The inaugural gathering of The Jesus Project, a group of biblical scholars and academics in related disciplines embarking on a five-year quest to unearth the historical Jesus, took place in Amherst, N.Y. December 5th through 7th. Historian R. Joseph Hoffman, Chair of The Scientific Committee for the Study of Religion (CSER), the Jesus Project's sponsor, describes the group's intent and operating principles on its website.
The Jesus Project, as CSER has named the new effort, is the first methodologically agnostic approach to the question of Jesus' historical existence. But we are not neutral, let alone willfully ambiguous, about the objectives of the project itself. We believe in assessing the quality of the evidence available for looking at this question before seeing what the evidence has to tell us. We do not believe the task is to produce a "plausible" portrait of Jesus prior to considering the motives and goals of the Gospel writers in telling his story. We think the history and culture of the times provide many significant clues about the character of figures similar to Jesus. We believe the mixing of theological motives and historical inquiry is impermissible. We regard previous attempts to rule the question out of court as vestiges of a time when the Church controlled the boundaries of permissible inquiry into its sacred books. More directly, we regard the question of the historical Jesus as a testable hypothesis, and we are committed to no prior conclusions about the outcome of our inquiry. This is a statement of our principles, and we intend to stick to them.
The project was devised more than two years ago, and officially launched at a January 2007 conference, "Scripture and Skepticism," at the University of California at Davis.
CSER's website provides a list of notable attendees at this December's gathering, as well as a schedule of proceedings, and a follow-up report.
Public radio WBFO 88.7 FM in Buffalo interviewed one scholar involved in the project, Robert M. Price, two days before the event. According to his website bio, Price attended a fundamentalist (his word) Baptist church early in life, was involved in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship during his time at Montclair State College, and received an MTS degree in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the late ''70s. Since this time Price has distanced himself from evangelical Christianity, collected two PhDs, moved in and out of various forms of institutionalized liberal religion, and written numerous books. A 2007 release, Jesus is Dead, argues, according to its back cover, that
(1) not only is there no good reason to think that Jesus ever rose from the dead, (2) there is no good reason to think that he ever lived or died at all.
The publisher also notes that readers of the book
will have ammunition with which to counter the arguments of muscular apologists such as Gary Habermas, N.T. Wright, or William Lane Craig.
Price's inclusion in a study group premised on the belief that "the mixing of theological motives and historical inquiry is impermissible" has not been lost on Dan Wallace, professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and Executive Director for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Blogging at PrimeTimeJesus, Wallace writes:
No one is neutral when it comes to Jesus, and we might as well all admit that fact. It is beyond my comprehension how a man who has explicitly and frequently written that the historical Jesus is a myth could be a part of this project.
The Jesus Project's next conference is tentatively scheduled for May 2009 in Chicago. Papers from the December 2008 conference will be published in 2009 by Prometheus Books under the title Sources of the Jesus Tradition: An Inquiry.