When you tell a joke, do you tell it the same way every time? Probably not. People tend to alter the wording slightly to fit the circumstances.
In a similar way, that's how the scriptures were written, said Dr. B. Brandon Scott, a Bible scholar who will lecture in Toledo next weekend.
“Those who wrote about Jesus changed some of the details but the big picture stayed the same,” he said.
A Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla., Dr. Scott is a charter member of the Jesus Seminar - an ongoing research project investigating the authenticity of the Bible.
After eight years of research, the 200 scholars concluded in 1993 that they believe Jesus “undoubtedly” or “probably” said only 18 percent of the words attributed to him in the Bible. They also concluded that he did not say 52 percent of such quotations.
The study sparked tremendous controversy and outrage, but Dr. Scott said the results were consistent with previous Bible research.
“People who follow scholarship were not surprised by anything the Jesus Seminar came out with,” he said. “In that sense, it was not particularly radical or even controversial. This kind of research has been going on for 150 years. What was really controversial about the Jesus Seminar is that it went public, that it was written about in Time and Newsweek. That had never happened before.”
The Rev. Andrew Edwards III, pastor of Northwest Baptist Church in Toledo, is among those who feel that the Jesus Seminar is misguided.
“This man has taken the word of God and said it's not God's word, it's man's word. I don't believe that at all,” Mr. Edwards said.
He cited numerous scriptures from the King James Version of the Bible as evidence that although man wrote down the words, they were divinely inspired.
“The point is, it's a God-breathed book,” Mr. Edwards said, citing 1 Peter 2:21, 2 Timothy 3:16, Psalm 12:6-7, Romans 10:17, and 2 Corinthians 11:3-4. “Satan has tried to mess with God's word since the Garden of Eden.”
An expert in the Hebrew and Greek languages, Dr. Scott feels it is ironic that much of the criticism comes from conservative Christians. “I think I'm the literalist in the group. I'm the one reading the Hebrew and Greek, trying to get as close as I can to being literal and taking it seriously.”
Dr. Scott, a member of the United Church of Christ, has written seven books and co-written two more. He is co-chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and is a consultant to the American Bible Society experimental film translations. He taught at St. Meinrad Catholic Seminary in Indiana and was a visiting professor at Yale University.
Ancient scribes had different priorities in writing about historical figures, he said. Their accounts rarely included information about personality, which has become a priority with today's historians.
“For many of the Roman emperors, for example, we know only their name and nothing more. There are great gaps in our knowledge. As a historian, that doesn't bother me about Jesus. Or as a believer, that's just part of our trying to understand any human being.”
The modern era has become almost obsessive about personality, he said. “We have pretty much reduced political campaigns to personalities. I'm interested in personalities, but you look in vain in the gospels for Jesus' personality.”
The scarcity of such information on Jesus is compounded by the fact that he was an oral person living in a peasant culture, Dr. Scott said. Only about 2 percent of Galileans of that era could read and write and most of their history was passed down orally.
By he time the first gospel authors began putting their words on paper around 70 A.D., the oral tales had “kind of shifted” over the decades, he said.
Dr. Scott said, for example, that John's account of Roman governor Pontius Pilate washing his hands of Jesus' death had been revised for political reasons.
Jesus' radical teachings posed a threat to the ruling powers, which is why the Romans executed him, Dr. Scott said. The oral accounts changed over the years to place more blame on Rome's subjects, keeping the groups divided.
“The Roman empire kept social classes fighting against one another,” he said. “One thing Jesus did was say that these Samaritans are not your enemies. They'll take care of you, they're your friends. If people start thinking that way, the Roman empire has a problem.”
The later the account was written, the less Pilate was responsible for Jesus' crucifixion, he said.
“The same kind of phenomenon took place in the Book of Acts, why Paul was put to death in Rome,” he said. “He has every Roman judge saying this man is innocent but we have to hand him over.”
While Scholars question many biblical details, some things are certain, Dr. Scott said.
“There's no doubt that Jesus existed historically. We have as much evidence of the existence of Jesus as we do for Plato or Socrates,” Dr. Scott said. “We know that Jesus stood with the poor and with the outcasts, that he identified with rural peasants, not the urban elite. These basic things we know. The details can get fuzzy.”
Dr. B. Brandon Scott will speak on “The Spirituality of Jesus” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Center for Performing Arts Recital Hall at the University of Toledo. He and Dr. Gary Blaine, pastor of First Unitarian Church of Toledo, will lead a workshop on “The Re-Imagined World” and “A Peasant in a New Century?” 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sept. 14 at First Unitarian Church, 2210 Collingwood Blvd. Dr. Scott also will speak on “Emily: The Life and Thought of Emily Dickinson” at the 11 a.m. service Sept. 15 at First Unitarian. Workshop registration is $10, due by Tuesday. Information: 419-241-7189.