For several years now ABC News has been committed to prime time coverage of religious topics, including the early history of the Christian faith. The attempt has been to cover these topics like "a news story," often a point counterpoint format in which a wide variety of opinions about the topic are on display, a kind of cultural kaleidoscope of scholarly opinion and spiritually driven reflection about this faith's roots. These specials are intended by their producers to inform and put on display the discussion and debate that swirl around key figures of the faith.
Now comes a mega-special, a three-hour extravaganza, tracing how an early, tiny Jewish movement became a world religion by looking at its two most central figures, Jesus and Paul, The Word and Witness. Does this special inform as to the facts surrounding these two figures? Does it put on display the discussion that rotates around these two key figures of history? We proceed in its successive blocks, like the special, working in the twelve units or so it gives us in those three hours.
Prime time engagement
However, before we begin, there is one observation that must be made. The fact that network television would give three hours to such a topic shows how our times have changed. No longer is religion, and the discussion of faiths like Christianity, a "private" affair. Gone are the days of the 1960s when the claim was that God was dead. Far from it, now he has become a public figure, being given the same kind of celebrity treatment of other, more modern, cultural icons. Now ideas about the faith and its origins are being digitized and disseminated for mass public consumption, meals of content for millions of watchers, the public square going really public on religion. This new reality places a special burden on the church to know its own identity and history.
Inevitably, such specials produce a kind of cacophony of opinion, where one might end up with the impression that no one can really know what happened, since the scholars do not agree. Many of the facts appear to be a matter of debate and widely diverse opinion. So how much can we really know? Most viewers have little idea that the scholars represent vastly different camps, even as they hear them disagree. The differences reinforce a popular perception that when it comes to religion everyone sees what they want to see. So it is all a matter of individual opinion and choice.
The historic church knows better—she has a real story to tell—and she needs to learn how to make the case in a world where multiple perspectives are valued more than an attempt to sort out those differing views. The church needs not to sit on the sidelines and wag its finger at such efforts, acting as if such specials simply trivialize, badly misread, or offend the faith, no matter how on or off target the information is. At their best, these specials are a mirror of cultural opinion, an insight as to where many of our neighbors, whom God calls us to love, stand when it comes to truths that direct and move people at profound levels. Our neighbors will watch them, even if we do not. So more is required than a boycott.
At their worst, they can be seen as seriously flawed for the explanations often struggle to process the claims of God's direct activity, sifting the facts through more natural lenses. When the public square goes so public, the church had better be sure she is in the square engaging to hear the longing and the curiosity, as well as the derision and error that often accompanies elements within such prime time reflection. She also had better be ready to supply a take on the topic that explains why so many do find religious faith, more than just a compelling, inner personal experience.
The church needs to help people make sense out of life and the faith she represents. She needs to see the opportunity such specials provide to tell her story to those who may only know the prime time version of events. Sometimes such specials can be a good starting point for discussion.
Jesus and the kingdom
We start where the special does, with Jesus. The idea of a crucified Jesus as a surprising idea opens the special. It is an idea the disciples also struggled to accept as numerous gospel units tell us. They eventually got it. The opening scene begins with the song "What if God Was One of Us" in the background, an appropriate question as an opening. The early scene of Sepphoris looks at a city Herod rebuilt that the Bible never discusses but that introduces the complex Roman-Jewish world of Jesus. Marcus Borg is cited for infancy mortality rates, statistics that are likely correct to show how tough first century life was.
The move then comes to the kingdom of God, which primarily is discussed as a political concept. The kingdom is the overthrow of evil, no disease or starvation, a miracle. This is what Jews expected. This is also correct. Tom Wright notes how filled Judea was with rebellion in its recent background, another point that is correct. Next comes the various Jewish views of Messiah, of which there were several. Judaism's expectations included a political Messiah, a transcendent messiah, as well as a priestly messianic hope. This ended the first block of the first hour.
The picture of Jesus' coming is set against the backdrop of Jewish expectation, the hope of vindication and deliverance at a political level. This is all on target with first century Jewish expectation, as Jesus' message was enough of a contrast to elements of this that many Jews had trouble perceiving how he could be their Messiah given this expectation.
The second block on Jesus opens with what Jesus looked like, a rather theoretical question of modern interest as there is no physical description of Jesus in the Bible. John the Baptist briefly comes next, then a discussion of population in the villages. The kingdom is raised again. Tom Wright notes how differently Jesus presented the kingdom from Jewish expectation, a contrast to the earlier context. The radical idea is to embrace other humans beyond social convention. Luke Timothy Johnson makes this point. It is a key ethical dimension to the kingdom. God has come and made his hope available to all, not only to Jews. It is available even to sinners.
How the healing ministry illustrates this is also noted. O'Conner fuses sickness and possession. This is sometimes done in the gospels, but not always, as Luke's gospel distinguishes the categories. Jesus' effort to be inclusive is exemplified with Jesus cleansing the lepers, which highlights how Jesus embraced the unclean in contrast to the Dead Sea Scroll community, which excluded them. So we see Jesus as one concerned about offering the hope of God to all kinds of people. Here the second block on Jesus ends.
This portrait of the kingdom is incomplete. There is nothing about the work of the Spirit, a key that John the Baptist and Jesus pointed to in such discussion. Here is where God and humanity connect, a key omission, about the personal dimensions of one's relationship to God that also is a part of the kingdom's hope. This is the appeal to the new covenant of Judaism, a covenant Jesus says he initiates at his last supper and that he discusses in the Upper Room discourse.
The last week of Jesus' life is the topic of the next block. Tom Wright is again cited to say that a young prophet enters the city with tears. Debate comes on the size of the crowds. Ben Witherington is cited to note how controversial Jesus would have been and how we would have drawn a large crowd as a result. Again, Murphy-O'Conner puts the number of disciples at 15-20, odd in light of the fact that 120 are gathered right after Jesus died.
Discussion turns to the Son of Man. The Son of Man as an unending ruling figure is also noted. Debate about the origins of the gospels comes next. Witherington summarizes the conservative view, while Luke Timothy Johnson summarizes the alternate view but notes that an absolute gap between the events and the gospels does not exist, not as radical a conclusion as some scholars make.
The next question was who wanted Jesus dead: the Jewish priests or the Romans? The Romans are set in a background where the Passover time makes the Romans nervous—very true. John Crossan and Paula Fredriksen summarize this element. The Jewish priests are discussed by Jews and Christians, including Paul Meier, a conservative historian, who refers to Annas as a "Godfather" of the Jewish family. This is all correct. This family controlled the priesthood for six decades. Tom Wright argues that the priests wanted Jesus eliminated because of the temple cleansing, at the least. This is again correct. The threat of a public disturbance of Jews causing the Romans to act is raised, something Caiaphas himself says in John's gospel. Both sides of the scholarly debate recognize Jewish priestly involvement, but describe its cause differently. This is different than some recent debate swirling around the movie, The Passion, where Jewish elite involvement was understated.
The final block on Jesus starts with the Last Supper and the recognition that Jesus would have understood what he was facing and discussed it. Too much time is spent with Murphy-O'Conner's idea that Jesus was on the edge of a breakdown. There is emotional despair, but a breakdown is too exaggerated. The professor also notes Jesus could have escaped, so he consciously faced death. This is another correct point.
Judas as a fiction is raised, a highly unlikely thesis. Would the church invent a figure whom their Son of God picked to betray him? The special spends much time on this theory that has little support. Unfortunately, this is presented with no rebuttal.
Next comes the trial. Here Funk and Fredriksen speak against a Jewish trial. A Jewish scholar, Daniel Schwartz, speaks for it. Borg expresses the view that only a small elite of Jewish leadership were involved. However, it should be noted that their vote counts for a lot in this event.
Pilate is next. Fredriksen expresses the view that Pilate was a thug, noting citations from Josephus and Pilate. Spong says Pilate is "almost a saint." How a judge who thinks someone is innocent can sentence that person to be killed and be "almost a saint" escapes me. Rather, Pilate is portrayed as a torn figure, not knowing whether to execute or punish Jesus to satisfy his accusers who Pilate works with, or to release him because Jesus is no threat to Roman power, since the Jewish teacher lacks any army.
The contrasting view of Pilate is presented as well. Paul Meier makes this case appealing to Josephus, and Meier has the last word here. The debate about Pilate is fairly summarized, including the note of Pilate backing down a couple of times in extra-biblical materials. Paul Meier speaks to the fact that the Jews are not entirely collectively responsible for Jesus' death in the gospels, as some Jews are mourning Jesus' death in Luke's gospel.
Crucifixion is next, a horrible form of death. The charge is treason (Borg), or Pilate addressing Jesus' followers that there will be no kingdom (Fredriksen), or Jesus is executed for kingdom talk (unrecognized voice over). Jesus died of suffocation, another correct point. Here ends the ministry of Jesus block. It is a shame that the Son of Man debate from Witherington is not picked up on here with the Jewish elite and the trial. As the person of Jesus and who gave him authority is the issue the Jewish leadership debates. It is the Son of Man claim, as much as the messianic one, that they rejected because of what it implied about Jesus and deity. The heart of the debate with Judaism surrounded who Jesus was.
The resurrection is next. Witherington again is cited rather fully in discussing the resurrection appearances. The claim of resurrection appearances is treated next with jazzy Christian rock in the background. Debate on the resurrection accounts follows. Here is where Christians might react. Would this story have been made up as Crossan argues? Is Crossan right to speak of hope not history? This stark contrast is held by some but not most. However again the special does treat the other side. Fredriksen says "something" happened, a less than full explanation that does not take us very far but is a safe minimal conclusion. Tom Wright says it better. No way can we explain Christianity without a resurrection. Even the Jewish scholar, Daniel Schwartz notes this unique claim made all the difference. Three to one say something happened, although only one makes it exceptionally clear. This is not unusual for a "journalistic" summary.
Paul, ready for the end
Paul comes next. Paul Meier, a conservative, says he is a co-founder of the faith. Marvin Mayer says Jesus did not found Christianity, but Paul. This is an old view, but the bifurcation of Paul from Jesus is highly unlikely. No one can explain Paul's conversion nor his theological development without continuity with Jesus. The portrait of Paul starts with him as persecutor and then moves quickly to the Damascus Road. Paul had a "sudden and bizarre experience" on the way to Damascus. Rev. Calvin Butts says he heard a voice. Saul changed as a result and his name changed as well.
Jennings spends some time trying to get to the exact site and notes the debate about the location. The debate over whether the conversion was a moment or a process is interesting. It raises a typical "either/or" option, one often sees in debates about the Bible. All the evidence we have speaks of a single, key turning point. That is what should be highlighted. It is not inconceivable Paul had been wrestling with his actions and that this set up his instant response, but what was key to Paul's change of mind was Paul's singular experience which he saw as the basis of his call as Galatians makes clear.
The conclusion here was disappointing—"whatever happened here." Paul clearly changed here according to the special, while noting Paul did think he was living at the period of the imminent end of the world. This introduces a theme the special camps on. It would perhaps be more correct to say Paul believed he was living in the "end times," which would mean the era of fulfillment, however long that period would be, hopefully short but possibly long. Paul could contemplate either the Lord returning during his lifetime or Paul meeting his demise before the Lord returned, as his epistles like Thessalonians and Philippians show. Jesus taught no one knew the time of the end. Paul wrote accordingly. This concludes the first major Pauline block.
A discussion of resurrection as a first fruits comes next. Jennings again stresses the idea that Paul taught that the kingdom was about to come to an end. Witherington does note that there is an uncertain gap between the victory of the cross and the return of Jesus, raising questions about this implication of this emphasis in the special. The Kingdom as God's dynamic saving reign breaking in through Jesus is the definition of the kingdom, a point that is more on the mark as far defining the kingdom goes.
Paul, fully Jew and fully Christian
The apostles are discussed next and their initial jealousy of Paul, something Acts also notes at first. This is portrayed in the special more as a running battle, an overhang of the old nineteenth century view of F. C. Baur, but one that is less than likely, given that 2 Peter discusses Paul with respect while recognizing how difficult his letters are. The idea that Paul preaches a faith that seeks out Jews and belief in Jesus as an extension of Judaism is correct. His preaching in the synagogue in Acts 13 suggests as much.
What caused the new movement to become Christianity as opposed to an extension of Judaism? Historically, it was the refusal of many Jews in the synagogues, forcing the new movement to take on an independent structure as Acts also notes. However, to attribute the extension of the new movement to Gentiles to Paul alone is also misdirected. Acts notes that Peter and a group of Hellenists were already there. What Paul did was to give this movement to Gentiles its theological development and make it a point of focus for his ministry.
The idea that circumcision led to the split toward Christianity is oversimplified. There were views about Messiah and God's Son also at play here, no minor details. In addition, the special says Paul changed the rules on circumcision. Again Acts makes it clear that this move was not just Paul's argument. Peter argues that God showed this when Cornelius came to faith, and the all important Spirit showed up to indwell them. The church as a whole accepted this fairly quickly. Paul was one of those who most forcefully made the argument. However, he was not the only one making it and was not the innovator here as the special implies. This is a nuance, but nuances are important when they deal with ideas around which the church was unified.
Another popular touch appears next in the interview of folks outside of the Vatican about who Paul is. This detail shows what many Christians know, that many people do not know much about Paul. What made Paul distinctive according to the special in a way that made him controversial? Paul is the one who declared that you did not have to be Jewish to be a part of Christian movements.
Tom Wright says that Paul was the one teaching people to sing Jesus' music, a nice image. Nonetheless, the special uses this idea to turn to the conflict between Paul and James and Peter. This conflict is exaggerated. Paul was trumpeting what the church was also saying. There was initial debate on this question, but it was more quickly resolved than the special suggest. The solution even comes with James' favor that seals the deal, as Acts notes and as Paul Meier notes within the special.
It is correct to argue that the idea of salvation without circumcision was revolutionary in a Jewish context, but the point is that it was not Paul alone who was making the argument. As Witherington notes within the special, the "towering figures" came to agreement on the point. Yet the special returns to the conflict between Peter and Paul, a point that is raised in Galatians. The timing of this dispute is itself disputed. Was it before the Council of Acts 15 where the final decision was made or not? Either way, this dispute was quickly resolved with no acrimony in the end.
The idea that Paul laid the foundation of the separation of Christianity from Judaism on his innovative point is another oversimplification, both in the source and the cause. It shows the one glaring omission in the special. There are issues about who and how one is related to God that are involved in the early Christian movement that the special does not focus upon, namely, the uniqueness of Jesus for Paul. Rather the special stays focused on how spirituality and people relate to each other as the key.
This is but one of two key elements in the movement. Who Jesus was, what he means, and what he calls for us to be before both God and humanity were key parts of Paul's message. The special stays largely focused only on our relationship to each other, not on how one connects to God in summarizing Paul's message.
Paul in the Empire
Next comes how controversial Paul was to those to whom he preached. This includes a physical description of him coming in part from extra-biblical materials. Paul is now in Europe and its diverse religious culture is the topic. Rodney Stark guesses at the size of conversion in the early centuries, fourteen hundred or so. This is difficult to know. We know there were house churches that likely held fifty or so in several cities, so this estimate seems small.
E. P. Sanders discusses monotheism of the God of Israel and Jesus next, including Jesus at the right hand of God and his return to judge and save from the wrath to come, a nice summary of the message. Sanders explains that Jesus died preaching the kingdom of God and focused on the cross, a move Jennings calls brilliant. Paul was the first to make the cross a symbol of victory. This also is exaggerated. Jesus did the same with the Last Supper, a point of continuity missed by the special. What Paul does do is develop the significance of the cross and elaborate on it theologically. Paul is not the innovator here, but does develop what Jesus taught and experienced. This ends the second hour.
Paul has two key ideas: the power of the cross and the need not to be circumcised. At this point, the secret gospels like Thomas are noted and discussed. This is introduced too early in the real historical sequence. This work is not contemporary with Paul, but belongs to the early second century. It is used in the special to argue for a more diverse form of Christianity in these early years. This is the most problematic point in the special thus far. It distorts the early history of Christianity. However, the point is quickly made and then the special moves on.
How the structure of the Roman Empire, roads, and ports made Paul's ministry and message possible is noted next. This is a fascinating discussion of how the empire's structure helped globalize the known world. The point here is well made. The picture is of a diverse, multi-cultural empire, which is certainly what the empire was.
Paul: innovator or developer?
The next issue is how controversial Paul was. Segal notes how Paul stirred up many people of diverse sorts. The Pauline letters and Acts agree. John MacArthur preaching briefly shows up next as the transition to Paul's letters takes place with a list of the wide array of issues he tackled. Pagels says he did not intend to write for a church 2000 years later. Paul is making up his view of the end as he went along says Luke Timothy Johnson. Paul writes theology on the run, an ad hoc act of theology, creating a religion that has worked for millions.
It is hard to know what to make of this unit. It plays too much into the idea that Paul was somewhat of a reactionary theologian, even with his innovative elements. In fact, he was a thoughtful writer, with many of his ethical concerns and principles rooted in the sensibilities of righteousness he had even as a Jew who sought to live in a way that wanted to honor God. Much of Paul's ethics reflect the faith of the Hebrew Bible and the virtues many Greeks listed as a part of ethical virtue lists. By appealing to such timeless roots and ideas, he is arguing for the timelessness of his responses, making the significance of the replies less ad hoc than the special suggests.
Paul's ministry in Corinth is next. Paul's ideas were new and strange. Jesus as king of the world, not the emperor, was a new idea. The special correctly focuses on how the emperor was the focus of much attention in these cities. How the message of Jesus challenged this world is noted as "mainly political." Again there is a seeming contrast between the choice of a spiritual and political agenda, a kind of "either/or" observation about Paul's message. However, this is quickly qualified to note that Paul was not seeking to be a revolutionary against Rome, an important and correct qualification to make. Rather Paul sought to argue for a returning king and to argue that God was with humanity in an "illiterate Jew" Jesus, a seeming exaggeration about a very articulate Jesus, but a point on target as far as how a Jew would have been perceived by many Gentiles. Paul offers a community of caring people of all types, a communal family. This is one of the strongest points of the special's presentation.
The trouble in Corinth after he left gets treated next. The topics of the letter cover a range of issues and rules to live by for "Christians under construction" as Witherington puts it. Paul and sexuality is treated next. The end of the world means Paul does not see a need to have children. This completely ignores the fact that when Paul discussed marriage he spoke of the married sharing the concerns of the world, which surely includes family issues.
The issue of Paul's harshness in debate is treated next. The idea affirmed by Rev. Butts is that Jesus would not have been as harsh as Paul on topics including women and slavery. This ignores the confronting Jesus did in his ministry and does not note, for example, how Paul argued for a slave to be treated like him, like an apostle. Others are more balanced in noting how Paul has a complexity about his writing on such topics, something Meier and Luke Timothy Johnson noted in discussing love.
However, Karen Armstrong's claim that Paul is not concerned with doctrines ignores the start of books like Romans and Ephesians, which are nothing but doctrine for chapters. Paul is an ethical moralist, as she claims, but those morals have a doctrinal root. This is not a choice between doctrine and ethics but ethics rooted in doctrine. "Either/or thinking" surfaces again here. The juxtaposition of differing preachers saying distinct things from the Bible does provide an interesting collage of the varied usage to which Paul is put in our age, a testimony to his complexity.
Were there "widely different ideas" about Jesus in early Christianity as the special claims next? Here again the special returns to the conflict between Paul and Jewish Christians, including James. There were some Jews with whom Paul had a run in as Galatians does show. But it is less than clear James is the one who is the target here or those who took an even stronger purely Jewish position than Jesus' brother but who claimed him in support.
This reappearance of the theme is used to discuss whether Paul was anti-Semitic. Paul's polemic about the "mutilation" of circumcision gets attention here. The specter of the worst of Christians and the holocaust is raised, but Paul, fortunately, is absolved of responsibility for anti-Semitism. The special sets forth that Paul's nastiness at points is part of the internal debate he has as a Jew with other Jews. It is a vigorous argument within Judaism, typical of the times and of an in house argument as Segal, a Jew, and Witherington, a Christian, affirm. Paul's effort to bring a collection to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and so also to James is properly noted, a detail that also shows that Paul was not as hostile to Jewish Christians as the special implies elsewhere. The special has an inconsistency here that does not fit with the rest of its presentation.
Paul's arrest is next with his journey to Rome as the final chapter. Scenes of the Via Appia follow, one of many beautiful shots of the key locales surrounding these events. The visual elements of this special are another strength of the presentation as is its music ranging from Brahms' Requiem to Christian rock. The theory that Paul expected the end when he got to Rome intrudes here. But the bulk of the discussion is about the Roman community. The biblical discussion ends with the special giving the impression that the early church saw Paul as a "fringe" figure, but that is not the impression of Acts which spent its entire second half to present Paul as a key and exemplary figure.
The persecution of Christians by Nero is presented next. Extra-biblical data is at work here in describing one of the earliest examples of persecution against Christians in history. Nero's persecution is the context for Paul's death, but the "competitors" Peter and Paul get executed together. The idea of Paul fighting with Peter and James make one final appearance. Peter's upside down crucifixion is noted with respect. How to read the story handed down about Paul's death is not clear. Was it true or not? The issue is left quite open, while being juxtaposed to a tradition about Paul's head bouncing down and opening a spring, trivializing the differing accounts. This is a poor ending. The claim made by Karen Armstrong that we do not know what happened at the end to Paul is unlikely as well. He likely did die a martyr's death. This is something the church would likely know.
Not a bad effort
How to summarize? The special says that Christianity had to change its view as the Lord delayed and delayed more, according E. P. Sanders. This is a decidedly poor close to a largely informative special. Surely discussing how Paul and Jesus linked together to show how God could come to all sorts of people fits the emphasis the special itself notes about the two throughout most of its three hours. This emphasis is something "journalistic" about the essence of Christian faith that would inform people about what has drawn many over the centuries to believe in what was a little Jewish movement.
In sum, what do we say about Jesus and Paul special? It was an informative and engaging three hours, an achievement for such a topic, trying to balance the many competing ideas and numerous sub-themes.
The Jesus section was improved from its original effort. There was more balance and nuance, although the issues of personal righteousness and sin are still mostly subsumed under concerns that are more political and global. How the kingdom relates to God and humanity is less treated than how the encounter with Jesus helps us view others. Perhaps in an era where we sometimes lose sight of the ethical dimensions of Jesus' teaching in terms of how we treat others, this imbalance is not a bad thing.
How our relationship to God connects to and sets up our ethics is an important missing theme that concerned both Jesus and Paul. This additional element is a key part of what made Christianity what it was and is. In addition, how the early church presented Jesus as the key to all of this, the bridge to righteousness, is not made clear. The reason Jesus' death on the cross meant so much to Paul was because of this issue. So the issues of sin, responsibility to God, and the role of the Spirit fit here. In one sense it is hard to ask for more in a tightly packed three hours, but these themes are central to what motivated Jesus and Paul as a look at Luke 24:44-49, John 14-16, Acts 1:1-8, or Romans 8 would show.
The section on Paul has three key foci that are overdrawn: that Paul thought the end was near, that he was an innovator rather than a developer of the faith when it came to the Jewish elements and Gentiles, and that his conflict with James and Peter lasted much of his career. Still there is much here worth seeing and hearing. Paul was a brilliant developer and reflector on the message of Jesus. His influence on the faith has been immense. His defense of Gentile inclusion marked the faith and kept its dynamic moving as he reached out to people unlike himself but for whom he saw hope that Jesus was the answer. One hopes the church never loses sight of that great lesson from the great apostle.
Darrell L. Bock is Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Darrell Bock interviewed Peter Jennings about the special.
The ABC News site has more on Jesus and Paul.
Also posted is an interview with Robin Griffith-Jones, a guest on the show.
Christianity Today also interviewed Jennings for his 2000 special.
Christianity Today International's ChristianBibleStudies.com offers a six-session course on the early church, which includes a free lesson on Paul and his times, from the Christian History issue.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more