The controversial Jesus Seminar, which recently declared that Jesus did not say 80% of what is attributed to him, is turning its analytical eye toward how many of the biblical accounts of his life, death and resurrection actually happened.
The group of liberal-to-moderate biblical scholars will examine everything from healing the sick and walking on water to the climactic episodes when followers find Jesus' burial tomb empty.
More people seem interested "in what Jesus did than what he may have said," according to Mahlon Smith of Rutgers University, who is organizing the first meeting of the Seminar's second phase in October.
The scholars already have indicated that they believe only the basic details of Jesus' arrest and crucifixion as described in the Bible. The empty tomb accounts are seen as embellishments of the belief reported by the Apostle Paul that the risen Christ simply "appeared" to followers after his death.
Robert Funk, director of the Jesus Seminar's Westar Institute in Sonoma, said the scholars will probably discuss the thesis proposed a dozen years ago by James M. Robinson of Claremont Graduate School that the earliest accounts of the resurrected Jesus probably depicted him merely as a shining light.
"I am reasonably sure the seminar fellows are going to say that the Resurrection happened as a vision to followers such as Peter, James and Paul," Funk said. The Jesus Seminar tries to settle historical questions, not matters of faith, he said. "There is just no way to verify something like that. We will have to take them at their word."
Previous sessions have concluded that Jesus of Nazareth attracted followers, exorcised what he regarded as demons, expressed some opposition against corruption surrounding the Jerusalem Temple, and that he most certainly met death by crucifixion, under the Roman rule of Pontius Pilate, in Jerusalem around Passover time.
"Quite a number of the events in the Gospels probably have some historical core," Funk said, contending that many statements and actions attributed to Jesus were created by the Gospel authors or the early churches.
Funk said critical scholars (those who use a range of analytical tools to judge the historical, literary and social influences on what was written) are virtually unanimous in believing that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
"It would not have been in the best interests of the early church to invent that story, because, on the face of it, it makes Jesus appear to be subservient to John. The Gospel authors wrote their accounts to avoid that impression," he said.
Funk co-chairs the Jesus Seminar with John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University, both prominent New Testament specialists. The Jesus Seminar, which has at one time or another involved nearly 200 professors at universities and mainline seminaries since 1985, has accomplished its two main purposes, Funk said.
"We were obviously successful in making the public more aware of what biblical scholarship says in contradiction to the literal interpretation of television evangelists," Funk said. The Jesus Seminar, whose twice-yearly sessions are open to the press, created small furors when it overwhelmingly voted in a series of meetings that Jesus did not predict his Second Coming and did not fully compose the Lord's Prayer, only certain of its passages.
Funk also believes that the Seminar has forced biblical scholars outside of conservative or traditional schools to own up to what they think Jesus actually said and did rather than confining their views to narrow academic circles.
"I have a strong sense that my colleagues have accepted a new responsibility to give an accounting to the public," he added.
The Seminar's aim to "educate" the public has often distressed conservatives and delighted liberals on the religious spectrum.
The six-year study of Jesus' words, which concluded March 3, will either outrage or confuse many believers, according to some fundamentalist pastors.
"Many young people are not well-versed enough to know the difference between liberal and conservative scholars; they wonder what's going on," said the Rev. James Eggert, pastor of First Baptist Church of Downey. "It's scary," said the Rev. Terry Payton of Dallas. "My belief is that you either accept the whole Bible or you don't."
The Seminar's verdicts and its provocative use of colored beads--especially black for "no" when casting votes on the authenticity of sayings attributed to Jesus--resulted in satire and sardonic humor from some evangelicals.
A handmade cartoon pinned to a bulletin board at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena showed Jesus extending a blessing to followers, "Beads be with you."
On religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's "700 Club" program of March 5, co-host Sheila Walsh commented, "I'd like to make them swallow their beads." Robertson, laughing, replied, "Well said," and went on to call the project "outrageous" and an attempt to "accommodate the Bible to their own unbelief."
But the Jesus Seminar meetings have drawn some praise and even-handed comments.
The Seminar's aim to better educate the public was compared by scholar Karen Jo Torjeson to 16th-Century Reformer Martin Luther and his unprecedented writing about theology in German, the language of the people, rather than in the Latin of the church. "I like to see the discussion of (the historical Jesus) carried out to the broader community," said Torjeson, director of Women's Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate School.
The pastor of Westwood United Methodist Church recently wrote in his church bulletin that the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar "should come as no great shock."
The Gospel accounts, written decades after Jesus' death, wrote the Rev. James Lockwood-Stewart, "represent a combination of the best historical reporting that oral tradition would allow, mixed with the witness of faith on the part of those whose lives had been touched and transformed by Christ's presence. . . . But what has always sustained people of faith has been the undeniable sense of Christ's presence."
The final balloting prompted a resignation from the Jesus Seminar by Colin Brown, professor of systematic theology at Fuller Seminary.
He said that it would be "uncomfortable" for any Fuller faculty member to be associated with a group that concludes that fewer than 25% of Jesus' sayings are authentic. "As a matter of conviction, we believe in the fundamental, underlying historical reliability of the biblical record," Brown said.
Brown said that he never voted or attended a meeting but had joined the Seminar in order to receive its publications and papers on the historical Jesus, one of his academic interests.
The tactics of the Jesus Seminar were blistered as "an academic disgrace" in a published letter to The Times by veteran New Testament scholar Howard Clark Kee, currently a visiting professor at the School of Theology at Claremont. Kee--not a Seminar participant--termed the exercise "a quest for the intellectually responsible Jesus, free of such features, embarrassing to modern intellectuals, as demons, miracles and predictions about the future."
Kee, also an emeritus professor at Boston University, said in a later interview that he thinks voting on individual sayings is inappropriate. "It is very difficult to say this one is original and this one isn't," he said. Nevertheless, he indicated that not all biblical sources equally represent the historical Jesus.
"I think the Q source and some of the Gospel of Mark probably come closest to what he had to say," Kee said. Authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used sayings from a collection called Q, according to most scholars. But Kee believes the future-oriented, apocalyptic statements attributed to Jesus in Q are authentic, whereas most Seminar members do not.
Otherwise, Funk contended in a separate interview that Kee's published writing on the historical Jesus agrees with most of what Seminar members have developed. Both Kee and Funk said the last meal of Jesus with his followers before his arrest was probably not a Passover meal, as many Christians believe. They both point to the Gospel of John, which says that the meal occurred before Passover.
The Seminar members "are a very mainline bunch of people whose essential theories and basic assumptions are shared widely at seminaries and colleges," according to Seminar member Arland Jacobsen, director of the Charis Ecumenical Center at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn.
A specialist on the Q source who has voted at a half-dozen Seminar sessions, Jacobsen said: "When there is surprise by churchgoers over Jesus Seminar findings, it is often because pastors don't share these assumptions or conclusions with their congregations."
In next Saturday's religion pages: Robert Funk defends criteria used by the Jesus Seminar and Robert Guelich of Fuller Seminary takes issue with the group's premises.