SPECIAL TO THE toronto STAR
Earlier this month, just before most Christians would mark the birth of their saviour, a group of scholars gathered in Amherst, N.Y. to begin pondering a simple yet combustible question: Did Jesus exist?
It’s an issue heavy with theological baggage and poised to offend more than a few Christians: Polls by University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby in his latest book The Boomer Factor show two out of three Canadians believe Jesus is the divine son of God.
By now, the whole question might seem tired, almost banal. Former Toronto Star religion writer Tom Harpur certainly won recognition, and notoriety, for arguing in his explosive 2004 book The Pagan Christ, that Jesus was a legend rooted in Egyptian myths thousands of years before the Gospels were written (though that was not a new position).
But over the past 150 years of efforts to find the historical Jesus, the vast majority of scholars have settled on the baseline belief that a Jewish teacher from Galilee named Yeshua did indeed live some 2,000 years ago, and spoke about the Kingdom of God.
Even so, the Jesus Project is proceeding from point zero, billing itself as “the first methodologically agnostic approach” to the question of Jesus’s historical existence. It promises “the most rigorous methods, data, and open debate.”
An initiative of the Center for Inquiry, an Amherst-based secular think tank, and its Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER), the project is an extension of the no-less controversial Jesus Seminar, which has been convening twice annually for 23 years.
There’s one key difference: Whereas the Seminar has operated on the premise that Jesus was an actual person – it was what he said and did that is up for grabs – the scholars in this latest effort regard Jesus’s existence as a “testable hypothesis.”
With a core group of 20 scholars, the project is the first joint effort by historians, biblical scholars, archeologists, textual authorities, theologians and other experts to determine “what can be reliably recovered about the historical figure of Jesus, his life, his teachings, and his activities, utilizing the highest standards of scientific and scholarly objectivity.”
Like judges in a courtroom, project members will sift through mountains of material to ascertain what evidence is admissible, stripping away theological and mythical accretions.
“We believe in assessing the quality of the evidence available for looking at this question before seeing what the evidence has to tell us,” writes project chair R. Joseph Hoffman, an historian of religion at State University of New York, on the initiative’s website.
The scholars say they do not believe their task is to produce a “plausible” portrait of Jesus prior to considering the motives the Gospel writers had in telling his story, and their intended audience.
At least two Canadian scholars are involved: Arthur Droge of the University of Toronto and Philippa Carter of McMaster University in Hamilton.
To run for five years, the project will inevitably risk comparison to the controversial Jesus Seminar, a think tank founded in 1985 by New Testament scholars John Dominic Crossan and the late Robert Funk, and which became famous, Hoffman charges, “for all the wrong reasons.”
Among other oddities, the Seminar was known for its unusual voting methods: Fellows used coloured marbles to determine whether Jesus said or did something attributed to him in biblical texts. Red was for “virtually certain,” pink for “probably reliable,” grey for “possible but unreliable, and black for “improbable.”
The results stunned – and angered – millions. The scholars decided Jesus uttered just 31 sayings, or 18 per cent of what is attributed to him in the Bible. A similar rate was found for the deeds ascribed to him: Just 29 of 176 acts were certain or likely.
The Seminar also rejected the very foundations of Christianity: There was no virgin birth, no resurrection or transfiguration, and Jesus performed no miracles. He was little more than an itinerant Jewish sage who preached a social gospel using parables and aphorisms.
Many Christians derided the Seminar’s findings as the product of liberal scholars, and even a little silly. Undeniably, it was media-friendly, and whetted the public’s appetite for more on the historical Jesus.
But to Hoffman and other scholars, the Seminar reduced Jesus to “a talking doll with a questionable repertoire of 31 sayings. Pull a string and he blesses the poor.” The Jesus Project plans a more comprehensive and sober approach – with no marbles – that extends to examining the history, literature and culture of Jesus’s time and place.
The project aims to examine and date all relevant sources – not just the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but also the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in 1948, and the “lost” or Gnostic Gospels, unearthed at Nag Hamada, Egypt in 1945, and which depict a very different Jesus than the New Testament.
Classical sources with tantalizing references to Jesus and nascent Christian communities, such as the writings of Flavius Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger, will also be considered.
Christians, evangelical and otherwise, should be guarded about this new quest since such searches for Jesus “are usually marred by guesswork, bias against miracles and a reductionist approach to history,” argues James Beverley, a professor at Toronto’s evangelical Tyndale Seminary.
Belief that Jesus existed “is not a matter of faith alone,” Beverley claims, and Christians have nothing to fear from “solid, careful historical work.”
But the new quest will only succeed only if it is “open to the clear historical presence of Jesus in the New Testament, the earliest documents about him.”
German scholars of the 19th century were among the first to raise questions about the historical veracity of the Bible and Jesus. So why this endeavour now, and why Jesus?
After 2,000 years, Jesus remains “the most fascinating figure of Western civilization,” enthuses project member James Tabor, and scholars at the beginning of the 21st century are uniquely positioned to take advantage of a plethora of new texts, sources, and methods.
But what does the Jesus Project mean for the larger, secular society in which the carpenter from Nazareth still plays an important role? As a review of Harpur’s book on these pages noted, Jesus (or Christ), after all, is a universal archetype known essentially by all humanity. Will this effort re-mythologize or de-mythologize him?
Hoffman replies that even the fiercest critics of Christianity have viewed the historical Jesus, or traditions and myths about him, as essentially benign or even beneficial.
There’s one sure thing in a field fraught with uncertainty: This won’t be the final word on the subject.
Ron Csillag is a freelance writer in Thornhill, Ontario.