The historical Jesus and the Bible Scholars cast doubt on miracles, Easter


He didn't walk on the water. He didn't multiply the loaves and fishes. And he didn't change water into wine.

These are the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, a group of biblical scholars who garnered major media attention several years ago over their unorthodox method of voting on whether Jesus actually said the things attributed to him. The group's latest publication is likely to generate just as much controversy.

"The Acts of Jesus," which was published recently, summarizes the five years of work the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based group spent analyzing the stories in the Gospels and in other extra-biblical literature about the deeds of Jesus.

Their verdict: Jesus actually did very few of the actions ascribed to him. In fact, of the 176 events cataloged, the members of the Jesus Seminar concluded that only 28 actually occurred with any historical probability.

Among those that didn't make the cut: most of the miracles, the historical basis for Jesus' arrest and the empty tomb on Easter morning.

These findings are troubling to some religious leaders and scholars.

"From my perspective, I see a separation from faith and tradition, and because of this, I do have a concern that ordinary people may be confused by the approach of the Jesus Seminar," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore. "What is important is the work of those scripture scholars whose faith and understanding illumine their studies."

Paul J. Achtemeier, a biblical scholar and professor at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, agrees.

"They're on the far left wing" of biblical scholarship, he said. "There are elements of legitimacy in it. But they are so selective with the evidence they use that they're not really within the mainstream of critical scholarship."

Ben Witherington III, an evangelical biblical scholar, is less dismissive, although he disagrees with the conclusions of the seminar and believes the group doesn't include conservative viewpoints.

Beliefs distort analysis

"There are no really conservative scholars in the group at all and only one I'd call an evangelical to speak of," said Witherington, author of "The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth." "So the votes they take and the outcomes are not surprising because of the public opinions they've already aired as scholars."

For example, he believes their refusal to consider the possibility of miracles skews their analysis of the miracle stories.

"I'm a little puzzled by the fact that we have a group of scholars who want to say we know that miracles don't happen," Witherington said. "My own view would be, not only do I know that miracles can happen, I know of instances where miracles have happened."

Despite his reservations, Witherington describes the Jesus Seminar as "a serious academic endeavor. It's not just fluff."

The seminar is a group of about 75 scholars that was founded in 1985 by Robert Funk, a former president of the Society for Biblical Literature. It has been praised for its ingenuity and criticized for hucksterism, partly for pursuing the limelight and partly for its unorthodox method of using colored beads to vote on its conclusions: red means an event is virtually certain, pink for probably reliable, gray for possible but unreliable, and black for improbable. In "The Acts of Jesus," the gospel texts are printed in the four colors that correspond to the group's votes.

Funk makes no apologies for the group's methods. "In a sense, it was our goal from the beginning to take the whole continent as our classroom," he said. The seminar was born out of a sense of frustration after 40 years of theological classroom teaching in colleges and seminaries.

Finding historical Jesus

Research into the historical Jesus didn't start with the Jesus Seminar. The first attempt to verify historical fact about Jesus came with a book published in the late 1700s by a German scholar, Hermann Reimarus. Another early practitioner was the medical missionary Albert Schweitzer, who published his work "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" in 1906.

The Jesus Seminar published "The Five Gospels" in 1993, which used the color-coding scheme to weigh the historical accuracy of Jesus' sayings. Only 18 percent of the sayings were printed in red or pink, just slightly higher than the 16 percent that received the probable rating in "The Acts of Jesus."

Among the stories the Jesus Seminar seeks to debunk are:

Miracles. The Jesus Seminar found no historical basis for Gospel stories such as Jesus walking on the water, rebuking the wind and calming the sea, multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed the multitude, and changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana.

The miracle stories "are forms of propaganda used in those days to advocate or promote a figure who was in contest, so to speak, with other figures who could do similar things in the storytelling world," said Funk, co-chairman of Jesus Seminar. "They were really propaganda pieces to make Jesus comparable with other figures in the storytelling world of that time and place, the gods and goddesses who could walk on water, like Poseidon, or with other healers."

The accounts of Jesus' birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have just four historical details that the seminar could confirm: Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, his home was Nazareth, his mother's name was Mary and his name was Jesus. "These constitute the meager traces of history found in the birth stories," Funk writes. "Everything else is fiction."

The story of Jesus' arrest, trial and passion are not only historically dubious, but dangerously anti-Semitic, the seminar found. The consensus, by a solid majority of the fellows, was that Mark wrote the first passion narrative when he wrote his Gospel at least 40 years after the death of Jesus. The other evangelists based their accounts on Mark's.

Few historical details

Again, the seminar decided there were a few historical details in the accounts: That a person named Jesus was executed during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate (A.D. 26 to A.D. 36), that Jesus was arrested after some incident at the Temple and that some Jewish officials, likely the high priest and his associates, urged Pilate to execute Jesus, that he was crucified at a place called Golgotha, that he was flogged in accordance with Roman practice and that his disciples fled when he was arrested.

But the seminar agreed about two negative conclusions on the historical reliability of the passion story. The underlying structure, it found, comes from Old Testament prophetic stories. It also labeled as "pure Christian propaganda" the idea that the Romans were innocent of Jesus' death and the Jews were responsible.

"A lot of this probably developed in Galilee where the two new religious movements, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, were just emerging and the intense rivalry produced hostility that left its mark on these stories," Funk said. "The tendency to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus was something that transpired when these two movements were struggling for self-identity at the end of the first century and there was a strong rivalry between them."

In probably its most controversial and possibly troubling finding for the average Christian, the seminar found that notion that the disciples of Jesus found an empty tomb on Easter morning to be unlikely.

The fellows believe that the earliest stories connected with the resurrection of Jesus are apparitions or appearances, first described by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, written in the mid-50s, some 20 years before the first Gospel. The seminar found that "the empty tomb story was actually created by Mark 40 years or so after Jesus died and probably had nothing to do with the original experience," Funk said.

Scholars' life work

For members of the Jesus Seminar, the quest for the historical Jesus is not just a matter of scholarly interest, but a life's work with important implications.

"Christians who believe in the risen Jesus, who experience the risen Jesus in their lives, have to be careful that it is the historical Jesus," said John Dominic Crossan, co-director of the Jesus Seminar, who recently wrote "The Birth of Christianity," which attempts to re-create the formative years of the church after the death of Jesus.

Since revelations from Jesus have been used to justify so many seemingly un-Christian actions throughout history, Crossan said, it is vital to establish who the historical Jesus is to use as a measuring stick against any private religious revelation.

"That's my crucial argument," he said. "Otherwise, your Jesus could be the Jesus who supports apartheid in Africa, or whatever we want. There's really no criterion that in any way challenges us beyond our own visionary experience."

Funk hopes the work done by the seminar will have an effect on the churches similar to that of the great Protestant reformers.

"The fragmenting of the Christian world, the growing odious bureaucracies of most mainline churches, the inability of theologians to cope with the issues that confront them now as a consequence of the advancement of the sciences and so on -- these have all brought us into crisis, so that some effort to go back to the beginning and try to recover what Jesus of Nazareth was all about, what his vision of the kingdom was, may help to get us on a new course for the next millennium," he said. "If it doesn't, the church and the tradition as a whole is in for a really serious problem."

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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