The same folks who gave us the Jesus Seminar launched the Jesus Project on January 28, 2007. However, the Jesus Project plans to accomplish what the Jesus Seminar did not accomplish. The Jesus Seminar was able to relegate about 80% of the sayings of Jesus as myth, fable, fiction, legend and hearsay. The Jesus Project plans to banish the other 20% by removing Jesus himself from the equation. “Did the historical Jesus even exist?” is the foundation stone of the Jesus Project. While the Jesus Seminar determined in 1995 that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, the Jesus Project is determined to “scientifically and historically” prove that Jesus never existed, which makes rising from the dead superfluous.
But first a little background as furnished by the founding fathers of the Jesus Project — Free Inquiry magazine and its parent organization, the Council for Secular Humanism. (See the April/May 2007 issue of Free Inquiry.)
In 1982 Free Inquiry announced the formation of the Religion and Biblical Criticism Research Project headed by a Free Inquiry senior editor, Gerald A. Larue. By 1985 Free Inquiry sponsored a conference on higher criticism entitled “Jesus in History and Myth.” It was out of this conference, held at the University of Michigan, that one of its attendees, Robert W. Funk (of Vanderbilt University’s religion department), founded the Jesus Seminar movement. The primary purpose of the Jesus Seminar was to deconstruct the four Gospels of the New Testament and to destroy the credibility of Jesus as a historical figure and as Son of God sent to earth to redeem mankind.
According to Robert W. Funk (who died September 3, 2005) the following religious dogma followed from his work on the Jesus Seminar: (a) the God of the metaphysical age is dead . . . there is no personal god out there external to human beings; (b) The doctrine of special creation died with Darwin; (c) Adam, Eve and original sin are myth; (d) all biblical miracles are myth; (e) prayer is meaningless; (f) the virgin birth of Jesus is an insult to modern and postmodern man; (g) the resurrection of Jesus is myth; (h) the return of Jesus Christ in cosmic judgment is myth; etc.
With the death of Funk, Free Inquiry turned to another of its associate editors, R. Joseph Hoffmann, to finish the work that the Jesus Seminar and Funk began. Hence, the Jesus Project was born. Free Inquiry says that this project “may be the single most important commitment that the Center for Inquiry and its affiliated organizations (Council for Secular Humanism) will ever make.”
According to Hoffmann, the Jesus Project is a five-year undertaking “with its first session scheduled for December 2007.” It will be limited to fifty scholars who will meet twice a year to discover and explain how Jesus never existed in history. Denver Seminary’s Craig L. Blomberg or Liberty University’s Gary Habermas will not be invited since both are committed Christians who believe in the actual, physical resurrection of Jesus. After five years the fifty scholars will publish their findings, proving once and for all that Jesus was a myth of history and that the gospel records are forgeries of the highest order. Indeed, Luke himself might well turn out to be a myth of history along with Pilate, Caesar Augustus and Herod!
Though not a New Testament scholar let me offer a few non-scholarly observations for these “fifty atheistic scholars” to ponder as they begin their serious work of deconstruction.
First, instead of wasting five years of time and tens of thousands of Free Inquiry monies, why not simply consult the Great Soviet Encyclopedia and rehash its take on “Jesus”? The Great Soviet Encyclopedia is the only encyclopedia in the world that denies the historicity of Jesus. While Communists insisted on a prohibition on God and private property, their modern-day counterparts (the Secularists and atheists) are demanding a prohibition on Jesus and religious worship.
Second, surely it will take more than five years to destroy the historicity of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Wasn’t it just a few score years back that Sir William Ramsay took out to disprove both Luke and Acts and concluded after diligent research that Luke was an honest, truthful historian? In fact, in St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen he said, “I began with a mind unfavorable to [the book of Acts], for the ingenuity and apparent completeness of the Tubingen theory had at one time quite convinced me.” (The Tubingen School was a hotbed of German higher criticism after the likes of Julius Wellhausen and his J-E-P-D theory.) So what did Ramsay do? He went to the Middle East and checked out the historical facts of both Luke and Acts. He found that Luke, the historian, “showed marvelous truth” in his accounting of the history, geography and overall tenor of the region. In more recent times, Norman Geisler states, “Luke manifests an incredible array of knowledge of local places, names, conditions, customs, and circumstances that befit only an eyewitness contemporary of the time and events. All of these have been confirmed by historical and archaeological research to be true of the persons, times, and places mentioned by Luke.” Indeed, “were it not for an ungrounded, anti-supernatural bias of the negative critics,” says Geisler, “the gospel accounts would be unquestioned as to their historicity.”
Third, it will be interesting to see how our “fifty scholars” handle the references to Jesus in non-New Testament historical sources. Didn’t the Roman historian Tacitus say something about Christians and Christ? Didn’t Suetonius, the chief secretary to a Roman emperor, say something about Christians and Christ? And what about the historian Josephus or the Jewish Talmud and their references to Christ and Christians? I would suggest that these “chosen fifty” read A.N. Sherwin-White’s work entitled Roman Society and Roman Law (published by Oxford’s Clarendon Press). In it Sherwin-White says, “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd.”
Fourth, I find it interesting that in 2007 fifty atheists are planning to prove via “ancient history, mythography, archeology, classical studies, anthropology, and social history” exactly what Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell concluded long ago! “There is no history,” said Paine, “written at the time Jesus Christ is said to have lived that speaks of the existence of such a person, even such a man.” And Russell notes in his famous Why I Am Not a Christian, “Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we know nothing about Him.”
Lastly, because Christian young people will be bombarded with the findings of the Jesus Project in their classrooms over the next few years, let me suggest some works worth reading that also speak to the historicity of Jesus Christ: (a) Sir William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen; (b) Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History; (c) Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ; (d) Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels; (e) Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences; and (f) Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol. One.