Institute Researching Christianity’s Origins Comes to Willamette University
The Westar Institute, an international association of scholars looking at the historical origins of Christianity, is making the move to Willamette University.
Willamette, the first university established in the West, was originally founded as a pioneering effort of the Methodist Church and once hosted a school of theology. With Westar's move to Salem, part of that tradition has been resurrected.
The 34 surviving early Christian Gospels, including the four contained in the New Testament, were written by second-generation disciples, and scholars have disagreed about their authenticity since the Enlightenment. Since 1985 more than 200 Westar-affiliated scholars have sifted through the sayings and deeds of Jesus to determine those most likely to be authentic and those that should be attributed to leaders of the early church.
"The Westar Institute applies widely accepted scholarly criteria to weigh the historical evidence," said Lane McGaughy, a co-founder of the organization and former chair of the board of directors. "We're trying to rescue Jesus from the enclaves of religious dogmatism and put him back on the historical agenda. He's been viewed only as a divine figure and his humanity has been lost over the centuries. He has not been taken seriously as a cultural or historical figure."
Westar doesn't stop there. It makes the findings available to lay audiences.
"There has never been a concerted effort to bring this scholarship to the general public," McGaughy said. "Such research was once considered too controversial or complicated for lay persons to understand, and so scholars just talked to one another. This research opens up a new kind of public conversation about religion."
The debate has drawn the interest of thousands of adherents around the globe, who attend traveling seminars and offer financial support.
Westar also sponsors Polebridge Press. One of the first books off the press, The Five Gospels, published in 1993, graphically displays the sayings attributed to Jesus that can be verified using historical and literary criteria.
"The book became a New York Times bestseller," McGaughy recalls. "Despite the negative reaction by some critics of the Jesus Seminar, the book, in fact, spawned an entire industry of documentaries, movies and books about Jesus."
This fall the Westar Institute, Polebridge Press and Willamette University will partner in a relationship that promises to be advantageous to all parties. Willamette has long aspired to a university press; Polebridge and Westar were looking for a new home; Westar's mission is consistent with that of Willamette's new Center for Ancient Studies and Archaeology, which will house the institute; and McGaughy has offered to oversee the collaboration.
The press will continue to publish scholarly theological books, but will also public academic books from Willamette scholars, as well as books by noted authors from around the world.
"There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle," McGaughy said, "and they've all come together quickly and beautifully. It was the perfect timing for this to occur."
The professor emeritus of religious studies said Willamette plans to gather a strong cluster of people interested in New Testament scholarship and the origins of Christianity.
"In a sense," McGaughy said, "Willamette has reclaimed a part of its theological heritage with these developments."