‘Explorer: The Secret Lives of Jesus,’ Dec. 17, National Geographic Channel
Last April, the National Geographic Society made headlines with a completed translation of the second century gnostic text known as the Gospel of Judas – financed by the society and heavily promoted with tie-in books and a TV documentary – that would challenge Christianity's traditional understanding of the relationship between Jesus and his betraDavid DiCertoyer.
Its new special, "The Secret Lives of Jesus," makes similar sensational claims, airing as part of the "Explorer" series Sunday, Dec. 17, 9-10 p.m. EST on cable's National Geographic Channel.
Despite its provocative title, however, the program – as with the Judas expose – provides no explosive revelations but merely rehashes the same old theological chestnuts refuted by the church over the centuries.
Examining the so-called "lost gospels" through re-enactments and interviews with scholars, the film asks if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the "whole" Jesus story, suggesting that these alternative versions – which offer a radically different portrait of Christ -- may help "fill in the blanks." The idea that these ancient texts provide startling new information is a bit misleading. Church fathers such as St. Irenaeus, who wrote against the Gospel of Judas in 180 A.D., knew of many of these and rejected them as false.
Among the manuscripts considered is the apocryphal infancy Gospel of James, a second-century collection of miraculous tales about Jesus' youth that lacks the historical veracity of the canonical Gospels. (The book was regarded as spurious by Origen of Alexandria in the third century.) One episode dramatized involves Jesus bringing clay pigeons to life. Another has a young, rather malicious Jesus striking a boy dead for bumping into him.
Of equally dubious purview is "The Unknown Life of Jesus," a 19th-century translation of an ancient Tibetan scroll which allegedly chronicles Jesus' travels through India during his "hidden years" (between the ages 12 and 30) to learn from Hindu mystics.
Given the popularity of "The Da Vinci Code," it's not unexpected that the survey includes discussion of gnostic texts such as the Gospels of Mary and Philip that allude to Mary Magdalene's special, possibly intimate, relationship with Jesus. But unlike Dan Brown, this program does not attribute any conspiratorial villainy to the church, and even counters many of Brown's bogus assertions: One expert, for instance, stresses that there's no credible evidence to support the Jesus-Mary Magdalene theory.
It is, however, suggested that these alternative versions constituted a pluralism of valid competing forms of Christianity vying for dominance in the first centuries after Christ. While doctrinal questions continued to be refined among the early Christian communities, this image hardly does justice to the capacity of those communities to sort out and affirm the essentials of the faith authoritatively taught from the beginning.
Even more disputable is the contention forwarded that the gnostic texts, though written much later than the canonical gospels, have something of equal value to say about Jesus. While these texts are of certain historical interest, they tell us more about the people who wrote them than about Jesus.
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DiCerto is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
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