CNN to air startling documentary on Christianity

MUMBAI:Was Jesus Christ born on December 25? Was He the founder of Christianity? Ask some basic questions, and the answers will be there for you at the programme "CNN Presents -After Jesus: The First Christians", premiering on December 22 at 8.30 pm.

The documentary is a surprise almost at every step, saying things like the fact that the followers of Christ would have thought themselves as Jews, not Christians!

Then, take this quote from the documentary:"The simplest things (about Christianity), like the date when Jesus was born, was totally fluid through the second and into the third century. It only appears for the first time on a Christian calendar in the fourth century as December 25. So you get the feeling that the entire coalescing of the religion of Christianity is taking place over 100 to 200 years after Jesus is no longer walking the face of the earth."

Startling, but that is what Richard Freund, PhD, an ordained rabbi and director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, says.

"After Jesus: The First Christians" is a major CNN effort that was filmed for four months across nine countries, United States, England, Italy, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Greece, CNN Productions executive producer and director Jody Gottlieb tells

The documentary deals more with how Christianity evolved over the centuries to become what it is now today: a faith ruling two billion people across the world in diverse countries and cultures.

In fact, the early followers of Jesus Christ did not even call themselves Christians. Amy-Jill Levine, PhD, and an expert, says: "Jesus' first followers - Mary Magdalene and Peter, Martha and the sons of Zebedee, etc. - did not think of themselves as 'Christians'. The word was not invented until the movement Jesus founded took root outside of Judea and the Galilee."

In fact, Jesus was by no means founding a new religion, Levine says. To the contrary, his mission was to prepare his own people for the Kingdom of Heaven. The borderlines between "Judaism" and "Christianity" remained fluid for the next several centuries. Given the diversity in each movement, we can only speak in very general terms.So, is there something that is true about the book "Holy Blood, Holy Grail", which questions the basic role of the Church in many ways?

"No, we do not deal with the book at all in the feature," said Gottlieb. In fact, answering a specific query about whether the film refers to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which too are controversial for their content, Gottlieb says it does not, but adds, "We do deal with the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels."

These Gospels are associated with the early mystical trend of Gnostic Christianity. They are not accepted by mainstream Christianity as authentic, and are therefore declared heresy.

It was a massive effort, and Gottlieb says, "The film was conceived last November and we began filming in January 2006. She led the production team with the assistance of religion writers, David Gibson and Michael McKinley."

The centre of the film would be Saints Peter and Paul, so who played the roles? "We filmed a number of the scenes at Nazareth Village, a working village that recreates a Jewish community at the time of the first century. We used the re-enactors to help cast our scenes. One tour guide had played the Apostle Peter before, and slid into his role with genial ease; another played the mercurial Apostle Paul, and worked with us to reveal the character of this complex man, who is often seen as second only to Jesus in the foundation of Christianity," Gottlieb says.

"I think most people imagine that after Jesus died, the Church just emerged suddenly and that you had Christians confessing the Nicene Creed, reading the canon of the 27 books of the New Testament, and that it was all in place right after Jesus' death. And, in fact, it took centuries for these things to fall into place," says Bart Ehrman, PhD, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In fact, Saint Paul could have been the person to start developing the movement that is now known as the Christian religion. "On a more controversial note, it has been argued that while Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven, Paul preached the good news of Jesus himself. In this understanding, Paul changed the message and so created a movement distinct from what Jesus taught. The relationship between Jesus' message and Paul's continues to be a matter of debate," Levine says.

These are some of the surprises that are revealed, and CNN is keeping the rest, as it is about how much it cost to make the film or revenue generation issues. But nonetheless, it would be a great journey, it seems, from whatever the channel has said so far.

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