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Scholarly work on John, Jesus and History Project continues

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Society of Biblical Literature seminar group ends 15-year run, but six books are yet to be published

For much of his long academic career, George Fox University professor Paul Anderson helped lead the movement to reverse more than 150 years of scholarly opinion about the role the Gospel of John plays in researching Jesus as a historical figure.

One of the most important and influential ways he has been doing that is as a founding member of the John, Jesus and History Project, which has been hosting sessions on the topic at the Society of Biblical Literature's (SBL) annual conference since 2001.

Although the project ended its 15-year run as an official SBL group in November, Anderson will continue its work over the next several years by editing or co-editing the final six of 12 planned books that chronicle the issue from a wide variety of angles. GARY ALLEN - George Fox University professor Paul Anderson is a founding member of the John, Jesus and History Project, an    official group of the Society of Biblical Literature that has been hosting academic sessions at its annual conference for the past 15 years. Anderson has co-edited four of the group's six books, with six more scheduled to be published in the next two or three years.

"It really is the most significant historical Jesus project since the Jesus Seminar back in the 1980s," Anderson said. "Our distinction is we're finding ways to use the Gospel of John instead of leaving it out."

The traditional view is that the John was so influenced by the theology of the writer that it holds no historical value. The problem with that, according to Anderson and others, is that John contains a lot of historical material that is completely unrelated to theology, so it makes no sense throw away the baby with the bath water.

"It's interpreted history and you've got subjective interests, but it also has a lot of objective history, too," Anderson said. "It's got more mundane archeologically-attested material than the rest of the Gospels put together."

The SBL is the largest Biblical studies society in the world and as an official group, the John, Jesus and History Project (JJH) is allowed to host sessions at the organization's annual conference, which are held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion's annual meetings each November.

For each session, the group will solicit scholarly essays on a certain topic from academics around the world, present them at the conference and allow for a certain amount of discussion and debate. This often results in the commission of further essays to round out the topic and all of the work is eventually published as a collection.

According to Anderson, one of the strengths of the JJH has been its ability to "think like book editors" and organize the sessions around a larger theme that will serve as the connecting thread for a book.

By the time all six volumes of the official JJH series are published, along with six complimentary books, the group will have thoroughly laid out the case for including information from John into the collective understanding of the historical Jesus.

Anderson said the group's overall approach has been to let contributors use their own methodology and evaluate the merits of their argument later, instead of imposing one on them, which has resulted in a rich and diverse collection of work. It also saved them a bunch of time, as one scholar warned the group that establishing a singular methodology took six years for another SBL group and by the time it had finished, the participants had lost interest and the project died.

"We really have had a great international group of top scholars, men and women," Anderson said. "We also don't necessarily agree with each other on our understandings of the Johannine tradition. We argue the case, put it forward."

John, Jesus and History sessions have proven to be among the most popular at the annual conference over the past 15 years, so much so that many at the 2016 conference expressed dismay that the group had decided to call it quits.

The group still has three main volumes — "Jesus Remembered in the Johannine Tradition," "Jesus Remembered in the Johannine Situation" and "Methodologies for doing Johannine Historicity"to publish, but members opted to close the group and "go out on top" rather than continue for another three-year term. The group has also gotten great feedback and an uncommon level of support from the SBL steering committee and its publishing arm, the SBL Press.

"It's been one of the most successful groups at the national meetings," Anderson said. "I'd put it in the top 5 percent of all of the seminars at the national meetings. The average attendance is about 30 that go to a session and we've been averaging between 50 and 300."

Anderson said the group also gauges its success by looking at how research on historical Jesus is being taught at universities and seminaries around the world, where it seems younger scholars have been more willing to rethink their stance on if and how John can be incorporated.

"Stepping into the 21st century, I think it's a new era in Jesus studies and John studies and the John, Jesus and History Project has played the leading role in making that change," Anderson said.

In addition to working on the three remaining core volumes, which won't be published for another two or three years, Anderson is co-editing two of the three remaining complimentary books.

One of those, "John and Judaism" will be released toward the end of 2017 and challenges the interpretation that the Gospel of John, and the New Testament overall, are anti-Semitic, a view that goes back as far as Luther.

Anderson said that interpretation incorrectly applies social and political circumstances from later eras that simply didn't apply at the time John was written.

"John is internal to Judaism, so you've got a prophetic, charismatic leader challenging religion," Anderson said. "It's not Christianity versus Judaism. You don't have Christianity yet, so the same critiques against religious leaders would apply also to Christian leaders or political leaders."

Anderson will begin a year of sabbatical in May, which will give him more time to dedicate toward the JJH books and the broader task of explaining how information from John should be incorporated into our conception of the historical Jesus.

"I've got more than a lifetime's worth of work to do," Anderson said.