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CNN’s “Finding Jesus” Asks the Right Questions

shroud of turin – en


John Burger - published on 03/03/15

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"Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery" is a CNN original series running through lent. Produced by Nutopia, a British film company, the series examines the facts and myths behind the Shroud of Turin, the relic of the True Cross, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and other artifacts related to the life, passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. 

Tim Gray is one of the experts consulted in producing the series. President of the Augustine Institute in Colorado, he is co-author of Walking with God: A Journey Through the Bible (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2010). He spoke this week with Aleteia. 

We’ve had examples in the past of networks and cable companies rolling out documentaries about Christ and Christianity in this time of the year that have actually been highly questionable. Many of them have used experts from the Jesus Seminar, for example, which casts doubt on many tenets of Christian faith. How is this different?

From my experience being interviewed for it and from seeing the episode on the True Cross, it really does seem they’re not trying to do a hatchet job on religion. At the same time this is not an apology. So I think the drama they try to have is—it’s fairly neutral; they try to be fair-minded, looking at different sides of things. I don’t think it’s going to be perfect in that, but I do think it’s their attempt to be…fair-minded about the evidence, with regard to what they’re looking for.

What’s your involvement in it?

I was asked to do an interview on a set of questions. I did a three-and-a-half hour interview in which they canvassed me on a plethora of questions, and I think pieces of that were woven into five of the six episodes.

What were they trying to get from you?

They asked questions about whether it was the True Cross and what it would mean if St. Helena found the True Cross, what the cross means to Christians, from a Christian perspective. It was great they wanted to hear that, were open to that.

There’s a section on Judas, on Mary Magdalen, on the Shroud of Turin. So they’re looking at these different angles, not directly on the life of Jesus; they’re looking at touchpoints that relate back to Jesus in one way or another. In terms of Mary Magdalene, I talked about what the gospels present versus what the gnostic gospels present and the contrast, that kind of eyewitness testimony that colors the more chronicle gospels versus the lack of eyewitness testimony, and the ideology that pervades the gnostic gospels.

We see Roma Downey and others [making television series about] Scripture. Scripture is a hot topic in Hollywood now. Everybody knows it makes money, that there’s a viewership. So I think this series was something that was kind of, you know, using reason and looking at evidence: How can we tell the story here in a way that would be compelling and intriguing?

At first I turned down the invitation to be interviewed, but they kept coming back asking me over and over again: "We really want someone of faith and a background of scripture and theology like you do to be represented in this." So I gave the interview.

What surprising insights might we expect from the series?

From my perspective, when I was discussing the True Cross, it was to point to the fact that Helena goes to Jerusalem, and we know the place where Jesus was crucified because the emperor Hadrian built a pagan temple there in 135 AD over that site; she goes to that site, and built a church there. I just spoke to the historical reliability of location and that place and the importance of that place for Christians.

I know they’re interested in the so-called Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which is a fragment and which mentions Mary, and one of the points I made
I don’t know if it will make the film—is that it’s not clear that it’s Mary or Mary Magdalene. A lot of people make that assumption, but it could be the Blessed Mother that’s being referred to by the Gnostics. It’s a lot less historically reliable than the historical gospels.

The Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene have been popular in the secular media as sources on early Christianity, but they’re of very small and relative value. They say a lot more gnosticism than they do about the Jesus Movement of the First Century.

I think I heard someone once say that the reason certain gospels were not included in the canon was that they didn’t speak of the resurrection.

From a historical perspective, I think that’s true in terms of some of the theological content, the distinction between them. But the larger, earlier sources of why they’re not is that there’s already a tradition going into the second century of reading Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the liturgy, in the Christian gatherings. It had already become a custom, so when these gnostic gospels start popping up, people like Irenaeus and others in the second century say that’s not from the Apostolic tradtion, that’s not what we read in the liturgythey’re not authoritative. So it’s already a practice of the early Christians of reading Matthew, Mark, Luke and John because they’re apostolic, that is, they go back to the Apostles, but also the fact that they were read in the liturgy already as a custom, and then other gospels start popping up in the Second and Third Centuries, the Church doesn’t read those because they’re not of the tradition.

There is good historical criteria that people in the Second and Third Century used to distinguish these things, rather than just a modern idea that it’s just ideology, that there’s a conservative ideological decision by Constantine to exclude some others and include others. That perspective just isn’t historical.

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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