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Midwest Today, March 1994



When 77 Biblical scholars claimed that Christ did not
say about 80-percent of the words attributed to him,
all hell broke loose


Over the centuries, countless minions have probed, puzzled over and analyzed the New Testament in an effort to clarify its authenticity and accuracy. Now a new book by 77 present-day Biblical scholars is drawing fire. Among its highly controversial conclusions are some startling theories about the man upon whom the very foundation of Christianity rests.

In a 575-page book released recently by the Macmillan Publishing Co., entitled "The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?" the authors contend the following:

John Dominic Crossan, a co-founder of the Jesus Seminar in 1985 and professor of Biblical studies at DePaul University in Chicago, says that "The image that comes out of our work is not a Jesus who was an apocalyptic visionary as much as he was a social revolutionary." He claims Jesus did not even say about 80-percent of the words attributed to him in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

"I find this hard to believe," counters Rev. Ed Duncan, pastor of the Farmington (MI.) First United Methodist Church. "Most people of faith will continue to use the Bible and will continue to find most of the sayings of Jesus very helpful in confronting life today."

Crossan's co-chairman, Robert Funk, said the new image of Jesus that the group found was "an itinerant sage. He wandered around and had no permanent address as far as we can tell.

"He seems to have been a social radical and he had a sense of humor," Funk insists. "He seems to have said a lot of things with a twinkle in his eye, like telling people that they should not be concerned about the speck in their neighbor's eye when they've got a whole timber stuck in their own."

The Rev. Edgar Vann, pastor of Second Ebenezer Baptist Church in Detroit, dismissed the Jesus Seminar as being "part of a movement to trivialize religion and to minimize its power in society."

Perhaps surprisingly, a majority of the scholars involved in the project are members of Christian churches, who banded together to do research, fearing their controversial work could cost them their jobs.

Even so, the scholars timorously avoided drawing conclusions about the two most important Christian tenets: That Jesus was the son of God and that he rose from the dead.

Participants in the Jesus Seminar examined the approximately 1,500 sayings attributed to Christ on the basis of historical records, and compared ancient copies of the gospels. They also looked at a fifth ancient document, the so-called Gospel of Thomas, which was discovered in Egypt in 1945.

They discounted some of Jesus' sayings because the versions differed from one account to another, or did not appear to fit chronologically into Jesus' life.

As some adherents to the Christian faith grudgingly admit, facts concerning Jesus and his life are remarkably hard to come by. The gospels don't even tell us what he looked like.

Of the details of Jesus' life, one scholar calculated that, with the exception of the 40 days and nights in the wilderness (of which we are told virtually nothing), everything described in the gospels could be compressed into three weeks, which leaves by far the greater part of Christ's life unrecorded.

Doubting Thomases also point out the supposed lack of references to Jesus outside the gospels, but actually, this is a misnomer. The Jewish historian Josephus, born in 37 or 38 A.D. and educated as a Pharisee, completed two very detailed works (authenticated by archaeology), and made mention of Jesus. So did the great second-century Roman historian Tacitus, who referred to "Christ, [who] had been executed...by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate."

Yet as participants in the Jesus Seminar, and skeptics before them, have pointed out, there are vexing areas of uncertainty and conflict. For instance, according to Matthew's gospel, the news of Jesus' impending birth is conveyed to Mary's husband, Joseph, in a dream, while according to Luke it is told directly to Mary by the "Angel Gabriel." According to Luke, Jesus' parents had to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem for the Roman census, while according to Matthew they lived in Bethlehem already, and were only obliged to leave when, in an incident which has no historical corroboration, King Herod began killing off the children. Although in Luke Jesus is represented as God's son by Mary, his ancestry is illogically traced back to King David via his human father Joseph. While Matthew's gospel similarly gives Jesus' genealogy via the male line, it provides a list of antecedents so different from those in Luke that even Joseph's father appears with a different name.

The Jesus Seminar participants note that halfway through the Gospel of Mark, Jesus supposedly tells disciples that they should "take up their cross." That doesn't make sense, the scholars concluded, because Jesus had not yet been crucified and the cross did not yet have a symbolic meaning.

It can also be argued that Paul, one of the preeminent writers of the Bible, displayed a lamentable ignorance of any details of Jesus' Earthly life. Paul does not name Jesus' parents, where he was born, where he lived, even when he lived. Although his writings comprise a substantial proportion of the New Testament, they contain no mention of Jesus' parables or miracles. On his own admission, Paul never knew the human Jesus, and based his whole faith on a vision he claimed to have received of the resurrected Jesus.

The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from this situation, some say, is that Jesus was a figment of Paul's imagination. When people began to believe in this imaginary figure - so this theory goes - he had to be given a historical setting in a specific place and time. Enter the gospel writers, who supposedly drew on all sorts of Old Testament prophesies to give flesh to the figure, constructing a background and fabricating an execution during the known Roman governorship of Pontius Pilate.

But most experts take the moderate position that the canonical gospels are neither the second-century tissue of fabrications nor quite the contemporary eyewitness accounts that, given the nature of Christianity's claims, it would be reasonable to expect. Ironically, it has not been theologians but outsiders, such as students of ancient history, well accustomed to imperfections in the works of the pagan writers of antiquity, who have been prepared to recognize the strong vein of authenticity underlying the gospels.

Oxford English don C.S. Lewis, speaking on the subject, commented, "I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that none of them is like this. Of the text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage - though it may no doubt contain errors - pretty close to the facts... Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn't see this simply has not learned to read."

For many, the Jesus Seminar findings are merely the latest in a long line of apostasy. As news has trickled out about the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, they too have become a source of sensationalism, even appearing in the supermarket tabloids. A new book by Barbara Thiering of Australia's University of Sydney even tells of a Jesus who was crucified but secretly revived at the Dead Sea, and who supposedly wed a woman bishop at midnight on March 17, A.D. 50.

Still, as Time magazine reported, "Texts that are only now becoming widely available establish the first connection between the scrolls and Jesus' New Testament words about his role as the Messiah."

And these ancient writings - dated from 200 B.C. to A.D. 67, based on handwriting styles and radioactive carbon tests - demonstrate anew how remarkably accurate scribes were in transmitting the Old Testament.

Parallel Luke?

Although none of the Dead Sea Scrolls mentions Jesus by name, they do speak of the coming Jewish Messiah. According to Michael Wise of the University of Chicago, the texts also contain passages which closely resemble the words of Jesus as contained in Luke.

Just as the discovery of the scrolls demonstrated that the books of the Old Testament had suffered little textural change over many centuries, so the New Testament manuscript discoveries over the years have exhibited a reassuring general consistency. On the whole, errors and textural variations are relatively minor, and supporters say the canonical gospels can be judged to be very much as their authors wrote them.

It is interesting to note that while there exists only a single copy of a manuscript of the great Roman historian Tacitus, dating from about the 12th Century, of canonical works attesting to Jesus' existence there are some 274 vellum manuscripts, dating from between the fourth and 11th Centuries, and no less than 88 papyrus fragments datable to between the second and fourth Centuries.

What do we really know about him?

Jesus burst upon the world of his day, seemingly out of nowhere. He apparently lived in a vivid and immediate kingdom of God within his own mind, the nearness of which, and the means of reaching it, he fervently wished to share with others.

Some thought Jesus to be a charlatan and a fraud (John 7:12). Others suspected he had a drinking and gluttony problem (Matthew 11:19). His family was concerned about him, saying "He is out of His mind" (Mark 3:21).

But "the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matthew 7:28-29). And the well-educated were shocked at Jesus' depth of learning: "How does this Man know letters, having never studied?" they asked (John 7:15).

The Sermon on the Mount - a message which was an extraordinarily striking and compelling one - undergirded much of Jesus' teaching. It has inspired all sorts of men and women - Saint Francis of Assisi, William Blake, Tolstoy, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, even a non-Christian such as Mahatma Gandhi.

Some of his utterances were based on ideas that were typical of the best Jewish spiritual doctrines at the time. However, it is also clear that Jesus repeatedly gave an existing idea a new twist, and not always in the same direction.

Best Evidence

As Ian Wilson, author of "Jesus: The Evidence" (Harper & Row), argues, even critics have "been prepared to acknowledge that the gospel material that is most likely to be authentic to Jesus (though probably not without some fabrication and re-touching) is his parables, some 30 or 40 of which are to be found in the synoptic gospels. This view," claims Wilson, "is borne out by the fact that if he, as a flesh and blood historical figure, had not invented them, we should be obliged to look for someone equally remarkable who had. In fact, they have precisely the same individual quality that distinguishes his teachings. If they were facile forgeries, put into the mouth of a man who never existed, we would expect the rich man always to be the villain, the self-righteous man always to be the hero - but this is far from being the case: they always have an element of the unexpected..."

This is the historical Jesus at his most convincing. Jesus seems to have believed there to be all sorts of circumstances in which love should transcend Mosaic Law to embrace individuals whose sinfulness had in Jewish eyes rendered them "unclean."

The strength of his following is another of the most striking features of Jesus' recorded life. Repeatedly the gospels refer to the crowds which surrounded him wherever he went, crowds from whom, equally repeatedly he felt obliged to slip away when the pressure became too great. The Mark gospel comments on the predicament this presented for him:

"Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. Even so, people from all around would come to him" (Mark 1:45).

There was also Jesus' ability to perform miracles. With unprecedented expertise, he is credited with curing cases of paralysis, lameness, fever, bleeding, skin disease and mental disorder. He raised people from the dead, walked on water, multiplied food to feed the masses, turned water into wine and calmed a storm.

Canon Anthony Harvey of Westminster Abbey, a leading Anglican scholar, has pointed out what he sees as the matter-of-fact quality of the miracle stories:

"In general one can say that the miracle stories in the gospels are unlike anything else in ancient literature. They do not exaggerate the miracle or add sensational details... To a degree that is rare in the writings of antiquity, we can say, to use a modern phrase, that they tell the story straight..."

Yet some skeptics have propounded the idea that Jesus was merely a clever first-century hypnotist.

Ian Wilson has noted that "even if all those diverse individuals to whom Jesus brought release from suffering were, in psychological terms, mere hysterics, the sheer scale of what Jesus managed to effect, and the spontaneity with which he is said to have achieved it, go far beyond what even the greatest braggadocio among hypnotists would profess to be able to achieve today."

And had Jesus been just a clever hypnotist, he could no doubt have continued happily into old age making a comfortable living from his skill. Jesus' purpose was plainly more serious than this, as is apparent from the fact that he never used his talent for personal gain and, in fact, his miracle-working ultimately lead to his death.

Most strikingly, the belief in a resurrected Jesus spread quickly following his crucifixion and was embraced by a wide diversity of people.

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