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Cross Examination : New portraits of Jesus question his life--from his birthplace to the Last Supper to the Resurrection. As debate moves beyond academia, lay people are taking a closer look at the foundations of their faith.

February 24, 1994|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Who do people say I am?" Jesus asked his disciples. Their answers came down to this: Everybody has a different opinion.

Two thousand years later, scholars are asking the question again. In a burst of enthusiasm, and with a hefty dose of showmanship, the search for the historical Jesus is on. Spurred by new findings contained in two ancient libraries--the Dead Sea scrolls discovered in Palestine in 1947 and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts found in Egypt in 1945--and by an end-of-the-century inclination to tear down traditions, Jesus of Nazareth is in for a reality check.

Redefining Jesus as all-man, minus his divine nature, started around the turn of the century. But such revisionist talk has been muffled by academic ivory towers until the recent publication of "The Five Gospels," which boldly asserts that Jesus never said most of the things attributed to him, and several other books. (See accompanying story, E5)

Most Christians believe Jesus is the son of God, miraculously born of a virgin. He lived in Palestine in the early years of the first century and preached a radical message: replace hate with love. He was put to death for his teachings, but rose from the dead as a sign of triumph over evil and returned to heaven. He promised followers they would go to heaven too.

The best known versions of Jesus' life story come from the four Gospels, part of the compendium of books in the New Testament. And although the revised image of Jesus is based on these books, his new portrait hardly resembles earlier ones.

"It's like getting a good new biography of Winston Churchill," says Michael Iannazzi, religion editor for the publisher Doubleday, about the mounting stack of Jesus life stories. "People want to know, who is this man?"

Some of the new studies by respected Bible scholars are as shocking as an unauthorized biography. Others seem close to pulp fiction, worthy of tabloid television. One is the result of 20 years of meticulous research by a single author. Another is a group effort, in which 74 contributors reached consensus by a vote.

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The latest theories about his home life stop just short of voyeurism: Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters. And his mother, Mary, was not a virgin. A skilled woodworker, Jesus was physically strong, not the ethereal weakling portrayed by so many artists. And he was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. The nativity story, with shepherds, angels and a manger, is pure fantasy--the product of some ancient storyteller's rich imagination.

Many of the new proposals about his ministry rattle the foundations of the faith:

He didn't teach the Lord's Prayer, the "Our Father."

He didn't change bread and wine into his own body and blood at the Last Supper, as the Catholic church teaches. A group may have assembled, but he didn't institute the sacrament of Eucharist.

He didn't preach the Sermon on the Mount to deliver the Beatitudes, the Christian moral code. But he probably did say some of the phrases. "Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" is one that made the cut.

He never claimed to be divine.

He didn't rise from the dead, although he likely appeared to some of his followers after his death.

To ground this new man in the real world, Jesus has been given earthy titles. Long known as the Son of God and the Savior of the World, contemporary historians have demoted him to "Itinerant Sage" and "Mediterranean Jewish Peasant."

"It isn't Jesus-bashing," insists Robert W. Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, a group of 74 Bible scholars who spent nine years re-evaluating the Gospels. Their work is contained in "The Five Gospels."

"We want to liberate Jesus. The only Jesus most people know is the mythic one. They don't want the real Jesus, they want the one they can worship. The cultic Jesus."

The group of primarily ministers and professors, most of them liberal or conservative Protestants, met twice a year at the Westar Institute, a think tank in Sonoma, Calif. They re-examined the traditional Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the Gospel of Thomas, discovered among the Nag Hammadi scrolls. Their conclusion: Jesus said just 18% of the words and phrases attributed to him.

"The Gospels were written 40 years after Christ's life," notes Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, a Seminar member. "How many words of anybody will be exactly repeated 40 years later?"

The group assigned credit by voting with colored beads: red for what Jesus undoubtedly said, pink for what he probably said, gray for words the Gospel writers put into his mouth and black for words he probably did not say.

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Reactions in and out of academic circles have been mixed.

After early results were published three years ago, a cartoon went up on the bulletin board of Fuller Theological Seminar in Pasadena. It showed Jesus blessing his disciples and saying, "Beads be with you."

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