TOP STORY: CHRISTIANITY: Was—and is—Jesus divine? Scholars clash over his identity

c. 1996 Religion News Service (RNS)-Notebooks ready, 1,000 students pack the LaSells Stewart Center at Oregon State University. The midweek, evening event isn’t required coursework, but the topic is so intriguing, only balcony seats remain. “Who is Jesus?” On the left of the stage, both literally and figuratively, stands OSU’s Marcus Borg, representing Jesus scholars […]

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(RNS)-Notebooks ready, 1,000 students pack the LaSells Stewart Center at Oregon State University. The midweek, evening event isn’t required coursework, but the topic is so intriguing, only balcony seats remain.

“Who is Jesus?”

On the left of the stage, both literally and figuratively, stands OSU’s Marcus Borg, representing Jesus scholars asserting that He-make that he-wasn’t born of a virgin, didn’t walk on water and never even claimed to be the son of God.

On the right is Craig Blomberg, a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary and part of a wave of recent authors attempting to debunk the debunkers such as Borg. They defend the traditional view of Jesus.

It is question-and-answer time, and the students pepper the profs as if it is a freewheeling Sunday school class.

“Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?” comes one question from the back row. “And how is it you come to that conclusion?”

Borg, professor of religion and culture at OSU, gives an answer that is troubling for many in the audience.

“I believe in the resurrection of Jesus,” he says. “But I doubt it involved anything happening to his corpse.”

After nearly 2,000 years in which the big questions about Jesus were hashed out in church councils, papal bulls and theological revolts such as the Protestant Reformation, the public is turning to academia for fresh insights.

At stake may be the popular perception of Jesus and, according to theological conservatives, the fundamental claims of the religion named after him. Liberals respond that fresh historical perspectives actually enhance Jesus as a modern-day inspiration, even if they strip him of his divinity.

Interest is keen. Even unbelievers feel compelled to learn more about one of the most influential figures in all of history.

This “Who is he?” debate, conducted last month, was merely a prelude to “Jesus at 2000,” a larger and more influential conference scheduled Thursday through Sunday (Feb. 8-10) at Oregon State. Satellite technology was set to beam it to more than 200 sites across the country.

It features not only Borg but also John Dominic Crossan, a best-selling author and former Catholic priest who contends that after Jesus’ execution, his body probably was eaten by wild dogs.

“The Jesus Wars,” says Borg, “are heating up.”

In years gone by, deconstructers of the divine Jesus were cast out of the church. Today they are tenured professors with titles on the religion best-sellers list.

Borg’s book, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” was on the list for several weeks last year. It argues that because the Jesus of history was not divine, Christianity and Jesus aren’t “the only way” to God. Still, he says, much can be learned from Jesus. His emphasis on compassion, for example, should inspire modern-day Christians to build a society that provides health care for all.

Assertions like that have prompted critics to contend that what the Jesus revisionists really want is a politically correct carpenter from Israel, instead of a dogmatic, sometimes demanding, savior of the world. “It’s this whole business that Jesus is an embarrassment the way he looks now,” says Emory University’s Luke Johnson, author of “The Real Jesus.” “He talks too much about sin and says things nobody believes in, and he walks on the water. So he becomes like one of these homely people on `Oprah’ that is made over with new makeup and hair, and everyone applauds.”

The effort is nothing new.

What is new, says Blomberg of Denver Seminary, is the success in bringing a different Jesus into the popular culture, whether through articles in Time magazine or titles marketed in secular bookstores.


Indeed, for the first 16 centuries of Christianity, questions about Jesus were left largely to theologians and clergy, and answers were a matter of faith. Then came the Enlightenment, that period of the 1600s and 1700s characterized by a reliance on scientific facts instead of religious dogma. It sparked the academic, and seemingly more objective, quest for Jesus.

Yet the traditional view of Jesus prevailed, thanks in part to apologists such as C.S. Lewis, himself an Oxford professor. In “Mere Christianity,” a classic 1952 book that is still on the religion best-sellers list, Lewis frames the Jesus question this way:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.”


Borg, Crossan and several dozen scholars came together in the 1980s and called themselves the Jesus Seminar, meeting twice a year to cast votes on the man from Galilee. Their historical figure clashes sharply with the theological portrait.

The Gospels, according to the Jesus Seminar, must be seen as the product of authors who never met Jesus, relied on second- and third-generation stories, and can’t be counted on to quote him correctly. They assert that as much as 82 percent of the words attributed to Jesus were not actually spoken by him.

The final analysis is presented in the Jesus Seminar’s 1993 book, “The Five Gospels.”

If a saying of Jesus cannot be corroborated by another source, it is considered suspect. If it is a long saying, it also gets the heave-ho because it doesn’t fall into the category of aphorism, parable or witty reply.

“We can’t imagine the followers of Jesus remembering for decades a long, complicated sermon through oral memory,” says Borg.

They also can’t imagine the supernatural, such as Jesus’ turning water into wine. The breaking of physical laws doesn’t fit their worldview, though they do leave room for the numerous accounts of healings and exorcisms, suggesting the results may be psychosomatic.

The Gospel of John, the source of many of Jesus’ “I am” claims of divinity, is discredited in the eyes of these scholars. More credibility is given to the gospel of Thomas, the so-called fifth gospel, discovered in 1945 by an Egyptian farmer who stumbled upon an earthenware jar containing 114 sayings of Jesus. Church leaders do not include it as part of the Bible and have rejected its validity because it expresses ideas of Gnosticism.

The Jesus Seminar says it wants to wrestle the popular perception of Jesus from fundamentalists who control the religious airwaves.

But Emory University’s Johnson, a Roman Catholic and the seminar’s most widely respected critic, says, “They’re taking on what I call creedal Christianity,” which would include the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopal churches.

The bedrock beliefs of these churches are found in such statements of faith as the Nicene Creed, established at the Council of Nicea in 325. The creed, which still is recited today, proclaims that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, rose from the dead and is “of one substance with the Father.”

Borg, a practicing Episcopalian, says he professes the creed with no problem. “It’s metaphorically true,” Borg says. “I don’t see historical truthfulness and truthfulness as identical.

“Absolutely central to understanding what we’re doing is the nature of the Gospels,” says Borg. “We see them as a human product, not a divine product.”


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