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alex beam

Much ado about nothing

The searches to track down the ‘real truths’ behind Shakespeare, Jesus, and Homer really don’t matter

As the ridiculous Shakespeare whodunit movie, “Anonymous,’’ slips beneath the waves, you have to ask yourself: Whose idea was this? Not only is the tangled question of who “really’’ wrote Shakespeare’s plays (Edward de Vere? Francis Bacon? Kit Marlowe? There is endless material for sequels here.) absurdly arcane, there is one yawning fact that the producers of “Anonymous’’ overlooked:

No one cares.

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While it is true that various kooks with too much time on their hands - that means you, John Paul Stevens, recently retired from the US Supreme Court, who fervently believes that de Vere was the Bard - spend their waking hours fretting over the Shakespeare canon, their prating amounts to much ado about nothing. Because in the end we have the comedies, the tragedies, the histories, and the beautiful sonnets. Who has world enough and time to digest these masterpieces, much less to fret about what Marlowe did and when did he do it?

Forget Shakespeare. What about Jesus? There have been two major academic undertakings in recent decades aiming to discover the “truth about Jesus,’’ or “who Jesus really was,’’ and “whether Jesus really lived.’’ And like the foofaraw over the purported authors of Shakespeare plays, it is so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In 1985, more than a hundred scholars launched the Jesus Seminar, “to inquire simply, rigorously after the voice of Jesus, after what he really said.’’ Fifteen years later, the Seminar had produced three books devoted to . . . what? It generated a Bible that almost no one uses, with color-coded quotations from Jesus, assessing the varying probability that he actually made the statement. The Seminar rubbished the purported New Testament miracles, but of course Scottish philosopher David Hume had done that 250 years before, and more convincingly.

“Much of what the Seminar said was commonplace in the 19th century,’’ comments Bruce Chilton, professor of religion at Bard College and a a member of the Seminar. “The idea that Jesus’ birth isn’t mentioned in two of the gospels - that has been around for ages. Part of what the Seminar did was to say things more loudly than they had been said before.’’

Chilton also participated in the short-lived Jesus Project, an assemblage of scholars that had a not-so-secret agenda of proving that Jesus never existed. “Unlike the ‘Jesus Seminar,’ ’’ the Project’s 2007 announcement read, “the new Project regards the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was an historical figure as a ‘testable hypothesis.’ ’’

Before the Project lost its funding in 2009, founder Joseph Hoffman complained that the non-academic world suffered from “Jesus-fatigue - the sort of despair that can only be compared to a police investigation gone cold.’’ That was “the result of a certain resignation to the unimportance of historical conclusions.’’

Translation: No one cares.

The demystification of Jesus is akin to the Shakespeare madness, an effort to prove a negative that almost certainly is not true. People say a lot of things about Jesus, but most agree that he was a historical person whom the Romans crucified about 2,000 years ago. They kept records of these things.

The cumulative impact of the Jesus Seminar and the Jesus Project on Christianity? I’d say zero. My friend Rev. Joel Ives, rector of the Church of Our Saviour in Brookline, agrees. “I’m all for biblical scholarship, but my job is to fill pews on Sunday morning by hopefully giving thirsty souls some spiritual morsel to help them through burned meatloaf, mortgage payments, and the million unknowns that make up the week,’’ he wrote in an e-mail. “The Jesus Seminar reduction-sauce-Jesus isn’t what built Notre Dame, or what gave Oscar Romero the spiritual chops to do what he did. Nobody prays to the Jesus of history in a hospital bed!’’

A recent issue of The New Yorker highlighted yet another quest for a “true’’ identity, as scholars wool-gather about who the heck Homer might have been. If, as it’s been said, we are certain of three facts about Jesus’ life - the crucifixion is one - we are certain of no facts about Homer. If he existed at all, he lived nine centuries before the birth of Christ.

Again, pardon me, but who cares? Homer is obviously a name for a glorious and generally well-preserved tradition of classical storytelling. Maybe Homer was a woman; maybe Homer was a slave. Maybe Homer was a committee composed of women and slaves and a couple of other people who brought the wine.

It’s not the person. It’s the poems, the parables, and the plays that are the things that have caught the conscience of kings, and us.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.
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