An Amherst-based group will lead a new effort to examine whether Jesus of Nazareth existed in history.
The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion is billing its scholarly investigation the "Jesus Project," and it plans to take the work of the controversial "Jesus Seminar" a step further.
The "Jesus Seminar," which formed in 1985, focused on what sayings in the New Testament were truly spoken by Jesus and what deeds he actually performed, but in the end it didn't question his existence.
Amid much fractious debate -- as well as dismissive criticism from many Christians -- the group of seminar scholars concluded that fewer than one-fifth of the statements attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels were actually made by him and also agreed that he did not rise from the dead.
The "Jesus Seminar" still exists, but interest in its work has faded, and its founder, Robert Funk, died in 2005.
Members of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, which is based at the secularist Center for Inquiry, near the University at Buffalo North Campus, want to reignite the debate with a different emphasis.
Many of the scholars involved with the "Jesus Seminar" examined the question primarily from a theological perspective, said R. Joseph Hoffman, who heads the committee and will organize regular meetings of historians, classicists and other scholars for the "Jesus Project."
Others involved at this point include Robert M. Price, a former "Jesus Seminar" participant, and Gerd Ludemann, a history professor in Germany, Hoffman said.
The new investigation will differ from the "Jesus Seminar" because it won't be hamstrung by theology, he said.
The committee regards the belief that Jesus was a historical person as a "testable hypothesis," just like any other historical question.
Hoffman announced the "Jesus Project" on Sunday at the conclusion of a conference on "Scripture and Skepticism" at the University of California at Davis.
The conference attracted scholars from around the globe to explore the use of historical and critical interpretation in the study of religious texts.
The "Jesus Project" will keep that method of research at the forefront in examining the existence of Jesus, Hoffman said.
"We can't let this discussion be dominated by people who do theologically driven history," he said.
The "Jesus Project" is not necessarily an attempt to disprove that Jesus existed, Hoffman said. "I happen to believe there probably was a Jesus of Nazareth, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be asking the question," he said. "I'm kind of agnostic about it. I want to look at the historical evidence."
The committee will begin accepting applications in March from scholars interested in participating. Members of the project will meet twice a year -- once in Amherst and once in Los Angeles.
Hoffman predicted the work of the group would take no more than five years and result in the publication of majority findings and minority findings.