This week, 60 Minutes ran a piece on firms that represent delebs: dead celebrities. Turns out there’s a big business in merchandising Elvis, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and the most recognizable face of our time, Albert Einstein.
As one firm explained, it’s a lot easier to make money on dead celebrities than the living. There’s no need for damage control after your client goes into rehab, tweets something stupid around the globe, or steals Taylor Swift’s moment in the spotlight. Marilyn Monroe’s agent doesn’t have to worry that Ms. Sexy willl get fat or wrinkled. James Dean’s doesn’t lose sleep wondering how to repackage Mr. Rebellious if a stroke leaves him in need of round-the-clock care. Both have ceased being moving, changing human beings and have been reduced to a one word brand.
In some ways, the same is true for biblical characters: dead and reduced to single-word attributes. Abraham the Faithful. Jacob the Trickster. Jephthah’s daughter the Victim. Ruth the Loyal. Daniel the Faithful. Thomas the Doubter. Peter the Hothead. Mary Magdalene the Fallen.
But biblical characters have some things going for them that most delebs don’t. One, a lot of people really, really care about the “real” story of their lives. Biblical scholars and fiction writers make careers pitching new biographies of the biblically famous, trying to change people’s minds about Moses and Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Moreoever, these delebs come to us through books, in stories. They may have been real people (some, maybe not) but they are primarily literary characters, ones that can be discussed and argued about. Readers have a way of always finding something new in stories, finding new connections between the words on the page and their own lives.
Mainly, though, biblical delebs don’t have exclusive agents. As much as interpreters may claim that theirs is the only authentic portrait of the past, no one firm or person owns rights to these stories. Even though Hebrew University of Jerusalem receives the proceeds from the marketing of Albert Einstein’s image, Abraham or Peter haven’t made those who claim to be their heirs rich. But the open source status of biblical characters has helped keep them talked about, argued about, and studied by the faithful and skeptics alike. Now, that’s real fame.