Old Wine in Old Wineskins

Is Peter Jenning's 'Search for Jesus' biased? How about condescending, ponderous, and inert?

Peter Jennings' two-hour special, "The Search for Jesus" is--to paraphrase You Know Who--old wine in old wineskins.

Both the wine and the skins on the ABC anchorman's quest for the "historical" Jesus come courtesy of the Jesus Seminar, the press-schmoozing cadre of biblical scholars best known for its sweeping pronuciamentos, typically timed for Christmas or Easter, that Jesus didn't say or do most of the things the Bible says about him.

Although the phrase "Jesus Seminar" never appears in the special, which is photographed largely in the Holy Land, four out of the seven biblical scholars whom Jennings interviews (along with assorted archaeologists and clergymen) are longtime Jesus Seminar stalwarts. They include Seminar founder Robert W. Funk (identified only as affiliated with the

Westar Institute

, which runs the Seminar), former Seminar co-chairman and best-selling author John Dominic Crossan, Oregon State University professor and Beliefnet columnist Marcus Borg, and Marvin W. Meyer of Chapman University. The 34 to 40 scholars who vote at the Seminar's semi-annual meetings represent only a tiny fraction of the thousands of New Testament academics in the United States, but they managed to wrangle outsize representation with Jennings.

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Whenever one of the four, glimpsed amid the picturesque hills and olive groves of Galilee and the West Bank, opens his mouth to pontificate on the historical Jesus, you pretty much know what's going to come out. The Seminar has made headlines over the years and upset traditional Christians by announcing that 80% of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels--including the Lord's Prayer--weren't really his but were made up by early Christians with agendas. A few years ago, the Seminar voted that Jesus' mother wasn't a virgin and that he didn't rise from the dead.

The Jesus Seminar point-of-view dominates "The Search for Jesus," despite Jennings' laudable efforts to balance it with input from more conservative New Testament scholars, such as the evangelical Anglican N.T. Wright, and data from archaelogical digs in Sepphoris and Bethsaida, towns Jesus probably knew well. Crossan, in particular, is as ubiquitous as Britney Spears' navel, retailing yet again his oft-aired theory that Jesus' dead body was eaten by wild dogs after his crucifixion. In the view of the Jesus Seminar, Jesus--far from being the divinely sent figure revered by traditionalist Christians--was a peasant social revolutionary with a sense of godly calling. He waged class warfare against the Roman Empire using spiritual weapons--and of course paid the political price.

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