Eyewitness to Jesus
Can’t Be Pinned Down

Just to bring everyone up to speed…

The last hundred years or so of biblical manuscript scholarship has generally eroded confidence in the historicity of New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life and words.  Where at one time the broader Western culture took it for granted that Jesus was a real man who lived and breathed in First Century Judea—even that he worked miracles, died, came back to life, and ascended into heaven—general culture today regards these claims with skepticism, at best, and often outright scorn. 

This erosion of opinion culminated in the late Twentieth Century with the “Jesus Seminar,” a coalition of nominal believers who nonetheless claim, as summarized in the Wikipedia article about the Seminar, that Jesus was a “mortal man born of two human parents” and that “Jesus did not perform nature miracles, die as a substitute for sinners nor rise bodily from the dead. Sightings of a risen Jesus were nothing more than the visionary experiences of some of his disciples rather than physical encounters.”  The Seminar’s findings were published from 1995 through 1999, and concluded that Jesus actually said very little of what’s attributed to Him in Scripture.

A fragment of the Mark manuscript in Eyewitness to JesusSo the makers of Eyewitness to Jesus can legitimately look on the work of the late German national archaeologist Carsten Thiede as iconoclastic.  Rather than working to erode the reliability of Scripture, Thiede enthusiastically worked to push the dating of papyrus manuscript fragments back into the “Eyewitness Period” of study: the period from Christ’s birth through the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.—that is, the period when those who actually knew Jesus might have plausibly constructed first-person accounts of his life and words.  As it is, scholarly consensus (such as it also is) can only date the earliest fragment of Scripture to the late Second Century. 

The upshot, of course, is the question the filmmakers ask through their narrator: “Can we believe what we read in these books?”  A great deal is at stake in quarrels over manuscript analysis.

As Wikipedia’s entry on biblical manuscripts notes, “Palaeography is the study of ancient writing, and textual criticism is the study of manuscripts in order to reconstruct a probable original text.”  Carsten Thiede’s work with three small papyrus fragments discovered in a display case at Oxford’s Magdalen College—interestingly, the home of the famed Inklings, which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien—deals with both paleography and textual criticism, both fascinating areas of study.

So that’s kind of the interesting part of this documentary, originally produced in episodes for The Travel Channel.  As long as the narrator—and also the documentary’s “guide,” newspaper editor Matthew d’Ancona—keeps us focused on the papyri themselves and the work of scribes and analysts, we’re on compelling ground.

Where we get off in the weeds is the travelogue nature of the story.  Sure, I’m always fascinated with Egyptian and Israeli archaeological sites.  I’m also always game for great travel photography.  But when I buy a case of root beer, I don’t like opening up the box to cans of orange soda.  The vast majority of this film’s running time deals not with the central issue at all—the Magdalen Papyrus (P64) and its provenance—but with d’Ancona’s rather milquetoast travels.

Both the script and Thiede’s conclusions are also mired in consistent speculation.  I tired, for instance, of repeatedly hearing how original manuscript discoverer Charles Bousfield Huleatt “must have” thought or done thus and such.  If you don’t know what a person did or thought, you really can’t be sure, much less make hard-and-fast conclusions. 

The same goes for Thiede’s extrapolations of logic: just because we know that one manuscript (or even most) originated as a scroll and was then copied to a codex (leaves bound in book form), that doesn’t mean the text on the codex leaf P64 also originated as a scroll, thereby, by extension, “pushing” the date of the original text back further into the Eyewitness Period.  (From what I can gather, the two-sided fragments also might have been from an “opisthograph,” a two-sided scroll.  This possibility is never broached in this documentary.”)

It doesn’t help when the script makes historical errors, either, such as when we are told that the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tut was “discovered in Huleatt’s time.”  The claim is not only incorrect but contradictory to what we are told earlier in the program.

Thiede, d’Ancona, and the filmmakers all want very badly to come up with an airtight claim for a manuscript that falls into the Eyewitness Period—but their passion leads to a fairly shoddy (and dull) documentary… one that is nonetheless not without its intrigue and appeal.  If you’re into light archaeological fare, this program might appeal to you.  Just don’t swallow everything it offers without doing some reading on your own… advice I might also give to those who scoff at Scripture.

Still, it’s encouraging that this is a mainstream TV and DVD release, and not something out of the Christian niche market.  Kudos to Gaiam and The Travel Channel for not bowing to the gatekeepers of our culture.

Eyewitness to Jesus is unrated.  Totally G, though.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional copy of Eyewitness to Jesus.