Religion: Who Was Jesus?

The debate among scholars is as heated as the one in Hollywood

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In bygone centuries, an unorthodox vision like Martin Scorsese's might have prompted heresy trials and burnings at the stake. Perhaps even a quick crusade mounted by ragtag armies. In the summer of 1988, the preferred methods of resistance are picket lines, economic boycotts and angry appearances on talk shows. If the furor surrounding Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ proves one thing, it is that in any era, seismic emotions are involved when people probe the nature of the man who is worshiped as God by well over a billion souls.

How is Jesus to be understood? Did he stride out of the wilderness 2,000 years ago to preach a gentle message of peace and brotherhood? Or did he perhaps advocate some form of revolution? Or did he instead look for heavenly intervention to establish the kingdom of God? What did it mean for Jesus to be tempted by sin? When did he realize that his mission would end with death upon a cross? Did he view himself as the promised Messiah? Did he understand himself to be both God and man, and what imponderable struggles of the soul would that have meant for him during his sojourn on earth?

The man from Galilee, according to the Gospel of Mark, was himself the first to raise the echoing question "Who do men say that I am?" That question is today not only at the heart of Hollywood's latest controversy but also at the center of equally bitter, though less publicized, disputes among scholars concerning the life of Jesus and what can accurately be said about it.

In Britain, for example, distinguished Oxford Philosopher Michael Dummett charged last fall that revisionist Roman Catholic scholarship concerning the historicity of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection is threatening to make the church a "fraud" and a "laughingstock." In the U.S., conservative Christians are outraged by a self-appointed supreme court of professors known as the Jesus Seminar, which meets twice a year to cast ballots on whether each of the Master's New Testament sayings is authentic or not. Sample conclusion: Jesus did say "Blessed are the poor" but not "Blessed are the meek" or "Blessed are the peacemakers," phrases that, the group contends, were added by the Gospel authors in an echo of Old Testament writings.

The search for the historical Jesus -- whether in the vivid imaginings of Hollywood scriptwriters or in the rarefied halls of academe -- rests on one fundamental issue: How reliable are the Gospels? Aside from a few brief references in other ancient documents, the New Testament is the only source of information concerning the most influential life that was ever lived. Scholars generally agree that the four Gospels were written within 40 to 70 years of Jesus' death on the Cross. In addition, existing copies of the New Testament are far older and more numerous than those of any other ancient body of literature. Thus in terms of documentation, observes Father John P. Meier of the Catholic University of America, "we're better off with Jesus than with most people of ancient history."

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