Jun 27 2013

Personal Perspectives on the Jesus Seminar

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Personal Perspectives on the Jesus Seminar


There are three ways in which I would sum up the Jesus Seminar and its contribution to Jesus studies.

(1)  The Seminar has been a very contemporary quest, but not without some ancient precedents as well as some recent competition.

The Seminar follows a long history of the search for the “historical-Jesus”. In the technical sense of that phrase the search has been over not much more than 250 years (including three so-called quest periods), but in the broadest sense it goes back to shortly after the life of Jesus. Even the very formation of the New Testament canon itself was tantamount to claiming that some writings were more authoritative than others.


As early as the third century, the Christian apologist Origen affirmed that some passages in the Bible could not be accepted in their literal sense, and that spiritual truth was sometimes contained in literal falsehood. And later, St Augustine, writing one of the first of many attempts at Gospel harmonies, was puzzled as to why the Holy Spirit guided the evangelists to write such conflicting reports.


To that extent the Jesus Seminar is in good company and a long tradition, but it certainly won’t be the last word. Who knows what startling evidence might turn up tomorrow in a rubbish dump somewhere in the Middle East? And for that matter, it’s not even the latest such project to report on its findings. Consider at least two scholarly and serious studies that postdate it.


About a year ago, Professor Darrell Bock from Dallas Theological Seminar visited New Zealand to report on the work of another, more conservative, group of scholars, under the umbrella of the Institute for Biblical Research. The IBR Jesus Group began in 1999 to consider twelve key events in Jesus’ life, ranging from John the Baptist to the Resurrection. The Group believes it can show core authenticity in these events whilst operating by historical critical rules.


Then there’s the work of the British scholar, James D G Dunn, whose first mammoth volume, Jesus Remembered, was published in 2003. These examples should remind us not to give exceptional prominence to the Jesus Seminar. Although it has succeeded in stealing the limelight within the public domain, it is but one among other quests, yet particularly valuable as a search from within the parameters of our own time.


(2)  It presents a distinctively pared-down and provocative portrayal of Jesus.

What sort of a Jesus comes through as a result of the work of the Seminar? Imagine a continuum of portraits from all the studies that have taken place over time and across the spectrum of theological assumptions, arranged from left to right, both literally and figuratively. Where would it stand? Well to the left, among the least supernaturalist pictures of Jesus, furthest away from the most fundamentalist at the right. Not on the very left edge, of course. That would have to be reserved for those who decide the gospels are a mishmash of hocus-pocus and that Jesus never even existed as a person.


But the Seminar’s sweeping conclusions on the historicity of so much Biblical text put it firmly in what many would even term the deniers’ camp. Any thesis that posits only one virtually certain saying of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel and none in John’s Gospel, and that regards the passion narratives as largely fictive, has to accept the brand of radical rather than mainstream. The Fellows of the Seminar discovered an itinerant teacher and sage, an iconoclastic visionary, a social deviant, and an exorcist and healer. They summed up their findings by saying that “the scattered facts we can muster do not of themselves produce a Jesus who is the Christ of the Christian faith” (The Acts of Jesus, p. 534). No wonder the ructions that followed.


But this is where the gallery of Jesus pictures gets even more revealing of the fragmented state of Christianity. James Dunn, for instance, is scathing in his response to the Seminar which he accuses of setting out to liberate the real Jesus not only from the Christ of the creeds but also from the Jesus of the Gospels. Yet some literalists who join the fray are as sceptical of the likes of Dunn as they are of the Jesus Seminar. On the far right edge are those who believe that even evangelicals who so much as dabble in historical method are just as guilty as the Seminar of eviscerating the Bible of its witness to the Christ of faith.


The Seminar largely anticipated such criticisms when it published its findings. At the end of The Acts of Jesus: the Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (1998), it concluded: “Literalism in biblical interpretation…has helped strangle the myths of the Christian tradition… Exposing [the gospel stories] to historical assessment relocates them in the realm of story and myth, so they can recover their proper function” (The Acts of Jesus, p. 534).


Suffice to say, therefore, that the Jesus Seminar stands out as one of the most challenging and minimalist theological portraits of Jesus. Whether you partially or largely accept it or reject it, may not be so important. Its great value lies in the way it offers a clear choice at almost one end of the range of options. But how credible is the argument for that choice? This brings us to the third perspective on its contribution:


(3)  The Seminar’s findings were based on a carefully constructed if controversial methodology.

You really have to admire the grand scale of its master plan and execution over many years and across a large number of scholars. It boldly chose the novel method of a colour-coded scheme to rate and process individual judgements within the group so as to approximate to some kind of consensus. Even at the level of individual gospel verses, it tried to distinguish historically between near certainty, probability, possibility, and near impossibility. And it delivered a most impressive output of canonical and noncanonical translations, accompanied by fulsome background evidence and argument. It really did dig deeply and rigorously.


Yet once again the critics wade in. They point out that its operations were not all plain sailing or fool-proof. Robert Funk, the Seminar’s founder, with a strong aversion to belief, may well have overplayed his role. There were some defections and stresses. Some tactical voting and some suspect re-voting have been alleged. And the exclusion of any eschatological pronouncements by Jesus (under their 8th test of authenticity), is particularly controversial.


Among many critics of the strategy here are two or three. Mark Allen Powell claims that “probably the single greatest objection to the Seminar’s published work is that it reports as historically inauthentic what is in fact only unverifiable” (The Encyclopedia of Christianity, p. 32). Bruce Chilton and Craig A Evans (Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus, p. 335), among others, probably pinpoint an even more fundamental objection in arguing that the whole approach was inherently flawed to begin with. They assert that “the gospels and their sources were designed to convey perspectives of faith rather than atomistic data of history”, thus making them essentially insusceptible to the kind of analysis attempted by the Seminar. The gist of that argument would be that the Seminar was simply too ambitious for its own good.


So what colour bead (red, pink, gray or black), representing one’s own judgement on the Seminar’s methodology, might one drop into the voting box? That may well depend on our own predetermined individual perspectives, more than any objective analysis of the evidence. Which brings us to a final crunch question:


Did the Seminar sufficiently observe the admonition it gave to itself as its final general rule of evidence?


Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you (The Five Gospels, p. 5).


Now, you might ask, why in the first place must an entirely congenial Jesus be avoided if it were not for the fact that he has already been identified as someone out of this world, so to speak? Be that as it may, was the Seminar wary enough of finding the Jesus they wanted to find?


I shall have to hedge my bets or beads and suggest that personally I would be likely to vote pink or gray on that question. But in saying that, I would merely be adopting the argument that the Seminar was no more capable of truly objective analysis than any other group or individual, amateur or professional.


I suspect, for example, that even Albert Schweitzer who concluded that Jesus comes to us as a “stranger and enigma” was in a frame of mind accepting of that particular image. And fundamentalists, who claim to reject any Jesus of history other than the Jesus of the Gospels, as they perceive him, are just as surely imprisoned in their own comfort zone, albeit supported by a methodology that couldn’t hold a critical candle to that of the Jesus Seminar.


When James Veitch spoke last year on the question, “Who did Jesus think he (really) was”, he took care to preface his answer (as he insisted it would be) by quoting another Jesus scholar (Eduard Schweizer) who asserted that for any historian “Neutrality is …impossible”. That should be an obligatory admission at the head of every piece of research in this minefield of faith and facts.


It’s hard to imagine that the day will ever come when a search for the original Jesus will end up saying “Behold the man” and promptly admit to finding the discovery fundamentally at odds with the searcher’s own expectations. Perhaps that only goes to prove how archetypal and compelling the figure of Jesus has become in the human psyche. Before any search can begin, no matter how objective it sets out to be, a glimmer of the answer has already been implanted in the searcher’s subconscious.


I therefore suggest that ultimately there will be but one solution to the Jesus problem. And that will be to recognise that the key may lie in another more technical meaning of the word “solution”. In physical chemistry a solution is a homogeneous mixture of two substances in which the components remain dispersed indefinitely. Might that not serve as an analogy of the difficulty of ever fully isolating out the Jesus of history from the Jesus of faith? We may need to learn to live with the knowledge that we will never know exactly what we would want to know.


Meanwhile, along with the scholarly experts in this or any other field, we would do well to heed the cautionary observation of John Locke who said: “One unerring mark of the love of truth is not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proof it is built upon will warrant.”



David Kitchingman

26 June 2013

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