As two billion Christians prepare to celebrate the Christmas season, CNN will debut a sweeping documentary on the tumultuous early years of Christianity – from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to the conversion of Constantine, the Roman emperor who first legalized Christianity in 313 A.D. CNN examines how the earliest Christians spread their message, despite infighting over the faith and violent persecution by Rome.
Narrated by Liam Neeson, this two-hour special, CNN Presents: After Jesus – The First Christians, premieres on Wednesday, Dec. 20, at 7 p.m. The documentary replays on Friday, Dec. 22 at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.; and on Saturday, Dec. 23, and Sunday, Dec. 24, at 8 p.m. and 12 a.m. All times Eastern.
Immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the first Christians were challenged to define their faith. Two of Jesus’ disciples – Peter, who preached that the followers of Jesus had to be Jewish, and Paul who argued that this new faith must be available to all – would emerge as Christianity’s first and most influential leaders. Their eventual consensus, that Christianity would be available to all through conversion, and their missionary zeal throughout the Roman Empire, helped the new faith to spread rapidly. But Christianity’s growing power was also a threat to the empire, so the Romans killed Peter and Paul and other early leaders. Christians were so brutally persecuted that Christianity’s survival was repeatedly in danger. That Christianity eventually became the world’s largest religion is perhaps the faith’s second biggest miracle.
“CNN was able to leverage its extensive resources to tell the story behind the greatest story ever told,” said Mark Nelson, vice president and senior executive producer for CNN Productions. “The fundamental themes of challenge and resolution, power and struggle that we explore continue to be relevant in modern times.”
CNN examined archaeological evidence and spoke with the most renowned authorities on the ancient church to answer “the” question at the heart of the story: How did Jesus, a wandering rabbi from the hinterland, and his illiterate followers, triumph over Roman persecution and establish a worldwide faith?
In telling this remarkable tale, viewers may be surprised to learn that followers of some early branches of Christianity believed in more than one god; that there were many more Gospels than those included in the New Testament; and that Christmas was originally a springtime celebration. There was also a group of Christians – the Gnostics – who believed that man’s existence on Earth was a mistake and that salvation required a mystical experience of self-discovery and self-realization. They wrote their own Gospels, and their power struggle with the orthodox Christians was a threat to the new faith.
After Jesus also examines the Biblical history of Israel, the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the events during the Council of Nicaea that have come to define modern Christian orthodoxy.
“It’s sometimes suggested that a group of fishermen from the Galilee would be incapable of establishing a worldwide religion,” said Professor Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University. “But that’s simply our own modern scepticism. …The human spirit is remarkable if people simply put their mind to accomplishing what they feel God calls them to do.”
The executive producer/director for After Jesus is Jody Gottlieb. David Gibson and Michael McKinley are writers and co-producers of the documentary.