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Day One of Jesus and Brian

As indicated yesterday, I will now give a couple of play-by-play accounts of the Life of Brian Conference held this past weekend in London.  Luckily, I do not need to write up an account myself.  My friend and colleague from Duke, Mark Goodacre, also attended the conference and produced a very useful two-part account, the first of which I give here.  I have taken this from Mark’s blog, with his permission:  http://ntweblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/jesus-and-brian-conference-day-1.html   So, these are his words:

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It’s not every day that you get to go to a conference on Monty Python.  Jesus and Brian Or: What Have the Pythons done for us? is the mastermind of Joan Taylor at Kings College, London, with support from Richard Burridge.  The focus isMonty Python’s Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones, 1979), and how it interacts with scholarship on the New Testament, Christian Origins, the Historical Jesus and the history of early Judaism.  The conference began today at King’s College London and continues for the next two days.

As a long time fan of Life of Brian, and with an interest in Jesus films, I could not resist the opportunity to make it to this one.  Luckily, I have a conference in Denmark beginning on Sunday, and the chance to stop off in London on the way there made it irresistible.  Having said that, travel was not straightforward.  We had a flight cancelled on Wednesday evening and another on Thursday morning and only made it in in the early hours of Friday morning.  With no more than a few hours sleep over the last three nights, this does make it more of a challenge than I had expected, but I have no doubt that it will be worth it.

Joan Taylor introduces the conference

The conference began at around 4pm today.  Immediately one could see several scholarly celebrities around — A.-J. Levine, Bart Ehrman, Helen Bond, George Brooke, Martin Goodman, Adele Reinhartz, Philip Davies, James Crossley, Eddie Adams, and so the list goes on.  Kings College is right in the heart of London, on the Strand, with theatres and swanky restaurants all around.  As long as you are not in a car, it’s a fantastic location for a conference.  I tubed in from Heathrow to Covent Garden and had just a five minute walk.

Joan Taylor introduced the conference with a lively and witty piece on “the Historical Brian”.  She mentioned her delight that the Pythons themselves had expressed enthusiasm about the conference and her amazement to get a phone-call from John Cleese.  She looked also at the comparison between the Life of Brian and the Hollywood Jesus films, and especially King of Kings.  

Martin Goodman
George Brooke

Martin Goodman then spoke about “The Life of Brian and the Politics of First Century Judea” and there was a lively Q&A session afterwards.  George Brooke spoke third, on “Brian as a Teacher of Righteousness”, and got the best laugh so far when he said that Brian “puts the mess back into messianism”.  The audience were taking a little while to warm up, but they were gradually getting there.

From this first session we went upstairs for a nice wine reception, with a few of those posh little canapés going around on trays, the kind where you need about five hundred to fill you up.  As it turned out, this was the only food of the evening, so it was important to grab as many as you could, and I’m not sure that I was quite up to the job.  Rick Trainor, Principal at Kings, gave some opening remarks, and uttered the heresy that he had not in fact seen the film!

Terry Jones, John Cleese, Richard Burridge

After the reception, we returned to the lecture theatre for the highlight of the day.  In fact, I’m sure it will prove to have been the highlight of the whole conference.  Richard Burridge interviewed Terry Jones and John Cleese for an hour.  It was an utterly compelling session.  I have to admit that I was a little starstruck.  John Cleese took the lion’s share of the discussion and pretty much everything he said was quite fascinating.

Cleese expressed genuine pleasure that the film had resulted in a conference like this, and said that it might just be one of the best things the Pythons had done.  He talked about how good a director Jones was, adding that it was because he was a megalomaniac.  He talked about an alternate story line that came to nothing about Brian (or some other character) failing to make it to the last supper.  He spoke in the most disparaging way about the media (“second rate scum”) and expressed little surprise when Burridge mentioned how little interest they had shown in this conference.

Jones did do a Mandy voice at one point, and he generally seemed rather chuffed with the whole discussion while broadly happy to let Cleese dominate.  Burridge did a fine job of allowing them to relax and chat while at the same time reining them in a bit and asking some very interesting questions, including a discussion of the now famous Stockwood and Muggeridge discussion of the film, with Cleese and Palin, on Tim Rice’s programme.  Cleese said that he was an admirer of Muggeridge and felt sorry for him that his responses to the film were so poor.

Terry Jones, John Cleese, Richard Burridge

If anything, the discussion with Cleese and Jones was too good.  The hour went too quickly, and I could have continued listening for hours.  There followed an opportunity to watch the film (via DVD projection) in the same theatre, but over half the audience including most of the top brass flocked out, perhaps having realized that two or three canapes is not quite enough for dinner, and going in search of food and drink.  If the timing was not ideal, it was still nice to have a chance to watch the film again, all the more so in appreciative company, and good to brush up on it ahead of a whole raft of lectures tomorrow, all of which look like they will be fascinating.

The first day of the conference was every bit as good as I thought it would be and better.  Richard Burridge has an article in the Church Times here: Is he more than a ‘naughty boy’?and there is a pre-conference podcast here.

I will continue to live-tweet the conference tomorrow, along with several others, and all your reactions, using the #JesusandBrian hashtag.


Day Two of Jesus and Brian
The Life of Brian Conference

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  1. Avatar
    SidneyFinehirsh  June 28, 2014

    This was a fascinating, fun-filled, and at the same time quite profound experience. The fascination part came from a small army of scholars who offered insights into both the history of 1st century Judea and the invented history of Brian —the messiah/naughty boy — along with its satiric mirror held up to 1970’s England. The fun part was in their presentations that were laced (as was Bart’s own presentation) with clips from the film that reminded us of the brilliance of the Python parody, but also tied the knot between fiction and history.

    Obviously, the presence of Terry Jones and the ever provocative John Cleese compounded the fun and added, dare I say, a sense of frivolity to what was in the main a very scholarly proceeding. I think everyone there was star-struck and awed by John and very much enjoyed his repeated judgment that it was a “near-miracle” that such a deep and studious group was interested in their movie whose purpose was not history but only humor. He added that he couldn’t believe that such eminent bible and history scholars kept telling him how the film got so many things right!

    With all the insights and the mere fun, a number of the papers were rather profound in their analysis of history, the film, the historical Jesus, and the sociology of Palestine under the Romans. Bart’s paper fell into this category, and he broke new ground with a discussion of parody as a pedagogical practice.

    Amy-Jill Levine offered a remarkable portrait and discussion of women and social life in both the “Life of Brian” and for real Jews living under Roman provincial rule. Of course, Levine covered the film’s prescient presentation of transgender politics when Stan/Loretta announces he/she wants to have a baby even in the absence of a womb. I am looking forward to the reprint of her talk because it is well-worth a slow, careful read.

    I also found it particularly interesting that two great scholars of 1st century Judea offered an understated, but clear conflict of views. Michael Goodman described Judea between 6 CE — the dismissal of the Herodian King Archelaus — to the outbreak of the revolution (66 CE) as a period of relative peace with little reaction from the Judean masses or from the likes of the “People’s Front of Judea.” The closest thing to revolutionary groups in that period was the Sicarii who were really little more than brigands before 66 and the Zealots who were a product of the revolution itself.

    He pointed to the inconsequential effect of Theudas, The Egyptian, or the small scale riots over the sanctity of Temple. Goodman suggested there were very few Roman troops in Judea because they just weren’t needed. He quoted Tacitus that “Under Tiberius all was quiet” (which is also a pointed comment of the total insignificance of the crucifixion of Jesus to the Roman ruling class.)

    I am familiar with Goodman’s viewpoint that the revolution was a product of a factional struggle for power among the Jewish aristocrats and the inability of the Romans to find suitable Judean partners that fit their model of subsidiary regional oligarchs. When asked how could there not be at least a high level of discontent among the Jewish masses in the lead-up to the revolution, he responded that there may have been, but we have no evidence for it — a tentative historical positivism that I find very attractive.

    Steve Mason, on the other hand, pointed to all the incidents recorded by Josephus and Philo prior to the revolt portraying a simmering pot of discontent that was always close to boiling over. When challenged as to his difference with Goodman, he stated it was a matter of seeing the glass half-empty or half-full. My sense was that he was under-playing the disagreement, but I am not enough of a scholar to really judge.

    BTW: I was able to talk to Goodman after his presentation and can report that he is a gracious, very accessible scholar with an easy going manner. I was pleased that he acknowledged the contribution of my own teacher in the field, Seth Schwartz at Columbia University.

    I want to add a few words about the presentation by James Crossley who challenged many of our idealizations of the “Life of Brian.” The Romans in the film are, of course, a stand-in for British colonialism just as the People’s Liberation Front is a stand-in for 1970’s British unions and English left-wing sects. Crossley pointed out that the film paints Roman (i.e. British) colonial rulers through rose colored glasses. Yes there is the crucifixion in the movie of the “Jerusalem 139” (with one reverse Spartacus escape parody), but even then there are no nails, just ropes. More to the point is the punctilious Roman colonial administrator who is ever so polite — “Out of the door. Line on the left. One cross each” and his focus on the tidiness of victim’s march:

    “Crucifixion party. Morning. Now, we will be on a show as we go through the town, so let’s not let the side down. Keep in a good, straight line, three lengths between you and the man in front, and a good, steady pace. Crosses over your left shoulders, and, if you keep your backs hard up against the crossbeam. “

    As Crossley pointed out, neither British nor Roman imperialism was ever polite or less than vicious.

    As for the things that the Pythons got right, Katie Turner offered a very interesting paper on the costumes in Jesus dramas and what people really wore in the eastern Mediterranean. It turns out that Brian got more things right than any other “sandals/swords” film, particularly Mel Gibson who made the greatest pretense of historical reality. Turner pointed to a number of small details that the Pythons correctly portrayed such as the hat worn by Brian in the Coliseum scene, which is an authentic representation of Hellenistic headgear worn in the period. How did the Pythons know that?

    As best I can tell from the comments on this blog, there were two other blog members in attendance. I only got to meet one, John Paver. That was great —we immediately bonded over our shared interest in the writings of Bart Ehrman.

    And Bart, I do thank you for the graciousness and attention that you showed us doing the conference. You were the reason I even knew about the conference in the first place and the puddle jump was well-worth the time and the expense to get to London. It was awesome!

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