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Quest for the Historical Jesus Begins Anew
December 9, 2008Amherst, New York
Scholars gathered this past weekend, December 5-7, in Amherst, New York, for the inaugural meeting of The Jesus Project in a renewed quest for the historical Jesus. The project, sponsored by the secular think tank Center for Inquiry and its Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER), is an effort by historians, biblical scholars, and theologians to determine what can be reliably recovered about the historical figure of Jesus, his life, his teachings, and his activities, utilizing the highest standards of scientific and scholarly objectivity.
An earlier inquiry, "The Jesus Seminar," founded by Professor Robert Funk in 1985, concerned itself primarily with the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels and related sources. Dr. R. Joseph Hoffmann, chair of the Project and CSER, said that the "The Jesus Seminar had difficulty separating itself from the faith commitments of its members. Its agenda was not exclusively, but in large measure theologically driven. Its conclusions and methods raised more questions than they answered."
The project has drawn together a diverse and rich group of scholars, including, among others Gerd Ludemann, Paul Kurtz, Robert Price, James Tabor, Robert Eisenman, David Trobisch, Bruce Chilton, Dennis MacDonald, and R. Joseph Hoffmann.
At the session this past weekend, participants agreed that a rigorous scientific inquiry was needed, and that the Project would be committed to a position of neutrality towards the sources used as "evidence" for the Jesus tradition. Participants represent a wide variety of perspectives, ranging from Tabor's argument that there is substantial evidence that the tomb of the family of Jesus has been located, to the view that the evidence for the existence of Jesus as an historical figure is not persuasive. "Jesus remains after 2,000 years the most fascinating figure of Western civilization," said James Tabor, author of The Jesus Dynasty: A New Historical Investigation of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity. "Scholars now at the beginning of the twenty-first century are able to take advantage of a plethora of new texts, sources, and methods, including the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, various lost Gospels that are not in our New Testament, and a rich archaeological record." Tabor says that scholars today find themselves uniquely positioned to examine the issue of who Jesus was in new and challenging ways. During the closing conference round-table, Tabor was quick to emphasize that "the Jesus Project repudiates any theological agendas, special pleading, or dogmatic presuppositions." All members of the project share a common commitment to the importance of applying scientific methodologies to the sources used to construct the Jesus tradition.
The Project has outlined a set of priorities for its next meetings, including a "consistent" translation of the Gospels, an inquiry into the causes of the canonization of the existing New Testament documents, parallels between Islam and early Christianity in delineating its sacred books, and the need to carve a middle path between what Hoffmann describes as "Da Vinci Code sensationalism and the truly fascinating story that underlies the history of Christianity."
Papers delivered at the conference will be published under the title "Sources of the Jesus Tradition: An Inquiry," by Prometheus Books in 2009. The Project's next conference is scheduled tentatively for May 2009 in Chicago.
CSER was founded in 1983 and is now a research committee of the Religion and Science division of the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. It encourages the use of the historical and applied sciences in the study of religion and provides educational programs for the public as part of its religious-literacy initiatives. The Center for Inquiry/Transnational is a nonprofit, educational, advocacy, and scientific-research think tank based in Amherst, New York. Their research and educational projects focus on three broad areas: religion, ethics, and society; paranormal and fringe-science claims; and medicine and health. The Center's Web site is www.centerforinquiry.net.
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