The Jesus Seminar cabal is back, of course. Its founder, Robert Funk, appears, as does his former co-chair, John Dominic Crossan, propagating his theory that Jesus' body was eaten by wild dogs. But Jennings has taken care to include many more conservative Christians among his scholarly commentators, including, most notably, the respected evangelical Ben Witherington and Luke Timothy Johnson, a Catholic, to complement N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, who back in 2000 was practically the only traditionalist Christian in Jennings' lineup.
Jennings also tackles the matter of Jesus' resurrection reverently--although he can't resist flashing the images of Easter MTV-style across the screen to the accompaniment of rock music. This bow to fashion is pardonable in a show that consists mostly of cameos by New Testament scholars issuing soundbites. Those who can parse the allusions in "The Passion" will recognize these scholars as celebrities in the field (Elaine Pagels of the best-selling "Beyond Belief," "Passion" pooh-pooher Paula Fredriksen and Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, who disbelieves in the divinity of Christ) as well as some less known but no less impressive academics like Rodney Stark, Alan Segal and E.P. Sanders. But the rest of ABC's Monday night audience may need a stirring rock chorus or two to hang in there.
What most harms this documentary look is that Jennings can't seem to take the New Testament seriously as a historical or a theological source. Without the backbone of that widely shared conviction, "Jesus and Paul" serves up thin, superficial gruel. The long segments on Paul are downright boring, even though the Bible's version of Paul of Tarsus was one of the most colorful and best-documented of early Christian figures.
But the overall impression Jennings' show has of Jesus of Nazareth is as a purely political figure who was executed because he spoke up for the poor. They miss the cosmic religious dimension of Jesus that emerges on nearly every page of the gospels: his claims to divine authority, his declarations that his death was to be a sacrifice "for many."
When it comes to Paul, ABC fails to connect with the rich narrative of Paul's career found in the Acts of the Apostles--the account traditionally attributed to his physician-disciple and gospel writer Luke--or indeed Paul's own New Testament letters. Paul. a Roman citizen and a Greek-speaking Jew from a diaspora community in the south of what is today's Turkey, was not only educated in the Greek classics but was a disciple of the famous Pharisee Gamaliel, a predecessor of today's rabbis.
A persecutor of Jesus' followers in his youth, he underwent a dramatic conversion experience near Damascus (duly discussed in the Jennings special), traveled on three separate journeys all over the eastern Mediterranean, even to the city of Athens, suffered hostility not just from pagans but from other Jews who considered the cult of Jesus blasphemous, languished in chains in a Roman prison in Caesarea for two years, and endured a dramatic shipwreck near the island of Malta while being transported to Rome for (according to Christian tradition) his ultimate martyrdom. Paul preached boldly to the Roman governors Felix and Festus of Judea and also to Herod Agrippa II, the last Jewish king before the Romans devastated Jerusalem.
Skipping over nearly all of this, Jennings focuses mostly on a theological dispute between Paul, who sought to admit Gentiles into the church as full-fledged Christians, and the apostles Peter and James, who wanted the Gentile converts to be circumcised as Jews and required to follow Jewish dietary laws. Paul's views ultimately prevailed, but Jennings and his writers puff up this temporary disagreement into a running battle between Paul and the rest of the early Christians over how to save the world. Indeed, Jennings subscribes to the view--popular among many biblical scholars, including Pagels--that first-century Christians were no more than a bunch of quarreling factions, each with its own interpretation of Jesus and each swearing allegiance to a different leader, whether Paul, James, or whomever. "There was even a group led by Mary Magdalene," Jennings intones (sorry, Dan Brown fans, but there isn't a shed of evidence in the New Testament or elsewhere that such a group ever existed).
Paul comes off in the Jennings special as an ornery, misogynistic loner who stayed on the move because he couldn't get along with anyone and had weird views about sex (like Jesus, Paul condemned fornication, and he did not approve of homosexual acts). Paul's letters and the Acts paint a different picture: of a gregarious missionary who usually traveled with friends--Silas, Barnabas, Titus, Philemon, Luke--and who treasured his strong-willed female followers such as Phoebe, the deaconess of Corinth, Priscilla from Rome, and Lydia, the wealthy dye-merchant who was a patron of one of his churches. None of these vivid New Testament characters makes it into the Jennings special.
Nor does any serious discussion of Paul's theology, so influential upon the course of Christianity for 2,000 years. Paul "was the first to see Jesus' crucifixion as beautiful," says Jennings. That's true, but it was because Paul was also the first--or, more likely, not the first--to see that saw that Jesus' death was much more than a political execution, and that it represented to this first-century Jew the fulfillment of a prophecy that God, acting as a suffering servant, would take all the pain and grief of the world upon his own shoulders on a cross. But if you see the history of religion only in political terms, you're going to miss most of it, and you're going to make the most deeply meaningful of stories into something flat and dull.