Smithsonian’s ‘The Real Jesus of Nazareth’ Has Problems With Faith

Robert-Powell-Real-Jesus-Nazareth-Smithsonian-FFBAnyone who’s watched any number of cable documentaries about Jesus and Christianity knows to take them with a grain of salt. Or a shaker. Or a bowl.

Airing Easter Sunday and Monday, April 16 and 17 (8 p.m. ET/PT, both nights), Smithsonian Channel’s “The Real Jesus of Nazareth” is no different. Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Franco Zeffirelli’s outstanding 1977 miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth,” it sends that show’s star, Robert Powell, on a quest to find the historical Jesus.

Like most of these documentaries, scholars rather than clergy discuss Jesus, and here, it’s a mixed bag.

Dr. Candida Moss — also seen in CNN’s well-done “Finding Jesus” — is a Catholic, and one scholar whose general tone does not exhibit overt skepticism, although she keeps her personal beliefs out of her comments. That’s too bad, because a scholar who’s actually a sincere believer is a rare creature in secular documentaries on Christianity.

Other scholars discussing Jesus include Dr. Bart Ehrman, a former Christian who now describes himself as an atheist; and Dr. Helen Bond, whose personal religious beliefs I was unable to verify. But in both cases, there’s a obvious skepticism about Christ’s divinity in their comments, and both are careful to avoid giving credence to any supernatural claims. This may just be a scholarly discipline, but especially in the case of Ehrman, it comes off as dismissal and even disdain.

In contrast, Powell is charming throughout, respectful and curious and kind. He’s a long-married father of two (he wed just before filming “Jesus of Nazareth”) and has continued to work steadily in British TV and film.

In a 1977 interview conducted on the set of the miniseries, Powell said:

Robert, whom American audiences have also seen in the films ‘Mahler’ and ‘Tommy’ explained it to me this way: “There was an aspect of Christianity that always distressed me. The meaning of Christianity is so simple, but its tenets are complicated. This is what put me off. Before I began this film, I had no particular interest in religion and absolutely no opinion of Christ.

“Now, I do believe in Christ and His divinity, even though I do not necessarily go to church. Prior to being cast in the part, my knowledge of Christ was limited to Sunday school teachings and religious stories, all on a rather immature level. I knew this would never be enough for me as an actor, to work with in developing a character. So I read the Bible through thoroughly, which I’d not done before, taking it apart and analyzing it. I also consulted works of reference and commentaries on the Bible because I wanted to obtain other people’s ideas as well.

“An actor has to be objective when interpreting a part. Nonetheless, after playing Christ for all these months, it would be difficult not to really believe in him.” Concluded Robert.

Overall, “The Real Jesus of Nazareth” is no worse than any of these sorts of documentaries, and better than some. But bolstering faith is not its intention, nor will it likely be a result of watching it. But, it is lovely to see Powell, now 72. reminiscing about the role for which he will always be best known.

He’s the best thing about “The Real Jesus of Nazareth,” but if you want to have a faith-filled family experience for Easter, I’d recommend just skipping this and watching “Jesus of Nazareth,” available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes.

It’s also on YouTube:

Images: Courtesy Smithsonian Channel

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