r m p

The Jesus Project: How to Proceed




Answers to April


On her blog Forbidden Gospels, Professor April D. DeConick has posed a raft of good, searching questions about the fledgling Jesus Project. Some of the same issues have occurred to me as well, so I decided to address her questions in the spirit of constructive collegiality! I am proud to be counted as a Fellow of the Jesus Project, and I very much hope April will be, too.

  • What is the actual question of The Project? Did Jesus exist? What do the earliest materials tell us about Jesus? or something else?

As I understand it, the aim of the Jesus Project is to approach the historical Jesus in a Cartesian manner: to start by taking nothing, even the historical existence of Jesus, for granted. Radical doubt is the only way to get to the bottom of the thing and see if we can find handholds by which to inch our way up again. If we find ourselves persuaded that there was an historical Jesus, we would then ask “What can we surmise or know about him?”

  • How will the question be approached in terms of methodology and division of literature-material remains? The scientific approach (which CSER lays claim to) isn't going to tell us much. If that is the approach, we could probably be done with The Project in a couple of hours.

I believe the Project’s emphasis on “science” means simply to include disciplines like archeology and not merely textual analysis, though the latter is no doubt what would take the lion’s share of attention. The presence on the publicized list of conference participants (sent out mistakenly as a list of Fellows) has wrongly implied that some scientists and philosophers of science with no expertise in the biblical or historical fields would have an equal say in the deliberations of the Jesus Project. I very much hope that is not the case.

  • In what way is The Jesus Project to be differentiated from the Jesus Seminar?

The esteemed Jesus Seminar has itself often mentioned the advisability of undertaking the whole process of scrutiny over again, especially in view of its oft-shifting membership over the years. I should think the more scholarly groups devote themselves to such endeavors the better. Having said that, the only real difference I can see is that the Jesus Project wants to make sure it does not take the existence of Jesus for granted as the Jesus Seminar did. 

  • What will happen when different scholars come to different conclusions or solutions? How do you maintain a group project when all scholars have individual agendas that they want to protect?

“How can two walk together except they be agreed?” The Jesus Seminar faced this challenge, and over the years they witnessed the withdrawal of one faction after another as partisans of, say, literary criticism of the gospels who saw little point in anyone else’s approach left yawning. Ditto with NT Sociology/Anthropology specialists: “What are you bothering with that old-fashioned form criticism for?” Some found new SBL groups more to their liking. I would expect that this might happen again, in the Jesus Project, depending on how the vote goes. For instance, those who view Jesus as a revolutionist might see little left for them to contribute if that approach were voted down. They might take their marbles and head home. Same for the feminist Jesus, the mythic Jesus, etc. It is perhaps the biggest challenge, else we become like the proverbial laundrymen keeping each other in business by taking in each other’s wash! One way to avoid it might be to refrain from voting altogether, to renounce any goal of consensus and simply to present and discuss papers from various perspectives. There would be much to learn that way.

  • How and when are the "findings" going to be disseminated?

I imagine the JP would do much as the Jesus Seminar does: publish a journal or occasional anthologies of papers delivered at the meetings.

  • How are apologetics (either theological or anti-theological) going to be kept from coloring the picture?

The mixture of viewpoints present ought to take care of that, at least if we can maintain such!

  • How is the group going to ensure that it doesn't just deconstruct the traditions, so that we learn nothing from The Project except that there is nothing we can know for certain about Jesus?

I don’t know that we would want to make sure of such a thing, as it seems to beg the question. It may be that there is nothing but, as Brunner once wrote, “a field of ruins” in the gospels. How will we know until we apply careful scrutiny? We might indeed decide that there is no way to recover an historical Jesus. I doubt seriously most Fellows will feel that way, though.

  • How will the group make sure that they aren't creating Jesus in their image?

For one thing, by not promising in advance to find some historical Jesus, because that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Besides that, I feel the participation of secularist biblical scholars will help offset the implicit Christian confessionalism that motivates scholars to fashion totem-Jesuses in their own images. The North Star is to “expect the unexpected” as Albert Schweitzer did.


Robert M. Price
August 8, 2007




Copyright©2007 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design