MOST observers of the Jewish Hasidic sect that amassed in Brooklyn this week for a funeral saw black hats, flowing beards, fervent looks - externals, with little insight into what empowers these people with religious identity.
Nor do most people comprehend the varieties of religious experience that centered explosively on the World Trade Center a year ago, or in the Hebron mosque in February, or that led the strange reported ceremony in the town of Zvornik, Bosnia-Herzegovina, to note the ``victory'' of Serbian Orthodox Christianity over Islam in Bosnia.
It is fair to think that the Romans and their political and military representatives in that complicated time of 2,000 years ago had little better access into what was then going on.
This is a time of increasing global familiarization. With all of today's commotion, another millennium approaching, and orthodoxies like communism and apartheid ending, peoples are getting to know one another with at times violent perplexity.
An interesting movement is occurring among theologians regarding the life of Jesus. In part they are rescuing their faith from the grip of ``science'' in the ongoing Enlightenment period. And they are observing other faiths accelerating in fervency.
Theirs is nominally a scholarly pursuit: what Albert Schweitzer earlier this century called ``the search for the historical Jesus.'' They find that little is actually known about the life of Jesus as a person - what they call his ``pre-Easter'' phase. Everything in the Gospels was drafted in the decades after the crucifixion to describe the ``post-Easter'' Jesus, to place Jesus in the context of Jewish prophecy and for other reasons. Was Jesus born in Bethlehem or Nazareth? Was he the first child of a half dozen siblings? Was there a Last Supper? Was Jesus entombed or laid in a shallow grave? What did it mean to have ``seen'' the risen Jesus?
John Dominic Crossan in ``Jesus, a Revolutionary Biography'' (Harper/Collins), Marcus J. Borg in ``Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time'' (HarperSanFrancisco), John Shelby Spong in ``Resurrection, Myth or Reality?'' (HarperSanFrancisco), and Krister Stendahl in ``Final Account, or Paul's Letter to the Romans'' (University Lutheran Church, limited edition), review what we know about Jesus and the first interpretations of his life. ``Jesus seminars'' are being held, at which scholars vote on how they perceive the authenticity of what Jesus may actually be said to have said. This fall a special edition of the Gospels will be published; the text of Jesus' words will be printed in four colors, reflecting levels of certainty - from clearly Jesus' words to definitely not.
Much creed and ceremony has been invested in literal readings of New Testament text. What the scholars find is a radical religious thinker who challenges the religious and social orthodoxies since his time, as in his time.
Crossan: ``His strategy ... was the combination of free healing and common eating, a religious and economic egalitarianism that negated alike and at once the hierarchical and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power. And, lest he himself be interpreted as simply the new broker of a new God, he moved on constantly, settling down neither at Nazareth nor at Capernaum.''
Borg: ``In addition to being deeply involved in the social world of the everyday, he was also grounded in the world of the Spirit.... Jesus' relationship to the Spirit was the source of everything that he was.''
Spong: ``For centuries we have been taught to read the Gospel stories with minds trained to be linear... . The Gospels are, rather, timeless re-creations of significant moments in the religious traditions of the Jews.''
Stendahl, commenting on Paul's stopover in Rome before his unrealized mission to Spain: ``Paul perceived the first signs of Christian anti-Semitism.''
These theologians hardly leave us bogged down in skepticism: They affirm the immanence of the presence of God as Jesus evoked it in an earthly life known in fragments so brief that generations felt compelled to borrow mightily to explain it.