MARCH 28, 1997
Religious scholars from around the world are debating the history of Jesus. The question: should New Testament accounts of his life be taken literally or figuratively? Richard Ostling of Time Magazine reports.
RICHARD OSTLING, Time Magazine: (jazz music in background) New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz in a lively town night and day. But there was a different sort of excitement when thousands of religion scholars held their annual meeting.
A RealAudio version of segment is available.
December 25, 1996:
Richard Ostling reports on the search for the historical Jesus.
November 19, 1996:
Jimmy Carter talks about his new book, Living Faith.
October 28, 1996:
Remembering Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago.
May 21, 1996:
Richard Ostling looks a the healing properties of prayer.
April 4, 1996:
Four biblical translators talk about their versions of the gospel.
Browse The NewsHour's Religion Index.
SPOKESMAN: The crowd loves this stuff and clamors for more. You can do without the low blows. You can learn to be more courteous and collegial, but basically this is good, clean fun.
RICHARD OSTLING: The fight and the fun concern one of the hottest topics among religion experts. What do we know about the Jesus of history? It's no ordinary academic dispute because the words and deeds of Jesus are the basis of the Christian faith. Since the 19th century various scholars have raised questions about the historical accuracy of accounts in the four New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But the debate has lately become a public spectacle due mostly to a group called the Jesus Seminar.
SPOKESMAN: I've been looking for types of things that seem to me to be the characteristics and terrible--and dialogues.
RICHARD OSTLING: At this conference several dozen scholars gather twice a year to vote on the validity of each incident in the gospel, choosing colored beads to represent different levels of authenticity. For example, in the Lord's Prayer, they think "Our Father" were the only words Jesus clearly spoke Himself. The rest is judged, probable, likely, or totally ruled out. Shocking many grassroots Christians the Seminar claims that at least 60 percent of the recorded words of Jesus were not His own but were created later on to express the faith of the Christian Church.
Later this year they will record that many of the events in Jesus's life weren't actual history either. The Seminar is not just trying to persuade other scholars but members are also taking their message to the people. Recently, Professor Marcus Borg preached and taught at Gray's St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Tucson. Borg, an Episcopalian married to a member of the clergy, is deluged with such invitations.
PROFESSOR MARCUS BORG, Oregon State University: How we think of Jesus very much affects what we think the Christian mind is most centrally about.
RICHARD OSTLING: Borg says his childhood image of Jesus as what he called a divine super hero has been replaced by a different Jesus and a new image of Christianity.
PROFESSOR MARCUS BORG: I have learned that the message of Jesus was not about requirements, was not about here is what you must do or believe in order to go to heaven. It was about entering into a relationship to God now in the present--I see in that--wisdom teacher and a social father. And for me as a Christian what Jesus was like as a figure of history is a powerful testimony to the reality of the sacred or the reality of God.
RICHARD OSTLING: He insists the stories and the gospels can be profoundly true as symbols or metaphors, even though they're not historical.
PROFESSOR MARCUS BORG: Being a question doesn't mean that one has to believe that Jesus really walked on water, or really multiplied loaves, and so forth. And I think that a literalistic approach to scripture has in the minds of many Christians become a major obstacle. I think I would be willing to say that the teaching of Jesus makes profound religious sense to me, whether Jesus said it or not.
RICHARD OSTLING: John Bret-Harte, a newspaper man and member of Gray's St. Paul says he was once troubled by historical contradictions in the gospel. He no longer relies on the literal truth of the account but his spiritual experience.
JOHN BRET-HARTE: The thing that's got me, you don't need documents because you don't know your faith in your head; you know your faith in your heart; and my heart is completely satisfied. It's difficult to explain because we're all--we always think of real things as being things you can hit against or you can walk on a floor or window you look out of. It's nonetheless real.
RICHARD OSTLING: But the new thinking is troubling to some parishioners Borg meets.
PARISHIONER: It remains important to me, again, that I believe that Jesus was the son of God. I believe in the corporal resurrection. What does your work have to say to someone like me, and furthermore, when I come away from talking that finds your work helpful and interesting, and I find it helpful and interesting but not quite as important as they do, I come away feeling small.
PROFESSOR MARCUS BORG: I'll simply say that I think given my understanding of Christianity there's all the room in the world for disagreement about whether the resurrection of Jesus involved something happening to his corpse, things like that. I grew up in a tradition which stressed correct belief, and I now see it's not about correct belief it all. It's about, you know, being in relationship to that to which all this stuff points.
N. T. WRIGHT, Dean, Lichfield Cathedral: When God became human, he really became human--and he became human that means he belongs in history.
RICHARD OSTLING: N.T. Wright, like Borg, belongs to the Anglican branch of Christianity. A cathedral dean in England he comes to the U.S. to defend the traditional views, running all day seminars across the country.
SPOKESMAN: If they don't believe in a Christ who really did come and, you know, in human form and die for their sins and rise from the dead and offer salvation, what are they basing as their hope?
N. T. WRIGHT: That would be very difficult to say because a lot of those scholars keep their own personal cards quite close to their chest.
RICHARD OSTLING: Unlike Borg, Wright believes the Jesus of history was, indeed, the Messiah.
N. T. WRIGHT: When I look at Jesus, I'm looking at the living God, the creator of the universe. That is, of course, a huge idea. But in the New Testament what we see is not a high and mighty God striding through the world this way and that but a young Jewish prophet riding into Jerusalem on a donkey--announcing God's judgment on the city, having a last meal with his friends, going off to give his life for the life of the world, and believing that in so doing he is again the body of the living and loving God. It's as I look at that face that I--
RICHARD OSTLING: Wright contends that the Jesus Seminar artificially strips Jesus's sayings away from the context of the play--but distorting both what He said and who He was.
N. T. WRIGHT: It is an anti-apocalyptic Jew, a character who sits in the marketplace swapping aphorisms, teasing people into thinking about their lives, a Jesus who doesn't think anything dramatic is going to happen or is going to happen or is going to occur.
RICHARD OSTLING: One Episcopalian at Wright's class, retired Wyoming high school teacher Norma Christianson, worries that the Jesus Seminar waters down the Bible and has a negative impact.
NORMA CHRISTIANSON: The Bible is real. The things did happen, and I think that you're--you're removing a, the lynchpin, if you will, if you take that away. And it's going to destroy people's faith. They're going to say, well, why am I reliving this--you know, and then they'll just leave altogether.
RICHARD OSTLING: Wright and Borg are friendly, but their disagreements over the bodily resurrection--is fundamental and profound. Borg sees it as symbolic of a spiritual experience of the early church. Wright thinks it literally happened.
PROFESSOR MARCUS BORG: I think the resurrection of Jesus really happened, but I have no idea if it involves anything happening to his corpse, and, therefore, I have no idea whether it involves an empty tomb, and for me, that doesn't matter because the central meaning of the Easter experience or the resurrection of Jesus is that His followers continue to experience Him as a living reality, a living presence after His death. So I would have no problem whatsoever with archaeologists finding the corpse of Jesus. For me that would not be a discrediting of the Christian faith or the Christian tradition.
N. T. WRIGHT: All the early sources from quite different angles, they all describe as best they can something very strange involving the transformation into a new mode of physicality--I actually can't understand what the historian--why the early Church got going and took the shape it did, unless I say that sometime reasonably soon after his death, Jesus of Nazareth was alive again in a new mode of physicality, which transforms, not just resuscitating or abandoning his physical body.
RICHARD OSTLING: Borg says that even without the traditional Easter, the heart of the Christian message remains intact.
PROFESSOR MARCUS BORG: He wanted to tell a story about how besotted God is with us. One would even tell that story that God was willing to give up that which was most precious to God, namely God's only son, for our sake. And so it becomes a story of the divine lover pursuing us as the beloved of God.
RICHARD OSTLING: (music in background) Despite their disagreements, Borg and Wright both believe Jesus is a living presence in history and today and that it's remarkable any person is being talked about with such urgency 2000 years after He lived, not only during the Easter season but throughout the year.