WHY did Jesus have to die? Good Friday TV offered two contrasting approaches to this central theme. The more substantial, and the more radical, was Last Days of Jesus (Channel 5). It was a curiously hybrid work, deriving its sensation from the political conspiracy theory of Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson.
Jacobovici in particular is ruthless in his attitude to the Gospels: their Holy Week narrative, he proclaims, does not make sense — but now he can offer us the key to unlock the mysteries that so irritate him. Why was Jesus not immediately arrested when he cleansed the Temple? How could the crowd turn against him in so short a time? Why was Pontius Pilate eager to release Jesus?
His answer is that the preacher from Nazareth is a pawn in a political power-game based in Rome. Emperor Tiberias allows the brilliant Sejanus virtual rule over the empire; Sejanus uses Herod Antipas as a useful ally for his ambition; Herod Antipas finds Jesus the ideal partner in his aspiration to rule Judaea: Jesus will neutralise the power of the Temple priesthood. Jesus’s followers, we know, included people high up in Antipas’s court.
These interlocking interests stayed the hand of the priests and Pilate: Jesus was central to everyone’s future hopes. Only when Sejanus was executed did the whole house of cards collapse. Now Jesus was of no value to anyone who mattered, and he was crucified.
I have spelt out this farrago at ill-deserved length because, however far-fetched, it does encourage the serious questions we should ask. What appropriate kind of scrutiny should we apply to the Gospels?
Among other omissions, I was, as a former student of John Robinson, struck by the failure to address his thesis that the Fourth Gospel’s far more complex chronological narrative, in which Jesus visited Jerusalem several times, and cleansed the Temple at the outset of his ministry, might reflect a more accurate account than the Synoptics’ grand sweep of a single progress culminating in the Holy City.
My overall impression was that those who put the programme together did not have the theological and scholarly expertise to handle the material.
Fern Britton’s Holy Land Journey (BBC1) was a far more orthodox account. She acknowledged the discrepancies between the Gospel accounts, ascribed their writing to decades after the events they recount, and consulted archaeologists and scholars; yet she explicitly stated that she would present her own version of a single chronology.
Academically thin, it was nevertheless engaging and effective. By way of climax, she returned to a long-established tattoo parlour and had a small cross tattooed on her wrist. My irritation with this tawdry souvenir of a visit to Jerusalem subsided as I considered: how else should Good Friday affect us, if not to mark us with the sign of the cross?