Archive for category Historical Jesus
Bart Ehrman annoys me to no end. Don’t get me wrong. I love reading his books most of the time. He’s one of my favorite apostates. (And I use this term in the correct Greek sense. It means “to stand away from.”)
What annoys me about Ehrman is the way he uses rapid fire statements as if they are affirmations of his views and uses statements like “scholarly consensus” and “overwhelming majority of Biblical scholars” to state his views while painting the rest of us as (at the least) naive or (at the worst) deliberate liars.
I am reading his book Jesus, Interrupted and it is amazing to see the narrow way that he interprets the Scriptures. In many ways, Ehrman is far more literal in his reading of the Gospels than most fundamentalists are. He is what I refer to as a restrictive literalist. He allows for only one way of reading the text. That way, it is easy to point and say, “See! Contradition!”
And what is his way of reading? To Ehrman, the gospels must be absolutely consistent with one another in order to be accurate. They must meet a modern (and purely hypothetical) standard of historical accuracy. If they don’t then they are clearly not worth following.
Let me be clear here. The gospels are not fully consistent on the details. When Ehrman points out differences in the gospels, for the most part he is right. The different gospels have some major variations in the way they tell the Jesus story.
But that doesn’t make them inaccurate. Ehrman has confused modern precision with ancient accuracy. The question he fails to ask is this: were gospels required to be consistent by the original audiences?
This is a vital question, and I think the answer is a resounding NO! If they had been, surely editors would have ironed out the kinks. Ehrman assumes that modern man can see what the ignorant ancients cannot. The ancient and medieval Christians could read just as well as modern ones can. They chose not to redact the gospels. Why? Clearly, there was a perceived intention on the part of the gospel writers that the readers did not wish to violate.
In no way do the variants of the Gospels negate the message of Jesus’ life, crucifixion and resurrection. These were oral traditions, communicating a message in a way that different faith communities could transmit it. They report the same life, the same journey but in different ways and sometimes using varying elements in their transmission.
Each gospel was written by a different person for a different faith community at a somewhat different moment in time. They show that the Christian faith was not the monolith that Ehrman seems to assume it had to be. This is actually quite surprising given that Ehrman is one of the main advocates for a diversity in pre-Nicaea Christianity.
Far from showing that Christianity is a lie and the gospels are fabrications, the diversity of voices of the gospels shows that the message of Jesus was so powerful that it could exist in four distinct but amazingly powerful gospels, circulated in different parts of the empire and then together without competition. We don’t have people yelling, “Only the gospel of Mark is accurate! Destroy your copies of John!” (Well, the Marcionites did, but they were weird.)
We do, however, have people holding to the four gospels we have today and rejecting many of the other pseudo-gospels that were circulating at the time. This does happen in church history. There was something about the four canonical gospels that made them hang together once they were together.
This is what Ehrman misses. He, in his academic ivory palace, wants to reject the work of the faith community. The gospels were not put together by bishops and church councils. The churches themselves united under the four gospels, and rejected the other gospels. The churches embraced the diversity of the gospels because they could.
In this sense, our modern intellectual rationalism is inferior to the ancient mind. We have lost the ability to embrace diversity, and I hope that this emerging postmodernity in which we live will grow backward to the ancient mind and its openness to diversity. I hope and pray that the modern inclination to believing its superiority to our peers of previous generations will become a relic.
In history, as in journalism, second-hand is usually as good as it gets. We can’t speak as historians. But as journalists, we find those Gospel discrepancies very reassuring. That’s how real events get reported. - Ted Byfield1
One of the harshest realities for Christians to accept is that we do, to a certain extent, recreate Jesus in every culture and generation. It is unavoidable simply because we truly do not understand the world that Jesus lived in. We have indications and generalizations from archaeology and contemporary records, but we do not know everything or even nearly everything.
It is the ultimate presumption to state that any one group of scholars has mastered enough of Jesus’ world to contradict what the Bible shows. A modern equivalent of their textual attempts might be like taking the Constitution and trying to determine which member of the Constitutional Convention was responsible for which articles and statements.
This, however, is exactly what the Jesus scholars believe they can do. They believe that they have reasonable evidence to present Jesus in situa, or as near to it as possible. This is a summary of their conclusions and some simple, concise answers.
Most Jesus scholars will cede the point that early Christianity developed shortly after the execution of Jesus. They accept the presence of what they call “the Jesus movement” and the person of the apostle Paul.
It is to this “Jesus movement” that we owe the fictional accounts around Jesus. The narratives of the gospel supposedly grew up around the sayings credited to Jesus. The sayings were passed on and added to through oral tradition. This was a subconscious movement from proverb to gospel, and it would have taken place over at least a couple of centuries.
Personally, I have no problem with believing that the Christian gospels began as oral tradition. I do not however believe that they were embellished records because I can freely accept the supernatural. The Jesus Seminar’s biggest failure is that it is a wholly modernistic, rationalist approach that believes that if they cannot experience it, it must not have happened.
The writers of the gospels were anonymous Christians with little connection or love for the Judaism that Jesus ministered in. They were Greek-speakers with very little information about Jesus’ life, and so they invented or extrapolated the context of the sayings they had heard through oral tradition. Most Jesus scholars believe that the evangelists were at least 3rd generation Christians. This belief is so ingrained in the modern mind that a 1990 U.S. News & World Report article simply states it as fact: “While some of the writings bear the names of those who walked with Him on the dusty roads of Judea, centuries of scholarship have turned up little convincing evidence that His 12 closest disciples did much writing, either.”2
Of the preserved gospels, Mark was written first. Since it contains little supernatural information, reflects Jesus’ Judaism in a rather neutral light, and seems to be more pericopic in nature, they conclude that it is close to the original oral tradition.
Contemporary with Mark, there is another source – Q – which contains only oral tradition. The two sources were combined by the author’s of Matthew and Luke into their current forms in the 2nd century. The three gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are then synoptic because they rely on similar sources and not because they are written by eyewitnesses.
All Jesus scholars conclude that the gospel of John is written last, but they differ widely on its sources. Some say that it relies on parts of Mark and Q, while others believe it is entirely a work of fiction. They almost all agree, however, that it is not a reliable source of information on the life of the “historical” Jesus.
There is no reason to assume any of the things the Jesus Seminar assumes about the Gospels other than the theories of some 19th century theologians who believed the Gospels must have evolved and hence the ‘simplest’ of them must be the ‘first’ of them. There are a lot of reasons Mark might not be the ‘source’ material for Matthew and Luke – differences which I’ll address one day. But if Mark is not the ‘first’ written gospel, then their entire theory about the writing of the gospels falls apart.
Jesus and His World
With the elimination of the gospels as reliable witnesses to Jesus’ surroundings, the Jesus scholars extrapolate who Jesus was – literally picking and choosing which references in the gospels are original.
In Excavating Jesus, John Dominic Crossan argues that archaeological digs in Nazareth have yielded little to support the Gospel records of the village. The town was probably populated by a few hundred residents, and it is definitely Jewish in nature. There is no known structure for a synagogue. There are no contemporary references to the town until after the time of Constantine.
Crossan argues, based on the archaeological discoveries in Nazareth, that one can divide the Nazareth of the Gospel records into recognizable layers of development.
- Materials that go back to the late 20’s.
- Materials adopted from earlier layers or created by and within the ongoing “Jesus movement” tradition, dating from the 30’s and 40’s.
- This layer is divided into three sub-layers
- Mark & Q – spanning late 50’s – early 70’s
- Matthew & Luke – the 80’s but dependent on Mark and Q
- John – the layer of tradition, reliant on the previous layers and additions
Of course, the distinctions among these layers are very fine, and only the objective scholars of the Jesus Seminar are able to accurately divine what is true.
Under the weight of this information, Crossan states unequivocally that Nazareth could not have yielded a literate, educated rabbi. Based on an assumed literacy rate of under 5%, Crossan makes the statement that Jesus must have been an untrained and illiterate peasant. In fact, all of Crossan’s works attempt to show Jesus to be “a Mediterranean peasant.”
The best answer to the arguments about Nazareth are simple ones – misinformation. There is nothing in the gospels that indicates that the synagogue Jesus entered was a building. In all likelihood, it was a gathering of the men without the need for an official building. The building of synagogues was almost parallel with the construction of churches in the Christian era.
Second, the traditional Jesus is indeed not nearly as Jewish as Jesus truly was. Christian closed-mindedness has blinded us to what the gospel record really says about Jesus’ Judaism. While living to fulfill the Law, he violates only the interpretation of the Law and never the Law itself.
Third, the assumption that Jesus was an ignorant peasant is ungrounded. In all likelihood, either Joseph or Mary had family in the Levitical lines. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is called a daughter of Aaron, and although the Jesus Seminar rejects the supernatural account of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, they accept the existence of John and his family. If Jesus was John’s cousin, then he was most likely close enough to the priesthood, or at least the Pharisaical schools, to learn to read and write – if informally.
Fourth, it is entirely likely that Joseph was not the poor, ignorant hick he is portrayed as. The fact that he can afford to trek to Jerusalem at least twice during Jesus’ life, and apparently more often, indicates that he may very well has been a landed man. He may not have had a great deal of ready cash, and since he was not a farmer, he did not bring the offerings of lambs and goats; but nevertheless, he is called “the carpenter” – perhaps an indication of his status in the region, not just the village where he resided.
As such, Jesus was not necessarily a peasant. He did not possess things, but that would not have prevented his family from doing so. A simple man? Yes, probably. A peasant? Hardly. Since Jesus had no intention of living to an age or marrying, he did not take possession of Joseph’s property and allowed his half-brothers to take up that role. This is evident in a later talk about the sons of Jude, one of Jesus’ half-brothers, who possess 9,000 talents worth of land – not a small sum.
1 Ted Byfield, “If the Gospels are Disqualified, then Most History Must Be Disqualified Too” (Newsmagazine vol 25, iss 4, 01/12/1998), p
2 Jeffrey L. Sheler, “Who Wrote the Bible?” (U.S. News & World Report, vol 109 iss 23, 12/10/90), p 61
The historical Jesus is summoned, but the image who appears too often is a (thinly disguised) version of ourselves. - Paula Fredricksen1
In order to “properly” dissect the gospels to discover the historical Jesus, the Jesus Seminar and other “Jesus Scholars” make certain assumptions made about the texts. Paula Fredricksen candidly points out that, as modern scholarship views it, the Gospels sit on the far side of a tremendous gap between them and the life of Jesus. She supposes that Jesus was an Aramaic-speaking Jew of the lower class in a pre-Christian world whereas the evangelists were Greek-speaking Christians in a world hostile to Judaism. Based on this, she makes the following conclusions:
- Even if eyewitness testimony does lie to some extent behind some of the Gospel traditions, that testimony is never scientific or objective, first of all because the witness is human. In this particular case, their conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead, which would have motivated their preserving and circulating these stories, would inevitably have affected the reports of prior events that these witnesses gave. Other early members of the movement, not so convinced, would and presumably did speak differently.
- These stories would have been told and retold – by those of the original generation during their lifetimes; by the later, intervening generations for theirs – before achieving the relative stability of writing. Revision and amplification inevitably travel along this chain of transmission, again because its links are human.
- The eventual achievement of written form did not fully stabilize these traditions from and about Jesus, as a simple comparison of our four Gospels shows. The Gospels themselves differ.2
The Inconsistency of the Narrative
The inherent unreliability that Fredricksen seems to expect from the Gospels illustrates that modern Jesus scholarship has rejected the concept of inspiration. This is, in fact, one of the intrinsic beliefs of Jesus scholarship. It is assumed that the Gospel narratives developed over time. They develop this belief at the intersection of two epistemological vectors.
1. The nature of God is such that he would not inspire Scripture.
Robert W. Funk continually reiterates that the Jesus Seminar does not believe that God effects change in the world.
“The notion that God interferes with the order of nature from time to time in order to aid or punish is no longer credible, in spite of the fact that most people still believe it. Miracles are an affront to the justice and integrity of God, however understood. Miracles are conceivable only as the inexplicable; otherwise they contradict the regularity of the order of the physical universe.”3
Since the giving of Scripture by the power of the Spirit of God would be considered a miracle, it could not have happened. Scripture must then, by default, have developed by human agency and humans are inherently, if subconsciously, prone to embellishment and bias.
Even ceding the idea that God might have supernaturally given the narratives; the Jesus Seminar asks the simple question of why God did not preserve the original manuscripts to avoid confusion.
“It seems little enough to ask of a God who creates absolutely reliable reporters. In fact, we do not have original copies of any of the gospels. We do not possess autographs of any of the books of the entire Bible. The oldest surviving copies of the gospels date from about one hundred and seventy-five years after the death of Jesus, and no two copies are precisely alike.”4
Hence, since God did not preserve his perfectly given narratives, he must not have given the narratives in the first place. As a result, the existing gospels must be the works of men and subject to the conditions of the works of men.
2. The supposed inconsistencies of the narratives show evidence of tampering.
The probability of the inaccuracy of the gospel narratives increased geometrically when one removes the view of scriptural inerrancy. If the accounts were not given by God then they were suspect to all kinds of unchecked influences that altered, deleted, and added material.
Crossan puts it quite plainly. He details that while most people read the gospels one after another, when you read them next to each other, the errors become quite evident.
“It is disagreement rather than agreement that strikes you most forcibly. And those divergences stem not from the random vagaries of memory and recall but from the coherent and consistent theologies of the individual texts. The gospels are, in other words, interpretations.”
Add on top of this the belief that those who developed the narratives had their own agenda, and you have quite the mess to sort out. “The historian…must be aware that the authors had theological convictions and that they may have revised their accounts to support their theology.”5
Jesus scholarship seems to view the gospels as a literary form unique to the Christian community.
“The gospels are neither histories nor biographies, even within the ancient tolerances for those genres.”6
“Scholars make the most of the fragmentary and belated texts they have, utilizing the rigors of investigation and peer review, and offering no more than tentative claims based on historical probability.”7
In other words, the true meaning of the text must be determined by the historian/literary critic.
Bultmann’s proposition that the narratives were intermixed layers seemed to make Jesus scholarship impossible. How could one separate the various forms and contexts to bring the historical Jesus out from underneath the rubble, so to speak?
E. P. Sanders proposes that there are four layers of development in the gospels, which expands on the basic problems with the cultural gap demonstrated above.
- The original oral traditions which were delivered (performed) in homiletical or pedagogical contexts
- Collections of related units into groups of pericopes
- Gatherings of pericopes into Proto-gospels (pre-Mark and Q)
- The development of the canonical gospels8
Dividing the canonical gospels based on their proto-gospel influences is a fairly straightforward matter. The historian assumes that Mark is one source for Matthew and Luke, then he removes all the passages and incidents that all three share. After that, he classes all the material that Matthew and Luke share as coming from another source – usually Q.
What is left over is considered the author’s embellishment. Most Jesus scholars attribute this material to performances in oral form. With each performance of the oral tradition of Jesus’ words, new factors or contexts or situations were added. “The Christian material was kept alive and fresh, even though it was used over and over again, by being applied to living issues – not all of which were the issues of Galilee between 25 and 30 CE.”9 This contextual material is considered the work of the individual evangelists and generally disregarded.
The proto-gospels are themselves considered compendiums of smaller units called pericopes – literally “cut around.” These are self-contained units, usually stories surrounding a saying or series of sayings. They are often found in different contexts in the gospels and are supposedly moved around to any number of different settings to suit the needs of the narrator.
In turn, the pericopes have at their root the original oral traditions with some additional teaching materials attached. These are considered hermeneutical or pedagogical units, depending on if they were used in preaching or in teaching.
Finally, these small units have at their core the oral traditions. These are usually sayings of Jesus without any contextual information although some of the events are considered historical. Of course, they are translations of Jesus’ sayings since he spoke in Aramaic, and as Bultmann points out, there is some inherent loss in translation.
Bultmann stats quite plainly in Jesus and the Word, this is really as far as we can go. The understanding beyond the original oral traditions is lost. If they aren’t the words of Jesus, there really is no way to figure it out.
Really, this scenario has been oversimplified for brevity’s sake. The process adopted by Jesus scholars is often quite involved. It is important to note one more thing before moving on to other matters.
Jesus scholars, especially the Jesus Seminar, do not consider the larger contexts of the gospels because they assume, based on Schmidt’s work, that the overarching plots and storylines are fictional. They do not attempt to interrelate events, characters or developments. They view the narratives as collections of independent pieces without cohesion. They consider the gospel narrative to be composed of 176 individual pericopes, of which they consider 80% to be non-historical.10
The Jesus Scholars’ Seven Pillars
In The Five Gospels, Robert Funk establishes the seven pillars upon which their understanding of Jesus and early Christianity rest.
- There is a distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith
- The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are closer to the historical Jesus than John
- The Gospel of Mark is prior to and a source for the other two synoptic gospels
- There existed another source (Q) that provided material for Matthew and Luke that is independent of Mark (more correctly, pre-Mark)
- Jesus was a non-eschatological teacher who used aphorisms and parables
- There is a fundamental contrast between the oral culture of Jesus day and a print culture of our own day.
- The Gospels are assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church’s faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand.11
We can further reduce these seven pillars to a much simpler formula. At its very basic level, modern Jesus scholarship assumes the inaccuracy and evolution of the Jesus stories. While accepting that Jesus truly existed and that there is a tangible record of his ministry, they reject the primary sources of that ministry on the basis of a hundred years of scholarship which begins with the assumption that Jesus could not be divine.
As the Jesus Scholar reads the narratives of Jesus, or more specifically the pericopes of Jesus, he examines them for internal consistency. This examination is based on several standards:
- Anachronisms (persons or events which are deemed to have come out of a different time period) are rejected
- Mythological connections are set aside – for example, Jesus’ birth story is so similar to that of Moses that they consider it a later addition
- Elements which justify Christian thinking or practices are not included – they are assumed to be later additions
In short, the stories surrounding the sayings are generally rejected. Funk explains:
“Historical reminiscence is likely to be found in the nucleus of stories if anywhere, particular performances of the introductions and conclusions will tend to reflect the storyteller’s or narrator’s interests, convictions, and audience.”12
The Problem with Dramatic Plausibility
Critiquing the narratives on the basis of dramatic plausibility requires a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of the cultural contexts of the Scriptures. Even E. P. Sanders bulks at making judgments based on this criterion. He admits that we know little about the cultures Jesus lived in outside of the writing of Flavius Josephus.13
Josephus is, at best, a disreputable source. He was a Hellenic Jew who surrendered Galilee to the Roman general Vespasian and only spared his own life by predicting that Vespasian would become emperor. While he is the only extra-bibical, near-contemporary of Jesus, his works show misinformation and personal bias. His writings are certainly as tainted (if not more so) as the scholars claim the gospels are.
Even if we allow that the extant copies of Josephus are trustworthy (which is questionable), there are a number of reasons to look to his accounts warily.
- He spent most of his time living in Rome, researching from secondary and tertiary sources. He may have made things up for all we know since there is no way to verify his works.
- His volumes are written specifically for the Roman court, and as such cast Rome always as the protagonist, which must have required adjustment of events.
- We have no way of knowing his sources’ veracity since they are lost.
What we do know is that historical records like Josephus’ rarely represent the actual living conditions of the lower classes. If Jesus was, as Crossan calls him, “A Mediterranean peasant”, then our knowledge of the context of his teachings is limited. We can conjecture as to the nature of his associations, the social standing of various individuals.
So really, our knowledge of the actual context of Jesus’ life is virtually unknown outside of archaeology and archaeology is often reinterpreted by scholar based on their own biases.
1 Paula Fredricksen, “Who Do You Say That I Am?” (World & I, vol 14 iss 12) p 285, 15p
3 Funk, “21 Theses of the Coming Radical Reformation”.
4 Funk, The Five Gospels, 10.
5 E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus. (New York: The Penguin Group, 1993), 8.
6 John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994), xiii.
7 Funk, The Five Gospels, 10.
8 Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 61-62.
10 William P. Lowe, “From the Humanity of Christ to the Historical Jesus” (Theological Studies, vol 61 iss 2, June 2000) p 314, 18p
11 Funk, The Five Gospels, 5-8.
12 Funk, The Acts of Jesus, 26.
13 Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 21.
Learning precisely who wrote the gospels may be beyond us. But it may be more important to learn how the church did, and does, tell the story of Jesus vitally in each new generation. - John P. Meier1
Inherent in the development of Jesus scholarship was the development of a new, strange mold of spirituality. It maintains a separation from the Jesus of faith and yet continues to adhere to him. He is, of course, not the Jesus of the gospels, and yet he is seemingly important to the writers.
It is important to note that to a person these Jesus scholars consider themselves Christians and believe that what they are doing is forwarding the cause of God. Of course, their understanding of God is something foreign to the mainstream Christian’s view, but that is beside the point.
If you read anything by John Dominic Crossan, you will encounter his constant parallels between Augustus Caesar and Jesus. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Crossan sees Jesus as the anti-type of that first emperor. He casts Jesus in the opposite mold, a Mediterranean peasant.
Of course, Jesus and Augustus were historically unaware of each other’s personal existence. While Jesus must have known of Augustus, the man died before Jesus was 20 years of age; and Augustus certainly took no interest in just one of his subjects in a somewhat distant but important part of his empire.
I would actually agree with Crossan that the Gospel writers (particularly Mark) intentionally cast a light on Christ to compare him to Caesar, to make him an anti-Caesar of sorts. But Crossan’s parallel has nothing to do with that. Instead, he sees them as two men who had been equally deified by their followers. More specifically, Crossan sees Jesus as a myth surrounding a man. Just as Augustus Caesar was something more than Octavius, so to Jesus Christ is something more than the Mediterranean peasant.
He chooses not to separate the myth and the man in his spirituality, although he does so on paper, and proposes:
“Jesus Christ is the combination of a fact (Jesus) and an interpretation (Christ). They should neither be separated nor confused, and each must be found anew in every generation, for their structural dialectic is the heart of Christianity.”2
Crossan’s fellow founder of the Jesus Seminar, Robert W. Funk says, “The New Testament is a highly uneven and biased record of orthodox attempts to invent Christianity.”3 By contrast, however, “The kingdom [which Jesus preached] is a journey without an end.”
Rudolf Bultmann and Natural Mysticism
The writings of Rudolf Bultmann are intrinsically linked to the work of the Seminar. They are updating and expanding his work. We must then know what Bultmann believed. He is, in a very real sense, the true founder of their thinking; and we must know his thinking in order to understand their own.
Although Bultmann’s works are prodigious, his ultimate conclusions can be reduced simply. Bultmann believed that Jesus was essentially a good man whose followers made him into something he never intended to be and the quest to determine his actual words is an exercise in scholarly futility.
Critical investigation shows that the whole tradition about Jesus which appears in the three synoptic gospels is composed of a series of layers which can on the whole be clearly distinguished, although the separation at some points is difficult and doubtful…By means of this critical analysis an oldest layer is determined, though it can be marked off with only relative exactness. Naturally we have no absolute assurance that the exact words of this oldest layer were really spoken by Jesus. There is a possibility that the contents of this oldest layer are also the result of a complicated historical process which we can no longer trace.4
Notice the ambiguity of Bultmann’s own words: difficult and doubtful, no absolute assurance, a complicated historical process which we can no longer trace. At every turn, his view of the situation was one of abstracts and generalizations. Such was the nature of all his predecessors’ work as well.
Bultmann held that the world of the gospels was, in fact, mythological in character and that the mythology must be stripped away before one can even begin to understand the historical Jesus that lies under the pre-scientific world view.5 To that end, the entire context of the gospel narrative is mythological (or at least based in mythology) and must be rejected.
Bultmann pushed the boundaries of the forced history-faith dichotomy. He insisted that the myth of Jesus was an expression of his followers’ faith and not inherent to their trust in Him – that you could strip Jesus of the myth of the gospels and still be able to trust him.
“It is easy enough to deal with the doctrine of Christ’s preexistence and the legend of the Virgin birth in this way. They are clearly attempts to explain the meaning of the Person of Jesus for faith. The facts which historical criticism can verify cannot exhaust, indeed they cannot adequately indicate, all that Jesus means to me. How he actually originated matters little, indeed we can appreciate his significance only when we cease to worry about such questions. Our interest in the events of his life, and above all in the cross, is more than an academic concern with the history of the past. We can see meaning in them only when we ask what God is trying to say to each one of us through them. Again, the figure of Jesus cannot be understood simply from his inner-worldly context. In mythological language, this means that he stems from eternity, his origin is not a human and natural one.”6
Bultmann adhered to a view of the presence of Christ that was quite separate from the Jesus of the Gospels. He felt that he could have faith in Christ without investing the Gospels with authority since his relationship was with the “living Jesus.”
This view was the result of an understanding of Paul’s relationship with Jesus which involved a number of statements Paul attributed to Jesus that do not appear in any gospel record, either canonical or non-canonical. In this sense, Jesus is and not was.
This attitude continues in the works of the modern Jesus scholars who always speak of Jesus in the present tense, as he relates to them. The life is, as Marcus Borg – among others – calls it, “a perpetual odyssey” or “the non-literal approach.” In fact, Borg explains the basis for this type of relationship with Jesus in profound terms:
- The gospels are not primarily history, but “proclamation” (kerygma, as we learned to call it).
- The oldest parts of the gospel tradition are Q (a collection of sayings) and Mark (the oldest narrative).
- The gospel of John is highly symbolic and essentially not historical.
- Even the material in the synoptic gospels is the product of a long process of development, shaped by Christian communities during the time of oral transmission, and further redacted by the evangelists. Using them as historical sources for Jesus is thus difficult.
- Most (perhaps all) of the “exalted titles” by which Jesus is known in the Christian tradition do not go back to Jesus himself.
- It follows that Jesus message was not about himself or the importance of believing in him.
- Jesus was an eschatological figure. He expected “the end of the world” in his own generation. This expectation was quite literal, involving the coming of the Kingdom of God “in power,” the gathering of the elect, and judgment. This expectation was central, not peripheral, to shaping and animating Jesus’ ministry and message. This point, along with the next three, has fallen away as a foundation to my work.
- His central message was the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, understood eschatologically.
- Jesus also spoke of “the coming of the Son of man,” whose advent would be associated with end of the world events. Scholars were divided about whether he was referring to himself (that is, to his own future role), or whether he was speaking about a figure other than himself (that is, though he expected “the coming of the Son of man,” he did not identify himself with that figure).
- Finally, we cannot know much about Jesus. Any very specific claim about him is highly problematic. 7
While specific claims about Jesus were problematic, the experiences of “natural mysticism” – as Borg calls it – create a connectedness to the divine without the hindrances of the literal Jesus. God becomes a sacred center of existence – a holy mystery – and Jesus’ experiences with God become a model for one’s own spiritual connectedness.
Borg concludes: “I see that Bible and the tradition as ‘icons,’ mediators of the sacred. The point is not to believe them, but to be in relationship to that which they mediate: God, the Spirit, the sacred.”8 His is a self-admitted fusion of the 1960’s mentality and theological speculation – most of which was Bultmann’s. And he shares this fusion with most of the other modern Jesus scholars.
Bultmann might not have personally agreed with him, but Borg’s conclusion is the ultimate destiny of Bultmann’s path. To sacrifice worship and authority for the living Jesus is to surrender to a universalist spirituality. It is to make a cross-cultural guru from the singular Messiah.
It is to this spiritual journey or some variation of it that the Jesus scholars adhere. Jesus is seen in the context of cross-cultural spirituality and then read back into the existing record.
This is the vital component of the spirituality that underlies the interpretation of Jesus that pervades Jesus scholarship. Whether the individual scholar arrived at the dialectic before, during or after his experience in developing the historical Jesus, the truth is that the dialectic view of Jesus transforms the scholar’s view of the narratives.
Briefly stated, the dialectic is the concept that the living Jesus is communicative in this world in a non-literal way. He connects to the person but not through text or ritual. Instead, these are the agency of the connection but the connection is completely independent. For this reason, these scholars can call themselves Christians while abandoning the text which determines Christianity.
They see their spiritual odyssey as superseding the Scriptures, passing on to a higher level of understanding. In a very real way, they are the Gnostics of our day – believing that they have discovered the “real” Jesus that the masses cannot know because of the fetters of faith. Their faithlessness becomes their faith.
1 Alice Camille, “An Interview with John P. Meier” (U. S. Catholic, vol 66 iss 6, June 2001) p 18 5p
2 John Dominic Crossan, “Almost the Whole Truth” (The Fourth R, September/October 1993)
3 Funk, “21 Theses of the Coming Radical Reformation.”
7 Marcus Borg, “Me and Jesus: The Journey Home” (The Fourth R, July/August 1993)
This week, I will be posting a series of discussions on the Jesus Seminar. These documents were originally written in 2006 in response to reading the works of the Seminar and several of its prominent members. If you are unaware of the work of the Jesus Seminar, you have only to pick up any of the major news magazines (Time, Newsweek) during the Easter season and you will read their works.
I apologize if this overly academic, but the Jesus Seminar is intentionally academic and it is only fitting to respond to them in the same fashion. Any questions can be posted in the comments, and we will address them as time permits.
Pursuing a Jesus without Faith
“We should give Jesus a demotion. It is no longer credible to think of him as divine…Jesus advocates and practices a trust ethic…he urges his followers to celebrate life.” - Robert Funk1
The Jesus Seminar is by far the most active voice in the entire field of modern “Jesus scholarship”. One might assume that “Jesus Scholarship” would be a holistic approach to understanding the Gospel record in the light of history, of sifting through additional historic information and checking the facts. If you made that assumption when you first read the phrase “Jesus Scholarship”, then you assumed incorrectly.
First convened in 1985, the Seminar is really a continuation of the works of a number of predecessors. Lane C. McGaughy summarizes it thus:
When Robert W. Funk convened the first meeting of the Jesus Seminar in 1985, he invited respondents to prepare a new history of the traditions about Jesus in early Christianity which, in effect, would update and expand Rudolf Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition, first published in 1921, in light of textual discoveries like the Dead Sea scrolls (1947) and Nag Hammadi codices (1945) and recent methodological advances in the social sciences and literary criticism.2
McGaughy, who is a member of the Jesus Seminar, lays the facts out. The purpose of the Seminar is not to establish who Jesus was, but rather “to prepare a history of the traditions about him in early Christianity.” This history was to be based on the existing scholarship, and not on faith. It was to be entirely historical and not theological.
The reason for this distinction is made obvious by Robert W. Funk, the head of the Jesus Seminar.
“The Jesus of the gospels is an imaginative theological construct, into which have been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth—traces that cry out for recognition and liberation from the firm grip of those whose faith overpowered their memories.”3
Jesus scholarship begins with the assumption that there is a sharp distinction between the Jesus of faith and the historical Jesus. Thus, only those who are freed from the constraints of theological bias can truly see who Jesus was. The faith community, which reveres Jesus, will inevitably read their faith back into the texts, and thus their position on Jesus’ true nature and existence are negated by their subjectivity.
This distinction began with the work of Hermann Samuel Reimarus in the mid 18th century and continues in an unbroken line down to the Jesus Seminar today. It requires the historian/scholar to become a theological tabla rasa and approach Jesus as he would any other historical figure – without any preconceived notions.
The Problem with Being “Objective”
The problem is that no one approaches any subject without carrying some preconceptions. The Jesus Seminar does approach Jesus with a preconceived notion – that Jesus is not the Jesus of faith. Their foundational belief is that he must fit Bultmann’s view, which they are attempting to update and expand. They do not truly approach Jesus, they approach a pre-developed notion of Jesus.
Of course, Jesus scholars criticize the statement above – calling it “the presupposition gambit.” They state that it is the bias of the statement that makes the scholar’s work look subjective – a sort of applied subjectivity that does not really exist. If you think about it, this is a double standard. The Seminar claims to be completely objective and any hint of subjectivity in their work is blamed on those who don’t agree that they are being objective. In other words, the members of the Seminar are the only people who can truly judge objectivity and what everyone thinks is subjective is really just because those people aren’t as objective as the Seminar is. (Mind-blowing!)
But the Seminar speaks to their own bias. Robert Funk lays out his pre-determined notion of Jesus in his introduction to The Acts of Jesus.
“Jesus does not as a rule initiate dialogue or debate, nor does he offer to cure people. Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about himself in the first person. Jesus makes no claim to be the Anointed, the Messiah…Stories in which Jesus is represented as other than a laconic sage are not likely to be historical.”4
Funk asserts that Jesus is exactly what Funk desires him to be without qualification. The context of these statements offers no validation of the position. Funk’s position is grounded in the essence of Jesus scholarship, which he presupposes to be true without question. Throughout the works of the Jesus Seminar, there are blanket statements made about historical positions which do not need, in their opinion, any sort of re-evaluation but in reality rest entirely on their biases.
And what is the result of their studies? Van A. Harvey put it this way in a review of Raymond Martin’s book The Elusive Messiah:
“Their picture of Jesus is disturbing not only because the supernatural elements have been stripped away but because it is utterly unlike that of the Gospels. These scholars claim not just that the early church expressed its response to Jesus by ascribing supernatural status to him, but that the church has preserved an utterly false picture of him.”5
One thing is certain. The modern Jesus scholarship demands a response from those exposed to it. Raymond Martin lays out that there are three possible responses:
- Only Faith – the believer dismisses the expert opinion of the historians
- Only Reason – the believer becomes totally submissive to the historians
- Faith Seeking Understanding – they work out some kind of compromise between the two
There is no doubt that anyone exposed to these theories must respond. The division they create between history and faith requires a response. In a following section, we will deal with the spiritual presupposition their theory has created in many of the Jesus Seminar’s pre-eminent thinkers.
History of the Movement
Before moving to a summary of Bultmann’s teachings which are so foundational to the Jesus Seminar’s positions, it is necessary that we summarize the history of the criticism which has created the Seminar. Since the mid 18th century, a series of axioms have developed that grounded Bultmann and ultimately the Jesus Seminar.
First Quest: Early Development (aka “The Dead German Society”)
c 1750 Hermann Samuel Reimarus became convinced that one could separate what the authors of the Gospels said about Jesus from what he said himself
1835 David Friedrich Strauss publishes The Life of Jesus Christ Critically Examined
“Critical scholarship ‘turned to the historical Jesus as an ally the struggle against the tyranny of dogma’.”6
1838 Christian Gottlob Wilke proposes the theses that Mark was the first gospel in The Original Evangelist
Christian Herman Weisse proposes the existence of an additional source Q (abbr. for German Quelle, “source) in The Gospel History Critically and Philosophically Investigated
1892 Johannes Weiss strips Jesus’ message down to the simplest terms of the “Kingdom of God” in Proclamation of the Kingdom of God
1901 Wilhelm Wrede’s book The Messianic Secret in the Gospels strips Jesus of his role as Messiah
1906 Albert Schweitzer’s tome The Quest of the Historical Jesus; Jesus’ ethical teachings became more important than an accurate record of his life and deeds
Second Quest: The Demythologizing of Jesus (aka “Jesus? He’s Just Made Up Anyway!”)
1919 The Framework of the Gospels by Karl Ludwig Schmidt dismisses the narratives of the Gospels as fictional settings for Jesus’ sayings
1921 Rudolf Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition pioneers the concept of form criticism, the dissection of elements of the narrative to find the “original oral tradition”
This is followed by a series of essays that attempt to “demythologize” the gospels – essentially stripping them of any form whatsoever
1956 Ernest Käseman and Günther Bornkamm attempt to revitalize the quest despite Bultmann’s blanket statement; they call for a unification of the historical Jesus with the teachings of his followers
Third Quest: The Renewed Jesus (aka “Give Me That Old Time Religion”)
1973 In Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospel, Geza Vermes proposes that Jesus was a charismatic holy man/healer common to his era of Jewish thought
A number of writers including E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright and John P. Meier began to seek for Jesus by connecting the gospels with the teachings of Paul.
This group falls somewhere in between those who see Jesus as a myth and those who view him exactly as the gospels show him. Jesus is viewed as someone who truly was supernatural, but not quite divine
Renewed Quest: The Jesus Seminar (aka “It’s all about peace and love, man”)
1964 Amos Wilder’s The Language of the Gospel: Early Christian Rhetoric
1966 Robert W. Funk authors Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God
1973 John Dominic Crossan publishes In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus
1984 Marc Borg published his Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus
1991 The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant by Dominic Crossan becomes the “last word” on Jesus’ life
1993 The Jesus Seminar, led by Robert W. Funk, issues The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus
1998 This is followed by The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus
Overall, the purpose of these scholars became the combination of a century of Jesus scholarship into these final two reports; they dissect the Jesus of the Bible based on the theories of their predecessors.
The Biblical gospels are seen as representatives of the oral traditions of pre-Mark and Q and not as sources of their own.
Robert Funk refers to this quest as “the tragic and heroic story of those who endeavored to break the church’s stranglehold over learning.”7
1 Robert W. Funk, “21 Theses of the Coming Radical Reformation” (The Fourth R, July/August 1998)
2 Lane C. McGaughy, “The Search for the Historical Jesus: Why start with the sayings?” (The Fourth R, September/December 1996)
3 Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997), 7.
4 Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 34.
5 Van A. Harvey, “Jesus and History, The Believer and the Historian” (Christian Century, vol 117 iss 3 1/26/00) p 91, 4p
6 Robert W. Funk, quoting Albert Schweitzer, “Milestones in the Quest for the Historical Jesus” (The Fourth R, July/August 2001)
7 Funk, The Five Gospels, 6.