Television Review

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IF THERE'S one thing that can really destroy the spirit of Christmas, it's thinking too hard about Jesus. The Real Jesus Christ (Sat C4) put the nativity into historical context, arguing that the version of Jesus's life familiar to most of us is far from the Gospel truth. Around 25 years after Christ's death, the story runs, the nascent Jesus movement split into two factions, divided by their opinions on Jewish law. Perhaps not surprisingly, the side that wanted converts to be circumcised lost; this included everybody who had actually been acquainted with the historical Jesus. The side that allowed converts to keep their private parts won; this group, led by St Paul, invented its own version of Christ's life - virgin birth, wise men, star and all.

Paul and his associates were trying to get across the message that the new church was not just a bunch of shirty Jews out to tread on the toes of the Roman Empire. This message came in two parts: first, Jesus was made out to be at odds with the Jewish establishment, rather than the Roman civil government; second, he was turned into a spiritual leader, the son of God, his kingdom not of this earth, etc.

So the story of the Passion was, as the historians here agreed, inherently implausible, even if you omit the miraculous. Pontius Pilate was a thoroughgoing bastard, who would have been extremely keen to crucify anybody styling himself "King of the Jews"; and the story of the Jews plotting Christ's downfall was almost certainly made up. Also, he was probably not entombed (the point of crucifixion was to leave bodies hanging for all to see); and Mary Magdalen could only have claimed his body if they had been a married couple.

The historical figure who emerged most vividly from this programme was not Jesus, but Paul: a trimmer, a pragmatist, not a hugely likeable chap, and we didn't even get started on the misogyny. All in all, an interesting, if slightly over-dramatised discussion (rather too much footage of Israeli troops and police to illustrate discussions of the Roman Empire - the implied equivalence at least deserved discussion), but it left you short of excuses for Yuletide jollity.

One thing that did seem clear was that those feet did not in ancient times walk upon England's mountains green, which takes us seamlessly to Green and Pleasant Land (Sun C4). Having spent previous weeks stressing how very unpleasant life was in the British countryside in the first half of the century, the series ended by saying, in effect, "Oh, I dunno, maybe it wasn't so bad."

In this account, the modern countryside is a battlefield, populated by townies and country-folk, fox-hunters and saboteurs, farmworkers and machines, conservation groups and agri-business. It was a timely reminder that some of the recent rural battles have roots that go back much further. We saw a Yorkshire hill-farmer turned road-protester over the M62, 30 years ago; hunt saboteurs were active in 1963. The programme also showed that the disadvantages of intensive farming were never obvious: one farmer reminisced about the joy of DDT wiping out pesky flea-beetles. But the landscape it painted - arable prairies and factory farms - was undeniably bleak. Building Jerusalem looked a pretty remote prospect.