Religion Professors Contribute to History Channel’s Jesus Miniseries
By: Nick Santangelo
It’s an understatement to say that much has been written about Jesus Christ. But in the run-up to Easter, the History Channel has given viewers a unique view of Jesus by exploring his life through the perspective of those who were closest to him. To make that possible, the network turned to a host of experts including Associate Professor Nyasha Junior and Professor Mark Leuchter of the College of Liberal Arts’ Religion program.
Eye of the Beholder
Key to a liberal arts education is teaching students to see the world through new perspectives. Similarly, Dr. Junior, who worked as an off-air consultant for Jesus: His Life, credited Jesus: His Life with showing audiences a new way of thinking about Jesus. The show’s portrayal is a multifaceted one thanks to a reliance on how biblical figures like Lazarus, Joseph and Mary Magdalene viewed Jesus.
“I think the episode on Joseph as Jesus’ father was interesting because it tries to show Joseph as a real person who struggled with his fiancé, telling him, ‘I'm pregnant, it's not yours, sort of,’” says Dr. Junior. “It’s complicated. There was a situation, so it humanizes Joseph in a way and tries to show him with what we might imagine would be very real feelings of hearing this news. So I think that's something that you don't often see. Usually, it's just a quick jump to the nativity story.”
Dr. Leuchter, who appears as an on-air contributor, thinks this reflects a larger shift in how Jesus is being portrayed in popular media. Historically, he was presented as a white Anglo-Saxon from the Medieval period onward in Western depictions.
“More recently, people have made an effort to present Jesus as part of what is today called the Middle East,” says Dr. Leuchter. “Jesus lived in Roman Palestine. Jesus was a Jew living in the Galilee. He would have looked and spoken and acted a certain way.
“What I think the series is doing is trying to paint a broader picture of the world behind the figure of Jesus as he appears in the ancient sources, in particular, the New Testament. This will, perhaps, affect the way people in more contemporary contexts in the West conceive of how Jesus might have lived and talked.”
To that end, Dr. Junior pushed for the entire cast to be multi-ethnic, as major cities in the region at that time would have been populated by diverse groups of people. While everyone who watches the show will have to decide for themselves if the casting worked, Dr. Junior notes that at least the cast is comprised mostly of brown-haired actors with some color to their skin.
In addition to considering how Jesus has and should be depicted, the show’s producers also had to consider how those figures who were closest to him have traditionally been portrayed. For instance, take Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who was said to have plotted to kill Jesus.
“He’s an important character,” explains Dr. Leuchter, “who, very, very much, gets bad press. Maybe, justifiably so in the New Testament, but what they tried to do with the episode was demonstrate that the historical Caiaphas had some very serious calculations to make about how he was going deal with Jesus of Nazareth. And some of those calculations, at least from the perspective Caiaphas adopted, were reasonable calculations—even if they turned out to be difficult and painful.”
After all, Dr. Leuchter describes Jews of the time as being a “small, vulnerable population.” It’s something he discusses in the classroom, making students consider the significance of foreign imperialism on ancient Judaism. Both his students and viewers of Jesus: His Life become aware of how Roman power affected and changed everything in the life of ancient Jews.
Takeaways from the show may differ from viewer to view, but Dr. Leuchter hopes everyone sees the bigger picture of Jesus’ life, understanding “that there are a lot of dimensions to the relationship that Jesus had with these major figures.”
Dr. Junior, meanwhile, hopes audiences see a humanized version of Jesus through this exploration of his relationships with other humans.
“I hope that people find the show interesting and learn a little more about the different characters that are portrayed,” she says, “and, of course, as a religion professor I hope that people are interested enough that they will perhaps read the texts for themselves and maybe do a little bit of research.”