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Jesus skeptics on the run

Charlotte Allen is author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus." She co-edits the InkWell blog for the Independent Women's Forum.

ANNE RICE’S “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” her novel about the boy Jesus whose family has not gotten around to telling him that he is the messiah, is a national bestseller. That’s not surprising. Rice is a seasoned storyteller whose 26 previous novels on subjects ranging from vampires to sadomasochistic erotica have sold more than 75 million copies. With “Christ the Lord,” she transferred her flair for the supernatural to a new market of Christian believers who share the faith she has re-embraced.

What is interesting -- and portentous -- is that just as “Christ the Lord” was nearing release in early September, Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, died. The Jesus Seminar is still going strong. But Funk’s death and Rice’s novel constitute a kind of symbolic marker of the passing of a brand of dogmatic hyper-skepticism toward the Gospels and the rise of a new and more generous biblical scholarship that holds, contra the seminar, that the Gospels and other New Testament writings constitute virtually our only record of what Jesus said and did. These scholars contend that there is no point in trying to deconstruct the Gospels to find the “real” Jesus. They maintain there is nothing in the historical or archeolological record of the 1st century that makes the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life inherently implausible.

Rice drew on this scholarship, as she recounts in an afterword to “Christ the Lord,” to construct her fictional account of Jesus’ earliest years.

The Jesus Seminar could be called the anti-"Christ the Lord.” Its 70-odd member-scholars are famous for their consensus view that Jesus not only was not the messiah, but that he never thought of himself that way. Nor did he consider himself to be the “son of man” who will return to Earth at the apocalyptic end-time. He wasn’t even a Jewish prophet. As for the core Christian belief that Jesus is the “son of God” begotten of a virgin -- that was simply unthinkable, in the Jesus Seminar’s view.

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In a 1993 book, “The Five Gospels” (the canonical four plus the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas”), the Jesus Seminar concluded that Jesus spoke no more than 18% of the words attributed to him in Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. In 1998, the Jesus Seminar published “The Acts of Jesus,” which was even more negative about the historical accuracy of the New Testament. The scholars decided that of 176 events in Jesus’ life narrated in the Gospels, only 16% -- maybe 28 -- were even likely to have occurred. Excluded were not only the Gospel narratives on Jesus’ passion and resurrection but also the stories of his miraculous conception, birth and early childhood that shape Rice’s novel.

The Jesus Seminar issued its pronunciamentos with the certainty of a pope issuing a statement about the Immaculate Conception. Although seminar participants represented only a fraction of the thousands of North American academics working in New Testament studies, they called the results of their votes the findings of “scholars,” as though there were no dissenters.

The seminar’s conceit was that its view of Jesus was held by all scholars but that few would admit it publicly out of fear of a fundamentalist backlash. Funk summed up the seminar’s mission in his opening remarks when the Jesus seminarians first convened in Berkeley in 1985: A “rude and rancorous awakening lies ahead” once people discover that according to “the intelligence of high scholarship,” the Gospels are mostly mythological bunk and Jesus was, at best, a mere wisdom teacher who inadvertently got crucified.

Funk was right, at least as a general proposition. Most New Testament scholars would not go as far as he did when he declared in his 1996 book “Honest to Jesus” that the Christian savior was a “secular sage” who had little use for religion and would have advocated “responsible” casual sex were he alive today. But many would agree that Jesus did not think of himself as the messiah, much less the son of God. Many believe with Funk that the Gospel nativity stories are pious fictions, and that Jesus had a human father.

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This line of thinking dominated and continues to dominate the curricula at many theology schools, university religion departments and mainline Protestant sermons and discussion groups. Jesus Seminar member Marcus Borg, who contends that Jesus was one of many 1st century leaders of Jewish renewal movements, is a favorite guest lecturer at Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches. Even among theologically conservative Catholics, such theologians as Hans Kung argue that the story of Jesus’ empty tomb was probably a late Christian invention. This same sort of skepticism is the stuff of those “What Really Happened at Christmas” and “What Really Happened at Easter” cover stories that appear in news magazines. Churchmen who gave credence to Gospel texts were written off in academic circles as poorly educated biblical literalists.

That’s changed. There are now many highly sophisticated biblical scholars who argue that New Testament texts constitute all that we really know about Jesus, that they accurately reflect what the earliest Christians believed about him and that there is no archeological or historical evidence that contradicts those beliefs. The best-known of these scholars are Luke Timothy Johnson, a Catholic; Ben Witherington, an evangelical; and N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham whose 2003 book, “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” makes it clear that faith in Jesus as both divine and messiah was the defining hallmark of all 1st century Jews who broke with their tradition to follow him, and that Jesus’ own conduct had something to do with their new faith.

At the heart of these scholars’ arguments is the radical transformation of Jesus’ disciples brought about by the disciples’ conviction that he had risen from the dead. These scholars maintain that the disciples’ belief -- that the Jesus whom the Romans crucified was alive -- wasn’t just a grief-induced hallucination or a vague spiritual experience. Rather, it arose from a palpable reality that made them willing to die for their faith and convinced them that Jesus was the son of God and represented the fulfillment of the biblical prophecies concerning the “son of man” and the salvation of Israel.

When ABC’s Peter Jennings made the first of his “Search for Jesus” specials in 2000, it was a Jesus Seminar-dominated affair. Wright was the token conservative Christian scholar. But when Jennings followed up with “Jesus and Paul” in 2004, he added Johnson and Witherington, as well as such Christianity-sympathetic academics as Alan Segal and Rodney Stark. Similarly, ABC’s “20/20" special on Jesus’ resurrection in April included interviews with Witherington and several other evangelical scholars.

We know from the historical record that the Judean hills abounded with shepherds because crops couldn’t grow there; that Herod was a paranoid, homicidal maniac; that sea transportation was excellent by ancient standards -- so it was not out of the question, as Rice tells it, for Jesus’ fleeing family to live among the large Jewish population of Egypt’s Alexandria and learn Greek. We know something about the intense, proud, hopeful, family-centered Jewish piety that flourished amid the violence of those times. We cannot prove anything about angels or a star or a virgin birth. But thanks to Rice and the scholars who preceded her, we do not have to feel like ignoramuses should we choose to believe these things.


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