Cross Examination : New portraits of Jesus question his life--from his birthplace to the Last Supper to the Resurrection. As debate moves beyond academia, lay people are taking a closer look at the foundations of their faith.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Who do people say I am?" Jesus asked his disciples. Their answers came down to this: Everybody has a different opinion.

Two thousand years later, scholars are asking the question again. In a burst of enthusiasm, and with a hefty dose of showmanship, the search for the historical Jesus is on. Spurred by new findings contained in two ancient libraries--the Dead Sea scrolls discovered in Palestine in 1947 and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts found in Egypt in 1945--and by an end-of-the-century inclination to tear down traditions, Jesus of Nazareth is in for a reality check.

Redefining Jesus as all-man, minus his divine nature, started around the turn of the century. But such revisionist talk has been muffled by academic ivory towers until the recent publication of "The Five Gospels," which boldly asserts that Jesus never said most of the things attributed to him, and several other books. (See accompanying story, E5)

Most Christians believe Jesus is the son of God, miraculously born of a virgin. He lived in Palestine in the early years of the first century and preached a radical message: replace hate with love. He was put to death for his teachings, but rose from the dead as a sign of triumph over evil and returned to heaven. He promised followers they would go to heaven too.

The best known versions of Jesus' life story come from the four Gospels, part of the compendium of books in the New Testament. And although the revised image of Jesus is based on these books, his new portrait hardly resembles earlier ones.

"It's like getting a good new biography of Winston Churchill," says Michael Iannazzi, religion editor for the publisher Doubleday, about the mounting stack of Jesus life stories. "People want to know, who is this man?"

Some of the new studies by respected Bible scholars are as shocking as an unauthorized biography. Others seem close to pulp fiction, worthy of tabloid television. One is the result of 20 years of meticulous research by a single author. Another is a group effort, in which 74 contributors reached consensus by a vote.

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The latest theories about his home life stop just short of voyeurism: Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters. And his mother, Mary, was not a virgin. A skilled woodworker, Jesus was physically strong, not the ethereal weakling portrayed by so many artists. And he was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. The nativity story, with shepherds, angels and a manger, is pure fantasy--the product of some ancient storyteller's rich imagination.

Many of the new proposals about his ministry rattle the foundations of the faith:

He didn't teach the Lord's Prayer, the "Our Father."

He didn't change bread and wine into his own body and blood at the Last Supper, as the Catholic church teaches. A group may have assembled, but he didn't institute the sacrament of Eucharist.

He didn't preach the Sermon on the Mount to deliver the Beatitudes, the Christian moral code. But he probably did say some of the phrases. "Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" is one that made the cut.

He never claimed to be divine.

He didn't rise from the dead, although he likely appeared to some of his followers after his death.

To ground this new man in the real world, Jesus has been given earthy titles. Long known as the Son of God and the Savior of the World, contemporary historians have demoted him to "Itinerant Sage" and "Mediterranean Jewish Peasant."

"It isn't Jesus-bashing," insists Robert W. Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, a group of 74 Bible scholars who spent nine years re-evaluating the Gospels. Their work is contained in "The Five Gospels."

"We want to liberate Jesus. The only Jesus most people know is the mythic one. They don't want the real Jesus, they want the one they can worship. The cultic Jesus."

The group of primarily ministers and professors, most of them liberal or conservative Protestants, met twice a year at the Westar Institute, a think tank in Sonoma, Calif. They re-examined the traditional Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the Gospel of Thomas, discovered among the Nag Hammadi scrolls. Their conclusion: Jesus said just 18% of the words and phrases attributed to him.

"The Gospels were written 40 years after Christ's life," notes Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, a Seminar member. "How many words of anybody will be exactly repeated 40 years later?"

The group assigned credit by voting with colored beads: red for what Jesus undoubtedly said, pink for what he probably said, gray for words the Gospel writers put into his mouth and black for words he probably did not say.

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Reactions in and out of academic circles have been mixed.

After early results were published three years ago, a cartoon went up on the bulletin board of Fuller Theological Seminar in Pasadena. It showed Jesus blessing his disciples and saying, "Beads be with you."

Last December, when Funk's book was reviewed in the Post-Tribune, a Gary, Ind., newspaper, members of the New Hope Baptist Church in nearby Hobart burned the paper. Associate pastor Jerry Kaifetz says the protest targeted the paper's ongoing "very liberal policy" as well as "The Five Gospels." "I have no intention of reading the book," adds Kaifetz. He believes the Bible is the indisputable word of God.

Some scholars object to the earthbound portrayal of Jesus as overly simplistic.

"The quest is to redefine Jesus minus the supernatural," says Doug Bookman, a professor of Bible studies at the Master's College, a conservative Christian school in Santa Clarita. "Conservatives say the miraculous did break through."

Others believe the evidence doesn't support the new claims.

"I'm open to any new light thrown on the subject by the Nag Hammadi library and the Dead Sea Scrolls," says William Farmer, professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "But I think we need to utilize this information in a responsible way.

"To say the Lord's Supper, which is central to the Christian faith, has no basis in fact, that it is all hocus-pocus and legend, would affect a Christian's faith." Farmer's book, "The Gospel of Jesus" (Westminster), which challenges several of the new interpretations of the Gospels, is due out in April.

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All this has lay people taking a closer look--reading the books, signing up for extension classes at local churches, enrolling in graduate schools or seminaries. But even under the guidance of experts, many find it difficult to put aside their childhood beliefs.

"I grapple with it, it's very painful" says Mary Jo Harper, a second-year student at the School of Theology at Claremont. "The virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the crucifixion. If solid material came to fore, proving there's nothing there, I'd say my internal experiences are also of value. This doesn't shake my faith.

"Some students are more afraid to encounter the questions. But more of us are here to explore," she says. Still, "It scares the living daylights out of us."

Harper praises her professors for giving a balanced view. But another Claremont student, Esther Castro, dropped out because she felt uncomfortable. "I do want to hear what the latest findings are. I want to be an informed decision-maker," she says. "But some appear as if it is their prerogative to displace old values just because others are more current."

Michael Barrett, a Cal State Northridge librarian, recently took a class based on the findings of Funk and his group led by the Rev. Stephen Moore at the Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley, a Protestant congregation.

As a result, Barrett says, "I felt closer to God. Scrape away all the stuff that's been piled on, and there's still a lot there." He continues to keep up with new books and articles on the subject. "It's not that anyone is trying to destroy faith," he finds. "In my experience, this magnifies it."

At All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, the Rev. Tim Safford taught a class on the historical Jesus last year. "People liked getting in touch with Jesus, the person," he says. Some in his class were curious, but skeptical. "The most controversial question was whether Jesus celebrated the Last Supper," says Safford. "People dealt with that gingerly."

Whether people buy into revisionism or not, they like to explore new ideas.

"People in their 30s and 40s are particularly open to change their beliefs about Jesus," says Wade Clark Roof, a professor of religion and society at UC Santa Barbara who examines baby-boomer spirituality in his book "A Generation of Seekers."

"Many don't know what the traditional beliefs are. They dropped out as teen-agers or young adults. Many are going back to religion now that they're raising kids, or facing a midlife crisis."

Ultimately, Roof says, this new breed of church-goers form their own, customized religion. A deconstructed Jesus, a simple prophet, is an example of a life they can imitate. "It pulls Jesus down out of the clouds. And in some ways, that's good for him."

In a recent national survey of people over age 18, the Barna Research Center in Pasadena found that 90% believe Jesus did live on Earth; 80% believe he was just as human as the rest of us; 40% believe he made mistakes; 80% believe he rose from the dead, and 36% believe they'll meet Jesus one day in heaven.

When they do, they might have a few new questions to ask him.

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