Judge Adam Arseneau checked under his bed, but unfortunately, all he found were mismatched socks.
Peter Jennings vs. Jesus! The grudge match of the century!
Created by ABC and hosted by Peter Jennings, The Search for Jesus journeys to the Holy Land in the hopes of divulging questions about the man, Jesus: who was he, where did he live, what was his life like, and so on. Originally aired on ABC in 2000, the feature inspired mild controversy over its decisively journalistic and impartial handling of a revered and religious text—namely, the four Gospels in the New Testament, which outline the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
In typical news-feature fashion, The Search for Jesus features lots of shots of Jennings strolling towards the camera at a leisurely pace, talking with his hands, waxing and waning about this and that, as if this were a casual conversation between friends…presumably, him and the camera. As the feature strolls along, it attempts to piece together a picture of the man known as Jesus, including what his motivations would have been. The documentary speculates that Jesus, as a man, would have been more politically motivated than spiritual; his joining with John the Baptist, for example, would be the equivalent of running off with the anti-Vietnam movement in the 1960s. Some of the suggestions put forth by this feature are bound to be troubling to the religious devout, and in fact, point-by-point counter-arguments circulate the Internet, debunking each of the documentary's main points with Gospel truth, as it were.
To the feature's credit, it does try to touch on some of the more controversial points of the Gospels that have been fiercely debated by academics and clergymen over the years. For example, much time is spent discussing all the various contradictions between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, trying to piece together the path of Jesus (especially when separate Gospels have him doing different things at different times). Also included are more obtuse and edgy points, such as the borrowing of iconography and imagery from Greek, Roman, and Pagan mythology, the actual birthplace of Jesus, and the true nature of Judas—whether, in fact, he was a literary allegory for the Jewish state and religion as a whole. Unfortunately, the feature only mentions these issues in passing, as references, and quickly moves on.
One of the best features of The Search for Jesus is the numerous location shots traveling from Jerusalem to Nazareth and back again, tracing the path of Jesus through the lands. Israel and Palestine are incredibly beautiful places, and, as such, even the most tepid documentary would capture the majesty and grace of the churches, the landscapes, and the history of the land and the people. But, in particular, the most interesting aspect of this is the unintentional illustrations of the reality of life in the Middle East, cross-referenced with the life of Jesus in the first century. For example, when Jennings and crew attempt to travel to the most likely site where Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan by Mark the Baptist, they found themselves unable to; the area is laced with land mines, part of a paramilitary zone between Israel and Jordan.
Examining the life of Jesus through the lens of objective journalism (or, at the very least, under the moniker of "objective journalism") inevitably leads to a certain amount of sardonic disbelief on the part of the objective journalist, especially when the only evidence that can be examined is the inner workings of personal faith. For example, Jennings takes on a faint but noticeable measure of incredulity while interviewing local Israelites who, through archeological research, claim that they have determined the specific rock on which Mary rested on her way to Bethlehem. Now, while the actual scientific basis for this claim is dubious at best, no doubt those who criticize this documentary based on religious belief can register this tone of sarcasm laced throughout the feature. Unfortunately, sardonic wit and religion have never been very comfortable with one another. Go figure.
The video quality on this DVD is slightly under-whelming. The full screen transfer is less than the standard of what one expects from television-documentary-to-DVD transfers. In comparison, the picture quality is soft and lacks the crispness and detail of even the most obscure A&E documentary DVD. The audio tracks (both an English and a Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0) are standard fare and completely functional, and the inclusion of English subtitles are the only supplementary features available on this DVD.
The real problem with this documentary (and the feature fully admits this paradox) is that virtually no fact from the Gospels can be confirmed or denied—not from external documents, nor historical records, nor anything else outside of the Gospels themselves. Thus, as the singular source of all "fact," it has nothing to be compared against, nothing to verify its claims one way or another. And even the most conservative and devoutly religious person will grudgingly admit that the Gospels, in their ineffable wisdom, are ripe with inherent and jarring contradictions.
Thus, The Search for Jesus, unfortunately, has no choice but to do exactly what it tries so hard not to do: report solely from a singular source of information that is known to be contradictory and, at worst, unreliable. And since the feature minimizes reference to alternate, more controversial texts (the missing and/or excluded Gospels and the Dead Sea Scrolls, both of which are mentioned in brief passing only), we are left with a stale retelling of the major events of the Gospels from a stern journalistic stance:
"And then, according to the Gospels, Jesus walked down the street to get a loaf of bread. Is this really what happened? To be frank, we can't know for sure."
And so on, and so forth. While religious scholars, priests, and academics wax philosophic on a variety of subjects throughout the feature, very few "facts" can be agreed upon. Indeed, it seems that the only thing we can know for certain, from an objective, newsworthy situation, is that we cannot know anything for certain…something that I already knew for certain. In essence, The Search for Jesus goes full-circle and ends up exactly where it started, like a lackluster kiddy roller coaster. And, personally, I cannot help but feel that if I am going to spend 89 minutes watching a documentary, I should end up somewhere other than where I started.
Despite lofty and ambitious intentions, The Search for Jesus uncovers precious little about the life of Jesus, or anything else for that matter. The feature spends all its time balancing upon a knife-edge point between religious belief and scientific hypothesis, and, in the end, desperate not to offend either side of the issue, the documentary simply ends up impaling itself.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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