Two men sacrificed everything for the belief that God had chosen them to change the world. They did.
In a special three-hour broadcast, Peter Jennings tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul the Apostle and Christianity in its first decades — a tiny movement that against the odds survived and then triumphed over all the gods and goddesses of the Roman Empire.
Peter Jennings Reporting: Jesus and Paul — The Word and the Witness will air Monday, April 5 from 8-11 p.m. ET on the ABC Television Network.
The first century was barely 30 years old. Rome ruled the world from Europe to the heart of the Middle East. The Caesars were gods and most people knew nothing about a young Jewish peasant named Jesus of Nazareth who was preaching along the Sea of Gallilee, at the edge of the Empire.
When Jesus died on the cross, he left behind a small and frightened group of followers struggling to make sense of his humiliating end. Most Jews either rejected his message or ignored it.
"The idea of a crucified god really did not make sense in the first century," says Ben Witherington, a scholar of the New Testament, in Jennings' report. "It's not a message you make up if you're going to start a religion in the first century A.D."
Yet within a few decades, against all odds, the tiny Jesus movement began to spread, and in spite of ridicule, suspicion and persecution it would ultimately displace the Caesars and remains the dominant religion of the West over 2000 years later.
Many historians and New Testament scholars argue that Paul did more than anyone to make that happen, even though he never knew Jesus. After Jesus' death and resurrection, Paul becomes the main character in the Bible story about the birth of Christianity.
Paul, who according to the Bible had a sudden conversion on the road to Damascus, took the stories of the crucifixion and Jesus' resurrection and preached them in a way that was appealing to a broad audience.
If it weren't for Paul, says Karen Armstrong, a noted scholar and author of the book, The History of God, "Christianity probably would have remained a small sect within Judaism."
The program includes the perspectives of a wide variety of biblical scholars — secular and religious, Christian and Jewish, liberal and conservative. Both conservative and liberal scholars say it was Paul who first articulated the ideas we have about the Jesus who was sent by God to die to redeem the world's sins. The letters Paul wrote as he traveled the Roman Empire formed the basis of the religion that today we call Christianity.
Ironically, Paul "never anticipates that 20th century Americans are going to be his audience," historian Pamela Eisenbaum told Jennings. "He has no idea, because he thinks the world is going to end."
Although Paul is as controversial today as he was in the first century, his words are read from pulpits throughout the world every Sunday. But scholars tell Jennings that in Paul's own day he fought bitterly with the closest friends and family of Jesus, who had a different vision for their fledgling movement. Paul is described by some as a madman and by many as a genius.
Paul has been accused of being anti-Semitic, anti-homosexual and a male chauvinist. The program looks at the debate, while tracing Paul's role in turning Christianity into a religion.