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ABC ‘Jesus’ documentary undermines core Christian doctrines, critics say

LOUISVILLE, Ky.(BP)–An ABC documentary on the life of Jesus amounts to little more than an advertisement for the controversial Jesus Seminar, says Daniel Akin, the dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The two-hour program, “Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus,” airs June 26 at 9 p.m. (EDT). It follows Jennings through the Holy Land and derives much of its content from interviews with Jesus Seminar participants and likeminded biblical scholars. Southern Seminary, based in Louisville, Ky., obtained a review copy of the documentary and made it available to selected faculty members and to Southern Baptist Convention President James Merritt on June 21.

“The scholars that were on the show were certainly reflective of a particular worldview perspective — the anti-supernatural,” Akin said after screening the program. “You had extensive representation from the Jesus Seminar. I thought ‘The Search for Jesus’ was a marvelous commercial for the Jesus Seminar’s perspective on who was Jesus and what did he do.”

The Jesus Seminar was a gathering of more than 200 men and women who “voted” on the historical reliability of the Gospels. They concluded that Jesus “probably” said only 18 percent of what is attributed to him and that only 16 percent of events in the Gospels “probably” occurred.

Such thought dominates the ABC program, according to the Southern Seminary reviewers. Only one scholar was shown defending the historical reliability of Jesus’ resurrection. No scholar was shown defending the historical reliability of Jesus’ miracles or virgin birth.

The documentary showcases seven biblical scholars. Four were participants in the Jesus Seminar; two did not participate but are likeminded, having rejected much of the Gospels’ reliability. Only one scholar is a self-described evangelical.

“They have already ruled out supernaturalism before you even begin to investigate the evidence,” Akin said of two of the Jesus Seminar scholars on the program, Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan. “They are thoroughgoing naturalists, so they are not going to see a virgin birth. They’re not going to see [Jesus] walking on the water. They’re not going to see him feeding 5,000. They’re not going to see him healing the blind or raising the dead.”

Early in the program Jennings admits that his search is limited, saying that he “cannot tell you whether Jesus is the Son of God. That is a matter of faith.” Jennings then interviews the different scholars, who question everything from the birthplace of Jesus (Bethlehem or Nazareth?) to the betrayal of Judas (is it a fictional insertion intended to blame the Jewish people for Jesus’ death?).

“The Jesus that was presented on ABC would not be worthy of the adoration and worship and veneration of untold millions of people in the last 2,000 years,” said James Merritt, newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Southern Seminary preaching professor Hershael York, who received his doctorate in New Testament studies, said he was bothered by Jennings’ implications.

“What troubled me the most was the way [Jennings] would say, ‘historians say, scholars believe.’ — not ‘some scholars believe’ or ‘some historians think,'” he said.

During the first few minutes of the program Jennings says, “Scholars told us early on that they didn’t take everything they read in the New Testament literally, because the New Testament has four different and sometimes contradictory versions of Jesus’ life.”

York pointed out that Jennings and the scholars quote stories about John the Baptist as if they are fact — while at the same time questioning the historical accuracy of Jesus.

“It just shows their inconsistency. … They never questioned any of the details of John — what he wore, what he ate, where he preached, what he said — but they completely dismantle the Jesus presented in the Gospels,” York said.

Merritt said that the response to some of the historical criticism is simple.

“A lot of the things they brought up, a fourth-grade Sunday school kid could have answered,” the SBC president said. “Yes, he was born in Bethlehem, but he grew up in Nazareth. What’s so difficult about it?”

Merritt said the program’s low point may come when it turns to the purpose of Jesus’ death.

One of the Jesus Seminar participants, Oregon State University’s Marcus Borg, explains Christ’s death by saying, “When we turn the story of Jesus instead into the eternal sacrifice of sin that makes our forgiveness possible, then we really set aside that which mattered so much to him — mainly the poor, the untouchables, the suffering of people in the world.”

Jennings explains Jesus’ death by saying, “Jesus was executed not for blasphemy, as the Gospels indicate, but as a political revolutionary — a threat to the established political and social order.”

Merritt said that such thinking undermines the central doctrine of biblical Christianity.

“The ones who were interviewed made it very plain that it was strictly a political death,” he said. “They made it almost to be a martyrdom, classified along the same lines of the assassination of Martin Luther King. With all due respect to Martin Luther King — and I think Martin Luther King himself would say this — you can’t put his death in the same category as the death of Jesus Christ.

“Jesus Christ is the only man in the history of the planet [who] claimed to be God in the flesh, who claimed to die in our place as sinners, who died a substitutionary death, who accepted the full wrath of God as payment for our sins,” Merritt said.

The SBC president said he hopes viewers will turn to the Bible after watching the program.

“I hope that there will be enough discernment out there by the viewing audience that they will say, ‘Wait a minute. What does the Bible say? And why are there some strong brilliant biblical scholars — who have every bit the credentials these other men do and every bit the intellectual firepower these other men do — and yet they believe in the resurrection, they believe in the substitutionary atonement, they believe in the virgin birth,'” he said.

Two Internet sites are providing extensive coverage of the program: ABCNEWS.com and Beliefnet.com.

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  • Michael Foust