from jesus to christ - the first christians




Very disappointing. This series was promoted with the bait that "new historical evidence" or "new information" would be presented, but this was altogether misleading. The only information less than 20 years old presented in this program was the latest consensus among academics detailing how one must think these days to get tenure at a prestigious university. These modern day "scribes" appeared to be groping for some way to make the Bible say something "new", and may indeed be as clueless about the historical Jesus as the scribes to whom Jesus preached!

As for the video production, why show the same Roman armor, nail-in-wood, and aerial sheep-on-a-hillside scenes over and over and over again? What an impoverished exhibit of modern archaeology which actually has quite a bit to say that IS new!

P Axelsen
Philadelphia, PA


Dear Frontline,

I would have hoped for more detail concerning the textual evidence in your series. However, I understand that you can only fit so much into four one hour segments. One detail which was not mentioned, which I think is important, concerns a statement that was made in the series to the effect: "none of the Dead Sea scrolls related directly to Christ."

In a past issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, a fragment was found which may directly relate to the gospel narritive. In Matt. 11:5, Jesus sends word to John the Baptist in prison of miracles which prove his messiahship: "the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up ...". These words occur in this formula nowhere in the Old Testamant, but only in a fragment of one of the dead sea scrolls. Thus, Jesus not only quotes a Dead Sea scroll as proof of his messiahship, but believes that John will recognize these signs as authorative. John was, of course, an Essene.

John F. Criswell
Murfreesboro, TN


I have so far found the program very interesting but I feel I must comment on some of the letters posted in this forum. I interpreted this program as an attempt to present Jesus within an historical context. Although it is difficult to compile supportable facts after so long a time I felt the program succeeded reasonably well within this limited context. Viewers should not interpret the lack of spiritual interpretation as an intentional bias or as an insult to Christians but only as not being within the scope of the program. This historical material should be considered as supplemental to, and not as a replacement for, spiritual teachings. Finally, I would hope that an increased understanding of Jesus within an historical context would help to dispel some of the animosity between the faiths.

David Senft
Portland, Oregon


As a graduate student who studies the history of Christianity, I very much appreciated the presentation of current scholarship on the historical Jesus and early Christianity. The quality of the program and the scholars consulted is superb. I think it is imperative that PBS provide a non-confessional that is, not representing the views of any one sect of Christianity view of such a controversial subject, and you have done this well. My reading of the previous letters to Frontline about this series has reassured me how important it is to present history apart from theology. It is important for us to remember that we can't know what people in the past really believed, and we must take into account the paucity and, yes, sometimes unreliability of our sources about the past. I hope to see many more programs of such quality from Frontline in the future and I look forward to the rest of the series.

Stephanie Sleeper
Pomona, CA


The title of your program, "From Jesus to Christ," reveals the disinterested perspective that dominates - that Jesus was changed into Christ after he died, not that He was the Christ all along. The program presents an historical-archeaological view only, one which leaves out the primary portrayal of Jesus in the Bible itself - that He was the Son of God and Savior of the world. Paul is portrayed as a missionary without a "mission." His travels and letters are described without discussion of his faith and earnest love for others. Two of your scholars suggest that the reason people joined the early "Jesus people" was because they "liked the rituals" or because they wanted an "opportunity to become a leader" in a new organization! These suppositions run contrary to the reasons described in the Bible itself! Those early believers might have joined because they wanted to know God! Isn't that a possibility? If your historical scholars were thorough historians, they would at least consider the history and the content of the work itself as self-explanatory. Why trust the writings of Josephus or Cimbalene of the 13th century. Are they any more reliable than Paul or John? How do they know who is most reliable?
Would a literary scholar explain the world Jane Austen lived in without looking at her novels and allowing them to explain her world? And she meant to write fiction! The Bible writers and Paul meant to write a history of faith! While the additional writings of Josephus, etc. help to bring even more understanding of the world of Christ, it only seems fair and reasonable to let the original writers and explain the movement as they saw it.

Barbara Adler
Ann Arbor, Michigan


... As a Christian I found nothing in the first two hours that offended me, or undermined my faith in Jesus as the Christ. If anything, your program has provided additional depth to my understanding of the timing of Jesus' public ministry, the political, social, cultural and religious environments into which he was thrust, and the very difficult infancy and childhood of His Church. Things haven't changed all that much, have they? Crossan's description of John the Baptist's ministry was magic..., "tiny time bombs of apocalyptic expection." WOW!

William Billings
Homewood, Illinois


Yup, this is a pretty sad offering - liberal theologians hawking their unfounded and easily-refuted conjectures about Christ and Christianity.

If this is a supposedly controversial subject, where are the dissenting voices? What would really serve the public would be a debate between the liberal theologians and some genuine Christian theologians. I think Chuck Swindoll would be a good choice, maybe with five or six other actual believers.

There is nothing wrong with intelligent skepticism about Christianity as long as both sides are presented - many skeptics have become strong believing Christians C.S. Lewis for one - see 'Surprised by Joy'.

It's great that people are thinking about what really happened at the dawn of Christianity, but this type of show does a tremendous disservice to people with little theological knowledge because it presents only a single point of view. In the absence of any other knowledge, a person will walk away agreeing with the show's conclusions because he/she has nothing to test it against and has never heard or read a dissenting argument.

Even worse because it is all framed as 'the newest research', yet there is not very much new here, and what's presented is not research, but really an opinion about research.

I would strongly recommend that anyone truly interested in investigating the truth claim of the Christian faith that Jesus was indeed divine, that he came to earth, performed miracles, rose from the dead, etc. check out:

C.S. Lewis God in the Dock, Mere Christianity, A Mind Awake, others

Josh McDowell's apologetic works 'Evidence that Demands a Verdict' Vol. 1 only; Vol 2 is complex stuff about the documentary hypothesis or 'A Ready Defense'. McDowell is a little too uncritical about prophecy in my opinion but the rest of his stuff is worth a read

and, of course, read the Bible; especially the New Testament.

Hey, when is Frontline going to do a show featuring scholars who totally disagree with the opinions presented in 'From Jesus to Christ?'.

Dan Hochberg
Kirkland, WA


I was flipping channels last night when I came upon this program, and only watched the part on early Christian women. Now I've looked over the info on this web site.

This is fantastic stuff. I'm thrilled that scholars are learning more about the women and their theology.

I've sent my sisters they're in Australia and Canada the URL so they can read this section, and understand why I've been a feminist Christian woman. It just didn't make sense to me from the time I was a child that Christianity is male dominated! I hope this information can be disseminated throughout the Christian world so that women can know they are part of the leadership and have spiritual power.

Thanks for making sure that this stone was not left unturned!

Jennie Achtemichuk
Seattle, WA



I am shocked at the low level of scholarship evidenced in the commentaries by the so-called scholars featured on Frontline. Trying to define Jesus in terms of his just being a man of his age, and outlining those things people, places and events, which might have influenced him to become what he became, is, to say the least, missing the entire point. You will not ever find any explanation as to how an ordinary man, using ordinary means became The Christ. Jesus was not an ordinary mortal, nor was he just an extraordinarily skilled orator and scholar of Judaica. But you talk about Jesus as though he was just a carpenter, hardly much more than a 1st Century Labor organizer. Jesus, alas, cannot be diminished in scope to fit the diminished capacities of your so-called scholars.

I am rather disappointed though I didn't really expect any better that you did not have any real theologians; instead, baseing your program on the utterances of some rather leftist university professors who spout much modern-day, agenda driven social theory. Jesus was not just an overly talented bright person who lucked out by living next door to some up-scale Roman villas, and/or who may have influenced by Hellenism.

You cannot define or describe Jesus in terms of the ordinary and commonplace, for no amount of tweaking of social or psychological theory can possibly explain the rise of Christianity, its power, mystery, beauty and staying power. If you do not believe in God, then Jesus can be nothing to you other than just a bright person who got lucky. That Jesus was infinitely more than just a product of his times, infinitely more than just a wise man, is obvious to one who believes. To someone who doesn't believe, Jesus is just a man, and cannot be explained.

In future I would be more comfortable if Frontline got back to its usual business of presenting biased programming favoring the usual sacred-cow hot topics of the Left, and leave us religious whackos to have our religion without the stamp of PBS approval.

Tom McHugh
Fort Fairfield, ME


Dear Frontline: I am delighted, as a serious layman, to
have this program, From Jesus to Christ, available for
the public viewing. But I fear, from the comments I have
already seen, that it will not disturb the purblind,
so-called "Christians" whose faith depends only on "beliefs", and not on rational thinking. The Bible, to them, answers
questions. To thoughtful Christians, it poses questions
and challenges us to answer them.
The scholars recognise the definition of Jesus as wholly
human as well as wholly divine. The study of Jesus' times
and his culture reinforces the human side of his nature.
May this program stir good discussions, and thoughtful

Frederick Hollander
Lebanon, Oregon


Congratulations are in order for this look at the early church.
Doubtless, many will complain that your presentation does not
comport with their understanding of Jesus and his times, but it
certainly rings true with me, a Vatican I Catholic with a deep
interest in the ancient Near East.

Those who feel that the opinions of clergymen and evangelicals
should have been presented miss the point of the broadcast.
This was not supposed to be a pious portrait of Jesus and his
band of followers. Piety is for worshipers. That's why we go to
church, read the Bible, and say rosaries. This was a sketchy,
historical treatment of the culture and the times in which Jesus
grew to maturity. It was an attempt to probe the human nature of

In my opinion, this is a far more interesting and revealing
project than any of the "pious" productions I've seen. Just
remember this. An ordinary person is born in Nazareth. He
works in the building trade. He has some ideas and
force. He talks about the end of the world. He attracts
some followers.They make some people angry. He is crucified.
His followers are forlorn. The world did not end as was
supposed. They are being hunted. Many are executed. And
in the end, this band of followers conquers the Roman
Empire. Peacefully. How in the world did that happen?
What else is there to say? In this case, even piety has
nothing on the truth. These thing simply would not have
happened had Jesus not been divine. Now, what do we mean
by divine?

Anthony Daniel
Scranton, Pennsylvania


As a presentation of historical perspective, I found the first segment fascinating. As an examination of who Jesus himself was, and the basis for his followers' belief, it was pretty weeak.

Why do the historians state categorically that the Gospels were written 40 or more years after Jesus' death, when many scholars believe that they were written prior to the destruction of the Temple otherwise, why no mention of such a significant event, anywhere in the writings? Why do they feel the need to create "true scenarios" behind the written words, without a shred of evidence to substantiate their scenarios? I recall one speaker stating that Paul's description of his disagreement with Peter was probably what Paul *wished* he had said to Peter. On what basis is such a statement made?

I can understand the desire of the producers to shy away from the question of Christ's divinity--a hot topic, after all!--but really, if you're afraid to address that question, then much of the rest rings rather hollow. How can you talk about Pentacost without at least acknowledging that the event is ascribed to the power of the Holy Spirit. You can leave belief or unbelief up to the viewer. But you can't just pretend it's not there.

The show did an excellent job of evoking the historical period. But the theologically liberal scholarship really needed to be put in better perspective; it's not the only scholarship out there, nor necessarily the best--and that fact should be made clear.

Jeffrey Carver
Arlington, MA


What galls me is the ghetto of scholarship represented in this series. It is as if there are no scholars in the evangelical, orthodox, or Catholic world who have wrestled with the same information and come to different conclusions. You do people a disservice, because the instinct to trust and respect "scholars" -- especially scholars on Frontline -- is high. Yet we see no diversity, hear no debate, see no alternatives. The program appeals to the iconoclast, to a sort of conspiricy theory mentality, and to the arrogance that enjoys rocking the world of the poor, ignorant masses.

Because people do not read or think for themselves, television enjoys a disproportionate impact. To me, integrity would have demanded opportunity for response from those who differ. The material is not new, not "shocking," and not difficult to address. I've been working with stuff in various forms for over twenty years. Some of it's challenging, some of it's legitimate, a lot of it amounts to people of like views talking to each other in an exclusive group. All-in-all, I find serious Evangelical scholars a lot more willing to be aware of and challenged by other views than the mainstream.

Steve Wilkinson


Thank you for your scholarly presentation of what we know about Christianity, as opposed to what we would like to believe. Some glaring omissions in my Christian education were the existence of James, the very human brother of Jesus and the active persecution of other followers of Christ by Constantine for his own political purposes. Certainly this hero of orthodoxy ignored his own sacred texts in forcing Jesus to the service of Mannon. He and the Nicene bishops defined what is sacred and robbed the world of the diverse mystic visions attributed to our Prophet of love and simplicity. The perennial message for our day remains treating others as we would be treated; your courageous exploration of the ambiguities in our most treasured tradition again teaches us the wisdom of humility and tolerance. May the defenders of "gospel truth" know the blessings of an open mind and heart.

michael stine
Portland, Oregon


It is refreshing to see the national media attempt a presentation on one of the most socially,politically, and emotionally explosive topics in contemporary north american society. The attempt is laudable and worthy of the air time given. However, the show is a dismal failure in explaining, even in the most jaded manner imaginable, its very own title of "From Jesus to Christ." The information presented seems to totally lack any faith perspective and as a result it has a rather hollow presentation of the most dynamic series of events in history. To put it in the most secular of terms--what's the motavation of these people? None of the learned commentators has even made an attempt to explain to the viewer why any of the characters are doing what their doing. Why was Jesus scurryng about the countryside with his message or why was Paul suddenly undertaking his mission activities? While the show presents some interesting, new, and perhaps controversial socio-economic information about the times, it fails to address this most material of questions and as a result fails in its attempt to explain its very premise.

Win Minton
Spokane, WA

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symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
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published april 1998

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