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As Easter Nears, TV Finds Religion

The Passover and Easter season brings with it a range of TV programming meant to address the spirit of the season.

Some are more relevant than others. On Frontline - From Jesus to Christ, which aired this week on PBS, biblical scholars attempt to offer a thorough cultural analysis of the life and thought of Jesus. The cultural analysis gives context and texture to Jesus' time and homeland and relates his teachings to the sociopolitical environment, economics, and material culture of his setting. But its effect is to present Jesus as a product of his culture, and his thought and works as variations on what other men were thinking and doing at the time.

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Jesus' stilling of the waves and his feeding of the 5,000 are dismissed as impossible. The uniqueness of his message - which is the basis for the new religion of Christianity - is not fully developed. Nor does the show explain why Jesus, among hundreds of holy men in his region, should emerge as the Messiah and focal point of Western civilization.

But the "Frontline" documentary does do something decisively significant: It shows that the man named Jesus of Nazareth lived and worked in history, not mythology. And Eyewitness to Jesus (Saturday, 6-8 p.m. on TLC) speaks quite directly to that history. It seeks to demonstrate that the Gospel of Matthew is an eyewitness account of Jesus' life, teachings, and healings.

Based on the book by Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew D'Ancona, the documentary takes us step by step through the dating process of a credit-card-sized papyrus fragment. The implications of an eyewitness account are gripping indeed, answering many of the doubts biblical scholars have voiced about the authenticity of Jesus' deeds and words.

Another seasonal offering is Saints and Sinners (Sunday, noon- 6 p.m.), the History Channel's very ambitious, well-made six-part series on the history of the papacy. The papacy remains one of the most long-lived of institutions, and there have been both virtuous men and scoundrels who have occupied it. The program, which is positive overall, gives each his due - though some viewers may feel the attention given the Inquisition; the treatment of Protestants, "heretics," and women through the ages; and institutional anti-Semitism (particularly during World War II) is a bit sketchy.

Of the religious dramas offered this season, the most engaging is The Staircase (Sunday, 9-11 p.m., CBS). The story concerns a 19th-century Roman Catholic nun (Barbara Hershey), the mother superior of a small order of missionaries in New Mexico. A mysterious stranger builds a magnificent spiral staircase, an engineering wonder, to the choir loft in her little church. Then the stranger shows her the real meaning of her life. Demystifying the legend around the very real staircase, the movie celebrates inspiration and forgiveness.

Franco Zeffirelli's beautifully composed Jesus of Nazareth, made for television in 1977, airs on the Family Channel Sunday, 7-11 p.m. Nearly every scene looks like a Renaissance painting. Robert Powell gives a luminous performance as Jesus, with the then-teenage Olivia Hussey as Mary. Star-studded and carefully written, the movie slows down toward the middle and turns too ponderous toward the end.

Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) is a perennial favorite, although the overwrought writing, self-conscious staging, and static acting seem a bit artificial by today's standards. But like many biblical spectaculars, it is enjoyable as a pageant rather than a realistic vision of human beings whose encounter with God changed them forever. You can catch the movie Sunday on ABC, 7-11:45 p.m.

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You may not find the great religious spectacular Ben-Hur (1959) on TV, but it is readily available on video. Until "Titanic" this year, "Ben-Hur" was the only movie in history to garner 11 Academy Awards. And it fits the season like a glove: It's all about the spiritual journey of one man who learns to love his enemy when he hears Jesus forgive his from the height of the cross.

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