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From ‘Downton’ to Jerusalem, actor Hugh Bonneville searches for Jesus

High Bonneville at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem while filming “Jesus: Countdown to Calvary.” Photo courtesy of Jesus:Countdown to Calvary

Hugh Bonneville at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem while filming “Jesus: Countdown to Calvary.” Photo courtesy of American Public Television

(RNS) — Of course an actor like Hugh Bonneville would be captivated by the drama of the last week of Jesus’ life, with his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, his challenging of the priests in the temple, his betrayal by Judas and his sentencing to crucifixion at the hands of a mob.

What will surprise many is that Bonneville, 54, whose biggest role to date has been as Lord Grantham in “Downton Abbey,” has a theology degree from Cambridge University, where he was taught Christian history by Rowan Williams, formerly the archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England.

After Cambridge, Bonneville went on to drama school, but last year he packed a suitcase full of his old Cambridge textbooks and headed for Jerusalem to research and retrace the last tumultuous days of of Jesus’ life. The result is a new hourlong documentary, “Jesus: Countdown to Calvary,” which will air on most public television stations before Easter.

Bonneville does not examine the merits or failings of Christianity. He does not get into question of faith or supernatural belief or the divinity of Jesus. Instead, he and the documentary’s makers (Raidió Teilifís Éireann, ARTE and American Public Television) look at the historical, economic and sociological factors that contributed to making Jerusalem a powder keg in the days before Jesus’ crucifixion.

“This is a place where history and faith come together,” Bonneville says in the opening section of the documentary, standing before the sunny, heat-kissed stones of the old city. “Whether you are a person of faith or of none, you cannot escape the fact that the last six days of this man’s life, and his death, changed the world.”

Bonneville sat down with Religion News Service to talk about the documentary and the events leading up to Easter Sunday. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to host this documentary look at the final days of Jesus?

It was quite simply that the religion unit at RTE got in touch and said, look, I know you did theology — is this an area you would like to have a look at again? And I said sure. They knew the synoptic Gospels (the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark and Luke, which tell different versions of the same events) were something I had been interested in and the road to Calvary comes up over and over in them. The synoptic Gospels are something I have a detective forensic interest in. But, as I said in the documentary, I haven’t touched those books in 35 years.

The film is decidedly secular in its approach. Why?

Let me put it this way. I went to university as an atheist and I came out agnostic. I have a healthy respect for all religions, but being outside the leap of faith myself, I found historical objectivity a better methodology for me. I had fantastic tutors at Cambridge — Rowan Williams taught me early church history. They wear their faith and their scholarship with great balance. But I have always found myself standing back, not in an effort to deride belief, but because I just don’t have that.

That is why I was very keen on this project to stop at the cross, to say Jesus wasn’t a Christian — he was a Jew. And from what I can tell he wanted to be the best Jew he could be and that is really at the heart of what led to a potential riot in Jerusalem that could have gotten out of hand.

I think that had I gone into the program merely wanting to endorse or reaffirm my own religious position that would have been a different angle. I hope to make the program more accessible to more people and that more people will understand this story, be they atheists or Christians or Jews or whatever. That is really a long way of saying I found it a more engaging way to tell the story and make it more accessible by not having a Christian predisposition.

Hugh Bonneville in Jerusalem while filming “Jesus: Countdown to Calvary.” Photo courtesy of American Public Television

What do you think is the overarching message of the last five days of Jesus’ life?

What really struck me when I was in Jerusalem was really understanding, in a way I had not before, things in the Gospels like Jesus “went up to Jerusalem.” When you are standing on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, you see it is on an incline. Looking across the Mount of Olives (where Jesus and his disciples are supposed to have slept during Holy Week), I understood for the first time that these are real stories and real places. They may be interpreted differently, but they are based on fact.

But what really came to me was the size of Jerusalem. In the last week of Jesus’ life 10 times the population of Jerusalem was suddenly sprawling over the city and you realize what a tinderbox it must have been. And I think one thing I took away was the really overwhelming pressure on the different political forces in Jerusalem at that time — the flashpoint of the mob and the way crowds can turn quickly. And the understanding that it was the Romans who killed Jesus, not the Jews.  That’s not a very succinct answer, but what I would like people to take away is an understanding of the political forces at work when a maverick preacher like Jesus got out of line.

In the documentary, you discuss the motivations of Caiaphus, Pilate and Jesus with various scholars, and speculate about why Judas would betray his friend with the Israeli author Amos Oz. Which of these characters would you want to play in a movie or play?

Well, I played Pilate in a television version (of “Ben Hur“)and he was a very nasty piece of work. I think Caiaphus is very interesting because he is trying to keep together the running of the temple at the busiest time of year. He is trying to keep the law and order in the city so the Jews can get back to practicing their faith. When anyone like Jesus comes along to challenge the status quo he is going to get nervous. I think that is almost an impossible position to be in and would be fascinating to play.

And I love Amos Oz’s point of view that we should thank Judas because without him we wouldn’t have Christianity. You have to understand his role, you cannot condemn him. I think that is a very interesting reassessment of Judas, that he was actually trying to help Jesus. If he hadn’t betrayed Jesus, how would Jesus have gotten to the cross? The part he played in the inevitable road to Calvary is vital.

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

85 Comments

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  • Want to get to know Jesus?

    “Father, I know that I have broken your laws and my sins have separated me from you. I am truly sorry, and now I want to turn away from my past sinful life toward you. Please forgive me, and help me avoid sinning again. I believe that your son, Jesus Christ died for my sins, was resurrected from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. I invite Jesus to become the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward. Please send your Holy Spirit to help me obey You, and to do Your will for the rest of my life. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”
    Pray it in earnest. Read a Bible. Go to a Bible teaching church – Interdenominational; Baptist, they are becoming less and less, but reputable churches can still be found – for now.
    If you attend a liberal church, you’ll get liberal theology, not Christ’s word.

  • Insert tab A into slot B, deposit $10, keep hands inside the safety rail, and be cautious of high velocity puke.

  • “Please send your Holy Spirit to help me obey You, and to do Your will for the rest of my life.”

    He’s tryin’ to!

  • DOT 1. “Jesus … wanted to be the best Jew he could be”.

    DOT 2. “Thank Judas [for me] because without him we wouldn’t have Christianity.”

    DOT 3. “I went to university as an atheist … Rowan Williams taught me … and I came out agnostic.”

    All the dots connected now, making for a picture-perfect sense of brother Hugh Bonneville.

  • “He’s tryin’ to” in sister sandinwindsor’s life but not, unfortunately, in yours – you cryptically mean?

    So you want me feel sorry for you? Why should I, dude?

  • Well, religion has been at the root of many psychological and physical ailments….and crimes.

  • You don’t know Jesus. Your actions speak that loudly. Ironically for you, Jesus was a liberal. That’s what helped get him killed.

  • Jesus was sentenced to death by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy (Mark 14: 61-64), not for liberalism.

  • I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. Never have 🙂

    By the way (as an addition to Presbyter Schick’s information), Jesus was then executed by Pontius Pilate as a threat to Roman rule during a potentially volatile time in Jerusalem as Jews of various persuasions and places entered the city for Passover observances.

  • HpO is correct: This RNS article shines a very interesting light on this TV star and his upcoming religion show. But honestly, I have no intention of watching this show.

    When asked “What do you think is the overarching message of the last five days of Jesus’ life?”, Bonneville — an agnostic who admits he hasn’t read his Gospels in 35 years — had no answer. However, his line “I understood for the first time that these are real stories and real places,” is genuinely important and worthwhile.

    So let me offer an alternative. On that day, just turn off the TV for a couple hours, and and just go surfing on an Online Study Bible. Simply do your OWN documentary about Jesus. You’ll have 100 times more discovery and interest, for sure.

  • He hung out with Samaritans and other outcasts that conservatives like you judge. He cared about the poor and took action to feed them and help them. He advocated taking in the stranger (= immigrants). He ticked off religious authorities who considered themselves orthodox. Yes, he was a liberal. Liberals are often accused of blasphemy.

  • Furthermore, your anti-Semitic point of view… There is good evidence that at this time the Jewish Sanhedrin did not have authority to carry out capital punishment. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate no doubt gave the orders for Jesus’ crucifixion, and Roman soldiers carried it out.

  • That does not nullify the fact that liberal theology in the Christian community tends to discount the Lordship and Sonship of Jesus Christ, up to and often including His Salvific role.

  • 1. Please indicate cases you know of in which I have judged Samaritans, etc. It sounds like YOU who are being judgmental, in this instance, of me.

    2.Caring for the poor, etc., is not the special property of liberals. Many churches and religious organizations are just as active in this, if not more so, than liberals, and have been doing it for centuries.

    3. What really ticked off the Jewish religious authorities, and was the last straw for them, was Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God does not make him a liberal.

    4. “Liberals are often accused of blasphemy.”
    That is true, because they sometimes are. Jesus, however, was not guilty of blasphemy, because he really was the “Son of the Blessed”.

  • That the Jewish authorities did not have the authority under Roman rule to execute sentences of capital punishment is evident to anyone who has read the Bible or, for that matter, Josephus. This is why they sought Roman approval for their death sentence against Jesus and which, after some wrangling, Pilate endorsed and allowed to be carried out.

    I am sorry if you think stating the historical realities is somehow “antisemitic”. But I realize that name-calling has taken the place of rational thought these days.

  • I agree. Liberal theology tends to do all that. It is like a weed which strangles sound Christian theology wherever it takes root.

  • I have said nothing antisemitic Demonstrate here and now where I have; you cannot! And I have nowhere said anything about dismissing it.

    But you are still promoting your false blather about antisemitism. Proof that you can only engage in name-calling, a poor substitute for rational argument.

  • It’s good that an agnostic is taking an interest in the Easter story. It’s likely to be an interesting and engaging show, appealing to a wide range of people whether they are believers or not.

  • Right. Just suspend all rational thought process and discourse, and engage in your usual comforting fantasies. Blessings!

  • There is no such thing as “sound Christian theology”. Theology is an exercise in imagination and fantasy. Not necessarily negative things, but not grounded in reality.

  • So, same content as your “blah blah blah” comment.

    And still incapable of substantiating your “antisemitism” claim, LOL!

  • You’re either wittingly or unwittingly reinforcing Christian anti-Semitism. Based on what I know so far, unwittingly is probably more accurate.

  • You still have not described what it is that I wrote which “reinforces” antisemitism. Kindly elucidate for me.

  • It would seem you are the witless one, since you can come up with no evidence for your claim. Next time, think before you write; if you are unable to do that, you will look less foolish by not writing at all.

    “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.” (Proverbs 17:28) That advice may be too late for you now, but you should keep it in mind for the future!

  • HOWEVER:

    (1) According to Clay Routledge, “Is religion good for your health?”, Psychology Today, August 31, 2009:

    “Religion is a source of hope and optimism … Religion promotes feelings of belongingness … Religion can boost self-esteem … Religion provides protection from existential threats”!

    (2) According to Natascha Klocker, Brigid Trenerry and Kim Webster, “How does freedom of religion and belief affect health and wellbeing?” Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, March 2011:

    “Religious belief was … found to be important in helping people to recover from traumatic events. … The finding that religious beliefs and practices are factors in assisting people to deal with stress and to recover from trauma are especially significant.”

  • Listen, Cannabis, it took “rational thought process and discourse” for both floydlee and HpO to comment a day ago. Just say you disagree, then unshutter all your basement windows, screaming with ex-born-again Christian, now Antifa, Howard Beale, “I’m mad as h*ll and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Let’s see how many atheists in your slum catch on with your rah-rah-rah. If a dog barks back, then, y’know, it’s telling you something.

  • “….Bonneville went on to drama school….”
    ” Drama school ” is a synonym for ” seminary “.

  • It sure is nice to know that your religious fantasies are so therapeutic for your personal trauma. Maybe if you were a stronger person, you wouldn’t need that crutch.

  • I think before he can answer any questions about the actual historic Jesus…we need to examine the claims of the gospel and ask why we should assume they are very accurate (especially given the decades of time that passed and how the story grew in the telling every decade).

    Don;t assume that which is likely legend to be history. Does not mean it CANT be history…but what are the probabilities?

  • “”I understood for the first time that these are real stories and real places,””

    I do not know what would make him think the stories are accurate.

  • I think it strange that he see agnosticism and atheism as distinct.

    Most atheists are agnostic atheists. Some are gnostic atheists.. same goes for theists.

  • technically…executed for insurrection.. The Romans could care less about Jewish rules.

  • Please read what I wrote more closely.

    I said that the Jewish Sanhedrin SENTENCED Jesus to death for blasphemy.

    I said nothing about what the Romans EXECUTED him for.

    In any case, he was neither sentenced to death, nor executed, for being a “liberal”, as Canis opined.

  • I doubt the Romans would have cared about some sentence by the jews.

    They would have had their own verdict — although they probably relied on the jewish officials for testimony (“He’s claiming to be a king and telling people to follow him!”)

    I suspect that the portion of Mark that describes jesus as creating chaos at the temple courts is probably what put him on Roman radar. It seems plausible that he may have even held the courts in a military fashion. The text says he would not let anyone pass — perhaps a clue that his followers were guarding the entrances.

    To the Romans that would have appeared to be insurrection…there was already a lot of that. Add to that the claims of the Sanhedrin and it’s not surprising they executed him (and probably cast him into a common grave).

  • Yes, I believe it is clear from the Scriptural accounts that the Romans had little interest in the Sanhedrin’s charge of blasphemy, and only took interest when the allegation of treason was brought up.

    However, I do not see any evidence for Jesus’ having been cast into a common grave.

  • I’m not saying it is CERTAIN he was…just probable based on common Roman practice of executed bodies. The story of the gospel that they allowed some Jewish guy to take the body seems contrived to me….to make the story work.

  • Then again, in 1968 archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis unearthed a first century tomb in Jerusalem in which a crucified man, identified by an inscription as “Yehohanon ben Hagkol”, was given a proper burial in what Tzaferis described as a “wealthy tomb”. So the Gospel account of Jesus’ burial would appear to be quite possible.

  • Your self-serving condescension is duly noted. I studied theology in Catholic seminaries for seven years. I have to disagree.

  • “I studied theology in Catholic seminaries for seven years.”

    And I’ve studied Catholic theology and church history almost since my retirement 18+ years ago.

  • I think not. Such positions are specious at best, historically speaking it makes their identification as Christians problematic, except in the most tenuous sense

  • Curious, too, myself, come to think of it.

    According to Cambridge U Dictionaries, whereas “agnostic … [means] someone who does not know, or believes that it is impossible to know, if a god exists” – “atheist … [means] someone who believes that God does not exist”.

    I’ll remember now. It’s what comes after the prefix “a” that makes the distinction.

    A-gnostic = without knowledge.

    A-theist = without god.

  • The gospel is ONLY an eyewitness account to believed or disbelieved based solely on the persuasiveness of its testimony. No different than when your mother tells you she’s sick and you don’t believe a word she’s saying. You don’t go, Why should I assume what you’re telling me is accurate. Then she goes, I’m your mother dagnabit! All the while she’s coughing and you do your scientific best to explain away that phenomenon.

    Then you realize it’s all that education you had and all your reasoning development that have converted you into A PERENNIAL DOUBTER & CRITIC.

    Way to go.

  • Thanks! Yeah..who’d thunk that education might lead to critical thinking 😉

    Your mother/sick analogy falls apart because the account of mama being sick is not some thirdhand book from 2,000 years ago written decades after mama’s sickness and then edited and changed over 100 years.

    In short….the gospels are most probably not eyewitness accounts (not one of the anonymous authors claim to be — and the author of Luke explicitly says he is not).

    Not a very compelling set of claims.

  • The whole atheist/agnostic thing gets murky because so many people have preconceptions about what is or is not atheism.

    I often just self-label as a non-believer (as far as belief in whatever religion being discussed). That way…we focus on the claims of said religion and can address why or why not they should be believed.

  • “A reanalysis of the skeleton, though, by researchers Joe Zias and Eliezer Sekeles in the 1980s took issue with this interpretation. They found that the nail was too short to have penetrated both heel bones and they were unconvinced that the scratch on the wrist bone was related to traumatic injury. More importantly, they showed that the bones were too degraded to conclusively show crurifragium.”

    Also..curious that they chose to re-bury the bones. Why not keep them for further study?

  • Zias and Sekeles are assuming that the feet were nailed together (as in modern Catholic crucifixes), and hence the nail would have had to penetrate both feet. Many ancient depictions of the crucifixion, however, show the feet nailed separately, so this would not be a consideration.

    As to why they reburied the bones, I cannot say, but it being Israel and the deceased being a Jew, perhaps deference to Jewish religious sentiments played a part.

  • “Vacuous” – this article by Clay Routledge, “Is religion good for your health?”, Psychology Today, August 31, 2009?

    WHAT DO YOU MEAN?

    “Vacuous” – this report from Natascha Klocker, Brigid Trenerry and Kim Webster, “How does freedom of religion and belief affect health and wellbeing?” Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, March 2011?

    EXPLAIN YOURSELF. You have 24 hours. GO.

  • See? That wasn’t hard. You’ve long decided, The gospel isn’t “very compelling”. So get on with your life – gospelless. Like I said, It’s just somebody’s eyewitness testimony to be believed by you. Or not. And you thought it through, then yawned, Nah. I’m cool with that.

  • Oh c’mon. You gotta give the atheist title more credit than “just … as a non-believer (as far as belief in whatever religion being discussed).” University of Miami now has a degree program in atheism & secularity. More & more scholarly books are put out for public education & peer-review. If I’m an atheist, I’d consider this day & age as heyday, peak, groundbreaking. Kinda remind me of my good ‘ol Jesus Freak days!

  • My life without the gospel is mostly the same as my life was with the gospels. Most Christians and atheists are the same people except for a specific belief.

    The gospels are not thought to be eyewitness testimonies.

  • That’s what I like about you around here. This simple yet profound input from you to whoever reading/discussing stuffs @ RNS – we are all “the same people except for a specific belief.”

    Thanks.

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