Angelic hearts no doubt were aflutter on Dec. 19 when the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion announced a “landmark conference on critical Biblical and Qur’anic research” entitled “Scripture and Skepticism,” to be held Jan. 25-28 at the University of California at Davis.
According to a press release from the Center for Inquiry / Transnational, the conference will launch a new initiative called “The Jesus Project,” which the Ottawa Citizen reported “is intended to pick up where the controversial Jesus Seminar left off in its research into the veracity of Jesus’ words and deeds in the Bible.”
The Jesus Seminar, you may recall, was a gathering of about 200 scholars who met from time to time to vote on whether Jesus really said and did what the Bible says he said and did. They concluded that 82% of Jesus’ sayings and 84% of his deeds as recorded in the Bible were “unreliable” or “improbable.”
The new conference and project are needed because the Jesus Seminar “may have been – for political reasons – too reluctant to follow where the evidence led,” according to the press release.
“When you have pared the sayings of Jesus down to fewer than 20, one begins to wonder about the survivors. Moreover, the Jesus Seminar was not successful in papering over fatal disputes about the authenticity of even those,” said CSER chairman R. Joseph Hoffman.
Curiously, Hoffman adds that “the goal is not to ‘disprove’ Jesus or to sensationalize the question of his existence, but to acknowledge the question and examine it impartially – without theological or apologetic constraints.”
Now, I don’t have the benefit of having been “Senior Research Scholar” of St. Cross College, Oxford, as Dr. Hoffman was. And I certainly can’t claim to have attained the distinction of being Campbell Professor of Religion and Human Values at Wells College, New York, as Dr. Hoffman can. His claim, however, rings a bit hollow to me.
Hoffman criticizes the Jesus Seminar participants as unwilling to follow the evidence where it led. He clearly doubts the validity of the few words and deeds of Jesus that the Seminar left intact.
Does he actually expect anyone to believe that he and his fellow scholars haven’t already come to their conclusion about whether Jesus really existed? Would you include the word ‘skepticism’ in the conference title if you were open-minded about the subject?
One of the greatest powers of the human mind is its ability to rationalize. A man with a strong opinion or a burning lust will not rest until he finds a way to quiet the little voice that tells him he is wrong. He may embroider his rationalization with respectable words like “an objective illustration of historical fact … based on a rigorous application of historical critical methods,” but the truth is that he already knows what he believes and he will proceed in a subjective, unscientific spirit to marshal any logic or evidence he can find to justify his opinion.
That the conclusion has been reached before the research begins is apparent from the list of “leading lions in the field” who will be honored at an awards banquet, including John Dominic Crossan, a leading member of the Jesus Seminar who rejects the resurrection as an historical fact, and Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University who got to be on TV recently because she is an advocate for the heretical Gnostic Gospel of Judas and really liked The Da Vinci Code.
Confidence in the gathering’s scientific rigor and intellectual objectivity also is diminished by a visit to the Center for Inquiry’s home page, where one finds a link to the Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
We will give these eminent scholars the benefit of the doubt, however, and wait in breathless anticipation for the release of the group’s findings, which Prometheus Books already has agreed to publish.
A word to the wise, however. “Scripture and Skepticism” also will include presentations from scholars on Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an.
Doubt the existence of Jesus and the reliability of the Bible, and people whose lives have been transformed by Christ’s resurrection power may pause to snicker before going back to their mission. But examine the validity of the Noble Qur’an “impartially – without theological or apologetic constraints” and publicly cast aspersions on the words of Muhammad, Messenger of God, Successor to Christ, and Prophet of Islam, and, well, you’d better start sleeping with one eye open.
Al-Qaeda’s sense of humor isn’t quite as well developed as the Knights of Columbus.
If you have questions about the conference or the Jesus Project, contact:
Center for Inquiry, firstname.lastname@example.org, (716) 636-4869
R. Joseph Hoffmann, email@example.com
Gwyneth MacRae, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Bupp, email@example.com, ( 716 ) 636-7571 x 218