Monday, February 28, 2011

The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part III: The Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar is a group of about 150 biblical scholars founded by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan under the umbrella of the Westar Institute. It held its first meeting in March of 1985 at the Pacific School of Religion. The seminar votes to decide their collective view of the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. The seminar has produced a new translation of the New Testament and published their results in three books: The Five Gospels in 1993 (the 5th Gospel is the Gospel of Thomas), The Acts of Jesus in 1998, and The Gospel of Jesus in 1999. They also run a series of lectures and workshops (The Jesus Seminar on the Road) in various cities across the United States.

 One of the stated purposes of the Jesus Seminar was to develop a scholarly consensus on the sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament and other early Christian writings. Another was to raise the biblical consciousness of people in the pews. Many of the Jesus Seminar's members lament the fact that pastors do not pass on to their parishioners what they learned in seminary.

Typically, the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar have earned a Ph.D. in New Testament studies although there are exceptions, such as Paul Verhoeven, who doesn't hold a Ph.D. in biblical studies but a M.Sc. in mathematics and physics and has made his mark primarily as a film director.  Most are professors at North American universities although there are a few from overseas.  They come from a variety of Christian denominations although most are either Roman Catholic or from Mainline Protestant, rather than Evangelical Protestant, denominations.

Data and Methods

The Fellows met twice a year, and each meeting focused on a particular collection of sayings.  Members would write and circulate papers on the collection of sayings that was being discussed at the upcoming meeting, so that at the meetings themselves the Fellows would discuss the sayings rather than listening to people presenting their papers.  Each saying was discussed until no one had any more to say, and then they would move on to discuss the next one.  Once they completed their discussion, the Fellows would then vote by secret ballot, dropping one of four differently colored beads into a ballot box.
  • A red bead meant that a Fellow believed that the words were the authentic words of Jesus
  • A pink bead meant that they believed that the words closely approximated what Jesus said
  • A gray bead meant they believed the words weren’t Jesus’ but they may reflect his ideas
  • A black bead meant Jesus definitely did not speak them
Someone else proposed that the meanings could be understood as follows:
  • Red = “That’s Jesus”
  • Pink = “Sure sounds like him”
  • Gray = “Well, maybe.”
  • Black = “There’s been some mistake.”
They then tallied the votes and the results are summarized in “The Five Gospels,” which represented the first phase of their study. A second study examined the historicity of the events surrounding Jesus, "The Acts of Jesus." More recently they've turned their attention to Paul's letters.

Rules of Evidence and Assumptions

Like all contemporary biblical scholars, the Jesus Seminar follows a number of rules of evidence, which I'll cover in a later post since they are not unique to the Jesus Seminar. However, in their discussion of these rules (The Five Gospels, pp. 16-34) they include a number of rules that are actually a priori assumptions concerning Jesus and the Gospels, which not surprisingly influence their conclusions about Jesus. Here are a few examples:
  • The oral memory best retains sayings and anecdotes that are short, provocative, memorable--and oft-repeated (p. 28)
  • The most frequently recorded words of Jesus in the surviving gospels take the form of aphorisms and parablies (p. 28)
  • The earliest layer of the Gospel tradition is made up of single aphorisms and parables that circulated word of mouth (p. 28)
  • Jesus’ sayings and parables cut against the grain of the dominant society (p. 31)
  • Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about himself in the first person (p. 32)
  • Jesus makes no claim to be the Messiah (p. 32)
Results and Conclusions

The Seminar concluded that of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the five gospels, only about 18% of them Jesus actually said (red and pink sayings). Other findings included:
  • Parables and Aphorisms: Jesus’ parables and aphorisms consistently ranked highest in the voting. This is not terribly surprising considering the first three assumptions listed above. That is, if prior to voting one of your "rules of evidence" is that the only sayings in the Gospels that can be traced back to the historical Jesus take the form of aphorisms and parables, then you shouldn't be too surprised when the votes are tallied that Jesus' parables and aphorisms end up at the top of your list.
  • Jesus’ self-understanding: Jesus did not speak of himself as “Messiah” or “Son of God,” nor did he think of his death as having some greater purpose. Again, not a surprising conclusion given that one of the Seminar's a priori assumptions was that Jesus rarely made pronouncements about himself. spoke about himself in the first person (I guess he was kind of like Bob Dole in that regard) and made no claims to be the Messiah.
  • Gospel of John: They concluded that John’s Gospel reflects little of the historical Jesus but is rather the creation of the community formed after the resurrection. Again, not surprising, since in the Gospel of John Jesus speaks in long discourses rather than in short pithy sayings.
  • Eschatology (Last Things): The Seminar consistently voted “black” all sayings in which Jesus speaks about the “end of the world,” the last judgment, the coming of the Son of man, his own second coming, and so on.  Marcus Borg says this is “news” because it is a rejection of Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion. Not all NT scholars agree with Borg, however; in fact, most disagree (e.g., Bart Ehrman, Amy-Jill Levine & Paula Fredricksen).
  • Kingdom of God: The Seminar voted “black” all the sayings of Jesus where Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God as occurring in the future. The Seminar voted “pink” and “red” many of those where he speaks about the kingdom as being in the present.
  • The Lord’s Prayer: The Seminar voted that Jesus did not teach the Lord’s Prayer as we find it in the Gospels. They did conclude that parts of it were traceable to the historical Jesus.
As should be clear a number of the Seminar's conclusions follow directly from their prior assumptions, which has made them the target of a number of criticisms, often from other contemporary (liberal) scholars who don't share all of their assumptions (e.g., the agnostic Bart Ehrman), which is one of the reasons why the Seminar's goal of developing a scholarly consensus on the sayings attributed to Jesus has not been reached. However, the Seminar has done a fairly decent job of raising biblical consciousness of people in the pews. The introductory chapter of "The Five Gospels" is an excellent summary of what contemporary New Testament scholars do, and Robert Funk was a master at marketing the Seminar's work.

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