CATHOLICS HAVE become accustomed by now to seeing Jesus and Mary looking out at them from the glossy covers of Time and Newsweekas they stand in holiday checkout lines at markets and malls.

Any elation at seeing the objects of their faith celebrated in the reigning secular journals is quickly dispelled, however, by perusing the contents of the articles. It's become a holiday tradition: the twice yearly updates at Christmas and Easter on the latest findings of revisionist Scripture scholars who are eager to inform us, once again, that there was no virgin birth or magi coming to adore the Christ child, no crucifixion, resurrection or atonement. All are second century legends surrounding the historical figure of Jesus about whom—when all is said and done—very little can be known.

This Christmas is no exception. Among the season's entries: the cover story of the December issue of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly is entitled “The Search for a No-Frills Jesus.” The story reports on the latest doings of the so-called Jesus Seminar and the architects of the Claremont School of Theology's Q Project.

The Jesus Seminar, headquartered in California and founded by author Robert Funk, is a group of New Testament scholars and historians that has gained notoriety in recent years for denying the historical reliability of much of the material in the Gospels. Its ever-changing roster of participating scholars, drawn from the liberal wing of the Scriptural academy, assemble periodically and vote town-meetingstyle— usually in the negative—on whether Jesus said or did specific things traditionally ascribed to him in the New Testament.

A contra Jesus Seminar summit was held last April in Yonkers, N.Y., involving Catholic, Protestant and Jewish Scripture scholars, to counter public impressions given by the group that their assertions represented a consensus among a majority of scholars and that their conclusions were based on new evidence that had come to light.

But what is the evidence on which the Jesus Seminar and other revisionist scholars base their claims?

The International Q Project, founded by scholar James Robinson, and made up principally of Robinson's students and associates, is headquartered at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, a Claremont Graduate School-affiliated research center in Southern California. Unlike the flashy Jesus Seminar, the Q Project has put in 15 years of painstaking work trying to reconstruct a hypothetical “document” called Q that, they believe, constitutes the oldest literary witness to Jesus of Nazareth and that undergirds the texts of two of the four Gospels.

Many scholars—and not only those associated with the new revisionists— believe that a single literary source, Q (short for Quelle, the German for “source”), accounts for the numerous parallel passages found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Contained in Q, or at least in the passages for which Q is the hypothetical source, are many of the teachings of Jesus that Christians treasure most, including the Lord's Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount.

More than any other single factor, Q research fuels the ongoing debate about the historical Jesus and many of the more radical views of groups like the Jesus Seminar. Under the sponsorship of the International Q Project, the first of a proposed 30-volume reconstruction of this hypothetical source—the roughly 235 parallel verses in Luke and Matthew— was published last spring by the Belgian firm Peeters under the series title Documenta Q.

For Q scholars like Jon Asgeirsson, associate director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in Claremont, “the [Q] collection of sayings of Jesus precede accounts of his passion in terms of age, thus giving them an authenticity and immediacy that the Gospels’ narratives lack.”

In practice, that means that Q's Jesus—a purveyor of wisdom sayings, devoid of virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection, in fact, of much biographical data at all—is the only reliable starting point for a quest for the historical man.

Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, a leading critic of the Q partisans, is not impressed. The Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology at Atlanta's Emory University and author of The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (Harper & Row, 1996), calls it “faux history.”

“What the Q people are doing,” he told the Register, “is not history based on ordinary verifiable data, but rather a kind of paper chase in which literary compositions are excavated to purportedly reveal layers of texts that, in turn, point to stages in community development. There are just no controls. If you arrange the pieces slightly differently, you get a different history.”

“The very existence of Q as something more than a purely descriptive phrase for material found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark is open to the most serious questions,” said Johnson. “It's a kind of historical thinking gone mad.”

But it's the agenda he senses behind the research that disturbs Johnson most. “The recovery of an earlier form of the ‘Jesus movement’ is used by some of [the Claremont scholars] as leverage against traditional Christianity,” he charged. “For them, Jesus is a faculty lounge lizard. The myth of God's involvement with humanity in the flesh and Jesus as the revelation of God's intimacy—an intimacy that calls humanity to empty itself out in service to others—all that is Christian ‘myth,'to be dismissed.… That's why I'm willing to enter into this battle: What's at stake is our hide,” said Johnson.

Not surprisingly, Burton Mack, a professor emeritus of New Testament at the School of Theology at Claremont, and a Q scholar in his own right, sees it differently. “I resent these imputations,” he told the Register. “That assumes that no one is interested in Christian origins unless he has some kind of personal agenda. That's not the point.” Mack is the author of a 1993 work The Lost Gospel that contains his own controversial rendition of Q suggesting that Jesus may have had philosophical similarities with the Cynic movement.

“I'm merely an historian of religion doing my job,” he said. “I'm interested in a Jesus who's historically plausible in order to rediscover what the makers of early Christianity were all about.”

As to charges that he's merely creating a Jesus in the image of his own liberal Christianity, Mack counters “That doesn't take me seriously.” “Of course, I see the Gospels as myth-making,” he admits, “but that's not to get rid of them, or to dismiss them, but rather to discover anew what the early Christians were really trying to tell us.”

Mack defends his research by pointing out that the more historians find out about the New Testament period, “the more we've become aware that there wasn't one form of early Christianity, but various ‘Christianities,’ movements and communities. What [Q research] is telling us about,” he said, “is a specific kind of Jesus movement that wasn't Pauline Christianity.”

Mack and the Claremont school notwithstanding, Q scholarship is hardly a new development. The notion of an underlying source text behind the socalled Synoptic Gospels goes back to 19th century German form criticism and was a particularly important aspect of the work of the 20th century Lutheran biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann. Some form of documentary theory undergirds much mainstream Catholic as well as Protestant biblical scholarship today.

“I think what's going on is a legitimate scholarly enterprise,” commented George Martin, a Catholic writer on biblical subjects and former editor of God's Word Today, a popular monthly magazine on Scripture. “But then you're going to get good reconstructions and bad reconstructions,” he told the Register. Most mainline scholars would say that Matthew and Luke are drawing on some third source, he said. “But, after all, we don't have a copy of whatever it is, and, therefore, the more detailed or speculative the reconstruction is, the more tenuous it all becomes—especially when you're getting to the point of trying to imagine who the authors or the community were behind a hypothetical text…. You can't afford to make a reconstruction into a substitute gospel,” he said.

For Johnson, the critical issue behind the whole debate is not so much scholarly as pastoral:

“In an attempt to remove the ‘otherness’ of Jesus, late 20th century academicians discover a Jesus who looks very much like them: multicultural, inclusive and equalitarian. Culturally, it's all very comfortable. But this avoids the Jesus who gives his life for God and others. In an age of narcissism and self-actualization, the crucified Jesus is truly counter-cultural.

“This search for a revised Jesus is neither bold nor brave,” he insisted. “It's cultural capitulation, a flight from the real Jesus who calls us to discipleship.”

Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.