The people’s savior

The controversial Jesus Seminar brings the debate on the Son of God to Reno

The St. Denis Altar-piece, 1416 by Henri Bellechose.

The St. Denis Altar-piece, 1416 by Henri Bellechose.

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

To even think that the Bible is anything other than the unerring Word of God is, to my evangelical friends and family, the deepest of heresies. Whether you’re a Baptist or an old-school Lutheran or a rockin’ non-denom evangelical, your whole creed hinges on faith in the accuracy of the Bible and a Christ with the power of God who’s capable of saving the planet.

So when a group of scholars challenges these beliefs, they aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms into evangelical circles.

One such challenger has been the The Jesus Seminar, which calls itself an “intellectual think tank” intent on discovering the historical Jesus. Two of the Seminar’s scholars were in town last week, bringing the “Jesus Seminar on the Road” to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada.

Critics have called the scholars’ work an attempt to make Jesus politically correct.

Said the fundamentalist evangelical Rev. John McArthur: “Sacred dogma for the politically correct includes: equality for women, homosexuality as an ‘alternative lifestyle,’ environmental activism, animal rights, racial quotas, hard-line anti-war doctrine and so on. While prating about ‘academic freedom,’ these people will try to censor anyone who dares challenge their world-view—even Jesus.”

So it goes.

Scholars have been taking a critical look at Biblical texts for hundreds of years. The Jesus Seminar, sponsored by the Westar Institute, took that approach one step further. Since 1985, a couple hundred academics have participated in the quest. They’ve read and reread stories about Jesus and looked at what a Rutgers University forum describes as “every shred” of historical evidence. Then they cast votes on whether the historic Jesus, a Jewish man living in the first century, would have said or done the things described in the stories.

The importance here is intuitively obvious.

“Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God because He said so,” C.S. Lewis wrote in Christian Reflections. “The other evidence about Him has convinced them that He was neither a lunatic nor a quack.”

But then again. What if Jesus didn’t claim to be God? Perhaps, the academics from the Jesus Seminar theorized, the early Christians who wrote the first stories about Jesus were crafting a literary work infused with the kind of theology they wanted to believe.

The Friday lecture by Robert J. Miller, author of The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics, was short. Miller and his colleague Arthur Dewey, spent Friday evening and all day Saturday at the Unitarian church.

At UNR, about 20 people showed up, including a few professors from the Western Traditions and Philosophy departments. Miller talked about the challenge of uncovering events that happened 2,000 years ago.

“History is not what happened,” he said. “History is what we know about what happened. It’s public knowledge that is, in theory, available to anyone who wants to take the time to find it out.”

Robert J. Miller talks about the parables of Jesus, as interpreted through the lens of The Jesus Seminar.

Photo by David Robert

He contrasted this with private knowledge—a vision or miraculous experience that can’t be publicly shared, debated or proven. Miller didn’t discount miracles and visions—"I’m not saying that faith is silly or unimportant"—he just noted that it’s impossible to demonstrate them scientifically, even in a soft science like history.

“A jury is expected to decide what happened based on evidence,” Miller said. “What would we say about a jury who reasoned that ‘God told us that was the verdict'?”

His slogan: “You do not know it if you cannot show it.”

Even though Bible scholars have been talking about these things for centuries, the Jesus Seminar has gotten plenty of attention in the past two decades or so. As Miller wrote in his book:

“Some in the media have sensationalized … the Seminar’s work, characterizing it as radical, provocative, or iconoclastic. But this is so only because the Seminar is stating publicly what scholars and theologians in the mainline churches have known for decades.”

Miller’s discussion of the parables of Jesus—"a peasant talking to peasants"—was intriguing. As Miller spoke of this historic Jesus, I began to see a person rather than a divine entity with a glowing halo. This Jesus was someone who seemed to delight in annoying the religious leaders of the day with fiercely iconoclastic statements. Here’s one such saying of Jesus: “What is the kingdom of God like? It is like a mustard seed that a man took and tossed into his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the sky roosted in its branches.”

When the conservative Jewish friends of Jesus heard this, they would have likely been outraged at the parable. First of all, throwing a mustard seed in your garden was seen as “careless and irreverent,” Miller said. Jewish people observed the principles of like kinds: They didn’t grow two crops in one field, and they didn’t associate with non-Jews.

“Right off, this description says here’s someone who doesn’t care about keeping things in their proper places,” Miller said. But then, the short parable proceeds into the realm of the “botanically impossible.”

In real life, a mustard plant grows into a big, bushy thing, but never a tree, Miller said. So it’s kind of obvious that Jesus was having some fun with his audience. The tree metaphor can be linked in several other places in Jewish literature (the Old Testament of the Bible, for example) to worldwide military empires.

Perhaps Jesus was critiquing the Jews’ expectation of a coming political realm during which they’d be in charge—a domineering empire with the same kinds of power plays as the Roman Empire under which they were living.

The birds? To a Jew, these represented the kind of “uninvited visitors that you want to throw out.”

“Here’s Jesus, subverting the idea of a Kingdom of God in which everyone knows his place and showing an empire that’s not really an empire.”

No wonder Jesus made so many enemies in the religious establishment, Miller said.

As I thought about this, I couldn’t even see how this historic Jesus (faith in his divine nature aside) would ultimately challenge the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians. Many would have to agree both that, yes, Jesus felt the dominant religion in his day had been corrupted and that any productive Kingdom of God would have to be a place where folks are social, economic and political equals. (Just don’t label this structure socialist, feminist or—ye gads—communal.)

I asked Miller how the Westar Institute’s quest might impact what I broadly referred as “contemporary Christianity in the United States.”

“It ought to matter to Christians what Jesus said and did," Miller replied. "Whatever else Jesus was, he was a Jew in the first century. That has to be the ground floor of information. If Christians still believe that Jesus is alive today in heaven, he’s a Jew."