Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Jesus Seminar and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

I've previously written about the Jesus Seminar and its quest for the historical Jesus. I recently completed an analysis of their voting results, which I have submitted to a couple of journals. In this post I present a brief summary of my results but do not rehash what I wrote in the earlier posts, so readers will need to follow the links below for background material. This week Tony Gill  interviewed me about my analysis for his Research on Religion podcast ("Sean Everton on the Jesus Seminar").

Those familiar with the Seminar ("The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part III: The Jesus Seminar") know that the Seminar's Fellows voted on each saying attributed to Jesus on a scale of 0 to 3 ("The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part III: The Jesus Seminar"). They then calculated an average score for each saying, which they "normalized" on a scale from 0.00 to 1.00 where a saying that scored greater than .7501 was colored (ranked) red, a saying that scored between .5001 and .7500 was colored pink, a saying that scored between .2501 and .5000 was colored gray, and a saying that scored between 0.000 and .2500 was colored black.

For my analysis I used two dependent (i.e., outcome) variables: The normalized average score and the color ranking for each of the sayings (I treated pink and red rankings as indicating an authentic saying). I included several independent (i.e., explanatory) variables in the analysis in order to determine which factors help explain the likelihood that the Fellows deemed a saying authentic. Five of these variables capture the most common criteria used by biblical scholars ("The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part V: Criteria"):
  1. Whether a saying can be traced to two or more independent sources ("The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part IV: Sources")
  2. Whether a saying cannot be traced to either the Judaism of Jesus' day or the teachings and beliefs of the early Church (the criterion of dissimilarity)
  3. Whether a saying would have caused embarrassment for the early Church
  4. Whether a saying would have infuriated, disturbed, or agitated authorities, thus raising the likelihood he would be executed (enfant terrible)
  5. The date of the saying--sayings traced to earlier sources are more likely to be authentic than those traced to later ones.
Other independent variables included in the analysis took it account whether a saying was apocalyptic, whether it was a parable or an aphorism, what books it is found, and what sources it can be traced to.

What did I find? The average normalized score for all of the sayings was 0.242, which means that the average saying was colored black (i.e., Jesus did not say it). However, contrary to the criticisms of many of their colleagues, the Seminar Fellows did follow the criteria used by most biblical scholars. They were more likely to vote a saying authentic if it met one or more of the criteria listed above than if it didn't. That said, they do appear to have been influenced more by some of the criteria than they were by others. They were more likely to rank authentic sayings that would have embarrassed the early Church or were dissimilar from the the Judaism of Jesus' day and the early Church. In particular, dissimilar sayings were about 7 times more likely to be deemed authentic and embarrassing sayings were about 14 times more likely. We probably shouldn't get too wound up about the result for the embarrassing sayings, though, since only 34 of the 1,500 sayings met the embarrassment criterion and none were ranked "red" (32.35 percent were ranked pink).

The Fellows also preferred aphorisms and parables to other types of sayings (e.g., stories, long discourses, common sayings of the day). Aphorisms were 2½ times more likely to be considered authentic than were other sayings, and parables were approximately 8 times more likely. These results are unsurprising since in the introduction to "The Five Gospels," Robert Funk and Roy Hoover argue that sayings that are short (e.g., aphorisms) and/or unusual (e.g., stories like parables that include a surprising twist) were more likely to be remembered and thus more likely to be included in the Gospels and other books.

Finally, the Fellows clearly preferred non-apocalyptic sayings over apocalyptic ones. A non-apocalyptic saying was 8 times more likely to be deemed authentic than were apocalyptic sayings. Again, this is unsurprising as the Fellows have been quite vocal in their belief (hope?) that Jesus was non-apocalyptic. However, what is important about this result is that non-apocalyptic sayings were more likely to be deemed authentic than apocalyptic sayings after taking into account other factors like whether a saying meets a particular criteria, whether its an aphorism or a parable, and what books and sources its located in. Put differently, just the mere fact that a saying was apocalyptic, regardless of whether it met any or all of the criteria, was a parable or an aphorism, came from a particular book, or can be traced to a particular source, substantially decreased the likelihood that the Fellows would consider it to be authentic.

What then can we conclude about the Seminar's attempts at identifying the authentic sayings of Jesus? We can say that although its Fellows followed widely accepted criteria, they were also influenced by their a priori assumptions as to who Jesus was, what he believed, what he said, and how he said it. In particular, they were quite enamored with aphorisms and parables, especially those in which Jesus appears as a non-apocalyptic enfant terrible, who occasionally uttered things that later embarrassed the early Church.