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.
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.
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, email@example.com 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.