The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth is an endlessly significant topic.
After all, he is the man whose birth determined our calendar, and the central figure whose influence extends to many millions around the globe. In the past year, television has featured several good documentaries and three major dramatic films concerning his life.
And now one of the country's most prominent journalists, Peter Jennings of ABC News, has made a special quest to understand the man with the far-reaching impact in "Peter Jennings Reports: The Search for Jesus" (ABC, Monday, June 26, 9-11 p.m.). The two-hour documentary represents a sincere attempt at a balanced portrait of the man Jesus as a reporter paints it.
Mr. Jennings tells us early in the program that he cannot say whether or not Jesus is the son of God, because that is a matter of faith. Instead he searches among the ruins of the 1st-century Holy Land for clues, though there is little physical evidence available.
He visits archaeological sites and talks to archaeologists, who describe the civilization into which Jesus was born. He talks to residents of modern Bethlehem and Nazareth about the traditions surrounding Jesus' birth. And he talks to a cross section of scholars, from Jesus Seminar historians, including Marcus Borg, author of "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time," to eminent Jewish archaeologist Hanan Eschel to the eloquent Rev. N.T. Wright, canon theologian of Westminster Abbey in London.
All of it is gripping - though many Christians will find some of the content controversial.
Some of the scholars interviewed, though learned and sincere, make astonishing assumptions based, perhaps, as much on their own interpretations of culture and out of their own cultural biases as on fact. Scholars and lay viewers alike may vehemently disagree with many of the notions described by various thinkers in the film. From the authenticity of the virgin birth to Joseph's role in Jesus' life to questions about the possible political content of his preaching, many of these scholars question Gospel accuracy.
But Jennings balances these assertions with views like those of a Harvard University doctor, who is aware of the healing effects of religious faith among his patients, and Mr. Wright's insightful analysis of the meaning of "turn the other cheek."
Jennings's intent as a journalist was, indeed, balance. "I did [the report] because it was irresistible," he said in a recent telephone interview. "It's a great story, and journalists love great stories.... [We asked] 'What could a reporter find out about Jesus the man within the confines of the 1st century?' We knew the Gospels were the place to start...."
They made every attempt to fairly represent the cross section of views they encountered on their journey. He says that from the beginning of the project the team struggled with how they would handle the resurrection - an absolutely crucial issue for most Christians.
Some scholars question the resurrection, as they question the other Gospel accounts of Jesus' career. Jennings doesn't tell us what to think. Yet his summation is persuasive and moving.
He says that "nothing is more mysterious than the resurrection unless you are a person of absolute faith." And he came to the notion, he says, that Jesus may not have thought he died for the redemption of our sins, and that the "kingdom of God" might have meant something different in the 1st century than it is interpreted to mean 2000 years later.
"I think what stayed with me is this notion of Tom Wright's, clearly a common notion, that it's hard to explain Christianity without the resurrection," Jennings says. "There were so many messianic movements in the 1st century - and often they ended up with the leader killed, and the movement went away."
But with the movement begun by Jesus, something very different happened that is ongoing. "I did not want to lead by saying, 'It's a miracle,' " Jennings says, "but I thought it was legitimate to end by saying, 'It's miraculous.' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society