Once upon a time, avid discussions among scholars about the "historical Jesus" were held behind well-barred seminar doors. Some dark secret, it seems, was emerging, and the people in the pews were deemed not quite ready to hear it.

There was mounting evidence--from archeological finds, the discovery of old scrolls in desert caves, and the use of extra-biblical sources--that the letter of the Gospel texts might not always be literally accurate. Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Did he change water into wine, walk on water, heal leprosy, ride in triumph in Jerusalem? Well, it seemed, maybe not.

As the line from "Porgy and Bess" put it, "...the things that you're liable to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so." But the wise men from the ivory towers considered it best not to talk about this in front of the servants, or to let ordinary lay people in on it. A catastrophic collapse of faith might result.

About 10 years ago, that all began to change. A cadre of biblical scholars and historians who called themselves "The Jesus Seminar" began holding annual meetings to scrutinize the Gospels with the latest research techniques. Then they released their sometimes spectacular findings, not to esoteric journals, but at press conferences.

Newspapers and weekly newsmagazines smelled a hot story. The magazines also noticed that whenever they put the latest scoop on Jesus on the cover, sales exceeded any other issue. The cat was decidedly out of the bag. But the fallout was not a collapse of faith; it was an eruption of curiosity.

Still, television, long the fiefdom of the most conservative Christian theology, at first paid scant attention to this major event in the religious culture of America. But soon its presence was too big to ignore. A few years ago, public television produced an excellent three-part series called "From Jesus to Christ," which laid all the cards on the table. But the networks still hung back, apprehensive perhaps about losing market share.

Now, however, Peter Jennings Reports has not only taken the big step but has done it with style, maturity, and engaging artistic creativity.

"The Search for Jesus" goes a second or a third mile beyond any previous effort. Jennings has assembled the best and most balanced array of historical Jesus scholars yet seen on the blue screen. We have elfish Dominic Crossan, earnest Marcus Borg, and a choir of their colleagues, all of whom--perhaps because of judicious editing--are at their least verbose and informative best.

To Paula Fredrikson, who exudes both intelligence and heartfelt sincerity, goes the thankless task of explaining why the elite Temple leadership clique, the Jewish collaborationists with the Roman imperialists, decided to turn the trouble-making rabbi from Galilee over to Pilate. She handles it well. "Being a go-between," she says, "is a tough job."

A somber Robert Funk tells us he believes Judas Iscariot is a fiction invented by the early Christians, the first in a long line of anti-Semitic canards. (But Crossan doubts this.) N.T. Wright, a canon at Westminster Abbey, can usually come up with a plausible conservative take. Here he only strains credibility occasionally, as in, for example, his baroque decoding of the turn-the-other-cheek injunction.

The net result of all this commentary and riposte, however, is a well-tempered and absorbing exchange among serious people who have obviously done their homework.

But that is less than half of it. Previous such programs have presented the evidence, the variant theories, and the conflicting claims--and let it go at that. Jennings boldly takes the next step. He subtly invites us to ask what it all means for faith today. He and his producers deftly blend in classical and contemporary art and music, inventive footage of modern-day Palestine and Israel and--most daring of all--snatches of a lively Passion play produced in the United States by enthusiastic Pentecostals who are also pictured touring the Holy Land and belting out songs in Bethlehem's manger square.

Some of the program's artistic ideas are ingenious. When the voice-over reminds us that Herod dispatched extra Roman troops to Jerusalem to keep peace during Passover, we see Israeli military trucks loaded with soldiers being sent somewhere in the same neighborhood.

After he has spoken with the scholars, Jennings gently tests out their theories on residents of Bethlehem and Nazareth and on some of the tourists and pilgrims who tramp incessantly where Jesus walked. These folks do not attach much credence to what the professors say. They are too busy filing along the Via Dolorosa past the stations of the cross, or wading into the Jordan to be blessed or baptized.

Still, their presence in this program raises an essential issue.

The search for Jesus includes, but goes far beyond, any historical reconstruction. When, if ever, can we admit that we have done about all we can on the "historical Jesus" question (unless--always a possibility--yet more crumbling scrolls turn up)? When can we move on to recognize that who Jesus is for most people is an irreducible compound? That what he means today is the fusion both of his 30-odd years on earth, plus 2,000 years of a luxuriant, indeed bewildering, variety of prayers, songs, images, mystical visions, and theological interpretations?

This is the artistic and spiritual challenge "The Search for Jesus" points to. Could someone of the stature of Peter Jennings take it on? If the current program is any indication, I think they could, though it would obviously require more than a two-hour slot. Still, this splendid program prepares the way. At one point, Joan Osborne's rock tune from a couple of years back can be heard behind the picture. With guitars, drums, and keyboard underneath, she asks: "What if God were one of us?" That, indeed, is what the search for Jesus is about.

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