Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The First Jesus

Ive been thinking a lot about story and history this week.

Many years ago i was leading a Bible study in an evangelical church on the resurrection stories. The words just slipped out of my mouth. "If someone found a bag of bones somewhere in the Middle East and they were shown to be the remains of Jesus, i wouldnt even miss breakfast." There was a stony silence in the room. Eyes popped, jaws dropped, and one person said, 'Thats heresy."

It was hard to explain back then, but i have never felt the need for a literal resurrection in order to believe in the empowering metaphor of resurrection. Resurrection is an inner resolve to persevere against all odds. Resurrection is a fresh start, grace and grit, new possibilities. The story of Jesus resurrection has always inspired this sort of inner resolve, and it never needed to actually happen to do that for me.

Lots of stories have that affect. The Wizard of Oz was a very infuential story for me as a child. I thought Dorothy was about as brave as a person could be. I imagined that i was living my own "oz" story, and found courage in the way Dorothy survived.

Does the same imagination apply to elements of the Christmas story? Is there value in the myth even if the details were completely fabricated?
Does the same apply to the whole life and ministry of Jesus? Is there value and inspiration in the story even if none of it actually happened?

The Jesus Seminar is a group committed to accurately portraying the first Jesus, the Jesus of history. They color coded the words of Jesus into those that were more or less likely to have actually been said by Jesus. They generally agree that Jesus was a social revolutionary who taught in parables and metaphors. He was an itinerant Jewish sage who did not die to save sinners nor did he rise from the dead. They found that Jesus was a radical who broke with Jewish theology, ritual and social convention. He preached that the kingdom is unseen but already present, a realm where outsiders were accepted and insiders were challenged to greater justice.

This has been an important work, opening up ways for modern people to nurture their love of the story and teachings of Jesus while being true to history. Of course the Jesus Seminar has not been without its critics. One line of criticism has been that most of the Jesus Seminar scholars have started from a perspective of theology; ie they read their own theological preferences back into the Jesus story.

A new group has now formed, called The Jesus Project. The group has a similar committment to uncovering the Jesus of history, but they are dedicated to not having any theological agenda. They operate with a purely scientific method and scholarly objectivity. The group is made up of historians, biblical scholars and theologians and is sponsored by CFI (Centre for Inquiry). They met this past weekend and discussed a range of options including evidence that locates the tomb of Jesus, and the view that Jesus did not exist.

You can listen to a short audio interview with Robert Price, the co-chair of the group, and hear him speak about his view that Jesus did not exist. https://mail.christ-community.net/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://tinyurl.com/5dgj2w

This project presents an important challenge to people who love, or are even interested in, the Jesus story. Would the story and the tradition still inspire you if none of it has any historical reliability? Its a question worth thinking about.

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