Creation of a 'Jesus for the '90s' Touches Off Theological Debate

AT the turn of the century, historian Albert Schweitzer said that each Bible scholar looks into the well of the historical Jesus - and sees his own reflection.

The latest reflection on the central figure in the New Testament has touched off a scholarly war that is spilling into the mainstream media.

On one side is a small but influential group of academics who portray Jesus as a "secular sage" with no Christly or divine mandate. They see him as a man who today might organize farm workers or give visionary speeches. But he is no Messiah.

On the other side are a host of Bible scholars and theologians who say the "new" Jesus is a diminution of the Scriptures by a splinter group whose entrepreneurial and marketing skills are better than their history and scholarship.

Attempts to separate Jesus from the Christ aren't new. The latest effort has roots in a century-long quest to find a Jesus more compatible with modern skepticism and science and to strip away the traditional religious meaning of the Gospels.

But it's the success of the new revisionists in capturing media attention and spreading their portrait of Jesus as correct that worries many New Testament theologians. "It's the return of a perennial effort to get Christianity off the back of Jesus," says Leander Keck, former dean of the Yale Divinity School.

Source of the 'new' Jesus

This rendition of the historical Jesus is emerging mainly from the Jesus Seminar, located in Santa Rosa, Calif. Set up in the mid-1980s by retired Greek grammarian and religious scholar Robert Funk, the Seminar was designed to send scholarly broadsides into the Biblical literalism of American fundamentalists, in which every word in the Bible is considered true.

For 10 years, the Seminar has brought together likeminded scholars at conferences to vote on the authenticity of every word Jesus spoke in the four Gospels and the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas.

Most of the leaders of the new historical Jesus academic movement are associated with the Seminar: Marcus Borg of Oregon State, John Dominic Crossen of DePaul University in Chicago, Burton Mack of the Claremont College School of Theology in southern California, and Dr. Funk, who has headed a number of college religion departments.

Their key collaborative work, a sourcebook of what they believe Jesus did and did not say, was published last year, titled, "The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus." (About 80 percent of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and nearly all of John, including phrases like "I am the way, the truth, and the life," they deem inauthentic.)

By religious literary standards, their books have become bestsellers. They are discussed at divinity schools and seminaries. The authors are interviewed by National Public Radio and The New York Times. They raise eyebrows - and get heard.

At a recent conference on Jesus' birth, for example, these scholars voted that the entire Christmas narrative in the Gospels was inauthentic - romping past decades of debate to conclude that the three wise men, the star of Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt, and the virgin birth were all "improbable ... a fabrication."

Essentially, the historical Jesus scholars strip away everything in the Gospels they regard as added later by church elders to embellish Jesus' stature as the Christ - or added by early Jewish Christians to enhance Jesus's role as a Jewish apocalyptic figure.

What's left is a secular Jesus for a secular era, a "Jesus for the '90s," as some Seminar scholars have called him. This version bears little resemblance to the man many Christians believe came with "signs and wonders" to do the works of his Father: There is no virgin birth, no resurrection. For many of the scholars, there are no healing works, though some do accord Jesus a healing role as a kind of medicine man.

Nor do they believe Jesus overcame laws of physics (walking on the water; feeding the multitudes). Most important to them and to many critics, they don't see a divine sonship for Jesus as the Messiah. "We have no way of knowing whether Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah or as the Son of God in some special sense," writes Martin Borg in his bestseller of last year, "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time."

Yet these scholars say what's left is a remarkable individual, a person who was an ethical genius, a "laconic sage." This image of a secular-yet-wonderful man has gained a following in seminaries and church study groups as a "realistic" Jesus - earthbound, but someone whose decency and compassion are still meaningful as a guide.

There are subtle variations of the new Jesus among Seminar scholars. For some, he was a Palestinian cynic influenced by the Hellenism brought to Galilee by King Herod Antipas. For others, he is a Mediterranean peasant who started a social revolution. For Dr. Borg, Jesus is among other things a "spirit person," someone who can "experience the sacred frequently and vividly."

As one critic says wryly, "The new [Jesus] is someone who can organize farm workers or go hot-tubbing."

In the past year, this new Jesus has been disowned or put down in books and articles by theologians and scholars of all stripes and churches - traditional, secular, liberal, evangelical. Reasons range from the Seminar's method of voting on Jesus' words, to claims of an antichurch prejudice, to a feeling among some that the new reading of the Gospels is blind to the spiritual sense of the Scriptures. Many cannot find in the new Jesus a man "historic" enough to eventually shake the foundations of the Roman Empire.

Critics also believe it is misleading to create a composite character of Jesus when many of the central questions of his identity haven't been settled. Many 20th-century scholars may be skeptical of Jesus as a divine Messiah who healed all manner of persons. Yet even many within this group speak of how fractured and tentative are any modern conclusions about the dimensions of a figure like Jesus.

"This new work [is] pretty cavalier stuff, considering the subject," says Richard Hays of the Duke University School of Divinity.

Dr. Funk argues that the Seminar answers the needs of a public that has not found meaning in the traditional Christ Jesus, and that has been "hoodwinked" by ministers who keep it in the dark about what modern scholars have learned about Jesus.

It is "mostly televangelists who believe in the virgin birth, the sinless life, the resurrection from the dead," Funk says. "Jesus did not say these things about himself. This was added later."

Disavowing the resurrection

Yet progressive Christian scholars also disagree with many of the Seminar's views. They refuse to ignore evidence of a resurrection that hundreds of people witnessed. "All quests that bypass the memory of the early church are flawed," says Herbert Waetjen of the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, Calif., "because they do not take into account the church's witness to the resurrection of Jesus."

Dr. Hays is irked by the Seminar's assertion that only fundamentalists and quacks disagree with the new Jesus composite. "Let it be said," Hays notes, that "most professional Biblical scholars are profoundly skeptical of ... this academic splinter group. Not one member of the New Testament faculty from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, University of Chicago, Union Theological Seminary, Vanderbilt ... is involved."

Some anti-Seminar scholars now say the project of Funk and his colleagues is more insidious than it seemed in the 1980s, since it fuels already existing secular sentiments hostile to faith. Theologian Luke Timothy Johnson of Atlanta's Emory University, for example, feels the Seminar's creation of a "minimalist" human Jesus should not have been met with silence for so long. This month, Harper-Collins releases Dr. Johnson's "The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus," a major attack on the Seminar and the state of cultural confusion and apathy in America he feels it symbolizes.

Last fall, Helmut Koester of the Harvard Divinity School felt compelled to hold courses on Jesus and the New Testament that specifically answer the new Jesus scholars. Dr. Koester argues that the Seminar's attention to whether or not all the texts in the Gospels are literally true is "the wrong question," asked in "the wrong spirit."

Howard Clark Kee, author of several standard textbooks on Jesus, blasts the Seminar and its offspring for "cleverly" twisting Gospel narratives in order to achieve a secular identity for Jesus.

Funk says the critics don't bother him. "If our work gets talk going at a cocktail party, I consider it worthwhile."

Yet not all is well with the Seminar. Some members have quit over Funk's style of dealing with fellow scholars, and what they believe are secular presuppositions in a project billed as scientific and objective. One New Testament researcher brought in as an expert witness on certain passages in Luke and Mark says that he was allowed only five minutes to get scholarly consensus on a whole range of crucial sayings.

"Funk told us, 'We know these are myths, let's vote,' " the source says. "I quit the Seminar a week later."

Funk admits it is difficult to "set Jesus free" by operating with new scholars and new questions constantly on the table. This spring, he plans to announce another new phase of the Seminar's work. He calls it reinventing Christianity. Seminar scholars will decide whether "Jesus has significance for us as a secular sage," Funk says. Christianity is a tradition that has "gone to seed, taken over by people fearful of the modern era."

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