Sunday 1 April 2001
BBC's own expert attacks Jesus series
By Jonathan Petre
SON of God, the BBC's flagship series about Jesus, has been attacked by the leading theologian who acted as a consultant on the project for portraying Christ as "a politically correct social worker".
Canon Tom Wright, the Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, also accuses the BBC programme of being historically flawed and potentially offensive to Jews. The canon said the corporation had ignored critical aspects about Christ's life because of fears that the issues would be too "difficult" for viewers.
He said he had been "devastated by the omissions" and that the programme-makers had rejected his pleas to explain Jesus's core conviction that God was about to inaugurate a new kingdom on earth, the key to understanding his life and death. He added that the three-part documentary, which begins tonight and culminates on Easter Sunday, "got a lot of it right" and provided real insights into Christ's life, but overemphasised "political relevance".
Canon Wright, the chairman of the Historical Jesus section of the international Society of Biblical Literature, said: "There was plenty wrong with the wealthy and oppressive aristocracy, but Jesus's movement was far more than another centre-Left protest march.
"He was saying that God's new day was dawning and that now everything was going to be different. Unfortunately, the BBC didn't want to know about that. Their audience wouldn't understand it, they said. But without it, they won't understand the rest either."
The programme stresses Jesus's opposition to the strict purity laws upheld by the wealthy class of chief priests, and his sympathy with the sick and disabled who were pushed to the margins of society. The canon said, however, that it was in danger of making Jesus sound anti-Jewish, "which is historically absurd as well as offensive and dangerous".
The series, which uses computer technology to recreate first-century Palestine, will include a reconstruction of a contemporary Jewish skull, which the programme-makers believe closely resembles that of Christ. Presented by Jeremy Bowen, the series challenges assumptions about Jesus's life and death, suggesting, for example, that he may have colluded in his "betrayal" by Judas and that he may have been drugged on the cross to make him appear dead.
The comments from the canon, who was one of two consultants relied on by the BBC to add academic weight to the series, will embarrass the corporation. Senior executives had hoped that the programmes, the most lavish ever produced by its religious broadcasting department, would allay criticism from the Church that it has been trivialising or marginalising Christianity.
Canon Wright, the author of four books on the historical Jesus, said he was not particularly worried about the "flaky bits" of the programmes, such as the reconstruction of Jesus's face or the theory that Judas was doing Jesus "a favour" when he turned him over to the Romans.
He said: "But at least we should have got the heart of it right. Jesus was announcing that God was at last becoming king in the way Israel had always wanted, and he saw his own work as bringing that kingdom into being. Trying to discuss Jesus without saying something like this is like trying to talk about Tony Blair without mentioning New Labour."
He said that there was a great deal in the series that made historical sense, "but it still falls far short of a fully historical picture of Jesus". Michael Wakelin, the co-producer of the series, said that Canon Wright had played an "enormously important" part in the series, but the programme could not cover every angle.
He said: "In the context of a popular prime-time television programme on BBC1, our emphasis has had to be accessibility. We've dealt with a number of serious theological issues in a very interesting way. But not everything that scholarship can give us can fit into three, 50-minute programmes.
"Every form of telling the story will simplify it in some way. Hopefully, we can take both believers and non-believers to the story of Jesus, and challenge both of them." Meanwhile, ITV will begin its own controversial series on the life of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Called The Apostles, the 10-part series, which will be presented by Melvyn Bragg, will question traditional views about who the followers of Jesus were.
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