Hear the word: Scholars prepare 21st-century Bible New Testament in for changes

October 22, 1993|By Arizona Republic

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Phoenix may become known as the city that gave birth to the 21st-century Bible.

Members of the Jesus Seminar, an international group of several hundred academic scholars, are meeting today through Sunday in Phoenix. The gathering, not open to the public, almost certainly will result in the publishing of a radically new New Testament, which the scholars have spent the past eight years LTC defining.

The group's members have concluded that Jesus Christ only said about 20 percent of what is attributed to him in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

And they are deciding that most of the people that Jesus healed suffered from psychosomatic illnesses.

Seminar members will vote at their Phoenix meeting on whether to establish a council to use their research for a modern version of the Bible, and approval is almost certain, said Robert F. Funk, the seminar's founder.

"The Christian movement hasn't tried to redefine the Scripture since the 15th century," Mr. Funk said. "It's been a long time in coming."

Not surprisingly, these notions are causing some uproar among conservative Christians.

The Rev. Earl Radmacher, chancellor of Western Seminary-Phoenix, a conservative Christian seminary, finds the Jesus Seminar's work preposterous.

The scholars are self-appointed Bible experts who are "flying in the face of all the testimony of the historical credibility of the Scripture," Mr. Radmacher said.

The Rev. Culver "Bill" Nelson of Phoenix said, "The backlash and controversy created by this is partly a fear of threatening our private images of Christ."

He is the editor of The Fourth, a publication of the Jesus Seminar, and an adjunct professor at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.

"It is a tragic fact that many people worship the Bible rather than God," Mr. Nelson said. "Their presumed perfection of the Bible's contents forms an idolatry focused on the book rather than the reality of the book."

Mr. Radmacher countered, "Maybe what these people ought to do is sit down and read it, and listen to the words of Jesus and live it, and that will change their lives instead of picking it apart and trying to prove it wrong."

He said he supports the study of new manuscript finds, but not as additions or replacements in the Bible.

If God had wanted those works in the Bible, Mr. Radmacher said, the divine inspiration would have been provided to place them there.

The disagreement between conservative Christians and the scholars is rooted in a primary theological difference. Conservative Christians believe the canon, or accepted text, of the Bible is historical fact, while the scholars view it as a collection of early Christian books that may not be historically accurate.

"Fundamentalists take their vision of the historical Jesus straight out of the canon, and that game has to be called," said Roman Catholic theologian John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University in Chicago. "If you are operating as a historian, you have to look at all the information."

Many of the scholars also believe that when the New Testament was compiled in the fourth century, it was a collection of different books that was important to Christians in various regions but was never meant to be a definitive source.

"Early Christians didn't accept it [the Bible] as historically factual," said Stephen Patterson, a professor at the United Church of Christ's Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis.

"It says Jesus walked on water," he said. "Well, Caesar walked on water 40 years before that." Legend has it that the Greek god Dionysus turned water into wine, he added, just as Jesus did.

The seminar's New Testament likely will include new information that has come to light.

The Gospel of Thomas, for instance, was found preserved in the sands of Egypt in 1945. That Gospel, a collection of Jesus' sayings, predates any of the Bible's four Gospel writers, Mr. Funk said.

The Gospel of John also will get a hard look.

In what Mr. Funk calls the seminar's "voice print" of Jesus, he spoke in a completely different style in John than in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

"If what we have (Jesus saying) in Matthew, Mark and Luke is true, then Jesus can't be the same voice in John," Mr. Funk said.

Another topic for the seminar will be the Book of Revelation. The apocalyptic book often has been used to justify outrageous Christian behavior.

The most recent example is the fatal confrontation between Branch Davidians and federal agents in Waco, Texas. Branch Davidian leader David Koresh used the book to justify his religious movement's actions.

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