Tonight, conservative Christians will present their answer to Peter Jennings' Jesus.
Jerry Newcombe, producer of "Who Is This Jesus?," an hourlong documentary airing tonight on 20 CBS and ABC affiliates (locally at 7 p.m. on KDKA) and already shown last night on 66 PAX stations, acknowledges that Jennings' June show, "The Search for Jesus," was the catalyst for this more conservative response. "It's sort of 'The Empire Strikes Back,' " he said.
The aim was not necessarily to present only the conservative picture of the life of Jesus. Several scholars who do not believe the conservative view were interviewed, including John Dominic Crossan, a member of the oft-quoted Jesus Seminar, a gathering of scholars who used group votes to determine the authenticity of Jesus' words in the Bible. Conservative rebuttals were offered for many of these scholars' views, though. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish scholars all appear in interviews.
Conservatives were concerned by Jennings' show, Newcombe said, because it was painted as a balanced show but cited only one conservative scholar out of the eight total guests.
"You were left with the impression that no credible scholar believes [in the biblical Jesus] anymore."
So Coral Ridge Ministries, a Christian radio and television outreach of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., set out to demonstrate that many legitimate scholars do still believe in the Jesus presented in the Bible.
Hosted by film star Dean Jones and popular Presbyterian theologian D. James Kennedy, "Who Is This Jesus?" begins by looking at the Gospels themselves -- when they were written and whether the ancient manuscripts are reliable.
The issue of when the Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- were written is an important debate in theological circles. In the documentary, Harvard Divinity School's Helmut Koester says none of the Gospels could have been written until after 70 A.D., when most of Jesus' disciples were already dead, thus calling into question whether the Gospels are truly the eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life that they claim to be.
A voice-over during Koester's interview prompts the viewer to consider Koester's underlying assumptions. The Gospels show Jesus predicting the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in 70 A.D. As Newcombe puts it, Koester has an "anti-miracle presupposition" that prevents him from believing that Jesus could have made a prophecy that later came true.
Conservative scholars presenting opposite views include N.T. Wright, canon of Westminster Abbey; the Rev. Jerome Neyrey of Notre Dame University; and Bruce Metzger, retired professor from Princeton Theological Seminary, whom Newcombe calls "probably the most respected scholar of the New Testament alive today."
The show also looks at archaeological evidence, extra-biblical historical sources and Old Testament prophecies to offer support for the life, death and especially the physical resurrection of Jesus.
Regarding this last point, Newcombe asked the more liberal scholars to explain how the apostles could have been transformed from cowardly betrayers into men willing to die for their beliefs if the resurrection didn't happen.
Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar from Vanderbilt University, said during her interview that she believes the apostles were convinced that they had seen the resurrected Jesus.
"But could I have caught it on camera?" she asks. "I don't think so."
Newcombe, though, says the show didn't set out to create factions -- in fact, he thinks it ends up creating common ground. "All of the scholars [interviewed for the program] agree, for example, that something happened after Jesus' death to his disciples, and it was very dramatic."
But the show does unabashedly support the view of Jesus set forth by the Bible, Newcombe said. "I hope the viewer is left with the idea that there's credible evidence that Jesus is who he said he is."