Processing the Project

A reader named Reg writes,

1. Why the name change again – Project, Prospect, Process?
2. Line-up is a bit European/American. Could do with some post-colonial theologians who might have a different ‘spin’ on Jesus.

Agree with two. –As long as spin doesn’t mean that a postcolonial spin would be any different from a responsible non-postcolonial spin.  Otherwise we are talking theology, and that has been the unseen barrier to unlocking some of the mysteries we are trying to solve.

As to the name:  I am reposting here a blog from 2010 that announced the new project.  Flatly put, the Center for Inquiry which funded, then defunded the Jesus Project in 2009 at the same time it suspended the operation of CSER, its “host” organization, is happy to let it lie dormant as though it were not dead.  I have asked repeatedly that it be taken off life support and be permitted to die with dignity but it lingers still.  The post following reflects that period.

The announcement of the defunding of TJP and discontinuation of CSER for financial reasons were announced in the ultimate volume of CAESAR: A Journal of Religion and Human Values (which I edited) by Ronald Lindsay in 2009.

As the refugees from the Project discussed a new name (the new president of CFI had written a rather stern warning about “infringement”), it was suggested that “prospect” was a poor substitute.  As plans and enthusiasm grew, the word “process” seemed about right: After all,  we were dealing with two things–the way in which the Jesus tradition developed inch by inch, the way it materialized in writings,  canon and doctine in the second century (that sort of process), and also the methodology that we use to put the picture together.  The emphasis on self-criticism and evidence, and the need to exclude both theology, apologetics, and extreme master-theories, such as “Christ Mythicism,” was the guidepost for choosing “process.”  That’s the explanation, but…

Read on:

The Jesus Prospect

R Joseph Hoffmann

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.

Austin Farrer: Warden of Keble College and Biblical Studies Gadfly

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?

38 thoughts on “Processing the Project

  1. I might have liked to have seen someone like Rolf Torstendahl in the line up. Richard Carrier is too naughty, obviously, and as for Stephen Law, well, what could a philosopher possibly contribute (second time around) but hey…….’in house’ it is. 🙂

    Is Robert Price not in this time either?

    • Oh, and, I know it’s a long shot, but if you do happen to want to boost your credibility base by going ex-house, what better than a sympathetic atheist? The architectural sector being a bit flat at the moment, I could use the dough.

      • Sorry this is for scholarship, and no funds are anticipated. But you’re welcome to share your pico piquante, on its own, with a nice chilled Sauvignon (or Cabernet Sauvignon unchilled), with us…

      • the fun starts at 10 when four urns are brought out, two for Jesus, two for Dionysus with the clock ticking and each challenged to produce a 1935 Montepulciano with an amusing bite and hint of blackberry in the finish.

    • @David: If by “in house” you mean the house of wisdom, I agree. It was certainly “in house” in a different way at CFI.

      What we want are men and women who understand the field, are competent in the languages and methods of New Testament criticism, are not trying (or needing) to make a splash, are not arguing an agenda or committed to an outcome.

      Carrier and Price do not fit that description. Obviously since I have been around the block on this, I could name names on either side who would not qualify. But the very fact that some people are wondering why we don’t impose a “poll tax” and appoint people who are “postcolonial” or “atheist” is a very sad commentary on the state of the question. If the evidence trends in the direction of Paul’s letters having been composed by Marcion in the second century, thus explaining the “sudden” shift from the Jesus of history to the divine Christ, I’m sure we will catch that drift. If it turns out to be more complicated, we will catch that too. And just a word of consolation: I understand the frustration many people feel about NT studies. I have felt it too. As some will know, when I proposed Marcion as the topic of my doctoral research it was very nearly turned down by a late twentieth century faculty at Oxford on the grounds he was a heretic! When the work was published, it was venomously attacked by both German and Dutch scholars for being too radical, when in fact its “radicalism” has since become mainstream and from the mythtic viewpoint conservative. Soon I will publish after almost 30 years away from him a new study of Marcion, which I also hesitate to do because it will immediately be ravaged–from both sides. Believe it or not, it has taken me that long to be sure–not that I am right–but that I need to publish it.

      • Casey’s work “From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God” (WJK, 1991) was “delayed” because a particular “highly distinguished” conservative British scholar wrote to a publisher and said they shouldn’t publish it because it was “anti-Christian”. Another similarly “highly distinguished” don prevented another publisher from publishing it, telling them they should be “promoting Christian knowledge”. This is also why “Is John’s Gospel True?” (Routledge 1996) was largely ignored. While the New Marcion is greatly anticipated and will be welcomed with relief, those who make us uncomfortable about N.T. studies are the same ‘those’ who will ravage it and leave it out as inconvenient to their preconceptions.

      • Marcion striles me as almost much more interesting than Jesus, so I think I would like to read a book about him. Maybe that’s unfair to Jesus, though he has been, er, overdone. 🙂

        As for the J-man’s existence or not, I’m agnostic.

        As for the ‘academy’, I do have my reservations (and you and steph have just reminded me why, since the 1990’s are not exactly the middle ages) but equally I don’t underestimate expertize and don’t assume that there aren’t at least several scholars at the very-open-minded end of the spectrum.

  2. Torstendahl is not suitably qualified for this although respectable in his own fields, Carrier and Law are irrelevant, and Joe Hoffmann and Gerd Lüdemann were co chairs of the Jesus Project – Price was brought on by somebody else, Carrier was brought on by Price – they will not be invited.

  3. It will be interesting to see what comes up. I think my primary difficulties with Funk’s Jesus Seminar was to abandon the eschatological Jesus and thus break one of their own golden rules, “Beware of finding a Jesus that is entirely congenial to you”. The other was giving a spot to the guy that directed “Show Girls” and “Starship Troopers”

    • That joke cracking cynic philosopher guy of the Jesus Seminar, reconstructed on the assumption of the existence of a single written Greek document (they’ve got the text, just not the scroll and they’re still publishing stuff about it as ‘proof’), eliminating evidence from Mark and anything remotely apocalyptic or too Jewish on the results of voting, coloured balls and a commitment to concensus, looks a little like Dom Crossan, Burton Mack and a few others, none of whom are Jewish, surprisingly, let alone from the first century. Unless they’re zombies, which is [not] possible. What happened to the dead who rose in Matt 27:51-3? They’re still roaming the earth of course. N.T. Wright still hasn’t responded to that question raised at a conference so maybe he’s one of them. After all he wrote of the episode, “Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened”.

      • NT Wright is such an odd scholar. He accepts the broad thrust of Schweitzer’s Jesus, yet thinks that his eschatology refers to the fall of Jeruslaem in 70 (which Jesus must have correctly predicted) and so makes the Jews responsible for his death because they obviously didn’t listen to his warnings in Mark 13//. He thus makes the Romans under Titus the agents of God’s wrath to destroy the Jews for not heeding Jesus’ advice! (nice bit of anti-semitism) God’s judgement would fall first and foremost on Israel because it failed to respond to the summons to be the light of the world. Crazy stuff but lots out there buy the books! Nice question about those who rose in Matthew. Just like: Where was Jesus in-between bodily resurrection appearances: Answer : the Jerusalem caravan park!


      • We buy the overpriced books so we can keep up with both good and crazy scholarship. Incidentally my cat is an ‘avid reader’. She absorbs books by sitting on them. Sometimes she devours the ones -ironically discerning in her choice – that wouldn’t break my heart. She almost chewed the whole cover off NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God while I accidentally threw a cup of black coffee over it later to add to the damage. It’s a bit scrappy. It also has alot of crosses and exclamations in red pen on nearly every page as do all his books and many others.

      • Yes – he is very good at “people relationships”. He’s very charming and pleasant around conferences, has a tendency to blush when questioned pressingly, and I even know some who’ve known him a very long time, who despite abundant differences of ‘opinion’, are very fond of him.

    • I think that you do Paul Verhoeven a huge disservice and your comments smack of academic arrogance. Verhoeven is an intelligent and accomplished New testmaent scholar, despite not having the formal. academic credentials. He does not toe the Jesus Seminar line about Jesus and his book, Jesus of Nazareth, is far removed from Crossan and Funk’s idea of Jesus. It is a testament to the openness of the Jesus Seminar that there are those within its ranks who are permitted to depart from the itinerant, parabolic, non-escahtological Jesus or even think taht Jesus didn’t exist (Price). You also forgot ‘RoboCop’, ‘Basic Instinct’, ‘Turkish Delight’ and ‘The Fourth Man’. Sometimes people in Hollywood are more discerning than those who hide in ivory towers. A modern folly is to idolise the Academy. Having taught in such institutions, some degrees that people are awarded are less than satisfactory; and those who hold such qualifications less than inspiring or erudite.

      The Seminar did examine the eschatological Jesus. The majority of scholars following Funk, Crossan etc contested that he was non-eschatological. The consensus/voting model that they employed meant that the majority opinion won the day.


      • You could be right Reg. what is clear is that not every Jesus who escaped the Jesus seminar could be right. The managers ran it like a Greek election. You might be interested in a very early review of the process I did in 1994; I think I was the third or fourth person Funk invited to come on board. My knowledge of the seminar is not second hand, but I left within a few weeks. Regardless it was a dog’s breakfast in terms of results, as Dom Crossan himself acknowledged.

  4. My truck with mythicist is that they think their idea is so radical thant NT scholars must give them the Galilio treatment, not that NT studies has a lot of people who’s scholarship is influenced by the need to have a Jesus we can worship. Crossan and Funk I think were motivated by this bias and while Fundies don’t mind a Jesus that was waiting for demons to feast on the entrails of the unfaithful, for tyhe more up to date Episcopaliens and Catholics this wont do. Of course I think in 1000 years school kids will giggle at how backwards and conservative Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King were. They don’t want to go down Scheitzer’s route and give up theology but i think even with his beleif in a comming apocalypse Jesus is as facinating as any thinker of the first century and the durability of the church was never based on the teachings of a late Jewish prophet, but on how a late Jewish prophet was presented in those Gospel books.

  5. Joseph wrote:
    You might be interested in a very early review of the process I did in 1994

    Yes I would – where do I find that?

  6. Do the texts give us enough confidence to believe that their authors were interested in documenting the life of an actual human being? Mark is a non-Jewish writer, addressing a non-Jewish audience, with a story about a prophetic god-man whom “the Jews” supposedly wanted to kill from his birth. That is raw polemics, not documentation of any kind. It’s very difficult to see how an authentic Jewish messianic movement would be of any interest to an anti-Jewish polemic of the kind Mark is writing.

    • Andrew: I wonder if you mean John perhaps? The anti-Judaic from birth thing is stronest there. I will re-read Mark however to see if Mark reads just the same way. You might try reading a gospel as well, rather than third class comic books about them.

    • Mark is a non-Jewish writer? Addressing a non-Jewish audience? A prophetic god-man? Whom the Jews supposedly wanted to kill from his birth? Anti-Jewish polemic? Do you have evidence of these things? Why does ‘Mark’ assume things of his audience that a non Jewish person wouldn’t take for granted? Which Jews are opposed? How is Jesus is a ‘god-man’ in Mark and not a human being living in first century Jewish culture? And which gospel has a story of Herod wanting to kill him from his birth? I recommend perhaps James Crossley’s ‘Date of Mark’ (T&T Clark,1994) especially his chapter especially on Law and perhaps his ‘Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Orignis (26-50CE)’ (WJK 1996) which is an attempt to explain Christian origins, Maurice Casey’s ‘Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel’ (CUP, 1996), ‘From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God’ (WJK 1991) as well as ‘Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historican’s Account of his Life and Teachings’ (T&T Clark) for general readers.

      In addition to Joe’s comment on John perhaps Maurice Casey’s ‘Is John’s Gospel True?’ (Routledge, 1996)). The answer is ‘no’ in case you’re wondering.

      But watch especially for progress forthcoming from the Jesus Process as we examine new evidence with new argument.

  7. Dear Doctor Joe,

    I am planning to have my sex-change operation later this month, but I am getting cold feet. Amongst other things, I am worried that the outcome will adversely affect my (admittedly already slim) chances of getting picked for the Jesus Process panel. What should I do?



    Worried Belfast male.

    • Dear WBM:

      It is a conspicuous dilemma, I know. I would suggest praying to the Blessed Mother. Our Lady knows best. In her wisdom, she decided to have a baby boy, and it turned out rather well. In case she does not return your call, talk to Stephanie.

      • Dear child,

        An interested candidate who is no longer the same gender as the one they were born with, and is qualified with expertise in the area, would be considered as a member. However it is necessary for this person to have the qualified expertise and experience working with critical scholarship.

        Blessed, Mother Mary.

      • Seriously though, I would just sit at the back, and not cause any trouble.

        Who knows, I might even offer to do what I believe is known in the trade as an ‘afff’ (‘Anthony Flew flip flop’). ‘Ex-rabid New Atheist accepts case for Historicity of God Man’. Think of the publicity value.

        No rush. I’ll keep my phone switched on, just in case there’s an injury on the training ground.

      • ….such as, perhaps……(I’m in a good mood so I’ll give you this one)….Richard carrier’s alter ego:

        yup. You guessed it. He’s one of the Mythter Men.

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