The Jesus Prospect

The indefinite suspension of the Jesus Project by its original sponsor, the Center for Inquiry, was a serious blow to an effort that had reached a critical point and was in need of an infusion of trust and money.

Funding such a project appears to have been a factor in its “relative” demise. It’s also true, however, that certain organizations suffer from a kind of chronic indecisiveness about the core premises of their existence and hence the causes they want to support. The Jesus Project in my view was simply an illustration of where a messy mission statement and messier programming gets you. The JP was naturally suspect in the press and among biblical professionals of having an axe to grind because its providing organization ground axes, usually for the purpose of cutting the heads off religious truth claims.

In the long run, no harm done. Groundbreaking (and who doesn’t hate that word) scholarship is actually more common without the razzmatazz of conferences and media hits–through the normal and often isolated networking habits we develop as scholars and critics. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, the Jesus Project was trending (like the Jesus Seminar before it) to produce not a conclusion but Jesus Vishnu, a god with multiple faces, disguises, incarnations and questionable plausibility.

I was once asked why the Jesus Seminar was so much more visible than the Project and my answer, which was halting, was that the Seminar, while Robert Funk lived, had a better press agent. A little like Paul was to Jesus.

As a matter of fact, online, offline, in a series of articles for the popular web-journal Bible and Interpretation, and in ordinary conversation, I spent more time defending the Project than developing it.

However Jesus would have come out of this inquisition, it would have been the equivalent of a new scourging and crowning with thorns, if not an outright crucifixion. The sensationalist clatter that greeted the announcement of the project in 2007-“What if the Most Significant Man in Human History Never Existed?“–was enough to send chills up the spines of thoughtful men and women who reasoned that scientific investigation began with an accumulation of evidence and not with conclusions in search of support. We have seen bibliosensationalism for decades now, and it seems to be getting worse each year. It’s about selling newspapers and the Christmas week edition of Time, not scholarship.

Felix culpa, then, that the suspension of the Project has worked out well for those of us who felt CFI was simply not “scholarly” enough, not academically credible enough, and not neutral enough to sponsor such an inquiry. This is not to say that what they do they do not do well. But biblical research and historical inquiry, even in their most radical, secular and revisionist forms belongs in a different circle. Ideally it begins in the seminar room, not a marketing session and is driven by the desire to know or discover something, not the opportunity to get flakes and nutters on the same platform with dues-paying scholars.

That is what most of those associated with the project thought before the freeze, what the freeze confirmed, and what set many of us looking for alternatives more suited to the currents and trends in New Testament studies. That is where the Jesus Prospect comes in.

The name reflects the state of the question that the Jesus Project was trying to address: it is an historical issue. It is not a question that was going to be answered by men and women whose minds were made up, some of them laying out new documentary hypotheses, some of them assuming the essential historicity of the gospel story, and some of them fundamentally committed to the doctrine of a mythical Jesus. Here there be monsters. Or more precisely, here there be three different games being played, each with its own set of rules, but using the same all-purpose ball.

I am happy to be working with New Testament scholar Stephanie Fisher in re-writing the script and continuing the work we had begun. We will be making an announcement of consultation members very soon. This space should be watched for who is in and who is not (Matthew 22.14). But unlike the Jesus Project, we want to avoid any impression that results are dictated by foregone (or are they forlorn?) conclusions or that an earth-shattering result is at hand.

D F Strauss, an original myther of sorts

At a speech in Berkeley given by Richard Dawkins last year, the papal atheist was asked why he didn’t debate creationists. He smiled like the cat who knows the canary cage is wide open and that a bird sits tremulously on its perch inside. “For the same reason a geneticist wouldn’t debate a believer in the stork theory,” he announced to the approval of the audience.

That is why the Jesus Prospect must be restated and restarted as an evaluation of evidence, not bullish hypotheses that have been held by their postulators with the same zeal Catholics propose local saints for the calendar.

In fact, there is a good prospect that Jesus of Nazareth existed. It is the most efficient explanation for the gospels, the writings of Paul and the formation of gospels and the church. There is a possibility he did not. The thin possibility cannot be supported by sweeping away the gospels like so much Palestinian debris that occludes a master-theory, anymore than the uncertainty of who the Scythians were proves that Herodotus made them up. I am of one mind with April DeConick when I assay the work of the “mythers”–the born again pre-committed–a term I don’t like very much, but in an odd way one that points to the hollowness of many of the non-historicity arguments.

Jesus Christ or a Jesus Impersonator?

And let me reiterate what I have said, and what’s been blogged about far too much. I don’t know what really happened, the Archimedean point at which Christianity “began.” I think I could construct a perfectly plausible if not indefeasible argument for the non-existence of Jesus. I can do this by ignoring the bare story of the gospels and concentrating instead on the political and literary needs and the quiver-ful of analogous myths of the early church, the door through which Christ entered as savior. But the savior the mythers begin with is not the historical Jesus, and perhaps the Jesus of the gospels has already achieved that status. Everyone (almost) agrees that most of Jesus is a myth of the church, and even the church trades on the mythical power of a name that is basically unhistorical. We don’t need to convince scholars of that. They know it already, and rather wonder why it’s such a big deal to mythers. It’s really a question of knowing where to begin.

Methodologically (if I can be brave) there are two problems. Despite considerable changes to this pattern in the last century (namely an awareness after Walter Bauer that Christianity was not one thing but many, virtually from its cultic origin) there are those scholars who focus too much on the New Testament as a self-authenticating corpus of evidence waiting to be explained through context and various forms of criticism. And there are those, although still a minority, who use context to explain almost everything, particularly the arousal of the religious interests that lead to the New Testament (and the literature of other groups, such as the gnostics). The Jesus assumed to exist as an historical figure exists in the canon of the former. The Jesus of the mythers and pangnosticists exists in penumbra of the latter.

The Jesus Prospect is essentially, in the French sense, an essay–a try–at developing a middle way where the obvious influence of Judaic and Hellenistic belief and the myths that enfold it do not totally suffocate the prospect of an historical Jesus, and the primacy of canon does not totally obliterate the prospect of a savior god who became historicized as a matter of religious evolution, from cult to church.

The headline “Jesus never existed” is not the end-game of this process. But an insistence on the importance of a hearing and verdict on the best available evidence is. And while you are keeping things in mind, keep this in mind: it is almost inevitably true that the result of such an investigation will not pay big dividends. No one will ever be able to render a “scientific” conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was made up. It is waste of time to try. The proof of this axiom is its opposite: No one–at least no one interested in doing this kind of work or addressing this kind of question–has been convinced by the discovery of the “tombs” of the Jesus dynasty or the Nazareth domiciles. No reputable scholar feels that the Jesus of the Gospel of Judas is any more historical than the canonical Jesus (and perhaps vice versa) or the Jesus of Nag Hammadi.

Increasingly, scholars are returning to question whether the existence of “Q” is more a quest for the grail than a quest for a real document. I count among my friends many who have memorized two, four, and twelve source theories with the enthusiasm ordinarily reserved for a good bottle of wine. But in my opinion, the search for Q ended with Austin Farrer; its reconstructions have been fanciful. And they have been the greatest distraction in New Testament studies for almost a century.

Negative as these tendencies are, they are very healthy tendencies because they show that skepticism is not dead, that a will to find out more is still alive It shows that quick-fix radical, and quick-fix apologetic faith-engendering and overly speculative studies may not win the day, even in the study of the Bible. What hath Schweitzer wrought?

Information about the Prospect and its literary program can be obtained by writing to me, The remains of the Jesus Project are collected in a volume to be published by Prometheus Books in August 2010, The Sources of the Jesus Tradition.


58 thoughts on “The Jesus Prospect

  1. Joseph,
    keep up the work! And hope you haven´t missed the heated debate we have had the last month on James McGrath´s blog about the Jesus mythers.
    I´m also glad to see that you are as sceptical as me about Q – this wondrous hypothetical document that gives free reins for everybody from Earl Doherty to Burton Mack to speculate about Jesus. It is ironic that a prominent Jesus myther like Neil Godfrey thinks there is evidence for Q1, Q2 and Q3 while claiming that there is no evidence for Jesus of Nazareth.

  2. Joseph,
    am I really misrepresenting Neil Godfrey´s position on Q. I doubt it. And maybe this quote from Neil´s blog 19 Ferbruary this year may refresh your memory. Neil wrote:

    “Antonio, there is evidence for Q and evidence for the various layers of Q1, 2 and 3.”

    And as I said to Neil when I bed farewell to further participation on his blog; I don´t find it wortwhile discussing with people who think there is more evidence for Q3 than a Galilean Jew crucified under Pilate. Neil really showed his credentials as a “historian” there.

    • This is having your Q and eating it. Even if there were Q, it would no more prove the historicity of Jesus than the questions of Arjuna to Krishna prove the historicity of either. Religions produce sayings, and thus sayings sources. But in fact we do not need Q. I happen to “think” (not believe) there was an historical Jesus, but I do this as a closet Ockhamite and not as someone who thinks that if we just lay another hand to the shovel we will dig something up. And I certainly do not think that the literary archaeology expended on the matter has been worth it. The whole Did he or Didn’t he (live) is the wrong way to approach the subject, and why I think the Jesus Prospect (about which more soon) is the only way forward. But as to Godfrey, hmmm–what’s on the plate after Q3.

      • Joseph,
        if you personally think speculating about wether Jesus actually existed or didn´t exist is the wrong way to aproach the subject, then why did you include people like Carrier or Thompson in the Jesus Project? Or wasn´t the Jesus Project not meant to start from scratch? Including the possibility that Jesus never existed.

      • It’s a fair question, but I never said that such speculation should be discounted–only that people interested in the question should not be peddling master-theories in the absence of a solid knowledge pf the history of the problem. Frankly, I find that many of the modern myth theorists don’t start from scratch but from a rather narrow set of premises, most of them derived from ppp– pretty pedestrian pyrrhonism–about the gospels. It’s very hard to apply the values of a hard headed empirical historian to the gospels and come out with anything but flotsam (see Carrier’s essay in Sources of J-Trad. when it appears–a good essay, but one that bears out my assessment). Even outrageous opinions should be given the time of day, but no more standing than that. There is nothing ontological about the standing of the myth theory, and my sense is that people who hold it tend to think that all other opinions are mystical or faith-driven.

      • I don’t understand what is meant by “myth theory” in these sorts of discussions. Is there a “historical (or other) theory” which would allow some sort of comparison and contrast? You speak of the ontology of the “standing” of “the myth theory”, but what is this “theory”? This is something I have attempted to address elsewhere recently, and it seems confusion of this is either a cause or an outcome of a lot of hostility in the discussion generated.

        I don’t know what to make of the idea of ppp approaches to the gospels. I thought the arguments usually started with much earlier evidence than those. My own comments about the historical value of the gospels have nothing to do with scepticism for its own sake or the gospels themselves in particular, but are derived from attempting to apply normal standards of external controls to documents, and avoiding circularity. There does seem to be a certain degree of exceptionalism claimed for methods applied to NT historical studies. If the methods applied to the Primary History of Israel (brought over from von Ranke by such as Davies and Lemche) have justification, what is it about those methods that disqualifies them from also being applied to the NT literature, esp the Gospels?

        As for sensing the thoughts of people who hold “it” (whatever “it” is), again I don’t know how to relate to such a comment. I have not seen evidence of such thoughts in the likes of Thompson, Price, Doherty or Wells, and if such thoughts were relevant to their arguments I would have expected them to reveal themselves there. (And personal communications with some of them do not bear out such thoughts from my experience.)

      • I have seen no reference here to the thought of three of our indisputablly top longest standing critical historical Jesus research scholars. Does letting go of the real Jesus require letting of the likes of Ogden. Robinson and Betz?

      • Joseph,
        and while I have caught your attention I might as well raise a question about some comments you made on this blog in may 2009. I am thinking about the passage on James in Josephus Antiquites chapter. There you seem to argue that the James Josephus is talking about was not originally Jesus (of Nazareth) brother but another James who was brother of the High Priest Jesus bar Damneus. You also argue that the phrase “who was called Christ” is a later Christian interpolation. You say that it is “clear” that the James mentioned Josephus original passage is brother of the High Priest. Personally I don´t see how that is clear at all, even if I went along with your speculation, that the passage might originally have referred to James, brother of Jesus bar Damneus. I don´t find it plausible at all that Josephus would have left us totally in the dark about the reasons for a deadly vendetta among the High Priestly familes in Jerusalem a few years before the Jewish war. Nor do I find it plausible given the scenario Josephus otherwise paints of a High Priest like Ananus be daring enough to execute a member (plus som others) of another High Priestly family without the consent of Herod Agrippa and(or) the Roman governor. If Ananus really did what you claim he did I doubt that Herod Agrippa would just have left him off the hook by simply dismissing him. A fate more like the one Ananus meted out on James would have been the more probable outcome.
        Besides, the language used in the “Jesus, who was called Christ” passage hardly betrays a “badly disguised” interpolation. The phrasing is typical of Josephus as another verse found in close proximity to the contested one shows. See chapter 8 about “Joseph, who was called Cabi, the son of Simon

      • Dr Hoffmann: “The whole Did he or Didn’t he (live) is the wrong way to approach the subject”

        Ignoring the question, insisting that there is no question, that it has been definitively answered in the affirmative, insulting anyone who dares to pose the question, as the community of academics in the “relevant fields,” with only a few honorable exceptions such as yourself, continues to do, leaves a great vacuum, because it is a perfectly natural and entirely legitimate question. Asking Did He Or Didn’t He may be a waste of time if one’s primary interest in early Christianity is theological, but not if it’s historical. (And as Golo Mann pointed out in his biography of Wallenstein, “we don’t know” is a drastically under-used answer to historical questions.) When the pros leave such a vacuum, it’s only to be expected that amateurs, hacks, hucksters and assorted buffoons will fill it with the most awful nonsense, just as they have. And it’s only to be expected that the discussion of the HJQ (Historical Jesus Question) will continue to be appalling until the experts finally say, “Hey, look at that bull elephant in the room, there, trampling everything and crapping all over the place and generally making a mess! Maybe we should talk about him!”

        I’m in my mid-50’s already, it’s not realistic to think I’ll ever catch up and become an expert. But unlike the mythicists, I at least realize that I’m not an expert.

  3. Are there any hard nosed mythicists who don’t appeal to “Q”? Mythicists, who – apart from Price who should know better than to appeal to such a hypothetical document – generally aren’t trained biblical scholars, pounce on “Q” as a convenient way to rubbish Jesus because “Q” is such a historically implausible document. “Q” “scholars” themselves generally avoid issues of “Q” and the historical Jesus because the Jesus of “Q” is such a historically implausible (non)Jewish figure.

    It’s rather odd that mythicists appeal to a mythical document as evidence.

    • Was Q written on wax tablets? If it had been, then Maurice Casey would be able to read it.

      Mythicists like GA Wells used to claim there was no Jesus, but Wells now claims that there was a Jesus, and Q proves it so.

      But this does not fit Steph’s narrative….

      • Odd, isn’t it: Morton Smith only needed an historical Jesus because there was an opening for a Jewish magician in his theory, and Wells only needed a Jesus myth because he was infatuated with German romanticism where historical figures were optional. Yes, I am positive Q existed but think it was probably written in ice in the last glacial age, about 18,000 years ago. This makes precise deciphering of the Qode difficult not to mention wet.

  4. Steph,
    I don´t find it odd at all that mythicists appeal to hypothetical Q as evidence. Just as for Christian scholars like Mack and Patterson it is a useful tool when you want to dismiss the primary evidence from the sayings in the gospels (apocalyptic prophet etc etc) and make up sayings of yourself (no apocalyptic preaching etc etc) based on speculations about what might have been there once in a time in Q2 and Q3.
    I am sure Neil Godfrey is also up to something with Q1, Q2, Q3 that will turn him in to the magician who made the rabbit (Jesus) vanish altogether.

  5. Antonio,

    I see, so you have just misunderstood Neil instead of intentionally misrepresented him. You can find some posts on his blog where he deals with Q and then you will (hopefully) see your mistake.

    Obviously Q is not a big issue for Jesus mythicists. Doherty favors the Q hypothesis, because he believes it’s a better explanation of the data than Luke’s knowledge of Matthew. Other mythicists disagree (like Neil Godfrey) on the basis of source critical analyses.

    You seem to think that the mythicist rejects the historicity of Jesus, because he does not see enough evidence for it and is just being too skeptical. I suppose that is why you then cannot understand why a mythicist would accept Q. A mythicist is not just being skeptical because of a lack of evidence. A mythicist considers the non-historicity of Jesus a better explanation of the data (and this has absolutely nothing to do with skepticism).

  6. I just had a look at your little exchange with Neil Antonio

    After you said this:

    your last answer on Q actually convinced me that I am dealing with another one of those highly intelligent crackpots that can be found in the mythicist camp. You ask others for hard evidence but think you yourself can get away with presenting wild speculations and hypothetical documents as “evidence”. I opt out from further discussions on your blog. Have fun with Joseph Wallack. I think you and him are more on the same wavelenght…”

    Neil replied:

    2010/02/20 at 8:29 am | Reply
    Well I am sorry you feel that way, Antonio. Have you read Kloppenborg or Mack and the evidence they present for Q? Yes, it is hypothetical, but there is evidence for the hypothesis.

    I think there is also good evidence for an alternative hypothesis to Q, and have raised this here, on the old Crosstalk and on FRDB and at various times with Earl Doherty who is persuaded to accept Q. But anyone who has looked at the reasons for the Q hypothesis cannot deny that there it is based on evidence — and not speculation.”

    Perhaps if you had stayed one day longer you would have understood him 🙂 He’s not saying he favors Q, merely that the Q hypothesis is based on evidence (even though he favors the Farrer hypothesis).

  7. Bill,
    I don´t think I have to reprint my earlier answer to the aboventioned answer from Godfrey. English may not be my first language but I think I know it well enough to be able to say that THERE IS NO EVIDENCE FOR Q. Evidence is only here the day somebody finds some papyrus with verses from something that looks like Q or quotes from something like Q in a lost letter from an early Church father or other person from Antiquity. Until that moment Q is only based on more or less wellsupported speculations. It is pure guesswork or “ren gissningslek” like we say here in Sweden.

  8. Thanks Antonio. So we agree that Neil does not favor the Q hypothesis. Well, that’s a start.

    You seem to be suggesting that source critical analyses cannot provide evidence for hypothetical documents. Would you also say that there’s no evidence for Maurice Casey’s reconstructed aramaic sources and that those are also ‘pure guesswork’?

    • Bill,
      I think much of the confusion comes from the fact that Godfrey is talking about “evidence” when it comes to a thing like Q. Here in Sweden we would rather use the latin word indicium when talking about a hypothetical reconstruction of Q or hypothetical reconstructions of aramaic sources to GMark. You could argue that there are indicia (indications) that there may have been a Q document or aramaic sources for GMark. Which is not the same thing as saying that there is evidence for such an assertion.

  9. Bill,
    since I prefer to be consistent I can say without wavering that strictly speaking there is no evidence for Casey´s aramaic sources. His speculations may be more or less wellgrounded but it is still speculations. And although I found much to like in his latest book on the Son of Man problem I also found many pages were I got the impression that Casey´s guesswork were just as good or bad as the Q speculators (Now I am only waiting for Steph to flogg me. Hehe 🙂

  10. Antonio, way back on the old Crosswalk discussion list I found myself siding with Mark Goodacre in his case against Q; I have since written blog-posts arguing for an alternative to Q (check my Q archive); and I have raised my disagreement with Doherty on Q a number of times, the most recent on posts 6269807 and 6277129.

    It appears you have not read Kloppenborg or Mack on Q. If you do, you will see that the evidence is not speculative by any means. It is strongly defensible inference drawn from comparisons of texts. There is very strong circumstantial evidence for Q. That does not mean the evidence — as is the case with any circumstantial evidence — cannot be challenged. I do question it.

    I think there is more direct evidence at hand for some sort of dialogue (copying and modifying of narratives and sayings) among the surviving texts we do have in our hands. But that is also based on circumstantial evidence.

    The evidence for Jesus himself, however, is built on assumptions about the sources and nature of the Gospels, and then developed from exegesis of the Gospel narratives. Assumption plus exegesis is all we have. (Plus reading Gospel narratives into Paul and other NT epistles.)

    Can I also repeat here that I do not “believe” or “argue for” a mythical Jesus. That, as I have said, is a pointless exercise as far as I am concerned. History is not about whether Mr and Mrs Socrates really existed or not. It is about seeing what we can understand from the evidence about such things as how Christianity started.

    But the factual (secondary) evidence historians normally work with is established as such by applying external controls to documentary sources in efforts to evaluate their trustworthiness. We have nothing like this for Jesus. Only a presumption that Gospel narratives were originally attempts to record traditions traced back to historical events. Exegesis is assumed to be able to dig down into this “tradition” behind the narrative.

    An alternative is to work without that assumption and to see what happens when we restrict ourselves to the evidence we can see, and to make judgements about the literary and ideological relationships among those texts we do have evidence for.

    To date, that latter approach has for me yielded a view of Christian origins that is more consistent with how we know social and cultural movements tend to start — from a multiplicity of factors and sources coming together. The romantic idea of a single founder or myth of singular origins is generally a later development, and Christianity seems to be no different in this.

    • Neil,
      at last you said the magical word. There is only “circumstantial evidence” for Q. I might go along with that. But to go from claiming that there is circumstantial evidence for Q to also claiming that there is circumstantial evidence for Q2 and Q3 is to go several steps too far in the speculative realm. The day we find a Q document maybe we can start speculating further about Q1, Q2, Q3 and all the other Q one can imagine.
      All this speculations about hypothetical strata in a hypothetical document is what has made me think that source criticism is much of a joke. You can only indulge in these kind of speculations and be taken seriously in the biblical guild (OT source criticism is often no better). Or I might add that this desease has also spread to islamic studies. Scholar like the the late John Wansbrough applied the biblical source critical tools to the Quran and managed to “prove” the muslim holy book did not go back to Muhammed but was basically a compilation of disparate sayings taken from different sources during a timespan of several hundred years. I think Wansbrough´s discoveries say more about the uselessness of much of source criticism and the scholars who apply than it has to say about the origins of the Quran.
      And I have read Kloppenborg, Tucket and other Q proponents. It is just that I don´t find their chain of cirmcumstantial evidence ultimately convincing.

      • I really don’t understand your apparent disagreements with me. I have also been critical of form critical assumptions, and most of my interest has been in studying the gospels as literary wholes — in their final form.

        But I can still recognize the inductive arguments for Q and yes, its 3 layers. They hardly qualify as “speculation”. As for “at last” saying “the magic word”, if you had a little more patience you would have understood what my position has been on Q — and the nature of the evidence for it — from the beginning (beginning a few years ago).

        I see nothing wrong in sometimes examining an issue from a number of perspectives — form criticism or literary/rhetorical analysis, for example — to see what each can produce. I can do so with awareness of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. If I find something I personally think is interesting I sometimes like to share it.

        My interest is in exploring the evidence. I’d be just as excited to find if there is real evidence for some historical Jesus as if there is for another stage in the fleshing out of a philosophical concept. The nature of the evidence simply does not allow us to be dogmatic about very much at all in the question of Christian origins, I think.

  11. Regarging my alternative explanation for some of the evidence usually taken as supporting Q, the post numbers I referenced in the previous reply are from the FRDB site. (Originally tried to include the links here but comments do not seem to be accepted here if they include links.)

  12. Neil,
    I think our disagreement finally boils down to the fact that I think you have a strange way of weighing the strenght of different chains of circumstancial evidence. Claiming that there is “strong circumstantial evidence” for a hypothetical document nobody has ever heard of nor seen, while simultaniously claiming that the circumstancial evidence for the existence of Jesus (a figure explicitely talked about in dozens of documents) is slim, is what makes me wonder about your abilities to weigh evidence.

    • Relying on any evidence for X implies we don’t see X itself. So I don’t think one can complain that the evidence is weak simply the grounds that we don’t see the real thing.

      And the mere fact that “a figure is explicitly talked about in dozens of documents” of itself means absolutely zilch as evidence for the historicity of that figure. Even the mere fact that millions believe a figure is historical is not of itself evidence that the figure is historical.

      Yes, the evidence for Q is more defensible than using either of the above criteria as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

      • Neil,
        you know pretty well that it is not the fact that Jesus is talked about in dozens of documents that has convinced me that he existed. It is the WAY he is talked about and the DETAILS given in those documents that has convinced me that we are dealing with a real person. The other argument about “the mere fact that millions believe in Jesus”, you´d better throw that at the face of Christian believers. I´ve never argued along those lines since I am an atheist like you.
        And as long as I haven´t seen you deal with the kind of circumstantial evidence that scholars like Crossley, Casey and Meier present I will go on doubting your abilities to weigh historical “evidence”.

      • Antonio, if this discussion is still alive, can I say that I have understood that a main reason many say they believe in the historical Jesus is, as you say here, because of “the WAY he is talked about and the DETAILS” that convinces them. It is this “methodology” that I have taken exception to, and argued against at several levels: I think it is logically indefensible; it falls apart when compared with other narratives we know to be fictional from the same era; it is contradicted by what we can discern are the sources of many of the details; and it defies normal (nonbiblical) historical practice for assessment of the historicity of narratives.

  13. Once again I make referenc to a reconstruction of Origins of the Jesus Tradition as a whole, which is in the form of a letter mailed to Joseph Hoffmann, which takes the writings of the NT off of the table – the Gospels, Paul and the other NT writings are not reliable Scriptural sources for Jesus reconstrction. As the late Willi Marxsen argued: the real Scriptural norm is the witness to Jesus that makes up the earliest layer of the synoptic tradition. It is here in what the late Willi Marxsen refers to as the canon before the canon that we must now locate the witness of the apostles that abides as the real Scriptural norm. The reconstruction is meant to identify this earliest layer. It is found in the 10 Comments to the Hoffmann essay: The Importance of the Historical Jesus. Several of the comments are but crisis reactions to a percieved threat that the letter might not be published, thus to be ignored. Editing is poor but it can be read. It is developed on sufficient quotes from the works of Schubert Ogden, James M. Robinson and Hans Dieter Betz to make the claim that it reflects their understanding.

    • An alternative way to the reconstruction: go to the blog Jesus – Making My Way, click on the third named essay: Fascinating New Research on Jesus Studies – comments 5,6 and 7 are the reconstruction, the remainder of comments are related.

  14. Joe,

    What I don’t understand is why you started the project in the first place. You’ve been, if not working for CFI, at least been associated with them in some way for a while now. You know the nature of the organization. Plus, you selected all of the experts, did you not, or at least oversaw their selection? If Richard Carrier and others were not scholarly enough, why put them on there, and why start something that doesn’t seem to have a good prospect of succeeding?

    • I would choose 98% of those involved all over again. As to the remnant, no names please, they were invited by co-captains over my not-strong-enough protests. CFI’s quite dramatic sea change from an organization that promoted and stood back and away from such undertakings dates from much more recently: they were the sponsors of Jesus in History and Myth at Ann Arbor in 1985 (yup, I chaired that one too) which was a superb gathering. They are now sponsoring unabashed explosions of illiteracy like Blasphemy Day, which make anything they do in the field of religious studies suspect. And finally, I understand what we are doing not as starting but as retooling and actually redefining the goals of such inquiry. The first step in that is to reduce expectations, the second is to be sure the apostles chosen for the effort know what they’re doing. And the third is to to ensure all along the way that whatever “support” the activity generates does not come from dubious sources. (How many nice little old Methodist ladies in Iowa supported Albright’s digs, by the way: quite a few, i can tell you.)

      • I see. What I’m gathering is that within the past few years CFI has taken an overly political direction (with Blasphemy Day apparently being the breaking point for you), and that the project was derailed by people who shouldn’t have been on it. If so, I can at least understand. Well, I hope the new undertaking- Jesus Prospect- achieves what you want it to.

    • Jay, It’s difficult to predict whether a project will succeed or fail at the beginning. I’m sure there were high hopes of it’s success. After all, good critical scholars such as Bruce Chilton, James Crossley, Justin Meggitt, James McGrath and Gerd Luedemann were initially recruited. I don’t think that Joe himself was personally responsible for recruiting all those on the list of fellows.

  15. Sorry, the last sentence of the above reply should read: Does letting go of the real Jesus require leting go of the likes of Ogden, Robinson and Betz?

    • The March 13 reply was to correct a sentence of a reply I had just made.
      The reply read: I have seen no reference here to the thought of three of our indisputablly top longest standing critical historical Jesus research scholars.
      Does letting go of the real Jesus also require letting go of the likes of Ogden, Robinson and Betz? I had
      omitted one “go”. The reply was removed with submission of the correection.

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  18. Hello Joseph,

    Enjoyed your article on the Jesus project. I know someone, Robert M. Price, that was on both the Jesus Project, and the Jesus Seminar. I enjoyed attending a Jesus Seminar meeting once at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa years ago, and have enjoyed the study of Early Christian history for a number of years. I thought I would pop you a comment, and give my small 2 cents of advice.

    First off, I have found the more history oriented scholars, what the traditionalists in the industry called the radicals or liberals to be like herding cats. Similar to the Democratic party in politics. The Republicans see very good at organizing things, and then getting their members to carry out an agenda, but Democrats seem to have a difficult time ever really working effectively as a group. So, while there are many conservative religion groups that work on projects effectively, the more liberal groups always seem to end up not getting anywhere. So, for some reason, less conservative religion industry groups seems to start with some kind of innate disadvantage when it comes to organizing things like the Jesus Project.

    That aside, here is another thing I have noticed. I hesitate to make broad generalizations, but having said that, let me make some broad generalizations. Heck… ok… let me take it all back. I LOVE making broad generalizations. I think it is one of the things I do best. It’s called “seeing the big picture.”

    It seems to me that, what I call “the religion industry” by which I mean academics that get degrees in such things as “NT Studies”, “Theology”, and all those non history degrees that then end up being used to write books that claim to be historical tend to really be a mechanism to promote traditional Christian dogma. Someone gets a degree say in “NT studies” or “Biblical Studies” and then often calls themselves a “historian”, and then writes books or articles about the history of Christianity. It always seems that these people all sort of herd toward very conservative conclusions and much of their work while often very detailed is really based totally on speculative assumptions that have never been demonstrated. You see the same general trends in almost all their writings. They all start with the assumption that a Jesus existed. The all use phrases like “Luke”, and “Matthew” when talking about the gospel texts as if these are actual people, rather than just anonymous texts. The all tend to work to push the estimated origins of the Pauline texts, and Gospels back as far as they can. They all in their arguments use quite remarkable personal attacks against anyone in the industry that proposes ideas that are outside the nice little superstructure that they seems to be constantly working towards. The all tend to write article after article on “paul” and the gospels, while almost ignoring characters like Irenaeus and Clement and characters outside of “The Bible”. This last bit I think is due to the fact that any book on jesus or paul, or the gospels will be bought and read and discussed by the faith community. Yet while some of the faith community claim to be “interested” in the fathers and/or patristics they may skim a book or two, but if you look at the ratio of time they spend on patristics vs the gospels you will find that their patristic knowledge is almost nil.

    My point is, over the years that I have been trying to learn things, I have found that the first three years I spent, my margin return on learning was great. but then I hit a point where I would humbly say that I became aware of everything we know about the very very early church. And in the subsequent ten years I came accross almost no new information. It was the same old stuff over and over. And it seemed to me that the industry is not really interested in understanding early christianity as much as it is continually reinforcing the a sort of nicely packaged message that “academia” can assure the faith community that exists, and that there really is a great deal of knowledge about early Christianity.

    I find all that pretty much crap. It’s all amazingly based on undemonstrated speculation, yet they talk about it so confidently and refuse to acknowledge the total lack of details we know about in the first 150 to 200 years.

    It has made me think, that it is kind of pointless to create a new Jesus Seminar. what I would do, if I was in charge of the movement, is that I would begin to create a group of “historians”, you know… people with actual degrees in hisotry, not NT studies, not theology, not biblical studies, but plain old fashion history. And I would promote folks with history degrees to the public. I would tell lay people interested in Christian history what historians there are out there writing on the subject. I would make lists of history journals and historians that have blogs and web sites that write about early Christianity. I would try to generate interested among those “historians” to create a early Christian history group, perhaps a journal, perhaps a wiki with information peer reviewed inside the “history” community. So you would have peer review by other historians that specialize say in the french revolution, or ancient egyptian studies, ie… other “historicans” that are familiar with history tools that can peer review the methods and procedures used in the articles written by the historians writing on early Christianity.

    I think this would be an effective way of beginning to give those that are interested in the actual history of Christianity, rather than simply promoting traditional church dogma ideas, the tools, support, and resources to begin to meet other people, and talk to them, and break outside what appears to me an industry that has written millions and millions of words but really has not advanced much knowledge since the time of Harnack, Strauss and Schweitzer.

    At least that would be the approach I would take.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  19. A counter reply.
    Basic historical knowldege for the path to the real Jesus.

    “In order to understand why there are two, Mark and Q, rather than just one oldest Gospels, we need to recall that from very early on there were two “denominations” in earliest Christianity, each with its own Gospel”.(Robinson)

    “There are two spheres of tradition, distinguished both by their concepts and by their history. The centre of the one sphere is the passion kerygma, the centre of the other sphere is the intention to take up again the proclamation of Jesus’ message. The Q material belongs to the second sphere. The concepts of the passsion kerygma remained outside this sphere. Thus the Q material proved to be an independent source of Christological cognition.” (H. E.Todt) “Ever since Todt, the study of Q has a socciological concomitanmt, the Q community, a previously overlooked outcome of the impact of Jesus on his hearers and benificaries in Galilee.” (Robinson)

    “If you begin with Paul, you will misunderstand Jesus. If you begin with Jesus you will understand Paul differently.” To begin reconstruction of the Jesus tradition with Paul is to begin with the writings of the NT, which are tradition not apostolic witness, to begin with Jesus is to begin with the Sermon n the Mount, our closest apostolic witness.”Even if, for want of sources, we can discover nothing more about the form of Judaism and Jewish Chistianity (Of the Sermon on the Mount), we must leave open the possibility and even the probability, of an image of Jesus which is completely different from that of the synoptic tradition and its Gentile-Christian redactors. Only the superfcial reader can find such a text as the Sermon on the Mount simple, practical and untheologiical. As one penetrates more deeply into this work – a task to which spealized knowledge in the areas of philology, form and redaction criticism, literary criticism, history of religions, and New Testament theology necssarily applies – a theological problematic becomes increasingly more evident” (Betz) Clerly this specialized knowledge is limited to the discipline of the critical historical theologian.

    Given our present historical methods and knowledge, consistent with the above, a true historical path from us to the real Jesus can be reconstructed, even if it is a tight rope walk. With each step one must avoid over balance on the side either of being too credulous or too critical over against the enormous counter weight of traditional Christianity with its sources the writings of the NT: the letters of Paul, the gospels and the later witings of the NT.

    Based largely on the works of Schubert Ogden, James Robinson and Hans Dieter Betz, three of our top longest standing critical historical scholars, the reconstruction of the Jesus tradition contained in my letter to Professor Hoffmann is made. The letter is contained within the first 13 comments to the post: The Importane of the Historical Jesus: A Jesus Project

  20. Irrespective of whether anyone reads the above comment, it must be stated that this does not suggest that the writings of the NT are to be ignored, they do contain valuable data on Jesus. The point is that ones image of Jesus, properly, must be based on the Sermon on the Mount. Having this image relevant additional knowledge can be obtained from the writings of the NT.

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  23. Is there a list of folks on the project that have degrees in history, and what universities they got their degrees in? And optimally… some online contact mechanism for these folks?

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

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  25. If a lot of the Q source resulted from reacting on gMark (through corrections, additions, rewriting, expansions, extrapolations), it is/was futile to attempt any reconstructions in the first place: the final editor probably mixed up all the sayings for reason of homogeneity, as can be seen in the gospel of Thomas (if it is accepted much of its gospel-like material was extracted from the gospels).
    So the failure of reconstructions of Q should not be taken as evidence Q never existed as a single document.
    Here is my reasons to keep Q as a document published around 80CE:

  26. I wonder if Dr. Hoffmann read my website named : Jesus, an historical reconstruction.
    In it, I exposed what would be the third solution, the one between the fully mythical Jesus of Mythicists and the ones of Christians (from conservative to liberal). According to the evidence and years of research, I found an earthly Jesus existed, but only as a poor, uneducated, rustic Jew, who, in his last year, through documented circumstances, got crucified in Jerusalem (mocked) as “king of the Jew”. That Jesus was not the legitimate founder of Christianity but accidentally and unintentionally triggered its development by others, after his death. He had the same role towards starting Christianity as Rosa Parks relative to the Civil Rights Movement. He was only a link in a chain (events and people). As important were Pilate, John the Baptist, proto-Christians (the group of seven), the Church of Antioch, Paul and the author of ‘Hebrews’ (Apollos of Alexandria in my view).
    Even if I think Q existed, I would not use that as a proof for the existence of Jesus, the man credited to have began Christianity. Because most of Q was invented after gMark was known.

  27. Bernard, I am much impressed with your work of reconstructing the Jesus tadition. Like you I am a non-scholar who has reconstructed a Jesus but not from the writings of the NT, rather from what can be identified as the truest NT source of apostolic witness. You might find my above September 21, 2010 comment to be of interest. The last paragraph refers to the reconstruction and how to locate it. Comment?

    • Ed, I cannot consider the sermont on the mount as an apostolic rendition of Jesus’ teachings, for many reasons. If you look at my website, you will understand why. So I will not go any further on that matter …

  28. I forgot to mention that, because of the difference of viewpoints, styles, and even different original languages (Greek and Aramaic/Syriac), I think Q was written by a multicity of authors before it got edited in a single document around 80 CE.

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