Michael, if I may, first let me thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions about National Geographic’s upcoming ‘Jesus: Rise To Power‘ set to air on March 28 here in the United States.
JW: First, would you mind telling readers a bit about yourself (aside from being Assistant Professor in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick).
MS: I did my undergraduate + graduate work at Cambridge University UK and was also the Moses Finley Fellow in Ancient History at Darwin College, Cambridge before coming to Warwick. I work on different aspects of Greek and Roman culture, particularly religion. I believe strongly that it is an important facet of academia for academics to spend part of their time communicating their ideas and research to as wide as audiences as possible.
JW: What drew you to a television special on the Historical Jesus?
MS: This is not so much a series on the Historical Jesus – I am not a biblical scholar. I am a Classicist. In these programmes, I am interested in how Christianity develops in the 1st – 4th centuries AD within the Roman world. Romans were normally pretty good at absorbing other religions and cultures that they met. The interesting question is how and why this did not happen with Christianity. Indeed, how did the opposite happen: Christianity taking over the Roman empire?
JW: Why is it titled ‘Jesus: Rise to Power’?
MS: It fits the visual difference in the representation of Jesus from the time of his crucifixion – when he is suffering the ultimate punishment metered out by the Romans – to the way he is represented in images of the 4th century AD and later: in the style of a Roman emperor. He has – in his visual representation within the Roman world – risen to power.
JW: Aside from serving as Presenter for the show, do you interview biblical scholars, historians, and archaeologists in the course of the program?
MS: I am the writer and presenter of the show – I always work very closely with the production team on the scripts to ensure accuracy and good argument. I wont ever accept a script constructed for me! Likewise, it would be mad not to consult and talk to a wide range of scholars on all aspects of this programme, to name but a few who contributed: Prof John Curran, Prof Shaye Cohen, Prof Judith Lieu, Prof Elaine Pagels, Prof Dirk Obbink, Dr Helen Bond, Dr Boaz Zissu.
JW: That’s a fantastic cast of scholars. I would even say, stellar. How do you see this special? As an examination of the Historical Jesus or as an examination of the ‘wake’ (in the sense of a ship which has passed) left after the appearance of the historical Jesus?
MS: The focus is on the ways in which, and the reasons why, Christianity developed as a religion within the Roman empire from the 1st – 4th centuries AD. The key questions are what enabled its development and why did it spread? How, in under 400 years, did it become the official religion of the Roman empire?
JW: Many such specials end up doing something of a disservice to the subject since oftentimes the views of the experts are edited in such a way that their views are distorted. In this special, are the experts allowed to have their say in the final version?
MS: I would not work on a programme that tried to misrepresent scholars’ view, or indeed my own.
JW: I can’t tell you how important that is to myself as a student of the Bible. There are so many television specials which really don’t seem to care whether or not scholars and their scholarship are fairly displayed. As a historian history clearly matters to you. Is this presentation historically ‘faithful’?
MS: Every fact in a Nat Geo production has to be supported by a range of primary and secondary evidence. Nat Geo has an entire team which checks that we have done our homework.
JW: What do you think viewers will learn about Jesus’ rise to power that will surprise them most?
MS: I think what is most interesting is first the very varied Roman response to Christianity (it was not all Christians and Lions all the time), and second the clear evolution of Christian belief and practice during those first centuries (e.g. the Gospels we know today were not brought together as a canon until the 2nd century AD).
JW: How do you think this special is different from the numerous specials which air around Easter and Christmas?
MS: What I hope it offers is a story about an incredibly important time in human history that – whether Christian or not – viewers can find interesting, engaging and thought-provoking.
JW: Do you have plans to do further work in the subject of early Christianity for television? And if so, along what lines or about which topics?
MS: I am – and always will be – a Classicist. I was interested in this programme because it offered a chance to look at the issue from the perspective of the Roman world. I will continue to make programmes about the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, including later this year for the BBC in the UK.
Thank you again, sir, for your time, and your responses. The program, “Jesus: Rise to Power” airs on the NatGeo channel here in the States on March 28th from 8-11 PM Eastern Time. And check out Dr. Scott’s website here.