There have been lots of TV specials about Jesus, including the one that you did in 2000. Why did you decide to tackle Paul?
Paul was read at me as a child every Sunday and I took it as something of an admonishment. I was a little bit like those people I interviewed in St. Peter's Square, who knew Paul was ever present, but didn't know anything about him. He turns out to be this astonishingly interesting character. His letters, which as I said, I heard like everybody else in church, are impossible to ignore as the earliest Christian documents we have. And so the paper trail and the character -- and the resonance that Paul's ideas have today -- all make him just simply that much more interesting.
What about his ideas are particularly resonant today?
His ideas about homosexuality are being debated in the United States today. His attitudes about women are being debated today. In the wake of "The Passion of the Christ," his attitudes, or the attitudes which get ascribed to him, about anti-Semitism -- [these] are all issues on which he spoke and we are still debating. I find it amazing.
Did your reporting change your views on any aspect of him?
I'd have to say no because I didn't know very much about him. His ideas about love and his ideas about tolerance are inconsistent, or inconsistent to a laymen, and so I think he is fascinating in that regard. Somebody had written that "His views of tolerance would have made the Taliban blush."
I have been to Damascus a hundred times, and never thought about 'the street called Straight' in anything other than the most casual way. I'd never been to the three places where three different groups believe his conversion took place. But when I got to the house of Ananias which has that wonderful priest -- an ex-fireman from Chicago -- now it comes alive.
To some extent I think that's always true about me. But going to Ephesus [was] an extraordinarily moving experience. I'd been to Ephesus under other circumstances, but then to go back and have some sense that this was a place that made a difference to the character we were trying to understand, of course that made a difference. I remember going to Caesarea where he spent this time after he was taken from Jerusalem. To be in the place where he thought about what his future would be and what he would argue, given that he was a Roman citizen, on his own behalf when given the ability to confront the Romans. And I know this is corny, and to then go and do a little deep sea diving to understand the physical structure of the transportation system in the Roman empire which got him across the Mediterranean, is just exciting.
Tell us about the scuba diving...
Prior to being in Caesarea I had been on the modern border between Jordan and Syria. And I remember standing at a customs post and pointing out to people that these custom posts didn't exist in those days, so you could come up here from Jerusalem up through the Jordan valley and across the top of the Golan and get up here to the Syrian border and turn west. Paul and others were able to do that. And then, he went down to Caesarea. And here were a couple of underwater archeologists saying you really have to come and see what the Romans managed to do with concrete, that they could submerge [it] in water and make these great ports. And of course, if you believe the stories, it was from that port that Paul probably sailed to what is now Italy.
I saw someone analogizing the Roman transportation system to the Internet today...
I think that's an excellent analogy. One of the things that's really hard to come to grips with as a reporter, is that this tiny little sect in the eastern end of the Mediterranean, one of many sects at the time, would ultimately become the officially religion of the Roman empire. I remember asking [Professor Tom Wright] once about the resurrection and he said to me, "Something had to have happened. Something seemed to have happened to have moved people to cling to this for such a long period of time." But the first jump of that is, "What was it? What was it that was so powerful that a couple hundred years later the Romans were coming back and building churches in honor of this once upon a time, tiny little Jewish sect?" I think it's stunning.
Do you have a view on what "it" was?
No, to be honest. I mean I think there are lots of reasons. Not the least of which might have been fatigue with the imperial gods, fatigue with paganism, the understanding that one god and this particular God and the memory of Jesus was truly humane in ways that paganism was not. But that's as far as I dare carry it because people have spent their lifetime studying that. But I do think that this notion of love and having suffered and died for other people's sins, is a very, very powerful message.
Are there any people in modern times, in either politics, religion, business, who Paul reminds you of?
No. There's no question he is one of a handful of truly towering figures who has formed our way of thinking. Gandhi certainly fits that context, or follows in that path. Martin Luther King follows in that path. I've always been reluctant to call him, or to refer to him, as the great salesman for Christianity, because I'm always a little anxious that people will regard that as an insensitive, slightly commercial remark. But the truth is, he was an astonishing salesman for Christianity, or for Jesus, and for the Jesus movement. When you realize that he, in his mind, believes that he's got so little time left, you feel the intensity of the salesmanship. Again, I wish to see that word taken in the best possible context.
One of the central questions that the show deals with and which people have been dealing with about Paul for a long time was, did he change the religion from what Jesus would have wanted, or was he simply expressing the essence of what Jesus was teaching.
I hope you noticed that we tried to have both points of view represented. I keep reminding people that we are reporters. We are not here with the answers, we are only here to lay out what we see. And this conflict between whether he spoke as Jesus' man or he purloined, borrowed, took Jesus' message on his own terms, doesn't seem to me going to be resolved by any reporter.