Following Christ requires a fair amount of faith.
After all, Jesus left behind no personally written documents. Christianity teaches that he ascended to heaven, leaving no entombed body. And the 2,000 years which have passed since his ministry have obscured any concrete physical evidence of his existence. He lived and died without a trace.
Or did he?
Nutopia Productions is asking us to take another look. Have we stumbled upon tangible pieces of evidence that Jesus of Nazareth lived, died, and rose from the grave? Or is the ever-growing pile of discovered holy relics a product of our overzealous religious fervor - the result of our desire to grasp with certainty what will probably only ever be known (in this life) with a heart of hope and faith?
Sunday March 1, CNN will debut a new original television series entitled, Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery. The program will run in six parts, with each episode zeroing in on one ancient (and controversial) artifact associated with Jesus of Nazareth. Scholars and historians will examine:
- The Shroud of Turin
- Relics associated with the Cross of Christ
- The Gospel of Judas
- Relics associated with John the Baptist
- The supposed burial box of Jesus’ brother James
- The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
According to Dr. Candida Moss, scholarly advisor on the project and professor at Notre Dame University, the Finding Jesus team hopes to present up-to-date scientific and historical evidence on these mysterious items (many of them held sacred by the global church for a long time) in a responsible and sensitive way. Many hands and minds have contributed to the Finding Jesus series, including professors of religion, theology, and biblical studies, scholars, researchers, ministers, priests, archaeologists, historians, mathematicians, antiquarians, and translators.
So what can we expect from this new series? Does it contain startling and fresh insights that Christians should be clambering to examine? Does it seek to convert or de-convert? To entertain or inform?
What to Look For
The premiere episode to air on Sunday focuses on the Shroud of Turin, a mysterious piece of cloth claimed to be the burial shroud of Christ himself. The blood-stained fabric has been hailed as both concrete proof of Christ’s passion, and a clever medieval forgery. The 45 minute episode takes viewers on a journey that starts at the Shroud’s discovery and hits all major developments up to the present time.
As viewers watch the premiere, and each of the subsequent episodes, they can expect standard History-channel-type fare. Cutting between interviews, images, and dramatic re-enactments, the special is tied together by sparse narration designed to provoke suspense. Perhaps like most historical specials, nothing fantastically newsworthy or groundbreaking is revealed. After all, the Shroud of Turin (like the other artifacts in the series) can be easily and quickly researched on the Internet. In the end, the conclusion of nearly every scholar is a resounding “we’re not sure” – or at least healthy skepticism.
However, if you are fascinated by history, ancient artifacts, and contextualizing biblical stories, Finding Jesus may be an excellent resource for you. In an interview with Crosswalk, Dr. Moss acknowledged that “the broader public may not have the time or the inclination to read scholarly tomes,” so high-quality documentaries that explain and explore the current research are excellent ways to become informed.
Where Does That Leave Faith?
The premise of the series (possible physical evidence of Jesus) has the potential to be troubling, or at least tricky, for many believers. A Catholic Christian herself, Dr. Moss admitted that while evidence of (let’s say) the Resurrection, would be “the most important discovery in human history,” it would also be a huge blow to the Christian faith.
“Suddenly, we would lose something. We would lose the concept of faith in things unseen.”
However, Finding Jesus isn’t out to prove that Jesus existed or didn’t exist. Rather, it works to accomplish two goals.
1. Examine the traditions, legends, and biblical accounts of famous Christian figures (such as Jesus, John the Baptist, Judas, and Mary Magdalene) to give viewers a newfound appreciation for them,
2. Empower viewers to examine the certain artifacts, scholarly consensus, and scientific data, and decide for themselves how much significance to give the artifacts
“There are always going to be skeptics,” Dr. Moss elaborated, and with “good reason.” However, she went on to state that having something tangible to hold in our hands can be very comforting to believers. It can be reassuring to be able to stretch backward through history and examine the life and times of Jesus a little more closely.
“It may not compare to a…personal relationship, or absolute proof, but I think that these artifacts can be really personally and spiritually rewarding.”
Finding Jesus features participation from many pious Christians who are “deeply invested in the Jesus story,” according to Dr. Moss. “When they’re speaking… you get a sense of real passion and belief and religious fervor.”
Viewers shouldn’t be afraid to find experts and archaeologists trying to rip away foundations of biblical Christianity. Nothing hostile awaits. At the same time, don’t expect to be given infallible historical proof that will convert your atheist neighbor. We can carbon date, hope, wish, doubt, and theorize – but at the end of the day, your own sensibilities will likely guide you when it comes to Finding Jesus. Skeptics can appreciate the forgeries, information gaps, and humility shown by the filmmakers. Believers may find comfort in the unexplained mysteries, the stories told, and the grey areas faith can fill.
Finding Jesus may not find much conclusively, but it’s certainly a fun place to start for the curious mind!
Debbie Holloway is the Family Life Editor ar Crosswalk.com
Publication date: February 26, 2015