The historical Jesus and the Bible Scholars cast doubt on miracles, Easter

May 03, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

He didn't walk on the water. He didn't multiply the loaves and fishes. And he didn't change water into wine.

These are the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, a group of biblical scholars who garnered major media attention several years ago over their unorthodox method of voting on whether Jesus actually said the things attributed to him. The group's latest publication is likely to generate just as much controversy.

"The Acts of Jesus," which was published recently, summarizes the five years of work the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based group spent analyzing the stories in the Gospels and in other extra-biblical literature about the deeds of Jesus.

Their verdict: Jesus actually did very few of the actions ascribed to him. In fact, of the 176 events cataloged, the members of the Jesus Seminar concluded that only 28 actually occurred with any historical probability.

Among those that didn't make the cut: most of the miracles, the historical basis for Jesus' arrest and the empty tomb on Easter morning.

These findings are troubling to some religious leaders and scholars.

"From my perspective, I see a separation from faith and tradition, and because of this, I do have a concern that ordinary people may be confused by the approach of the Jesus Seminar," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore. "What is important is the work of those scripture scholars whose faith and understanding illumine their studies."

Paul J. Achtemeier, a biblical scholar and professor at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, agrees.

"They're on the far left wing" of biblical scholarship, he said. "There are elements of legitimacy in it. But they are so selective with the evidence they use that they're not really within the mainstream of critical scholarship."

Ben Witherington III, an evangelical biblical scholar, is less dismissive, although he disagrees with the conclusions of the seminar and believes the group doesn't include conservative viewpoints.

Beliefs distort analysis

"There are no really conservative scholars in the group at all and only one I'd call an evangelical to speak of," said Witherington, author of "The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth." "So the votes they take and the outcomes are not surprising because of the public opinions they've already aired as scholars."

For example, he believes their refusal to consider the possibility of miracles skews their analysis of the miracle stories.

"I'm a little puzzled by the fact that we have a group of scholars who want to say we know that miracles don't happen," Witherington said. "My own view would be, not only do I know that miracles can happen, I know of instances where miracles have happened."

Despite his reservations, Witherington describes the Jesus Seminar as "a serious academic endeavor. It's not just fluff."

The seminar is a group of about 75 scholars that was founded in 1985 by Robert Funk, a former president of the Society for Biblical Literature. It has been praised for its ingenuity and criticized for hucksterism, partly for pursuing the limelight and partly for its unorthodox method of using colored beads to vote on its conclusions: red means an event is virtually certain, pink for probably reliable, gray for possible but unreliable, and black for improbable. In "The Acts of Jesus," the gospel texts are printed in the four colors that correspond to the group's votes.

Funk makes no apologies for the group's methods. "In a sense, it was our goal from the beginning to take the whole continent as our classroom," he said. The seminar was born out of a sense of frustration after 40 years of theological classroom teaching in colleges and seminaries.

Finding historical Jesus

Research into the historical Jesus didn't start with the Jesus Seminar. The first attempt to verify historical fact about Jesus came with a book published in the late 1700s by a German scholar, Hermann Reimarus. Another early practitioner was the medical missionary Albert Schweitzer, who published his work "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" in 1906.

The Jesus Seminar published "The Five Gospels" in 1993, which used the color-coding scheme to weigh the historical accuracy of Jesus' sayings. Only 18 percent of the sayings were printed in red or pink, just slightly higher than the 16 percent that received the probable rating in "The Acts of Jesus."

Among the stories the Jesus Seminar seeks to debunk are:

Miracles. The Jesus Seminar found no historical basis for Gospel stories such as Jesus walking on the water, rebuking the wind and calming the sea, multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed the multitude, and changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana.

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