CHANNEL 4 screened, on Sunday of last week, a programme that surely escaped from its Holy Week/Easter schedule; but Jesus’s Female Disciples: The new evidence was worth waiting for.
I say this with some reservation, because the documentary fell into a number of the genre’s pitfalls: too emphatic a commentary; too much material presented as though no one had ever noticed it before; and over-dramatisation. It was cast as a road movie, with the New Testament scholars Professor Helen Bond and Professor Joan Taylor channelling Thelma and Louise as they journeyed through Jerusalem, Galilee, Naples, and Rome to resolve the tantalisingly slight gospel references to women followers of Jesus.
They focused on Mary of Magdala; Joanna, the wife of Chuza; and Salome. What they said about them will not be news to anyone who studies theology, but will be a sensational revelation to 99.9 per cent of paid-up Christians, so hopeless are we at communicating to our flock the fruits of scholarship.
They could, perhaps, have more clearly spelled out the basic concept that all four Gospels present a cleaned-up and formalised account of what happened, already fashioned to, for example, parallel the Old Testament narratives — in this case, to suppress the centrality of women in Jesus’s ministry.
They demonstrated this process in the story of the Early Church, with a depressing series of funerary-casket carvings of the raising of Lazarus: as time goes on, Mary and Martha are progressively pushed out of the frame until they disappear altogether.
I think that Bond and Taylor’s theses is essentially right, and the film would engender fruitful discussion at a Bible-study group. It closed with a moving sequence: by the miracle of CGI, the Apostles’ statues on the façade of St Peter’s, Rome, were joined, one by one, by statues of an equal number of women.
The patriarchal impulse of Rome was equally the villain in Bacchus Uncovered: Ancient god of ecstasy (BBC4, Wednesday of last week). Bettany Hughes made a compelling plea for the central significance of the god of wine. She contrasted the Apollonian virtues of sober rational intellect with the Dionysiac celebration of subversive and chaotic imagination. For classical Greeks, the controlled drunkenness of the symposium led to ecstasy — ekstasis — the ability to stand outside yourself and gain new and vital perspective.
Romans came to see Bacchic rites as unacceptably controlled by women; so they were suppressed by the male authorities. Hughes was alert to the parallels between the cult and Christianity, where communal wine-drinking is central to the fellowship, worshipping a god both human and divine, and showed how the two fed off and influenced each other.
Another splendid and provocative film well worth showing to your Bible-study group — if you dare.