Mythbuster: Jesus Seminar still trying to separate fact from fiction in Christianity

Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-13 07:00:39-04

CINCINNATI -- Many Christian churches refer to the Holy Bible as the word of God and believe it's without error in the original manuscripts.

Art Dewey, chair of the theology department at Xavier University, said that those believers likely haven't read their Bibles very closely. Either that, or they are ignoring the contradictions in scripture.

For example, why does Jesus exhort his followers to love their enemies in one part of the Bible, but in another part, condemn his own enemies, the Pharisees, using extremely harsh language (Matthew 23)?

That doesn't seem very loving.

Or why does the Jesus in the first three Gospels, the so-called synoptic Gospels, seem so different from the Jesus in the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John?

That dilemma is spelled out in "The Five Gospels," a book written by members of the Jesus Seminar, of which Dewey was a founding member:

  • In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus speaks in parables and short aphorisms, but in John, he speaks in long discourses;
  • In the synoptics, Jesus has little to say about himself, but in John he reflects extensively on himself and his mission;
  • In the synoptics, the theme of Jesus' teaching is the kingdom of God, but in John, it's Jesus himself.

Published in 1993 by Polebridge Press, "The Five Gospels" was the Jesus Seminar's first book. The fifth Gospel, not included in the Bible but included in this book, is the Gospel of Thomas.

The words attributed to Jesus that the scholars were sure Jesus really said were printed in red -- and they are few and far between.

Fellows of the Jesus Seminar are still trying to separate fact from fiction in the Bible and in our thinking about early Christianity. Since 1993, they've also published a critical edition and new translation of the letters attributed to the apostle Paul.

Dewey co-authored the book, which was published in 2010 and titled, "The Authentic Letters of Paul: A new Reading of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning." It, too, distinguishes between what the scholars believe Paul actually said and what others added later.

For example, they believe the real Paul saw women as equal partners in building the kingdom or empire of God. Someone later added to his writings prohibitions on women speaking in church.

Writings attributed to Paul have often been used to support the status quo or the establishment, Dewey said. Think of the admonition in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear," and how that was used to justify slavery.

But in his day, Paul would have been considered a revolutionary, a threat to the establishment and traitor to the Roman Empire.

"His letter to the Romans could have gotten him killed ... I think it actually did," Dewey said.

Now, the Jesus Seminar is looking at the origins of Christianity and how it grew from the first century through the beginning of the third century. It's already clear that different communities had different understandings of Jesus and how to follow him, Dewey said.

Off and on since 1987, Dewey has worked on a book of his own called "Inventing the Passion: How the Early Jesus Followers Remembered the Death of Jesus." Polebridge Press has agreed to publish it, Dewey said, and he expects it to come out in November.

In it, he argues that the Passion story is a fiction used to give meaning to the death of Jesus and to connect it with the death of other innocents. It was an attempt to counter the Roman Empire's attempt to "dissolve the memory and meaning of Jesus" by crucifying him.

In this book, as in all his works, Dewey tries to separate the myths he feels accumulated around Jesus from the man himself.

People have been doing this for a long time. For example, famed humanitarian Albert Schweitzer wrote "The Quest for the Historical Jesus" in 1906.

Dewey's brought some decidedly modern methods to the quest.

When he worked on Paul's letters, he used a computer program designed to distinguish different styles of writing. It led him to conclude that one of Paul's greatest hits, the chapter on love in his letter to the Corinthians, was probably a contemporary poem that Paul or someone else inserted.

The problem with Biblical literalists, Dewey said, is that they read the Bible from their perspective, instead of trying to imagine it from the perspective of its authors. They forget how radically different our world is from theirs.

For example, when the ancients looked at the sky, they saw spirits. When Julius Caesar died, a comet appeared and people assumed it was Caesar's spirit ascending to the heavens to be with the gods.

After 90 minutes of hearing Dewey demolish one sacred shibboleth after another, one wonders if there's anything left for a Christian believer to -- well -- believe in. What does he believe about God?

His answer is a bit enigmatic and elusive, which suits the truth he seeks: "We live in the midst of mystery. What we can experience right now is the possibilities of mystery ... That's what people traditionally would call God."

"Jesus trusted that the God of Israel was trustworthy. He was not about himself, he was about the empire of God. People turned Jesus into God," Dewey continued. "He believed everyone could experience the effective presence of God."