by Bill Lehto
Westar Institute Fellows, who are scholars in religion, have been meeting together twice a year for the past thirty years or so, doing collaborative research on the history of religion in its “seminars”. The Jesus Seminar is its most famous program, in which the scholars looked at the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus, evaluating the likelihood of each saying or event being historical through a voting method. The controversial conclusions included that less than 20% of the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament are likely to be historical, and that the physical resurrection of Jesus is unhistorical. That these conclusions came from a group of credentialed scholars in religion created a major controversy in the 1990s, and started a wave of critical scholarship in religion by such authors as John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk (founder of Westar), Bart Ehrman, and Robert Price, among many others. Today, Westar’s work continues as they look at the origins of Christianity, the diversity of the early Jesus movement, the myth of its origins as told in The Acts of the Apostles, and how what is today seen as the orthodox view won out over a diversity of others.
Westar has a way of making religion, even Jesus, interesting to non-believers. Not the incredible Christ of the New Testament – son of God, born of a virgin, and all of that – but the actual historical person who likely lived in first century Galilee and started this chain of events that has led to today’s Christianity. Who was this person? What was he like? What did he actually say and do? These are interesting historical questions, and when the layers of theology that have been added to his story over the past centuries are peeled away, a fascinating historical figure begins to appear. We may only see uncertain bits and pieces, but the person who was Jesus, by most indications from critical scholarship, is completely different than the Christ depicted by the Catholic Church and most modern forms of Christianity. This was likely not a man preaching himself as salvation, but an itinerant wisdom teacher whose stories and parables threatened Roman domination. It’s fascinating and important stuff, this historical research into Christian origins.
For me, this critical research into Christian origins, and putting religion in general in its cultural and historical context, is valuable for what it does to undermine fundamentalism. Discovering critical biblical scholarship is often the first crack in people’s blind faith, leading to further study and further cracks until it begins to crumble. But for others, the value is in finding renewed meaning in their tradition – to be able to continue to be part of the Christian tradition, but with integrity and rational, clear thinking. This is why we can have Christians who also call themselves atheist or agnostic. Their interest is in the positive, moral teaching of the historical Jesus, not the divine Christ of the New Testament. Some would even argue that the historical Jesus fits very well with the secular viewpoint. See Lloyd Geering’s Christianity Without God for an example of how this can work. I don’t consider myself a Christian, but my work at Westar Institute has shown me that people who do call themselves “Christian” do not necessary have all of that theological baggage we tend to associate with Christianity. Christianity is extremely diverse, as scholarship has shown it to be in its early stages as well.
So, just as we value historical research into any other subject in order to learn from the past and understand the present, let’s also value historical research in religion. As secularists, let’s actually value it in particular, given the largely dangerous and destructive role religion plays in the world today.
Bill Lehto is the publisher at Freethought House and editor of Atheist Voices of Minnesota.