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Rageh Omar and the miracles of Jesus

BBC2 has just finished broacasting a semi-dramatised series of three programmes about the miracles of Jesus, presented by Rageh Omar. He is a BBC reporter, probably best known for his coverage from Baghdad of the second Iraq war, whose participation will probably have lent the series a degree of authority in the minds of some viewers which I don't think it deserved.

In the series we saw sketchy reconstructions of various miracles (healing, the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus walking on water and stilling the storm, for example). The culmination of the series was the resurrection, followed by the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, with a tailpiece about Paul and his interpretation of Christianity. The subsequent success of Christianity was represented as the greatest miracle of all.

Throughout, Omar paid lip service to doubt by saying "We can't know for certain what really happened, but ...". He said repeatedly that he wasn't mainly interested in trying to establish the reality of the miracles but rather in deciding what they meant to Jesus's followers and even, quite ambitiously, to Jesus himself. It soon became clear that what he was moving towards was the claim that Jesus was divine, and that this is what his disciples came to believe.

Of course, if the miracles didn't really occur their evidential value for the divinity of Jesus is nil, but Omar didn't discuss this, nor did he consider the possibility that the miracles were invented by Christians precisely in order to justify the claims they were making for Jesus.

The series begged so many questions that it's hard to know where to begin. What we didn't get was any acknowledgement of the uncertainties that have arisen as the result of modern textual criticism of the New Testament. To take just one example: the account of the resurrection was presented as if all the gospel writers agreed about what happened. This is manifestly not so. Nor was there any hint that the earliest version of Mark's gospel does not mention the resurrection at all; the verses that do mention it briefly are thought to be a later addition (see Misquoting Jesus, by Bart D.Ehrman). Indeed, the programme even seemed to assume, naively, that Mark's gospel was really written by Mark, something hardly any scholars believe today.

As for the claim that the early Christians all agreed about the divinity of Jesus, this is a long way from the truth. There was a huge variety of views about Jesus in the early years; on this, see Lost Christianities, by Bart D. Ehrman.

I found this a deeply unsatisfactory series. It was evidently Christian propaganda masquerading as objective inquiry. I looked for the credits at the end and found that it had been made in collaboration with Jerusalem Productions. So I went to their website where I found that their stated aim is "to support radio and television programmes which will be broadcast outside designated religious slots and which will appeal to those who do not have an active religious commitment." This explains the tone of the series, of course.

The web page for Jerusalem Productions also tells us that they were responsible for "The Monastery", an earlier series that followed a group of men who spent 40 days and nights in retreat at Worth Abbey in Sussex. That had a propaganda element too, but it was more honestly acknowledged than it was in the present case.

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Steven Carr on :

I never saw the programme, but I am willing to bet they did not recreate Jesus travelling to Heaven by first going into the sky.

Although this is recounted as sober fact by Acts of the Apostles, it cannot be sold to the general public nowadays as anything other than superstition.

So did they show the Acension?

Anthony Campbell on :

No, they didn't. I meant to mention that myself.

Simon Adams on :

Well there are plenty of programs that start off with assuming that the religious belief in scientism equals being objective. Why does the idea that the creator of the universe could have visited his own creation annoy you so much ?

Anthony Campbell on :

What annoys me is programmes that disingenuously pretend to be objective while really seeking to advance a particular viewpoint.

Simon Adams on :

But you have to have some range of viewpoints - and I suspect the only one that would have made you happy is one that looked for discrepancies in the accounts and therefore declared that they were all fiction. This is not what scholars think (as you claim). In court cases you often get reliable witnesses coming out with slightly different accounts - its in fact one good reason to consider them credible. If it was all invented it would be stupid to leave in contradictions in the accounts!

But you say things like "Indeed, the programme even seemed to assume, naively, that Mark's gospel was really written by the disciple Mark, something hardly any scholars believe today."

What "disciple Mark" ? Mark wrote what is generally believed to be the earliest gospel - based on the sermons of Peter. But he was a young boy when Jesus was crucified and definitely not one of the disciples. You accuse the program - one made by a Muslim - as being Christian propaganda. And yet your idea of an objective scholarly academic is Bart Ehrman!

Anthony Campbell on :

Certainly there is a wide range of views about these things but the programme gave no indication of this. Instead, it implied that the Gospels provide a direct eye-witness report of the events they narrate and that these can be taken at face value, which is not the case.

We do not know who "Mark" was. There is indeed an early (2nd cent) tradition that he was using Peter as his source but that is disputed.

In any case, it's interesting that the earliest Marcan texts do not mention the Resurrection!

I don't know what Rageh Omar's personal views are but the programme, according to the credits, was made in collaboration with Jerusalem Productions, an organization whose stated aim is to spread Christian information. This is of course perfectly legitimate but I think it should have been stated explicitly, since it affects how one assess the contents.

Simon Adams on :

The programs did NOT claim that all the Gospels were "direct eye-witness report of the events". They clearly stated that belief in the reality of the miracles is a matter of faith. You seem to have been annoyed by the program - the only reason I've replied is that you have made a polemical post about the program not being accurate and objective enough - and have made more factual errors in your short post than was made in the entire series. And you accuse it of not being aware of scholarly and yet you seem to base that on a single author who is not exactly the academic mainstream. It was a popular program for prime time broadcast - not something designed to deal with every wacky opinion out there!

And common - we're talking about the Roman empire here. We know their system of administration was effective enough to be easily able to refute some new threatening philosophy if it relied on refutable claims made about events still in living memory. Not a single contemporary Roman account accused the Christians of false claims about historical events - their reasons for rejecting them were based around they fact they had ceremonies where they "drank blood" etc. People like your Bart make arguments that are simply not credible given an understanding of the way the Romans administered their empire at that time.

Anthony Campbell on :

Bart D. Ehrman is Chair of the Department of Religious Studies a the University of North Carolina, so I suppose has a reasonable claim to know what he is talking about.

In any case, he is not the only scholar to have made similar comments. Other include Robert M. Price, J.D.Crossan, and Earl Doherty.

Anyone interested in an informed discussion of the issues concerning Mark's gospel should look at Michael A. Turton's site (http://users2.ev1.net/~turton/GMark/GMark_index.html).

Steven Carr on :

In court cases you often get reliable witnesses coming out with slightly different accounts - its in fact one good reason to consider them credible.

MARK 14:57 Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 58 "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.' " 59 Yet even then their testimony did not agree.
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The Bible claims that in a court case, the witnesses are not credible if their testimony does not agree, even if they agree on the main points.

Simon Adams on :

Steven Carr: "The Bible claims that in a court case, the witnesses are not credible if their testimony does not agree, even if they agree on the main points."

Where does the bible say that ? The bible is just reporting that many of the claims made against Jesus did not agree with each other. Its says nothing about "main points" or credibility - that is all from you. If your interpretation is right then why does the next verse say;

"60Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, "Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?" 61But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. "

Surely if the disagreement between those giving witness had made them not credible - why would the high priest then ask him to answer the claims ? I'd suggest it was because he was well aware of the realities of court situations - and that the gospel writers were also familiar with them. Only you claim to be an expert of what the gospels claim by reading things into the words that suit yourself.

Steven Carr on :

'The bible is just reporting that many of the claims made against Jesus did not agree with each other. Its says nothing about "main points" or credibility - that is all from you. If your interpretation is right then why does the next verse say...'

What a poor argument! The Gospel of Mark points out that these witnesses contradicted each other, and you claim So what? - they were still credible witnesses.

Obviously the anonymous author of Mark presented the witnesses as contradicting each other to undermine their credibility in the eyes of the reader.

tom on :

yes i found the main problem was the author of this site had a clear starting point of human objectivity and capacity to analyse and criticise this, it came across as the kind of classic arrogance of the "media circle". Honestly start off with your anti-Christian sentiment as an initial stated assumption at the start please then we can understand and appreciate your argument more quickly and clearly..

Anthony Campbell on :

Well, I think that anyone who has glanced at the rest of my site or other posts in this blog will be in no doubt about my "starting point".

Incidentally, as Simon Adams correctly pointed out, I was wrong to describe Mark as a disciple, so I have deleted that. In fact, there is no scholarly agreement about who the author of the First Gospel was. The text does not explicitly identify anyone as the author; the ascription to "Mark" is traditional

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