Radio - Rachel Cooke

Edward Stourton's pursuit of the real Jesus made for spellbinding listening

Why anyone would want to buy a Sarah Montague eggcup, I cannot imagine. It is bad enough hearing her voice first thing in the morning without seeing her face, too. (The Today programme is flogging eggcups featuring the faces of three of its presenters - Montague, James Naughtie and John Humphrys - in aid of Children in Need.) Today has two posh presenters: Montague, who sounds like she has walked straight out of the pages of Bunty, and Edward Stourton, who attended Ampleforth. Montague is definitely in my top ten (it is fast becoming a top 20) most annoying voices on the radio. Stourton, on the other hand, has a highly comforting manner: calm and steady, clever yet laconic. Why did he not get his own eggcup?

Oh, well. In the absence of crummy pottery, we have In the Footsteps of Jesus, Stourton's new series for Radio 4 (Mondays, 8pm). I tuned in to this believing that, in the words of the BBC publicity machine, it would indeed involve an "epic" journey. I pictured Stourton in sandals and khakis, hiking over the dry Judaean hills, or bending low to clamber inside the strange fortress that is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I have been to these places myself, many times, and still I cannot get enough of them. It is magical to me, the way stones and steeples bring so vividly to life the first story I was ever told, something that my now being an atheist has done little to change. Will he go to Gethsemane, I wondered, and look at the olive trees, whose knots are so ancient as to have borne witness to Christ?

My preconceptions were entirely wrong. Stourton had embarked on an epic journey - only the journey was mostly around the theology departments of the world's universities. Who knew that there are so many men (they were nearly all men) hard at work on trying to determine what Christ's real life was like? Did He know what was coming to Him? Did He regard Himself as the beginning of something new, or was He really only trying to restore a little purity to Judaism? The landscape of Judaea and Samaria is helpful in conjuring up some aspects of His life (as one scholar put it, the ground on which He walked is a kind of fifth Gospel: torn, yet still legible), but there are other things to consider. It is, for instance, vital to look at His life in the context of the eastern Mediterranean and, in turn, of Rome's part in that world. A cynic would say that politics played as large a role in Christ's life as the Holy Spirit - and that the writers of the Gospels were merely His spin-doctors.

Does this sound as dry as dust? If so, the failing is mine, not Stourton's. This is a brilliant documentary series, one so thoroughly researched it is impossible not to feel a sense of engagement with it. I loved the papery sound of what, after all, are extremely speculative, not to say inward-looking debates (these fellows have hearts that flip over on hearing a new translation of a single Aramaic noun). But the programmes also have another ingredient: faith. For every cool offering from an academic, we hear an answering call from an intelligent believer. For the intelligent believer, the stones and the texts are in dialogue, not mutual opposition, and it was this notion that, at times, elevated In the Footsteps of Jesus, with all its facts and measured argument, to the realm of the spellbinding. Stourton is the perfect foil for this stuff: respectful and yet urgently in need of answers. The answer, perhaps. Please someone, give the man an eggcup - or, at the very least, some other kind of gong.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Apartheid