On April 5, 2004, ABC aired a three-hour documentary hosted (and co-written) by Peter Jennings entitled "Jesus and Paul: Word and Witness" (see http://abcnews.go.com/sections/
wnt/World/PJR_Paul_Jesus_subindex.html). In this article I shall give a review, noting what Jennings and his scholars got right as well as what they got wrong. For ease of reference, I will review the program segment by segment (there were 13 segments as defined by commercial breaks).
The first segment consists almost entirely of narration and interview excerpts shown in Jennings's previous Jesus documentary, "The Search for
Jesus." Jennings and his experts note that Jesus grew up under Roman rule, with Herod Antipas as a puppet king. Jesus knew of the Jewish hope of a Messiah who would liberate the Jews from Roman oppression and set up the kingdom of God, and he knew of a couple of rebellions that failed to jump start that kingdom. Jennings and his experts opine that Jesus may very well have grown up wondering if perhaps he might become the Messiah.
As with "The Search for Jesus," the analysis Jennings offers-leaning heavily on Jesus Seminar fellows-is not so much wrong as overly political in emphasis. The facts are correct, but the emphasis is off balance. While we should give serious attention to the political context of Jesus' life and ministry-something evangelicals have not always done well, though that is changing in evangelical New Testament scholarship-we should also not go to the extreme of viewing early Christianity purely or even predominantly in political terms.
Roughly half of the second segment also repeats material from "The Search for Jesus." We are again treated to Jennings interviewing clueless American tourists in Israel opining that Jesus was a tall man with blue eyes, a notion easily (and rightly) skewered by biblical scholars. That Jesus was associated with John the Baptist's movement before launching out on his own is again asserted. His Beatitudes (in the version found in Luke) are said to have been radical and even politically dangerous, since the promise that the well-fed rich would be trading places with the hungry poor might have seemed threatening to the well-fed rich. Jennings then begins to introduce some new material. Jesus was unusual in his inclusiveness, welcoming "sinners" (notably shepherds, assumed to be thieves) into his inner circle. Jesus abrogated the Levitical laws of clean and unclean by touching (and healing) people branded as unclean, especially lepers but also the blind, deaf, lame, and deformed.
The last point is quite right, I think, and is an insight worth picking up and giving some reflection. But most of what Jennings and his experts say here is speculative. The Gospels give no support whatsoever to the notion that Jesus ever traveled with John the Baptist or even spent any time with him beyond their recorded meeting at the Jordan. They flatly contradict the idea that Jesus started off as John's follower. This speculative theory is driven by the need of some scholars to deny that the Gospel accounts of John acknowledging Jesus' divine mission are historically authentic. The only imaginable evidence for this theory is Jesus' baptism at the hands of John, but all of the Gospels agree that John saw Jesus as his superior (e.g., Mark 1:7-8).
It is true that Jesus' Beatitudes might have been viewed as radical by someone like Herod Antipas, but only if he had cared. John got himself in trouble with Herod only when he directly criticized the king's marriage to his brother's wife (Matt. 14:3-4). It goes beyond the evidence to theorize that Jesus' words would have been taken as a threat to the established order. More likely, if Herod had caught wind of what Jesus was saying, he would have laughed it off as wishful thinking. Herod was more interested in Jesus' miracles than his preaching (Matt. 14:1-2).
I find it odd that Jennings would single out shepherds as examples of the "sinners" that Jesus welcomed into his circle. The Gospels do not mention a single shepherd among his apostles or other followers. Moreover, the shepherd is a uniformly positive image whenever used metaphorically in the Gospels, usually of Jesus himself (Matt. 2:6; 9:36; 12:11-12; 18:12; 25:32-33; 26:31; Mark 6:34; 14:27; Luke 15:4-6; 17:7; John 10:1-16, 26-27; 21:16-17). This is just as one would expect, given that Israel's greatest Old Testament king, David, and the Messiah's ancestor, had started off as a shepherd boy.
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