From bone box to big screen, Jesus reconsidered

NEARLY 2,000 years after Jesus trod the globe, there is, this Easter season, a fresh focus on the physical details of his life and death - and about what lessons they hold for today's religiously conflicted world.

Some scholarly research and portrayals in popular culture are focusing attention on the contours of Jesus' family tree, the veracity of the resurrection, and on his mission itself: Was he really the Messiah or just a political revolutionary - somewhere between Gandhi and Che Guevara?

While questions about Jesus have swirled for centuries, new details and depictions of the man on the eve of one of Christianity's holiest days are provoking fresh discussion and debate:

• A documentary is set to air this weekend in 70 countries about the ossuary, or "bone box," that was discovered last October and is thought to belong to Jesus' brother James. It is shedding new light on Jesus' family ties.

A new book by a prominent Anglican scholar makes the most comprehensive case in decades that Jesus' body did actually return to life - an idea scholars have discounted over the years.

• A coming film by Mel Gibson depicts the crucifixion with a new degree of graphic and linguistic realism - and is already sparking curiosity and controversy.

• Another Discovery Channel documentary about Jesus included a computer-generated image of what he might have looked like. It also cited scientific evidence suggesting that the people can actually sweat blood, as the Bible describes Jesus doing in the Garden of Gethsemane.

"We live in a Jesus-haunted culture where everybody knows his name, yet we're also quite biblically illiterate," says Ben Witherington III, coauthor of a new book about the James ossuary. The new focus on Jesus' life emphasizes that Christianity is not just a mild "faith in faith" or belief in the "power of positive thinking," he says. Rather it's "a faith in a particular set of people and what they did." And that has big consequences.

For instance, the ossuary's Aramaic inscription, which reads, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," is perhaps the earliest known mention of Jesus outside the Bible. For many it revived the idea that a man so revered actually had family members and trod the dusty hills of modern-day Israel.

Resurrection reexamined

Likewise, a new book called "The Resurrection of the Son of God" by British scholar N. T. Wright presents a detailed assertion that Jesus was transformed into "a new sort of embodiment" - one that parallels the "new heaven and new earth" described by the apostle Paul.

And there's some evidence that the Rev. Mr. Wright's book comes amid a shift in British public opinion. A recent poll found that nearly half of Britons believe in the resurrection - compared with one-third in a similar poll in 2001.

This stands at odds with many rationalist scholars, who have called the resurrection everything from "not a historical event" to "a conjuring trick with bones." Indeed, in some views, Jesus is more a political than religious figure.

But Wright - who's soon to be appointed a top Church of England leader - asserts that the only reason early Christians were so energized, despite facing ridicule, arrest, and torture, was their view that Jesus' overcoming death signaled the start of a new era.

And they wanted to spread the word.

Ultimately, Wright's detailing of the resurrection leads to the view that, "God is in the business of changing and transforming this current world - and that this process begins at Easter," Wright says in an interview.

And this has big implications for today's churches and believers, he says: "God's new world has begun, and we've got to go forth and make it happen."

Yet the details of Jesus' life can also spark controversy.

The ossuary, for instance, creates problems for the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity: If Jesus had a brother, as the ossuary implies, then his mother did not remain a virgin her whole life.

Indeed, some Roman Catholic scholars are saying that the word "brother" in the ossuary's inscription can also mean "kin" or "cousin."

A new film in old languages

Mr. Gibson's movie is already controversial - even though it's not likely to be released until 2004. The project is reportedly being bankrolled largely by the star himself. It focuses on the 12 hours leading up to the crucifixion, including Jesus' great suffering.

Gibson is a conservative Roman Catholic who attends masses said in Latin. And the film's actors speak only in Latin and Aramaic. Jewish groups worry it will revive charges that "Jews killed God."

And perhaps because discussion of Jesus' suffering is sometimes used to try to lure converts to Catholicism, it's regarded warily in largely secular Hollywood.

All in all, too much focus on the details can be "a cop out" that distracts from the broader import of Jesus' time on earth, argues well-known scholar John Dominic Crossan, author of "The Historical Jesus."

For him, the fact that matters most is the bigger point that Jesus was publicly executed by the established powers of the day - by what he calls "the normalcy of civilization."

That portends, he says, that Jesus' followers will always be in opposition to the establishment. It means they must constantly work to emulate Jesus' model of both "personal decency" and broader social justice.

But in the end, he says, whichever version of the details one believes in, "There's something else more important - and that's why it's lasted 2,000 years."

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