A group of Bible scholars gained press attention last weekend when they decided in a vote that the Lord's Prayer was not composed by Jesus - or taught by him to his followers - but was probably pieced together by early Christians based on Jesus' ``ideas.'' ``Lord's Prayer Isn't His, Panel of Scholars Says,'' ran the New York Times headline Sunday in reporting the vote of the Jesus Seminar - two dozen scholars who joined in 1985 to discuss critical methods and approaches to Jesus' life.
Biblical literalists will attack the findings, the Times reported, but quoted the Rev. Hal Taussig, a seminar member, as saying they would be widely accepted by scholars: ``The scholarly community will follow it.''
Yet calls this week to a variety of leading biblical scholars indicate little support for the findings. Several cast doubt on the underlying motive of the group.
``It absolutely is not going to be widely accepted,'' says Dr. Robert Craft of the University of Pennsylvania. ``That isn't how the scholarly community operates.''
Early Christian church scholar Wayne Meeks of Yale says the research methods of the group are respected, ``but it won't have any more impact than if a group of physicists suddenly met to announce that Newton's laws are no longer applicable.''
Scholars have long agreed that the gospels, based on oral tradition, were not written down until between the years 50 and 90. The two versions of the Lord's Prayer, in the gospels of Matthew (6:9-13) and Luke (11:2-4), differ slightly. Seminar members, along with claiming the Lord's Prayer wasn't used by Jesus as a single prayer, attempted to separate out those phrases in the prayer that they claimed were authentic, based on Jesus' teachings, and not added later by early Christians. Those phrases are ``hallowed be thy name,'' ``thy kingdom come,'' ``give us this day our daily bread,'' and ``forgive us our debts.''
Helmut Koester, a New Testament scholar at the Harvard Divinity School who was an original member of the seminar but dropped out, is sympathetic to the group, but feels ``they are going beyond what one can say as a scholar. I'm not ready to say those words weren't in one prayer.'' Dr. Koester cites examples of ancient Jewish prayers that survived an oral tradition intact, but also says that ``in the explosively developing early church - an unstable revolutionary movement - one can't say with certainty these were the exact words of Jesus.''
Other scholars are less sympathetic. Howard Clark Kee at Boston University feels the seminar cloaks a hidden agenda. The scholars want to drain Jesus of his radical nature, Dr. Kee says: ``They don't want the real historical Jesus, they want an intellectually comfortable Jesus - one who doesn't proclaim a new era, who doesn't perform miracles.''
Kee cites the work of one seminar member whose recent book ``The Myth of Innocence'' asserts that the powerful events surrounding the Jesus of the New Testament were created by early Christians. ``What's left is a bland Jesus who just talks `timeless wisdom,''' Kee says.
The Los Angeles Times quoted a seminar member saying: ``I think [Jesus] prayed, but I don't think he made a big deal about it.''
Seminar member Charles Hedrick of South West Missouri State says, ``The rationale for a vote is that scholars will argue indefinitely about anything. We wanted to get a consensus.''
Susan Thistlethwaite of the Chicago Theological Seminary says, ``As a theologian, I think Christianity is about faith, not who's got the majority vote.''