You may have noted that a couple of new dramatic treatments about Jesus are in the works. The One is a project of the Lifetime network. Nazareth is being developed as a series for Fox. Both are about the years between Jesus’ childhood and his adult ministry.
Who knows whether they’ll be good or bad drama? But I predict they’ll be attacked by many of the same Christians who didn’t like this year’s hit movie Noah. That’s because Christianity — Protestant Christianity in particular — lacks a tradition comparable to Jewish midrash.
Consider the reaction to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Billboards in Times Square, courtesy of the backers of one of the nation’s creation museums, urged people to “meet the real Noah.” Days later, a review in an Italian newspaper closely linked to the Vatican complained the film is more hype than Biblical. (I think that people who apply a strict theological litmus test to a big-budget, for-profit Hollywood bible movie are cut from the same cloth as those who do science analysis of Star Trek. Seriously?)
Jewish commentary on the movie, by contrast, was mostly about the quality of the production and the messages carried by the script. By now I surely need no spoiler alert about the story: Aronofsky’s Noah is a morally conflicted, environmentally friendly action hero (think Wolverine crossed with Conan the Barbarian, with a dash of Johnny Appleseed) backed up by angels in rock suits. One of the villains ends up in the ark. Noah and his children seem a heck of a lot younger than described in Genesis. And so on.
Why were some Christians so bothered? A lot of the story wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. Why were most Jewish commentators less bothered? Because very little in the movie contradicted the bare bones of a story that takes up so little of the Bible.
For many conservative Christians, sola scriptura! The Bible is literally true and is altogether complete. Jewish Orthodox tradition says the first five books of the Bible were dictated directly by God to Moses. But there was never anything “complete” about the text. Tradition says an equally authoritative and important Oral Law was given to Moses at the same time.
And from a Jewish point of view, asking where the text is “literally” true is almost as meaningless as asking what a number tastes like. An oft-cited rabbinic saying suggests there are 70 valid interpretations to every word of the Torah. From that Jewish perspective, the conservative Christian approach to scripture is like a chef trying to prepare a dish using half the recipe. Little wonder that the taste is different.
Jewish sacred writings are filled with stories that spackle in the gaps in the Biblical narrative: Abraham’s dad is an idol-maker and the boy smashes the statues. The tale of how Moses got his speech impediment. Midrash stories don’t contradict what’s in the text, but they can go far afield in making some moral or religious point that a sage sees hidden therein.
So the Genesis passage just before the story of Noah mentions “Nephilim,” divine beings who lived amongst men. What were these beings? Your guess is absolutely as good as anybody’s. Did they help Noah build the ark? It doesn’t say. But it doesn’t say they didn’t.
If the Jewish tradition had carried over into Christianity, there would be dozens — nay, hundreds — of widely recognized, respected and sacred stories about those years when Jesus left the biblical narrative. Not so much.
Catholic tradition includes some greater room for extra-biblical understanding. Mel Gibson famously (or notoriously, depending on your view), drew on some of that for his hit film The Passion of the Christ. In addition to the Gospel accounts, Gibson borrowed from visionary writings attributed to the 18th century nun Anne Catherine Emmerich and the 17th century nun Mary of Agreda.