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On the Trail of the Historical Jesus
By Russell Shorto
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Russell Shorto
All rights reserved.
It is an ideal setting for detective work. The Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, California, with its 1950s modernist architecture, pink neon sign and pink flamingoes patterned into the paving stones in front, is a Raymond Chandler kind of place. It doesn't take much effort to imagine a gumshoe in trenchcoat and fedora lurking among the palm trees, sniffing out a corpse or a killer.
Once inside, you might be forgiven for thinking the people gathered here are something other than detectives. In the banquet hall, around a rectangle of conference tables, flanked by an American flag and the flag of the State of California, beneath an enormous disco ball, thirty-two men and women sit, some poring through printed material, some in whispered conversation, others squinting as a speaker leans into a microphone to make a point. Flashbulbs go off. A camera crew is adjusting lights. Reporters scribble notes.
It might be a government hearing. It could be a chess match, to judge from the lively interest of the hundred-odd onlookers, the way they observe points and counterpoints being fired across the tables, the way they nod or screw up their eyes to grasp the significance of a claim. But the subject matter has nothing to do with government or games. One of the presiders calls for order:
"Very well, are we ready to vote? The first proposition, then, is this: 'Jesus was crucified.'"
These are indeed detectives, and the person they are searching for, whom they believe has been hidden by two thousand years of myth, is Jesus of Nazareth. Collectively, this group of biblical scholars is known as the Jesus Seminar. From the time it was founded in 1985, the Jesus Seminar was derided by conservative Christians as a kind of secular-humanist version of the McCarthy hearings. Only instead of hunting Communists with mad-dog frenzy, these liberal scholars, according to their detractors, are out to destroy none other than Jesus Christ, Second Person of the Holy Trinity, to slice him to pieces with the vicious blade of scientific reasoning, leaving in his stead a withered human corpse and the pagan god they worship: a cold, amoral universe governed only by the laws of physics.
The Jesus Seminar is the most visible manifestation of the remarkable wave of biblical scholarship that has become known as the historical Jesus movement. It has incited such wrath partly because it has been so very public in its deliberations: not just welcoming visitors but aggressively courting media attention. (How many scholarly groups have their own full-time publicity director?) While mainly comprised of authorities on ancient history, paleography, and like subjects, it is freewheeling enough to have admitted into its deliberations Hollywood director Paul Verhoeven—the sex-and-violence maestro who brought you Basic Instinct and Showgirls—who, unlikely as it may seem, has been preparing to make a movie about the historical Jesus.
It is the seminar's conceit of debating the authenticity of the words and deeds of Jesus as recorded in the gospels and then voting on them that has ensured both media coverage and academic ridicule. Far from shying away from controversy or explaining away its tactics, the seminar ups the ante, sticks a finger in the face of the academy with its showy method of voting. After the first proposition, whether Jesus was crucified, has been stated and debated, a red plastic tray is passed around. It contains plastic beads of four different colors—red, pink, gray, black. The scholars take turns dropping beads into a container. Red means "I believe this piece of the gospel story is authentic." Pink means "Maybe." Gray is "Probably not," and black is "Definitely not." Deciding the fate of Jesus of Nazareth by vote would seem to be bad enough, but color-coding their results in the editions of the gospels that they publish is a deliberate play on the sacred Bible tradition of printing the words of Jesus in red ink.
The subject of this meeting is the crucifixion, and the results of the first vote do not support the worst fears of detractors: the beads are counted, and the outcome is a definite red. There was a crucifixion, the scriptural minimalists have decided. Ensuing votes reveal that the seminar fellows are nearly unanimous on a few other core items as well: that Jesus died in Jerusalem, and under the authority of Pontius Pilate.
But other traditions don't fare so well. At an earlier meeting the scholars voted that the Last Supper never happened. And did Jesus really say, "I am the way, the truth and the life"? The Jesus Seminar, drawing on textual and historical studies, thought not. In all, they have voted only eighteen percent of the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels to be authentic.
Subjecting one of the most hallowed of human texts to the base principle of democracy: it's easy to make fun of the idea—indeed, it's hard not to. "Forgive me, but I think that's one of the funniest things on earth," says James Strange, arguably the world's foremost archaeologist of the Galilee and a man whose work informs much Jesus research. "This business of taking a vote on truth: there isn't any other academic discipline that would take votes. It's got to be because of the Christian background of these people. They're modeling themselves on the great church councils of the fifth century, which took votes on truth." To Christian leaders of the far right, as well as many ordinary Christians, the scholars of the seminar are nothing short of Antichrists. Recently a cottage industry of anti--Jesus Seminar books and publications, some of them quite virulent, has sprung up.
There are legitimate complaints to be made against the Jesus Seminar, especially that it gives the impression it is doing objective scholarship, free of presuppositions, which is an impossibility. But most of this criticism applies equally well to virtually all New Testament scholarship today. In fact, colored beads and press releases aside, the Jesus Seminar is not far in its perspective from the mainstream of biblical scholarship.
That mainstream can be found at another gathering, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, at which seven thousand scholars of religion, biblical studies, and archaeology—old men with Einstein hair, Buddhist monks in saffron robes, business-suited feminists, black-habited Orthodox nuns—conduct what amounts to the world's largest conversation on things spiritual. The hottest topic under discussion here, so compelling that panel discussions devoted to it pack hundreds of scholars, as well as journalists and members of the public, into standing-room-only auditoriums, is the historical Jesus. This much larger gathering of authorities is more traditionally sober in style and represents a broader range of backgrounds than the Jesus Seminar, but listening to them talk and read from their books and papers makes it clear that they too are intent on prying the Jesus of history apart from the figure of faith and lore. Whether it is historian Helmut Koester of Harvard University lecturing on the layers of development in the passion narratives or Israeli archaeologist Hanan Eshel analyzing recent discoveries from Roman Palestine, it is apparent that virtually all researchers in the field believe that they are onto something new—that now, after two millennia, they have fresh insights into the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.
The search for the historical Jesus, however, is not a recent phenomenon. It began two centuries ago in Germany, among a collection of Enlightenment intellectuals—not unlike those in America who decided at almost exactly the same time to put bold new thinking about democratic rule to the test. These men who brought a similarly open intellect to the pages of the New Testament often suffered for it. Hermann Samuel Reimarus, professor of Oriental languages at Hamburg University, generally considered the founder of the field, wrote the first major book that challenged the historical truth of the gospels in the 1760s but, fearing reprisals, arranged to have it published after his death.
When his countryman David Friedrich Strauss published a massively detailed Life of Jesus Critically Examined in 1835, in which he used critical methods to determine that the gospels were written not by followers of Jesus but by later Christians who wove fact, legend, and fantasy together, he was barred from teaching theology for the rest of his life. (In fine modernist fashion, Strauss went on to propose replacing Christianity with a new "religion" based on science.)
The field might have languished in the back rooms of academia were it not for several turns of events in this century. Discoveries of caches of ancient manuscripts in the deserts of the Middle East gave investigators an enormous amount of new material to compare against the gospels, and brought the idea of confronting biblical truth with hard evidence into the public's imagination. The rapid development of high technology has assisted this work, helping with the dating and sorting of parchment fragments and analysis of other archaeological finds. Perhaps most significantly of all, as churches began to lose members in the 1960s, divinity schools in the United States downsized, and scholars who had worked all their lives in Christian-run institutions moved over to public universities, where they found a much broader concept of academic freedom. This in turn encouraged young intellectuals who might not have cared for the more cloistered air of the seminary to come into the field, resulting in a still more vigorous historical approach to the New Testament. Today, with the historical Jesus a regular on the covers of the national news weeklies and jargon-ridden academic books on the subject making bestseller lists, an enterprise that began with closed-door timidity has become a part of popular culture.
Those at the forefront of this work today are not necessarily anarchists or revolutionaries. One of the leaders in the field is John Meier, a priest and professor at Catholic University, a soft-spoken man with a thin alabaster face, pink lips, and slicked-back hair. Father Meier is so determinedly staid in both his appearance and his prose that he could be a figure out of the 1940s, a parish priest along the lines of Bing Crosby in The Bells of St. Mary's. He has thus far published two volumes of a massive trilogy on the historical Jesus, and he is generally considered to be the most exhaustive of commentators, and one of the most restrained in his conclusions.
But for a conservative, and one writing under the Vatican's authority, Meier can be shockingly dispassionate. He discusses evidence that the historical Jesus was illegitimate, that he was married, and various other topics that might raise eyebrows in a parish house. More importantly, he shares the view of all mainstream scholars that the gospels, as the product of human hands, underwent stages of reworking, and that therefore the picture they present to us today is not historical. Meier agrees with his colleagues that the historical figure can only be got at by pulling apart the layers of theology, by deconstructing the gospels. Being a good critical historian, he dismisses the historical truth of the supernatural elements—walking on water, changing water into wine—and manages to avoid confrontation with Rome by refusing to draw conclusions at sensitive places, such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead: "As in other stories of raising the dead, the question of what actually happened cannot be resolved by us today. It is possible that a story about Jesus healing a mortally-ill Lazarus grew into a story of raising the dead." This may seem like soft-pedaling, but when you consider that Meier is a Catholic priest, working at a major Catholic institution, writing with the Vatican's approval, who questions some of the most revered supernaturalism of the traditional Jesus story, and, more importantly, insists that the notion of gospel truth can and should be subjected to critical analysis, you begin to get a picture of how sweeping this approach has become.
Still, officially sanctioned Catholic scholars are relative latecomers to the field. They have been forced into the fray by the intensity with which historical Jesus work has taken over biblical studies: it simply can no longer be ignored. One of those most responsible for that intensity, someone who contrasts in every way with John Meier's reserve, is Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar. Former professor of New Testament at Harvard and Vanderbilt, a past president of the Society of Biblical Literature, and one of the world's premier authorities on the parables of Jesus, Funk is one of those figures found in any discipline, who by devoting himself to questioning its very validity winds up being viewed in strident terms: trailblazer or loon, depending on your point of view. A white-haired, red-faced Buddha of a man who presides over the seminar's deliberations with collar open and quips at the ready, Funk is personally responsible for much of the outcry against the Jesus Seminar and the field in general. Some Funkisms:
"Christianity, as we have known it in the West, is anemic and wasting away."
"... [T]he authority of the Bible is gone forever. It cannot be restored."
"Jesus himself is not the proper object of faith."
We must "give Jesus a demotion."
Whereas scholars like John Meier—and the majority of those attending the AAR/SBL convention—are content to continue speaking and writing largely to and for other scholars, Funk and others like him insist that there is a broader cultural significance to what they are doing. The work of the Jesus Seminar, and of all contemporary Jesus researchers, in Funk's view, represents a shift on the part of biblical scholars away from the tyranny of the church and toward cultural honesty. As far as Funk is concerned, scholars have known the truth—that Jesus was nothing more than a man with a vision—for decades; they have taught it to generations of priests and ministers, who do not pass it along to their flocks because they fear a backlash of anger. So the only ones left in the dark are ordinary Christians. "The enterprise in which we are engaged has taken on some of the earmarks of a new movement," Funk declared in a speech to several hundred scholars and members of the public during the course of the Santa Rosa meeting. "It has attracted steady media attention; it has garnered growing support and members; and it has generated an organized opposition. Those features indicate that we have succeeded in mounting a campaign against religious ignorance, arrogance, and pettiness."
This is manifesto talk. In the mind of firebrands like Funk, historical Jesus work is not just of academic or private, soulful interest; it is a direct challenge to the Christian Right, an attempt to wrest religious discourse from the control of the Pat Robertsons and Ralph Reeds, to allow doubters, dissenters, and honest questers to explore a new path to Christianity—a "post-Christianity"—without feeling the tyranny of orthodoxy. It is also the first volley in a war to redefine the basic tenets of Christian faith: to demote Jesus from Christ to prophet, from the bringer of truth to a bringer of truth. If Funk had his way, Jesus would be knocked off his divine pedestal and take his place alongside Lao-tzu, Socrates, and Nietzsche.
Funk goes much farther than most scholars. Most do not have a far-reaching agenda, or they have a different sort of agenda. One thing that emerges from studying the various experts is the realization that scholarly objectivity is a myth: everyone has his or her bias, which results in a different Jesus. Paula Fredriksen of Boston University, herself a convert to Judaism, believes that the importance of the work is in revealing the Jesus of history as a Jew speaking to Jews about Judaism, and in putting to rest the notion that he was out to form a new religion. Marcus Borg of Oregon State University, a devout Episcopalian, finds Jesus to be a mystic, a "spirit person" with a direct link to the divine. Consequently, Borg believes that Jesus is still uniquely important to us today, even if he is not the preexistent deity of traditional faith.
The tendency to conceive of Jesus after one's own image has gone on as long as this work has. Over the past few decades, we have had a nonsexist Jesus for feminists, a liberal Jesus for liberals, an existential Jesus for existentialists, even, for one prominent scholar of a generation ago, a gay Jesus. One might think of this tendency to project as an occupational hazard of New Testament scholars. That said, however, the most impressive thing about the wide variety of work being done today is not the different spin each scholar gives to it but the extent of consensus. The one thing nearly all have in common is a desire to find a human being at the end of their search—as real, as physical, as bound by the laws of time and space as the rest of us.
Excerpted from Gospel Truth by Russell Shorto. Copyright © 1997 Russell Shorto. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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