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Diminishing shelf-life of Brian

03 June 2016

Would teenagers get the jokes today, asks Anthony Phillips


Jesus and Brian: Exploring the historical Jesus and his times via Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”
Joan E. Taylor, editor
Bloomsbury £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

IN JUNE 2014, the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College, London, hosted a conference, “Jesus and Brian”, or “What have the Pythons done for us?” — the “us” being scholars of Jesus and his times. This volume, edited by the Conference organiser contains 16 papers from a distinguished group of international biblical scholars.

The first part concentrates on the film in its cinematic context, its reception, and its challenges, while the second considers history and interpretation via Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979).

As more than one contributor notes, reaction to the film was skewed from the beginning because Malcom Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, in a notorious television discussion with John Cleese and Michael Palin, never realised that Jesus and Brian were two distinct people, and were convinced that the film was mocking Christ. So a golden opportunity to engage with a wider non-church audience was missed, and the film went on to be widely condemned by Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious leaders. But far from being blasphemous, as Adele Reinhartz points out, “The humour of the Life of Brian requires a conventional, dare I say, saccharine depiction of Jesus.”

In a judicious foreword, Paul Joyce considers the value of “reception history” for biblical studies — a process begun within the Bible itself — and the method of exegesis championed by the Conference’s organisers using the Life of Brian to look back at the ancient world and the Gospel narratives.

In her introduction, Joan Taylor admits that the film is subversive, but “we need the subversion.” Or, as Bart Ehrman puts it, “Sometimes shocked discomfiture can be a very good thing.” How right they are. Unhappily, the Church has lost its sense of humour and forgotten that God is well able to look after himself.

In a short review, one cannot do justice to the breadth of the contributors’ papers. But two main themes appear. The first is the insistence that individuals must think for themselves, unencumbered by church baggage, though, as James Crossley ironically notes, this emphasis on individualism had its contemporary political corollary in the rise of Thatcherism. Yet, while blind acceptance of what one is told is certainly to be rejected, and no area of honest inquiry should be ruled out of court, has the Church still not got a part to play in teaching the faithful?

But a more important result of reflecting on the film is the recognition of just how little we know about the historical Jesus, even as Helen Bond points out about the death of Jesus, despite the lengthy descriptions in the Gospels. Indeed, if we are honest, the film makes us realise that the Jesus of the Gospel narratives could not have been like that. They are the work of first-century theologians with their own agenda, which is projected back on to their picture of Jesus of Nazareth.

George Brooke points out that this is true, too, of the Teacher of Righteousness in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Or, as Philip Davies puts it, traditions are converted into historical facts. Indeed, Crossley speculates that “taking Monty Python’s approach one stage further in the quest for a weirder, crazier and comical Brian may have made for a more likely historical Jesus.”

The Pythons have done the Church a huge service, which she ignores at her peril. While many may feel that not much has changed since the Life of Brian was released, at least this conference and the resulting book provide a glimmer of hope. But, for this reviewer, the saddest comment in these papers comes from Richard Burridge, who notes that this film could never be made today, because of the poverty of our general education, and the widespread ignorance of the Gospel story itself. What would “Blessed are the cheesemakers” signify for today’s teenagers?


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

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