I recently watched about half of the recent three-hour ABC special “Jesus and Paul.” These programs can be interesting and educational to watch, but not for the reasons you might think.
For example, Peter Jennings did make some attempt to present differing opinions about certain issues, such as whether Jesus knew he would be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, what really happened on Sunday morning after the crucifixion, or what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. During the program, Jennings interviewed a large number of Biblical scholars. However, the philosophical direction of the program quickly became clear.
Out of 27 Biblical scholars interviewed in the program, only two or three gave any indication of believing the Biblical accounts as written. The other scholars all questioned, even denied, certain aspects of the Biblical record. (Of course, I understand that not all Biblical scholars claim to be a Christian. Some are just interested in the Bible as a historical/religious document.)
For example, concerning the physical resurrection of Jesus, only one scholar stated he believed Jesus actually rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion. Most of the other scholars admitted that something happened, but they weren’t willing to admit to resurrection.
I thought it was interesting that no one asked the most significant question concerning the debate about the resurrection: “Where is Jesus’ body?” That question was ignored completely.
The program tried to shape Jesus into a preacher of a “social gospel” by a selective use of the Bible, emphasizing Jesus’ statements about the poor and suffering, yet ignoring Jesus’ statements about religious hypocrisy, sin and giving his life as a ransom for many.
I would find programs like this amusing except for one reason: They always promote the same opinions that have been repeatedly answered by conservative Bible scholars. Yet someone watching this program would never know that.
For example, more than once, someone would deny that Jesus said something that the Gospels record him as saying or would deny that something happened, which the Gospels record as happening. What would be their reason for denying the Gospel statements? Only the personal opinion of the scholar.
What people often don’t realize is that many scholars come to the Bible with negative presuppositions that affect their conclusions.
Many believe that miracles are impossible, so they automatically deny or explain away by social custom or naturalistic causes any Gospel account of a miracle, yet cloak that denial in scholarly language. Such was the case when the program referred to the Gospel accounts of demon possession.
Yet, interestingly, the words of Jesus in reference to the poor were always regarded as authentic.
The Bible, as any other book of history, must be treated fairly. I have copies of the works of Plato, Cicero and other ancient writers in my library. It is rare to find a scholar who arbitrarily dismisses the authenticity of these writings. Yet, in modern Biblical scholarship, such practices are the norm, not the exception.
What is more amazing is that more copies of the Biblical texts have survived from antiquity than any other ancient document. Except for isolated cases, what the Biblical text actually says is not really the issue. Apparently, for modern Biblical scholars, the issue is “Did Jesus really say or do what the Gospels record him as saying or doing?” At this point, we have moved beyond scholarship to opinion based on presupposition.
Because no one alive today was there when Jesus lived, the Biblical accounts are the only record we have that give any significant detail about his life. To dismiss the Biblical record because we do not like what it tells us is not scholarship but prejudice and intolerance.
But there also might be another reason. By the time I was a senior at the University of Georgia, I knew I would be headed to seminary. I had several electives to use up, so I took Hebrew that year.
The professor was a New Testament scholar who had published in several theological journals. One day in class he was talking about “scholarship,” and he mentioned something that I thought was revealing. Although he smiled and somewhat laughed as he said it, he was serious.
He said that if you want to make a name for yourself in the world of academic scholarship, you have to develop something new and creative in your field and then get published.
I wonder whether many of the Biblical “scholars” we see on programs such as “Jesus and Paul” are simply trying to create their own niche in the academic world regardless of the damage it might do.
Peter Jennings obviously has great influence at ABC in order to block off three hours of primetime for a program about Christianity, a religion for which he seems to have a genuine interest. Discussion about the Bible or any other “Scripture” is healthy – an opportunity and freedom we often take for granted in America. Any book claiming to be the word of God should be able to survive investigation into its sources, teaching and consistency. However, such investigation should be honest, fair and balanced.
In today’s scholarly atmosphere, I suspect that is too much to hope for.
Wally Morris has been pastor at Charity Baptist Church in Huntington since 1996. He has written articles for magazines Today’s Christian Teen and Faith for the Family and has written several articles for the Huntington Herald-Press. “People of Praise” appears Saturdays on the Faith page.