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Robert J. Miller

Paper presented to the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 1996

 

The Jesus Seminar has received a good deal of attention from scholars, most of it negative. In this paper I will identify key areas of disagreement between the Seminar and its critics. My primary aim is not to respond to these critics (though I will do so on a few points). Rather, I hope to clarify the issues in two ways. First, by identifying a few items on which critics misunderstand the Seminar and supplying information that I hope will clear things up. Second, by examining the assumptions implicit in these criticisms and gauging the extent of substantive agreement and disagreement between the Seminar and its critics.

In this paper I will draw on the critiques of Richard Hays, Luke Johnson, Howard Kee, Birger Pearson, and Ben Witherington. You need to know that I have been a member of the Jesus Seminar for ten years. You can judge the objectivity of my analysis accordingly.

The issues addressed in this paper are:

 

 

The first assumption I wish to address has to do not with the content of scholarship, but the conduct of scholars. The polemical rhetoric of some of the Seminar's critics is the ugliest I have ever encountered in scholarly writing. The operative assumption of these scholars and of the editorial committees who approve their writing is that it is proper not only to attack opponents' ideas but also to insult them personally, impugning their intellectual honesty and their moral integrity, and even their religious commitments. I can only hope that this assumption is not widespread.

Perhaps I am saddened more than others by this verbal abuse because I belong to the group at which it is aimed. So I leave it to you to decide whether language like this brings shame on those to whom it is directed or on those from whom it comes.

 

 

Nearly all critics of the Jesus Seminar object, some of them strenuously, to the notion that the Seminar's views reflect a consensus among New Testament scholars./1/ It may help if I express my understanding of what the Seminar claims. I am confident that my understanding is shared by nearly everyone in the Seminar. I have never understood our claim to speak for scholars to mean that most scholars agree with our specific findings or even with all of our methods. (Not even members of the Seminar agree on these.) What I do understand it to mean is that the Seminar's fundamental views about the gospels --- that some of the words attributed to Jesus were not actually spoken by him; that the gospels contain historical memory from before Calvary and religious interpretation from after it; that they are, to put it bluntly, a complex blend of fact and fiction; and that to discover the historical Jesus we need a critical sifting of evidence rather than theological assurances --- that these views do represent the consensus among critical scholars. This is not news to scholars, but it is to the American public. A huge number of Americans believe that inerrancy is the only legitimate approach to the Bible, that to take the Bible seriously is to take it literally. (According to a recent poll, 40% of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth in the next few decades.)

Critics are right to protest that many scholars disagree with the Seminar's results, but they do a disservice if they perpetuate the mistaken impression that doubts about the historical accuracy of significant portions of the gospels are confined to some allegedly radical "splinter group." This is important because critics assert that the Jesus Seminar is little more than a "faction" with "idiosyncratic opinions."

Several critics argue that the Seminar's composition is such that its members are not a representative sample of mainstream scholars./2/ For example, Luke Johnson asserts that members of the Jesus Seminar "by no means represent the cream of New Testament scholarship in this country. . . Most of the participants are in relatively undistinguished academic positions" (16).

Well, wait just a minute. Since I don't wish to embarrass anyone, I will use myself as an example. I am not in a "relatively undistinguished academic position." I am in an absolutely undistinguished one. I teach at a college that is so obscure I've yet to meet anyone in the SBL who's heard of it. I teach 12 hours a semester, almost all in introductory courses. My college does not grant sabbaticals. I have very little time for scholarly research and writing. I am, in short, an academic working stiff. Which makes me like most of you. I am much more representative of the rank and file of the SBL than those in distinguished positions (which means, of course, positions on graduate faculties at elite schools)./3/

The various criticisms about consensus raise an underlying question: how do we know what the scholarly consensus is on a given issue? Richard Hays states, "Let it be said clearly---most professional biblical scholars are profoundly skeptical of the methods and conclusions of this academic splinter group" (47). How does Hays know this to be true? How do we determine when there is a consensus? I am willing to bet that there are consensus positions among New Testament scholars on a few basic issues, for example, the existence of Q, the priority of Mark, the pseudonymity of the Pastorals. But if this claim were challenged, how would I demonstrate it? The standard method in scholarly writing is to fill our footnotes with references pro and con on a given position. But this counts only published opinions. It would be fascinating for the SBL to poll its members on a broad range of basic questions. That would give us some hard data from which to assess where the consensus positions are. But even this would have weaknesses. We all have numerous opinions, but only a few of these are informed by specialized knowledge. (For example, one of the more controversial issues in historical Jesus research is the status of the Gospel of Peter: whether it contains early and independent tradition, or whether all of it is late and wholly dependent on the canonical gospels. Many of us have opinions on this, but how many of us have actually read the entire Gospel of Peter in the past year? Of those who have, how many have studied it carefully, say for more than twenty hours and using the Greek text? If we haven't, how much weight should our opinions carry?) Most of our opinions are not expert ones. So should we give credence only to the consensus among experts? If so, who decides who is on the list of experts? I suggest that in the absence of reliable statistical data we really don't know enough to state with any assurance at all what the consensus views are on most issues./4/  (Here it's worth noting that when the Jesus Seminar reports a consensus among its members, it always provides exact figures that allow one to measure the extent of the consensus.)

 

 

One distinctive aspect of the Jesus Seminar's work is its commitment to investigating all early Christian sources regardless of their canonical status. Since the Seminar gave careful attention to the Gospel of Thomas (hence the title, The Five Gospels), all critics discuss the Seminar's treatment of Thomas./5/

Within the Seminar there is consensus that Thomas is not dependent on the canonical gospels. Critics rightly note that this question is not settled among scholars in general. However, most critics agree with the Seminar that Thomas contains sayings that are early and independent./6/ This is very important, for it means that both the Seminar and nearly all its critics agree that Thomas cannot be left out of historical Jesus research./7/

An assumption about Thomas that I brought with me to the Seminar was that Thomas would shed new light on the historical Jesus. This assumption proved to be unfounded. Of the sayings unique to Thomas, the Seminar voted none red and only two pink. Judging from the Seminar's results, Thomas tells us almost nothing about Jesus that we didn't already know from the other gospels. Nevertheless, the Seminar's findings on Thomas show that this gospel makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of Jesus. This aspect of the Seminar's work has not been noted by critics and so I want to draw attention to it here. If the Seminar is right in its assessment that Thomas is an independent source, then Thomas provides multiple independent attestation for a number of otherwise singly-attested canonical sayings. By my count, there are 32 such items. This means that the Jesus Seminar's use of Thomas has the result of increasing our confidence in the historical reliability of a good deal of canonical material. This needs to be appreciated because a few critics (like Johnson) presume that the Seminar's attention to Thomas challenges the authority of the canon. The reality is precisely the opposite.

One detail noted by most critics is the reference in The Five Gospels to an early "first edition" of Thomas. They object that there is no evidence for such a document. This objection is exactly right. The Seminar concludes that some sayings in Thomas are as early as their parallels in Mark and Q, and that a few may be even earlier. Thus the earliest layer of tradition in Thomas is as early as the earliest layer of the synoptic tradition. But the first time I saw or heard a reference to an early first edition of Thomas was in the Seminar's own publications. To set the record straight as best I can, very few members of the Seminar subscribe to this theory and I consider it unfortunate that this new and controversial theory is put forth as if it were an established position. However, the substance of the claim that there was an early first edition is that Thomas contains material as early as the synoptics, something on which the Seminar and its critics essentially agree.

 

 

For the general public the most controversial aspect of the Jesus Seminar is that it does not accept the literal historicity of each verse in the gospels. But the most controversial item for scholars is that the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar is non-apocalyptic. Of all the Seminar's findings, this one is by far the one that its critics contest most vigorously.

Critics charge that the non-apocalyptic Jesus was an a priori assumption for the Seminar and that sayings were judged inauthentic because they are apocalyptic./8/ From my perspective as a participant in the Seminar, I have to say that this is a major misunderstanding of what really happened/9/ in the Seminar./10/ I believe this misunderstanding results from two factors. The first is that, although The Five Gospels never actually says that apocalyptic sayings were assumed to be inauthentic, it does in some places give this impression, which is, to my mind, unfortunate because it is misleading. The second factor is the unwillingness of most critics of the Seminar to grant that any of its members has even half a brain or an ounce of integrity.

Since there is a good deal of misunderstanding about how the Seminar arrived at its conclusion, it may help if I relate my own experience. I joined the Seminar when my Ph.D. was barely one year old. I had not specialized in historical Jesus studies and had not thought very deeply about whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. I assumed that he was because I had absorbed the common wisdom of New Testament scholarship. In preparing for Seminar meetings over several years, I worked through all the apocalyptic sayings one by one. Though I was predisposed to consider this kind of material authentic, I was persuaded time and again by both the position papers and the debates to vote gray or black. Some learned and respected members argued in favor of the apocalyptic Jesus but the votes consistently went against them. (Unfortunately, but understandably, most of the members who championed the apocalyptic Jesus eventually left the Seminar.) Some members had studied the issue extensively and had moved away from the apocalyptic portrait of Jesus before the Seminar had been formed. However, my impression is that most of us were like me: without strong positions either way and open to being persuaded by the evidence in the texts and the arguments of other scholars. I am not implying that everyone who studies the material the way I did will reach the same conclusions. I am only saying that this is how it happened for me. I have no writings on this topic to defend and no scholarly reputation to uphold. This, plus my undistinguished academic position, testify that I have no professional stake in this matter. (There is a certain freedom in being marginal.)

For critics of the Seminar, the apocalypticism of Jesus is so self-evident that it functions not simply as a foundational premise, but as something even more basic, virtually as an axiom. For example, Birger Pearson asserts that a non-apocalyptic Jesus "is not only intrinsically improbable but strains credulity to its breaking point" (324)./11/ Pearson makes the intriguing claim that even the sayings that the Seminar colored red and pink are shot through with apocalyptic eschatology. Pearson concludes that Seminar members were simply too stupid to notice this./12/ A conclusion at least as plausible as Pearson's is that, despite the Seminar's alleged ideologically driven effort to root out apocalyptic from the historical Jesus, its criteria and methods were so sound that they led the Seminar to results contrary to its ideology. However, a far more realistic possibility is that these red and pink sayings need not be read apocalyptically. A number of these sayings acquire their apocalyptic coloring from their literary contexts, or from interpretive comments that are very probably secondary, or from the apocalyptic framework within which scholars place them. However, if considered on their own terms apart from their literary contexts, secondary interpretations, and exegetical frameworks, their apocalyptic character is far from obvious and, in many cases, just not there./13/ I believe this whole question is an open one. The presence and extent of apocalyptic in Jesus' sayings is an issue over which we can have an honest discussion, even a fair fight. For now I only want to point out the arbitrariness of the assumption that if a saying can be read apocalyptically, then it must be read that way./14/

 

 

Probably the most acerbic criticism of the Seminar is that its Jesus is not Jewish./15/ The tone in which critics make this accusation is unmistakably derogatory, but what exactly does it mean that the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar is not Jewish? The Jesus of the Jesus Seminar is the implied author/speaker of the parables and aphorisms that the Seminar colored red and pink. Therefore, to claim that this Jesus is not Jewish can only mean that the implied speaker of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, the one who invoked God as "abba" and pronounced blessings on the poor, and so on, --- that whoever said these things was not Jewish. I doubt that critics really intend this judgment, but if they do not, then the accusation that the Seminar's Jesus is not Jewish lacks specific content and so should be regarded as vacuous rhetoric.

Stepping back from the rhetorical heat of this accusation, we can tease out an assumption on which it is founded. This assumption is that we know enough about Galilean Judaism in the first third of the first century to be able to recognize what could and could not have been part of it. Does anyone really want to own that assumption? If not, the criticism evaporates because there are no secure grounds on which it could be either substantiated or rebutted.

I conclude that the Jewishness of Jesus is not a real issue. The accusation that the Jesus Seminar strips Jesus of his Judaism is a powerful attention-getter./16/ But it is an accusation without specific content. Everyone in the historical Jesus debate agrees that Jesus was Jewish. The real question is what kind of Jew he was.

Whether or not the historical Jesus was Jewish is a phony question, but it carries an assumption that is well worth exploring. This is the assumption that identity is constituted by markers of distinctiveness. Only on this assumption could one reason that if a given reconstruction of the historical Jesus does not make topics like covenant, law, messiah, and apocalyptic central to Jesus' teaching then that Jesus is not Jewish. This is rather like saying that I must not be Catholic because I don't put the Mass or the Pope at the center of my religious language. This way of framing the issue of religious identity opens a back door into the thorny issue of the criterion of dissimilarity. The Seminar ran aground on this issue repeatedly and vigorously debated it on numerous occasions. Eventually most of us seem to have settled on a soft version of dissimilarity that Robert Funk calls "distinctiveness." If Jesus' speech was not distinctive in his own Jewish context, then why did people bother to remember it and pass it on? If it is not distinctive vis-a-vis later Christian speech, then, by definition, we cannot distinguish the voice of Jesus from the voice of the church, and therefore the search for the historical Jesus is futile. So if you accept the viability of historical Jesus research, you cannot avoid the criterion of distinctiveness.

Most everyone agrees that the criterion is especially helpful in principle, but applying it can prove troublesome in concrete cases. The criterion produces minimalist results; it cannot do otherwise. Jesus said and did more than what is historically verifiable with this criterion. The vexing problem is how we move beyond this minimum to include material that is not distinctive. The Seminar is divided on this question. For us it comes down to how we regard the material we've colored gray. The Seminar assigns two meanings to the gray vote: 1) "I don't think Jesus said this, but some of its content might tell us something about him"; and 2) "Jesus didn't say this, but it is based on his ideas." An informal and unofficial meaning is, "Well, maybe." A gray vote can thus be considered either as a negative or a positive vote./17/ If you consult the voting results, you can see that for many gray items there was a considerable percentage of red and pink votes. A few gray items even received a majority of red and pink votes. These statistical anomalies are the result of the Seminar's system for averaging votes (see p. 37 of The Five Gospels), a system that gives weight to everyone's vote, not only to the votes of those in the majority./18/

There is a lot of gray material. Many members of the Seminar, myself included, treat the gray material as a fund from which to expand the data base for the historical Jesus beyond the red and pink minimum. This is not fudging or special pleading. Both official definitions of the gray vote explicitly allow for using the gray material in this fashion. The only items excluded in principle from the data base are those colored black. Gray items can be considered on a case-by-case basis. This means that the working data base for many of us is substantially larger than the 18% of the sayings that are red and pink. This figure of 18% has gotten a lot of attention and all critics use it to show how skeptical the Seminar is. But consider what this 18% is 18% of. The 90 red and pink sayings are 18% of all the sayings attributed to Jesus in all Christian texts from the first three centuries, including gospels the Seminar unanimously voted black in their entirety, such as the Dialogue of the Savior, the Apocryphon of James, the Gospel of Mary, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Regarding the Gospel of John, I believe it is fair to say that most scholars outside the Seminar would agree with us that few, if any, sayings in it are demonstrably authentic. So, if we set the range of the data base to be the sayings in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Thomas, and if realize that a good deal of the gray material can be included, the percentage of sayings in the data base is significantly larger than 18%. My conservative guess is that it is probably around 50% for most of us and even higher for some.

 

 

Some critics take a dim view of the Seminar's practice of voting on the authenticity of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus. For example, Ben Witherington (44) complains that only in a country where majority views are assumed to be right and where "truth" is decided by voting could this idea of voting on Jesus have arisen. However, as The Five Gospels explains, the Jesus Seminar got the idea, not from American democracy, but from the practice of various translation committees and from the UBS committees that vote on the critical edition of the Greek text./19/

Luke Johnson has no objection to translation committees voting because "these votes are carried out privately" (17). This is very revealing: the real sin of the Jesus Seminar is that it does its work in public. Numerous snide comments about the Seminar being "publicity hungry" and such show that other critics resent this public face of the Seminar. There seems to be an assumption that academics who speak publicly about religion should keep their views to themselves if they might be unsettling to the beliefs of mainstream Americans. (This assumption explains why biblical scholars have largely left it up to scientists to battle creationism in the public forum.)

The very fact that journalists who cover religion could register such shock that scholars would use words like "non-historical" or, worse yet, "fiction" to characterize some gospel passages shows what a good job our guild has done keeping our secrets to ourselves. I am not claiming that there is some conspiracy of silence among scholars, only that there is silence: a pervasive reluctance among scholars, and among clergy who learn the critical approach to the Bible in seminary, to inform the public that there is good reason to doubt the historicity of some gospel material. I wish that reporters who interview critics of the Seminar would ask them which items in the gospels they consider non-historical. If critics were to answer this question honestly, it would signal that the Seminar's views on the general nature of the gospels are shared by virtually all critical scholars, even though many of them disagree with the Seminar's specific results.

Let me pose a "what if." What if the very same people in the Jesus Seminar had carried out the very same project and had come up with the very same results, but had done so in an SBL seminar and published the results in Semeia? Obviously the public would not have paid any attention, but my question is: how much attention would this project have received from scholars? I suspect, but obviously cannot prove, that the quantity of the critical response would be much less and its quality much better. I suspect also that the sheer nastiness of the insulting rhetoric directed against the Seminar would be much reduced. What do you think?

 

 

/1/ Two quotations can illustrate the gist of the criticism. Richard Hays states that the Seminar's "attempt to present their views as 'the assured results of critical scholarship' is---one must say it---reprehensible deception" (47). Similarly, Howard Kee states, "The Seminar's claim to speak for the majority of scholars is grossly inaccurate" (27).

Regarding this, it is doubtful that the Seminar actually claims to speak for a scholarly consensus. I say "doubtful" because I have looked carefully for such claims in The Five Gospels and have been unable to find them. Perhaps others have, but I have not located a quotation from the The Five Gospels that makes this sweeping claim, nor have the critics to whom I wrote asking for the page numbers on which these claims can be found.

I did find three items in The Five Gospels that should be mentioned in this context. First, there is this assertion on p. 35: "the kind of scholarship represented by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar is the kind that has come to prevail in all the great universities of the world." In its context, this clearly means that the kind of scholarship practiced by the Seminar is critical scholarship, as opposed to dogmatic or apologetic scholarship. This statement cannot be taken for a claim that the specific methods or results of the Seminar would be endorsed by a majority of critical scholars. Second, Robert Funk's discussion of the "fifth pillar" of "scholarly wisdom" (pp. 3-4) can rightly be taken as an implicit claim that most scholars no longer view Jesus as an eschatological figure. I doubt this implication is accurate. Third, the mention of an early version of the Gospel of Thomas presents a controversial thesis as a bland fact. However, none of these three entries amounts to the kind of claim that Hays and Kee allege.

In a letter responding to my inquiry, Richard Hays identified two sentences in The Five Gospels (one of them the one from p. 35 quoted above) that, if taken out of context, might mislead uncritical readers. He also wrote to me that the Seminar has claimed repeatedly to represent the scholarly consensus in its public statements, as documented in Luke Johnson's book, The Real Jesus. Johnson excerpts dozens of statements culled from newspaper clippings. These are all brief remarks, many not even full sentences, all quoted out of context. To be sure, Seminar members have said some dumb things to the press. And Robert Funk, who frequently acts as spokesman for the Seminar and who is quoted more than all other members combined, tends to speak provocatively. Even so, I could not find more than one or two statements that even seem to make this claim. (The closest one comes to it is in headlines, such as "Jesus did not predict his own second coming, scholars say." But as we all know, headlines are written by journalists, not scholars.)

Nevertheless, a number of people have the impression that the Seminar claims to represent mainstream scholarship, and so there must be something that is creating this impression.

/2/ Several critics point out that members of the Jesus Seminar are "self-selected" and they clearly intend this to be a criticism. But this is puzzling. Self-selection can only be a criticism on the assumption that membership in this kind of group should not be by self-selection. How then? By invitation only? The Jesus Seminar is open to anyone with the proper academic credentials. It has no way to exclude anyone who is qualified who wants to join. What if membership was by invitation only? Would that make the Seminar more credible? And if members were not self-selected, who should do the selecting? Criticizing the Seminar because it is self-selected amounts to criticizing it for not being elitist.

Ben Witherington makes a truly unique criticism of the composition of the Jesus Seminar: that none of its members are fundamentalists. He states that fundamentalists could not participate because the Seminar's approach is biased in that its agenda is to develop a non-fundamentalist portrait of the historical Jesus (44). Actually, fundamentalists could join the Seminar if they wished, but Witherington is correct to think they would feel out of place. The only way that the absence of fundamentalists in the Jesus Seminar can be construed as a criticism of its agenda is on the assumption that historical Jesus research can be carried out on the basis of fundamentalist convictions. But obviously, if we start with the belief in the literal historicity of every verse in the Bible, we rule out, by definition, critical judgments about the historical reliability of anything in the gospels. Witherington's assumption here that an unbiased approach to the historical Jesus must include the fundamentalist perspective really amounts to a rejection of the very basis of historical-critical scholarship.

For Witherington, apparently, the quest for the historical Jesus does not question the historical reliability of the gospel material, but consists only of fitting it all into a coherent and harmonized composite. Consider one of his closing comments on the Jesus Seminar. Referring to the Seminar's finding that 18% of the sayings can be confidently traced to the historical Jesus, Witherington concludes that the Seminar "rejects the majority of the evidence (82%) . . . I will leave the reader to decide whether it is a truly scholarly and unbiased approach to reject the majority of one's evidence and stress a minority of it" (57). This statement implies that Witherington accepts all the gospel material to be evidence for the historical Jesus; only on this assumption could he accuse the Seminar of "rejecting" evidence. Without this assumption, one could not say that the Seminar rejects any evidence for the historical Jesus, but rather that it finds only 18% of the sayings to be evidence for the historical Jesus. This is not "rejecting" evidence; it is making judgments about what kind of evidence each saying is: some are evidence for the historical Jesus and some are evidence for early Christians who attributed their own words to Jesus.

For a thorough critique of Witherington's book, see Robert J. Miller, "Can the Historical Jesus be Made Safe for Orthodoxy? A Critique of The Jesus Quest by Ben Witherington, III," Journal of Higher Criticism 4.1 (Spring 1997).

/3/ As a fascinating aside, Hays' list of the major graduate institutions whose faculty are not members of the Seminar is: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Chicago, Union, Vanderbilt, SMU, and Catholic U. Johnson's article shows some literary dependence on Hays', but Johnson redacts Hays' list of distinguished institutions to include Emory, where Johnson teaches.

/4/ Another question raised by the squabbling over scholarly consensus is: why is it so important for us to claim that consensus is on our side? It's not too difficult to figure this out. We believe that scholarly consensus confers authority. And authority confers power, the kind of power we all crave, the power of persuasion. Especially when we address the public, or our students, to say that position X is the position of the vast majority of scholars is a power play. It says: if you don't agree with it, you're either uninformed or you're not very smart. There is nothing wrong, per se, with power plays. But we owe it to ourselves and to our audiences, especially to our students, to be circumspect about how we use them. For whatever my advice is worth, I believe we would all greatly benefit if we suspended our biblical work and spent six months in power-therapy with the works of Michel Foucault and Raimundo Panikkar.

/5/ In introducing this gospel to readers, critics emphasize its gnostic character. Howard Kee states that "the whole of the Gospel of Thomas" is a "radical Gnostic reworking of the Jesus tradition" (25, emphasis added). Birger Pearson asserts that Thomas is "completely dominated by a (probably Syrian) type of Christianity oriented to mysticism and informed by the myth of the descent and ascent of the soul" (322, emphasis added). Such characterizations are surely overstated. Many sayings in Thomas have no gnostic or mystical content at all. Some of them are close parallels to their canonical counterparts.

Everyone grants that Thomas has its own distinctive theological tendencies and that it has reworked a lot (but not all) of its material accordingly. But how does this make Thomas different from any other gospel? Isn't Matthew a thorough reworking of Mark? Isn't John's reworking of the Jesus tradition just as radical as that of Thomas'? Is there some assumption by critics that Thomas' gnosticizing interpretation is so pervasive that earlier, non-gnostic, material cannot be distinguished? In fact, the redactional modifications that reflect a gnostic perspective are usually utterly obvious, almost ham-fisted, and are easily detachable from earlier material.

/6/ For example, Witherington asserts that "the Seminar seems to be overly optimistic not only about the antiquity of the sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas but also about its independence from the canonical Gospels" (48). He also says that "of the sayings in Thomas that have no parallels in the synoptics, a few may be authentic" (49, emphasis original). Ironically, Witherington is more "optimistic" in this regard that the Seminar. Of the sayings unique to Thomas, the Seminar found none that it could rate red and only two that it could rate pink.

/7/ Only Luke Johnson rejects this premise. But he rejects the legitimacy of all historical Jesus research. Commenting on the inclusion of Thomas in The Five Gospels, he charges, "Its inclusion seems to make primarily a political or 'culture wars' point: the Gospels are to be considered of value only insofar as they are sources for the historical Jesus" (19-20). Of course, if this were so, the Gospel of John would not have been included. Johnson's guess about why the Seminar included Thomas is quite mistaken, and his willingness to pronounce on the motives of people he has never spoken to is plainly arrogant. He didn't need to guess why Thomas was included; he could have asked.

Birger Pearson's analysis of the Seminar's use of Thomas is puzzling. He charges that the Seminar's assumptions about Thomas are "quite naive" (322), but then points out that of all the sayings unique to Thomas, the Seminar found only two that it could plausibly trace to Jesus, results with which Pearson agrees and which are, therefore (presumably) not naive. This is puzzling because one expects naive assumptions to produce naive results. The clear implication, then, is that the Seminar's methods must have corrected for the alleged naiveté of its assumptions. This is high praise indeed, though I doubt very much that Pearson intended it.

/8/ For example, Howard Kee refers to the Seminar's "manipulation of evidence in order to rid Jesus of an apocalyptic outlook," a procedure he calls "prejudgment masquerading as scholarship" (25). Richard Hays asserts, the "Jesus Seminar employs its conviction that Jesus was a non-eschatological thinker as a stringent criterion for sorting the authenticity of the sayings material" (45), and "an a priori construal of Jesus and his message governs the critical judgment made about individual sayings" (47). Luke Johnson charges that Jesus' eschatology is "simply dismissed without significant argument" (22).

/9/ At this point, it is very tempting to follow a tangent on the topic of how we can know what "really happened" in the Jesus Seminar. There are numerous eyewitnesses to the Seminar's events, first-person reports from participants like myself, and Robert Funk and Roy Hoover, authors of The Five Gospels, writing as spokesmen for the Seminar. In short, many aspects of the writing of the book called The Five Gospels are tantalizingly similar to the process we presuppose for the writing of the ancient gospels. It would not even be inappropriate to characterize Bob Funk as a kind of "evangelist" for the historical Jesus. So while the Seminar tried to figure out what "really happened" in the life of Jesus, a vaguely analogous problem can arise when we try to figure out what "really happened" in the Jesus Seminar. But, to pursue this question further would divert us from our present topic.

/10/ Critics claim that the Seminar used the apocalyptic content of sayings as a criterion of inauthenticity. This may be true for a few members of the Seminar (though no one really knows since we were not required to say how we voted, much less why we voted the way we did). But as a general statement, it is simply not true.

/11/ Ben Witherington states that the Seminar "omitted, almost entirely, the theological and eschatological matrix out of which all Jesus' teaching operates" (55).

/12/ Pearson turns the words of Luke 17:21 against the Seminar: "I would submit that eschatology is present 'right there in (the scholars') presence', but they 'don't see it'" (330). He also refers to "the Seminar's failure to notice the eschatology in their data base" (333).

/13/ Showcase examples are the parables of the Sower and the Mustard Seed. Other examples are Luke 17:33 ("Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses life will save it") and the beatitudes on those who are hungry and those who weep (Luke 6:20). The question here is whether every reference to a future state of affairs is necessarily apocalyptic.

Birger Pearson goes so far as to argue that even sayings that explicitly proclaim the presence of the kingdom are eschatological, not because of what they say, but because of the context within which he insists they should be interpreted. According to Pearson, Luke 11:20 is apocalyptic (despite its announcement that the kingdom "has arrived") because it deals with exorcism. In fact, for Pearson even Luke 17:20-21 (God's rule is right there in your presence) is apocalyptic, because Pearson asserts that "the key to its proper interpretation" is Luke 11:20 (330).

Pearson's analysis of the two authentic parables that are unique to Thomas is even more specious. He maintains that these must be understood eschatologically, not because of what they say, but because they need to be read the same way as other parables that Pearson takes to be eschatological. He argues that the parable of the Empty Jar (Thom 97) "can be compared" to the parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens (Matt 25:1-12) and that the parable of the Assassin (Thom 98) should be read in the context of the Tower Builder (Luke 14:28-30) and the Warring King (Luke 14:31-32). He holds that "once the eschatology is removed" from these two Thomas parables, they "are reduced to pure nonsense" (332). Pearson's objection to "removing" these parables' eschatology begs the question because there is no eschatology to "remove". What eschatology Pearson sees in them is imported from the context he creates. Thomas 97 and 98 appear eschatological only if one reads into them the eschatology of the other parables Pearson selects (and the eschatology of the Tower Builder and the Warring King is far from obvious).

/14/ Nested with this assumption is another one that is seldom challenged: the assumption that the Palestine of Jesus' time was rife with apocalypticism. The premier evidence for this is, of course, the Dead Sea scrolls. However, the question relevant to the historical Jesus is whether there was pervasive apocalypticism in Galilee in the twenties of the first century CE and for this the scrolls are not very useful. The current consensus on the Dead Sea scrolls is that they represent the views of a small, disaffected, and physically isolated sect. What about the Galilean day laborers, fishermen, shopkeepers, and marketplace scribes to whom Jesus spoke? What evidence do we have that allows us to reliably gauge their outlook? (By the way, this would make an excellent topic for a dissertation.) Are we so sure that we know enough about this to take for granted that Jesus' environment was all that apocalyptic?

A common criticism of the Jesus Seminar is that its non-apocalyptic Jesus would not have gotten crucified. The assumption here is that an apocalyptic message (which may or may not include explicit or implicit messianic claims) is both the necessary and sufficient cause for Jesus' execution. But this assumption does not hold up under scrutiny. An apocalyptic message by itself does not get you killed. If it did, the entire Qumran community would have been snuffed out in a mass execution. John the Baptist, even with his high public profile, was not executed for his apocalyptic message, but for his personal attacks on Herod. An apocalyptic message has to combined with something else for its messenger to become a political threat. But this is as true for a non-apocalyptic message. Wouldn't anyone who disrupted the temple on the scale that Jesus is reported to have done be perceived as a dangerous troublemaker, regardless of his message, or even if he had no particular message at all? One can argue that disrupting the temple is a symbolic act with an apocalyptic meaning, but this is not its only plausible interpretation.

There is an assumption more fundamental than any of this, an assumption that exists virtually unchallenged in all historical Jesus research, within the Seminar and outside of it. The assumption is that there must have been a connection between Jesus' death and his teaching, that he was killed because of what he stood for. While this is obviously a reasonable assumption, it is not a necessary one. Several prior assumptions are required to support it, for example: that the Romans crucified people only after due process to establish that crucifixion was the proper punishment; that Jesus' teaching and activities were known by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem prior to his arrival there; that these Jewish authorities, unlike his disciples, truly understood his teaching and its implications.

Without all of these assumptions, and others besides, we cannot confidently stipulate that Jesus must have been killed because of his message. It becomes plausible to imagine that his death was a routine act of state brutality by a military dictatorship, whose motive for the institution of crucifixion was not so much to punish the guilty as to terrorize the population. Crucifixion, after all, is not just a form of execution; it is a public spectacle, a theater of cruelty that burns into everyone's mind the absolute power of the state and their own vulnerability to it.

I am not asserting that there was no connection between Jesus' message and his death, only that this is an assumption that rests on several other assumptions, all of which may be true, but none of which is self-evident. If the hesitations to grant any of those prior assumptions are in any way reasonable, then we need not assume that Jesus was necessarily executed because of what he taught. We certainly do not need to assume that Jesus would not have been killed unless he had had an apocalyptic message.

/15/ Richard Hays charges that the Seminar's portrait of Jesus is "an ahistorical fiction achieved by the surgical removal of Jesus from his Jewish context. The fabrication of a non-Jewish Jesus is one particularly pernicious side effect of the Jesus Seminar's methodology" (47). Birger Pearson takes Hays' surgical imagery to prurient proportions: "The Jesus of the Jesus Seminar is a non-Jewish Jesus. To put it metaphorically, the Seminar has performed a forcible epispasm on the historical Jesus, a surgical procedure removing the marks of his circumcision" (334).

/16/ Sometimes this accusation is followed by the insinuation that the Seminar is anti-Semitic. Jewish members of the Seminar may be in a better position than I am to address this, but from my perspective as one who knows most members personally, this is pure slander.

/17/ For a full discussion of the various nuances of meaning in the Seminar's color scheme, and of all the problems with our voting process, see Robert J. Miller, "The Jesus Seminar and the Search for the Words of Jesus," Lexington Theological Quarterly 31.3 (Fall 1996).

/18/ N. T. Wright has drawn attention to this "flaw" in our procedure to support his verdict that "A voting system like this...has nothing whatever to commend it" (Jesus and the Victory of God, Fortress, 1996, p. 34). Our system for averaging votes is not perfect, but it is better than any other system we know. In fact, the "problem" Wright points to is quite small: out of the 518 sayings the Seminar analyzed, 15 sayings (less than 3% of the total) with slight majorities of red and pink votes are colored gray.

/19/ Voting among biblical scholars to determine consensus on issues of translation and textual criticism is by now an uncontroversial tradition, even if it is a relatively recent practice. But the tradition of voting among ecclesial authorities to determine official doctrines about the Bible is much more ancient. For example, the Catholic Church formally adopted the contents of Jerome's Vulgate as the canon of the Bible at the Council of Trent. The vote among the bishops in attendance was 23 for, 15 against, with 16 abstentions.

Voting does carry a potential for misrepresentation if all that is published is the final result, for this might give the appearance of unanimity when in fact some votes may have been close calls. This is why the UBS uses its A-B-C-D rating system and why the Jesus Seminar publishes the percentage of red, pink, gray, and black votes for each individual item.

 

 

Hays, Richard. "The Corrected Jesus." First Things (May 1994): 43-48.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. "The Jesus Seminar's misguided quest for the historical Jesus." Christian Century (January 3-10, 1996): 16-22.

Kee, Howard Clark. "A Century of Quests for the Culturally Compatible Jesus." Theology Today 25 (April 1995): 17-28.

Pearson, Birger. "The Gospel according to the Jesus Seminar." Religion 25 (1995): 317-338.

Witherington, Ben. "Jesus, the Talking Head." Chapter 2 in The Jesus Quest. Intervarsity, 1995.

 

  • This paper is an expanded version of a paper presented at the 1996 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature at New Orleans LA & copyrighted by R. J. Miller  (HTML by M. H. Smith).
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