Sarah Prime on the Life of Brian Conference at King’s College, London
Monty Python’s controversial film comedy Life of Brian (1979) turned 35 this year and a generation has passed since the uproar surrounding its release. Since then, both biblical scholarship and cultural mores have shifted, and the time seemed ripe for a renewed evaluation. The Jesus and Brian conference, held in June at King’s College, London, was the initiative of Joan Taylor, and drew together 150 participants from seven countries, including speakers from the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada and Israel. While this was not the first scholarly engagement with the Life of Brian (Philip Davies and James Crossley have both published on the topic — Crossley’s article is available here), it was the first time a major academic conference (at least partly) aimed to rehabilitate the film, using it as principal dialogue partner and departure point.
The speakers offered rich, diverse, and intellectually robust perspectives under a range of titles incorporating resonances from the film. Two of the Pythons, John Cleese and Terry Jones, brought their characteristic wit and humor, participating in a discussion on the first evening.
Such a conference could not have been held twenty or thirty years ago. “Scholars were not talking about Brian in the 1980s,” said Mark Goodacre. What then has changed? Bart Ehrman noted the steady movement of the study of film and popular culture from the academic periphery to the mainstream. There has also been an increasing focus on the role of reception in New Testament studies. The conference engaged essentially in an exercise of “reception exegesis” — a movement between an artistic presentation of the text that draws upon biblical tradition, and an exploration of ways of understanding the text itself through that relationship. As Joan Taylor explained, reception exegesis differs from reception history in that it is less dependent upon the authorial intention of those drawing on or making creative use of the biblical text. Instead, the very interaction between artistic presentation (beyond creative intention) and scholarly research interests is generative and fruitful, opening up further reflection. Ideas around reception exegesis have been developing for a while, and Taylor paid tribute to the work of Paul Joyce and Diana Lipton (who last year published a commentary on Lamentations explicitly employing reception exegesis) in the development of the concept. Here, then, was a new and comprehensive application of reception exegesis to New Testament and Jesus scholarship, with the Life of Brian as dialogue partner and hermeneutic tool.
A number of scholars discussed not only the film but also the reception of the film and how the Pythons were treated at the time, notably in the interview on Friday Night, Saturday Morning — with its allegations of blasphemy and offence — and also in the subsequent lampooning of that interview on Not the Nine O’Clock News.
What have the Pythons done for us? The conference noted several ways the Pythons have benefited New Testament scholarship. They have been part of the modern trend to question scholars’ presuppositions. As Davies suggested, the Life of Brian can help us unpack and dethrone our scholarly assumptions, exploring the extent, for example, of the power of tradition. Bill Telford referred to the hermeneutical problems of hearing the discourse across a temporal abyss of 2,000 years as deftly parodied in the film in the mis-hearing of the Beatitudes. Crossley asked whether the academy deserves the mocking it receives in the film, and to what extent Jesus scholars behave like Brian’s daft followers (who swiftly split into “gourd” and “sandal” factions). Discussions around ever-finer distinctions of the Jewishness of Jesus in the last 40 years or so (though largely post-dating the film) are a case in point. Crossley suggested that any number of Jewish Jesuses (as “moderately Jewish,” “robustly Jewish,” “very Jewish,” and even Jesus as “one of the most Jewish Jews of the first century”) are constructed against Judaism in a way that tends to assume a superseding, and that scholars should be cautious of and alert to this use of Judaism as a foil in the treatment of Jesus.
The Pythons also offer reflection on the perspective of humor within the academy. New Testament scholarship has always been particularly earnest and has taken itself very seriously — and with good reason, for there is a great deal at stake. Yet some rebalancing may be long overdue. Is it possible to do humor in a scholarly way? (And is this the Pythons’ question?) Or indeed is it possible to do scholarship in a humorous way? (And is this the academy’s question?) The need to acknowledge and embrace the absurd in historical Jesus scholarship was widely voiced and discussed — admittedly among this self-selecting audience. “Jesus had a fabulous sense of humor,” commented Amy-Jill Levine, “and it is good that Brian allows people to explore and open up that possibility. This conference says that you can critique this material and at the same time take it seriously and at the same time love it.”
Ehrman explored the value of parody as historical method. He suggested that all good parody embodies, highlights, and stretches aspects of historical context in order to provide insights — which should be neither over-used nor under-valued. Parody is thus generative of ideas. Ehrman’s own treatment placed Jesus firmly within an apocalyptic Jewish stream of tradition, which he terms a kind of “ancient science fiction.” He suggested that parody can flush out implausibilities — both within the text and in terms of method — by asking questions that one may not otherwise ask directly of the text, and his critique focused in particular on the reliability of individual eye witness testimony within the Gospel tradition.
Traditionally, religion and humor have not sat well together. Life of Brian, situated between the two, invites exploration of the tension between piety and mockery. This tension was a focus for Davies and others. Helen Bond explored the connection between religion and humor at its very limits: humor in relation to crucifixion. While at first glance an impossible challenge, the linking of two concepts that are not normally related can provide fruitful avenues of exploration. Mockery was undoubtedly part of a process that formed a standard Roman response to political troublemakers and aimed to cause as much humiliation and degradation to its victims as possible. In addition, Bond explored how humor might have helped onlookers (both ancient and modern) think about and process something as horrendous as crucifixion. The grim gallows humor in the face of a desperate situation picks up threads in ancient sources which suggest joviality as a final act of defiance, as a refusal to collude with the perspective and propaganda of the oppressor. Rather than offering iconic images, the film presents the absurdity of Brian’s failure to survive from Brian’s viewpoint, and the audience is distanced from authority worldviews that are mercilessly lampooned.
Another challenge for the study of any religion based on the concept of scriptural revelation is the correspondence between reality and the narrative world of the text. Steve Mason explored the issue of the subsequent weaving of a coherent textual narrative from the “messiness” of reality, focusing on the complexities around the hearing and preserving of variant messages, and the influence early receptions then have on later understandings. Bond commented that one of the film’s key achievements is to deconstruct the subjective nature of perspective, by illustrating the mess of reality out of which textual narratives are woven. George Brooke further suggested that the film subversively constructs confusion, combined with accident and chance, as the major identity marker of messianic groups and those upon whom they project their aspirations.
Finally, the historical accuracy of the film came under scrutiny — on the understanding that, within a framework of reception exegesis, the evaluation of “accuracy” is less important than the exploration generated. The question was asked: “What burden of expectation can we reasonably apply here to the genre of parody?” There was praise for aspects of the film’s historical accuracy and a recognition that it surpassed the level typical of the biblical epic genre, portraying some contextual aspects surprisingly well. Bond concluded that the picture of empire, for example, is much more multi-faceted in the Life of Brian than in other biblical epics, and this extends to the portrayal of a differentiated social hierarchy. Brooke compared Brian with the Teacher of Righteousness in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and highlighted the internecine struggle of resistance movements (a normative tension according to Davies). The Pythons had clearly conducted historical research in the process of writing the screenplay.
Nonetheless, the film also portrays a number of inaccuracies, including a lack of understanding of Palestinian geography (notably, for example, a Coliseum in Jerusalem). Some of these illustrate developments in scholarship since the 1970s. Martin Goodman asked whether the presentation of Judea (in particular relating to the level of organized discontent, portrayal of imperial oppression and presence of garrison troops — probably minus the competent Latin) in Life of Brian was more reflective of Judea in the 60s rather than the 30s of the first century. Scholars have of course been asking similar questions of the Gospel texts themselves for well over a century. Mason built on recent scholarship (post-dating the film) to argue similarly for the lack of evidence of organized anti-Roman tension prior to the reign of Nero.
For Guy Stiebel’s archaeological exploration, the question of whether the film is historically accurate is not important. The question rather is to understand, especially given limited evidence, what we can know about history and what we cannot. Stiebel urged caution over forcing the archaeological record onto our understandings of historical reality. He termed the Life of Brian a “pin to explode the balloon of misconception about historical reality, and how we understand it.”
Similarly, the question must of course be asked: “What have the Pythons not done for us?” As one would anticipate and hope for in such a forum, questions were raised, dialogue engaged, and notes of caution sounded. Drawing on a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” there was some debate about the targets of the Pythons’ parody.
The first of these was whether the target is really the historical Jesus. Crossley’s thought-provoking paper questioned the domestication and rehabilitation of the film on the basis that Jesus is presented seriously (albeit, in Brooke’s view as “a misheard figure in the distance who causes economic setbacks,” and in Reinhartz’s view as “bland in the extreme”) while the humor revolves around Brian’s story. As such, the target is deemed to be not the figure of Jesus, but certain aspects of religious behavior or scholarly interpretation, as well as the factionalism associated with both religious and social movements — all of which have more to do with the context of 1970s Britain (a key target for the parodic force of the film) than first-century Judea. Crossley, however, argued that the parallels between the two characters (and the presentation of some elements of the Gospels) are strong enough to evoke suspicion, and that it is in the very resonance between them that some of our presuppositions about the historical Jesus are subverted and challenged, thus constituting (despite the Pythons’ protests of innocence) “a major re-interpretation of Jesus.” The context for this discussion is an ongoing debate between Crossley and Richard Burridge, who defends the Pythons for their careful separation of Brian and Jesus.
Similarly, for Davies and others, the key question was not “Is Brian Jesus?” but rather “Is Jesus a Brian?” That is, does the character of Brian present a more credible historical figure than some constructions of the historical Jesus in the scholarly literature? While the dialogue will fruitfully continue — Chris Keith has already engaged the debate on the Jesus Blog — the suggestion here was that the current rehabilitating trend should not result in the subversive nature of the film being excessively downplayed. Like the Gospels, there are “fissures across it,” as David Tollerton noted, and the message is not wholly univocal, requiring due care. Secondly, there was discussion regarding the film’s targets and use of stereotypes. A range of targets (in no particular order: Christians, Jews, Romans, women, academics, trade unions, the British establishment, factionalism, closed-mindedness, fundamentalism, persecution of others etc.) is in view, but the treatment of those targets calls for careful handling. Adele Reinhartz deemed the film free of anti-Semitism but acknowledged that it mocks Jews along with other groups. She contrasted Brian’s proud, fierce claim for Jewish identity (ironically by using every anti-Semitic term available and adding a few) with the lack of similar strands of Jesus’s positive Jewish identity in the Gospel texts.
Amy-Jill Levine welcomed the dual relevance and application of the film to both issues in 1970s Britain and biblical contexts. Levine also asked, however, which stereotypes the film does not challenge or target, and therefore simply reinforces. She suggested that this can make parody dangerous — and the better the parody, the more potent and the more dangerous. By not adequately challenging stereotypes, for example about gender, sexuality, or Second Temple Judaism, might the film be unconsciously supporting popular misconceptions? A range of female roles is in fact portrayed – yet the diversity may often be missed amidst the dominant male presence. Levine considered the stoning scene within a Jewish context: in the Tanakh there are no examples of stonings for blasphemy or adultery, let alone mention that women (here played by men pretending to be women pretending to be men) should be excluded. While for Levine this raises valid questions about perceptions of Jewish violence and marginalization of women, might the scene not also serve to unpack assumptions of violence as gendered? Any lack of clarity over who the target is (1970s British society or Second Temple Judaism), or which elements are accurate and which are the fruit of artistic license, may serve to increase the risk inherent in the parody, and Levine urged caution. “We should be a bit nervous about the targets of our laughter. Especially if we do not know what exactly is being satirized, our laughter may well come at the expense of the victim or as a signal of our own bigotries. There is a difference between ‘laughing with’ and ‘laughing at.’” Levine commented further that an exploration of the musical score of Life of Brian may be of value, so that what we hear can be examined as much as what we see.
Finally, does the film deconstruct our Hollywood-inspired images of ancient Jewish life? There were some surprises from Levine and Turner, who both clearly indicated the extent to which our internal visual images of ancient Jewish life are conditioned by Hollywood. Levine considered evidence indicating that Jewish men in first-century Judea may well have been beardless. Did Galilean peasants then shave? This is uncertain, but the masculine symbol of the beard may not have functioned as a stable social demarcation for first-century Jews within Greek and Roman cultural contexts.
Turner’s paper on first-century Jewish dress proposed similarly that there was nothing distinctive here between Jews and their broader ancient contexts: ancient sources and archaeological finds indicate that knee-length tunics may have been the norm both for first-century Greeks and Jews. Within the film genre, the visual is a strong element of the message, so any claims for, or assumptions about, historical accuracy apply pressure. In Life of Brian, Pilate is correctly shown in a toga, but the garb of Jewish authority figures is more problematic. Sacral vestments were to be worn only in the context of Temple ritual; there is no evidence for the high elaborate headwear used almost universally in the genre (in contra-distinction to Jesus and his disciples).
The conference concluded with Tollerton’s exploration of the changing nature of blasphemy, both ancient and modern. Since the 19th century, a growing sacralization has been awarded to the concepts of freedom and individualism. Tollerton suggested that “the subjectivities of each individual have become the center of meaning and authority,” and that anything which violates the sanctity of individual freedom is understood as desecration. The definition of blasphemy, or offence (since the repeal of the UK blasphemy law in 2008), has thus become a contextual and subjective category. “The Pythons project onto Brian a convoluted insistence on individualism,” Brooke commented. Since the 1970s, the underlying values in our society seem to have shifted further towards those voiced by Brian, and in relationship with this worldview, he seems to speak with messianic voice: “Please, please, please listen … Look, you’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me; you don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals … You’re all different … Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.” In short — “we have all become Pythonists, and we don’t even know it,” concluded Tollerton.
The compelling panel discussion between John Cleese, Terry Jones, and Richard Burridge was as insightful as it was entertaining. Cleese’s answer to the question “What is the most interesting thing to come out of Monty Python?” was “As far as I’m concerned, it’s this conference!” The Pythons have been interested in and supportive of this project throughout, and as Taylor remarked, it has been a source of some surprise to them that the academy might be remotely interested in their film. If reception exegesis inspires creative links, the dynamic between the Pythons as a diverse “cohesion of anarchy” out of which the film emerges — and the re-remembering and the re-telling of its history a generation later — may even offer an allegory of the situation in the early church, as Taylor (not entirely seriously) noted.
There are few other, if any, single instances of a creative biblical portrayal which would be able to form the basis of a conference of this length and stature. As such, the conference suggested a significant movement towards the film’s reclamation by both scholars and believers (and those who are both). Taylor notes that while there remain elements that may be offensive, being offended may offer its own gifts, enabling us to reflect on what is of value and meaningful to us.
New Testament scholarship can be deemed both the target and the beneficiary of the film. Several participants reflected that if the film, and the conference, have encouraged us as scholars to recognize and reflect on some of the inherent absurdity in life and in our quest, and to laugh at ourselves, this can only be healthy. “When we see something as absurd, we make it strange again — which allows us to approach it afresh,” commented Goodacre. For Cleese, when we take ourselves less seriously, that is the moment of sanity. Burridge asked the Pythons, “If you had been told 35 years ago that some of the world’s top biblical scholars and experts would fly around the world to discuss your work, what would you have said?” “Well it’s just as silly as everything else” was Cleese’s reply — which sums up a great deal.