Threnody: Rethinking the Thinking behind The Jesus Project

See also: A Discourse on Methods: The Jesus Project

Rocks, Hard Places, and Jesus Fatigue: Jesus Seminar and Jesus Project

The Freedom of the Christian Theologian: Reflections on a Historical Predicament

By R. Joseph Hoffmann 

Distinguished Scholar at Goddard College and head of the

Goddard Program in Human Values. Former Chair of the

Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER). Co-chair of The Jesus Project (2007-2009).

R. Joseph Hoffmann, Hys Blogge

October 2009

With the exception of the King James Bible and Westcott and Hort, the biblical Gilbert and Sullivan of their day, New Testament scholars would be hard pressed to cite examples of “scientific” collaboration prior to the twentieth century. Most of the great works of nineteenth-century scholarship were lonely affairs, created by academic individualists with theories to sell, texts to translate, problems to solve. There were exceptions of course: 2008 marked the slightly-off centenary of the publication of Oxford Studies in the Synoptic Problem (1911), but like its predecessor and most academic conferences since, the original volume was less a collaboration than a collection of disparate, if highly interesting, opinions. Even works that might have benefited from collaboration in terms of textual discoveries and interpretation were not normally managed that way. We still regard the nineteenth century, culturally extending to the outbreak of the First World War, as the era of biblical soloists with theories ranging from the ridiculous to the plausible.

If we compare the nineteenth century situation to the trend that developed after World War II—the Qumran, Gnostic, Pseudepigrapha, and Apocrypha projects--at a macro-level the Anchor Bible, denominational biblical, encyclopedia and dictionary projects—the contrast is startling. Partly this has to do with the simple fact that new documentary discoveries and the need for more serviceable translations seemed to dictate division of labor as a way of doing business more efficiently. Partly, interest in collaboration was the effect of biblical studies professionalizing itself along the lines being developed by European, especially British and German, archaeology and philology. The model was so popular by the end of the seventies that it was widely assumed almost any task could be approached on a “project”-basis—even efforts that were ill-suited to such an approach.

In general, collaboration is suited to constructive and technical rather than interpretative or highly theoretical work. Because of the close traditional alliance between biblical studies and theology, as well as the nature of the biblical literature itself, it is notoriously hard to keep theology at bay in the realm of interpretation. Constructive work is different. Although far from perfect on a number of levels the Hennecke-Schneemelcher Neutestamenliche Apokryphen in Deutscher Ubersetzung was a pioneer work in the non-parochial study of extracanonical literature when it was first published in German, and in English translation in 1963, making the eccentric one-man collection of ghost-story writer M. R. James virtually useless. The same can be said of James Charlesworth’s editorial management in the translation of Old Testament apocrypha in relation to the 1913 collection edited by R. H. Charles and James Robinson’s production of a serviceable English edition of the Nag Hammadi materials. We owe to that generation of scholarship a way of moving beyond the legendary slings and arrows that were characteristic of the Dead Sea Scrolls “collaboration,” tactics that spawned a whole genre of intrigue and tarnished biblical studies as being theologically interested, religiously mysterious, and academically second class.

When I say that collaboration is suited to constructive work, I mean that it is justified when the nature of the investigation is clearly indicated by the nature of the task. Translations, questions of provenance, reconstructions of fragmentary materials and documentary questions, it seems to me, have produced the greatest examples of collaboration.

Questions about “What really happened?—are fundamentally unsuited to collaborative effort. This is true because Big Questions--Who Jesus really was, or What Jesus really said are far more susceptible of opinion-mongering , ideology and religious self-interest than the architectural ones.

John Crossan lamented at the mid-point of the Jesus Seminar that the project had become a Catherine Wheel of opinions with as many Jesuses as there were books about him, to the point where the effects were becoming “embarrassing.” For Crossan, who pressed hard for his own theory, the problems of the Seminar could be traced to a failure to get the methodology straight from the beginning. In fact, however, there was no methodology to get straight apart from sources that had been laboriously clarified by scholars working on a different set of issues. I have sometimes been asked why I have made no attempt to do my own reconstruction of Marcion’s Gospel; I have two answers, but the one that matters is that I have no faith in Tertullian’s memory and regard any attempt to base a reconstruction primarily on those derivatives as unreliable. That answer will dissuade (has dissuaded) no one from trying, just as the “collaboration” made possible from the Jesus Seminar turned into a cloud of witnesses to a range of historical characters named Jesus who probably (and I do not mean this in the historical sense) never existed.

All of this brings me to a difficult subject. In June 2009 the so-called Jesus Project was temporarily “suspended” by its funding organization on the verge of a conference at Stanford. Shortly thereafter I announced my decision to leave the Project--stating that sustained scholarly inquiry cannot survive a bad case of the hiccups. On-again-off-again projects are damaged by inconsistency and irregularity.

But the hiatus has given me time to consider more carefully whether the Jesus Project was ever worth the trouble. Is it a project that could have “worked” (a la Crossan) with a better developed methodology? Was it destined to survive fissiparation by the very different interests of the scholars who associated themselves with it? Could it have overcome the charge of special pleading leveled at it by scores of onlookers who regarded its sponsor, a secular humanist advocacy organization, with suspicion --though they might never have thought the same if the funds had come from a Christian agency.

And finally, and perhaps more important, Who cares? Arthur Droge of the University of Toronto made the point directly at the last meeting of the Project in December 2008, perhaps its last meeting full stop, that one should not assume that the question of the historicity of Jesus is inherently interesting. At the time, I challenged Droge’s assessment: first, because I think some questions are inherently interesting, especially the ones that yield contradictory answers. And second, because I have often made the claim that it has been largely theological interests since Strauss’s time that ruled the historicity question out of court. It seemed to me that any question concerning the biblical text should be decided on the basis of the best evidence we possess and the best interpretations we can render without wandering off course into our own enthusiasms.

With due regard to the complexity of evidence surrounding Christian origins—a subject that has been complicated, in a good way, rather than solved by the discoveries of modern scholarship—I no longer believe it is possible to answer the “historicity question. “ No quantum of material discovered since the1940’s, in the absence of canonical material would support the existence of an historical founder. No material regarded as canonical and no church doctrine built upon it in the history of the church would cause us to deny it. Whether the New Testament runs from Christ to Jesus or Jesus to Christ is not a question we can answer.

Obviously I do not deny the existence of mythic materials entwined with a more or less historical memory of a real individual. But as I have written elsewhere, we cannot point to a stratum of ancient biography where such intertwining does not exist: it is a matter of degree, not genre, and a matter of guesswork, not reconstructive surgery. The fate of the Jesus Seminar and the potential fate of the Jesus Project had it continued—or rather, had it been advisable for it to continue—reveals more about the history of guesswork than about the “reality” of Jesus. The NT documents, especially the Gospels, are precisely the sort of literature we would expect to emerge from a time when the dividing line between the natural and “supernatural,” indeed, the divine and human, was not clearly drawn: the true miracle would have been for the NT to stand completely outside the limits of Hellenistic storytelling and the rudimentary historiographical interests of a religious community.

Finally, a word about the “orientation” of participants. While I am as hermeneutically suspicious of extravagant claims for the trustworthiness of the Gospels as many of my skeptical colleagues, I regard the suggestion that the New Testament is “deceptive” as showing a lamentable ignorance about the nature of myth and the nature of history. The myth theory in its most robust form was more possible in the nineteenth century than in the late twentieth or twenty-first because we know more today about the sociology of memory and the nature of myth.

The Jesus project was announced—in fact, but somewhat irrelevantly, against my wishes—at a conference at UC Davis in 2007. It soon became famous, like Rasputin, for all the wrong reasons. Interestingly, the title of the conference, which included among many others James Robinson, James Tabor, Bruce Chilton and Philip Esler, was “Scripture and Skepticism,” a title designed to call attention to the need to avoid all forms of sensationalism (Da Vinci code style) in marketing biblical theories—a call to seriousness and sobriety.

Alas, The Jesus Project itself became a subject for exploitation: news stories, promotional material and the reactions in the blogosphere focused on the Big Question: “Scholars to Debate whether Jesus Really existed.” Given the affections of media, the only possible newsworthy outcome was assumed to be He didn’t. Such a conclusion had it ever been reached (as it would not have been reached by the majority of participants) would only have been relevant to the people April DeConnick ( a participant) has described as “mythers,” people out to prove through consensus with each other a conclusion they cannot establish through evidence. The first sign of possible trouble came when I was asked by one such “myther” whether we might not start a “Jesus Myth” section of the project devoted exclusively to those who were committed to the thesis that Jesus never existed. I am not sure what “committed to a thesis” entails, but it does not imply the sort of skepticism that the myth theory itself invites.

Do I regard the Project as worth pursuing, reviving? I think the historicity question, as I have said many times over, is an interesting one. But it is not a question that in the absence of a “real” archeological or textual discovery of indubitable quality can be answered. It cannot be answered directly and perhaps not even through the slow accumulation of new sources. The issue is not merely that such a discovery would not persuade die-hard mythers and would not support believers in the divine Christ. It is that such evidence is really not an academic possibility. Not even the unearthing of an unknown archive of the forced and sworn confession of a skilled forger and tale-teller by the name of Rufus, appearing in front of a magistrate in the year 68 CE, would suffice. We already possess material like that, it is forged.

But the chief reason that it is time to sound the knell for all such projects is that that they cannot function collaboratively, both by virtue of what they want to achieve—that is, the over-speculative nature of the task—and because they are examples of the perils of false collaboration: an incoherent anthology of opinion derived from the private prejudices and objectives of Jesus-makers.


* His books include Marcion: On the Restitution of ChristianityCelsus: On the True Doctrine, and (for release in 2010) Faith and Foeticide: The Right to Life in Earliest Christianity. Collected papers from The Jesus Project will appear under the title Sources of the Jesus Tradition from Prometheus Books.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.