What follows is Playwright Matthew Hurt’s journey towards writing the play ‘The Man Jesus.’ It is still touring the UK and ends on 4th November in Oxford. You can visit the website here to see where else it is playing. The play itself was very good indeed, and I think Hurt’s own account below is very good, even though I will disagree with him that in finding the man Jesus, he does ignore both his deity and his salvific death to quite a considerable degree. The play is still worth seeing, and Simon Callow as multiple eye-witnesses is pure class.
“It was my grandmothers who first introduced me to the figure of Jesus. Their Jesuses were as different as they were. My French-Mauitian grand-mere’s Jesus was a figure I only ever saw at a distance; in churches full of oily mahogany and oriental incense, his skin painted porcelain, with pink bruises and maroon blood. Always bleeding, always on a cross. My other grandmother’s Jesus lived in the leaflets and Bibles that Jehovah’s Witnesses kept delivering to her front door. He appeared as a watery acrylic cartoon, always smiling, standing in the Garden of Eden amongst docile lions and bored giraffe.
The Jesus that Dorah, the Zulu lady who worked for my family, seemed to know was different again. Him, I never saw. But I observed the demands he seemed to make on her and her friends. Their prayers and singing would last for twenty-four hour stretches, conducted at meetings by the side of a busy road. The traffic never distracted them; their Jesu took them into a trance. The plastic doll wrapped in an embroidered pillow-slip in my nursery school’s Nativity play had no such effect on anyone. A five-year old Mary looked down on that Jesus with impassive shyness. Another Jesus: the Born Again Christians I met as a teenager described something between a superhero and a benevolent phantom, hating terminal illness in a loved one or rescuing a man trapped in a car washed into a river during a flood.
The cumulative effect of all these images of Jesus, layered one over the other, was to leave me with a bland figurine, in various cliched poses, of whom I had no sense whatsoever. So when I was approached to write a play about JEsus, my initial thought was: I have no idea who this man is.
But then the more I thought about it, the more I realised that something odd had happened. For all my disconnection with the figure of Jesus Christ, the stories about him, and his words, lived very vividly in my imagination – and always had done. I went back to the Bible and re-read the Gospels (emphasis mine). The more I read, the more clearly a figure – a man – started to emerge. He bore little resemblance to the Jesuses I’d previously envisaged. He was much more radical, provocative, brilliant and contradictory. Mainly, I was struck by how real he seemed. Not a cartoon, not a doll or an ethereal presence, but a very human being. An exceptional and strange human being, who, irrespective of questions of his divinity, merits being heard.
This play is not an attempt to reduce the figure of Jesus Christ to a mere man. It’s an attempt to peel away the layers of assumptions and the residue of mythology so that we can look into the face of a man who once walked on a very specific part of the earth, at a specific moment in time, and who has had an impact on the history of mankind beyond all proportion to his riddling life.”
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Where I have emphasised Hurt’s account, is precisely the point that I found most interesting: To understand Jesus, he went back to the Gospels and read and re-read them. He wasn’t satisfied with the plethora of Jesuses from his childhood and previous experience, he wanted to get to the heart of the matter – and that led him to the Bible. In discussions with people who are opposed to the Christian faith, they will argue until the cows come home about Christ this, Christ that, but rarely has one actually done what Hurt has done, namely, actually read the Gospels.