Screened on Channel 5 on Good Friday (having premiered on PBS on April 4th) this is the latest 'controversial' documentary promising to tell us something new. And it did. As seasoned as I am in these things, I must admit that I had not previously known a great deal about the head of the praetorian guard around the time Jesus was ministering, Lucius Aelius Sejanus; nor about Manaen the Herod Antipas's courtier/foster brother who is mentioned as a leader in the early church in Acts 13; nor about the reason why Herod took a shine to his brother's wife; nor even, for that matter, the times of year when palm fronds are/were available in Jerusalem. In fact, come to think of it, I'm not sure I even knew what a "frond" was before watching this.
The challenge for the viewer in all these situations is to both pick up new information, but maintain a healthy scepticism about what is being presented. This documentary is certainly no exception, leaning heavily, as it does, on the work of Simcha Jacobovici. Jacobovici was the driving force behind 2007's documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus and whilst someone else's voice is used to present the UK version of the documentary, Jacobovici is listed as an executive producer, is perhaps the most prominent of the talking heads and, based on the way he addresses the camera, may have actually presented the programme in the US cut of the film. The theories here are a little less out there than they were in The Lost Tomb of Jesus, but they're still essentially minority positions which have seemingly found a platform primarily because of their ability to gain interest (and therefore an audience and sponsors) rather than primarily because of the veracity of their new theories.
The central thesis here is that Jesus was under the control of Herod Antipas and perhaps also Pontius Pilate as the more acceptable face of religious reformation (compared to John the Baptist). Herod was attempting to curry favour with Sejanus, such that when Jesus was arrested around the time of Sejanus's downfall he was left politically impotent for a while. Sejanus's downfall and the resulting temporary impotence of Herod and Pilate gave Caiaphas and Annas the balance of power for a few short months. The high priest used this temporary cessation to get Jesus, who threatened his power, executed.
This is all very well, but it does appear to leave the whole theory balancing on the supposed seasonal lack of availability of palm fronds and very passing mentions of people connected with Herod in the writings of Luke. Suffice to say I don't think they can bear the weight of the argument.
The filmmakers claim that the only time the palm fronds were available to wave around was in the autumn, not the spring so that the events depicted as occurring in Holy "Week" may have lasted for as long as six months. This isn't a particularly radical revision in itself, there is almost certainly some aspects of the Holy Week narratives where the symbolism became more important than the cold hard facts. The filmmakers assert that it's in the week (failing to recall the axiom about a week being a long time in politics), but there's no reason why it couldn't be either the presence of the fronds, or the timing being around Passover that were imported to give the story extra theological power. If the filmmakers want to question some of these things, fine. But they look at a picture that doesn't, to them, appear to quite piece together and then seem to hone in on one particular detail without justifying that is. Then they use that to make a massive supposition - that Jesus's demise was linked to Sejanus'. But again, it's clear that Jesus was just one of a number of religious/political reformers. What's remarkable about him isn't the number of his followers, but what they said happened after he was executed.
But the link to Sejanus is weak anyway. It's assumed that the money that Joanna the wife of Chuza (Herod's chief of staff, we are told) was politically tied. This again is an unsupported assertion. It's not impossible, but it does assume that Joanna was acting under her husband's orders rather than her own discretion and that Jesus was susceptible to this kind of bribe. Furthermore, the fact that only Luke mentions her raises further questions. Mark is the oldest gospel why did he not mention her impact if it was so important? Joanna may have been Luke's source for what went on in Herod's court hence why only he includes the trial before Herod, but this suggests the link with Herod was hardly as pivotal as the filmmakers would have us believe (or else Mark would have included it). It seems at least as likely that Luke is doing as Luke often does and bringing in people around the margins of the story - particularly women (such as Joanna) and non-Jews (such as Antipas).
And then there's Manaen/Manahen who turns up in Acts 13. Whilst the link with Herod is potentially significant these events are at least as late as 44AD (after the death of Herod Agrippa in Acts 12). This is a big window of time. Large enough, certainly, for the Christian movement to reach and convince at least one prominent courtier to join them, but also probably too large for a Herodian spy to be still bothering to infiltrate the movement of a failed political reformer. The presence of Manaen's name seems unlikely to bolster a claim that Jesus was Herod's man.
Whilst the theories of the documentary do rather tail off as its thesis becomes more apparent, Last Days is well made with the usual mix of talking heads, dramatic re-enactments, motion stills of ancient-looking texts and location shooting. The pacing is good and the arguments, for all their faults, are well laid out. Certainly this is well above average for Channel 5, even if their penchant for complicated conspiracy theories over more straightforward explanations ultimately lets them down.