Programme of the week: The Story of Jesus
Friday, BBC1, 10pm
What do we really know about Jesus? That's the question dragged up every Easter, as believers and sceptics rejoin their battle over the man who's surely the most divisive and fought-over figure in human history.
The BBC will be doing its earnest best to shed light on the subject in this two-part special, which retraces Christ's steps and dramatises many of the key incidents in his short but action-packed earthly existence.
The first part will examine his early years, from his birth in Bethlehem to the beginning of his ministry and his attraction of followers and apostles. Both theologians and historians will be on hand to discuss the circumstances in which he lived and the significance of his preachings, and the second part will examine the rise to fame that set him on a collision course with the Roman authorities.
Modern, secular Britain is deeply ambivalent about its Christian heritage, and, later in the week, former Conservative politician and Catholic convert Ann Widdecombe will present a documentary called 'Does Christianity have a Future?'. Her premise will be that Christianity in the UK is either doomed or undergoing a painful evolution, depending on your point of view.
Proselytising atheists such as Richard Dawkins will be hoping (but not praying) that it's dying on its feet, but some of the evidence Widdecombe unearths suggests otherwise, and a growing rapprochement between the different Christian churches may result in a new spiritual awakening.
A character in a Woody Allen film once said that if Jesus could come back and see what was being done in his name, he'd never stop throwing up. Allen was referring to the American phenomenon of swindling TV evangelists, but the statement could apply to any number of distortions of the Christian message that have happened since his death.
The Crusades, for instance, might have puzzled the carpenter's son from Galilee, who preached tolerance and love and the revolutionary concept of turning the other cheek.
The Gospels will never be accepted as reliable historical evidence by anyone other than believers, but what we do know about Jesus from Roman records and censuses is this: that he was born a Jew in humble circumstances in and around the year 5BC; that he subsequently emerged as a venerated healer and preacher; that he was baptised by John the Baptist, arrested by the Romans on a charge of sedition and crucified around the year 30AD.
To the Romans (who had their own gods but didn't take them all that seriously), the Jews were a superstitious lot whose obsession with the almighty and the afterlife made them very easy to subjugate. And to them, Jesus was only one of a number of supposed messiahs who had emerged in far-flung Judea only to be turned against by their own people.
But the joke was on them. Within 30 years of Christ's death, his followers had become a troublesome enough sect for the Emperor Nero to attempt to blame them for the burning of Rome.
Nero began what became a sustained period of persecution, but this only resulted in a tradition of martyrdom that made the Christian sect grow stronger.
Ultimately, Christians would overtake the great city -- they still dominate it today.