Finding Jesus

March 31st, 2015

“A hot topic”

The final episode of CNN’s series “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery” debuts Sunday night. The series has investigated six topics connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection — the Shroud of Turin, John the Baptist, the noncanonical Gospels of Judas and of Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ “secret brother” and purported pieces of the True Cross.

The premiere episode attracted 1.14 million viewers, scoring well in the important demographic of adults aged 25–54. “Christianity remains a hot topic on TV,” concluded The Hollywood Reporter, “even for cable news.”

Interest in the historical Jesus

Why has “Finding Jesus” found such an eager audience? One reason is that good mysteries are hard to resist, and “Finding Jesus” presents itself as “a scientific detective story.” The first episode opens with this dramatic narration: “Jesus Christ. He changed the course of world history. Yet, the most famous man ever to live left no physical trace. Or did he?” That voiceover suggests the search for the historical Jesus is a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes or “CSI.”

Does this impression match reality? According to Professor Mark Alan Powell of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, “Historical Jesus studies is a science that attempts to determine what can be known of Jesus on the basis of historical research alone,” analyzing data about him “in accord with the same standards that would be employed when analyzing data pertaining to any other figure from antiquity,” free from religious or antireligious bias. “The scholars frequently maintain that they are not trying to discover what might be true of Jesus, but what is verifiable.”

In theory, the academic study of Jesus differs little from the academic study of, say, Julius Caesar. Realistically, its subject makes it different. Jesus of Nazareth is inarguably one of the single most important people in history. “Whether you believe or do not believe,” observes novelist and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner, “you date your letters and checks and income tax forms with a number representing how many years have gone by since what happened happened. The world of A.D. is one world, and the world of B.C. is another.” As a believer, of course, Buechner interprets this state of affairs differently from those of different faiths or no faith would; nevertheless, the impact of Jesus and his church on world history cannot be overstated.

Consequently, stories about “quests for the historical Jesus” frequently spark public interest, particularly when they sensationalize such studies. You may recall, in the 1990’s, the widespread interest in the Jesus Seminar’s color-coded votes about the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings, or headlines in 2012 announcing the discovery of an ancient papyrus fragment that mentions Jesus’ wife.

David Gibson, cocreator of “Finding Jesus,” says the public’s interest in historical Jesus studies is ultimately more than academic. “Jesus has a powerful message, whatever one thinks of the ‘church’ or ‘religion.’ And I suspect there’s a real desire among people who don’t go to church—and many who do—to get back to the real, radical, original Christian message.”

Reaching for relics

Each episode of “Finding Jesus” features an artifact with a supposed link to Jesus. In the second episode, for instance, scientists sample collagen from a finger bone that has been venerated as a relic of John the Baptist. They hope to establish a direct blood connection to Jesus, based on the Gospel of Luke’s identification of John and Jesus as cousins. Lab tests reveal, however, that the bone dates from the seventh or eighth century—far too late to have been John’s.

Relics have long been part of much Christian piety. They loomed especially large in the medieval church. According to historian Eamon Duffy, the bodies of saints, “having been the temples of the Holy Spirit, were sources of power, the alabaster box of spiritual ointment from which healing flows.”

Other physical objects associated with biblical events were also believed to mediate healing power and aid prayers’ efficacy. King Louis IX’s collection of Passion relics in the Saint Chappelle, for instance, included two crowns of thorns. To account for the numerous fragments found across Europe of the cross on which Jesus died, “the theory developed that the Cross was self-replicating, like the loaves and fishes” with which Jesus fed multitudes.

Today, the veneration of relics might appear humorous at best or superstitious at worst. But author Robert N. Swanson contends that even in the Middle Ages, “the veracity of the relics was largely irrelevant … if relics … worked to direct and channel devotion.” Perhaps the impulse to venerate relics and the interest in scientifically investigating “holy objects” are not so different. Both express desire for a closer connection to Jesus.

Christian faith claims that in Jesus, God entered the physical world in a unique way (for example, John 1:14; Colossians 2:9). God was embodied in a first-century Jewish rabbi who interacted with the material world as we all do. Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, however, mean he and his power are not confined to the places he walked, the objects he touched or any “physical trace” he left behind. Archaeology may or may not unearth irrefutable evidence of Jesus, but it cannot create or destroy Jesus’ presence with us through the Holy Spirit. As one of Brian Wren’s hymns proclaims, Christ is “no longer bound to distant years in Palestine” but rules in “the here and now,” dwelling in all places and times.

Seeking Jesus in his story

Dramatizations of Scripture occupy much of “Finding Jesus.” Some scenes are straightforward performances of a Bible text, complete with onscreen chapter-and-verse citations. Others pull together multiple versions of the same event, smoothing over differences. Still others invent moments not found in the Bible. Several episodes feature graphic scenes of Jesus’ suffering and death; an advisory notice even preceded the premiere. Dr. Tony Burke, a biblical studies professor at York University, expresses reservations: “Given that few Christians actually read the Bible, and viewers place some trust in the views of scholars, they may think that the “Finding Jesus” story is also ‘the story as the Bible tells it.’ But it’s not.”

The dramatizations in “Finding Jesus” aim to entertain as much as inform, but they also confirm what Christians know: Jesus can be found in his story. When the apostle Paul communicated what is “most important” about the faith to believers in Corinth, he narrated, in outline, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). When the church defined its canon of authoritative texts, it included not one but four different versions of Jesus’ story. Christmas pageants are the modern descendants of medieval “mystery plays,” immersing performers and audiences in stories from Scripture. Some of Christianity’s best-loved hymns set the story of Jesus to music: “Lord of the Dance,” “Were You There,” “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus,” and others.

The risen Jesus is no more confined to his story than he is to physical relics. Nevertheless, when we read, hear and tell his story in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, we open ourselves, through those human words, to a potentially life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, who is God’s eternal Word. “Sure, the biblical narratives are given to us as texts,” writes Sarah Arthur in “The God-Hungry Imagination,” “but they are also mysteriously more than texts. … There is a mystery here that defies explanation. … It beckons [us] into the ‘more spacious world’ of God’s kingdom, where the usual rules have been rearranged, and one is never quite certain what will happen next.”

Finding Jesus in the church

“Finding Jesus” likely won’t mark the final time the historical Jesus captures the public’s attention this Easter season. When our culture wants to find Jesus, we, his church, should stand ready to help that search.

We find Jesus in worship: as God’s Word is preached, in the waters of baptism, around the Communion table or altar. We find Jesus in serving others, especially those among whom he promised we’d find him: people who are hungry, poor, and pushed to society’s margins (Matthew 25:40). We find him when we keep his command to love one another — a command that we confess we don’t always follow, but to which we recommit ourselves, with God’s help, to obeying.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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