Shuck and Jive

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Jesus Project

Not to be confused with the Jesus Film Project, the Jesus Project asks the provocative question:

What if ...
the most influential man in human history never lived?

So what is the Jesus Project? Scholars with a wide variety of expertise are meeting to sift through the historical evidence to see if there truly be a man beneath the myths. Here is an introduction to the project by Joseph Hoffman:

The Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk of the University of Montana, was famous for all the wrong reasons—its voting method (marbles), the grandstanding of some of its members, the public style of its meetings, even its openly defiant stance against the claims of miracles in the Gospels—including the resurrection of Jesus. Except for the marbles, none of this was new. The use of additional sources, such as Gnostic and apocryphal gospels, to create a fuller picture of the Jesus-tradition and the focus on context as though it provided content were at least innovative. But the Jesus who emerged from these scholarly travails was so diminished that—as I wrote in a FREE INQUIRY article in 1993—he could not exist apart from his makers: “The Jesus of the [Jesus Seminar] is a talking doll with a questionable repertoire of thirty-one sayings. Pull a string and he blesses the poor.”
OK, a little snarky with my buds at the Jesus Seminar. They can take it. Go on.
What the Seminar had tacitly acknowledged without acknowledging the corollary is that over 80 percent of “Jesus” had been fictionalized by the Gospel writers. That is to say that, if we are to judge a man’s life by his sayings, the greater portion of the literary artifacts known as the Gospels is fictional. If we are to judge by actions, then what actions survived historical criticism? Not the virgin birth, or the Transfiguration, or the healing of the sick, or the purely magical feats such as Cana, or the multiplication of loaves and fishes. The Resurrection had quietly been sent to the attic by theologians in the nineteenth century.
So what's the project?
The Jesus Project, as CSER has named the new effort, is the first methodologically agnostic approach to the question of Jesus’ historical existence....

We regard previous attempts to rule the question out of court as vestiges of a time when the Church controlled the boundaries of permissible inquiry into its sacred books. More directly, we regard the question of the historical Jesus as a testable hypothesis, and we are committed to no prior conclusions about the outcome of our inquiry. This is a statement of our principles, and we intend to stick to them.
Cool. This will be fun.

The critique of the Jesus Seminar is that they didn't go far enough. They were harangued for being too liberal when they were probably too conservative. They came up with a database of sayings and deeds that they thought could be attributed to Jesus. Various portraits of Jesus were constructed from this database. Some critics said the portraits (consciously or unconsciously) came first and the database later.

I have been mulling over the question of Jesus for some time. Here are a few of my conclusions:
  1. Searching for the historical Jesus is like searching for the historical King Arthur. All we have are legends. Call it the Christ of Faith if you like. You can find literary antecedents for all of the stories about him.
  2. He may have existed. He may not have existed. We can't know. All the tales and portraits about him served the theological purposes of the tellers and the artists. From the perspective of history, one is no more likely than any other. Why? Because no one is home. We can't know the real guy or even if there was a guy. Comparing any portrait to nothing gives you nothing but the portrait.
  3. I think the various historical Jesus portraits are as fictional as Mark's Jesus as well as that of all the other gospel writers, Paul, and those whose portraits of Jesus were later considered "unorthodox."
  4. The historical study gives us insight into the times in which the constructs were made. We can learn about the storytellers, but nothing about the main character of these stories.
Now what? Jesus is going to be with us for a long time. He is not an historical figure. He is a spiritual icon. He is the symbol for our longing. He is both the inspiration and the justification for our actions. He is the cause of war, exclusion, and hell. He is the cause of non-violence, inclusion and the realm of God.

He is what you want him to be. I like the "historical" Jesus. More precisely, I like the Jesus Seminar's Jesus. If it is all construct (and it is), then pick one you like. It is all myth. Pick a myth that works.

April DeConick has been blogging about the Jesus Project and the Jesus Seminar. She is offering a critique of the methodology of the historical Jesus questers, including the Jesus Seminar. It is a good read. I wrote there that regardless of method, I like the theology behind the Jesus Seminar's Jesus.

I like that poet/rebel/healer/fighter for peace and justice who sticks it to the man. He lives his integrity to the death and thus inspires change and hope.

Someone might say, well why do you need Jesus then? My answer is you don't need him. You don't need Hamlet either. You don't need King Arthur. You don't need Abraham or Mary Magdalene, Buddha, Krishna or anyone else. But you have them. We got Jesus, boy howdy, do we got Jesus. So let's make the best of him.

For those who "believe" he is a symbol or metaphor for our highest virtue. Find your Jesus and you will find yourself.


  1. Humm...

    Time to dust of Peter Berger's "A Rumor of Angels"

    But I agree it is probably a waste of time to try to find the historical Jesus. The more people try to point to him, the more they just point to themselves.

    And conversely, the more they point to the myth of him, the more they point to themselves as well.

    I'm intrigued by the notion that none of the NT authors ever spoke of the historical Jesus because they didn't think of him as somebody who 'was" or 'did' or 'lived', but rather someone who 'is', who 'does' and who 'lives'. The Gospels are never talking about the Jesus of the past, but always about the Jesus of the present.

    There is a rumor that he is alive and well even today.

  2. The Gospels are never talking about the Jesus of the past, but always about the Jesus of the present.

    Exactly. The point of theology. Who or where is Jesus today?

  3. Jeez. If more people would just understand that, then maybe we could really do something valuable!

  4. John, if the group proves that Jesus never existed, I'd still try to live my life according to the way laid out by the possibly mythical man in the Gospels - or I hope I would, because I believe it's the right way to live a life. I think that a man named Jesus was a real historical figure, but who he was is a whole other thing.

    A myth as powerful as the Jesus myth is alive and life-giving in some manner. He is alive in me, or so I believe, but I could be delusional, and that's no proof to anyone else.

    Just my 2 cents.

  5. Grandmere Mimi,

    I tend to agree. Trying to prove the historical Jesus or the non historicity of Jesus is to miss the point. It never was about trying to prove that he was. It was assumed that since he >>is<<, it stands to reason that he was, and then move on.

    I do think that the Gospels mined the stories of his life to knit together the point of who he is. And it stand to reason that the gospel writers wrote in the style they learned from their contemporaries, not something we teach in modern schools of journalism.

    But attacking the stories as myth makes the same mistake as affirming them as literal historical accounts. Both methods forget, or are unaware that he is alive now, and that that is the key to understanding the Gospels.

    The gospels don't reveal who Jesus was. Jesus reveals what the Gospels are.

  6. You aren't knowledgeable on this topic until you are familiar with the wealth of well-documented historical information at:

  7. John, great post! Thanks.

  8. “Exactly. The point of theology. Who or where is Jesus today?”

    A new and updated story (or, if you prefer, myth):

    "Peace be upon you…. As I have revealed the Father, so shall you reveal the divine love, not merely with words, but in your daily living. I send you forth, not to love the souls of men, but rather to love men. You are not merely to proclaim the joys of heaven but also to exhibit in your daily experience these spirit realities of the divine life since you already have eternal life, as the gift of God, through faith. When you have faith, when power from on high, the Spirit of Truth, has come upon you, you will not hide your light here behind closed doors; you will make known the love and the mercy of God to all mankind…. Your mission to the world is founded on the fact that I lived a God-revealing life among you; on the truth that you and all other men are the sons of God; and it shall consist in the life which you will live among men--the actual and living experience of loving men and serving them, even as I have loved and served you. Let faith reveal your light to the world; let the revelation of truth open the eyes blinded by tradition; let your loving service effectually destroy the prejudice engendered by ignorance. By so drawing close to your fellow men in understanding sympathy and with unselfish devotion, you will lead them into a saving knowledge of the Father's love." (2043.1)

    "I have become God-revealing to you. I have lived among you as the Son of Man that you, and all other men, might know that you are all indeed the sons of God. Therefore, go you now into all the world preaching this gospel of the kingdom of heaven to all men. Love all men as I have loved you; serve your fellow mortals as I have served you. Freely you have received, freely give. Only tarry here in Jerusalem while I go to the Father, and until I send you the Spirit of Truth. He shall lead you into the enlarged truth, and I will go with you into all the world. I am with you always, and my peace I leave with you." (2053.1)

    "Peace be upon you…. If you are the faith sons of my Father, you shall never die; you shall not perish. The gospel of the kingdom has taught you that all men are the sons of God. And this good news concerning the love of the heavenly Father for his children on earth must be carried to all the world. The time has come when you worship God neither on Gerizim nor at Jerusalem, but where you are, as you are, in spirit and in truth. It is your faith that saves your souls. Salvation is the gift of God to all who believe they are his sons. But be not deceived; while salvation is the free gift of God and is bestowed upon all who accept it by faith, there follows the experience of bearing the fruits of this spirit life as it is lived in the flesh. The acceptance of the doctrine of the fatherhood of God implies that you also freely accept the associated truth of the brotherhood of man. And if man is your brother, he is even more than your neighbor, whom the Father requires you to love as yourself. Your brother, being of your own family, you will not only love with a family affection, but you will also serve as you would serve yourself. And you will thus love and serve your brother because you, being my brethren, have been thus loved and served by me. Go, then, into all the world telling this good news to all creatures of every race, tribe, and nation. My spirit shall go before you, and I will be with you always." (2053.4)

    "The power of this kingdom shall consist, not in the strength of armies nor in the might of riches, but rather in the glory of the divine spirit that shall come to teach the minds and rule the hearts of the reborn citizens of this heavenly kingdom, the sons of God. This is the brotherhood of love wherein righteousness reigns, and whose battle cry shall be: Peace on earth and good will to all men. This kingdom, which you are so soon to go forth proclaiming, is the desire of the good men of all ages, the hope of all the earth, and the fulfillment of the wise promises of all the prophets.” (1568.6)

    “Thus it appears that the Spirit of Truth comes really to lead all believers into all truth, into the expanding knowledge of the experience of the living and growing spiritual consciousness of the reality of eternal and ascending sonship with God.” (2061.5)

  9. In entering Sidon, Jesus and his associates passed over a bridge, the first one many of them had ever seen. As they walked over this bridge, Jesus, among other things, said: "This world is only a bridge; you may pass over it, but you should not think to build a dwelling place upon it." (1735.5)

    Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar's dream city, is the most surprising structure of all. According to many art historians, it symbolises an all-powerful monarchy, a microcosm, or even an imago mundi. In 1571 Bada'uni wrote:

    He laid the foundation for a new shrine (i.e., Salim Chishti's mausoleum) and a tall, spacious mosque, which was so large that it appeared to be part of a mountain. Scarcely anything like it can be seen anywhere in the inhabited world. The building was completed within five years, and he called the place Fatehpur, and built a bazaar and an entrance gate and baths, and the nobles built towers and tall palaces for themselves. according to the chronogram: 'There is nothing comparable to this anywhere else'.

    The enornmous 54-metre entrance gateway to Fatehpur Sikri, which can be seen from miles away when approaching the city, is undoubtedly unique. The inscription on it was written by Akbar and Jahangir's loyal historian, calligrapher and diplomat Mir Ma'sum Nami, from Bhakkar (Sind). It is dated 1603, by which time the city had long since ceased to be the residence of the court. There is a saying carved on it, attributed by Islam to Jesus, concerning the impermanence of all things: 'The world is a bridge, cross over it, but do not build a house on it!' (286-288)

    -- Schimmel, Annemarie. The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art, and Culture. London: Reaktion Books; 2004; c2004 pp. 286-288.

  10. "The religions of authority can only divide men and set them in conscientious array against each other; the religion of the spirit will progressively draw men together and cause them to become understandingly sympathetic with one another. The religions of authority require of men uniformity in belief, but this is impossible of realization in the present state of the world. The religion of the spirit requires only unity of experience--uniformity of destiny--making full allowance for diversity of belief. The religion of the spirit requires only uniformity of insight, not uniformity of viewpoint and outlook. The religion of the spirit does not demand uniformity of intellectual views, only unity of spirit feeling. The religions of authority crystallize into lifeless creeds; the religion of the spirit grows into the increasing joy and liberty of ennobling deeds of loving service and merciful ministration." (1732.2)

    If the religions of the world must compete, then let them compete in bearing the living fruits of the spirit, in living lives consisting of that form of righteousness (ilqa'; kashf; ilham) that exceeds mere creedal beliefs, pursuing wisdom, compassion, and love for their fellows of all faiths, races, and cultures.

    Let the various religions of the world learn to compete in recognizing living truth (Tasdiq), striving within themselves to appropriate it, affirm it, and then to actualize it in living love and service to one's fellows.

    "The only basis on which it [Islam] distinguishes between humans is on the basis of their moral personality--their ability, that is, to acquire taqwa, or God-consciousness--and it is in terms of their moral praxis that individuals will be judged and recompensed in the Hereafter. What matters in and to the Qur'an, then, is not sex/gender, but an individual's 'faith and deeds'."

    -- Barlas, Asma. Amina Wadud's hermeneutics of the Qur'an. In Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur'an (editor Suha Taji-Farouki). Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2004; c2004 p. 114.

  11. Grandmere--what you said is worth much more than two cents! Well put!

    Rob--thanks for all the quotes!

    Jodie--there is theology and there is history. Two different species I suppose.

    Yirmeyahu--thanks for the link.

    Snad and Fred--Thanks!

  12. John,

    History and theology... they are different, but:

    There are historical interpretations of theology.


    There are theological interpretations of history.

    The biblical authors may not have invented the theological interpretation of history but they sure put it down in writing.

    It was inevitable that some day historians would return the favor.

    It really is time to dust off Peter Berger.

  13. Jodie--you mentioned Peter Berger before. I forgot why though. What is his deal?

  14. Peter Berger: Sociology of Religion. Wrote "A Rumor of Angels", "Pyramids of Sacrifice", "Invitation to Sociology" and other classics.

    In "Rumor of Angels" he deals with the reality vs myth issue of religion. Most of religion is myth. (There is a rumor that there are angels). It has its purpose in human society.

    But something, or someone, out there in the big universe, or maybe even outside of it, reflects that myth back to us and speaks back to us on its own terms. And we recognize that voice.

  15. Thanks, Jodie. I am with that. In fact, I really like that.

    My favorite with all of this is Joseph Campbell who I think takes a similar approach.

    We are always in the process of reshaping our mythologies to discover ourselves, our place, and our meaning.

  16. This made me think of you, John:

    Of The Terrible Doubt Of Appearances

    Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
    Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
    That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
    That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable
    May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills,
    shining and flowing waters,
    The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be
    these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and
    the real something has yet to be known,
    (How often they dart out of themselves as if to confound me
    and mock me!
    How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows,
    aught of them,)
    May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they
    indeed but seem) as from my present point of view, and
    might prove (as of course they would) nought of what
    they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely changed
    points of view;
    To me these and the like of these are curiously answer'd by
    my lovers, my dear friends,
    When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while
    holding me by the hand,
    When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and
    reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,
    Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am
    silent, I require nothing further,
    I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of
    identity beyond the grave,
    But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
    He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.
    ---Walt Whitman

  17. I joined campus crusade for Christ back in the 70's due to books like Evidence that demands a verdict.

    Today, I no longer consider my self a fundamentalist Christian, but better, a follower of the True Jesus, that unfortunately is not found in the modern American Christian church.

    Thanks to the internet, you can check sources today. And the claims of most Christian apologetics can be examined under the light. Isn't light good and Christian. yes, except if you are a fundy, where you don't want to examine truth.

    I am so thankful that today my walk with Jesus is 10 times closer than when I went door to door telling everyone they were going to hell if they didn't accept this all loving God into there life buy just saying a few words in prayer. I know now, God does not work that way. I am just one of millions of former "christians" who have left or are leaving the church. We aren't leaving Jesus mind you, we are leaving the sick and dying church hat preaches a Jesus that is not accurate, Loving, or real.
    Thank Jesus, I am free at last.