"SCHOLAR REFUTES JESUS STORIES."  That was the headline to a front-page newspaper story about a speech I recently gave in a Midwestern university town. That headline, and the story that followed, ignited a firestorm of controversy that raged in the "Letters to the Editor" pages for the next six weeks. Opinions ranged from "His views are so far out that I can't believe he says he's a Christian" to calling my approach "a way of fully appreciating the richness and beauty of the Gospels, in our 20th century context." So which is it? Is my search for the historical Jesus a threat to faith? Or does it help make faith a possibility for modern men and women?

Actually, that headline writer got it wrong. My purpose was to try to understand the stories of Jesus, not refute them. The title of my speech that evening was simply "What I've Learned from 35 Years of Searching for the Historical Jesus." And that is also what this book is about. It is an invitation to journey back in time with me to see Jesus in his own setting in the first century Jewish homeland. But before we begin, let me tell you a bit about myself and how I got involved in this search . . . .

I grew up in small towns in Ireland. In 1950, at the age of sixteen, I entered the Servites, a Roman Catholic monastic order founded in the thirteenth century. That was the century when St. Thomas Aquinas combined Aristotle's philosophy with Catholic theology, and never worried that one might contradict the other. Reason and revelation, he insisted, were twin gifts from the same God, and could not be in conflict - unless we misunderstood one or both of them.

That same conviction was deeply embedded in my own heart when, after six years of studying philosophy and theology, I was ordained a priest in 1957. My priestly life was spent more in the library than the parish, and included years of advanced study at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and the French School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. As a priest, I taught in a number of colleges, universities and seminaries in the Chicago area.

In 1969 I asked for and received permission to leave the priesthood and the Servite Order. I left primarily in order to marry, but also to avoid a conflict of interest between priestly loyalty and scholarly honesty. The official letter of permission from the Vatican was dated July 4th - which I considered rather appropriate. Did I leave with feelings of resentment and anger toward the Church? No. While I was a monk and a priest, I was quite happy. When I was no longer happy, I left. It was that simple. Some others have been badly hurt in such transitions; I was not.

From those years in that medieval Order I have retained three rather medieval gifts. The first is my name: John is my civil name, and Dominic the new name given me when I entered the Servites. The second is a profound conviction that faith and fact, revelation and reason cannot contradict one another, unless the human mind has misunderstood either or both. The third gift is a very great love for Gregorian Chant, which I sang badly enough to ruin whole choirs and for whose survival my departure was probably a public service.

After leaving the priesthood in 1969, I joined the faculty of DePaul University in Chicago, remaining there until my retirement as Professor Emeritus in 1995. Since I have been a religiously controversial figure, that long tenure is a tribute to DePaul's courage and integrity.

When I joined DePaul, I needed to choose a research focus. Since at the seminary I had been teaching courses on the parables of Jesus, and on the resurrection stories, I decided to concentrate on the historical Jesus. Year after year I researched and published on particular aspects of Jesus as seen in his own historical context. Indeed, I am probably the only scholar in the world who has spent an entire lifetime on the search for the historical Jesus. That, of course, does not necessarily make me right - but it does make me competent, and persistent.

In 1985, I joined with Robert Funk, newly retired from the University of Montana, in founding the "Jesus Seminar," a group of scholars interested in questions of historical Jesus research and Christian origins. The Jesus Seminar usually involves some forty or fifty scholars at the four-day sessions held twice a year. What has brought us a lot of public attention is that we not only discuss but decide. Suppose, for example, that we are working together on a subject like the "Kingdom of God" sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. After extensive debate, we vote in secret, using colored beads to indicate our view about how likely it is that the particular words actually come from the historical Jesus. A Red bead means that the saying most likely came from Jesus; a Pink bead means likely; a Gray bead means not likely; and Black bead means very unlikely. Although such voting has attracted a lot of media attention, there is really nothing unusual about it. For example, you may have in you home a version of the New Testament which often has footnotes to a particular verse, saying something like "Other ancient authorities read . . . ." That means that a committee of scholars, looking at ancient manuscripts that differ from each other, have voted on which is most authentic - a process much like ours in the Jesus Seminar.

What has made the Jesus Seminar notorious is that we do our work out in the open, inviting media attention, letting anyone who is interested in on our processes as well as our conclusions. We do not want to hide our work in scholarly journals, writing only for one another. We want to let the general public know what we are doing, and invite them to join the dialogue on major issues of Jesus research.

Besides my work with the Jesus Seminar, during the 1980's I continued to publish the results of my own research, basically for other scholars. But then an amazing thing happened. In 1991 I published a major book, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, a summary of my research into Jesus' life and work. I assumed that other scholars would read it, and that the general public would never even hear of it. But Peter Steinfels of the New York Times mentioned it in a front page article around Christmastime, and his story was picked up by many other newspapers. By June, to my great surprise, the book was at the top of Publisher's Weekly religious bestseller list. A briefer version, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, was on the same top-ten list for eight months in 1994. (It was pushed downwards by the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, which proves that God has a sense of humor.) The unexpected popularity of these books shows a deep and widespread public interest in the figure of Jesus.

Which brings us to the question: Why this book?

The answer has three parts. First, there is a need for a brief, easily read introduction to basic questions and conclusions of Jesus research for general readers. Not everyone has the background to plow through the sometimes dense thickets of scholarly argument. This book is meant to make sense to you, even if you have never studied the Bible or had a course on Christian origins. Second, in recent years I have done nearly a hundred radio talk shows and probably as many newspaper interviews, and from those have learned a lot about the questions that are on people's minds. This book is written in a question-and-answer style, not only to break up the text into bite-sized chunks, but to give me a chance to answer typical questions. Third, I have received hundreds of letters - from 38 states and 20 foreign countries - from people who have read my books, heard me speak, or read media reviews of my work. This book not only lets me answer them, but also gives you a chance to see what others are thinking and saying. Each chapter begins with selections from typical letters, edited down for reasons of space. By the way, I expected negative letters; it is the positive ones that surprised me. For each letter that accuses me of betraying the faith, I get four to five others that basically thank me for helping the writers reconnect with the historical Jesus and their Christian faith. I am very grateful to these letter writers for their questions and concerns, whether in agreement or disagreement with my own positions. Although I could not reply adequately to each one, this book cites a large sample of letters to respond finally to them all. In short then, this book is intended to make the results of a lifetime of scholarship about the historical Jesus readily available to a wide audience of non-specialists.