As a warm-up to the upcoming Winter Marathon presentation of The Last Temptation Of Christ, I decided to get all of the (silly) blasphemy out of the way. I started with some Kids In The Hall, where Dave Foley talks about the results of his recent archaeological digs:
Then we moved on to the long-form blasphemy. And while I’m mentioning blasphemy, have you heretics ever thought, like I do, that your typical scholarly introduction is more or less wasted by being placed antecedent to the text? It is written by one who has read the book and intended for an audience that is familiar with the book. Why is it in the front of the book? Those pages come before I’ve read the actual text! Well, anyway, this film review (like all of mine) probably works just like a scholarly introduction – best read after the fact.
Most people believe that Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian (directed by Terry Jones) is based on an original screenplay by the Python troupe. However, it turns out that it is based on an ancient, if apocryphal, text hushedly spoken of in scholarly circles as the Gospel According to Judith. What follows is an expurgated version (the one without the gannet!) of the opening of the Gospel According to Judith, so that you may compare to the screenplay of the film.
1This is the generation of Brian Cohen, the son of Romulus, the son of Aeneas. 2Aeneas begat Silvius; and Silvius begat Aeneas Silvius; and Aeneas Silvius begat Latinus Silvius; 3And Latinus Silvius begat Alba Silvius; and Alba Silvius begat Atys; and Atys begat Capys; 4And Capys begat Capetus Silvius; and Capetus Silvius begat Tiberinus Silvius; and Tiberinus Silvius begat Agrippa; 5And Agrippa begat Romulus Silvius; and Romulus Silvius begat Aventinus; and Aventinus begat Procas; 6And Procas begat Numitor, and Numitor begat Rhea Silvia; and Rhea Silvia begat Romulus, founder of Rome; 7And Romulus begat Aollios; and Aollios begat…
[here there is a lacuna]
8…begat Nauteus Minimus; and Nauteus Minimus begat Nauteus Maximus; and Nauteus Maximus whilst deployed in the region of Palestine lay with the Jew Mandy Cohen, of whom was born Brian, who is called Brian Who Is Called Brian. 9So all the generations from Aeneas to Romulus are fifteen generations; and from Romulus to the end of the Patrician Era are fifteen generations; and from the end of the Patrician Era to Brian Who Is Called Brian are fifteen generations. 10Now the birth of Brian happened thus: When as his mother Mandy Cohen was engaged as a harlot for the garrisons of Rome in Palestine, she found that she was with child. 11Then Nauteus Maximus her most recent customer, being a prudent man, and not wishing to make himself a public example, hightailed it back to Rome denying any knowledge, carnal or otherwise, thereof.
1Now when Brian was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem 2Saying, where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him. 3And lo, the star which they saw in the east went before them until it came and stood over where the young child Jesus was. 4And with honest intention they were come into the manger, and they saw a young child with Mandy and fell down and worshipped him, and they presented unto him gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, 5Even though Mandy wished they would not have bothered with the myrrh, 6But when they departed they realized that Jesus was in the next manger over and they took back their gifts, even the myrrh.
[here there is a lacuna]
1And seeing the multitudes, Brian and Mandy followed them up into a mountain, and Jesus began to speak, and he said 2Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 3Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. 4Blessed is the Greek: for he shall inherit the Earth. 5And there was much consternation among the crowd for they did not catch the name of the Greek who would inherit the Earth. But Jesus continued, 6Blessed are the cheesemakers 7And it was widely accepted that this blessing was merely a metaphor and would apply to any purveyor of dairy products 8And as the multitudes did rabble on about which amongst them had a big nose such that none could hear the sermon, 9Brian and Mandy shoved off for a stoning…
And so on. A critical reading of the Gospel According to Judith will demonstrate beyond doubt that the screenplay was cribbed almost directly from it.
Judith goes on to describe Brian’s first meeting with the PFJ (People’s Front of Judea), one of several splinter groups concerned nominally with the expulsion of Roman troops from Palestine but more typically occupied with in-fighting amongst themselves, especially if such rally-round-the-team could be done at a local gladiatorial event.
Brian determined to join the PFJ in their struggle against the Roman occupiers, and he was tasked with an ancient form of tagging as a part of his PFJ initiation ritual. Although Brian’s Latin lesson appears to have been interpolated by the Python troupe, Judith reports that by night he wrote anti-Roman slogans seven cubits high all along the temple in Jerusalem. Now a full-fledged member, he participated in a botched nighttime raid of the palace of the well-known Pontius Pilate, as a result of which Brian was taken captive by the Romans and ultimately brought before Pilate himself.
Judith spends several verses describing the lewd murals adorning the walls of Pilate’s judicial chamber. Interestingly, Judith is also the only ancient manuscript which notes that Pontius Pilate suffered from a speech defect, though the defect does not (as in the film) lead directly to Brian’s temporary escape from his Roman captors. Nevertheless, escape he did.
Brian’s fantastical rescue by an alien spaceship and subsequent galactic laser battle and crash landing mere feet from the spot of his original salvation by the machina ex machina is not present in Judith and would be inexcusable except for two facts. First, the chapter of Judith detailing Brian’s escape from Pilate’s chambers is interrupted by what appears to be the largest lacuna in the text (it only picks up again with Brian impersonating a prophet) and as such any account of Brian’s actions during that stretch is speculation at best. Second, the final chapter of Judith, also full of lacunae, offers this strange line, made yet more difficult to interpret in the face of Brian’s evident non-divinity:
17He is not here, for he is risen as he hath told us.
No “rising” is previously mentioned by Brian in the extant text. It is a reasonable supposition that it might have occurred during the Roman Escape lacuna, though a spaceship still remains untenable as an explanation for any scholarship residing outside of Python halls.
Brian’s turn as a street prophet (treated in the film as part of a ruse to avoid a single, continuous pursuit by the Romans following his escape from Pilate’s palace, but in Judith almost certainly dated years after the event) is another difficult passage. In it, Brian recites lines from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – but they are passages that by Judith’s report he was not present to witness, due to his departure for the stoning.
Nonetheless, Brian succeeds in drawing about himself the Cult of the Sandal, which is at best an effort that is orthogonal to his responsibilities as an officer of the PFJ and which ultimately leads to a level of public exposure that allows the Romans to recapture him and charge him with the original palace break-in, for which he is sentenced to his ultimate fate in crucifixion.
Although his fate is sealed, Brian’s salvation is nearly attained when Pilate’s great friend Biggus Dickus arrives from Rome (no mention is made in Judith whether he is accompanied by his wife Incontinentia Buttocks, though she would certainly have been scandalized by the murals) and assists Pilate in a traditional Passover prisoner pardoning. The fact that the crowd calls for the release of Brian (intimated to have been spurred on to this selection by Judith herself), rather than Barabbus, indicates that Brian’s ultimate crucifixion occurs in a different year than that of his near-stablemate Jesus, though whether it was earlier or later cannot be precisely determined. Nonetheless, the irony that both were born on the same day and both died of crucifixion shortly following Passover is one that cannot be forgotten when retelling the Life of Brian.
In Judith’s account (though not the film’s) the pardon reaches Brian on the cross, but he refuses it, preferring to die as a martyr for the PFJ. It is here, perhaps, that the Python troupe make their most insightful change to the storyline – given his recent activities as a popular cult leader, which certainly would have taken a majority of his time, it would seem that Brian has unceremoniously dumped the PFJ. To suddenly act as a willing martyr to a cause whose revolutionary claims to fame are continual backbiting with the Judean People’s Front and perhaps a botched midnight raid here and there seems a ludicrous decision for one who has so recently set himself up as his own man, and most scholars agree can it only be seen as Judith’s private and mistaken version of the events on Brian’s cross. Somehow this fact appears to have escaped Judith, though she poignantly reports:
46And about the ninth hour Brian cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
The Python troupe, like most scholars, identified this line as being directed at Judith herself, and interpolated another explanation (that of the first reported identity theft) plausible enough, if mere conjecture, to serve as the coda to this man’s story, The Life Of Brian.
The Pythons have chuckled it up a bit (though Judith, in contrast to her contemporaries, does admit to a fair but of humor in her writing) but ultimately they have brought to screen a story rarely heard – the only gospel written about a man who none can disagree was just that: a man. It took this story some 2000 years to get its public due and even then most viewers languish under the misconception that it is a mere fiction of the late 2oth century, but to scholars it is a step towards a fuller recognition – and a fuller understanding – of the Gospel According to Judith. Brian Cohen, the man, left us with a well-trod piece of wisdom: “You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!” Perhaps as far as his own story goes he was wrong. Perhaps the Pythons have already done the bulk of the work for us, even if they have got a collective big nose.