Jews, Christians take a look at the historical Jesus

Shortly before Pope John Paul II traveled to Israel and apologized for 2,000 years of anti-Semitic church doctrine, attendees at an interfaith conference in Berkeley sought to redefine Jesus, comparing their understandings of the historical Jesus to the savior presented in the Christian Bible.

"There is another Jesus out there who is a wonderful figure," said Rabbi Sanford Lowe, the seminar leader. "He is not God, he is not the messiah, but he got wiped out for his beliefs…Everything else is spin."

The workshop, "Considering the Jewish Jesus," was part of an interfaith conference last month, "Building Jewish Bridges," sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica. The event was geared for interfaith couples.

Lowe, 64, who has taught religious studies at Santa Rosa Junior College for 30 years, is also a member of the Jesus Seminar. The interdenominational Sonoma County think tank studies ancient texts to separate the historical deeds and sayings of Jesus from those added to the New Testament by later scribes.

Lowe began by asking participants about their religious backgrounds and what they thought of when they heard the name "Jesus."

Participants, a mix of Jews and Christians of all stripes — Conservative, Reform, Catholic, Episcopalian — had varied exposure to the Torah and the Christian Bible. They also held varied opinions about the man whom Christians hold to be the earthly incarnation of God.

Jesus "was an extraordinary rabbi who was a manifestation of God on Earth," said one man, who was raised in both the Baptist and Quaker traditions. "Jesus is a very important figure in my life."

Said another: "I think of a perpetually young guy — long hair, flowing robes and a glow."

Two Jewish participants — one male, one female — said that as young children, they had been told by peers that, as Jews, they were responsible for having killed Jesus.

Lowe said few people know that Jesus was a rabbi, and that the works of Gospel scribe Paul are the earliest known examples of rabbinic writing, predating the Talmud by 100 years.

The quest for a "historical" Jesus began between 1650 and 1750, during the Enlightenment, Lowe said. Thomas Jefferson, himself a Unitarian, used a cut-and-paste method to create "The Life and Times of Jesus," also known as "the Jefferson Bible." In the document, he attempted to separate the historical Jesus from the figure of biblical legend.

"The question is, 'What did Jesus say?'" Lowe said. "It's not just the text, but the spin that gets put on a story. All of the traditions…are all oral traditions from a distant past…No two people come from the same place, let alone see the same object."

Lowe spoke at length about the Jesus Seminar, a large, interdenominational team of biblical scholars that continues to study ancient texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Gospels. The team is compiling a database of quotes and stories, attempting to determine which deeds and sayings can be attributed to a historical Jesus, and which are inventions of later writers.

The group has published several books, in which stories from the Christian Bible are color-coded. Words attributed to the historical Jesus are printed in bright red, while words of apparent later origin appear in pink. Passages that the group deems inarguably fictional are printed in black.

The scholars meet twice each year, deliberating which passages are historical and which are fiction.

Out of 500 sayings attributed to Jesus, Lowe said a mere 17 to 19 percent can be attributed to the historical figure. "The rest are the words of the first 300 years of the church."

Lowe cited the trial of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew 27 as fiction, explaining that Roman authority was absolute, and no trial would have taken place. He also said that victims of crucifixion were commonly left to be eaten by scavengers, so Jesus is not likely to have been buried.

In a poignant example for Jews, Lowe read a lengthy passage, also from Matthew 27, in which the Jews demand Jesus' crucifixion, Pilate washes his hands of the situation and the Jews shout, "His blood be on us, and on our children" — the very passage that provides the basis for 2,000 years of anti-Semitic church doctrine.

Lowe then read the Jesus Seminar's version of the same story:

"The ranking priests bound Jesus and turned him over to Pilate, the Roman governor. Then Pilate had Jesus flogged and turned him over to be crucified."