The famed 1977 British-Italian miniseries Jesus of Nazareth is the jumping-off point for The Real Jesus of Nazareth, which compares dramatizations of the gospels to what scholars actually know of the life of the Son of God.
The Smithsonian Channel docuseries, premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., is an examination of the early years of Jesus ministry, from his baptism to the miracles he performed. Our Holy Land tour guide is British actor Robert Powell, 72, who played a humane, blue-eyed Jesus in the Franco Zeffirelli miniseries, which aired on NBC in 1981 with co-stars Michael York and Anne Bancroft.
As Powell makes pit stops at famous Bible locations the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan, to name only two historians and religious experts compare what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote in the gospels to what scholars know to be true and clear up some misconceptions.
Bart D. Ehrman, a professor in the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, actually teaches the Zeffirelli miniseries in his class.
I have [my students] study the account in the New Testament to see how much [Zeffirelli] is filling in with details not found in the Bible or any other ancient source, says Ehrman, who has written and edited 31 books, five of them best-sellers. A lot of it is screenwriter imagination. The gospels themselves are very bare in what they have to say.
We have no idea where Mary lived or where John the Baptist hung out. Theyre somebodys guesses. Theyre not credible historical sources.
Viewers can let their imaginations run wild as Powell takes in vast stretches of the Bethlehem and Nazarene landscapes, but Ehrman outright poo-poohs two of the sites he visits: the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which is thought to enclose the remains of Marys house, and a cave where John the Baptist was thought to have baptized people.
We have no idea where Mary lived or where John the Baptist hung out, Ehrman says. Theyre somebodys guesses. Theyre not credible historical sources.
The discrepancy between the Gospels and Biblical scholarship arises from the nature of accounts themselves, he adds. You have these four different authors. They have their own perspective and their own set of beliefs who Jesus was, Ehrman says. None of them knew they were writing the Bible. They were just writing accounts of Jesus. A lot of the stories are legendary inventions.
Still, Powell has a grand time retracing his youthful steps in the Holy Land, where the miniseries was filmed on location. When he meets a crowd of people whove come to the Jordan River to be baptized, the priest tells him, Forty years ago, you looked like Jesus. Now you look like a godfather.
The Real Jesus of Nazareth Series premiere 9 p.m. Sunday on Smithsonian Channel