TV Review: The Story of Jesus

25/04/11 | Posted by MattPage

Easter is always the time of year when the TV channels figure they should stick out a bit of religious programming and this year proved no exception. There was Anne Widdecombe pondering the future of Christinanity, Rowan Williams wondering about the point of forgiveness, an ITV documentary on the flight of faith and the movies The Prince of Egypt and Barabbas on the BBC and Channel 5 . But arguably the biggest piece of religious programming this year was BBC1's two-part documentary The Story of Jesus.


Documentaries like this are usually presented by a single (generally photogenic) academic who feigns ignorance of their own subject as they burn up the air miles interviewing their colleagues in semi-exotic locations. So it was nice to see a significant shift in the way this one was structured. Rather than having just the one presenter there were nine, and the narration was provided by Poirot actor David Suchet.

The start of the series began by looking at how reliable the gospels are. Ex-Bishop of Durham Tom Wright explained how the earliest scraps of the gospels we have are from far closer to the date the originals were written than any other documents from the time, such as those about Roman Emperors. .

The focus then moved onto moving through Jesus’ life in order starting with the nativity story. There’s talk of Herod and the Magi and Cambridge University’s Simon Gathercole suggests that the reason the Star of Bethlehem is mentioned is because it fits a prophecy from the Old Testament, Numbers 24:17 “a star has come out of Jacob”. It then moves on through the life of Jesus, life in Nazareth and the nearby city Sepphoris, learning the ropes under John the Baptist, his miracles and radical political message, and finally his death and resurrection.

As the various points are being made, or verses are being read out they are illustrated with dramatised footage and it’s generally very good. The lighting, filters and film stock result in high quality footage and the choice of predominantly near / middle-eastern actors (or those of near / middle eastern descent) gives an extra sense of realism. Mary here is perhaps the most convincing looking Mary I’ve seen, and Jesus, played by Selva Raslingam is about as far from the normal movie-star Jesus as you can get.

Overall The Story of Jesus is a solid introduction to Jesus’ life, handsomely photographed and well acted, deftly providing a traditional view of the story of Jesus and his extraordinary life. So many recent religious documentaries have tended to focus on more radical scholars with their unconventional views that it was actually quite refreshing to see one presenting things in a way most people would expect. Whilst it would have been nice to have the odd dissenting voice to give a bit of breadth,  it’s good to see a TV documentary that is unafraid to be unsensational in terms of content whilst exploring fresh approaches in terms of style.

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Unfortunately poor scholarship and attention grabbing soundbites now mean that the ‘traditional’ message is actually the ‘radical’ one! If only broadcasters could be more courageous in showing more of this ‘dissenting’ message!

#1. By Tim Nurse on April 28, 2011

I watched the first episode the other night on iplayer.  My wife and I are due to watch the second tonight.

I think that one approach - where the comely host in her attractive green blouse or the slightly wierd fellow in the strange hat do their level best to defeat the idea of “what most people expect” is not necessarily improved by a group of scholars doing their level best to feed the idea of “what most people expect”.

Neither approach does justice to the reasonable scholarship that is out there and the radical nature of Jesus’ message.  After the “hidden buried secrets of the Bible” (none of which were in any way hidden or buried), the BBC believed it owed the public a more conservative undertaking which it has now delivered - thus ticking both boxes.

cynical in Scotland

#2. By Raspberry Rabbit on April 29, 2011

Weak scholarship, swamped by crass visuals and bland music made this a pretentious hybrid with nothing new to offer… come on BBC!

#3. By Bloobeard on May 17, 2011




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