messiah, he had to ‘walk the way of the cross'. Jesus was not the successful PR man selling a religious message. He was absolutely committed to the welfare of the ‘little people', the ‘anawin' (poor and marginalised). And he ‘stuck to his guns' on these commitments even if it upset the authorities to the point that he was assassinated for his commitments. For the gospel of Mark, there was no messiah without the carrying of the cross . For example, scholars think that the original Gospel of Mark did not have the post-resurrection stories in it that were added later – Mark's gospel was thought originally to end with the ‘finding of the empty tomb'.
The gospel of Matthew was apparently written to support the early Christians who had been worshipping and participating in the Jewish synagogue. When they were expelled, the Gospel of Matthew was written to help provide readings and a sense of identity for this community that could help them develop a new sense of Christian identity not so dependent on Judaism. One can understand why there is ill feeling towards the Jews expressed in Matthew's Gospel -- is community had been expelled by the Jews. Also in Matthew's Gospel, there was a systematic effort to compare and contrast Jesus with Moses – he was like the new Moses the new saviour of the people.
The gospel of Luke was written later and is like the ‘humanist' gospel that appeared to be written to appeal to the contemporary Greco- Roman communities pointing out that Jesus could be seen to be the best model of what it means to be really human in that culture. It was written with a more sophisticated Greek language than what appeared in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.
Contrasting with the three more descriptive or Synoptic Gospels was the Gospel of John . The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are said to be the Synoptic Gospels because they shared many of the same descriptive stories of Jesus in a roughly similar sequence, even sharing some of the same wording . The tended to tell the story of Jesus from the same sort of narrative perspective – but it was a highly theological and symbolic narrative. And this contrasted with the Gospel of John which was written more in reflective, dramatic theological language – as if ‘more spiritual' a view of Jesus than the descriptions in the Synoptic gospels. John paints a more mystical and spiritual portrait of Jesus . Jesus was the divine word of God who existed with God before he appeared on earth. The Gospel of John has long monologues by Jesus which are clearly creations of the gospel author talking about the significance of Jesus for the early Christian community; and these appeared in long Shakespearean-like monologues which were statements of faith. For example the “I am the way the truth and the life” sequence; and the “I am the bread of life” sequence were examples of dramatic statements of early Christian faith – like hymns or texts to be said in liturgies.
Each of the Gospels gives a different portrait. Each has a different emphasis related to the context and purposes of the author. The literary scholars are unravelling these contexts and purposes. The 4 gospel portraits need to be taken together and not played off against each other as if John was the latest therefore the most important. For a while there was some anxiety and uncertainty about John's Gospel because it had some similarities with Gnostic literature. The Gnostics were about secret knowledge and some were regarded as being heretical in the early Christian church.
The apocryphal gospel literature – the other gospels that were not accepted officially into the Christian collection of canon of gospels
In the discussion of Jesus in the Gospels, there is also a need to note that there were a number of other gospels written at the time like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalen etc. These were not accepted by the early Christian church as the ones that they regarded as specially inspired by God (the 4 canonical gospels). The ones that were not accepted were known as the apocryphal gospels. They are part of a wider body of literature call the Apocrypha. There were also some Hebrew Bible apocryphal books that are not included in what the Catholic Church regarded as the canon of the Hebrew Bible or old Testament.
The number of new Testament scholars have set out to try to reconstruct what they think the historical Jesus would have been like. This rests primarily on historical literary criticism of the new Testament. It also takes into account sociopolitical and cultural data about the times of Jesus as well as looking into archaeological material.
These scholars have come up with a theories about what the historical Jesus was like.
if you have time you might briefly look at a little of what is said about this topic by two of the significant scholars, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.
Students could do this as a research project. They can write up their interpretations and these could be discussed in class. Materials from and information about a number of Jesus films and pertinent documentaries can be readily searched and found these days on YouTube.
Preliminary work: It would be important to have done some work on the formation of the Christian Gospels, as noted earlier in this text, before doing the film study. The students would need to know before looking at Jesus films that the Gospels themselves – the prime records of Jesus – are not strictly historical documents in the same sense that we would talk about factual / historical / scientific documents today.
One of the crucial learning points from the study could be the following issue: filmic representations of Jesus often depend much on the realism that films naturally convey. If the Jesus films follow the literal meaning of the text in the Gospels, they may end up missing the point of the Gospels are not primarily historical – they are primarily theological expressing the faith of the early Christian community in the risen Jesus . And the Gospels, especially the 3 Synoptic gospels, even though they have many stories about Jesus' life, are really stories of his life rewritten from the perspective of the post-Easter Jesus – the Christ of faith. As discussed earlier, the Gospels are more about the Christ of faith than they are about the Jesus of history .
The students may even give some consideration to the possibility that the realism in the Jesus films tends to reinforce a literal and perhaps fundamentalist interpretation of the Scripture ; and this might inhibit their capacity to focus on the theological and faith messages that are primary are the primary concerns of the Gospels.
NOTE: There is no need to follow all the links to film clips. Just cover the main ones as indicated, and look at any others according to interest and time you may have available.
The earliest Christian films from the late 19 th century
Look at the first short extract from the documentary film – Jesus Christ movie star . This helps show how the Christian churches were the first to strongly embrace the possibility of the use of film for recruiting people to a cause or belief system . The churches used films in the late 19 th and in the 20 th centuries to promote Christianity and for reinforcing the faith of Christians. It may well have been that they thought that a strict, literal, factual and scientific like presentation of the life of Jesus would invite faith and would reinforce faith. How might this question be looked at critically today?
After the silent films -- sound and colour films of Jesus from the 1950s onwards
NOTE: The next part of the sequence would be to get students to look at the extracts from two particular films – The Robe and Ben Hur .
NOTE on showing the face of Jesus in film: After making their interpretation of what the directors were trying to project about Jesus in these two scenes, the question can be asked as to why do these films not show the face of Jesus? Why does the audience only get to see the back of Jesus or Jesus in the distance? It can then be explained that after the controversies relating to the W Griffiths Intolerance , and other films about Jesus in the 1920s and 1930s, the British Film Board of Censorship made a ruling that films about Jesus should not show the face of Jesus close up because this might lead to possible manipulation. This was an agreed requirement that the film industry generally kept to. And you could still see this influence in both the Robe and the Ben Hur scenes showing encounters with Jesus.
It was not until the remake of King of Kings in 1961 by MGM Studios that this ruling was no longer adhered to. The producers of King of Kings went to many Christian church leaders, persuading them that the film about Jesus would make him better known world wide. They suggested that the film would be helpful for the cause of the church by making Jesus more widely known and more popular. The church leaders agreed and he was able to show the face of the character portraying Christ in the film without the ban coming into effect. The producers proposed that the film would have an evangelising contribution to the churches. Before this for many years, no Jesus film was allowed to show the face of Jesus.
Some clips from other Jesus films
Realism and symbolism and theology in the Jesus films??
Something different -- the play the Son of Man -- see the discussion below about realism
One of the natural difficulties I have when looking at the Jesus films and stage productions is that it is telling a story that I already know. This is different from the situation where I am watching a new story for the first time. When I see or hear something that conflicts with the understanding I already have of the Jesus story in the Scriptures, then this creates a problem for me. For example: I know that the infancy narratives are not strictly historical. They were created late in the development of the Gospels and were primarily symbolic – about Jesus being the light of the world and in stark contrast with the powerful figure Caesar Augustus. So when I see the infancy being projected in a realistic 'documentary-like' fashion, it does not seem to fit with my understandings of the Gospels. However, the story as it is told still has lots of meaning for people apart from the symbolic meaning intended by the Gospel author. For example the humility of Jesus being born in a stable. This is consistent with the way Jesus presented himself in life – he was not a politically powerful figure seeking more power.
So for me there is a problem with a projection of Jesus that seems to be implying realism that conflicts with what I would understand as how the real historical Jesus would have presented himself.
The natural expectation you might have of a Jesus film and a Jesus stage production would be that you would get some insight into what the historical Jesus would have been like. But again you naturally have the problems with the Gospels which are theological and symbolic documents of faith -- much like dramatic plays articulating the faith of the early Christian communities, and not documentaries about Jesus.
So you can understand why the clip above with Jesus using the words from John's gospel in a sermon at the lake is not very engaging for me, because I know this is not how the real historical Jesus spoke. Whereas in Superstar the intrigue and drama, the tension and betrayal that is built up in the production seem to me to capture in a rock opera format something of the drama of the last days of Jesus. I would not expect that the stage production has to try to be perfectly congruent with what is said in the Gospels to be both challenging and engaging (for example the special new role given to Judas in Superstar).
On the other hand, the play Son of man by Dennis Potter which set out to explore how Jesus may have felt about what was going on in his life seem to me a valuable attempt to explore the personal drama of the Jesus of history. So in this instance, the realism of the documentary -like feel of the play seems to be appropriate for exploring what the author felt might have been the conflicting feelings of Jesus the man.
In Godspell and in Superstar there seems to me to be some congruence between the symbolic/theological trajectory of the Gospels and the symbolic/rock opera format of the stage production. It was clearly not intended to be accurate in the sense of a contemporary documentary. Viewers can readily see that Godspell is like the celebration of faith in Jesus by a Christian community. It is not setting out to give a documentary -like account of the life of Jesus. And so the actual words of Matthew's Gospel fit into the presentation quite comfortably – a congruence between symbolism in the Gospels and symbolism in the stage production. And you can see why for many of the Jesus films I think there is a lack of congruence between the original Gospel documents and the way their Gospel language has been used as if it were the real words used by Jesus in a contemporary documentary about his life.
So it seems to me that we can learn a lot from looking critically at both the films and stage productions to do with the life of Jesus.
If I had to pick which were the most engaging and enjoyable presentations, I would opt for Godspell, Superstar, the Son of man and Pasolini's Gospel of Matthew. I did not like either of the film versions of Godspell and superstar – for me they seemed to stray too far from the natural symbolism and imaginative performances, and the intimacy of the presentations in the stage productions by moving the sets too much larger geographical locations. When the stage plays were enacted on a stage rather than on location sites, the imagery and symbolism seem to come through more strongly and imaginatively. In the stage production of Godspell, there were no complicated sets -- just a few carpenter's tools and a small fence around stage. The Jesus character was dressed as a clown and many of the gospel stories from the Gospel of Matthew were enacted in mine-like form.
The subtle point that might be made here for senior students is that the Gospels were written like dramatic plays with highly polished theological language (even in simple words). The dramatic Gospel texts could be read in liturgical settings. When the Gospel texts were transferred to the 'realism context' of many of the Jesus films, somehow, in my opinion, the drama and some of the symbolism and theology got lost in the descriptive and documentary-like portrayal of Jesus. As noted above, Jesus did not give long sermons like "I am the bread of life etc." "I am the light of the world etc." These Christian faith statements, were put on the lips of Jesus by the by the early Christian community associated with the writing of the Gospel of St John, articulating what was their committed faith interpretation of Jesus as saviour. These images and symbols were used to elaborate their theological faith position. They were never simple records of what Jesus might have actually said. So with many of the Jesus films you have a conflict between the dramatic, theological and symbolic characteristics of the Gospel texts and the way they have been forced to function like realistic descriptions of the events in Jesus' life. For me this tends to create a discontinuity between the purposes of the Gospel texts and the way in which they have been used descriptively in some Jesus films.
Whereas, in the stage plays Godspell and Superstar, the story is portrayed with a lot of drama and symbolism and it is perhaps this dramatic symbolism that is more in tune with the theological/symbolic/faith purposes of the gospel texts. So between the presentation of Godspell and superstar and the purposes of the dramatic gospel texts you have a degree of congruence.
He was committed to the welfare of the 'little people' and to helping them understand that God was like their father. And it was this fidelity that was a life-saving example of people as to how to make sense of their lives in the light of Jesus' life. The Gospels never give the impression that it was Jesus' suffering that was redemptive. In the Gospel of John, you get an impression that the passion is something of a triumphal procession that Jesus is leading on the way to the cross.
So students could be helped to see that the emphasis given to the pain and suffering of Jesus in Mel Gibson's film had little to do with the reality of the early Christian communities' memories of who Jesus was and what he meant to them. Even the Stations of the cross, which dwell on the suffering of Jesus did not come from the early Christian church or the Gospels. The devotion of the stations of the cross evolved from the mediaeval Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem remembering the passion and death of Jesus as related to sites in Jerusalem. It appears that the word stations of the cross did not formally appear until the mid-15th century.
Some people today and some cultures still cultivate a special interest in the suffering of Jesus. You can see people in the Philippines who walk the whole length of the church on their knees in memory of the suffering of Jesus and the suffering is often evident in the portraits and statues of Jesus which can seem to overemphasise the suffering. The point to be made for the students is that this is not part of the core Christian message about Jesus as saviour.
Some additional references