A conversation with Dr. Mark Goodacre, consultant for “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery”
First-class contributors from some of the world’s leading universities provide commentary to CCN’s original series, Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery by Nutopia Productions. Part documentary exploring the marvelous and mysterious artifacts emanating from the world of the Bible, the six-part series is also a thrilling and emotional drama, examining the Gospel characters and stories connected to these artifacts – the baptism, the betrayal, the Passion, the Resurrection and after.
One of the series consultant is Dr. Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. Dr. Goodacre received his MA, M.Phil. and DPhil from the University of Oxford and his research includes the Synoptic Gospels, the Historical Jesus and the Gospel of Thomas. Goodacre has acted as consultant for several and radio programs including The Passion (BBC / HBO, 2008), The Bible: A History (Channel 4, 2011) and The Bible (History Channel, 2013).
Paula K. Parker: You field of expertise includes the ‘Historical Jesus.’ What does that mean?
Dr. Mark Goodacre: It means that, you look at the whole historical context of the time and try to understand Jesus, not just as a figure from the pages of the New Testament, but also as a real, living, walking human being who was living in Israel in the first century.
PKP: So, you’re saying that, by learning some of the Jewish culture and what it was like to live under Roman rule, it would bring more a more colorful understanding of the Scriptures?
Dr. Goodacre: I think that’s right. It’s a case of embracing all sorts of studies than just purely Bible study. So, you’re looking at other people who wrote at the time; we’ve got great historical documents from that time. There’s a Jewish historian, Josephus, who wrote tons of stuff in the first century about what life was like; this is hugely helpful to us. There’s also archeology and other sorts of discoveries that are helpful.
PKP: If you were to name one archeological discovery that for you was most informative or interesting, what would it be?
Dr. Goodacre: I think that I found most interesting was when a couple of archeologists dug up one of the scraps of the Gospel of Thomas back in the late nineteenth century. About sixty years later, an Egyptian farmer found probably the entire text of the Gospel of Thomas. I think that’s hugely interesting. We knew about the Gospel of Thomas, because people talked about it in antiquity, but it got lost. When you rediscover something that has been lost for many years, there is nothing more interesting in my view.
PKP: Focusing on the CNN series, what is the importance of the Shroud of Turin or any of these artifacts to believers or non-believers?
Dr. Goodacre: People have always been trying to get something tangible of Jesus and the Jesus movement. People want something they can hold in their hands that relate to that movement. So, I think it’s the search for something tangible. As a result, you have all sorts of elements that basically are forgeries; at the same time, you have elements that have really good cases for being authentic. I suppose that’s the appeal of the series, to ask that difficult question about the authenticity of things that appear to connect with Jesus.
PKP: The radio-carbon dating done in 1988 stated that the Shroud of Turin did not date back to the first century. However, this episode in Finding Jesus also mentions people who point to other things that suggest that that research might not be accurate. How would you respond to that?
Dr. Goodacre: Speaking for myself, I am actually a bit of a skeptic about the authenticity of the Shroud. I think it’s much more likely to be a medieval forgery than an ancient burial cloth. Which is disappointing, as I would far rather that we had tangible evidence that connected us quite literally to Jesus.
The thing about the carbon dating is that it is never, I don’t think, going to be done again. There’s no way that the powers that be will agree to do it again. So, I’m afraid we’re stuck with the carbon dating that happened back then. I would be inclined to support that dating; I think it makes a lot of sense, of all the data, of having come from the medieval period.
PKP: With your expertise in the historical time period of the New Testament, would a Jewish person, like John and Peter going to the tomb, be likely to say, “Oh look; the body’s not here, but grab that cloth! Let’s keep it.”
Dr. Goodacre: [laughs] It’s a great question. I mean, I think they didn’t, but would somebody else have done that?
Part of the difficulty is that first century burial is a lot different from burials today. They actually had burial in two stages. The first stage of burial would be the body in the tomb in the shroud. After the flesh had rotted away and you were just left with bones, you had the secondary burial, where you would put the bones in an ossuary—a bone box—and then reburied it.
Would they have picked up the shroud? You would imagine they would have picked up any shroud—in normal circumstances—a year or so later, when the flesh had rotted away.
In the case of the Gospel, it is incredibly difficult to work out what actually happened because, the Gospels aren’t in fact interested in telling us about the shroud and are more interested in telling us about Jesus.
PKP: What value to you think this series will bring to viewers?
Dr. Goodacre: I think it will help people ask a few questions. I think it will introduce people to things that they’ve not heard about. For example, the Gospel of Mary hasn’t had a lot of coverage and there is a whole episode that explores the character of Mary Magdalene and also looks at the text of the Gospel of Mary. I think that will be quite enlightening to people.
If people are worried that the series is only going to be able things like the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas outside of the New Testament, I want to reassure them. One thing that it does is explore the New Testament as well and things that you can find out about these characters from the pages of the New Testament.
As with any kind of study, I would encourage the viewers to keep an open mind and look at these things and ask themselves the difficult questions. The interesting thing about the documentary is that one can go and study these things further; so much is available online these days. You can do a great personal study and investigation these things afterwards.
Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery premieres on CNN March 1 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.