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.

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.

By Austin Adkinson

Lacunae, or gaps, in extra-canonical texts are frustrating — not just because reconstruction can be difficult if not impossible, but also because of the way they leave the message of the text hanging in places where further exposition would be helpful! Contrast this to some of the canonical Biblical books which often have multiple copies of the same text. Yet canonical texts have their holes too, and lacunae can serve as visual reminders of the holes we cannot see.

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.

Justice versus Mercy in the Hebrew Bible
By Richard Hagenston

To uncover the origins of the tension between justice and mercy, we need to go back to the time when Israel split in two after Solomon’s death. Each of the kingdoms positioned itself as the most authoritative when it came to tradition and religious practice, which led to the writing of two significant documents. As a result, Jews of the first century CE could choose from their scripture and traditions two very different understandings of how to obtain God’s forgiveness.

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.

The Seminar on God and the Human Future: Fall 2017 Report on Religious Naturalism
By Alan Jay Richard

If the word “God” doesn’t name a being among beings, not even the highest or supreme being, then what sorts of things does it do? Of the things it does do, are there any that remain crucial to or at least compatible with the possibility of a human future? Since 2013, the Seminar on God and the Human Future has brought together philosophers of religion, critical theorists, and radical theologians to examine varieties of post-theism. In Spring 2017, the Seminar’s topic was pantheism and panentheism, and it featured presentations by noted philosophers of religion Catherine Keller and Mary Jane Rubenstein.

How Humans Made God
By Lloyd Geering

The assertion that humans made God is one that, only a century ago, many people would have found somewhat blasphemous. Even today there are many who would regard it as absurd and perhaps offensive. And this in spite of the fact that, in 1966, an April edition of Time magazine splashed on its cover, ‘Is God dead?’

Does the Kingdom of God Need God?
By John D. Caputo

The kingdom of God is typically understood as God stepping in and taking over, scattering the world’s powers, turning the tables, and allowing all to see that it really is God who holds all the cards. But what if the kingdom is better understood as divine irony, a “holding sway” that does not hold with violence and power? If this is the case, then we are speaking of a kingdom without a king because, after all, the ikon of God in this story is an unjustly crucified man with no earthly power at all. Could it be then that the kingdom of God does not need God — at least as we traditionally conceive of God?

The Church’s Gospel and the Idiom of Jesus
By Charles W. Hedrick

The popular assumption is that the faith and teaching of the church are rooted in the faith and teaching of Jesus. This idea, however, proves completely unfounded when one checks the data. The truth is that there is a dichotomy between Jesus and the church. While the church may name Jesus as its founder, what it preaches and what Jesus had to say are very different. According to Günther Bornkamm, a student of Rudolf Bultmann, an ugly gap exists between Jesus of Nazareth and the church founded in his name.

The Christianity Seminar: Spring 2017 Report on Apostolic Authority
By Nina Livesey

The theme for the spring meeting of the Christianity Seminar was apostolic authority. Papers, by Tony Burke, “Cursing and the Apostle: The Fight for Authority in Early Christianity” and Jason BeDuhn, “The Contested Authority of Paul in the Second Century,” directly address this issue. Robert Miller’s invited presentation, a review of his recent book, Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy, also coincidentally informed this topic. The Seminar customarily features one noteworthy and highly influential scholar, whose insights into larger questions of Christian formation inform the Seminar’s work. This spring we welcomed, honored, and featured the work of Judith Perkins, Professor of Classics and Humanities (Emerita), Saint Joseph College.

The Seminar on God and the Human Future: Spring 2017 Report on Panentheism and Pantheism
By Hollis Phelps

How do we imagine God’s relationship with the world, with us? How do we imagine our relationship with God, and what exactly do we mean and hope to accomplish when we use the word “God”? These and similar questions are, of course, at the heart of the God and the Human Future Seminar. Whereas the Fall 2016 meeting largely focused such questions on the issue of God’s putative sovereignty, the Spring 2017 meeting in Santa Rosa focused on philosophical, theological, and political issues surrounding panentheism and pantheism, as alternatives to classical theism.

A Venerable New Church
By Lloyd Geering

How the world has changed in 175 years! For our forebears in 1840, the Christian view of the world and of human history seemed wholly assured. ... All Christians shared this conviction and it gave them the confidence to launch out upon the greatest century of Christian expansion, for it was around 1800 that the great missionary societies were founded. They were so energetic that by 1900 they had adopted as their slogan, "The evangelisation of the world in this generation." This in turn gave rise after 1940 to the Ecumenical movement. Many of us then hoped it would not be long before there was one great global church.

How different it all is today!

Christianity Seminar: Fall 2016 Report on the Parting of the Ways

By Hal Taussig

At its November meeting in San Antonio, the Christianity Seminar took two more major steps in writing a new history of early Christianity. In many ways this meeting was even more surprising than the previous four. In those meetings assumed truths fell apart and new images of what those early movements did and thought came together. The idea that Christianity came into being through the triumph of orthodoxy over gnostic heresy fell apart. The notion that thousands of Christ followers were martyred turned into savvy stories with few deaths. The heroic Jesus became the paradigmatic immigrant.

The Seminar on God and the Human Future: Fall 2016 Report on Sovereignty

By Maynard Moore

What does it mean to say "God is Not King?"

Stunned silence.

That is not the usual response from a room full of theologians. Yet that seems to have been the visceral response of many in the room in San Antonio, at this day-long session of the God Seminar. Of course, the hesitation was only momentary.

The Story of Thecla

By Perry V. Kea

The Acts of Paul and Thecla is a mid-to late-second century document. Set in the first century CE and connected to Paul, it tells the story of Thecla, a young woman engaged to be married who becomes one of Paul’s disciples. In order to be a true disciple, Thecla chooses a life of celibacy, a choice that puts her life at risk. However, whenever her life is threatened, God protects her, and she thus survives two attempts on her life. At the end of the story, Thecla becomes an evangelist. This story of Thecla provides a fascinating glimpse into an early Christian tradition that elevated the virtue of celibacy and honored female leadership.

Did Martin Luther Get It All Wrong about Faith in Christ?

By William O. Walker, Jr.

The debate hinges upon the translation of a simple two-word Greek phrase: pistis Christou. In short, if the Christou in pistis Christou is an objective genitive (“faith in Christ”), then Luther was right and Protestant theology since Luther has generally been on the right track so far as this issue is concerned. If, however, the Christou in pistis Christou is a subjective genitive (“the faith/faithfulness of Christ”), then Luther got it all wrong, and Protestant theology since Luther has generally been on the wrong track.

Gladiators and Martyrs

By Susan M. (Elli) Elliott

How did prisoners who were publicly executed in horrifying and degrading ways become icons of Christian heroism, “The Martyrs” celebrated in song and story? While Christian culture now takes the martyrs’ heroic status for granted, the process by which they were transformed from objects of derision to icons of Christian heroism remains a paradox. To understand this paradox, we need to understand how another despised figure in the Roman arena became an emblem of Roman heroism: the gladiator.

Jesus the Apprentice

By Daniel Frayer-Griggs

Where did the idea of Jesus as healer originate? The answer probably lies in the story of his apprenticeship with John the Baptist.

Spiritual Defiance

By Robin Meyers

What if we thought of faith as resistance to ego, to orthodoxy, and to empire? In this article, Robin Meyers offers a call to action and vital insights from his Lyman-Beecher Lectures at Yale University, which eventually inspired his book Spiritual Defiance.

Glossary of Theology Terms

Wondering how to tell the difference between epistemology and metaphysics, pantheism and panentheism, liberal and post-liberal theologies? You’re not alone! This overview of key theological terms should help.

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.