‘Downton Abbey’ Star Hugh Bonneville Tracks Jesus’ Last Days

Hugh Bonneville

File under things you didn’t know: Hugh Bonneville, Lord Grantham from PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” has a theology degree from Corpus Christi College at Cambridge — but he still wants a closer look at the final days of Christ in Jerusalem.

Starting March 1 on PBS stations (check local listings for time and channel in your area), Bonneville is the host of “Jesus: Countdown to Calvary.” The one-hour documentary pairs him with historians and spiritual leaders (including Dominican Father Gregory Tatum) to explore the religious, political and social environment into which Jesus plunged on Palm Sunday, ending with the Crucifixion the following Friday.

It covers much of the same ground as a number of other documentaries on the subject — in particular last year’s “The Real Jesus of Nazareth,” with actor Robert Powell (star of 1977’s “Jesus of Nazareth”) on Smithsonian Channel. Both feature British actors in blue shirts and occasionally hats, walking through modern Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, discussing the life of Christ. Both also feature University of Edinburgh scholar Dr. Helen Bond.

Robert Powell, Dr. Helen Bond

Nothing new is uncovered or revealed in “Jesus Countdown to Calvary,” but it is nice to see the addition of Father Tatum to the secular scholars, giving a spiritual perspective to the historical events.

Generally, the documentary is respectful and reasonably accurate, but other than the addition of the “Downton Abbey” star, it’s pretty standard fare.

It does steer away from history and into speculation on the topic of Judas, especially with the addition of an interview with Israeli novelist, journalist and intellectual Amos Oz. His novel “Judas” offers an alternative to the general view of Judas as a betrayer.

From a review of the book in the U.K. Guardian:

The Judas that takes shape is a spy, sent by the Jewish authorities, to infiltrate the inner circle of Jesus, a preacher in distant Galilee who has attracted an enthusiastic following with his miracles and his reinterpretation of what it means to follow God. But Judas goes native, and becomes the most ardent believer in Jesus’s divinity, more so than the man himself. It is, therefore, Judas who encourages Jesus to take his message to Jerusalem, and Judas who presses the chief priest to have Jesus crucified, believing he will rise from the dead on the cross. When Jesus doesn’t, Judas recognises himself as potentially the first and the last Christian and, in despair, takes his own life by hanging himself from a tree.

This was treachery in a good cause. It is not a new idea. As early as the 14th century, Saint Vincent Ferrer, a celebrated Dominican preacher close to the papacy, was pointing out that if Jesus was truly God’s son, come to Earth to redeem humankind, then his betrayal had to be part of God’s plan. Judas was therefore doing God’s business, not the devil’s.

Since we have nothing but the Gospels to tell us about Judas — and those don’t clearly delineate his motivations– there is room in the story for imagination. When Oz is interviewed, though, he opines that “the Gospels, especially the story of the betrayal, the story of Judas, they were written in a cold-blooded intention to incite anti-Jewish feelings.”

Unfortunately, that assertion is left unchallenged in the documentary, even by Bonneville. It’s a shame that the producers couldn’t have returned to, for example, Father Tatum, for a response. It’s an unfortunate moment in an otherwise balanced presentation.

You might wonder, why do this again? Is it just a ploy to capitalize on the Easter season? Maybe, indeed, probably, but that doesn’t mean shows like this are without value.

To be honest, a lot more people than we’d like to admit are unfamiliar with the Passion narrative, so getting it one hour — without a great deal of supernatural overtones — could be useful for introducing the bones of the story to the unchurched.

JESUS: COUNTDOWN TO CALVARY is a co-production of RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann, from Ireland), APT (American Public Television) and European producer ARTE.

Image: Courtesy American Public Television; Smithsonian Channel

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