“The Jesus Project” and American education

December 11, 2008

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

There’s a new group of biblical scholars setting to determine points of consensus on the historical Jesus. They’re calling themselves, “The Jesus Project,” as the Christian Post reports. The CP quotes a former professor of mine at UNC Charlotte, James Tabor (author, The Jesus Dynasty): “the Jesus Project repudiates any theological agendas, special pleading, or dogmatic presuppositions.” That certainly sounds like Professor Tabor, who taught my New Testament course wherein he assured us that Jesus was just another failed apocalyptic messiah, whose corpse rotted long ago. Among his extensive work on NT origins, Tabor has been in the process of doing a new translation of the Bible because, as he told us, the NRSV and all other translations are too Christian, i.e., tainted by “theological agendas, special pleading, or dogmatic presuppositions.” I have to grant Professor Tabor one thing: he taught me that the Bible was a theological text, created by (broadly speaking) theologians. As a committed agnostic, his task is to simply recognize the theological intent as it shapes the history. Belief shapes facts; reverse this belief-shaped construction and discover the fact. Tabor, being a very smart man, is quite confident in his ability to discover the fact, with the help of his fellow scholars.

All of this leads to the interesting question of whether a secular university can have theologians on staff, which, given a broader definition, would include historians, literary critics, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, etc. who believe in a Christian interpretation of reality. Religious Studies departments in America have, with very few exceptions, rejected theology as a legitimate discipline in the public university, and, thus, they do not hire scholars engaged in constructive Christian dogmatics. Most other departments (history, philosophy, psychology, etc.) would likewise reject a candidate who explicitly claims Christian faith as integral to their hermeneutic. In order to be counted among the true scholars, you have to claim an agnostic/secular hermeneutic (i.e., a hermeneutic without God) tethered to a logical positivism of universally-accessible material. Christian scholars are caught in a predicament because they believe in a God known according to faith in a moral regeneration. As such, it is the “will” that determines truth for the Christian — at least, that is how our secular counterparts will interpret it, and they are right insofar as the will must change in order to recognize truth. But, the whole modern secular university is built upon the principle that the mind alone — reason alone — is the only legitimate faculty for claiming knowledge. Thus, only that which can be logically demonstrated is appropriate in the public university.

That is what virtually all of my professors believed, and, thus, we are in an odd predicament in America in that our tax dollars support educational institutions with a decidedly anti-Christian modus operandi. We have bought the lie that “secular objectivity” is a value-free and religiously-neutral concept. I will, as with most things, blame my parents’ generation. Thanks a lot, baby boomers! Idiots.

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2 Responses to ““The Jesus Project” and American education”

  1. Hi Kevin. Thanks for your thoughtful post though I should say that I am not an agnostic, never have been, and my views of the historical Jesus reach much beyond the “rotting corpse” idea. I regret you somehow got that impression in my courses. If you take a look at The Jesus Dynasty you will see throughout, I think, and particularly in the Conclusion, my high regard for Jesus and what he represented in late 2nd Temple Judaism, as well as through the ages. As for the Jesus Project I think I will end up being the most “conservative” of the bunch, as I do indeed think our gospels yield solid historical materials.

    Drop me a line if you have time.

    James Tabor

  2. Thanks for the comment, Professor Tabor. I used “agnostic” as a sort of safe term, because I didn’t get the impression that you were an atheist. And since your method excluded the sort of supernatural revelatory phenomena that most Christians take for granted (at least, those who don’t think Bultmann is a serious alternative), I assumed you rejected a covenanting and/or incarnating God. Anyway, that was just my impression, and I’m sure you have, and rightly so, your own understanding of what all those terms mean.

    I have only skimmed through The Jesus Dynasty, as I’ve been doing more in the way of dogmatics and philosophy lately, but I do remember your respect for the biblical texts as involving genuine history. Nonetheless, your course and the entire Religious Studies program at UNCC is decidedly anti-dogmatic and, in short, anti-faith, involving a strictly secular objectivism opposed to a pluralism that would include theological/dogmatic methods — unlike European universities which include theologians of varying confessional persuasions. I understand that this is the point of “the academic study of religion,” so I’m basically advocating for the creation of theology departments within the American public university. Otherwise, some base psychological determinant (Tillich’s “ultimate concern” or Foucault’s neo-Nietzschean “will to power”) or social determinants (Durkheim ) or economic determinants (Marx) etc. etc. become the only viable prisms through which to understand religion. That is a shame and a disservice to students.

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