NEW ORLEANS (BP)–I take the ABC documentary, “The Search for Jesus,” hosted by Peter Jennings, to be an honest attempt to present some common-sense answers, based upon interviews with scholars, to questions that average people ask about Jesus. I do not impugn the motives of Jennings or anyone else at ABC. Honesty alone, unfortunately, does not make for a great program about Jesus. Still all things considered I applaud Jennings and ABC for airing a serious program about Jesus.
There is much to like about the program. With its extensive footage from Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem, and its choice of music it is visually and audibly stunning. Additionally the professors chosen for the project are all legitimate biblical scholars. Jennings’ starting point is the biblical stories about Jesus, not non-biblical stories. Although several of the chosen scholars are members of the Jesus Seminar, there is no voting on whether Jesus said this or that, nor any mention of the Gospel of Thomas or any other non-canonical gospel as being earlier than, or independent of, the canonical gospels. Jennings even treats each of the synoptic gospels as an independent source about Jesus, something not commonly seen in contemporary historical Jesus research. Josephus and Philo are also used in a generally sound fashion. For the most part, he is careful to report what the scholars chosen think about Jesus. Viewers should therefore be careful to distinguish Jennings’ conclusions from those of the scholars he interviews.
One failing of the show is that the medium cannot do justice to the subject. Reporting on historical figures is not like reporting on a political campaign. Yet the program’s method of presenting the material on Jesus seems eerily similar. The major personalities are interviewed (the two scholars I communicated with both told me that they were interviewed for 3 hours — I assume the same for the others), and only the most interesting, unique, or controversial statements make it onto the screen. Like contemporary political news, where one is bombarded with endless polling results, on several occasions one hears Jennings say, “most scholars think . . .” One must thus remember that the first commandment of television is not, “Thou shalt be methodologically sound,” but rather “Thou shalt not be boring.” The program is certainly not boring.
Early in the program three presuppositions are clearly stated: (1) reliable sources [about Jesus] are hard to come by; (2) Jesus was a real person; and (3) whether Jesus was God or not is a matter of faith, not history. Presupposition 2 is almost universally accepted. Presupposition 1 is hotly debated (e.g., what does “reliable” mean?). I suspect that what is meant is that there is great debate as to which sources about Jesus are to be preferred. Presupposition 3 is simply wrong, in my estimation. What one believes about Jesus does not change in the slightest whether Jesus was or was not God in human form. A truth does not become other than true if it is not believed, nor does a non-truth become true simply because it is believed. (I may choose not to believe that George Washington was the first president of the United States, but whatever I believe will not affect in the slightest way what Washington was.) Simply put, the program works from the wrong assumptions.
There could also have been a better balance among the scholars chosen. There was one evangelical (N. T. Wright) to 6 non-evangelicals. John Meier and E. P. Sanders, who were not included, are more significant historical Jesus scholars than several of the scholars interviewed. (Of course they may have been asked to appear on the program.) One can imagine several conservative scholars at least as qualified, if not more, than some of those chosen, who would have provided more balance. The names Ben Witherington III, Richard Hays, D. A. Carson, Craig Evans, Craig Blomberg, Robert Stein, or Colin Brown immediately come to mind.
I hope that the program provokes a greater interest among evangelicals in serious historical Jesus research. It may be the most important theological issue of our time. I also hope that the work of evangelical historical Jesus scholars will become as well known as the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar. The best scholarship in the world is relatively useless if the public never hears of it. (Of course, such evangelical research must not only be solid academically but also accessible to the average reader.) Additionally it is important that Americans Christians pause to consider Jesus and his message more seriously. While the heart of the Gospel is that our sins can be forgiven and relationship with God restored, conservative Christians must not forget Jesus’ concern for the poor and disenfranchised.
My greatest fear is that as a result of viewing “The Search for Jesus,” many Christians will conclude either that their faith is based on something other than historical truth or that there is a great divide between faith and history, and that the religious significance of Jesus is thus unrelated to whether or not he rose from the dead, or did any of the other things that Scripture tells us he did. Christianity is not simply a historical religion; it is a religion that collapses if it is not historically true. As Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15, if Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain.
Stewart is an assistant professor of philosophy and theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.