In recent years, ABC News usually has demonstrated a sensitivity about the importance of religious faith in people's lives, and has reported on faith with remarkable balance and fairness. ABC's reputation for religion coverage made the special Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus especially disappointing. Though the special aired a week ago, likely never to be aired again, the ideas it presented to 16 million viewers will continue to echo.To be sure, attempting in two hours to cover the whole of Jesus' life and to summarize the scholarly debates about him is taking on a lot. But two limitations skewed the search before it hit the airwaves.First, a misguided sense of journalistic detachment limited the special's goal to Jesus the man. Anyone who reads the Bible or simply knows the cultural history is aware that Jesus' humanity is only half the story. Jesus' humanness alone is not what made him history's most important figure. Speculating about the color of Jesus' hair or eyes tells us nothing of why he has so transformed human history.The scenes of worship and art hinted at Jesus' majesty, but Search for Jesus made no effort to grapple with Jesus' claims of absolute authority. No analysis of these claims appeared anywhere; everything was poured through the human prism. How can a report that claims to be balanced ignore the central claim that has made this person the most significant figure of the last two millennia? Second, Search for Jesus made no effort to balance its liberal sources with any American evangelical representation. Instead, Jennings relied only on one British evangelical scholar—Anglican theologian N.T. Wright—and turned far more to members of the Jesus Seminar. As a result, less theologically savvy viewers might conclude that Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan have incorporated as a business called Most Biblical Scholars Inc.
The Gospels and history
Other liberal scholars, not belonging to the Jesus Seminar, suggested that stories of Jesus matter but that the Gospels' depictions of history needed serious recasting. This schizophrenic reading of history is neither scientific nor balanced. Neither is it the only option. Where was any equal representation of the option that the history and stories cohere more tightly? One prominent example was the way Search for Jesus denied the Nativity account. This segment included a claim that Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. One "historical" explanation was that the name Jesus of Nazareth indicated he was born there. A simple rebuttal is that Jesus was born in one village and then spent the bulk of his life in another.Not one ancient text indicates what the experts claimed here. They produced no historical evidence—only guesswork undercutting what the Gospels present.Another troubling angle was the shallow hypothesis that the early church created the report of Jesus' divinely wrought birth. Why would the early Christians create a story of a holy Messiah being born of God if they knew they were covering up an illegitimate birth? Would such a flawed candidate ever have gotten on the messianic stage?The effort to compare Jesus' virgin birth to the "divine" impregnation of a Roman woman through a snake ignored a great difference between the two accounts. The Gospels attribute Jesus' miraculous birth not to any physical act but to the sheer creative power of God's word. The biblical account relies neither on snakes nor on any other creature for Jesus' miraculous conception. The alleged background is not parallel. The decision to present Jesus only at a human level effectively ruled out any genuine assessment of a claim for his divine birth.
>Jesus as guerrilla
While people can be grateful that Jesus has again become a topic for popular culture, it really is important that we examine Jesus by his claims and his effect on culture.A comprehensive search would not have reduced Jesus—as Crossan does so pitifully—to a politico who merely troubled some Jewish leaders and a Roman governor. Surely he did shake the establishment, identify with people on the fringe, and disturb the leaders in ways they understood as political. A real search for Jesus finds that his challenge was far more comprehensive and profound than the flat shadow of Jesus presented in this network special.Search for Jesus did recognize and close with the miracle of Christianity's eventual emergence. The faith's survival was rooted, however, in far more than a perception or possibility of resurrection. Jesus' impact was grounded in a life and ministry, as well as a vindication that calls on every person to take him seriously as one sent from God. This central element was uncharted territory in Peter Jennings' one-dimensional search.
Darrell Bock (DBockDTS@aol.com) is research professor of New Testament studies and professor of spiritual development and culture at Dallas Theological Seminary.
In last week's interview with Jennings about the special, we included links to several other commentators and reviewers.Earlier Christianity Today articles by Darrell Bock include: " For Us—and Creation | The gospel is about far more than heaven" (Feb. 11, 2000) and " Jesus v. Sanhedrin | Why Jesus 'lost' his trial" (Apr. 6, 1998).
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