Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Jesus Project

Not to be confused with the Jesus Film Project, the Jesus Project asks the provocative question:

What if ...
the most influential man in human history never lived?

So what is the Jesus Project? Scholars with a wide variety of expertise are meeting to sift through the historical evidence to see if there truly be a man beneath the myths. Here is an introduction to the project by Joseph Hoffman:

The Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk of the University of Montana, was famous for all the wrong reasons—its voting method (marbles), the grandstanding of some of its members, the public style of its meetings, even its openly defiant stance against the claims of miracles in the Gospels—including the resurrection of Jesus. Except for the marbles, none of this was new. The use of additional sources, such as Gnostic and apocryphal gospels, to create a fuller picture of the Jesus-tradition and the focus on context as though it provided content were at least innovative. But the Jesus who emerged from these scholarly travails was so diminished that—as I wrote in a FREE INQUIRY article in 1993—he could not exist apart from his makers: “The Jesus of the [Jesus Seminar] is a talking doll with a questionable repertoire of thirty-one sayings. Pull a string and he blesses the poor.”
OK, a little snarky with my buds at the Jesus Seminar. They can take it. Go on.
What the Seminar had tacitly acknowledged without acknowledging the corollary is that over 80 percent of “Jesus” had been fictionalized by the Gospel writers. That is to say that, if we are to judge a man’s life by his sayings, the greater portion of the literary artifacts known as the Gospels is fictional. If we are to judge by actions, then what actions survived historical criticism? Not the virgin birth, or the Transfiguration, or the healing of the sick, or the purely magical feats such as Cana, or the multiplication of loaves and fishes. The Resurrection had quietly been sent to the attic by theologians in the nineteenth century.
So what's the project?
The Jesus Project, as CSER has named the new effort, is the first methodologically agnostic approach to the question of Jesus’ historical existence....

We regard previous attempts to rule the question out of court as vestiges of a time when the Church controlled the boundaries of permissible inquiry into its sacred books. More directly, we regard the question of the historical Jesus as a testable hypothesis, and we are committed to no prior conclusions about the outcome of our inquiry. This is a statement of our principles, and we intend to stick to them.
Cool. This will be fun.

The critique of the Jesus Seminar is that they didn't go far enough. They were harangued for being too liberal when they were probably too conservative. They came up with a database of sayings and deeds that they thought could be attributed to Jesus. Various portraits of Jesus were constructed from this database. Some critics said the portraits (consciously or unconsciously) came first and the database later.

I have been mulling over the question of Jesus for some time. Here are a few of my conclusions:
  1. Searching for the historical Jesus is like searching for the historical King Arthur. All we have are legends. Call it the Christ of Faith if you like. You can find literary antecedents for all of the stories about him.
  2. He may have existed. He may not have existed. We can't know. All the tales and portraits about him served the theological purposes of the tellers and the artists. From the perspective of history, one is no more likely than any other. Why? Because no one is home. We can't know the real guy or even if there was a guy. Comparing any portrait to nothing gives you nothing but the portrait.
  3. I think the various historical Jesus portraits are as fictional as Mark's Jesus as well as that of all the other gospel writers, Paul, and those whose portraits of Jesus were later considered "unorthodox."
  4. The historical study gives us insight into the times in which the constructs were made. We can learn about the storytellers, but nothing about the main character of these stories.
Now what? Jesus is going to be with us for a long time. He is not an historical figure. He is a spiritual icon. He is the symbol for our longing. He is both the inspiration and the justification for our actions. He is the cause of war, exclusion, and hell. He is the cause of non-violence, inclusion and the realm of God.

He is what you want him to be. I like the "historical" Jesus. More precisely, I like the Jesus Seminar's Jesus. If it is all construct (and it is), then pick one you like. It is all myth. Pick a myth that works.

April DeConick has been blogging about the Jesus Project and the Jesus Seminar. She is offering a critique of the methodology of the historical Jesus questers, including the Jesus Seminar. It is a good read. I wrote there that regardless of method, I like the theology behind the Jesus Seminar's Jesus.

I like that poet/rebel/healer/fighter for peace and justice who sticks it to the man. He lives his integrity to the death and thus inspires change and hope.

Someone might say, well why do you need Jesus then? My answer is you don't need him. You don't need Hamlet either. You don't need King Arthur. You don't need Abraham or Mary Magdalene, Buddha, Krishna or anyone else. But you have them. We got Jesus, boy howdy, do we got Jesus. So let's make the best of him.

For those who "believe" he is a symbol or metaphor for our highest virtue. Find your Jesus and you will find yourself.