Jesus Seminar

You’ll collect story ideas and contacts galore at religious eggheads’ annual extravaganza

You’ll collect story ideas and contacts galore at religious eggheads’ annual extravaganza

Each year, thousands upon thousands of religion scholars assemble during the days preceding Thanksgiving for simultaneous conventions of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the professional counterpart for Scripture specialists, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). This year, the two organizations gather November 17-20, in Denver. Coverage this month, or planned for a year hence, is a good investment for forward-looking media with the cash and the interest.

The Religion Guy has attended several of these egghead extravaganzas and attests that it’s no simple task. The 300 pages of program listings accessible here (.pdf) and here (.pdf) offer many #MEGO (my eyes glaze over) sessions aimed at specialists. But you’ll discover journalistic wheat amid the hyper-technical chaff, usually concepts for future stories rather than breaking news (though one year The Guy scored a dandy AP spot story).

Equally important, you can prowl the exhibit hall and corridors to greet and collect contact info from a dizzying variety of expert sources. AAR’s communications director Amy Parker can facilitate coverage of both the AAR and SBL (phone 404-727-1401 or email via that website mentioned above).

The two conventions are such a magnet that several organizations schedule meetings in conjunction with the big show, as in the following examples.

Speakers at the Biblical Archaeology Review “fest” November 16-18 will range from star skeptic Bart Ehrman to evangelical exegete Ben Witherington. This magazine is in the business of translating historical disputes for non-specialists and it’s must reading for reporters who want to follow such developments.

Westar Institute, whose much-publicized “Jesus Seminar” strived to debunk New Testament authenticity, will meet November 16 on two follow-up projects, promoting varied movements that fought orthodoxy in Christianity’s early centuries, and pondering “post-theism,” including this: “Why should we talk about God at all?”

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Why does it matter when the Bible's Book of Acts was written?

Why does it matter when the Bible's Book of Acts was written?

THE QUESTION:

When was the New Testament’s Book of Acts written and why does it matter?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This topic cropped up recently when The Guy visited the adult Bible class at a prominent Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation. Participants are taught that the Book of Acts, which depicts the three decades directly following Jesus Christ’s earthly life, was written between 110 and 120 A.D., a generation later than scholars’ consensus.

Does that seem a trivial technicality?

“A good deal rides on decisions about the date of Acts,” says Joseph Tyson of Southern Methodist University.

Christian tradition holds that Acts reliably records what Jesus’ original followers believed and how the earliest churches spread that message. But if it was written long after the events, that opens up radical theories. Bible experts left and right agree that Acts and the Gospel of Luke are in fact two volumes of a unified work by the same writer, although separated by John’s Gospel in Bibles. (Both books are anonymous but Paul’s colleague Luke is identified as the author in 2nd Century texts so The Guy follows that custom.)

Luke’s Gospel begins: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,  just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,  I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,  to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  so that you may know the truth. ...(New Revised Standard Version)

Acts then begins with a specific link back to Luke: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning. ...”  Because of those opening words, the credibility of the New Testament as history is at stake here.  (If interested in who that Theophilus was, see “Religion Q & A” for December 22, 2015, in the archive.)

The Acts discussion is a very revealing example of how various types of Bible scholarship go about their business.

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Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

How can we get people informed about the results of academic biblical scholarship, work that completely undermines the ordinary popular conception of Christianity and faith? Why are Christians not interested in the truth?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

“What is truth?”, Pilate asked Jesus. Or did he? America’s “Jesus Seminar” claimed the Roman tyrant never spoke those famous words and, for that matter, much else in the New Testament never happened either. Norman worries that people aren’t “informed.” Sunday School and CCD may not teach  doubts, but people who don’t know about media promotion of biblical disputes must be living under a rock.

Various degrees of skepticism usually characterize the “higher criticism” conveyed at U.S. colleges. The Jesus Seminar represented the radical wing. Even liberals scoffed at the theatrics when Seminar panelists voted on the authenticity of each verse. The verdict: “82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him” while there was a “16 percent historical accuracy rate” for the 176 recorded events in Jesus’ life.

At least Jesus was indeed crucified, the Seminar said. However, two panelists doubted he even existed. They had to discount not only the Gospels but Paul’s letters 20 years after the crucifixion, Roman and Jewish writers (Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus), and other documents.

Skepticism is nothing new and originated in Europe’s “Enlightenment” era, especially in Germany.

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