A friend and ministry associate, Steve Hogel, was in town this week and stopped by to visit. He brought with him a review copy of a two hour special which CNN will be airing on Wednesday, December 20 at 7:00 and 10:00 PM E.T. titled, CNN Presents: After Jesus — The First Christians. It will be replayed on Saturday the 23rd and Sunday the 24th at 8:00 and 10:00 PM E.T. Unfortunately for Steve I had my pad of paper, a pen and the remote control to stop and reverse so I can write the quotes which caught my attention. As a result he was only able to see about 1/3 of it. The December 7, 2006 CNN News Release which he brought with the DVD lets us know that the final version will be narrated by Liam Neeson and they also write:
“CNN was able to leverage its extensive resources to tell the story behind the greatest story ever told,” said Mark Nelson, vice president and senior executive producer for CNN Productions. “The fundamental themes of challenge and resolution, power and struggle that we explore continue to be relevant in modern times.”
CNN examined archaeological evidence and spoke with the most renowned authorities on the ancient church to answer “the” question at the heart of the story: How did Jesus, a wandering rabbi from the hinterland, and his illiterate followers, triumph over Roman persecution and establish a worldwide faith?
A liberal bias surfaces in the News Release as they suggest that branches of the early church were polytheistic among other issues and described the apostles as “his illiterate followers.” This was very reminiscent of the view of the Jesus Seminar co-founder, John Dominic Crossan and his book The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant . The assumption Crossan makes is that since the nations around the Mediterranean were illiterate than the Jewish disciples themselves were illiterate. This reasoning suffers from taking what was perhaps generally true as the criteria to determine what was specifically true. Now while it is most probable that Peter and the eleven were not “college” educated as was Paul that does not mean they were illiterate. We dealt more at length with these particular views in our 1998 Journal “The Hysterical Search for the Historical Jesus” and so won’t belabor that here. After viewing the entire production I wonder, are they actually telling “the story behind the greatest story ever told” or just telling stories?
On the plus side, much of the surrounding historical data was accurate and well done. It will be helpful for the viewers to get a sense of the history and the culture of that time. The production was, as would be expected, first class and will be all the more so with Liam Neeson as the narrator.
Early on in the first segment CNN posits the possibility that Luke “exaggerated” his accounts. I am not saying that CNN is intentionally attempting to cause doubt about the reliability of Scripture due to their liberal bias. It may well be that they are attempting to be even handed and are simply blind to their liberal bias. As I watched the entire piece I cannot recall that they interviewed a single conservative scholar. They had scholars that were Jewish and scholars that were liberal but, as I mentioned, I didn’t notice any conservatives. That would be on about the same level as using Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and David Duke as the only or at least most reliable authorities on the holocaust. It is possible that they are simply unaware that high caliber conservative scholars exist. If that is the case it also brings into question the accuracy of other aspects of the production as well.
With that set up we suspected before viewing it that the two hour special is about power, politics and a movement which inexplicably morphed in to a religion. Lawrence A. Shiffman, professor at New York University appears on camera donning his Yammulke and says:
”So, the problem is not in the belief that Jesus is the Messiah. The problem is when the belief is moving from Messiah to a kind of deified Messiah and as this begins to be understood by the Jews the opposition to this movement is no longer a political thing. It’s a very strong religious thing.”
One of the main authorities was Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus and professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. (We have a review of his book in our current Journal titled, “To Error is Ehrman” by Randal Ming and Randall Birtell. If you are not on the mailing list you can contact us for a copy). Although his bias and views were not overtly stated in the special, they do help to guide the viewer to a particular conclusion or at least point them in a direction as they suggest that the gospel accounts are not history but rather are more or less faith fables created by its two founders. The narrator tells us:
”Peter, the simple fisherman from Galilee who was Jesus’ chief apostle. Paul, a sophisticated Pharisee. Together they will create a religion that will change the world.”
And so the stage is set. The movement started out as a political one but After Jesus Peter and Paul collaborated to create a new religion loaded with political intrigue and power struggles. The gospels and the book of Acts were written to inspire faith but there is little in them that is actually historical or reliable.
Fast and Loose with the Text
CNN would have greatly benefited by having someone review the narration script for accuracy. It comes across as though they are playing fast and loose with the text in order to add more drama to the story (as if that were necessary) when the narrator states:
”Delivering the Jesus message put Paul and Peter in conflict. Paul’s open door mission to the pagan Gentiles was a huge problem for Peter who thought the resurrection of Jesus was for the Jews alone. If you wanted to follow Jesus you had to become a Jew and obey Jewish Law and Peter wielded considerable power back in Jerusalem. Power given to him by Jesus.”
They talk about the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, A.D. 48 or 49, where they have Paul trying to persuade James to side with him against Peter on the issue of not making gentiles convert to Judaism in order to be saved.
It is hard to know where to even start or stop on this without writing an entire article just on this section. It is true that Peter and the twelve only went to the Jews for the first ten years or so and didn’t leave Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). Those who were scattered at this point only proclaimed the gospel to Jews (Acts 11:19). After the conversion of Saul (Acts 9) God gave Peter a special vision before sending him to Cornelius (Acts 10) and upon Peter’s return to Jerusalem he was called on the carpet by the “the circumcision” for going to a gentile (Acts 11:2 & 3). After this meeting the disciples began sharing the gospel with gentiles (Acts 11:20-21). Peter is the head of the church in Jerusalem up to this point and James, the half brother of the Lord, isn’t even mentioned. Paul is not here and certainly is not in a conflict with Peter that James has to resolve.
At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 James has replaced Peter as the head of the church, for reasons which Luke does not share and after Acts 15 Peter vanishes from the balance of the book of Acts and Paul is the main character. In Acts 15 not only are Peter and Paul not at odds with one another but Peter is the one who persuades James and the rest of the “circumcision” that they should not put the legalistic requirements of circumcision and other legalisms on the gentiles (Acts 15:6-11). His view was:
Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to hear?
As if that weren’t enough he turns the salvation tables on them when he elaborated and said in verse 11:
But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.
This is an interesting reversal. Not only are Peter and Paul not at odds with one another with Paul attempting to persuade James to side with him but Peter turns the tables on the whole subject. The Jews, Peter says, will be saved in the same way the gentiles are, not the other way around. Did CNN intentionally play fast and loose with the text? Were they just sloppy in how they handled it letting their theme of political intrigue guide them in a haphazard and concocted treatment of the text. I don’t know but would suspect they hadn’t actually read the text but rather developed their understanding based on the writings of Bart Ehrman and others rather than going to the primary source material. If that is the case their misunderstanding of the events makes sense but does not bode well for their journalistic professionalism.
In Need of New Scripture
As the story unfolds the narrator voices a new concern that the church supposedly had at the end of the first century:
At the end of the 1st Century Christian leaders decided they needed a new holy scripture and they began writing down what Jesus had said and done. And now Christianity would take a different direction. A religion based on the word of written gospels. A religion that would guide them far into an uncertain future. But just who wrote the gospels and are they indeed the last word of Jesus?
In order to further cement the idea that the gospel accounts are the product of early second century churchmen we are assured that:
The gospels were written not as history scholars say but as a kind of divine story.
Of course, the scholars that CNN draws on must have the gospels written late and perhaps not even by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. The reason for this has more to do with liberal scholars needing enough time for a resurrection and deity myth to develop which would take one to two generations. Having the gospels written early would eliminate that possibility. There is a functional problem with their view. The book of Acts was written in the early 60’s, certainly before the Apostle Paul died as the book closes with Paul still in prison awaiting trial. We also know that Luke was with Paul during portions of the book of Acts but not for all portions. We know that by the change in terminology from time to time from “we” and “us” to “they” and “them.” Why is this a problem you ask? Well, Acts was the second book Luke wrote to Theophilus (Acts 1:1). The first book to Theophilus was his gospel (Luke 1:1-4). In general one’s first book is written before their second book which means that Luke was written probably in the early 60’s as well. It is also agreed by liberal and conservative scholars that Mark was the first of the gospel accounts written. That would mean that Mark was in existence before Luke and Acts were written. There was simply not enough time for the “Jesus myth” to develop. They are simply myth taken.
As CNN delved in to the Gnostic gospels one of the best observations they made as to why they had not been included was:
Perhaps the biggest problem with the Gnostic gospels is that they are written centuries after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and for some historians that passage of time raises serious questions of authenticity.
I suppose if I said, “No duh” that would be completely unprofessional so I will refrain.
Overall CNN told an interesting story but not the actual “story behind the greatest story ever told,“ and that is sad really for they invested substantial resources into its making. It would he helpful if CNN would have articulate conservatives analyze and address some of these issues immediately after its airing but that isn’t likely. What is probable is that some of your friends, neighbors and family will be watching it and if you are prepared you will have an opportunity to:
sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; (1 Peter 3:15)