Heavens! Documentary on Jesus is thoughtful

Monday, June 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Oh, ye of little faith.

How quick the press, the pundits and the preachers were to balk at the notion of Peter Jennings reporting on the historical Jesus.

What could a TV news anchor possibly know about biblical scholarship? It's sure to be a hack job, they said.

Well, they were wrong.

The two-hour Searching for Jesus airing Monday night is well worth a night off from yanking weeds out of the garden, even if the footage isn't high drama.

Mr. Jennings pieces together a thoughtful account of what some say can be historically verified about Jesus' birth, childhood, life and death. It's New Testament 101 without the hassle of homework.

Forget the image of Bill Moyers sitting in a circle with a bunch of dry-as-bones scholars theorizing about the Bible. Mercifully, Mr. Jennings has more than academic gymnastics in mind.

His program is set in the Holy Land, where viewers are taken to the sites specified in the Gospels as significant to Jesus' life. While scholars tell it like it was back then, believers tell how it is right now.

Viewers get a taste of the debates over Scriptures about Jesus. But they also hear from locals in Nazareth and Bethlehem. These are people of faith who cherish as fact the stories of Jesus' birth, even though scholars argue they didn't happen - at least not in the way the Gospels of Luke and Matthew depict.

Mr. Jennings, who never shares his personal views, spent parts of three years visiting historic sites in Israel and retracing Jesus' footsteps.

It's the kind of undertaking seldom seen on network TV, which, when it comes to the Bible, prefers to offer embellished movies affirming the faith rather than documentaries that bring some beliefs into question.

But Christians who think that Mr. Jennings isn't always accurate will have to agree that he tries hard to be fair. It's a show that stretches the mind - though not too terribly much - without trampling the heart.

Even when the Jesus of history seems at odds with the Jesus of faith, Mr. Jennings refrains from criticism. "We are aware of our limitations," he tells viewers. "We cannot tell you whether Jesus is the son of God. That is a matter of faith."

Almost everything scholars say on the program has long been taught in basic New Testament courses in many mainline Protestant or Catholic seminaries. Still, strict interpreters of the Gospels will cringe when Mr. Jennings states, for instance, that the Gospel of Mark was written first and that none of the Gospels was written by the apostles.

Mr. Jennings has been criticized for relying too heavily on scholars associated with the controversial Jesus Seminar, such as Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. But their views are balanced with those of the Rev. N. Thomas Wright, who espouses more traditional and evangelical views of Jesus; and James Strange, a Baptist minister and archaeologist.

The stripped-down image of Jesus presented by Mr. Jennings isn't like the one seen in the glossy miniseries version that CBS spent $25 million bringing to viewers last month. That version was as smooth as a bowl of pudding, and too mushy to swallow.

Tonight, viewers will see a more substantive and compelling presentation. It doesn't tax your brain, but it doesn't play on sentimentality either.

Have a little faith.