The Fourth R, an Advocate for Religious Literacy, shares the latest thinking from religion scholars and writers—in non-technical language for a general audience.

My God’s Bigger than Your God – A Response to “How We Use God: Let Me Count the Ways”
By John W. Bennison

Let’s begin with two quotes, as examples. Bear in mind, this is not a political commentary, but a response to Carl Jech’s article in The Fourth R 33-4 (July-August 2020) and a critique of how we use one particular three-letter word.

Finding the Traces of Jesus
By Douglas L. Griffin

In a previous article (The Fourth R 33-1, Jan-Feb 2020) I argued that reading the Bible as theological fiction frees one from the necessity of clarifying whether or not biblical references are factual and invites one to enter into the diverse worlds of meaning disclosed in the Bible’s figurative references. In the process the reader is in a position to recognize that the Bible’s supernatural references are imaginative ones that articulate inexplicable phenomena through the culturally mediated interpretations, beliefs, rituals, symbols, and traditions underlying the Bible’s origins.

Bear the Cross
By Carl L. Jech

Jesus said, “Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be a disciple of me, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters and bear the cross as I do will not be worthy of me.”
– Gospel of Thomas 55:1–2

Bamboozled by the Bible
By Dominic Kirkham

The Middle East has become a cockpit of conflict, and in the midst of this maelstrom is the recent move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. The context of this event is massive, and the backstory is even more monumental. It’s a 3000 year history, one many of us have been brought up on — of. King David, David’s Royal City, an iconic kingdom, and the messianic future and salvation history. But biblical texts and events have been manipulated to fit a theological template that does not serve past, present, or future reality.

The Christianity Seminar: Spring 2018 Report on Seminar Findings
By Shirley Paulson

At Westar’s Spring 2018 meeting, the Christianity Seminar addressed the question of how it should report the findings of the seminar in an accessible, meaningful way. To that end, it addressed questions about the process for producing its concluding work, Rewriting the History of the First Two Centuries of Early Christ Movements. As part of that review, the seminar responded to two papers intended as drafts for the content of the book.

The Seminar on God and the Human Future: Spring 2018 Report on Coloniality
By John D. Caputo

At its spring 2018 meeting, the “God Seminar” turned to the question of coloniality. In previous seminars, the Fellows have tackled the question of a radical post-theistic theology in a more directly theological way. We analyzed the logic of post-theistic positions like pantheism, panentheism, anatheism and weak theology, each of which seeks to get past the idea of God as Supreme Being, a particular, personal agent who does things or, often to our consternation, leaves them undone. This time the note of radicality was struck differently, by putting the theological question in a radical socio-political context.

Putting Paul in His Place
By Charles W. Hedrick

Although Paul only knew a few details of Jesus’ life, he is in many ways the founder of institutional Christianity. This does not ignore the diversity of the earliest period of the Jesus movement, but to credit Paul for the conceptual foundation for the church that — for good or ill — has survived into the modern period. Some of his ideas sound strange to us today, but they serve as reminders that the Bible does not belong to our age.

The Christianity Seminar: Fall 2017 Report on Ritual Life in Early Christ Movements
By Hal Taussig

As the Christianity Seminar continued to move toward a public book that will summarize its findings about the first two centuries, the Fall 2017 Seminar’s findings on the rituals of “Christ groups” summarized and updated important scholarship of the last twenty-five years. Focusing on festive meals and bathings/baptisms, clear pictures emerged that were quite different from those held by conventional Christianity and indeed most scholars.

Rethinking the Beginnings of Christianity
By Maia Kotrosits

Many scholars already know that the people represented in the New Testament didn’t consider themselves Christians. … I want to suggest that, rather than static truths about Jesus or God, early Christian texts represent a number of creative and improvised ways of trying to make sense of who one is, where one belongs, and what God means in the face of loss.

Pseudo-Scholarship Illustrated
Susan M. Elliott

“I’m not a Bible scholar, but . . .”

Usually this statement insinuates that the speaker’s ostensibly exceptional insight trumps actual expertise. A least such a statement gives lip service to the speaker’s limitations. Pretense to scholarship is more deceptive, although pseudo-scholars tend to mislead themselves first of all. Coauthors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy provide an illustration of such self-deceptive pseudo-scholarship in a series of books published over the past decade that bases one set of misguided assumptions on another.

Cognitive Dissonance and the Resurrection of Jesus
Kris Komarnitsky

How does one account for the rise of resurrection belief if the gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb and corporeal postmortem appearances of Jesus are legends, as many scholars propose? The most popular answer to this question is that belief in the resurrection came about due to a post-mortem bereavement hallucination of Jesus by Peter, and possibly others. Another largely overlooked possibility for the rise of the resurrection belief is the extraordinary phenomenon of cognitive dissonance reduction.


An Interview with Raheel Raza
 

David Galston

For Muslims the Qur’an is the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Mohammad over a period of twenty-three years. The message was an oral message and, since Mohammad was unlettered, the words were written on scraps of paper, tree bark, and animal skins. It was only after the death of the Prophet that his companions compiled the Qur’an into book form. For reasons known only to them, instead of compiling the revelations in chronological order, they assembled them in order of length, from longest verse to shortest.


A New New Testament: Interview with Editor Hal Taussig

Gordon Raynal

My reasons for producing A New New Testament are rooted in the last twenty years of more than 150 speaking engagements around the country. … So many people spoke of the spiritual and intellectual nurture they found in these new documents—especially in their both constructive and challenging relationship to the New Testament canon, I became convinced that A New New Testament was desperately needed.


Framing the American Hero
 

Ron Large

Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describes the development of the hero within a three-stage journey: Separation-Initiation-Return. How does this compare with American hero myths? Instead of a hero whose journey offers insight and growth through the process of maturation, Jewett and Lawrence suggest that “the American monomyth derives from tales of redemption” in which the hero is fundamentally complete. The crusader replaces the initiate.


Religious Naturalism and Its Place in the Family of Religions

Donald A. Crosby

Religious naturalism deserves recognition as an important form of religious faith among the various religious stances and outlooks of the world. It does so especially today, when its significance is coming to be increasingly acknowledged, vigorously developed, and actively propounded. What is religious naturalism? Simply put, it is the recognition that to be is to be natural and the conviction that nature in all of its forms and manifestations is a proper focus of religious commitment.


Review of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Perry Kea

Reza Aslan, associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, has written a bestseller that is a pleasure to read. But, as with all interpretations of the historical Jesus and the early church, the reader must weigh what the author uses as evidence and what he lays aside.


What Comes after Christianity?

Thomas Sheehan

Some readers might already be offended by the very title of this article: “What comes after Christianity?” seems to imply that Christianity is ending, or soon will end, or even that it should end. But let me be clear.


David Loves Jonathan

Stephen J. Patterson

I learned in Bible School that the toughest, cleverest, most illustrious warrior of the Bible was David. Remember him? Here’s something Bible School did not teach me about David: David loved Jonathan.


When a Man Sleeps with a Man as with a Woman

Stephen J. Patterson

People today widely believe that the Bible condemns being gay. They get this idea from, well, reading the Bible. But what did it really mean to “lie with a man as with a woman”?


What the New Testament Says about Homosexuality

William O. Walker, Jr.

Most people apparently assume that the New Testament expresses strong opposition to homosexuality, but this simply is not the case.


Tradition and Faith in a New Era

Roy W. Hoover

Though all the challenges that must be faced if the Judeo-Christian tradition is to survive into the twenty-first century are worthy of serious and courageous attention, one seems to me to be primordial.


The Da Vinci Fraud

Robert M. Price

The Da Vinci Code is certainly a page-turner. Its brisk narrative is full of twists and turns, and the reader’s perseverance is frequently rewarded with deft turns of phrase, sparkling metaphors, and resonating observations. There is a wisdom in such art. And yet the book has certain major shortcomings.


Braveheart Does the Stations of the Cross

Daryl Schmidt

Film critic Roger Ebert readily recognized what no evangelical biblical scholar saw in Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.” Ebert observed: “The screenplay is inspired not so much by the Gospels as by the 14 Stations of the Cross.”


Is Christianity Going Anywhere?

Series by Lloyd Geering

1. Christianity at the Crossroads

2. Excavating Jesus

3. The Recovery of Jesus’ Teaching

4. The Diverse Futures of Christianity

Christianity stands today at a critical point in its long and complex history. Too few Christians realise that humankind is moving into an increasingly global and secular future. Christianity and all other religions must now come to terms with this new global context.


Did Jesus Fulfill Prophecy?

Robert J. Miller

The belief that Jesus fulfilled prophecy has been a cornerstone of the notion that Christianity supersedes Judaism. This belief owes in large part to Matthew. What did Matthew mean when he spoke of fulfilling prophecy?


Who Owns the Holy Land?

Series by Lloyd Geering

1. The Jewish Claim

2. The Palestinian Claim

3. The British Responsibility

4. Who Solves the Conflict?

Over the last thirty-five years I have visited all the Middle Eastern countries from Egypt to Iran, some of them many times. This background has shown me that the Holy Land has probably witnessed more violent conflict in the last four thousand years than any other spot in the whole world.


Jesus in Tibet

Robert M. Price

Have you ever wondered how Jesus might have been occupying himself before his public appearance to be baptized by John? One of the most popular guesses today is that Jesus was traveling to the Far East, specifically to Tibet in the exotic Himalayas. Is there any evidence for this astonishing claim?


How Did Easter Originally Happen?

Thomas Sheehan

Popular Christian piety holds that Jesus’ existence on earth extended beyond his death on Good Friday and spilled over into a miraculous six-week period. But the New Testament does not in fact assert that Jesus came back to life on earth, or that he physically left his grave alive after he had died, nor does it maintain that faith in him is based on an empty tomb. How did such beliefs emerge from the early Church?


Milestones in the Quest for the Historical Jesus

Robert W. Funk

The quest for the historical Jesus has been underway for more than two centuries. It was launched about 1775, the same time the United States was being founded. Its progress is marked by milestones, landmark developments that represent the transition from one stage to another.


Jesus—The Mini-Series

W. Barnes Tatum

Something about the Easter season brings Jesus out of the vaults and projects him onto television screens. To what extent is a film about Jesus not only cinematically interesting, but literarily sensitive to the gospel sources, historically probable, and theologically satisfying?


Secret Mark

Charles W. Hedrick

One of the most controversial manuscript discoveries of the twentieth century was a fragment of a previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria (end of the second century) to an otherwise unknown Theodore. The form of discovery, together with the homoerotic themes of the narrative, created a major controversy.


Dionysius and the New Millennium

James Veitch

Dionysius Exiguus, a monk from Russia who died about 544, was asked by Pope John I to set out the dates for Easter from the years 527 to 626. It seems that the Pope was keen to produce some order in the celebration of Easter.


Defending Nicea

James Veitch

The Very Rev. Nicholas Thomas (N. T.) Wright, former teacher at Oxford and Cambridge, and current dean of Lichfield Cathedral, became a prolific writer committed to defending and maintaining Protestant Christianity in its Anglican form. Yet the approach he has taken is not only grossly misleading but is potentially disastrous for the church.


The Coming Radical Reformation

Robert W. Funk

Robert W. Funk lays out 21 Theses about the future of faith and human thought, beginning with the end of our former notions of God.


A Call for a New Reformation

John Shelby Spong

In the 16th century the Christian Church, which had been the source of much of the stability of the western world, entered a period of internal and violent upheaval. It is my conviction that such a moment is facing the Christian world today.


How Did Jesus Become God and Why

Lloyd Geering

Whereas the glorification of the tragic Diana, Princess of Wales, took place in the space of only one year, the process of the glorification of Jesus as the Christ figure — and its subsequent deconstruction — has taken place over a space of two thousand years.


The Search for the Historical Jesus: Why Start with the Sayings?

Lane C. McGaughy

All investigations must begin somewhere — why did the Jesus Seminar (1985 – 1998) begin with the sayings of Jesus rather than with his actions? And what difference does this make for the resulting reconstruction of the historical Jesus?


Fundamentally Pluralistic

Daryl Schmidt

In my office at Texas Christian University hangs a framed aerial-view photograph of the dairy farm I grew up on in South Dakota. When students ask what it is, I tell them it’s a reminder of why I became a professor.


Write What You See

Walter Wink

My first vivid encounter with Jesus took place in the fourth grade, when I was expelled from Sunday School for rowdiness. My parents punished me by making me skip Sunday dinner and stay in my room. For my comfort, my mother handed me the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, which had just been published.


Me and Jesus – The Journey Home

Marcus Borg

A few years ago I received an invitation from an Episcopal group in the San Francisco Bay area. “We want you to talk to us about Jesus,” they said, “and we want you to make it personal.”


Almost the Whole Truth

John Dominic Crossan

Memories? What you remember, what you forget, and, most unnervingly of all, what is in there somewhere, forgotten but recoverable with some accidental and external prompting.


How the Canon Was Formed

Roy W. Hoover

How did the church decide which books belong to the New Testament? When was the decision made? The answers to these questions constitute one of the most revealing yet least known aspects of early Christian history.


The Significance of the Work of the Jesus Seminar for Judaism

Sanford Lowe

I was a Jewish child growing up in the Bronx during World War II when I first began to hear the old charge that the Jews were Christ killers. I didn’t exactly know who this Christ was supposed to be. His first name was Jesus and I was cautioned never to utter the word.


David Friedrich Strauss: Miracle & Myth

Marcus Borg

Of all the books on the historical Jesus published in the nineteenth century, David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1835) has had the most enduring significance. It was wildly controversial. One reviewer called it “the Iscariotism of our days” and another “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.”

About Westar: Community and History

The Significance of San Diego NEW

The concurrent meetings of the AAR, SBL, and Westar in San Diego in Fall 2014 will be a tribute to Bob Funk’s multifaceted and remarkable professional legacy.

Westar 2013—Celebrating a Landmark Year 

Westar Institute is celebrating a landmark year. In 2013 the organization both acquired Polebridge Press and retired the debt this acquisition incurred, thanks to the generosity of Westar supporters. The news articles here, which first appeared in The Fourth R, provide a glimpse of the major events of the past year.

Meet ‘Joe Westar’: A Report on Westar’s Membership Survey
Lynn Tuttle Gunney

If you’ve ever been to a Westar meeting or Jesus Seminar on the Road (JSOR), you might have met him. He’s a guy in his sixties, likely a layperson affiliated with a mainline Protestant church. His interests start with the historical Jesus and early Christianity and extend to topics like Humanism and Religion and Science.

The Road to the Jesus Seminar
Perry Kea

As a fellow of the Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar, I have had many opportunities to discuss the historical Jesus with interested audiences. While these audiences are usually enthusiastic to learn, most are not aware of the larger intellectual context for the work of the Seminar. This is an overview of that context.

Editorial: A Few Good People
Robert W. Funk

Christian congregations continue to pretend that the old orthodoxies are still valid and functional. We now know that is no longer the case. During the half century just ended, we have come to the end of the Christian era: the hegemony of the christianized, industrialized West over the rest of the globe has crumbled.