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The Meaning of Jesus

Six scholars explain why they study the origins of Christianity—and why it matters.

If you suffered from claustrophobia, this wasn't a good place to be. Every seat was filled, and where the chairs stopped there were people sitting, squatting, lying on the floor. Every wall was lined with bodies standing or leaning, and the one open doorway was jammed with a sweaty human mass that extended out into the hallway.

The crowd defied easy categorization. Professorial types abounded, among them many prominent New Testament scholars, but the body-piercing contingent was also represented. (Maybe they were professors, too.) From a chair that stood out incongruously in the no-man's land between official seating and the speakers' table, Pauline scholar Krister Stendahl took in the proceedings.

What brought them all out on a Sunday night was a panel discussion on "The Meaning of Jesus: What Difference Does Historical Jesus Research Make?" The setting was a Potemkin village in Orlando, Florida, where the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature held their joint annual meeting in November 1998.

Three years earlier, at the AAR/SBL meeting in Philadelphia, a shrewd observer of religious publishing had predicted the imminent demise of "the historical Jesus craze." How wrong can you be? What looked like a fad, as some would have it, has shown remarkable staying power, adding depth along the way.

But it wasn't only the subject that drew a crowd in Orlando; it was the lineup on the panel: Marcus Borg, N. T. Wright, Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossan, Karen King, and Richard Hays, ranging in conviction from evangelical orthodoxy (Wright, Hays) to the Jesus Seminar. Here, assembled in one place, were some of the leading figures in the renewed quest for the historical Jesus, sitting at the same table with other New Testament scholars whose work to some degree intersects with theirs. (Pagels, who noted that her interests don't really fit under the rubric of the historical Jesus, is a scholar of early Christian thought best known for her work on Gnosticism; ...

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