NEW YORK (CNS) — History’s refreshingly accessible docudrama “Jesus: His Life” will certainly appeal to Christian viewers and may be informative for others as well. Debuting with back-to-back episodes Monday, March 25, 8-10 p.m. EDT, the eight-part series will air in that time slot through April 15.
The series chronicles the Lord’s life from the perspectives of several individuals who played pivotal roles in his story. The first episode, for example, presents St. Joseph’s experience of events from the Annunciation to the Nativity. The second recounts Christ’s baptism and the beginning of his ministry from John the Baptist’s point of view.
Future installments will cover Christ’s miracles, including the raising of Lazarus, as well as his betrayal, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. Mary, Caiaphas the high priest, Judas, Pilate and Sts. Mary Magdalene and Peter will each take up part of the narrative. Historians, biblical scholars, theologians, pastors, priests and a rabbi interpret, explain and reflect on what the actors render.
Among the 30 commentators are popular TV evangelist Joel Osteen, one of the show’s executive producers, well-known Jesuit priest and author Father James Martin and Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, who famously preached at the May 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
When viewers first encounter Joseph (Ramin Karimloo), the artisan is happily putting the finishing touches on the Nazareth home he intends to share with his young fiancee, Mary (Houda Echouafni), once they marry. In the small town of 300, the surprising news of Mary’s pregnancy would, in Father Martin’s words, have “brought shame and scandal upon the family.”
On the top of that, Mary’s seemingly fantastical explanation would only have aggravated Joseph’s wounded feelings and sense of betrayal. Thus, after hearing her version of events, he asks: “Do you expect me to believe this? Do you take me for some idiot apprentice boy?”
Joseph nonetheless realizes that exposing Mary’s secret will likely get her killed. As recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, however, an angel comes to him in a dream, and referring to Joseph as a son of David, instructs him to name Mary’s child Jesus.
Connecting Joseph to David’s lineage, according to Robert Cargill, an assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa, would have convinced him that Mary was indeed bearing the Son of God.
The second episode enhances viewers’ understanding of Christ’s (Greg Barnett) relationship with John the Baptist (Doug Rao). While the Gospels focus on the brief but significant encounter during which John baptized Jesus, the filmmakers argue convincingly that the two must have spent much time together before Christ began his public ministry.
Mark Goodacre, a Duke University professor of religious studies, thinks it would have been a time of “learning from each other and being part of the same group.” More controversially, Cargill maintains that John “inspired Jesus to rethink his mission.”
With John a political prisoner in the custody of Herod Antipas (Anthony Barclay), the tetrarch of Galilee, Cargill says Jesus “took up the baton and ran with it.” But preaching “love and forgiveness didn’t square with John’s conception of the Messiah,” according to another scholar, Nicola Denzey Lewis, who is the chair of Claremont Graduate University’s religion department.
When Andrew (Adam Ayadi) — a disciple of both men — reports to John about Christ’s ability to heal and drive out demons, John realizes he “must become less.”
In addition to speculative ideas requiring careful discernment, the first two episodes screened contain some violence, including beatings and, most notably, a beheading. In keeping with the program’s overall tone of restraint and responsibility, though, the latter is depicted realistically but not luridly.
Provided that other potentially disturbing scenes such as the Crucifixion are presented in the same manner, “Jesus: His Life” will make appropriate fare for teens well-grounded in their faith as well as adults. Parents, nonetheless, may have to offer guidance when the outlook of experts diverges from the tenets of faith.
A fresh approach to familiar events distinguishes the show. The actors’ understated, naturalistic reading of texts some viewers will have heard countless times will help to renew appreciation of the story and its people. Joe Ainsworth and Ed Selleck’s scripts, moreover, add texture and context to the narrative.
The program’s emphasis on Jesus’ humanity makes him an approachable figure but may leave some in the audience feeling that the fullness of his divinity is being neglected. Thus, he initially seems diffident and almost star-struck in John’s presence. The affectionate bond between the two kinsmen, on the other hand, is both touching and uncontroversial.
Not everyone may necessarily be satisfied with the way the series navigates the tricky theological waters on which it embarks. But “Jesus: His Life” does invite believers and nonbelievers alike to appraise anew its subject’s incalculably enduring impact.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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