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Answers In Action Responds to Peter Jennings

Answers In Action Director Gretchen Passantino and her team of researchers has posted four articles and a recommended reading list to respond to the strange collection of views concerning Jesus and Paul proposed in last night's ABC primetime special, Paul and Jesus: Word and Worship hosted by journalist Peter Jennings. Passantino said she was disappointed in the program, having expected better from the veteran newsman who spent nearly 2 years preparing the documentary, including interviewing such conservative scholars and experts as Paul Maier, N. T. Wright, Luke Timothy Johnson and Ben Witherington. She added, "I knew their list of scholars was top heavy on liberals, including some extreme liberals like Elaine Pagels and Robert Funk. But," she continued, "I hoped that the many fine critiques and analyses of his previous special, In Search of Jesus, would have educated him about the facts and made him a better journalist this time around. Sadly, it didn't appear to."

The articles from Answers In Action can be accessed as follows: When Is the End?; Was Paul the Founder of Christianity?; The Theory Behind the Story; What Does Peter Jennings Tell Us About Jesus?; and For Further Reading.

What Does Peter Jennings Tell Us about Jesus and Paul?

by Gretchen, © 2004

A few of us gathered around the screen on Monday night, VCR remote and pens in hand, ready to spend three hours with one of America’s most trusted journalists, Peter Jennings, as he helped us to experience the birth and growth of Christianity from its tiny beginning in a far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire to the dominant religion of the twenty-first century. What would we learn during this three hour documentary, Jesus and Paul: Word and Worship (ABC, first aired Monday, April 5, 2004)? Would we learn who Jesus really was and how his teachings had been preserved and followed for 2,000 years? Would we discover the secret behind the person of Jesus that had caused people to worship him as the Son of God for 2,000 years? Would we discover why God would have allowed his own Son to be crucified 2,000 years ago?

After 2 ¼ hours of documentary (and ¾ of an hour of commercials), all of those questions were answered in the negative:

We didn’t learn who Jesus was. Instead we learned who Jesus might have thought he could become, who those who liked him might have thought he was, who those who didn’t like him suspected him to be, the various identities he was given by his followers as they changed their minds over time, and who Paul changed him into being once he decided to found his own religion. Mostly, we learned the variety of identities given him by a bunch of talking heads – people who, unlike the Bible writers, Jennings trusted to know the facts and keep their own opinions and biases out of their conjectures. By the time we were done, we didn’t even know who Jennings thought Jesus was, although we guessed Jennings thinks Jesus is something of a first-century do-gooder who was willing to risk death by the Romans in his attempt to try out the role of Messiah, perhaps hoping that God would bless him and the rest of the Jews and remove the Roman yoke of oppression from the neck of Israel.

We didn’t learn how Jesus’ teachings had been preserved and followed for 2,000 years. Instead we learned that no one can know Jesus’ real teachings anyway, that he seemed to change his mind or be confused part of the time, that his apostles changed his teachings to suit their own needs, and then they were changed again by the forceful commitment of Paul to bring the faith to the Gentiles. Mostly, we learned that the same talking head scholars couldn’t seem to agree on what Jesus’ teachings were, or how they were changed by others over time, or whether they should be changed by us – especially those teachings attributed to him that led to the endorsement of slavery, the oppression of women, and the persecution of those with a same-sex preference. By the time we were done, we were meant to agree with Jennings that the teachings attributed to Jesus were as varied as were the opinions of any group of humans over time, and that it just generally made sense to adopt those teachings that were the most tolerant and loving so we could be truly good people today.

And we didn’t learn why Christians have worshipped Jesus for more than 2,000 years. Instead, we learned that Jesus himself didn’t know he was the Messiah, he never called himself the Son of God, we have no reliable evidence that he proved he was the Messiah, and no reliable evidence that he ever rose from the dead or performed any other miracles. Mostly, we learned that the academic talking head community is full of people who can be excerpted for a sentence or two to support pretty much anything the host wants to promote – especially by making conservatives and liberals sound so much like each other that we’re amazed they still disagree. By the time we were done, we discovered that Jennings seems quite comfortable with the idea that Jesus was anything other than the incarnate Son of God, a miracle worker, and still alive today.

The Gospel According to Peter Jennings

So what did we learn through our long night of bleary-eyed concentration on this strange mixture of images of ancient ruins, classic masterpieces, and modern day jet ski fun on the Sea of Galilee? There were four main points the documentary reinforced repeatedly.

First, here is no unchanging core of doctrine or belief underlying Christianity from Jesus through the apostles through Paul through church history to today. Anything and everything that most people would consider distinctive of Christianity (the Bible, the deity of Christ, His bodily resurrection, Christ’s death on the cross on our behalf, salvation by believing in Him, eternal life and resurrection as the rewards of the Christian life, Christ’s Second Coming, Final Judgment, and Resurrection of the Just and Unjust) is negotiable. The out-moded faith of the Old Testament is supplanted by the contradictory faith of Jesus, which is changed to the proverbial faith of the apostles, which is replaced by the cosmopolitan, multi-cultural gospel of Paul.

Second, there is no discussion of even the possibility that God actually exists or that miracles could happen; this means that there is no discussion of the possibility that Jesus could have actually been the promised Messiah, that he could have actually raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples and later to Paul, that the gospel writers could have been recording historical accounts accurately concerning miraculous events, and that Christianity could be the result of God’s intervention into human history.

Third, there is no discussion of any religious or theological significance to Jesus’ crucifixion. Only the petty human vanities and fears of human intrigue are discussed: that Jesus engineered his death to provoke his disciples to action, that some Jewish rulers wanted rid of him for his criticism of them, that Pilate believed doing away with Jesus would prevent riots during the Jewish celebration of Passover. Unlike its contemporary examination of Jesus’ crucifixion, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the Jennings special never even considers that Jesus went willingly to his death, a death predicted and permitted by His Father, specifically because he was taking the penalty for our sins on Himself to become our Redeemer, the one who died on our behalf so that we could live.

Fourth, there is no method, procedure, or plan by which Jennings shows us which statements in the gospels or writings of Paul can be believed and which should be rejected as wishful thinking, the apostles’ evolution of Jesus from simple country rabbi to divine Messiah, or Paul’s invention of a new king worthy to triumph over Rome. We, the ignorant and untrained lay audience, must simply sit at Jennings’ feet and, for example, believe him when he dismisses that Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God, or changes, Jesus’ miracle ministry from healing and casting out demons to healing by casting out demons, or simply accepts without any evidence outside the New Testament itself that we know Paul was a Roman citizen.

Finally, by positing a Christianity with no absolutes or continuity, failing to consider the existence of God or possibility of miracles, leaving out all theological and religious significance to the ministry and teachings of Jesus, and abandoning any standard for biblical authenticity, Jennings has effectively given us a documentary about a faith that doesn’t exist. This is not, in the final analysis, a documentary about a religion, Christianity. It is a postmodern experience of amorphous feelings and ideas that have nothing in common over 2,000 years except that they are all casually associated with one word: Christianity.

Peter Jennings’s Jesuses

          This documentary presents us with many pictures of Jesus. Underlying the entire program is the subtle assumption that the Jesus of history was nothing more than a country Jew who dreamed of doing something great for his country, perhaps even as great as inspiring a revolt against the Romans, but who ended his life as an ignoble criminal, crucified by the Romans, convicted by the Jewish leadership, and abandoned by his followers. Oh, and on his last night alive, consumed by the instinct of self-preservation, he was shocked and appalled and nearly driven to a complete breakdown through fear.  No wonder that late in the program Jennings muses that it is unbelievable that this little man’s life would produce a religion that would overcome the whole Roman Empire in scarcely 300 years.

          This background picture of Jesus is joined by the Jesuses of the commentators, the experts Jennings interviews and carefully edits. Although most of the experts are very liberal in their theology (John Dominic Crossan isn’t even convinced Jesus was buried, much less that he rose from the dead), a few are conservative (notably Paul L. Maier, who affirms the accuracy of the gospels), but none are allowed by Jennings to speak fully and in context from their own paradigms. This makes it difficult to see the sharp distinctions that actually exist among their views, but it makes it easier for Jennings to present the changing Jesus without our realizing how changeable he has been presented. In this program, Jesus is going to replace the Old Testament expectations with the coming of the Kingdom of God. But he’s also a young country boy who thinks vaguely that maybe, some day, he can do something, too, just like the rebel leaders of his childhood who ended up dead by the Romans. But Jesus is also was a caring social activist who was willing to overcome social conventions to love the unlovable. And he was a superstitious conjurer who believed he could heal people who were suffering by casting out their demons – the source of all illness. Jesus was the mesmerizing preacher who gathered thousands of followers in the countryside and in the capital, Jerusalem. But he was the itinerant pastor who entered Jerusalem just before his death with only a handful of disciples and, perhaps, a few people who hoped against hope that he was the Messiah. Nowhere do we find the Jesus who willingly took human life specifically to fulfill God’s promise to redeem His people by dying for their sins and to bring them eternal life by his resurrection from the dead (Phil. 2:5-11).

Jennings’s Use of the Experts

          To parade other pictures of Jesus before us, Jennings assembled a large cast of experts to share their views with us. Jennings does not identify for us whether any of these experts have any particular faith or belief in Jesus or Christianity. He does not tell us which ones are considered conservative and which liberal. He does not tell us much about their credentials or what has caused him to consider them experts. And by judicious and close cropping of their interviews, he manages to weave their comments so that everyone sounds reasonable and amiable, even though among them they present widely divergent views of Jesus.

          Among the theologically liberal are a diversity of experts. Four women (a higher percentage than is reflected in New Testament history and theology scholar ranks in general) make the list, including Karen Armstrong, best known for her controversial A History of God, in which she argues that the Old Testament represents the evolution of Jewish religion from polytheism through tribal God worship, through henotheism (one God superior to the others), to monotheism late in its history. Scholar Pamela Eisenbaum describes herself as a Jewish feminist who generally sides with “the liberals” when it comes to theology. Paula Fredriksen calls Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem “doubtful,” his cleansing of the temple a non-event, and the gospel stories of his crucifixion unbelievable. Elaine Pagels is best known for her extensive work on the Gnostic writings of the mid-second and third centuries. Pagels argues that Gnosticism, condemned by the early church in its incipient form by Paul and John (Colossians and 1 John) and as a more developed heresy by early church Fathers such as Irenaeus, was the true and original Christianity that should have prevailed but was overcome by power-hungry heretics who remade Christianity in their own imagination and destroyed the Gnostics and their writings. All four women are happy to be classified among the theologically liberal.

          Among the men Jennings interviewed as experts are two archaeologists and one geologist, bringing a slight bit of hard artifact evidence into the story. Sadly, none of these experts are used to uncover the wealth of artifact information that has corroborated or supported the New Testament accounts as accurate history. James Strange, director of the archaeological dig at Sepphoris, the Roman city only 4 miles from Nazareth, is interviewed to talk about two minor insurrections quelled by the Romans there during Jesus’ childhood, but nothing is said about the wealth of cosmopolitan experiences Jesus would have had working as a contractor in rebuilding that city – His acquaintance with the Greek dramas conducted in the city amphitheater, His familiarity with Roman customs, and His exposure to Roman and other cultural and religious activities, all reflected in his ministry and teachings. Eduard G. Reinhardt, the geologist focusing on underwater investigations of Caesarea Maritima in Israel, is interviewed about the Romans’ ability to pour concrete underwater, but nothing is discussed about the wealth of archaeological information available from that city that verifies the buildings, locations, and first century life described especially by Luke in his record of the Acts of the Apostles. Gianni Ponti, an archaeologist specializing in first century Rome is given more opportunity by Jennings to provide substantive archaeological evidence than are the other two, but even here Jennings majors on the minors. He seems most captivated with Ponti’s general comments about the city life of first century Rome and practically ignores all the evidence Ponti brings up about the existence of the Christians in first century Rome, their expulsion under Claudius (mentioned by Luke in Acts), and the tragedy of Nero blaming and then executing the Christians for his own burning of the city. In fact, Jennings concludes that it is unbelievable – he says it twice – that the small sect from the backwater of the empire could become the state religion in only 300 years. One wonders what Ponti thought of Jennings’s ability to recognize history as they stood in the midst of its artifacts and Jennings insisted it was unbelievable.

          The experts who were neither women nor involved in archaeological remains were mostly theologically liberal, ranging from the outlandish liberalism of Jesus Seminar founder Robert Funk (who tells Jennings that the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was “one of the most cruel fictions ever devised” because it fostered 2,000 years of anti-Semitism), to the curious sociologist Rodney Stark (who attributes the entire rise of Christianity to inconsequential word-of-mouth marketing by which any two believers could convert only one more person to account for the numerical increase from Jesus and the 12 to the empire-wide religion of the Emperor Constantine only 300 years later), to the enigmatic Dr. Calvin O. Butts (who declared that it was okay that Paul distorted, added to, embellished, and hyperbolized what Jesus said and did – after all, Paul was only human). Other liberals included Albert Baumgarten, Fr. Scott Brodeur, Rev. Robin Griffith-Jones, Richard Horsley, Marvin Meyer, Fr. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, E. P. Sanders, Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, and several others.

          Conservatives were fewer and, unfortunately, often quoted out of context or in such a brief context that the view they were attempted to affirm was unclear; and, in fact, some of those Jennings used to represent conservative views would not be considered conservatives by all. This “side” was represented in this documentary by Luke Timothy Johnson, Paul Maier, Ben Witherington, and Rt. Rev. Dr. N. T. Wright. Sadly, often the conservatives were quoted sounding as though they agreed with the liberals, when they did not, or when what they agreed about was irrelevant to the central issues of who Jesus was, what the apostolic faith was, and what Paul promoted.

          One of the most striking evidences of bias betrayed by Peter Jennings was his consistent separation of what the Bible says compared to what Jennings has confidence is true. Terms like “scholars,” “experts,” and “historians” were always linked to statements of fact. Terms like “the gospels,” “the Bible,” and “the scriptures” were always linked to beliefs, suppositions, and purported miracles. The closest Jennings could come to affirming the divine and the miraculous was when he quoted experts saying that they “believed” something to be true, or when he quoted them saying that Jesus, the disciples, or Paul “believed” what he/they were saying or teaching. He seemed to have no problem affirming that the disciples believed they had seen Jesus alive after his death or that all the experts agreed that Paul experienced something, but he couldn’t bring himself to declare that some people believe there is good – even convincing – evidence to believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead and really did appear to Paul on the Road to Damascus.

Short of the Mark

          In conclusion, we were disappointed by this much heralded, ponderous, but surprisingly light content documentary. The careful research, fair representation, open-minded investigation we hoped to find eluded us. If we were to explore each of the problematic areas of the program, we would produce hundreds of pages of commentary, analysis, and documentation. Nevertheless, as the accompanying articles show, at nearly every significant focus of the documentary, solid research and argumentation was missing. We understand it took Jennings and his crew more than a year to come up with 2 ¼ hours of footage on Jesus and Paul. It took us less than a day to review the most glaring flaws. Jennings shouldn’t have made it so easy.

          For a fascinating journey into real New Testament scholarship, see the accompanying reading list of good resources that fairly examine the evidence, theology, and literature. The articles from Answers In Action can be accessed as follows: When Is the End?; Was Paul the Founder of Christianity?; The Theory Behind the Story; What Does Peter Jennings Tell Us About Jesus?; and For Further Reading.

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