Reconstructing Brian

4 July 2014 Catholic Herald

…the scholars bedazzled by Monty Python


Ehrman says the ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’ scene was ‘a parody of eyewitness reliability’ 

Is Jesus big business? The thought seems close to blasphemy, but the figures don’t lie, because the “Jesus industry” is thriving.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been generated from the subject of the “historical Jesus” – from Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ,  Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and last year’s bestseller, Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus to thousands of other recent books, documentaries, movies, newspapers and magazines. Indeed, so much “new research” has been produced in the last few decades that it’s difficult to imagine that there are any new angles left to explore — or to exploit — depending on your point of view.  However, fresh ground was covered at the end of June when a controversial religious film was the centrepiece of “cutting edge” New Testament research presented at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities. Over three days, the Department of Theology & Religious Studies at King’s College, London, staged “Jesus and Brian: a conference exploring the Historical Jesus and his Times, via Monty Python’s Life of Brian.”

Although there’s been engagement within academia with popular culture for some time, especially in the study of religion and the arts, the idea of using such a controversial film came as a shock to me.  When the Pythons released the film in 1979, it provoked strong protest and calls of “blasphemy” from various religious groups. Indeed, so extreme was the furious response in some quarters that Ireland banned it for eight years.  The film tells the story of the fictitious Brian Cohen paralleling the life of Jesus. Brian was born in Bethlehem on the same night as Jesus; grew up in Nazareth next door to Jesus; and ended up being crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem.  However, as one of the speakers, Professor James Crossley of Sheffield University pointed out, Brian does take on the role of an historical Jesus. The film, like the 17 papers given at the conference, showed Jesus/Brian in the social and political background of 1st century Galilee and Jerusalem.

Professor Joan Taylor who organised the event stressed that the conference wasn’t about what the film got right or wrong, but how it could be used as a scholarly tool to help sharpen interpretations or to provoke new perspectives.  “It enables us to widen our view and prompts new perspectives and explorations.”

Professor Bart Ehrman, author of four New York Times bestsellers including Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted, took this point even further.  He explained how parody and caricature (which he was keen to distinguish from its destructive cousin, mockery) can act as a spring board to highlight important aspects of historical realities.  “Parody over-emphasises trivialities in order to give an enhanced but truthful account.”

Each speaker connected or contrasted their research with an aspect of the film.  Papers ranged from the history of Roman Judaea, artistic images of Jesus, bible studies, blasphemy laws to contradictions and errors in the Gospels. Three papers in particular used special scenes from of the film to enhance reality while comparing aspects of New Testament studies.   While Aaron Rosen of King’s College showed artistic representations of Jesus that were more shocking that anything in the Life of Brian, David Tollerton of Exeter University explored the ways that the notion of blasphemy has long been used to enforce the boundaries of free-speech.  Although the blasphemy laws were repealed in 2008, he told how some people consider that the 2006 Race and Religious Hatred Act is its later day incarnation. The archaeologist, Guy Stiebel, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in his paper, Romanti Ite Domum: Identity and Expressions of Resistance in Judaea” showed material on Roman Masada including a photograph of a crude icon – a large clay Roman phallus which had recently been dug up there.  To illustrate the public relations goals of the ruler who built the massive fortress at Masada, Herod the Great, Stiebel surprised the audience with bare-chested images of Vladimir Putin displaying his physical prowess. Joan Taylor commented that this was “this was prompted by the humour of the film…it encouraged scholars to be provocative in the ideas they shared.”

The most provocative of all the papers, though, was given by Ehrman who not only challenged eyewitness accounts, but also queried the Gospel stories of the burial of Jesus. He discussed the film’s irreverent version of the Sermon on the Mount when a casual bystander mangles so that Jesus’s words “Blessed are the peacemakers,” becomes, “Blessed are the cheese-makers.” Ehrman explained that it was “a parody of eyewitness reliability”.  He’d earlier explained to me how the “Gospels go back to eyewitness accounts but rarely is it asked what it was like to be an eye witness then when there were large crowds and no microphones.”

“Memory can be extremely faulty. There’s lots of data backing up the theory of the unreliability of eyewitness accounts.  Eye witnesses often miss-experience things and miss-remember things.  So to say that the gospels go back to witnesses is not a guarantee of their accuracy as is often unproblematically assumed.”

Indeed, Ehrman argues that as all the Gospels were written 40 to 65 years after the death of Jesus they cannot be relied on as accurate portrayals. “The ability of ancient bards to remember texts required those texts to be fixed in the first place — eyewitnesses are far from reliable. Indeed, the Gospels themselves weren’t written by eye-witnesses – and don’t claim to be.”

Ehrman next challenged the plausibility of the Star of Bethlehem being seen in the sky at the time of the birth of Jesus. He told the audience that he instructs his students, “Go out and see if you can find which star is directly over your own house.”

Equally provocative was Ehrman’s questioning of whether Jesus was actually buried, given that many victims then were left on crosses, as shown in the film. The Roman practice was to leave bodies out as carrion (contemporary references mention carrion ‘feeding off victims and that “the crucified were sustaining many birds”).  He backed this up with further arguments about Roman laws and practices.

The Revd Professor Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College and Professor of Biblical Interpretation, summed up the conference noting that the Life of Brian has stood the test of time as it is now part of public consciousness. It is frequently cited in Top 10 Comedies and regularly appears on bucket lists such as one of the “1000 movies you must see before you die”.  But perhaps the most telling evidence of the film’s impact is not its enduring popularity over the past 35 years but that it’s now part of historical Jesus scholarship.