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Monty Python’s Life of Jesus

Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and his Times via Monty Python’s Life of Brian by Joan E. Taylor (Editor)
Bloomsbury T&T Clark (September 10, 2015) 304 pages

No – this is not quite a book review, because I’ve only just bought the book! But I am excited about the idea and, glancing at the book and the contributors, I have no hesitancy about promoting it. In 2014, the Department of Theology & Religious Studies at King’s College London hosted a three-day conference Jesus and Brian: A Conference on the historical Jesus and his times. This is the book of the conference.

I vividly remember, when Monty Python’s Life Of Brian came out, battling our way through placard-waving, pamphlet-distributing Christian (fundamentalist) protestors. Like so many, these people did not understand the film, nor that Jesus (played by Kenneth Colley) was actually respectfully shown in the film to make clear that Brian lived at the same time, but was not Jesus.

Shortly after the film was released, Cleese and Palin engaged in debate on the BBC2 discussion programme Friday Night, Saturday Morning with Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, who put forward arguments against the film. Muggeridge and the Bishop, it was later claimed, had arrived 15 minutes late to see a screening of the picture prior to the debate, missing the establishing scenes demonstrating that Brian and Jesus were two different characters, and hence contended that it was a send-up of Christ himself. Both Pythons later felt that there had been a strange role reversal in the manner of the debate, with two young upstart comedians attempting to make serious, well-researched points, while the establishment figures engaged in cheap jibes and point scoring.

Monty Python’s style of humour is a strong thread in my own. I think the historical Jesus had a wicked sense of humour. And I regularly show The Life of Brian as part of my teaching (and assessment: those who laugh most clearly understand most). I have seen John Cleese when he was here. And when Michael Palin came to Christchurch I bought his book, had him sign it, and had a good chat with him about the film – he was delighted to meet a priest who still uses the film. Now here is a conference that reinforces my approach – by some of the top scholars in the field.

Some of the topics to whet your appetite: biblical parody; free speech then and now; reception exegesis; expressions of identity and resistance in Judaea; Brian and the apocalyptic Jesus: parody as historical method; gender and sexuality; Brian and Josephus on anti-Roman sentiment;…

And here also are videos of their presentations:

Interview with John Cleese and Terry Jones

Spectator I: I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
Mrs. Gregory: Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Gregory: Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

Session 1

Brian: Please, please, please listen! I’ve got one or two things to say.
The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them!
Brian: 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 your selves! You’re ALL individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!
Man in crowd: I’m not…

Session 2

Brian’s mother: He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!

Session 3

Nisus Wettus: [a line of prisoners files past a jailer]
Nisus Wettus: Crucifixion?
Prisoner: Yes.
Nisus Wettus: Good. Out of the door, line on the left, one cross each.
[Next prisoner]
Nisus Wettus: Crucifixion?
Mr. Cheeky: Er, no, freedom actually.
Nisus Wettus: What?
Mr. Cheeky: Yeah, they said I hadn’t done anything and I could go and live on an island somewhere.
Nisus Wettus: Oh I say, that’s very nice. Well, off you go then.
Mr. Cheeky: No, I’m just pulling your leg, it’s crucifixion really.
Nisus Wettus: [laughing] Oh yes, very good. Well…
Mr. Cheeky: Yes I know, out of the door, one cross each, line on the left.

Session 4

Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Session 5

Mrs. Big Nose: [trying to hear Jesus’ sermon on the mount] Oh, it’s blessed are the MEEK! Oh, I’m glad they’re getting something, they have a hell of a time.

Session 6

Prophet: …there shall, in that time, be *rumors* of things going astray, errrm, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things wi – with the sort of raffia work base that has an attachment. At this time, a friend shall lose his friend’s hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o’clock. Yea, it is written in the book of Cyril that…

Session 7

Reg: If you want to join the People’s Front of Judea, you have to really hate the Romans.
Brian: I do!
Reg: Oh yeah, how much?
Brian: A lot!
Reg: Right, you’re in.

Here is Mark Goodacre’s academic blog on the conference (and here). He calls the conference “one of the academic highlights”.

For those interested in the debate mentioned above, it is here (You can start at 18:40):

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3 thoughts on “Monty Python’s Life of Jesus”

  1. The Life of Brian is truly a brilliant film, perhaps even Monty Python’s best. My favorite scene has to be “Romanes eunt domus”… That scene perfectly describes what a high school Latin class is like! I think I’ll try picking up Jesus and Brian sometime soon, it sounds like something I’ll really enjoy.

  2. As a youngish (well mid 30’s) teacher in a senior Catholic Boys’ High school at the time of this film’s release, I suffered much from the title especially as my sexuality was just becoming known amongst the students.. So I was never able to bring myself to see the whole film. Could they not have chosen John or JIm? 🙂

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