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ABC television program about historic Jesus generates nationwide controversy

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–An ABC television program about the search for the historical Jesus that categorized the savior as a “minor character” and cast doubt on the authenticity of the Gospels has sparked an outcry of dissent from laymen and seminarians across the country who argue that the show denigrates the Lord.

The program, “Peter Jennings Reporting: Search for Jesus,” aired June 26 and featured Jennings in a search for the historical Jesus. Jennings interviewed a number of scholars, including some from the controversial Jesus Seminar. However, no evangelical scholars or leaders were included in the two hour, primetime program.

ABC’s website was deluged with responses to the show, mostly accusing the network of challenging the claims of Christ. In an ABC poll, more than 68 percent of the 21,309 participants said the media unfairly treated and devalued the life of Jesus.

“I was encouraged and discouraged,” said James Merritt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the First Baptist Church, Snellville, Ga. “First of all, the fact that ABC would tackle a spiritual issue — that’s encouraging always. Of course, I don’t think you can talk about a better subject than to talk about Jesus. But I have to be very candid and say that I was very discouraged over the whole tone of the program … there certainly was not a balance there with good conservative evangelical theologians.”

Of the seven religious scholars on the program, only one — N.T. Wright, canon theologian of Westminster Abbey — is a self-described evangelical. Four of the seven scholars participated in the highly controversial Jesus Seminar, which was comprised of more than 200 men and women who met and “voted” to determine the accuracy of the gospels. They concluded that only 18 percent of the sayings of Jesus were at least “probably accurate,” while only 16 percent of the events in the gospels “probably occurred.”

More than 5,000 people posted notes on the ABC message board about the program. James Smith, of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., participated in a website discussion with Jennings and asked the network anchorman a pointed question.

“While I appreciate your willingness to grapple with such an important topic, I must say I’m disappointed that your documentary is so lopsided in favor of those who reject the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts,” Smith said. “How do you respond to the criticism that the program is heavily influenced by participants of the Jesus Seminar and other like-minded scholars who hold a skeptical view of the Bible?”

Jennings responded, “I recognize that it is controversial. At the same time, I firmly believe that in Father Jerry Murphy-O’Connor, Tom Wright from Westminster Abbey, Paula Fredrickson from Boston University, we have people who are not skeptical at all about the Gospel.

“While I am aware that the Jesus Seminar, in and of itself, is something of a lightning rod for various individuals, we believe that the individual scholarship, the testimony and beliefs held by all our participants speak pretty much for itself.”

And that is the problem, according to several Southern Baptist seminary professors and laypersons who analyzed Jennings’ television special.

“To modify one of Jesus’ sayings, it would be better if this program — at times bordering blasphemy — had never been born,” said Andreas Kostenberger a professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.

“The effort to make Jesus the subject of this kind of investigative news reporting must be judged a failure. In the end, Peter Jennings falls victim to the sources he chose,” Kostenberger said. “One wishes his advisors had suggested better informants than Robert Funk on Judas, Marcus Borg on the star of Bethlehem, or John Dominic Crossan on the resurrection. Without the name ‘Jesus Seminar’ being mentioned once, this ‘Search for Jesus’ turns out to be little more than an infomercial on the views of this group.”

Kostenberger continued, “How serious can one take a program in which Jesus’ miracles are dismissed in just a few seconds as fictitious and in which only one side of the story is told?”

Kostenberger challenged Jennings’ ability to accurately report the news. “This does not bode well for the quality and accuracy of their reporting in general,” he said. “There is a minimum of facts about Jesus that are affirmed: born Jewish, lived in Nazareth, his encounter with John the Baptist, mixed with ‘all sorts of unsavory people,’ preached the kingdom of God, crucified under Pontius Pilate. But why are these facts accepted and not the rest?”

Terry Wilder, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., agreed.

“The ABC special … lived down to my expectations,” Wilder said. “By and large, the show tilted heavily toward the speculations of several Jesus Seminar members … leaving mainstream conservative biblical scholarship almost entirely without representation. Fairness demanded that the Seminar’s critics receive proportionate airtime, but ABC did not achieve the necessary balance.”

“Does the network seriously think that prominent evangelical scholars on Jesus and the Gospels … have nothing insightful to say on this issue,” he asked.

A key issue, Wilder said, concerned the study of Jesus’ life and whether or not the canonical gospels are historically accurate.

“Several academicians interviewed on the show presented the Gospels as contradictory in their portrayals of Jesus’ life,” Wilder said. “However, these critics failed to mention that the authors of the gospels each wrote with a specific theological purpose in mind. The latter fact can explain plausibly, not only the alleged contradictions, but also why the four Gospel writers presented their information in the manner that they did.”

Cameron Crabtree, vice president for public relations at Golden Gate Theological Seminary, said regardless of the errors and slant of the ABC program, the truth remains clear.

“Jesus continues to have a profound and attractive impact on the drama of human history,” Crabtree said. “As people committed to the truth of Scripture, the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the leadership of the Holy Spirit, we know the reasons for that impact.”

Crabtree encouraged Southern Baptists to use the program as an evangelism tool.

“Despite differences of opinion with many of those interviewed for the program, Southern Baptists around the nation can use the documentary which was broadcast last night to raise many fascinating conversations about Jesus with people in the workplace or in local neighborhoods,” Crabtree said. “We can share the life-transforming message of faith, hope and love that is found only in the Son of God, Jesus. That message is the greatest gift we can share with anyone.”

“In the end we have here the Gospel according to Peter Jennings which differs little from that historical imagination of the late 19th century which saw in Jesus the message of universal love and justice,” said New Testament professor Mark Seifrid of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Once the reliability of the Gospels has been set aside, it is inevitable that the Jesus we create for ourselves looks much like us, at least in our own aspirations and wishes.”

Washington Post columnist Tom Shale called the program a “foolhardy premise and in the end, doesn’t accomplish much more than a dog chasing its tail.”

“The danger is that what you’ll end up with is an exercise in myth-debunking potentially offense to devout members of the Christian faith. And that is precisely what happens,” Shale said.

Shale criticized Jennings because at times he sounded, “ridiculously nonchalant about a topic of the deepest spiritual profundity.”

“As for the resurrection of Christ, upon which the entirety of Christian faith rests, Jennings notes in his cavalier style that there is a ‘wide range of opinions’ about whether it occurred. Come, now. You believe it or you don’t,” Shale said. “Anyone looking for scientific or historical ‘proof’ is flamboyantly missing the point.”

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  • Todd Starnes