Scholars debate the resurrection

A surprising, engrossing documentary on 20/20 Friday night (ABC, 10 p.m.), "Resurrection," examines the controversy surrounding the single most important event in Christian history. Did the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth happen?

Elizabeth Vargas reports from the Holy land, interviewing Christian and Jewish scholars of First Century history and theology, as well as representatives of various Christian sects. Their opinions about the nature of the resurrection differ. But strangely enough, all the scholars - even those who refuse to accept the resurrection in any form - conclude that "something happened" to turn a Jewish sect into the religious movement that would transform Western Civilization.

The filmmakers treat the controversy like any important news story - with intelligence and objective courtesy, representing all sides. Ms. Vargas says she and the producers had been struck by how many people questioned the ending of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Many of those who liked and most of those who loathed the film argued that the resurrection (which gets short shrift in the film) was the defining moment in Christianity - not the crucifixion. "If he had died and stayed dead we wouldn't be talking about him now," she says, pointing out that many messianic figures died at the hands of the Romans.

"The disciples had already proven cowardly when Jesus was arrested," she says. "And within days or weeks they began to reemerge, risking their own lives to say that Jesus had risen. Suddenly, there was a dramatic change in them, a dramatic empowerment."

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