"What if the most influential man in human history never existed?" Without any assumptions or conclusions in view, that is the daunting task of the new Jesus Project, announced on January 28th at the University of California at Davis before an audience of Biblical and Koranic experts.
The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER), a project of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational, announced the new project at conclusion of its January 25-28 “Scripture and Skepticism” conference at the University of California at Davis. Articles featuring the new endeavor have already appeared in the Ottawa Citizen (January 10) and the Buffalo News (January 29).
The Jesus Project will be devoted to examining the case for the historical existence of Jesus, based on a rigorous application of the historical critical method to the gospels and related literature.
Unlike the “Jesus Seminar,” founded in 1985 by the late University of Montana Professor Robert Funk, the new Project regards the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was an historical figure as a “testable hypothesis.” R. Joseph Hoffmann, chair of the Committee since 2003 and former lecturer at Oxford University, said that the project has been called for by a number of scholars who felt that the first Jesus Seminar may have been—for political reasons—too reluctant to follow where the evidence led. “When you have pared the sayings of Jesus down to fewer than twenty, one begins to wonder about the survivors,” Hoffmann said.
According to Hoffmann, 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. "The Jesus Project is an attempt to evaluate every scrap of evidence for the historical Jesus, but it is also an attempt to evaluate the quality of the evidence itself—something that earlier projects did not do explicitly. This new project will be more inclusive and rigorous in its approach. It will include scholars from a variety of areas outside biblical and religious studies, including archaeologists, social historians, classicists and people in historical linguistics," said Hoffmann.
The Jesus Project will be limited to 50 members; scholars plan to meet twice a year, with geographical venues changing each year. The meetings and discussions will also be open to the public. The work of the seminar will consist of the writing of unanimous opinions, and where that is not possible, majority and minority opinions, written as articles, which will be gathered and published once a year under the CSER imprint with Prometheus Books. The work of the Project is limited to five years; at which point a final report will be issued by the committee members.
The work of the Project is being financed through sponsors and donors. Patrons of the committee receive certain benefits; members in the associate category receive free admission to the open sessions of the Jesus Project. Information on becoming a patron, sponsor, or associate of the Jesus Project is available by writing to the project administrator, Gwyneth MacRae, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CSER was founded in 1983 and is a research committee in the Religion and Science division of the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. CSER encourages the use of the historical and applied sciences in the study of religion and provides educational programs for the public as part of its religious-literacy initiatives.