I asked a liberal Christian friend if he might be interested in watching a special about Jesus and Paul with me. "Well," he replied dryly, "I like one of those people very much." The ABC News special "Jesus and Paul-The Word and the Witness" won't put to rest such doubts about whether Paul properly represented Christ's message or invented a Christianity of his own. But it will give all viewers an opportunity to engage in debate about Paul's influence on the Christian faith and tradition-and how that debate goes back to the earliest years of the church. Indeed, Paul debated it himself.Taken as a whole, Peter Jennings does an excellent job of giving the American television audience a sophisticated examination of both Jesus and Paul through a variety of lenses. The show has two parts, the first concerned with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; while the second half concentrates on the life, conversion, and tireless witness of Paul, who is widely attributed with the founding of the religion we know as Christianity.One of the most pleasing aspects of the show is the breadth of biblical scholars, sociologists, and pastors, liberal and conservative, academic and religious. This balance is especially apparent in the section that examines the person of Jesus. In addition to the regular cast from the Jesus Seminar-including the ubiquitous John Dominic Crossan, and Marcus Borg-the viewer is well served by Ben Witherington III of Asbury Seminary and Luke Johnson of Emory University. These traditionalists present what will be for many viewers a more satisfying, that is to say more recognizable, representation of Jesus.These academic voices are spiced with on-site conversations with Baptist minister James Strange, director of the archeological excavation at Sepphoris, in Israel; and Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, who instructs Catholic seminarians on the life of Jesus in Jerusalem. One of the singular delights of the first section is registering the passion these scholars and pastors share for Jesus. Even Borg and Crossan come across as alive with wonder and devotion to the Jesus that they have spent a lifetime trying to understand better.
But while the first hour or so presents a substantial amount of information of interest (I was surprised to learn that Jesus had witnessed two failed armed revolutions by his fellow Jews against the Romans by the time he was a teenager), we've seen much of this material before, either elsewhere or in Peter Jennings' special, "The Search for Jesus" four years ago. In the mirror of the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," it sometimes seems that Jennings and his guests are scrambling to refute anti-Semitic readings of the crucifixion.The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, is new territory for both news documentaries and dramatic portrayals. One commentary likens Paul to the conductor of the great piece of music composed by Jesus; other scholars paint the latecomer Paul as off on his own, outside of a direct relation to Jesus, creating "a new theology" as Karen Armstrong, the author of the best-selling "History of God," puts it.Ms. Armstrong provocatively characterizes Paul's epistles to the churches in Thessalonika, Corinth and Ephesus-biblical texts that have been the basis of doctrine and theology for the last 2,000 years-as hurried missives scrawled on napkins while Paul was on the run from one congregration to the next. While this image might be acceptable, and even enlightening, to the historically minded viewer, it is hard to swallow for those who believe that every word in the Bible is the divine revelation of God.The show constructs the connection between Jesus and Paul as a perforated page, leaving the viewer the choice of whether or not to rip the two asunder. No less of an authority than the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, reminds the viewer of the humanity, and therefore potential fallibility, of Paul. Princeton University's Elaine Pagels reports that several other Christian evangelists were operating at the same time as Paul, whose words were collected in gospels attributed to Mary Magdalene and Thomas, though none of them were included in the New Testament. The view of Paul is further complicated by the reports of his uneasy relations with the disciples of Jesus back in Jerusalem, including Jesus' brother James. These Jerusalem disciples who knew Jesus when he was alive argue with Paul over whether or not a person must convert to Judaism and be circumcised before becoming a follower of Christ.
In this image, Paul must fight not for the Gentiles, but for his own legitimacy. Indeed, the term "apostle," which we now ascribe without question to Paul, was not easily granted him in the first half of the first century. Intentionally or not, the majority of the commentators in the second half of "Jesus and Paul" serve to distance the two. It wouldn't have hurt to include scholarly and church voices that tie him more closely to the spirit of Jesus to counter the rupture that appeared to be taking place between Paul and Jesus. The show's greatest boon to the study of Paul is to impress us that these questions are current and relevant. Footage of modern-day Israel and Palestine, Turkey and Greece is contrasted to great advantage with ancient pictures. Less deftly managed is the producers' use of reggae, rock, hip-hop, and Joan Osborne's song "What If God Were One of Us"-which is so overused by this point that to call it a cliché would dignify it. I would love to see a program on religion topics for a younger audience, with younger commentators and a stylistic approach that would complement youthful choices in music. The contrast here between grey-haired talking heads and MTV-style videos featuring music for the tattooed and pierced clanks loudly.
Anything of consequence that is produced about religion will cause controversy, debate, and thought. Admirably balanced and certainly of consequence, "Jesus and Paul-The Word and The Witness" will inspire plenty of all three. In my mind, that means a job well done.