Jennings gets three hours of prime-time for religious stories

Monday, April 5, 2004

NEW YORK -- Bringing a reporter's eye to biblical stories is Peter Jennings' passion.

ABC is taking the extraordinary step of devoting all three hours of prime time Monday to Jennings' latest religious saga, "Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness."

Jennings said the special's timing and content was locked in before Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" became a huge success. Still, the movie can't help but affect how the ABC show is perceived, and may bring in more viewers.

"In the wake of 'The Passion,' which created such intensity, we bring some further education to the debate that people are having," he said.

Jennings saw Gibson's movie, but declines to give his opinion of it.

The ABC project is essentially the sequel to "In Search of Jesus," the 2000 special on Jesus Christ's life that finished third in the week's television rankings, an unusually potent performance for a documentary.

Jennings immediately asked to examine St. Paul, who did more than anyone to spread Jesus' message to a non-Jewish world.

"Paul is a wonderful story, just a wonderfully interesting story, and a story very relevant to today," Jennings said. "So much of what we're debating in the country today -- marriage, sex, religiosity, the role of women -- was precisely what was going on in Paul's day."

During the documentary, set to a contemporary soundtrack with the likes of Joan Osborne, R.E.M. and Curtis Mayfield, Jennings tries to describe what life and politics were like in Jesus' time.

Jesus' message of compassion to the poor was even more radical then, and was likely to threaten a brutal Roman regime that didn't hesitate to snuff out threats. The documentary does not explicitly lay full blame for his death on either Roman or Jewish leaders.

Jennings walks in Jesus' footsteps in the present-day Middle East, even showing how it might have been possible for him to escape into the desert when he saw authorities coming to capture him.

The special is careful to note the several areas where scholars disagree, particularly about Christ's resurrection. Many believe literally in everything written in the Bible, while others believe the Resurrection was metaphorical.

Something must have happened, otherwise it's hard to explain how Jesus' story endured for so long, Jennings said.

ABC distributed a list of 24 biblical scholars quoted in the three-hour special. Fewer voices were heard during "In Search of Jesus," and Jennings was criticized for being too reliant on a liberal interpretation of biblical history.

"We did not consciously try to widen our net," Jennings said. "It's just as you go along, you meet more people and hear more opinions."

Jennings, who scuba-dived in the Mediterranean Sea and walked the ruins of ancient Rome for the documentary, interviewed tourists near the Vatican to ask what they knew about Paul.

Most were stumped.

"You knew Paul only as this slightly abstract writer of letters when I was growing up," he said. "I never knew him as a personality, his struggle as a person to take this religion beyond the Jewish world."

Jennings discovers three different tourist traps that claim to be where Paul allegedly saw the spirit of Jesus and began preaching his message. It also details how Christianity spread in large part because Paul said followers did not have to follow Jewish laws -- meaning men did not have to be circumcised.

Partly because of that decision, Paul feuded with some of the people who knew Jesus when he was alive. The film showed how some of the angry words Paul used during this debate became the fuel for anti-Semitism centuries later.

Every expert ABC spoke to believes that Paul -- a Jew like Jesus and most of his early followers -- should not be blamed for later anti-Semitism.

The letters Paul wrote play a prominent role in church services today. The ABC documentary helps bring some of the letters that churchgoers take for granted to life.

"If you just accepted only the Bible, you would not be doing a reporter's job, which is why you have to look at Roman history and Jewish history that was outside of the gospels," Jennings said.

"Which is why Paul in many ways is such a fascinating story, because he left this extraordinary paper trail," he said.

Jennings said he hopes viewers realize through the documentary how it's unlikely that the movement Jesus founded would have survived beyond the first century if it weren't for Paul.

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EDITOR'S NOTE -- David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"

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