Jesus: the Evidence; Channel 4, April 1984

Last week I bought a book by Geza Vermes, reduced from £19.99 to £4.00 at Church House Bookshop. Searching for the Real Jesus is a collection of essays published in various British newspapers. One essay describes his participation in three one hour long documentary programmes broadcast by Channel 4 in April 1984 titled Jesus: the Evidence. The first part traced the history of New Testament scholarship from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century; the second depicted attitudes current in the 1980s; the final part surveyed the development of Christianity from the empty tomb to the Council of Nicea where the divinity of Jesus was defined in 325 CE.

The participants were Professors Werner Kummel, successor of Rudolf Bultmann at Marburg, and Dennis Nineham, former Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge and Warden of Keble College Oxford; Canon Anthony Harvey of Westminster Abbey, author of Jesus and the Constraints of History, Geza Vermes, then Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies and Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Oxford, Professors Helmut Koester, a pupil of Bultmann and chair of New Testament and Early Church History at Harvard Divinity School and G. Quispel, Dutch Church historian, plus Professors George Wells of Birkbeck College London, Morton Smith of Columbia University, New York, and Ian Wilson and, to provide balance, Professor Howard Marshall of Aberdeen University to defend ‘conventional’ Christianity.

Three of the issues addressed in the programmes were that Jesus never called himself God in the Gospels; that the titles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (e.g. ‘Son of God’) were not in fact used during his lifetime; and that Jesus, as a Jew, was hardly likely to have claimed to be God.

Betty Saunders wrote a front page article for the Church Times castigating the series for casting doubt on the truth of the Gospel.

The Sunday Times described the programmes as ‘a decent popular statement of the present state of New Testament scholarship’.

The Listener said ‘It was hard to see how anyone but the most fanatical literalist could have been offended by a scrupulously phrased, lucid and quite fascinating script, in which 100 years of biblical scholarship were summarised’.

A review by Kenneth Grayston in the Methodist Recorder dismissed the programme as an ‘overstuffed first-year undergraduate lecture’. He concluded by saying: ‘I wonder how many people in our congregations know enough about the contents of the Gospels to realise what the fuss is about.’

Gerald Priestland, then religious affairs correspondent of the BBC, attributed the fuss to the conservatism and illiteracy of the clergy.

Chris Dunkley, TV critic of the Financial Times, wrote: ‘The hostility shown to Jesus: the Evidence reeks of the same intolerant fear of facts that was displayed by the Inquisition when they threatened Galileo with the rack in order to force him to recant his fearful heresy.’

On 29 April 1984 ITV’s religious programme Credo discussed the Channel 4 programme. David Jenkins, then professor of Theology at Leeds University and Bishop-designate of Durham, said of the Nativity: ‘I wouldn’t put it past God to arrange for a virgin birth if he wanted to, but I very much doubt if he would’ and called the Resurrection ‘a series of experiences’ rather than an event.

All that was thirty-five years ago. I find myself wondering frequently how many Church of England Archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, Directors of Ordinands, Deans, Canons, clergy, chaplains, ordinands, selectors of candidates for ordination and the episcopacy, staff at Church House, members of General Synod, and congregational members of the Church of England still believe that Jesus thought of himself as divine, the Son of God. How many think that Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives are historically true? How many think the resurrection narratives in the four gospels are accurate historical accounts of an event that happened? How many clergy and lay people preach and teach that the birth and resurrection narratives are reliable records of actual historical events?

Are clergy, as Gerald Priestland claimed, still conservative and illiterate? Is the Church of England still intolerant of facts as Chris Dunkley wrote? Would bishop David Jenkins be vilified again today?

I never wrote so transparently about my faith when I was Director of Changing Attitude because I knew that the hostility directed at me for daring to challenge so-called ‘orthodox’ church teaching about sexuality and gender would be multiplied exponentially if I had written honestly about what I do and don’t believe.

I’m curious in advance to see how people react to this blog.