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The Search for Jesus

Farrell Till, editor and publisher of The Skeptical Review, said once that the Internet will be the decisive coup de gr’ce delivered against biblical literalism. By that he meant that the remarkable and often controversial findings within biblical scholarship will no longer be contained like a lamp under a bushel basket. The Internet now makes it possible to publish widely the research of the brightest New Testament scholars, effectively bypassing the clergy as intercessors by making such information readily available to everyone.

Last night (June 26, 2000) on ABC, Peter Jennings hosted a two-hour special entitled “The Search for Jesus”, proving that American network broadcasting can still give the Internet a run for its money. Jennings’ reporting is important because most Americans, ironically, are barely literate when it comes to the historical Jesus in particular and the New Testament texts in general. To those brought up in mainstream churches only the very broadest of brush strokes concerning Jesus are known — the nativity, the baptism, the passion and resurrection — but very little else. Because few people take the time to read the texts, interpretation of the New Testament has been heavily filtered through the lens of popular culture, movies, Sunday Schools, and agenda-driven spiritual leaders.

Jennings seeks to cut through the fog and get to the truth of the matter. He admits up front that in his investigation “reliable sources were hard to come by” and that the various landmarks and relics concerning Jesus “tell us more about the enthusiasm of fourth-century Christians than the truth of the historical Jesus.” The various scholars on the program, including Marcus Borg, N. T. Wright, and Paula Fredriksen, emphasized also that the four gospels are very different from one another and sometimes contradict each other. Because the gospels represent the ideas, hopes, and ideology of the unknown early believers who wrote them, the information within the texts is necessarily open to interpretation. N. T. Wright made the excellent point that it is improper as historians to speak of “proof and truth” when it comes to the texts; rather, one can only speak of probabilities, possibilities, and educated guesses.

Another fascinating point that the program brought to light was the term Kingdom of God and what it meant to first-century Jews. The term has been much distorted over the centuries so that today it means something roughly synonymous with Heaven. However, to Jesus’ contemporaries “Kingdom of God”, or better “God’s imperial rule”, was a political term that became a rallying cry for the people who desired the overthrow of Caesar. It speaks something of Jesus’ character that he went off and joined a very radical movement led by John the Baptist whose adherents openly flirted with anti-Roman rhetoric. In other words, for the historical Jesus the Kingdom of God was right here on earth, not removed in some heavenly realm. Jesus was among those for whom the end was near and he very likely expected there to be an apocalyptic encounter between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. A proper understanding of “God’s imperial rule”, as well as Jesus’ association with the radical movement led by John the Baptist, helps us to understand why Jesus was such a controversial political figure in first-century Palestine and why he eventually came to be crucified as a political prisoner under Pontius Pilate.

In an age of television fluff, we should welcome such responsible programming from major broadcasting networks. Television should inform as well as entertain. And the gap between the average Christian and the educated biblical scholar and clergy is indeed huge. However, with television programs such as “The Search for Jesus” — as well as the plethora of web sites such as the Secular Web — that gap can quickly be narrowed. Many will not want to hear the historical findings concerning the New Testament texts, of course, but responsible, critical ideas should always be desired above myth and misinformation.

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