New Quest for Historical Jesus Draws Skeptics, Scholars

A new group of historians, biblical scholars, and theologians has embarked on the quest for the historical Jesus to objectively determine what can be "reliably recovered" about him, his life, his teachings, and his activities.

"Jesus remains after 2,000 years the most fascinating figure of Western civilization," notes James D. Tabor, one of several scholars participating in The Jesus Project.

The author of The Jesus Dynasty  says scholars today are in uniquely positioned to examine the issue of who Jesus was in new and challenging ways.

"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 archeological record," says Tabor, who was a consultant for the highly controversial and widely rejected documentary "The Lost Tomb of Jesus."

This past weekend, scholars behind The Jesus Project gathered for three days in Amherst, N.Y., for the effort's inaugural meeting. Among those who have been drawn to the project are Tabor, who serves as the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Paul Kurtz, founder and chairman of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry; religious skeptic Robert Price, a professor of Theology and Scriptural Studies at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary in Miami Gardens, Fla.; archaeologist and biblical scholar Robert Eisenman, who is most famous for his controversial work on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the origins of Christianity; and Bruce Chilton, a professor of Religion at Bard College who specializes in early Christianity and Judaism.

Though a similar effort, called The Jesus Seminar, has been seeking the historical Jesus for more than two decades, organizers of The Jesus Project say their effort is different from The Jesus Seminar as it is not largely theologically driven.

"The Jesus Seminar had difficulty separating itself from the faith commitments of its members," says R. Joseph Hoffmann, a historian of religion and chair of the Project and the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion – the secular think tank sponsoring the project.

"Its conclusions and methods raised more questions than they answered," he adds.

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.

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 are said to 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.