Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “The Bible Series

ReWriting, ReMembering the Resurrection

A.D. The Bible Continues

According to Mark: After the sabbath Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. They also saw a young man dressed in a white robe. The stone had already been rolled away.

According to Matthew:  After the sabbath at first light, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, experienced an earthquake and witnessed an angel descend from heaven and roll away the stone opening Jesus’ tomb. The angel had a substantial conversation with the women, commissioning them to preach the Gospel which they left to do.

According to Luke: After observing Shabbat as faithful Jews, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other unnamed women who followed Jesus went to the tomb at dawn the next day with spices and ointments for Jesus’s body. The encounter two men in dazzling white clothes. The stone had already been rolled away.

According to John: Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone and empty handed. The stone had already been rolled away. She leaves and reports to Peter and perhaps John. Somewhat out of sequence, she then announces the resurrection to other disciples. Peter and his companion enter the empty tomb then leave. Mary returns, encounters two angels in white and has a conversation with them. Jesus appears and tells her not to cling to him then disappears.

A.D. The Bible Continues

According to Roma Downey and Mark Burnett: Immediately after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea takes the body of Jesus to his own tomb with Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene who brings water to wash his body accompanied by James (I believe). The say kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) over his body in Aramaic. A tender, touching but ahistoric scene. Kaddish is said outside of the tomb once it is closed. They also neglected to tear their garments.

A.D. The Bible Continues Their ignorance of and carelessness with Jewish tradition is neither new nor unexpected, both characterize their previous Bible series. That series like this one was also characterized by an erasure of biblical women. The series is loosely based on John’s gospel which is not the earliest (Mark), which offers the minority report on the presence of women at this most sacred moment, and presents the one woman, running to and fro like a chicken with her head cut off. I believe it is an intentional choice. Rather than tell the story of Jesus’ women disciples – “last at the cross first at the tomb” as we preach in the Black Church – they erase them all but for a token Mary and give us instead the wife of the high priest. Certainly he had one, but she is not in the Gospel.

She is not an apostle to the apostles. Mary of Magdala was. As were her sisters in the gospels, Mary the mother of James, Salome and many other women whose names have been stolen from us.

A.D. The Bible ContinuesWomen are not all that has been erased from this production. Jesus’ ethnicity is no where to be found.

His limp wig successfully communicates his separation from the semitic Jewishness of other characters who have curly hair and in three isolated cases, brown skin.

Jesus is not brown or visibly Jewish and that is intentional. The whitewash of Jesus from the last iteration is a key component of the gospel they are creating, one in which white identity is core, crucial and sanctified.

In order to tell their story they ran between the gospels of John and Matthew and back to John in a dizzying loop. Then let to Acts for the Ascension. There was one stunning image of the Ascension: billowing golden clouds with what I believe we are to understand as angels in them at intervals forming a sort of pyramid. (I couldn’t find the image.) However, it was less an ascension than a descent in that Jesus was never taken up to heaven: He walked up a hill in a beam of light to the top where heaven met earth then the camera cut away, A bit of a cinematic let-down.

I confess, I feel suckered into watching this thing. I’ll probably watch and tweet and comment the rest. I have a hard time leaving anything unfinished. But Hollywierd, I am seriously through with your white bible epics after Noah. (I haven’t watched God and Kings and shall not.)


Resurrected: The Bible Continues

A.D. The Bible Continues

Premiering on Easter Sunday, AD the Bible Continues needs must go through the cross and the empty tomb (again). The Resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith. It is borne witness to in the theological discourses of the earliest Christian writing, the Epistles, followed by narrative accounts in the four Gospels that were eventually canonized along with more gospels and other writings that were composed and circulated without official sanction. The accounts differ in the details – the number and sequence of human and angelic witnesses and, presence, prominence or exclusion of women. Like all interpreters the producers must choose an account or create a sequence by harmonizing the texts.

The passion story was presented largely from the Gospel of John, including some direct quotes. There was also some Matthew thrown in and a bit of shared material form Matthew and Luke. It’s clear that the Gospels were not understood as separate literary traditions with their own way of telling their different accounts of the larger shared story. They were treated as a collection of interchangeable parts to be assembled piecemeal.

I am as interested in the visual text with which the sacred story – my faith story – is told. The Israel of Jesus was as is the modern state of Israel, at the juncture of West Asia and North-East Africa. Jesus like his fellow Jews, Judeans, were Afro-Asiatics, the scholarly classification give the region and its languages stretching across North Africa into the Arabian peninsula. Europeans were not unknown; they were not interchangeable with Palestinian Jews. The subjugation of Greece and Rome led to an influx of Europeans but not to the transformation of Afro-Asiatic Semites into white (or white-skinned) Gentiles is suggested by the casting choices. A.D. The Bible Continues Christian Testament scholar Mitzi Smith describes the diversity of the first century Roman Empire this way: The Roman Empire of the first century CE was vast and diverse extending into the deserts of the continent of Africa. [And m]ost Roman soldiers came from outside Rome including from Africa and… were Roman citizens.

This series has already provided some small improvement on the diversity of main characters and extras that reflects some of the diversity of the ancient world. They have a long way to go. The series has work to do in telling the stories of the women at the heart of the Gospel. There were some very powerful scenes with Mary the Mother of God, but the many women who followed Jesus seemed to be compressed into one Mary. Their absence from the crucifixion scene was particularly notable.  

A.D. The Bible Continues

I would like to highlight two visual choices that I applaud in the series: The recreation of the Jerusalem temple is stunning and seems to correspond well to the authoritative sources. Only a bit was shown last night. I have looked at some of the publicity images. And, I love the militant depiction of the divine messengers or angels as well as their diversity. (They were present in the last series as well.) I even enjoyed the completely unbiblical meteor-landing the angel made.

There was some good conversation on Twitter. Here are a few of my favorites:


AD the Bible (Redux)

AD1

After the epic whitewash that was the History Channel’s The Bible Series Produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, I had no intention of watching their latest installation, AD the Bible Continues, focusing on the book of Acts (of the Apostles). In the publicity build-up to the premier, the producers emphasized the casting of a number of actors of color, including some of African descent in significant roles this time. Downey and Burnett acknowledged the criticism of their past work and sought to remedy it. (At the time, this blog was the only scholarly one that engaged every episode. I did attempt to engage the producers repeatedly on Twitter but heard nothing from them. I was pleasantly surprised to hear of their change in casting – and would like to think my unacknowledged critique played some role in that.) The change is welcome however their basic paradigm appears unchanged: They seem have created another predominantly white world in lieu of Afro-Asiatic context from which the scriptures emerged and added a few people of color. The portrayal of Jews particularly of Jesus and his mother as white-skinned is historically inaccurate and, symptomatic of and perpetuation of the white supremacy that pollutes the Church. (Juan Pablo de Pace plays Jesus and Greta Scacchi plays his mother.)

A.D. The Bible Continues

As a scholar and a priest I am interested in how the stories of my faith, church and scriptures are told. I am concerned about the ways in which the biblical text and Christian story have been used to buttress systems of domination from sexism, racism and heteropatriarchy to white supremacy and slavocracy. The previous series failed miserably on gender balance – the androcentric scriptures are more inclusive than their portrayal and it failed in fidelity to the biblical text.

Keeping to their previous practice, this series has been heavily marketed to Christian communities with a specific push to the Black community. Last time around T.D. Jakes and Jamal Bryant headlined those efforts. This time Vashti McKenzie and Joshua DuBois are promoting it. The series is also partnering with  Urban Ministries Inc. That kind of marketing makes me wary. Never-the-less I have decided to watch and engage the series (again), in part because of the casting choices. I will do so in conversation with UrbanFaith.com using their hashtag #ADBibleTalk. My participation in this conversation is by no means an endorsement of the program or UMI, Urban Faith or any of their programming or commentary. Join me as I live-tweet the program and look for blog posts after.


Rewriting the Bible, Me & the History Channel

I am a womanist, feminist, post-colonial, transgressive, progressive biblical scholar. I am liberal about the love of God and conservative about translation issues (like lexical fidelity). And I have been accused of rewriting the bible on more than one occasion, see Rewriting the Bible: the Gospel According to Liberals where I’m in good company. That is something that I and the History Channel have in common. HC offers a disclaimer before each episode of its miniseries: This program is an adaptation of bible stories. It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book. I applaud the History Channel for their honesty here, in spite of the name of the project, “The Bible,” what they offered was an interpretation, one clearly marked by the social location – race, religion, culture and gender politics of its producers. (See the archives of this blog for many examples.) Their interpretation included a fair bit of rewriting the bible for their own purposes.

The charge is a common one regularly leveled at progressive or liberal Christians, really anyone who isn’t claiming a literal interpretation of an inerrant scripture. And that’s what makes History Channel’s Bible mini-series so interesting to me, given that it is marketed so heavily to evangelical and conservative Christians, many of whom subscribe to literalist and inerrantist readings of scripture. The series engages in rewriting the bible on an epic scale, so much so that they’re offering a novel as a follow up for all the bits they couldn’t quite work in. Mind you that’s a novel – the ultimate rewrite – rather than an extended DVD of, say, clips from actual biblical accounts that they couldn’t broadcast because of time limits.

If rewriting the bible is so awful, so progressive, so lefty, so liberal, why is a project with such good evangelical and conservative Christian street cred doing so, loudly, publicly and getting paid? (That novel, the series itself and the other Bible Series merchandise is not free.)

Because of what all seminary professors, biblical scholars, seminary trained clergy and religious leaders and careful critical readers of scripture know: we all interpret everything we read or see, including (and not just) sacred texts. Yet there is a misperception that texts – especially religious texts – are independent of interpretation, that their meaning is whatever the literal text says, with no nuance or room for interpretation. And Those who get to say that the text means what it literally says to them, are those with power, frequently white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied, frequently clergy (with or without seminary education depending on the tradition).

And while all readings and viewers are interpretive and affected by the identity of the readers and viewers, that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to make historically appropriate productions of biblical or other stories. And I confess that’s what I expected from the History Channel, a retelling of the biblical narrative as it is preserved supplemented by the historical record. What I saw was a particular religious and cultural retelling that rewrote the portions of the bible that did not fit the larger vision. The final episode of the mini-series contained some truly spectacular rewrites:

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial make it clear that Jesus was shuffled off from Pilate to Herod and back to Pilate. The number of legally questionable proceedings and sheer exhaustion of the nighttime travels build the tension in the scriptural accounts. The mini-series cut out Herod’s hearing and the travel between locations.

Jesus’ female followers were seemingly compressed into a single “Mary” based on her appearance at the tomb, I’m guessing Magdalene. I give the History Channel credit for including her among the disciples from the very beginning, but by making a lone woman a disciple apart from the company of other women they present an unnecessarily scandalous (from a First Century Jewish cultural perspective) of this one woman running around with a group of men. They cut out Joanna, Salome, the other Mary (as the bible calls her), leaving Mary and Martha behind after the resurrection of Lazarus. (In that episode the departed from the Gospel which says that Jesus called Lazarus to come out of the tomb – from outside – by having Jesus go in and kiss him on the head.)

Jesus’s march to Calvary includes a scene with a woman wiping the face of Jesus. Many Catholic, Anglican and other Christians will recognize this as the story of St. Veronica from the Stations of the Cross. It is beloved, but not in the bible.

Easter morning did not find Mary Magdalene going to the tomb with spices to prepare the body of Jesus for a more permanent burial. (They seem to be using John’s gospel which eliminates all but one of the women from all of the other gospels.) She went with nothing for no discernible purpose.

And, on the day of Pentecost in the scripture, the disciples who were there numbered 120 made up of the surviving first 11 (after Judas’ suicide), Jesus’ mother (absent), siblings (I don’t think we ever saw his sisters in the whole series nor all 4 of his brothers), 2 candidates to replace Judas and the rest were “certain women,” meaning that with the exception of the 17 men the other 103 disciples present on the day of Pentecost were women. But there were only a handful shown, with the obligatory, token, individual woman. In the scripture the sight of so many, particularly women, speaking in other languages led to charges that they were drunk – entirely missing from the episode. In the scripture that charge leads Peter to preach a sermon from Joel explaining that God calls women and men to ministry. A powerful moment and a missed opportunity.

These fundamental rewrites of some of the most cherished accounts in the scriptures occur in spite of their consultation with New Testament scholars like Duke University’s Mark Goodacre. As a biblical scholar who studies and engages in midrash, Jewish biblical interpretation that can include rewriting the text I welcome the HIstory Channel, the series producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett and their viewers to the work of biblical interpretation. I would however like to offer a couple of suggestions from my own teaching to those who are new to the practice from a critical scholarly perspective which differs from many religious practices of reading and rewriting the bible.

  1. Determine what the text actually says, as much as possible, resort to the original languages and all of the relevant manuscripts, especially when they conflict and when there are multiple versions of a story; this will multiply your source texts.
  2. Determine what the text meant in its original context in light of the religious and cultural norms of the time.
  3. Interpret the text for and from your context and be honest about your interpretive lens.

That the History Channel got so many folk watching, talking and thinking about the bible can be a good thing if those conversations include understandings of how and why the TV show is different from the bible that folk know – and there are many bibles with differing contents – and, how all of our understandings differ from those of the folk who produced and preserved those texts never imagining a largely Gentile church on the other side of a globe they didn’t know wasn’t flat.


Whitewashing Jesus’ Judaism

We begin with the simple historical fact that Jesus was a Jew… It is impossible for Jesus to be understood outside of the sense of community which Israel held with God… The Christian Church has tended to overlook its Judaic origins, but the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew of Palestine when he went about his Father’s business, announcing the acceptable year of the Lord. (Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. pp 15-16, 1949)

[The film clip is from the Lumo Project. Compare their portrayals of Jesus and his disciples with those of the History Channel.]

The Church has struggled with Jesus’ Jewish identity, sometimes violently, sometimes lethally at the expense of the lives and property of Jews. One of those responses has been anti-Judaism – related to, but distinct from, anti-Semitism. Anti-Judaism minimalizes, trivializes, demonizes and/or declares Judaism incomplete, invalid or insufficient. This is sometimes called supercessionism, the idea that Christianity replaces and completes Judaism. However, the Christians who hold to this theology vehemently disagree with the same notion in Islam.

The History Channel’s blockbuster production of the bible sadly perpetuates the Christian heresy of anti-Judaism in its depiction of Jesus. First, the producers erased Jesus’ ethnic identity by refusing to cast an actor who shares Jesus semitic ancestry and looks like the semitic peoples of the world in North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia. They cast a European for Jesus and for most of the ancient Israelites (see my previous commentaries here and here) and for most of Jesus’ disciples. However, they cast semitic-looking actors for the Pharisees and a Moroccan for Satan (for more on that click here). This identifies the Israelites, Jesus and his immediate followers with whiteness over and against the Jews. The construct of whiteness is a thoroughly modern one from which Jews have been excluded and to which they have been included as their social and political fortunes wax and wane with regard to the dominant culture.

Second, Jesus’ religious Jewishness is erased in the production. Jesus is a Torah-observant Jew who wears tzit-tzit, the holy fringe on his garments. (See Num 15:38–39; Matt 9:20; 14:36; Mark 6:56; Luke 8:44) He does not wear it in the production contrary to the Gospels – not even in the synagogue! Likewise the History Channel Jesus does not cover his head in public or even when teaching. As an observant fringe-wearing Jew and Torah teacher Jesus would cover his head – and not with a pashmina as he does that one time in the synagogue scene (see image above immediately following synagogue service).

The synagogue service (taken from Luke 4:16-30, greatly abridged) perversely misrepresents Jewish liturgy, worship and tradition. There is a cantor chanting in a lovely trope (musical intonation). But what is he chanting? Well, he starts with:

 וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

And Moses spoke to the Israelites…This is the beginning of a couple of verses in the Torah, Lev 24:23; Num 9:4; 17:6) but the cantor does not chant Torah. He chants part of a medieval hymn,

לכה דודי לקראת כלה פני שבת נקבלה

Come my beloved, to greet the bride, and welcome Shabbat. That song would not be composed for more than a thousand years yet and would be sung on Friday night as Shabbat breaks, not afterwards on Saturday as depicted. Jesus is called to the bema to read from the scroll of Isaiah with the words “y’amod Jesus.” However, his Hebrew name includes his father’s name. No Jew is called to the bema or Torah without a full name – naming practices vary contemporarily with regard to including mothers but in the first century Jesus would have been called up as “Yeshua ben Yosef.” Omitting his father’s name is tantamount to calling him a bastard. While there are scenes in the gospels in which Jesus’ paternity is questioned and challenged, this is not one of them.

The lethal legacy of anti-Judaism means that Christians cannot be cavalier about misrepresentations of Judaism with any ethical integrity. Johanna van Wijk-Bos writes convictingly in the preface to her 2005 Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice“After Auschwitz” Christian teaching and preaching must take place in the light of what was perpetrated in Christian lands by Christian hands, and must take account of the ultimate consequences of Christian “teaching of contempt” for Judaisam and the Jews. (p xviii)

Theologically speaking, Jesus was and is still a Jew – from the perspective of a confessing Christian who believes that he is very much alive. Jesus’ Judaism is manifest in his teaching and preaching, and in his love of God and for scripture. Historically speaking, the processes by which the followers of Jesus became known as Christians, distinct from Jews and primarily Gentile took centuries and included many reversals and struggles.

Emptying Jesus of Nazareth of his ethnic and religious identity and their markers leaves a hollow shell that can be filled with anything at all – insert dominant culture here – and devalues and denies the specificity of the Incarnation.


Erased By the History Channel

Hannah, a sculpture al Mamilla Mall, JerusalemOne thing for sure, the History Channel's mini-series has people watching, talking and blogging. But are people reading the bible? Some are I think. I hope that this series leads to deeper and richer conversations with and about the text than are possible in any multi-media production. I'd like to see folk read the narratives that were shown in the series to see how they compare to the production and read stories which were left on the cutting room floor. I'd like to offer a list of characters, an A-Z (as much as is possible translating, transcribing and transliterating Semitic names into English) of just some of the biblical characaters and their stories yet to be told by the History Channel.

Here is a list of just some of my favorite biblical women missing in action, erased from the History Channel's abridged Hebrew Bible/Old Testament:

The Abigails (one David's wife, one his sister),

Abishag (David's last woman),

Basemath (Esau's wife),

Bilhah (slave-mother of the Israelite people),

Cozbi (murdered by Aaron for marrying an Israelite like Moses and both of his wives),

Dinah (one of Jacob's daughters),

Deborah (both of them),

Elisheba (Aaron's wife),

Ephrath (Caleb's wife),

Gomer (the woman, not the man of the same name),

Hannah (who becomes a prophet in Jewish tradition),

Hammutal (one of the last Queen-Mothers of Judah),

HaSophereth (the female scribe who served in the time of Solomon),

Hoglah (one of the sisters for whom God changed the Torah),

Iscah (neice of Sarah & Abraham whose daughter married their uncle in the incestuous first family),

Jael (avenger of raped women),

Judith (both of them),

Jemimah (not the slave-era distortion),

Keren-happuch (beautiful, wealthy sister of Jemimah & Keziah),

Keziah (along with her sisters above shared her name with many enslaved African women),

Keturah (Abraham's other, other woman),

Lillith (the one Isaiah knew about),

Maacah (all five of them),

Mahalath (both of them),

Mahlah (both of them),

Milcah (both of them),

Noah (the woman, not the dude),

Nehushta (the last of the Queen-Mothers marking the end of an era),

Noadiah (the prophet who led all of the prophets of Jerusalem),

Penninah (who lived with a man who loved another woman but kept sleeping with her),

Puah (one of the deliverers who delivered Moses),

Rizpah (her body was used by men but she used her body to teach a king or two a thing or two),

Serach (daughter of a patriarch whose stories extend far beyond scripture),

Sheerah (who built three cities, naming one of them after herself),

Shelomith (all four of them),

Tamar (all three of them),

Zillah (the first woman dragged into polygamy),

Zeruiah (David's other sister), 

Zilpah (the other slave-mother of the Israelite people), and

Zipporah (Moses' wife). 

For a reminder of what the History Channel focused on instead, see the twitter archives below:

 

Twitter Stream on The Bible, March 17 episode #3

Download the March 17 episode Twitter stream (pdf)

WilGafneyTweetStream03182013WilGafneyTweetStream03182013


History Channel’s Satan and President Obama

Many viewers of the History Channel's Bible mini-series saw and see a resemblance between the character of Satan and President Barack Obama. Comparison photos such as the one above are circulating on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. The History Channel denies any resemblance and any attempt to pattern the character after the President.

Whether one sees a resemblance or not, the History Channel has produced a biblical epic with virtually no actors from contemporary corollaries of biblical lands, so the North African (Moroccan) actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouzaani is highly visible as Satan in a production where the Israelites are portrayed by white actors. I have previously addressed the use of race in the series here and here and here. The History Channel is responsible for what it broadcasts just as the producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, and their casting agents are responsible for the product they produce.

I can't say whether the resemblance between the Satan character is intentional or not, or present or not if it is not visible to some viewers. I can say that the casting of this actor for this role was an intentional one. He looked the part to someone. Whether that was because of a resemblance to the President of the United States in full makeup or because he is a North African is equally problematic. 

I say as a biblical scholar that the casting of this series is unhistorical as it pertains to the Afro-Asiatic world of the bible with one or two critical exceptions. At the same time, the treatment of race by these producers reproduces the racist history of Christianity in the West, particularly in the Americas where it supported and benefited from the Atlantic slavetrade.

The choice to make Samson a big black man with a sexual appetite for white women was an intentional one. The choice to erase Samson's father from the narrative so that his black mother was single mother was an intentional one. The choice to cast essentially every other biblical character from lands corresponding to those from Egypt to Iraq with white actors, including some with Scottish and British accents was intentional. The choice to portray the creation of the first human as a white man emerging from sandy white soil rather than a black or brown person arising from the red-brown soil of the region was an intentional one.

The History Channel's production is aimed at an American audience – in addition to a global one – at a time when the first African American President of the United States is subject to repeated insults and regular disrespect from public and political figures. This production with its whitewashing of the people of God on whom colonizing settlers modeled themselves as they exterminated Native Americans like Canaanites and enslaved Africans like Gibeonites is contributing to the racial discourse at the present moment. And what it is contributing is a distortion of beloved biblical history and fodder for white-supremacist ideologies based on racist interpretations of the bible. 

It might all be the working of a collective unconscious. Yet even on that level it is intentional, real, present and destructive.


Jesus’ Bible and the History Channel’s Bible

The third episode of the History Channel's ratings-shattering series, The Bible, moves from the Israelite scriptures of Judaism and Christianity to the New Testament added by Christians to the canon we share with Judaism. I have previously responded to some of the issues of the series here and here and here. Today I'd like to reflect on some of the differences between the scriptures that Jesus knew and preached and the ones presented and, to some degree, created by the History Channel. (That the scriptures of Jesus were set in Africa – Egypt and West Asia – ancient Israel and Canaan and not Europe as their casting claims, must be repeated.)

To begin with, there was not a single collection of bound scripture in the time of Jesus. (Not that HC claims that there was.) There were collections of vellum (leather) scrolls – not papyrus as shown in tonight's episode. And, all of the scrolls that would become biblical books were not yet in the canon, that is on an authorized table of contents. This passage from Luke identifies the bible as Jesus knew it (or as the author of the gospel knew it, or both):

Luke 24:44 Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 

Jesus is describing the tripartite canon of Judaism in which the Torah (Pentateuch in Greek) is Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Prophets are the Former  Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings – the latter two being single, double books, the Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve, (Hosea – Malachi) and, the Writings beginning with the Psalms. (Curiously, the rest of the Writings seem to be in flux: Proverbs, Job, the Song, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel – not a prophet in Jewish tradition, the double books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.) Notice all of the scripture from the third division that has not yet made it into the canon by the time of Jesus – nothing other than Psalms.

Howard ThurmanThe iconic scholar-saint, preacher-pastor, mystic and mentor, Howard Thurman, wrote of the "religion of Jesus" including the scriptures of Jesus in his groundbreaking volume Jesus and the Disinherited. That book shaped my own vocation as a biblical scholar. The scriptures of Jesus were the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible (including those of the Aramaic Targums and perhaps to some degree those translated into Greek, the Septuagint.) Christians have problematically traditionally referred to the scriptures of Jesus as the "Old" Testament or Covenant, in part because of language in Jeremiah and other places that God would do something new in the world including a "new covenant." As a result, Christians have struggled to articulate the relationship between the two testaments. Some have completely rejected the First Testament, except perhaps for the book of Psalms, and have been rejected by the Church as heretics, frequently called "Marcionites" after a bishop infamous for his rejection of the texts that were the scriptures of the same Jesus he confessed as Lord. Others look to the scriptures of the First Testament as a series of predictions – sometimes coded – pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, serving little other purpose. Others receive them as fully scripture, inspired and authoritative as are the newer texts in the collection.

As a Hebrew Bible scholar who loves the Hebrew (and Aramaic and Greek) scriptures of the First Testament, I am always troubled when they are given short shrift, whether by preachers in Lectionary traditions who think preaching the gospel means preaching (nearly if not completely exclusively) from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or representations of the biblical narrative in print and other media like the History Channel's production that reduce the First Testament to a mere prologue to the "real" story. I am mindful that Jesus preached the gospel without the lectionary, and he did so from the scriptures of Israel, the scriptures of Judaism.

1611 KJV ToCThe History Channel begins the Jesus story midway through the third of five episodes. Yet anyone whose ever held – let alone read – a Christian bible knows that the pagination of the First Testament is more than double the Second. There are 23,261 verses in the shorter version of the First Testament used by most Protestants in the 66-book bible and 7941 verses in the New Testament. By the way, the Protestant Bible is the shortest and newest of Christian bibles and used by the fewest number of Christians around the world, yet its adherents – particularly in the American context – are the loudest. Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Episcopal bibles like the original 1611 King James Version of the bible, Martin Luther's revolutionary translation and the earliest manuscript with both testaments, Codex Sinaticus, have 72 to 80 books or more and are read by the vast majority of Christians on the planet, more than a billion and a half people. There is perhaps the most diversity among the Orthodox with Ethiopian Orthodox including Jubilees and the Books of Enoch and some Slav churches including all four Esdrases. There are 29,474 verses in longer versions of the First Testament, including the Deutero-canonical (or Apocryphal Books). Many are unaware that the shorter Protestant bible was created in the new America, during the revolutionary war when a printer took it upon himself without the authority of a church council to print a bible whose contents he chose. That bible, The Aitken Bible is also significant for having been printed with the authority of the Continental Congress.

In other words, 75% of the bible we have is the bible of Jesus and of his people, the foundation of his ministry; 25% of Christian bibles tell and interpret the story of Jesus. The History Channel has ignored those proportions. To be sure, they are entitled to tell the story however they choose. But their choices are doing nothing to counter the rampant biblical illiteracy in this country.

For example, after watching the most recent episode will viewers understand the context and content of the Immanuel prophecy? That it was of a child who had already been conceived in Isaiah's time? That before that child learned how to tell good from bad the kings arrayed against Ahaz would be gone? For Christians, those verses also prophecy of Jesus, but they never lose their original meaning in their original context.

Is 7:14 …Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 


icanhasgozpel, race, gender & me

Pastor Chris Tiedeman discusses the History Channel’s much ballyhooed miniseries on the Bible, its constructions of race and gender and my take on it.


Response to Bible Series Sermons

[Update: Their final response to which I will not respond further.]

I have been responding to the History Channel's The Bible mini-series. Much of that response has been in the form of critique here and on twitter. One series of tweets and my most recent blog post generated a response from Rodney Sampson, Executive Producer of Bible Series Word, which produces sermons to accompany the series. I was critical of the apparent corporate sponsorship of sermons, particularly by a black male preacher given the racialized treatment of the biblical narrative by the series.

As is so often the case on twitter, we exchanged a couple of tweets with escalating rhetoric. Bishop Sampson has posted a blog addressing me directly and my response follows:

You are correct that "[a]uthentic relationships are built over time." I understand this quote was in reference to the Burnett-Downey team and not to me, but it is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree and is the spirit of my response to you.

I encourage you and your production in the pursuit of "truth, open and transparent dialog regarding Biblical antiquity." The viewing public, whether religious or not, Christian or not would benefit from such an approach to the Bible and its narratives. As for the rest of your post, you claim that I made a false statement but do not clarify what it is or offer any evidence to counter it. You then begin to assail me. That is not dialog. I won't respond in that vein. You claim, "ignorance and verbal abuse will not be tolerated at all," however your letter belies that.  

I will address one aspect of the tortuous logic in your piece, that because I critiqued your production I should resign as a priest in order to fund an alternate vision. No. Such an assertion is quite frankly bizarre. 

However, after the verbal assault and creative thinking you made an interesting claim that was new to me:

Now, rather than to simply ignore the lack of color and representation of women in the mini-series, we created the conversation and dialog directly with the executive producers (Roma Downey and Mark Burnett). We also sought permission to create an official sermon series inspired by the mini-series in order to create an opportunity for faith leaders of color and beyond to add a complimentary voice to the epic mini-series that millions have watched to date and will potentially engage for decades to come.

I appreciate your awareness of the limitations of this series. This is the first time I'm hearing anyone associated with the project make this acknowledgement. 

I appreciate your sharing your understanding of the scripture and its interpretation in the following portion of your missive. We share a concern for the liberating aspect of the scripture but in very different ways, with very different assumptions and interpretive practices. Lastly, I want to affirm your final words, "we welcome intelligent and meaningful dialog and conversation." If that is indeed the case, then I invite you to respond in a meaningful way to my blog post, Black Samson & White Women on the History Channel. I have chosen to look beyond the personal attack on me in the response that you entitled "dialogue". But I will not tolerate any further disrespect. I am willing to have an actual dialog with you.

Grace and peace to you.


Black Samson & White Women on the History Channel

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The History Channel’s miniseries on the Bible is a ratings blockbuster. The Bible is an incredibly important text in the history and culture of the United States and Western world, and has its roots in the Eastern world. One would think that the media outlet that entitled itself the “History Channel” would be concerned about those roots. One might even think that the History Channel would endeavor to expose and explore those roots. But last night on episode two, the ill-named History Channel offered us a modern day Mandingo fairy tale.

The choice to cast Nonso Anozie (a black man in a bad dreadlock wig) as Samson as is in no way an attempt to demonstrate the visual and ethnic diversity of the ancient Near East in which this story is set, specifically the West Asian, East and North African context of the scriptures. The absence of characters of African descent up to this point makes that clear. (Just as the use of Black and Asian actors for angels makes them wholly “other” in the cast and not legitimate human bodies.)

That Samson is a big black man with brutish strength and a predilection for white women is no accident in this casting or production. One of the hallmarks of Rona Downey’s and Mark Burnett’s vision of the Bible is the erasure of the Afro-Asiatic Israelite ethnic identity and its replacement with a white, American fundamentalist Christian identity. They do this in several ways.

1) Casting: they cast an abundance of white American and European actors and occasionally paint some dirt on their faces to make them look a little brown. Consider the creation of humanity, told in a flashback. Humanity was created from the humus, an earthling from the earth, in Hebrew an adam from the adamah. Instead of the rich brown-red soil native to Israel, Palestine and the Great Rift Valley which descends from the Holy Land down into Kenya and Tanzania, the producers use sandy white soil from which springs a sandy white man. However, Satan is played by a Middle Mastern man, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni. While widely advertising a “Hispanic” Jesus, the producers actually cast a Portugese actor, Diogo Morgado, with white skin as Jesus. His skin has to be white since Roma Downey (of Touched By An Angel fame, part of the powerhouse team along with Mark Burnett behind this anachronistic whitewash of the bible) cast herself as the Blessed Virgin Mary – shades of Mel Gibson casting a white Jesus so he could insert his own feet into certain shots.

2) The second way the production replaces authentic Israelite identity with a white American fundamentalist and evangelical construction is in the use of quintessentially American race motifs like that of the big black buck or Mandingo, the brutishly strong, bestial black man and his preferential taste for white women. By transforming all of the Afro-Asiatic Israelites into white people, “simply” casting an Afro-British actor as Samson stages a lynching propaganda piece that the Klan would be proud of under the cover of the bible and “diversity.”

3) The third re-writing strategy of the team involves gender. The bible is an androcentric and patriarchal text. It is also a text that has many women’s narratives, including those of strong women wielding power and authority in spite of their patriarchal and androcentric context. There is no room in the Burnett-Downey recreation of the bible in their own image – right down to their own skin tones – for strong biblical women so they simply exclude them. A partial list of the women who have been cut from the narrative include: Yocheved, Moses’ mother and the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Zipporah, Moses’ wife and her sisters so that Moses is not the product of a strong community of women all of whom save his life in different episodes, but a lone ranger, a man who became a hero on his own. Hoglah, Milcah, Maacah, Noah and Tirtzah, the daughters of Zelophehad who are mentioned in more biblical books than there are Gospels, for whom God changed inheritance laws in the Torah that women might receive an inheritance – not worthy of attention. The great woman-warrior, Prophet and Judge (sharing those titles with Moses and Samuel and no one else, not even Joshua) Deborah, who ruled the nation – excised. Hannah, the theological revolutionary who taught the priesthood how to pray – unnecessary.

There is a final whitewashing, silencing strategy employed by these producers. That is sanitizing genocide, slavery – when the Israelites are the slavers, sexual violence and heterodox theologies. The bible is a wonderfully rich, complicated, challenging, illuminating, revelatory text. It is also horrifically violent and does not say what we want the way we want it to. We must take it in its entirety seriously as a cultural and historical artifact and as scripture – if that is our confession. But this series erases the texts in which Joshua and the Israelites slaughter babies, kill their mothers, fathers and brothers and take their sisters as war-brides as long as they haven’t had sex – prepubescent girl-children – on the orders of Moses and God. They ignore the texts in which God calls for the enslavement of non-Israelites and their children in perpetuity – the scriptural and theological basis for the Atlantic slave-trade and American slavocracy. They ignore the texts in which entire ethnic groups are exterminated by divine command. And they even ignore the horrific sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls within Israel: Lot’s offer of his daughters to be raped by a mob, Israelite fathers selling their daughters into sexual slavery with the permission of God and Moses, a Judge of Israel sacrificing his daughter like an animal and celebrated as a hero of faith in the New Testament, abduction, rape, forced pregnancy used repeatedly as tools of war. Bathsheba’s abduction and rape recast as consensual adultery.

In the American context when rape is being redefined while male bible-thumping legislatures require physicians to forcibly insert instruments into women’s vaginas one day and deny them access to legal medical procedures the next, it matters that and how the bible is being distorted in primetime. Whereas evangelical leaders like Jim Wallis watched with “great delight,” I watched with horror.

In the American context the Israelite identity has been claimed by Christians and particularly by Western, European Christians who were also constructing the categories of white into which they placed themselves and the Afro-Asiatic Israelites. And, the United States was viewed, claimed and seized as a new Canaan for the new Israelites to conquer and subdue, hosting the reincarnation and reenactment of biblical slavery painted in black and white. This is why the whitewash of the bible on the History Channel is so pernicious. It is a continuation of slave-holding racist exegesis. And they ought to be ashamed.

Twitter Stream from Dr. Gafney:

View and download in interactive pdf format

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History Channel (Whitewashes) The Bible – Day 1 (3/3/2013)

The History Channel debuted the first episode of its 10-part series on the bible on 3/3/13. It was widely watched and reported as the ratings winner for its time slot. As a biblical scholar and seminary professor (who had been called early in the production but did not work on the project) I tuned in eagerly to see this latest construction of the bible in the public square. I was, in a word, disappointed. The Afro-Asiatic Israelites were portrayed nearly universally by people of European descent who occasionally appeared light brown with what looked like dirt on their faces. (I understand that Samson will be portrayed by a black man – associating blackness with brute strenght is not a redeeming decision by any means. I live tweeted the episode. You can peruse the conversation below.

View the Twitter Stream in interactive PDF format twitterstream03032013

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