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By Mark Tooley @markdtooley

It would be almost tempting to critique this three part series from the National Geographic Channel as just another primetime network slam against Christianity timed for a Christian holiday.  It aired on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week.   It’s speculated/suggested that Jesus would not have become a global figure absent bungling by Roman authorities, that persecution of early Christians was not pervasive and some were killed for non-religious reasons, and of course that ultimately the Roman Empire essentially captured Christianity for its own imperial purposes.  Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, who loves touting the Gnostic gospels, is one of the featured scholars.

But the series is so sumptuous in its scenery and historic overviews, and the story of the church’s rise so compelling no matter how interpreted, that it was a pleasure to watch.   How the Gospel spread through the merchants of the empire across trade routes, and the role of middle and upper class women in propagating the faith, are especially noteworthy.  Visits to modern Lyons, France and Milan, Italy to examine sites dating to the early church are delightful.

The portrayal of Emperor Constantine’s imposing the Nicene Creed on the church, with passive bishops acquiescing, is a little silly.  As seen from his later tangles with orthodox champion Athanasius, Constantine wasn’t so much committed to orthodoxy as he was ecclesial and imperial unity.   The bishops at Nicaea, with Constantine looking on, ratified what was already largely consensus within the universal church.  Da Vinci Code fans, among other conspiracists, savor this misinterpretation.  And neo-Anabaptists love believing that the church’s true purpose was supplanted by the empire.

When Constantine’s successor, Emperor Theodosius, was complicit in a massacre, he was required to repent by Archbishop Ambrose of Milan.  The program suggests that the apology was actually a favor to the Christian emperor, who needed a politically expedient public way to atone for his error.  So instead of the episode’s illustrating the church’s triumph over the empire, it actually proves the empire’s subversion of the church.  Well, maybe.  But prior to the church, emperors did not typically apologize for massacres.  Clearly Christianity had reordered both politics and culture.

Wonderfully, we are shown Ambrose himself, whose skeleton lies in repose at his church in modern Milan, adorned in full bishop’s regalia.  Unlike the hokiness of many cable television historical documentaries, especially about the Bible, the brief dramatizations of figures like Ambrose and Constantine are modestly well done and don’t distract from the story.

Elaine Pagels is mostly on her best behavior, and the other scholars interviewed are restrained.  Mercifully, there are no pompous prognostications from Jesus Seminar scholars like Dominic Crossan or Marcus Borg.  The series is not so much about Jesus as about His church.   Its interpretation is off, but the drama perseveres.

Jesus:  Rise to Power airs again on April 4.