Biblical Documentaries

I’m not religious, but I’ve been watching a lot of TV about the Bible lately.  National Geographic Channel, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel and even PBS have been showing some fascinating shows about the Bible in recent years.  Last night I watched “Jesus’ Tomb” from the National Geographic Channel’s Mysteries of the Bible series.  Mysteries of the Bible is an entertaining series, but their episodes are no match compared to “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” that appeared on PBS’s NOVA a few weeks ago.  All these documentaries vary greatly in quality, and that’s what I want to talk about.

It’s hard to discuss shows about the Bible without ruffling religious feathers.  I love science and history shows, and these biblical documentaries combine archeology and anthropology with history, to explain the origins of western civilization.   So, when I analyze these programs, I’m not dealing with the related spiritual issues, and for the most part, that’s how the documentary makers work too.  They often try to compare what is written in the Bible with what we know from historical research and from scientific studies.

If you watch these shows you’ll learn a lot, but if you hold certain religious beliefs dear, some ideas presented might annoy you.  Don’t get me wrong, I think religious folk are the intended audience, because atheists who like Bible history, like me, are not that common.  But I’m guessing most of these shows try hard to walk the razor’s edge when it comes to controversial issues of faith.

When watching any documentary you have to analyze the producer’s motive.  Many filmmakers start with a cherish idea of their own and do all they can to document the proof of their belief.  Others pick an interesting mystery and try very hard to be impartial.  One way to judge a film is if it examines the obvious questions that come to your mind while watching.  Last night’s show, “Jesus’ Tomb” avoided several issues that popped into my head while watching.

Another way to measure the quality of these TV documentaries is track how often they repeat images or ideas.  These one-hour shows actually have about 45-50 minutes of show-time versus the remainder of an hour to fill with commercials.  Some shows are stretched by constantly repeating material both visually and verbally.  I don’t know if it’s because the show’s producers don’t have enough content, or they think we’re stupid and their viewers need constant reiteration to actually comprehend their discoveries, or they figure most viewers are channel surfing and they want to make sure those drive-by watchers get hooked with the high points.

If repetition is because of the channel flippers, I hope TV producers stop that practice quick.  It’s not fair for the serious viewers of their shows to have to be bombarded with sing-song phrases, and psychedelic video flashbacks.  I don’t mind shows repeating a complex concept in different ways to help people to understand, but to flat out say and show the same words and pictures over and over again is just damn annoying.  One reason PBS documentaries often seem head and shoulders above the documentaries on all the other channels is because they don’t have commercials to interrupt their flow, so PBS shows don’t do that say it five times song and dance crap.

Another thing commercial driven channels do is spend too much of their times before and after commercials presenting teases for what’s to come.  Last night’s one-hour show, “Jesus’ Tomb” could easily have been a nice 30-minute documentary.  If they had put in 20 more minutes of genuine content, it would have been a very good hour show even with commercials.  And all my criticisms could have been answered in those twenty minutes too.

One thing I love about these biblical documentaries is they show video of where historical events took place.  Seeing all the various kinds of tombs cut out of rock in last night’s show was a great way to illustrate the Bible.  The filmmakers interviewed scholars about Jewish burial practices of the time, checked with what archeologists were finding, quoted related biblical verses, and showed how various beliefs came down through history in stories, paintings, and religious beliefs.  Last night’s show did a pretty good job of exploring why and how Jesus might have been put in a nearby tomb, but I was left with a bunch of questions for the filmmakers, even at their simple level.

How common was it to put people in those small tombs cut into solid rock?  If it was very common, wouldn’t there be millions of them in Israel?  To the spiritually minded, the important issue is the resurrection of Jesus.  For that story to work a tomb is a good stage, but would a common criminal be buried in a tomb?  (That’s what the Romans and Jewish leaders thought of him.) The show spent a lot of time exploring how and why Jesus’ body could have been removed from the tomb, but they didn’t explain two ways that popped into my mind.

Could some his followers have removed him and buried him elsewhere, not telling the women who found the tomb empty the next day?  And were there no grave-robbers in that time, even Romans who wanted to get rid of a martyr’s body?  Of course, for the spiritual story to work, Jesus’ body had to disappear, so does it really matter how?

And here’s the part of the show that the filmmakers avoided, but I wanted explored.  In the early parts of the Bible the concept of afterlife is missing.  The show did interview one scholar that said Jews of the time believed in the resurrection, and wanted their bodies gathered in ossuaries, but they believed all people would be returned to their bodies at the end of time.  For centuries Christians believed something like this too.  So when did the idea of dying and immediately going to heaven come about?

The point of Jesus’ tomb story is about resurrection.  Why couldn’t the show’s filmmaker spend twenty minutes on the history of this idea rather than repeating so much of the other information.  At what point in the history of mankind did people start thinking about living after death?  And is the story of Jesus and his tomb the pivotal point in history when this idea was born?  I’m not asking the filmmaker to state whether resurrection is possible or not possible, I just want the history and archeology of that idea.

Many of the biblical documentaries are quite timid on exploring the depth of an idea.  They love to bring up startling ideas, like another show that dealt with apocryphal stories of Jesus, including one where Jesus killed a child when he was a child himself.  They are not afraid to have National Enquirer headlines, but they don’t want to have scholarly expositions because that might bore people.

On the whole I find these shows very entertaining because of they usually give me a good deal of history I haven’t known about before, along with some nice video of archeological digs, science labs pursing arcane mysteries of ancient evidence, and interviews with fascinating scholars.  However, sometimes I think they throw in some interviews with wild-eyed theorists and fanatics too.

Studying the Bible is like studying the founding fathers of America, but the people of the Bible are the founding fathers of Western civilization.  So far these Bible documentary makers examine artifacts and compare them to Bible stories.  What I’d like to see is for them to examine the history of the mind of the people.  A history of psychological development.  Please show a history of the common ideas that arose during biblical times.  The NOVA show, “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” is a step in the right direction.

Understanding the early history of mankind is like researching our childhood to figure out how we came to be who we are.  Every age interprets the Bible anew, reinventing religion.  Most people ignore that or never knew that, and assume that current religious beliefs have always existed as they do now.  I want these biblical documentary historians to show how beliefs were different century by century and how the people were different because of their beliefs.  Some Christians hate the word evolution, but all the concepts we hold in our head are a product of evolution too.

God, Satan, Heaven, Hell, sin, redemption, charity, faith, etc., all started out as tiny one cell ideas in the mind of man and over the centuries have evolved into the dinosaur ideas they are today.  This season’s shows about Bible history barely touch on this, but I expect the biblical documentaries to evolve too.

JWH 12/17/8

One thought on “Biblical Documentaries”

  1. Unfortunately, TV is a terrible medium for almost anything requiring real thought or information. Every serious subject also requires a lot of background to truly appreciate, and TV audiences must be assumed to be blank slates, hence nothing too deep. And lots of titillation. This applies to nearly every subject, from biblical history, to science, to sea serpents, and UFOs. Notice how fast the History Channel morphed into monsters and wrestling?

    It seems to me that there have only been a handful of decent documentaries in my lifetime, mostly built in a series concept. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos comes to mind, Ken Burns, and some nature-oriented series. I’d love to see some things that approached the content you’d get in a high school course, or hell, even middle school.

    Having had some peripheral experience with science documentaries, I’d hazard the guess that the real problem is that the film makers rarely have much interest or expertise in their topics. When they do, it can be great, but mostly it’s a bunch of professional idiots who know a little about visual story telling and have gotten a job with some producer and insufficient time or money to do the job well.

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