Sunday, March 23, 2008

Kingdom of Documentaries

Easter* heralds some of the best documentaries around and 2008 hasn't disappointed. The ubiquitous, anorak-clad Rageh Omaar kicked off proceedings yesterday by recloaking the Shroud of Turin in the mystery that Carbon-14 dating had apparently wrestled from it. The origin of Richard the Lionheart's legendary valour and a gritty account of the 3rd crusade followed. Richard I is portrayed as 'a man motivated by Christian duty, struggling with the problems of leading a fractious international coalition, fighting a Muslim opponent who cannot be beaten.' The nuanced battle strategies and guiles of wit between the English monarch and the Kurdish warrior-caliph Saladdin were gripping.

This evening, Dr Robert Beckford (whom I had the pleasure of listening to last week presenting his moving documentary on the injustice of trade entitled The Great African Scandal) took a detailed look at the secrets of the 12 disciples and rattled quite a few skeletons lurking at the back of theological cupboards in the process. Beckford shed light on the at times seemingly ruthless manipulation of the stories of the Apostles by the (Catholic) Church to bolster its own agenda - a particularly Pauline agenda. A few of the revelations that rocked my world included:
  • Jesus allegedly had 4 brothers (3 of whom were disciples) and 2 sisters!
  • There is scant evidence for the remains of St Peter lying in the basilica in Rome. Stronger evidence exists for his remains being excavated in Jerusalem where an ossuary dating from the 1st century was uncovered bearing the inscription Shimon bar Jonah (the Hebrew name for Peter). The Vatican played down the findings of its own archeological dig as it would undermine the basis of Rome's power.
  • Thomas is widely believed in Eastern scholarship to have spread Jesus' message to India within 20 years of Christ's crucifixion using an established trade route between Egypt and India. The Christian community in Kerala lay claim to have embraced Christianity before Rome did so. The first converts to the new faith were in fact a thriving Jewish community. Portuguese colonialists were shocked to find their subjects were already Christian and with Papal authority attempted to impose a Rome-centric version of Christianity.
  • A myth was created concerning James' remains being interred in Spain to bolster the Christian cause in its clash with Islam in al-Andalus.
  • There is substantial scholarly doubt over the authorship of the Book of Revelations, supposedly penned by John. Christian Zionism strongly backs it to be John's work in order to lend authenticity to its account of Armageddon that relies on a Jewish presence in Jerusalem to facilitate the next coming of Christ.
  • The vilification of Judas may actually be based on a 3rd century mistranslation of the Greek word 'paradidomi' as 'betrayal' rather than 'handing over'. A re-reading thus renders Judas a vital player in the Passion and not the devil incarnate.
  • Prominent women (Phoebe, Joanna, Susannah, Thecla...) in the early history of the church have been airbrushed from the official accounts. There is even evidence to suggest attempts to masculinise female apostles to avoid offending cultural mores!

Regardless of your views on religion, things'd be pretty boring without it.

* Interesting fact: 'The date of Easter varies. Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 20, the nominal date of the spring equinox.'

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