by L. Michael White
L. Michael White is Professor of Classics and Director of the newly formed Religious Studies program at the University of Texas, Austin. He served as Principal Historical Adviser and Editorial Consultant to FRONTLINE's, From Jesus to Christ:The First Christians
The story of my involvement in the production of From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians goes back to December 1994, when I received a phone call from Marilyn Mellowes, a veteran producer at WGBH, who was working on a documentary about the historical Jesus entitled The Quest. Mellowes was committed to bringing the findings of New Testament scholarship to a public audience, and she invited me to consult with her on the project.
Our early conversations--in which we approached each other like explorers from two different worlds--turned into a collaboration that has lasted for three years. For months it was a long distance partnership by phone, fax, and e-mail. As we hammered out ideas, draft followed draft, punctuated by lengthy calls to discuss ideas and historical issues. Through the course of our discussions the focus of the series shifted from being exclusively about the historical Jesus to Jesus and the origins of Christianity. I had argued that the "quest" for the historical Jesus was only part of a larger story--that the figure of Jesus was really a part of the growth of the early Christian movement. The most intriguing story, in other words, was about this history itself and how the Jesus story came to be told.
By the spring of 1995 I had agreed to come on board as the principal historical consultant and editorial adviser. I spent a good part of that summer in Boston and Cambridge working on the preliminary series proposal. Mellowes and I consulted with the design department, floated tentative scripts by other writers, and pitched the ideas to the executives in charge. They had a good story, and they knew it. We worked out a detailed treatment in narrative form for each of the four hours. These narratives were correlated with a preliminary plan for on-location filming, key story points, artwork, and, most importantly, the "talking heads"--on-camera interviews with scholars. By the end of January 1996, we had completed a 200-page proposal that would eventually serve as the principal story-line for the series.
We knew that the story we were outlining would be an innovative series for TV. It was the greatest story never told--never, at least, in the popular media. It was the story of how the figure of Jesus came to be fashioned and refashioned through the historical development of the early Christian movement. It had to be true to the issues: the few facts known about Jesus' life or words and the critical problems in the composition of the Gospels; the fact that at first the Jesus movement was a sect within Judaism, a sect whose growing separation from Judaism reverberates through the first century of Christian history; the diversity inherent within Judaism and Christianity from the beginning and the social context of those early communities as they spread through the Roman world. To be true to these issues, and in sharp contrast to other documentaries, we decided to use little narration and to let interviews with scholars carry the weight of the story--including the disagreements and critical problems.
To this end, David Fanning, Senior Executive Producer of FRONTLINE, decided to go all out with the production by using an award-winning director of documentaries, William Cran, to give the series a distinctive visual style that is elegant, lush and captures the panorama of the land where early Christianity first arose. His genius for the visual grammar of film became an integral component.
Marilyn Mellowes had already consulted with a number of scholars at various stages in the process, and we put together a panel to vet the final proposal. At one stage the scholars we were considering for interviews numbered more than 50. Between the advisory board and the interviews, the list included three past Society of Biblical Literature presidents, one past president of the American Academy of Religion and American Society of Church History, and one past president of American Schools of Oriental Religion. In the end we were able to film on-camera interviews with a dozen scholars--Harry Attridge, Alan Callahan, Elizabeth Clark, Shaye Cohen, John Dominic Crossan, Paula Fredriksen, Holland Hendrix, Helmut Koester, Wayne Meeks, Eric Meyers, Elaine Pagels, and myself. These interviews were filmed first, and the "rough cut" of the series was assembled around them.
Assembling a documentary around interviews with scholars created a challenge for the production team: How do you make the story engaging to a popular audience who may know little of scholarly quibbles, while at the same time remaining true to the realities of the ancient world? Often it boiled down to the point where good drama resulted in bad history, and the question became one of striking the right balance. How do you explain the eventual legitimization of the Christian movement under Constantine without lapsing into a naive triumphalism? How do you account historically for the death of Jesus without tripping into traditional anti-Judaism? How do you tell the story of faith while being true to history? When all was said and done, these were the questions we tried to address through the documentary. We came to think about the project as telling a story--but not just the story of Jesus or the story of Paul and other Christians. Rather it was the story of that story--how the story came to evolve through history.
On historical grounds we had decided at an early stage of the project not to use any medieval or modern artwork that reflects the later "laminated" version of an orthodox story. Instead we would only use art, artifacts, and scenes that were authentically from the historical times and contexts. For months Mellowes and associate producer Mary Brockmyre sought out and secured rights for appropriate slides or photos to go with individual vignettes or scenes. Finally, the on-location footage, visual materials and historical voices (the ancient texts) were edited in and around the interviews. The editor, Peter Rhodes, brought a keen eye for thevisual composition and flow of the story. There were constant questions to answer, historical obscurities to explain, and riddlesto solve, including why all this history is not simple. The questions ran the gamut: "Are there any images of Herod that we can use? Can we at least see his name written in Greek? What is the map of the Roman empire under Augustus? Under Decius? Can we show the Diaspora synagogues? What would the food have been at the last supper?" There were practical challenges too: "We need a map showing where the gospels were written. Let's go over the Latin pronunciation of this passage to be read in voice-over." We went over every cut, every scene, and every word of narration time and again. Whole sections were redone or reconfigured.
Eventually, the various components were brought together like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and the four parts of the program fell into place. Part 1, "Pax Romana," deals with the historical setting for the life and death of Jesus, focusing on the development of Roman rule in Judea and the Jewish culture and religion of the time. Part 2, "A Light to the Nations," focuses on the beginnings of the Jesus movement as a sect within Judaism and branching put into the mission activity of Paul, and it culminates with the dramatic failure of the First Revolt. Part 3, "Let the Reader Understand," picks up the story with the period of reconstruction after the First Revolt as the setting for the composition of the Gospels and traces the experience of emerging Christian communities through this expression. The hour ends with the Second Revolt and the growing separateness and animosity of Jews and Christians. Part 4, "Kingdoms in Conflict," now follows the course of the Christian movement in the Roman world by examining the diverse forms of Christianity, the legal status of the movement and the beginnings of persecution, the proliferation of gospels literature, theological diversity, and the development of the canonand finally the legitimization under Constantine.
For those of us wholabor in the scholar's workshop--the library and the classroom--trying to present our craft to the larger public audience is a daunting task. Yet we know that the public dialogue about religion in contemporary life must be more fully informed by scholarship about the claims of history. While we are often rightfully wary of opening up our craft to nonscholars (many have been burned in the media because of incomplete or imprecise presentation), my experience in working on this particular project was very positive. There was a strong commitment by all to keep the film rigorously historical and to avoid reducing the complexities of history to soundbytes or bumpersticker blurbs. I was consulted throughout--almost daily during the final editing process--on how best to juxtapose the views of scholars or to frame an issue with narration, images, or other materials.
For my part I learned a lot from other members of the production team about the peculiar difficulties and demands of TV documentary as an educational medium. In particular, I'd like to acknowledge Marilyn Mellowes, who inaugurated the idea for the series and worked creatively and tirelessly to put it all together. It was her commitment to the importance of the topic that persuaded others that it was a story that must be told. The staff at WGBH and Frontline, and especially, David Fanning, were exemplary in their professionalism.
Finally, while there may be points of disagreement among the scholars interviewed in the program, such disagreements, I am confident, will convey the importance of historical scholarship on early Judaism and Christianity and promote awareness of critical issues in public discourse.