Thursday, December 30, 2010

More on the BBC's Nativity

Last month I wrote about the BBC's new 4 part dramatisation of the Nativity story in which they portray Mary and Joseph as a kind of couple found in contemporary romantic fiction. I pointed out how this modern notion of Mary and Joseph's "enduring love story" was in striking contrast to the ancient sources, canonical and non-canonical, from which we draw the story in the first place. For ancient and medieval Christians and for the sources themselves, there's no love story at all, not least because marriage was not about love. For one of those sources, the Protoevangelion of James, not only is there no love story but there's not even a betrothal - the adolescent Mary is initially more of a ward of a very much older Joseph's care and protection. Marriage is more an afterthought, resulting from Mary's pregnancy.

The Protoevangelion also attempts to show the danger pregnancy might hold for the young Mary and, surprisingly, for the elder Joseph too. It seems the BBC drama attempted the same thing, causing a bit of a kerfuffle as a result. Matthew is the one canonical source that alerts us to the fact that being unexpectedly pregnant when betrothed might be the cause of a problem by telling us that when Joseph learnt of her condition, he decided to "dismiss her quietly" rather than "expose her to public disgrace" (Matt 1.19). The BBC's Nativity wasn't content with that. Instead, according to this report in the Guardian

It shows the mother of Jesus trying to flee a hostile Bethlehem crowd and a
rabbi refusing her the haven of his synagogue, letting her escape through a back
door instead.

Unsurprisingly, the former Chair of the Reform Judaism Assembly of Rabbis, Jonathan Romain, who also sits on BBC advisory panel on matters religious, has come out and criticised Nativity for turning the Nativity story into an exercise in bashing Judaism.

"The Gospels tell us there was no room at the inn, not that a rabbi kicked Mary
out of a synagogue," he said. "Having survived Mel Gibson's anti-Jewish Easter
onslaught The Passion now the season of goodwill has been spoiled."

I can understand Romain's concern and I'm also rather puzzled by this too. I assume the makers of Nativity want to bring home to a modern audience the cost that pregnancy might mean for an unmarried woman. But honestly a mob chasing Mary through the streets of her town? It sounds too melodramatic, over the top, for my taste. Pregnancy for a single woman in ancient a Palestine would no doubt have been a horrible disgrace. Her life could well have been at risk, not only from the pregnancy itself, but also from honour killing within the family. Honour killings happen now in parts of the Middle East, including Palestine; I don't believe they're an invention of Islam. If not honour killing she may also have faced rejection by her family and thrown out alone into the world. Even if she wasn't rejected by her family, her suitability for marriage was now finished. She might end up as a drudge in the family home, instead - and encumbered by a child. That is, of course, assuming the entire population of Judea or Galilee or wherever it was Mary came from shared such ultra-negative attitudes to pregnancy outside of wedlock. But again we can't be certain. I suspect that the ancient population we term Jewish, may well have been more diverse in its attitudes and beliefs than we imagine. Nevertheless, female virginity has always been highly rated in marriage economies and I think it a safe bet that most inhabitants of Judea and Galilee and even Samaria had that much in common. But a mob chasing a pregnant 14 year old through the streets, I don't think so. I suspect the programme's makers have as an intertext the story of the woman taken in adultery. But adultery is a different matter - it's a crime against the husband's ownership of his wife's womb and sexuality. The gospel passage doesn't say but the woman would have been a wife caught or accused of being with another man. Mary was not a wife, yet.

I also have a problem with the portrayal of the rabbi, who I beleive is also wearing a prayer shawl. Now I haven't seen Nativity but it sounds as if the rabbi is in relationship to the local synagogue as rabbis are today, at least in most Jewish denominations, and as most Christian clergy are to their local churches. In other words, here we have Bethlehem's parish rabbi. Now 200o years ago I'm not certain that rabbis and synagogues went together like horses and carriages. We get references to presidents of synagogues in the Roman world, but they're not necessarily rabbis, sometimes they were even women! Judaism was extraordinarily diverse back then and the Temple was also still in existence (plus a subsidiary Temple down the road in Leontopolis Egypt). Bethlehem is a stone's throw from Jerusalem and it's not surprising that, in the ancient accounts of the Nativity, synagogues don't get a mention but the Temple features quite strongly. There were Temple lands adjacent to Bethlehem where Temple flocks were grazed, most of which would end up as sacrifices. In Judea especially, priests were equally important religous functionaries, maybe more important than rabbis. Was there a synagogue in Bethlehem and if so would it have had a resident rabbi or any sort of rabbi for that matter? Rabbinic Judaism was just one thread in the ancient Jewish tapestry; it would take two or three wars against Rome and the destruction of the Temple and its cult to allow Rabbinic Judaism to become the norm for most Jews, and even then not without struggle and resistance.
I'm struck by the fact that Nativity has to resort to such melodramatic tropes to try and bring this story alive, especially given the richness of the primary narratives. Is it no longer possible to imagine worlds where marriage and love don't automatically go together? Is it no longer possible to imagine shame, disgrace and danger, unless there is mob violence involved? Or does the spectre of mob violence draw on, even invoke, a mixture of progressivist prejudices against the past mixed up with contemporary Western (neo-colonial?) prejudices against perceived hidebound and backward (Jewish and Islamic) alien cultures? After all, it's not that long ago, in my lifetime, when being pregnant and unmarried was considered a serious disgrace in our own English speaking and Western cultures too. And in many parts of the Anglosphere it might even still be.


  1. Thanks, Michael. Obviously, I haven't seen the programme, but it sounds as though they've gone astray in trying to enhance the drama of the story. As Rabbi Romain says, this is just another example of Christian anti-semitism of the kind that represents Christianity as full of sweetness and light in contrast to dark, rule-obsessed Judaism. It's a pity he didn't have opportunity to speak against the programme before it went to air.

  2. Obviously I haven't seen it either, Inari. I don't know if or when it'll come here to Oz. I wonder if the writers and producers or director even thought about consulting with a Jewish person about it.