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Trying to exhume the historical Jesus from under 2000 years of faith
by Graeme J. Davidson,
21 October 2006

While it seems bizarre that a bunch of academics would use the ballot box to help decide historical truth, at least they’re living up to Napoleon Bonaparte’s view that “history is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon".

....Watch a classic movie set in ancient times, like Ben Hur, and you’ll soon realise it says more about the era the film was made than ancient history. Does that mean, then, that any attempt to exhume the historical Jesus from under 2000 years of devotion and Church doctrine is going to say more about modern attitudes than it will about the historical Jesus?
....A theologian friend discussed this question with me as he was deciding whether to join a team of liberal biblical scholars sponsored by the Westar Institute in Santa Rosa, California. Dubbed the Jesus Seminar, the group aims to unearth the historical Jesus from the Church’s Christ of faith.
....“How do we decide what Jesus said and did when New Testament times are so different from ours?” I asked my friend, “For instance, did Jesus really tell his disciples to buy swords, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel? If this is what Jesus said, it doesn’t read like one of his metaphors or fit with our idea of him as Prince of Peace. Maybe he originally taught violent revolution or expected his followers to defend themselves? Or did the writer put the words into Jesus’ mouth decades later?”
....My friend assured me that questions like these would face biblical analysis and public debate among Seminar scholars. They would then vote by casting coloured beads in a box. A red bead, indicating what Jesus almost certainly said, is worth 3 points. A pink one, worth 2 points, is for what he probably said. A grey bead of 1 point signifies he didn’t say it but it contained something of his ideas, and a black bead, worth zero, is for something that Jesus didn’t say as it belongs to a different or later tradition.
....While it seems bizarre that a bunch of academics would use the ballot box to help decide historical truth, at least they’re living up to Napoleon Bonaparte’s view that “history is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon". A group of more conservative theologians using the coloured beads would undoubtedly vote for a different version of past events.
....My friend didn’t join the Jesus Seminar. He decided its members had a secular mindset and their approach to scholarship was outdated.
....Seminar members assume the gospels aren’t based on eyewitness accounts and, therefore, aren’t accurate historical records. Instead, they believe the Scriptures were ghost-written and promote the beliefs of their writers. They also claim that the Church in the Fourth Century selected books for the New Testament that were in common use and supported Church thinking. To help rectify this, the Seminar has included the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas as a fifth gospel.
....Members have voted with enough red and pink beads to suggest that Jesus probably said about 18 percent of the words attributed to him. They believe the instruction to buy swords is possibly authentic but that Jesus’ claims of divinity and Messiahship, along with nearly all of his words in John’s Gospel, are unlikely to have come from his lips.
....Similarly, Jesus Seminar members think that Jesus may have healed people in the same way modern faith healers do but that most gospel miracles didn’t occur. Walking on water, raising the dead, casting out demons, feeding thousands with a few loaves and fishes – and Jesus’ virgin birth and bodily resurrection – are viewed as myth.
....The liberal media welcomes this intellectualism as it demythologises Christianity and reduces it to secular humanism. Two Kiwi members, Lloyd Geering and James Veitch, have certainly had wide exposure on Radio New Zealand in preference to other biblical scholars.
....The Jesus Seminar has also influenced The Sea of Faith Network, of which Lloyd Geering is a life member. The Seminar is criticised for its secular dogmatism, which has attracted very few top biblical scholars among its current 128 fellows, and for an outmoded approach to biblical scholarship. ....Members are also accused of having insufficient understanding of the theological and philosophical thinking of Jesus’ time and for going out of their way to oppose biblical literalists to the detriment of orthodox Christian views.
....One of the world’s leading biblical scholars, Tom Wright, sums this up when he says, “The Jesus Seminar, in its desire to go public with the results of scholarship, has apparently been lured into giving the public what it wants, rather than what scholarship can in fact provide”.




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