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.