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Mahlon H. Smith
Rutgers University

Because there is only reconstruction.
--- J. D. Crossan /1/

  We need a fiction that we recognize to be fictive.  
--- R. W. Funk /2/

 

1.1. Historical Reconstruction & the Human Imagination.

The shift in the Jesus Seminarís focus from assembling a data base of historically reliable information about Jesus to comparing profiles of him involves a critical change in methodology. Describing a person is a synthetic exercise that is qualitatively different than amassing data. Finding facts is an act of digging: extracting items from a site that currently obscures their original function. Describing is an act of construction: combining accessible elements into a new structure, even if it is a reconstruction of the past.

Descriptions are not found; they are assembled out of what has already been discovered. Thus, they are "fictions" in the root sense of that term:

  • they are items that have been shaped by someone; and
  • they are visual aids produced by and for the human imagination./3/

It is this constructive element that makes any description---historical or religious---fictive, as Gerd Theissen has noted./4/ For as a construct of a particular human imagination, a description is always subject to deconstruction and creative reconstruction when new data is discovered or when the old is viewed from a different angle.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Jesus. The central thesis of L.T. Johnsonís critique of the Jesus Seminar and two centuries of NT literary criticism is that the real Jesus cannot be equated with "a historically reconstructed Jesus" since "historical reconstructions are by their nature fragile and in constant need of revision."/5/ Instead, he argues:

Corresponding to the Christian claim, there is a "real Jesus" in the texts of the New Testament as they have been transmitted to this generation. It is a Jesus inscribed literarily in the New Testament compositions as compositions./6/

Even the Seminarís most vociferous critic here concedes that the descriptions of Jesus in the gospels are literary constructs --- i.e., the products of the poetic imaginations of some ancient scribes. His argument is solely with the presumption of modern scholars to reconstruct these canonical texts, since a reconstructed Jesus he contends is "a product of scholarly imagination."/7/ Johnsonís point seems to be that, as ancient artifacts, the profiles of Jesus "composed" by the authors of the gospels can claim historical superiority over any later scholarís composition.

The synoptic gospels themselves, however, validate reconstruction of the image and message of Jesus recorded in inherited texts. Gospel scholars are virtually unanimous on one point: two of these gospels are literary revisions of the third. Luke explicitly introduces his work as a systematic account based on his research into previous records (1:1-4). If that is not a description of historical reconstruction by a latter-day scholar, what is? If historical reconstruction cannot clarify the real Jesus, then what are Luke and Matthew doing in the churchís canon? Are their divergent revised descriptions of Jesus merely the product of their "scholarly imagination"?/8/

Every image depends upon someoneís imagination. Historical research is the discipline that keeps the meanderings of the human imagination in touch with the real facts by clarifying whose imagination is responsible for which image. As Theissen notes, the advantage of constructs of the historical imagination is that they are "relatively free of arbitrariness, [and] capable of being corrected by sources."/9/ Any description of Jesus is someoneís fiction. What makes one description historically superior to others is not its antiquity but the fact that it accounts for everything known about the primary data better than the alternatives.

The Jesus Seminar has spent a dozen years assessing every saying and narrative report of Jesus in the ancient records to distinguish primary evidence that can be traced to Jesus himself from later developments in the tradition. To bring all this historical data into clearer focus, Fellows are of course free to adjust the density of particular elements from previous voting by suggesting reasons for a different weighting. But the rationale for such correction must come from insight into the importance of particular items to account for other historically probable data rather than from the unexorcised prejudices of our own poetic imaginations. Our quest is to find what R. W. Funk calls a "true fiction": a profile that captures the features of the Jesus who generated these proven facts.

 

 

1.2. Relative Viewpoints & Narrative Tensions.

Neither ancient nor modern profiles of a historical person like Jesus should be paraded as absolute fact. A historical fact --- whether verbal or visual --- is the rugged residue of a dynamic process that has outlasted its original environment. A profile of a person is inevitably more fragile and tentative (as Johnson rightly noted), depending to a large degree on patterns evident to a particular viewer at a given time and place. It is for just this reason that the gospels are misrepresented by Johnson and others who claim they are definitive descriptions of Jesus. They are, rather, a series of drafts of a sketch by admirers of Jesus dependent on second-hand testimony a generation or more after his death. As such, the impressions presented by each author are subject to clarification and correction by comparison with those of other gospel profiles and analysis of the evidence they all present.

Even in photos of a living subject, quite different---even contrary---impressions may be caught on different days by different lenses. Only profiles of artificial cartoon characters, like Charlie Brown, never change. Instead of a static picture of Jesus, the gospels present a person who made a wide spectrum of impressions on people with whom he interacted. So, if it is a really historical Jesus we seek to describe rather than a comic book Christ, our profiles are bound to be fleeting glimpses, consciously tentative and candid rather than pretending to be definitive and comprehensive.

Since the Jesus Seminar methodically minimized elements imported from worldviews not distinctive of Jesus, the odd bits of surviving genuine sayings, deeds and biographical data read like a badly disintegrated manuscript in need of extensive shuffling and filling in to be restored to a coherent pattern. This is a sensitive and controversial task. The Seminarís suppression of the perspectives of gospel narrators and regrouping of their data has already led L. T. Johnson to declare the whole historical quest invalid:

It is not legitimate on the basis of demonstrating the probability of such items [that "Jesus said and did"] to then connect them, arrange them in sequence, infer causality, or ascribe special significance to any combination of them. This is why the abandonment of the Gospel narratives throws open the door for any number of combinations. Once that narrative control is gone, the pieces can be (and have been) put together in multiple ways./10/

What disturbs the author of this ruling and many other conservative Christians is that historical reconstruction presents new insights into the character of Jesus apart from the plot set by the post-crucifixion kerygma. Johnson insists, in effect, that Jesusí spiritual skeleton should not be disturbed but simply reverently viewed in the narrative caskets that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John provided. His edict cannot be enforced, however, without reducing gospel study to rote repetition. Taken literally it would put an end not only to historical reconstruction but to all preaching and exegesis as well, since the gospels would have to be read as written without comment on one passageís importance or relation to other material either inside or outside that text.

Even casual reading of the canonical gospels shows that none of these authors was bound by the "narrative controls" of previous accounts. For each has, in fact, reconfigured the basic bits of Jesusí words and deeds, inferred causality and ascribed special significance to connections not made by the others, to produce profiles of Jesus that are contradictory at key points. It is the demonstrable narrative freedom of the gospel writers that created the quest of the historical Jesus in the first place. If the synoptics were controlled by a single "messianic pattern," as Johnson claims, then everything they report would simply illustrate and reinforce the same paradigm. But any unbiased reader of Mark and the other gospels --- a reader, that is, who does not assume a priori that they all say more or less the same thing --- can see that this is patently not the case. Rather, each gospel reports sayings and deeds of Jesus which not only subvert the paradigms championed by others but which stand in dialectical tension with the authorís own profile of Jesus.

H. S. Reimarusí insight, that to hear the original voice of Jesus, one has to distinguish his viewpoint from that of later gospel writers, is just as cogent today as it was two centuries ago:

I find great cause to separate completely what the apostles say in their own writings from that which Jesus himself actually said and taught, for the apostles were themselves teachers and consequently present their own views; indeed they never claim that Jesus himself said and taught in his lifetime all the things that they have written./11/

The fact that many passages in the gospels do not fit well within the narrative frames in which they are now preserved not only justifies their separation but mandates rearrangement in a tighter, more stable pattern that is closer to the intrinsic logic of the mind that generated them.

 

 

1.3. Hermeneutical Honesty & Historical Guarantees.

Having adopted a historical method that highlights distinctive patterns of Jesusí voice and behavior, the problem the Jesus Seminar now faces is how to expose the logic that motivated him, without imposing an alien viewpoint. R.W. Funk has observed:

The facts are meaningless unless held in solution in some narrative or paradigm, some configuration that makes them hang together, cohere./12/

But what is to guarantee that a particular narrative or paradigm --- your reading or mine --- is true to the original text? Not the text of Mark or some other gospel writer, that is, but the fabric of a life woven in word and deed by Jesus himself. For the restoration of this thread is what the historical quest is all about.

The bulk of the pieces we have to work with are patterns Jesus himself constructed over an uncertain span of time and space. But drawing the right connections is up to us. Funk compares the nodes of historical data to dots on a page./13/ These unnumbered dots represent Jesusí viewpoint; the lines connecting them represent our insights. The first is an ancient fact; the second is patently a modern fiction. If we were writing a novel, this would present no problem. We could imitate Theissen in forewarning readers: "Of course I have invented the narrative framework."/14/ Yet, to concede that history is the invention of the historian is out of the question here, since this phase of the historical quest was designed to sort out what probably happened at the generative level of the Jesus tradition.

Funkís suggestion that Fellows label the elements of their profiles "data" or "insight" is an admirable adaptation of Theissenís type of hermeneutical honesty to the historical task. Most who have claimed to represent the real Jesus --- whether in print or in pulpit --- deliberately blur the distinction between given fact and interpretive fiction. Yet, Funkís tactic only calls attention to the problem of the hermeneutical circle. It does not circumvent it. Nor does it provide others with a reason other than personal taste for preferring a new insight over more traditional interpretations. A modern historianís profile of Jesus may appeal to some moderns more than those sketched by first century authors. But the only truly historical rationale for preferring the new profile of Jesus to the old is that --- in spite of its apparent novelty --- it is demonstrably closer to the shadows that Jesus himself cast.

 

2.1. The Paradigm Paradox: "Who do you say I am?"

Jesus has been described as a person who defies classification --- a conclusion that anyone who has studied him is bound to come to sooner or later. /15/ But it is impossible to leave him at that, from either a historical or religious perspective. For, despite the claims of Christian mystics, one can neither understand nor relate to an enigma. The human mind cannot focus on the pieces of any puzzle --- the Jesus tradition included --- without searching for a pattern that ties them together. So the first step in drawing a historical profile of Jesus is to find a functional paradigm that makes sense out of what he probably said and did.

 

 

(1) Search. Recognition that inherited models of Jesus do not adequately account for an essential portion of the primary data base is the engine that started and continues to drive the historical quest. The shift of scholars from one controlling paradigm to another --- from the classic Hellenistic divine wonder-worker to Reimarusí politically motivated Jewish messiah to Schweitzerís apocalyptic visionary to Bornkammís prophetic rabbi to an iconoclastic itinerant Galilean sage (Theissen, Crossan, et al) --- is due less to current cultural preferences than to a continuing conviction that Jesus can be correctly understood only on his own terms.

Although it is easy to demonstrate that people unwittingly project their own shadows on Jesus --- or anyone else for that matter ---, Schweitzerís celebrated claim that "each epoch found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character" should be seen for what it is: a poetic exaggeration that is more rhetoric than fact. /16/ Any description of anything inevitably reflects the viewpoint and values of the author rather than the subject. I describe things as I see them. But what I see is not limited to my own reflection. Rather, I describe whatever draws my attention: phenomena that both attract and repel, inspire and perplex. Schweitzer himself is evidence that distortions of Jesusí image are more often due to latent hero worship than to historical research that distinguishes Jesusí perspective from oneís own. /17/

Reimarusí principle is still the first commandment of scholars dedicated to the historical quest:

It is not to be assumed that Jesus intended or strove for anything in his teaching other than what may be taken from his own words./18/

The past two centuries of debate have simply tightened the controls for pinpointing the patterns of speech and action that reflect Jesusí viewpoint rather than those of others. Since it is always easier to recognize someone elseís fictions than oneís own, our first task is to test whether the traditional paradigms are adequate for understanding Jesus on his own terms.

 

 

(2) Models. The problem with the templates that have dominated the historical quest thus far --- messiah, prophet, sage (and variants: "teacher" or "rabbi") --- is that, while intrinsic to our sources, they are uniformly extrinsic to Jesusí own viewpoint. Although these models probably echo characterizations of Jesus by contemporaries, they represent insights by primitive admirers rather than patterns projected by Jesus himself. They are, therefore, no more historically objective than characterizations of Jesus by contemporary detractors --- e.g., "a glutton and a drunk, a pal of toll collectors and sinners" (Matt. 11:19 // Luke 7:19) or "agent of Beelzebul" (Mark 3:22 etc.)./19/ In fact, the positive paradigms are more plausibly accounted for as reactions to the negative, rather than the reverse. They are attempts by Jesusí supporters to fit the unconventional, even scandalous, things that Jesus said and did into social patterns defined by Jewish tradition: that is, to connect prickly points of data with familiar positive lines of interpretation.

Yet, the oldest narrative sources illustrate the failure of traditional roles to account for Jesusí pattern of behavior. Both Mark and the Johannine signs source independently prove that Jesusí earliest fans could not find a positive paradigm that fit him exactly. Instead of agreeing that Jesusí performance followed a single "messianic pattern" (as L. T. Johnson repeatedly alleges)/20/ the gospels preserve the residue of a primitive debate over rival profiles of Jesus, anticipating the current phase of the Jesus Seminar by almost two millennia. Was Jesus the Messiah (John 1:41, Mark 8:29)? or "the Prophet who is to come" (John 6:14, Mark 6:15b)? or Elijah (Mark 6:15a, 8:28c)?/21/ or even the shade of John the Baptizer (Mark 6:14, 8:28b)? Mark subjects the idolizing christology of the most prominent pillars of the apostolic church (Peter, James and John) to repeated ridicule as a failure to understand Jesus (Mark 8:33, 9:6, 10:38), while the fourth gospel has Jesus caustically castigate admirers --- including his own mother (John 2:4) --- for expecting him to reveal himself through some significant word or gesture.

The primitive Christian solution to the problem of dissimilarity between traditional messianic expectations and the facts of Jesusí life was to modify the messiah paradigm by melding it with another traditional icon (Isaiahís suffering servant) that better fit Jesusí fate, to produce a powerful paradox: a dying savior. Scholars since Schweitzer, however, have generally abandoned the messianic model altogether due to lack of reliable evidence that Jesus deliberately posed as a messiah of any sort. It has long been conceded by most critically trained scholars that messianic consciousness was a figment, not of Jesusí own mind, but of the minds of some of his early Jewish fans./22/

 

 

(3) Hero? The same must now be said of the other traditional paradigms, prophet and sage, which in one guise or another have been favored in historical profiles of Jesus for the past half century./23/ The issue here is not whether one can find evidence to show that Jesus had things in common with Amos or Jeremiah or Qoheleth or Hanina ben Dosa or Diogenes of Sinope. It is, rather, whether Jesus wittingly mimicked the social roles such men defined. Sages and prophets are, after all, intellectual heroes and brokers of ultimate truth. They are readily admired by liberal, bourgeois scholars and preachers like me. Such admiration has blinded many historical questers --- myself included --- to the fact there is no solid evidence that Jesus aspired to the respectable social status of any kind of prophet or sage./24/

Jesusí own sayings are evidence that he deliberately disavowed the type of admiration that prophets and sages invite. The one prophetic allusion that can reliably be traced to him is the impersonal observation that prophets in general lack respect at home (Thomas 31:1, John 4:44, Mark 6:4)./25/ Although the context of this saying in canonical sources implies that it was an indirect self-reference, it is important to note that the gospels are unanimous in identifying Jewish crowds rather than Jesus himself as the source of any explicit claim that he was a prophet (Mark 6:15, 8:28; John 6:14). Far from enhancing Jesusí status as a prophet, Jesusí impersonal observation about prophetic reputations actually deflates it by pointing out that he was not regarded as a prophet by those who knew him best. In form this saying is a proverb, like Jesusí less certain comment that stone buildings are not eternal (Mark 13:2). Taken at face value both statements are designed to counter unqualified awe in an imposing phenomenon with a generalized observation about the relativity and impermanence of even the most prominent person or thing.

From a purely phenomenological perspective, the style of Jesusí sayings fits the paradigm of savant better than prophet or messiah. The tentativeness of worldly grandeur is, after all, a fundamental insight of classical wisdom. So, was Jesus really a sage? We, like Josephus, may characterize him as such./26/ Yet, the mere fact that Jesus used aphorisms to express pithy observations about reality is still no guarantee that he would have accepted classification as a sage. For the wine Jesus poured into the skins of traditional wisdom was so volatile that it stretched the social mold of sage beyond the breaking point. Like the most radical philosophers --- Socrates or the Cynics --- he did not pose as a wise man. In fact, he warned people to avoid the trappings of social respect enjoyed by scholars --- including the fellows and academic critics of the Jesus Seminar../27/ By thanking God for hiding from sages what was evident to infants (Luke 10:21 // Matt. 11:25), Jesus turned his wit against anyone who pretended to be wise./28/ So it would be ironic indeed if the author of this sentiment presented himself as a sage of any stripe.

 

 

(4) Social inversions. The inverted social logic of many of the most clearly genuine Jesus sayings is the basic reason for doubting that Jesus consciously identified with the role of either prophet or sage. The Jesus who told people that Godís basileia --- the office of the divine ruler --- belonged to paupers (Luke 6:20, Thomas 54) or to youngsters (Mark 10:14b, Thomas 22:1) obviously had a worldview that turned traditional social structures upside down./29/ Jesus, moreover, expressly identified with those at the bottom of the social pyramid. At some point in his life he was a homeless wanderer who could ironically quip that birds and foxes had a more secure existence than he (Matthew 8:20 // Luke 9:53 // Thomas 86)./30/ And even as an adult, Jesus shamelessly referred to God with childish familiarity as "Papa" --- Abba, that is (Mark 14:35; Galatians 4:6)./31/ Instead of self-consciously posing as mediator of ultimate truth and paradigm of social virtue, he identified himself as a sibling of anyone who heeded the one he acknowledged as Parent (Matthew 12:50, Thomas 99:2)./32/

The author of these sayings did not claim ontological, social, intellectual or moral superiority over anyone. Jesus did not claim to be a hero and he steadfastly refused to pose as mediator of anything. The only dignity he ascribed to himself was the lot he shared with all other humans as offspring of Adam (and Eve): freedom to wander at will (Matthew 8:20 // Luke 9:53 // Thomas 86) and to determine how to spend his time even on the sabbath (Mark 2:27-28)./33/ At an early date, admirers of Jesus misinterpreted indirect remarks that implied he was a "son of God" or "son of Man" as exclusive titles which exalted him above mere mortals. Paradoxically, however, these are the paradigms that Jesus himself invoked as the lowest common denominators to identify himself with fellow humans. Instead of claiming a favored position for himself as "the firstborn among many brothers," as Paul later characterized him (Romans 8:29), Jesus insisted that in Abbaís family the last are given priority, while those who put themselves first are sent to the end of the line (Matthew 20:16, Mark 10:31)./34/ Thus, he could claim with unqualified hyperbole what none of his supporters would have dared: that John the Baptist was the greatest person who ever had a mother (Luke 7:28a // Matthew 11:11a).

Yet, Jesus knew, in a household where "Papa" is in charge, it is the smallest child rather than the greatest that really matters (Luke 7:28b, Matthew 11:11b)./35/ Instead of characterizing the cosmic Parent that rules the human household as a strict patriarch who cared for the obedient and castigated the undisciplined, he represented God as a self-consistent Provider who shed sunshine and rain on the unruly and upright alike (Matthew 5:45)./36/ Rather than describe his Abbaís realm as a heavenly throne room more eternal than the loftiest redwood, Jesus whimsically likened it to minuscule bits of organic matter in the cosmic kitchen: common mustard weed (Thomas 20, Mark 4:30-32) or a fermenting scrap of sourdough (Luke 13:20-21, Matthew 13:33).

Jesus himself did not shun the common or even the corrupt. He neither withdrew from the uneducated masses nor frequented the exclusive table-debates of the leading intellectuals of Jewish culture --- the self-styled hakhamim (literally: "sages"). On the contrary, his indiscriminate socializing invited notoriety as a "pal of toll collectors and sinners" (Luke 7:34 // Matthew 11:19). Instead of commending those who believed in him, he merely congratulated anyone who did not take offense at his outlandish quips and uncouth social behavior (Luke 7:23 // Matthew 11:6)./37/

Only in a topsy-turvy world would Jesusí behavior be thought to fit the definition of a sage. In a status-conscious hierarchical society of either the first or twenty-first century he was more likely to be regarded as a clown or a fool./38/ Like the family of Francis of Assisi twelve centuries later, Jesusí own relatives considered him insane (Mark 3:21). Most religious folk, preachers, and biblical scholars today, if they ever met him, would probably be inclined to agree. But those who embrace Jesusí paradoxical vision of Godís inverted priorities would concur with an equally paradoxical Pharisee named Paul: that Godís fool was saner than any human sage (1 Cor. 1:25).

 

(5) Jesusí fiction. What we need then is a paradigm that does justice to Jesusí intimacy with both God and sinners, to both his sense of the human family and his sensitivity to the social scandal his own behavior provoked; a paradigm that is totally consistent with his vision of Godís paradoxical concern for his most difficult child. A fiction? Certainly; yet a fiction that is as durable and distinctive as anything Jesus said or did: a paradigm that was not the figment of someone elseís mind, superimposed on him either before or after his death. In order to reconstruct a historically reliable profile of Jesus, what we need is a figure from Jesusí own imagination: a fictive character based on his personal experience.

The prodigal son is the one ancient prototype that makes perfect sense out of the surviving pieces of genuine Jesus tradition, whose author is otherwise bound to seem more of a historical oddity than the platypus: a comic Jewish Cynic. However close the latter may come to an accurate profile of Jesus, it remains a composite sketch drawn at a distance. Without eyewitness comparisons of Jesus to those deliberately shameless social gadflies whom contemporaries derided as "doggies" modern skeptics can easily challenge the historical plausibility of such a subject. /39/ The prodigal, on the other hand, is almost certainly a snapshot from Jesusí own imagination, and thus bound to be a better representation of his viewpoint than any characterization of him by fan or foe./40/

My thesis --- that Jesus is best profiled in one of the more disreputable figments of his own imagination --- might be heresy in the eyes of both theological and literary dogmatists. But, for now, it is the most promising vaccine against the infectious human tendency to idolize Jesus or reinvent him in our own image. The crucial historical question is whether Jesus found the model for the anti-hero of his longest narrative parable in observation of someone else or in personal experience of Abbaís treatment of himself.

 

 

2.2. The Parable Perplex: "You donít get this?"

The past century of research into Jesusí sayings has confirmed the synoptic parables as the most reliable selection of gospel logia for analyzing Jesusí distinctive perspective on the world. So, it is ironic that the parables have generally been overlooked as the best reflection of Jesusí personal experience./41/ B. B Scott has compensated for the "disappearance of parables" in the most recent historical portraits of Jesus by presenting them as a revolutionary poetís window on an alternate world./42/ Without disputing that insight, I would argue that they are also a mirror in which Jesus cast his reflections on his own interaction with historical contemporaries.

 

 

(1) Metaphor. The primary advance in parable interpretation in recent years has been the conclusion of specialists that the graphic scenes Jesus plotted are understood better as metaphor than as advice./43/ Measured by conventional standards of justice and ethics, both the images and plots of the bulk of Jesusí parables range from the strange to the subversive, especially when compared to first-century Jewish codes of social purity. Read as metaphors for Godís imperium, however, --- the divine management of a less than perfect human economy, that is --- most of the parables are less problematic, at least for those who like myself prefer to think that the Force which governs the universe is inclined to equilibrium rather than to the survival of just the fittest.

But, as J. D. Crossan astutely noted in echoing Marianne Moore, as metaphor "a parable gives us Ďimaginary gardens with real toads in them.í"/44/ The point of metaphor is, after all, to invoke a phenomenon within the auditorís own experience that makes something abstract or obscure as painfully tangible as a hot potato. Jesusí imaginary gardens are loaded with real toads, warts and all. His parables about leaven (Matt. 13:33 // Luke 13:20-21), a mustard granule (Thomas 20, Mark 4:30-32) and a Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) were framed for Palestinian Jews with intimate experience of each. Only later goyim who had no first-hand acquaintance with the pejorative connotations of such phenomena in Jesusí native culture could readily accept them as theological symbols without raising an eyebrow.

 

 

(2) Anti-heroes. Except for classical satirists, Jesus was the first narrator to focus public attention on the exploits of the anti-hero. The protagonists of several of his longer narrative parables are particularly disreputable individuals whose role in each respective plot shatters stereotypical thinking. Though preserved only by a gentile scribe (Luke), these parables presuppose a completely Jewish perspective./45/ But first-century Palestinian Jews would be no more inclined to imagine the charitable behavior of Jesusí Samaritan than their twentieth-century descendants to fabricate the story of a Nazi like Oskar Schindler. Without some cogent point of reference in the real world either plot would strike a Jewish audience as a totally incredible and politically perverse fantasy./46/

Likewise, the incompetent manager who acts out of self-interest (Luke 16:1-8) and the wayward son who wastes his inheritance (Luke 15:11-32) were probably just as common in Jesusí culture as they are, unfortunately, in ours. But the experience of each of Jesusí anti-heroes in escaping discipline by a higher authority, though strikingly similar, is disturbingly unexpected in a culture that demands social justice --- disturbing, that is, unless one sides with the deviant.

In other words, these narrative parables are likely to have been dismissed as unworthy fantasy by Jesusí contemporaries unless they were prepared to grant the reality of the toad in each magic garden. To have functioned as a real metaphor the behavior of the protagonist of any of these parables would have had to be as much a recognizable phenomenon on the historical horizon of both author and audience as the behavior of the sprouting mustard seed or the leavened dough. Lacking reference to some third party, these parables must have been provoked by some familiar element in the experience of Jesus, his audience or, most likely, both.

 

 

(3) Viewpoint. We gospel scholars, as distant auditors, usually interpret the plots of the parables as quasi-didactic fictions through which a clairvoyant Jesus attempted to acquaint people with his vision of Godís relation to them. But this just lets the shadow of the traditional view of Jesus as mediator, teacher, sage in the back door. Non-literal instruction is instruction nonetheless. Although Jesus may not have represented himself as the ultimate broker of Godís basileia, he would have behaved as such, if he formulated his parables to tell others what God meant for their lives. As designer of these imaginary gardens he would, in effect, be identifying his hearers as toads, calling attention to all their warts.

As reader-response analyses of the parables of the Samaritan, the unjust steward and the prodigal have often pointed out, however, Jewish auditors --- ancient or modern --- would be less likely to identify with the agent at the center of any of these plots than with the passive bystanders in the margins: the mugged merchant lying flat on his back in a ditch along the Jerusalem-Jericho highway, consumers who owe more to a creditor than they could ever hope to repay, the dutiful son who felt an injustice when his undisciplined sibling was honored instead. In each case the face of the disreputable figure on whose behavior the parable hinges remains blank. People in desperate straits, whose garden has lost its magic, might be ready to entertain the notion that even a toad could serve as a prince charming in disguise. But unless one materialized and acted as such, the toad in each of these parables --- the helpful Samaritan, the debt-canceling manager and the celebrated prodigal --- was bound to be regarded as an improbable fantasy.

Thus, the most plausible explanation of Jesusí penchant for casting disreputable figures in the leading roles of his narrative parables is that these fictions reflect to some extent his own experience and notorious behavior. In spite of modern literary criticsí protests to the contrary, authors --- ancient or modern --- inevitably project their own experiences into the characters and scenes they imagine. Poets, after all, are as much subject to quantum physics as historians. The personal perspective of any artist invariably sets the field of vision of all he or she portrays.

 

 

(4) Transactional analysis. As poetry, a parable, like other art, is born as a creative reaction to a set of stimuli in the artistís own experience; so it inevitably retains traces of the artistís encounter with particular phenomena. Since the phenomena depicted in parables function as metaphors, however, a modern attempt to reconstruct a parableís originating pretext in Jesusí experience might seem an exercise in pure speculation. For art is not bound to the artistís studio but may be rehung almost anywhere. Yet, no picture can hang in a void. The hermeneutical consequence of refusal to retrace a parableís roots within Jesusí personal horizons, is to let it be transplanted into an imaginary garden designed by someone else: the author of a synoptic gospel or some latter day interpreter like you or me. Funk was right to insist that as poetic speech no parable can be reduced to a single fixed point./47/ Every metaphor comes with as many handles as there are hearers. But the identification of a particular set of metaphors as parables of Jesus of Nazareth is a historical judgment that presupposes probable historical grounds for claiming they are the product of the imagination of this individual rather than some other. Like any claim of historical authenticity those grounds require reconstruction.

Since speech is inherently transactional, reconstruction of a dialog is possible and justified when --- as in the reconstruction of ancient manuscripts ---the missing elements are suggested by the vocabulary and logic of the lines that have been preserved. A hypothetical pretext for one of Jesusí parables can be considered probable when it is supported by other documented evidence: biographical data or verbal challenges that Jesusí supporters are not apt to have fabricated. Moreover, the validity of the reconstructed transaction can be tested further and confirmed by its coherence with standards of social interaction advocated by Jesus himself. Three principles that are particularly relevant here are "love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44 // Luke 6:27), "turn the other cheek" (Matt 5:39 // Luke 6:29) and "take the timber out of your own eye" before attempting to remove a speck from a siblingís (Thomas 26)./48/ The author of these sayings was obviously dedicated to creative, non-abrasive strategies of social interaction. Since these striking injunctions are traceable to Jesus, a reconstruction of Jesusí verbal transactions that illustrates them is historically more probable than one that does not.

 

 

(5) Ironic repartťe. Jesusí quips --- about a wedding party fasting (Mark 2:19); the healthy needing a doctor (Mark 2:17); harvesting grapes from thorns (Matt. 7:16 // Thomas 45:1); blind leading the blind (Luke 6:39 // Thomas 34); or a camel passing through a needle (Mark 10:25) --- amply demonstrate his mastery in invoking familiar phenomena to get others to recognize the absurdity of a scene. They are rapier thrusts of a sharp wit to win a point not easily parried.

The same ironic wit is evident in the plots of Jesusí parables. As verbal illustrations, parables usually originate as a response to verbal stimuli: supportersí questions or skepticsí challenges. It is a historical fact that certain socially precise Jews branded Jesus a pariah. It is also a fact that Jesusí longer narrative parables create imaginary gardens that reveal the behavior of such social toads to be benign. These stories turn slander into magic. Thus, a positive twist in a scandalous scenario is a good sign that the parable was created as Jesusí retort to an opponentís slur.

Slander is often cast in socially pejorative images. An excellent example of the type of repartťe that graphic invective invites is found in the synoptic story of Jesusí encounter with a Lebanese woman (Mark 7:24-30 // Matt 15:21-28)./49/ Jesus at first refuses the foreignerís request for aid by invoking a table metaphor about the inappropriateness of throwing childrenís food to "dogs" (Mark 7:27)./50/ Instead of disputing the demeaning canine image, the woman seizes it to turn Jesusí logic against himself, by pointing out that dogs get to eat the childrenís scraps (Mark 7:28). Thus, in this case at least, a parabolic plot was suggested by verbal sparring. Jesusí concluding commendation of his female opponent for getting the better of him makes this sparring match a scene that is not easily dismissed as a fabrication by some fan of Jesus like Mark.

A Jesus who formulated metaphors to thrust could just as easily seize them to parry./51/ This element of creative repartťe, which is usually ignored in parable interpretation, is what makes the narrative parables ideal nodes for reconstructing a historical profile of Jesus: not as literal descriptions of his life but as metaphors suggested by situations he actually encountered.

 

 

(a) Creative debt management. The parable of the manager who was fired for incompetence (Luke 16:1-8) is particularly perplexing when viewed as a pedagogical metaphor for either social ethics or divine action in general./52/ For the image of a boss commending the unprofitable behavior of an employee who had just been dismissed for wasteful management is a metaphor designed to undermine any economy.

But the point of this parable becomes transparent when read dialectically, as Jesusí retort to critics of his own behavior. It is certain that Jesus was himself accused of sloppy accounting in his social relationships, for no fan would have caricatured him as "a pal of toll collectors and sinners" (Matt. 11:19 // Luke 7:34; Mark 2:16)./53/ Almost as certainly, Jesus assured debtors that they could avoid the ultimate bill collector simply by not collecting what was owed them (Matthew 6:12; 18:23-24). This is exactly what the dismissed manager does during his last days on the job. Rather than pick up the gauntlet by protesting his innocence and slapping his accusers with libel charges, the parableís protagonist simply acknowledges his limitations and makes the most out of the options available in the time he has left. Similarly, instead of challenging his criticsí charge of incompetence, Jesus simply appropriates it to validate his questionable behavior in discounting the debts of others. Thus, the parable of the incompetent but shrewd manager paints a connection between these two facts: a line not invented by any modern scholar but drawn by Jesus himself.

The parable of the disreputable manager can, therefore, be cited as evidence that Jesus actually lived by his precept of turning the other cheek (Matt 5:39 // Luke 6:29). Instead of striking back, Jesus disarms his opponent by exposing his own vulnerability. It is a vulnerability that the opponent cannot exploit without shaming himself, since he issued the charge of incompetence in the first place. Funkís description of the function of Jesusí parables in general is especially true in a dialectical situation like this, where the controlling metaphor was probably proposed by Jesusí opponent:

They present a world the listener recognizes, acknowledges. Then he is caught up in the dilemma of the metaphor: it is not his world after all!/54/

The opponent presumes to dictate the terms by which the real world is judged. Jesusí parable restructures that world by showing that a generous, non-judgmental lord is actually in control.

 

 

(b) Suspect savior. The parable of the Samaritan also fits better in a dialectical context than in a didactic one. The primary problem with the traditional interpretation of this story as a lesson in neighborliness is that only a Samaritan audience would be in position to take it this way. For Luke presupposes that the auditor is supposed to imitate the agent in the parable who showed compassion on the victim. Having just finished portraying Jesusí chief disciples as invoking a heavenly holocaust on a Samaritan village that did not offer them hospitality (Luke 9:51-56), Luke knew full well the animosity between Jews and Samaritans. So, if he designed this parable to fit his narrative context, the identity of the characters would have been inverted. For he introduces the parable as Jesusí response to a Jewish lawyerís question: "Who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29); and he concludes with Jesus telling him: "Go and do the same yourself" (10:37). Thus, the parable would conform to Lukeís narrative horizons only if the fictive benefactor were a Jew and the victim of the mugging a Samaritan. If any Jews heard another Jew portray a Samaritan in the role of benefactor they would accuse the speaker of siding with the enemy.

This is, in fact, a charge that the fourth gospel claims Jesus himself faced from erstwhile Judean supporters: "Arenít we right to say that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed" (John 8:31, 48)./55/ Such a venomous description is hardly likely to have been fabricated by any later fan of Jesus, especially the author of the gospel in which Jesus calls a Samaritan woman a theological ignoramus for not recognizing that "salvation is from the Judeans" (John 4:22). While the fourth evangelist has Jesus dismiss the idea that he is motivated by a malevolent spirit, it is noteworthy that he does not deny the Samaritan label (John 8:49). This omission is hardly evidence that author of the fourth gospel thought Jesus was literally a Samaritan or let the label stick to curry Samaritan support for Jesus. For Jesusí alleged response shows an acute awareness that the intent of this epithet was to defame him.

The ultimate shame for a first-century Palestinian Jew was to be branded a Samaritan by compatriots. Josephus reports that Jews charged with kosher or sabbath violations often found refuge in Samaria./56/ So, there is good historical evidence that religious Judeans were apt to label a non-conformist Galilean a "Samaritan," especially one from a village near the Samaritan border, like Nazareth, who claimed that nothing ingested could defile a person (Mark 7:15) and that the human being per se was "lord" of the sabbath (Mark 2:27-28)./57/

What is historically suspect about the scenario in John 8 is not the hostile epithet ascribed to some Jews, but rather Jesusí alleged provocation. If Jesus called fellow Jews offspring of "the father of lies" (John 8:44), then they were justified in characterizing him as an ethnic blood-enemy. But the voice that characterized Jews as "children of the devil" is probably that of a non-Jewish gospel writer rather than the historical Jew, Yeshu of Nazareth. For it is totally incompatible with Jesusí self-critical caution to rid oneís own vision of flaws before focusing on someone elseís faults (Thom 26).

Jesusí parable of the Samaritan, on the other hand, is a perfect, non-aggressive retort to a Jewish charge of heresy, which is, after all, the valence of the label "Samaritan" in a story told by a Jew to fellow Jews. The "neighbors" chosen for the main roles in this plot are parties to a longer rivalry than the Montagues and Capulets. But, like Shakespeareís Romeo and Juliet, Jesusí story of a Samaritan in Judean territory spotlights a scene where common humanity momentarily triumphs over blood feud. Since the Jewish merchant just lies there, the point of the parable is not to tell Jews how to behave or to try to make them trust Samaritans in general, but to assure them that a particular "Samaritan," whom they regarded as a dangerous heretic, was really their friend.

Drawing a dialectical connection from Jesusí parable of the Samaritan to Judeans who characterized Jesus himself as such provides indirect evidence that Jesus treated even his harshest critics with love (Luke 6:27). If Jesus called those who characterized him as an enemy "liars," he would only have proven them right. Instead, he takes them at their word. Whether Jesus was an observant full-blooded Jew or not is irrelevant here. The fact is: some other Jews saw him as a heretic. Hence, they were not lying in characterizing him as such. To prove that their perception was wrong, Jesus accepted the Samaritan slur without blinking, but then went on to tell his Jewish accusers a story in which one such character went out of his way to save a destitute Judean. Jesus did not shun contact with destitute Jews who were ritually unclean any more than did the stranger in this parable. Thus, his story of this enemy as rescuer was probably designed to help Judeans see his own disregard for canons of purity in a more favorable light.

 

 

(c) Problem child. If the benefactor toads in the previous pair of parables were designed by Jesus as self-profiles drawn from his detractorsí point of view, then the prodigal son is an even more transparent disguise.

  • The prodigal was impatient, asking his father for an immediate share of his estate (Luke 15:13). Likewise, Jesus demanded his Papaís domain (Luke 11:2), confident that whatever he requested would be granted. /58/

  • Unlike the cautious servant in another parable (Matt. 25:14-30 // Luke 19:12-26), the prodigal does not keep his capital but, rather, exhausts it with an unconservative lifestyle (zon asotos) among outsiders (Luke 15:14). Jesus himself mocked efforts to preserve life (Luke 17:33) or property (Luke 12:16-21) and perplexed conservative Jews by fraternizing with those they regarded as riffraff (Mark 2:16)./59/

  • The prodigal provokes his dutiful brother to issue a contemptuous denunciation: "that son of yours devoured your living with prostitutes" (Luke 15:30). Jesus too was caricatured as a shameless libertine --- "A glutton and a drunk! A pal of toll collectors and sinners!" (Luke 7:34 // Matt. 11:35) --- and assured conservative critics that toll collectors and prostitutes had a prior claim on his Papaís estate (Matt. 21:31)./60/

  • The prodigalís homecoming prompts his father to celebrate with a feast (Luke 15:23-24). Jesus
     regarded the present as a time to celebrate, brashly comparing his own presence to a bridegroom (Mark 2:19) and his Father to a person who threw a dinner party for everyone (Thomas 64)./61/

  • The prodigalís sober brother stayed outside the celebration for his disreputable sibling (Luke 15:28). Likewise, Jesusí brothers remained outside the circle of those who idolized him (Mark 3:31-32 // Thomas 99) --- until after his death (Acts 1:14)./62/

  • The prodigalís brother is portrayed as a dutiful, self-righteous son who can tell his father without fear of contradiction: "I never once disobeyed any of your orders" (Luke 15:29). Jesusí brother Yaíakov (James) was nicknamed "the Righteous" (Thomas 12:2; Eusebius Eccles. Hist. 2.23.4-7) and was held in high repute by "those who were strict in keeping the laws" (Josephus Antiquities 20.200-201)./63/

Any of these parallels alone could be regarded as figments in the mind of this modern reader that were not intended by the original tale spinner (Jesus). But their number and the fact that they have been tightly woven into the most complex and most realistic of Jesusí stories, which Luke presents as explanation of Jesusí own behavior, prevents easy dismissal as unintentional coincidences.

 

 

(d) Allegory or autobiography? The very length and realistic dramatic development of the plot of the prodigal puts it in a class by itself as reflecting more of the world as Jesus imagined it than any other saying. The basic plot---a fatherís benevolent concern for all his children, the bad seed as well as the good---makes it a perfect illustration of Jesusí uncommon aphorism envisioning the morally blind impartiality of divine providence (Matt 5:45//Luke 6:35); and the fact that the parableís characters cohere more to the Matthean form of that Q aphorism than to the Lukan indicates that it is probably not the product of Lukeís own imagination. Moreover, recognition of a healthy dose of Jesusí autobiographical input in the construction of this parable resolves problems that have long perplexed scholars regarding its structure and focus and avoids the temptation to allegorize both cast and plot.

As an author, Jesus had to get the inspiration for his characters from somewhere. Although the motif of sibling rivalry between a fatherís sons over the inheritance was a familiar mytheme in Jewish tradition, the characterization of the sons in this parable is not based on any standard Hebrew story. Instead of shrewdly cheating his older brother out of his birthright (like Jacob) or rising to power in a foreign land (like Joseph), the younger son is portrayed as a self-indulgent problem child who irresponsibly squanders his patrimony and is reduced to degraded circumstances in an alien setting. Though his return may occasion a celebration, it does not prompt the father to declare the younger son his heir or strip the understandably jealous elder son of his favored status. Since the interaction of characters in this parable does not conform to traditional Jewish mythemes it is better explained as a reflection of the world that the author personally experienced or at least deemed possible.

Moreover, the narrator who created this plot had to have some motivation for developing it in such detail. If the point of this parable was simply to illustrate the fatherís joy in the return of the prodigal, the character of the elder son and the conclusion would be superfluous. The lost sheep or lost coin (Luke 15:4-6, 8-9) make that point better. If the original intent was to shame critics of Jesusí association with sinners (Luke 15:1-2), then the fatherís concluding assurance that the elder son is his eternal companion and heir (Luke 15:31) is an inappropriate punch line./64/ If the author of this story were Paul, then it might be passed off as an allegory of all Godís children, with the elder brother personifying Israel and the younger, the goyim. But the scenario and dťnouement preclude such an application./65/ At first glance, Lukeís fictional setting suggests a plausible allegorization of persona in this parable within Jesusí world (prodigal = sinners; brother = Pharisees). Yet, the blocking of the brothersí roles and the fatherís dialog are still strangely out of sync. The prodigal returns on his own initiative. Luke, on the other hand represents sinners as responding to Jesusí initiative (Luke 5:32, 19:10). The dutiful brother is assured that he is his Fatherís eternal companion and heir, while Luke characterizes the Pharisees as "moneygrubbers" (Luke 16:14) whose self-righteous prayers are rejected by God (Luke 18:10-14). The difficulty in making the structure and details of this parable match Jesusí message or Sitz im Leben, has led some scholars to suggest it has been rewritten. Since its characters and plot are not typically Lukan constructs, however, it is more likely that the original point of the story of the prodigal has eluded interpreters to date.

Taken at face value the parable of the prodigal is a drama about the resolution of family tensions. One need look no further than Jesusí own family to find his inspiration for this plot. The story has been designed to reduce a dutiful sonís resentment regarding the fuss being made over a disreputable younger brother. This parable neither favors the prodigal, nor rehabilitates his reputation nor censors his older brother. On the contrary, by conceding the latterís perception of his impetuous siblingís folly (Luke 15:30) it focuses on getting the firstborn to join the party by assuring him of his fatherís constant favor. So, the most likely auditor for whom Jesus crafted this story is his own brother James, who emerged as undisputed leader of the Jerusalem-based wing of the Jesus movement soon after his controversial siblingís death./66/

An autobiographical interpretation of this parable, with the fatherís two sons as fictionalized versions of Jesus and James, is the simplest solution to the perplexing problem of accounting for the unique features of its composition. One does not have to resort to forced or imperfect allegorizations to recognize Jesus as model for the disreputable venturer and James the Just as prototype of his self-righteous brother./67/ One need only concede that the traditional christologically motivated characterizations of Jesus as "firstborn" and "the holy one" are not biographical facts.

The fact that this parable concludes without indicating the older sonís response is evidence that it was composed before Jesusí own brothers decided to associate with those who celebrated Jesusí presence. B. B Scott notes that this most intricate plot of all of Jesusí parables has been left without a proper ending./68/ The simplest explanation of this fact is that the author composed it as an open invitation and was awaiting his big brotherís reply. At a later date, during Jamesí presidency, this invitation could have been used as an olive branch to Pharisees (like Paul) and other law-abiding Jews, as the setting in Luke suggests. In any case, the fact that this parable focuses on persuading a brother who is standing outside to come in makes it a logical sequel to the scene in which Jesusí own brothers (and mother) are described as outsiders (Mark 3:31-35 // Thomas 99).

The author of the parable of the prodigal was more concerned with restoring personal relationships than his own reputation. In characterizing himself as the disreputable son, Jesus once again concedes his criticís pejorative caricature of him. /69/ In not censoring his elder brotherís jealousy he demonstrates his commitment to his own principle of reconciliation: focus on your own flaws rather than those of your brother (Thomas 26). Modern fans who cling to a historically distorted reputation for Jesus that was concocted by ancient partisans who never understood this witty self-effacing Jew may fail to find the historical Jesusí own profile in this uncensored fiction designed to overcome alienation between two brothers. But it provides the best model for making a coherent reconstruction of many of the other unquestionably genuine pieces of the Jesus puzzle. It remains to be determined, however, whether the line between the story of the prodigal and its creator is limited to stylized character icons or whether it involves more precise autobiographical insights into Jesusí self-image.

 

 

3.1. The Baptizerís Successor: "Are You the One?"

While the character of the prodigal son bears unmistakable similarities to unvarnished glimpses of Jesus scattered through the gospels, the plot of this parable does not follow the outline of Jesusí career made familiar by the synoptics. Anyone who recognizes that Jesus had a rather shady reputation among decent first century Jews might be prepared to grant that he based the description of this disreputable son on his own public image. But the career paths of creator and creature do not appear to be at all parallel. The impetuous prodigal starts by earning a scandalous reputation but is reduced to penitence. The synoptic account of Jesusí public career, on the other hand, starts when Jesus leaves a preacher of repentance (John) to return to his homeland where he begins to act up, scandalizing his family and Pharisees by flaunting his freedom from all religious regulations. In the parable the fatherís celebration is occasioned by his wayward offspringís return to the relatively sober discipline of the family fold. Jesusí celebration was not with his biological family but rather with toll collectors and sinners. Since the synoptic account of Jesusí homecoming is diametrically opposite the plot of this parable, cautious scholars can be excused for not immediately conceding that the prodigal is a reliable self-portrait of Jesus.

The discrepancy between the scenarios of parable and gospels is a cogent objection to the historicity of the plot of the prodigal, however, only if the chronology of the synoptic accounts proved to be historically reliable. But this is hardly the case./70/ Matthew, Mark and Luke are certainly mistaken in describing a Sanhedrin trial and Jesusí execution during Pesach./71/ So, if their chronology of the climax of Jesusí career is unreliable, how can their sequence of events at its beginning be trusted? If the Passion narrative is demonstrably a christological construct,/72/ are the gospel accounts of Jesusí inaugural appearance any less so?

The introduction of Jesus career after the conclusion of John the Baptizerís has clearly been shaped by sectarian propaganda./73/ John was a highly visible and influential Jewish folk hero whose charismatic reputation almost certainly preceded and overshadowed the public career of Jesus./74/ Jesus himself granted Johnís superior social stature (Luke 7:28a // Matt. 11:11a; Thomas 46)./75/ The synoptic authors even conceded that some Jews tended to regard Jesus as a carbon copy of John (Mark 6:14, 8:28). Jesusí partisans, on the other hand, identified Jesus as Johnís greater successor./76/ Thus, it is hardly surprising that all the gospels (except Thomas) introduce Jesus only after citing the Baptizerís prediction that his successor will be far more powerful than he (Mark 1:7-8; Luke 3:16 // Matt. 3:11; John 1:26-27).

Since the synoptic narrative sequence has been dictated by christological propaganda rather than reliable biographical data it cannot be invoked to disprove an autobiographical basis of the parable of the prodigal. The Markan outline is an obvious authorís fiction, with incidents arranged by motif rather than historical causality. The literary refinements of Matthew and Luke disguise but fail to alter the artificial character of the synoptic sequence. Chronological indicators provided by Mark and his editors are simply products of redactional activity./77/ None of the anecdotes that the synoptics string together to develop their portraits of Jesus contain built-in markers to indicate their original order. They are reported after the stories of Jesusí baptism and Johnís arrest simply to illustrate the theological thesis that Jesus was Johnís greater successor who initiated a baptism with a holy spirit. But that very thesis poses problems that undermine the credibility of the synoptic "narrative controls."/78/

 

 

3.2. The Markan Conundrum: "What are folks saying about me?"

The chronology of Jesusí relation to John the Baptist in the synoptic narratives is intertwined with the question of Jesusí public reputation. Mark opens his gospel of Jesus the Messiah (1:1) by implicitly equating the Baptizer with Elijah (1:2-6). Jesusí initial appearance is fleeting. A brief post-baptismal vision, in which the narrator tells the reader that Jesus saw the holy spirit alight on him, (1:10) drives Jesus offstage into the wilderness from which John emerged (1:12). Johnís arrest provides the cue for Mark to recall Jesus to center stage (1:14). The Elijah motif is introduced again when Jesusí own "reputation had become well known" (6:14). The Markan narrator reports that "some" anonymous fans of Jesus "spread the rumor that he was Elijah" or some other prophet (6:15). Herod Antipas, however, is alleged to have identified Jesus as John redivivus (6:16), which leads Mark to present a lurid flashback detailing the circumstances of Johnís execution (6:17-28). Only when the headless Baptizer is entombed (6:29) does Jesus start to act as Johnís successor, since the Jewish mob is now compared to a shepherdless flock (6:34). Yet, in Markís report, no one --- neither the Jewish people nor Jesusí own disciples --- apparently gets any significance from Jesusí repeated feeding of thousands in the wilderness (6:35-44, 8:1-9) or in gathering symbolic sums (12 & 7 baskets) of remnants (8:16-21). Still, when asked about Jesusí public reputation (8:27), the disciples report the same string of paradigms (John, Elijah, prophet) that the narrator introduced two chapters earlier (8:28 // 6:15-16). Matthew makes only minor adjustments in this scenario, while Luke edits out some of Markís more politically loaded segments.

The odd thing about this sequence is that Mark reports nothing to account for Jesusí alleged public reputation. On the contrary, the pericopes Mark inserts between his reports of Johnís arrest (1:14) and execution (6:16) sharply distinguish Jesus from the ascetic herald of repentance who practiced the most rigid standards of personal purity. John preached repentance as precondition of forgiveness of sins (1:4)./79/ As Mark tells it, Jesus was accused of blasphemy for presuming to forgive sins (2:6-7) and shocked purity-minded Pharisees by dining with sinners (2:16) without once suggesting that any "sinner" need repent of anything./80/ John is portrayed as an extreme ascetic (1:6) whose disciples observed ritual fasts (2:18)./81/ Mark spotlights Jesus as dinner guest of secular types (2:15-16) who cites his mere presence to justify his disciplesí deviance from religious abstinence (2:18-19). John was unquestionably "an upright and holy man" (6:20), whom the gospels claim characterized his successor as agent of an even more thorough-going spiritual purgation (1:8). Though Jesus was introduced by Mark as a charismatic exorcist (1:23), his public reputation was anything but pure./82/ Mark has a single foul spirit declare Jesus holy, only to be silenced (1:24-25). Everything else that Mark reports about the inaugural phase of Jesusí public career portrays him as a social deviant who repeatedly initiated contact with those whom Jews normally regarded as impure, leading Judean scholars to regard Jesus as an agent of the chief demon (3:22)./83/

The problem with Markís scenario is not its discontinuity between the profiles of Jesus and John. Q preserved sayings that paint the respective behavior and messages of these figures in even bolder contrasting colors (Luke 7:31-35, 16:16)./84/ Rather, it is Markís timing that is historically dubious. If Jesus began to deviate from the orthopraxis of John and other Torah-minded Jews after Johnís arrest, he would have been rightly labeled a renegade and no Jew would ever have confused Jesus with John, much less regard him as Johnís greater successor. Only if Jesusí shady reputation was earned prior to his association with the Baptizer could his supporters hope to convince other Jews that Jesus was a credible candidate to fill the leadership void created by Johnís execution. The simplest explanation of the gospelsí campaign to present Jesus as Johnís greater successor is that there were many who supported John who, from the moment that John was arrested, had serious doubts that Jesus was fit to fill or even tie his sandals.

The chief historical flaw in the "narrative controls" of Mark and the other synoptics is that the logical sequence of profiles in Q (first John, then Jesus) has been historicized by introducing all accounts of Jesusí activity only after Johnís has ceased. The practice of describing Jesusí behavior after Johnís can be traced to the logion about children in the marketplace, which concludes with this rhetorical contrast (Matthew 11:18-19 // Luke 7:33-34):

Just remember, John appeared on the scene neither eating [bread] nor drinking [wine]; and you say: "He is demented!"
The son of Adam appeared on the scene eating and drinking; 
and you say: "Thereís a glutton and a drunk, a crony of toll collectors and sinners!"

Mark apparently based the outline of his first two chapters on this rhetorical pattern and Matthew and Luke simply followed suit. Thus, in the synoptic gospels chreiae commemorating Jesusí scandalous behavior are set after his baptism without ever accounting for his baptism in the first place.

It is virtually certain that Jesus was baptized by John./85/ Since Johnís baptism was linked to his call for repentance, then Jesus most probably submitted to baptism as a sign that he was penitent./86/ If Jesus did penance, then his previous behavior was admittedly deviant from the social norms of Judaic religious tradition. In that case, the paths of Jesus and the prodigal are perfectly parallel. Thus, the plot of this parabolic fiction reflects Jesusí own life journey better than the narrative structure of any gospel.

 

 

3.3. Matrix for a Message: "Whereís he getting this?"

Beyond its ability to act as a corrective of romantic idealization of Jesus and literalistic reading of the synoptic narratives, the parable of the prodigal has one distinct advantage over other paradigms for reconstructing a historical profile of Jesus: it portrays a very human person rather than an abstract type. The prodigal son is the only character in the synoptic narratives (including Jesus) who undergoes existentially plausible psychological development. A brash youth prematurely sets out to establish his own fortune. Free from family discipline, his optimism turns him into a bon vivant. Still fiercely independent when hard times come, he struggles to survive without parental support until he compares his present lot to those back home. Stripped of his arrogance and self-assurance, he returns with no pretense of being better than anyone else, only to be overwhelmed by the generous reception of a parent of whom he felt unworthy to be heir. Finally, he is really free to celebrate, not his own achievements but the amazing tolerance of a provider who cares for both the rebellious and the pious. At last he sees that his fatherís house is an open house that has room even for his hostile sibling.

This sketch of the prodigalís experience that calls him to his senses is the matrix that makes historical sense out of the most distinctive features of Jesusí own message. Use of the description of the evolution of the protagonist of this parable to account for parallels in Jesusí own outlook and behavior is historically sound, since both are products of the same mind. Jesusí insight into the psychology of the prodigal offers a window into his own mental processes. It explains not only his scandalous reputation but his self-effacing humility and amazing tolerance of scathing criticism. It makes sense out of both his identification with homeless paupers and his optimistic confidence that God feeds those who lack a barn or bank account. It paints a backdrop that makes his injunction to love enemies intelligible. And, above all, it provides a clue for solving the greatest of historical puzzles: how this wayward prodigal son of Israel could have been ultimately promoted by decent law-abiding Jews like James and Saul of Tarsus to the status of model son and heir to their common Fatherís heritage.

 

3.4. Rescripting scripture: applying Jesusí narrative control

As a product of Jesusí imagination, the plot of the parable of the prodigal son provides a more reliable template for reconstructing Jesusí own early career than any gospel narrative. Of course, the details of the fictive narrative are not literal autobiography and, therefore, defy historicization. But this parable offers a glimpse of experiences Jesus had prior to the redemption of his social reputation after his baptism. Charges that Jesus caroused with irreligious types ("toll collectors and sinners") were probably the baggage that he brought with him in his own "homecoming" to John. He neither attempted to deny these charges nor claimed moral stature comparable to that of the Baptizer. Thus, the parabolic celebration for the return of the wayward son provides a more accurate insight into the existential impact of Jesusí baptismal experience than the synoptic accounts of his post-baptismal vision. Far from being an egocentric revelation that he was Godís uniquely favored son, for Jesus the experience of his own unconditional reacceptance into his paternal heritage was more likely the catalyst that convinced him that the God of Israel was not a harsh judge who held sinners accountable but a benign provider who invited all offspring to join the party.

The advantage of this historical scenario over a literalistic reading of the synoptic narratives is that it is able to account for evidence that, despite a public reputation, social message and theological vision which were almost diametrically opposed to Johnís, it was Jesus rather than the Baptizer who became the center of a Jewish baptizing movement that expanded to include even gentile sinners. If one adopts Markís narrative controls in reconstructing a profile of Jesus, it is difficult to explain how any Jew could ever have identified Jesus as a prophet, much less the Messiah. If one follows Matthewís narrative controls, is hard to see why religious Jews would have scorned Jesus as a social deviant. While Lukeís narrative addresses both problems, his profile of Jesusí social tolerance does not account for claims that Jesus was heir to John. Though the plot of the parable of the prodigal son does not provide a template for integrating all historical facts in the Jesus puzzle, it presents a more cogent paradigm than any gospel that identifies Jesus as Godís holy one for profiling a son of Israel who spawned a movement focused on getting all Godís children, the dutiful and the prodigal alike, to celebrate together.

 

/1/ The Historical Jesus: Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p. 426.

/2/ "The Issue of Jesus," FORUM 1,1 (March 1985), p. 12.

/3/ The Latin verb fingo, fingere, finxi, fictum, while often carrying purely aesthetic connotations of decoration or entertainment, was also used to describe the sober tools of education that were "formed by instruction," to teach or train (Lewis & Short, Latin Dictionary, p. 751).

/4/ "For all the accounts of Jesus contain a constructive element which goes beyond the data contained in the sources. Historical imagination with its hypotheses creates an Ďaura of fictionalityí around the figure of Jesus, just like the religious imaginations of earlier Christianity. For in both cases a creative power of imagination is at work, sparked off by the same historical figure (Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, p.13).

/5/ The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, pp. 167, 141.

/6/ The Real Jesus, p. 167 (italics authorís; boldface mine).

/7/ The Real Jesus, p. 167.

/8/ Whether one accepts the conclusion of most modern gospel scholars that Matthew is a revision of Mark or not, it is Matthew who explicitly endorses scholarly revision of treasured texts by ascribing this analogy to Jesus: "Every scholar who is schooled in Heavenís imperial rule is like some proprietor who produces from his storeroom treasures new and old" (Matt. 13:52).

/9/ Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, p. 13.

/10/ The Real Jesus, pp. 124-125 (italics authorís; boldface mine).

/11/ "Concerning the Intention of Jesus and his Teaching" ß 3 in C. H. Talbot ed., Reimarus: Fragments, p. 64 (italics mine).

/12/ Poetics of Biblical Narrative, p. 300.

/13/ "Profiles of Jesus: A Protocol," The Fourth R 8/5-6 (Sept.-Dec. 1995), p. 22.

/14/ Shadow of the Galilean, p. 1.

/15/ E.g., A. Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus: "The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma" (p. 397); "We can find no designation which expresses what He is for us. He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those who knew Him not" (p. 401).

/16/ Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 4. W. Wink extended Schweitzerís challenge to the pretense of historical objectivity with this observation: "Biblical scholars have been exceedingly slow to grasp the implications of Quantum Theory: that the observer is always a part of the field being observed, and disturbs the field by the very act of observation" ["Jesus: As Real As We Can Get Him." Jesus Seminar Papers (March 1997) pp. 28-29].

/17/ The irony of Schweitzerís critique of modern Jesus scholarship is that it concludes with this poetic eulogy: "He was not teacher, not a casuist; He was an imperious ruler...And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is" (Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 401; italics mine).

/18/ "Concerning the Intention of Jesus and his Teaching" ß 3 in C.H. Talbot ed., Reimarus: Fragments, p. 64 (italics mine).

/19/ If the Fellows had been asked to vote on things that Jesusí contemporary opponents said, these slurs would probably have been rated red. The "pal of toll collectors" motif in Q is independently attested in Mark 2:16 as the pretext for a pink Jesus saying (Mark 2:17b // p1224 5:2); the Markan Beelzebul charge is echoed in the even pinker Q retort (Luke 11:18-20 // Matt. 12:27-28).

/20/ The Real Jesus, pp. 151-166.

/21/ Implicit Elijah parallels are integral to both synoptic and Johannine accounts of Jesusí deeds.

/22/ In the only gospel texts where Jesus explicitly acknowledges being ho Christos, the messianic title is introduced by someone else: Peter (Matt. 16:16-17), Caiaphas (Mark 14:61-62), and a Samaritan woman (John 4:25-26). The fact that no christological confession is credited to Jesus in parallel versions of the first two incidents and there are no independent witnesses in the third supports the conclusion summarized by M. J. Borg (Jesus: A New Vision, 10): "Regarding Jesusí own sense of identity, the growing historical skepticism produced a consensus. Whether Jesus thought of himself as having a special exalted identity---as "Messiah" or "the Son of God"---we cannot know because of the very nature of the documents. When we do find such statements in the gospels..., the careful historian (even if he or she is also a Christian) must suspect them as the post-Easter perspective of Jesusí followers projected back into the ministry." Notable dissenters to this scholarly consensus include A. Schweitzer, M. Hengel and N. T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 488).

/23/ E.g., G. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 56-57; G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew, pp. 224-225; M. J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 30.

/24/ Bornkamm noted the dissimilarity between Jesus and these traditional Jewish paradigms even in adopting them: "He is a prophet of the coming kingdom of God...Yet he is in no way completely contained in this category, and differs from the customary ways of a prophet. A prophet has to produce his credentials...Jesus, on the other hand, never speaks of his calling, and nowhere does he use the ancient, prophetic formula. Even less do we find any trace of that self-justification typical of the apocalyptic visionaries of later Judaism, who claim the authority of ecstatic states of mind and visions, secret revelations of the next world, and miraculous insights into Godís decrees" (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 56). "This rabbi differs considerably from the other members of his class. Even external facts reveal this difference...There is nothing in contemporary Judaism which corresponds to the immediacy with which he teaches" (p. 57).

/25/ Multiple attestation and the implicit embarrassment gave this pronouncement a pink rating in the Jesus Seminarís voting, just one point below the weighted 75% weighted average required for a red saying.

/26/ While many details of the testimonium Flavianum (Antiquities 18.3.3) have obviously been altered by Christian scribes to make Josephusí report confirm orthodox christology, his formula of introduction is probably genuine: "Now about this time came Jesus, a wise man (sophos aner)...."

/27/ The Jesus Seminar deemed the Markan form of this critique of scholarly privilege in general (Mark 12:38-39, Luke 20:46) to be closer to Jesusí original pronouncement than the Q version (Luke 11:43, Matt. 23:5-7), which singled out the Pharisees for censorship, though both versions were weighted pink (61% vs. 53%).

/28/ See Excursus 1.

/29/ The multiply attested makarism declaring the divine basileia the possession of "the poor" received the third highest weighted average as a genuine Jesus saying in the voting of the Jesus Seminar (91%). Discrepancies in the precise formulation of aphorisms assigning this "kingdom" to children led to a low pink rating (51%) for the canonical version.

/30/ This aphorism was reviewed three times by the Jesus Seminar and in the final vote fell just short of a red weighted average (74% pink).

/31/ Jesus Seminar weighted average: red (77%). See Excursus 2.

/32/ The Fellows gave the versions of this widely attested Jesus saying that refer to "Father" a pink rating (60%). The versions that use the term "God" (i.e., Mark and Luke) were rated lower.

/33/ The Markan version of the "Lord of the sabbath" saying affirming the priority of the generic human being (Adam) over the sabbath in the order of creation was one of two "son of Man" sayings that the Seminar accepted as genuine Jesus sayings (55% pink). The synoptic versions that omit reference to the creation account were rated lower.

/34/ The Fellows rated Matthewís unqualified formulation, "The last will be first and the first last," pink (58%); qualifications in other versions can be credited to scribal attempts to deradicalize Jesusí principle of inversion.

/35/ The Jesus Seminar initially voted this saying gray because it has been interpreted as inferring that Jesusí movement is superior to JBís. That interpretation, however, ignores the fact that it obviously precludes exalting even Jesus, who himself had a mother, above John. This saying was reconsidered when the Seminar examined Jesusí relation to JB in detail (Spring Ď92), and was voted red in substance (weighted average, 85%; cf. Tatum, John the Baptist, p. 155).

/36/ The Matthean version of this Q saying is remarkable not only because it does not fit Matthewís usual theme of the punishment of the wicked but because it places "the bad" ahead of "the good," an emphasis confirmed by the Lukan paraphrase (Luke 6:35).

/37/ This saying is clearly out of place in its current setting and thus deserves a separate vote. Recommendation: RED!

/38/ A conclusion independent of but supported by S.J. Pattersonís observation: "Jesus was remembered as a shameless fool. To spend time with expendables is to be a fool --- to refuse to recognize the shame of another. Expendables are by definition shamed. To have honor is to have place, to have a recognized role" ("Jesus and the Empire of God" Jesus Seminar Papers [March 1997], p. 22).

/39/ R. A. Horsley in particular has pointed out (a) the differences between Jesusí instructions to itinerants and normal cynic lifestyle and (b) the lack of concrete evidence of cynics --- Jewish or otherwise --- in the Galilee of Jesusí day.

/40/ Discontinuity between the parableís plot and its gospel context shows that it is was not a free Lukan creation. This and other source problems are discussed below (2.2.5d).

/41/ A notable exception is J. R. Michaels: "The assumption on which this book is based is that what Jesus of Nazareth taught is what he himself first learned by experience... Nowhere is this more apparent than in the metaphors and images that dominate Jesusí speech... The pictures he draws for disciples and antagonists alike are pictures that he himself has seen... The stories he told---his parables---and the stories he acted out---his meals with sinners, his words of forgiveness, his miracles of healing---unfold for us his profound and peculiar vision of what is real" (Servant and Son, pp, xi-xii).

/42/ "The Reappearance of Parables," The Fourth R 10.1-2 (Jan-April 1997) p. 3.

/43/ R. W. Funkís hermeneutical analysis of "Parable as Metaphor" (Language, pp. 133-162) is still the classic study of the genre.

/44/ In Parables, p. 14 (italics his; boldface mine).

/45/ "The parables in the special material give many indications that they are not the compositions of the evangelists... In the two Lukan parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son the narrative shows a Jewish perspective: the Samaritans are aliens; the prodigal son almost comes to grief looking after (unclean) pigs; his family lies in Jewish Palestine. It is improbable that the evangelist composed such parables with a Jewish perspective" (Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, pp. 338-339).

/46/ An insight originally independent of but supported by B. B. Scott: "To accept this parable as anything but a fantasy, a hearer must accept the Samaritan as helper-hero instead of expected opponent-villain and oneself as victim in the ditch" ("The Reappearance of Parables," The Fourth R 10/1-2 [Jan.-April 1997], p.9).

/47/ "It is thus possible...to affirm that the parable, as metaphor, has not one but many "points," as many points as there are situations into which it is spoken. And that applies to the original as well as subsequent audiences" (Language, p.151).

/48/ The Jesus Seminar was almost unanimous in recognizing the principle of turning the cheek in reaction to an opponentís slap as a genuine Jesus saying (92%). The paradoxical injunction to love the opponent was also among the Seminarís top five red sayings (84%), while the non-canonical version of the advice to clear oneís own vision before correcting someone else was ranked fiftieth (60% = pink) among the more than 1500 sayings ascribed to Jesus in antiquity.

/49/ Most Fellows (56%) accepted the thesis "there is a historical core to the story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman." That core is the dialectical structure of the repartťe between Jesus and the woman. Though a majority (52%) considered the dialog historically reliable, it fell shy of a pink rating (43%-47%), because several who doubted that Jesus would insult a woman voted black. Yet, almost 60% endorsed these general statements: "A woman turned Jesusí metaphors against him" and "Jesus accepted a womanís witty retort."

/50/ The Jesus Seminar vote on similar metaphorical advice against throwing valuable things to "dogs" or "pigs" (Matt. 7:6 // Thom. 93) was weighted gray, indicating that some of the content, if not the form of the saying could be traced to Jesus.

/51/ The Seminar accepted the general thesis "Jesus defended his behavior in aphorism (and parable)" as virtually certain (86% = red).

/52/ B.B. Scottís reader-response analysis of the impact of this parable is apt: "What is a hearer to make of this?... Was the master being arbitrary in his judgment? Was the accusation of wasting goods true or false? Was the stewardís behavior simply harmless fun at the masterís expense? The parable offers no answers to these questions, it only provokes them!... The hearer has no way to navigate in the world. Its solid moorings have been lost" (Hear Then the Parable, pp. 265-266).

/53/ The Jesus Seminar almost unanimously agreed that "Jesus was criticized for eating with Ďsinnersí" (92% = red) and that this criticism was based on his actual behavior.

/54/ Language, Hermeneutic and Word of God, pp. 161-162.

/55/ The Fellows overwhelmingly agreed with the thesis that "some who saw Jesus said he had a demon" (Fall Ď92, item 21; 90% = red). No vote has yet been taken on the thesis: "some Judeans called Jesus a Samaritan." Recommendation: red.

/56/ Antiquities 11.346: "If anyone was charged by authorities in Jerusalem with eating unclean things or with violating the sabbath or some other sin like this, he fled to the authorities at Shechem, saying that he had been unjustly banished" (italics mine).

/57/ The Jesus Seminar voted both sayings pink: Mark 7:14-15 (70%) and Mark 2:27-28 (55%).

/58/ Whether Jesus was responsible for the formulation of the Lordís prayer or not, the wording of the initial petition "Father!...Your basileia come!" mimics his characteristic emphases. The transactional logic of this demand makes the petitioner the intended recipient of the basileia. For it makes absolutely no sense to ask the King to actualize what is his by definition. And there is no third party in view; so the petition cannot be passed off as selfless mediation. Any child who presumes to ask a parent for his car is really demanding the keys for him or herself. After all, this petition is credited to the Jesus who advised others "seek first [your Fatherís] basileia" (Luke 12:31 // Matt. 6:33) and assured them: "Ask -- and it will be given to you!" (Luke 11:9 // Matt. 7:7).

/59/ The Seminar accepted the parable of the rich farmer (60%) and the paradox about saving/losing oneís life (52%) as essentially genuine (pink) Jesus sayings. Criticisms for eating openly with Ďsinnersí were almost unanimously accepted (92%) as even more certain (red).

/60/ The Fellows voted the saying "toll collectors and prostitutes will get into Godís imperium but you will not" gray primarily because of its questionable Matthean context (as conclusion to the parable of the two sons). Since the statement is not characteristic of Matthewís general ethics and is coherent with genuine aphorisms of Jesus that are socially shocking, it probably would have been voted pink had it been treated separately. See Five Gospels, p. 232.

/61/ The Fellows accepted the parable of the dinner party (69%) and the aphorism about wedding guests (57%) as relatively reliable (pink) sayings of Jesus.

/62/ The Seminar almost unanimously accepted these general theses as historically certain (red): "Jesus had brothers" (97%) and "the family of Jesus played a significant role in the early Jerusalem community" (91%). The majority also agreed that the evidence made it probable (pink) that "Jesus brothers were not in sympathy with him" (69%).

/63/ The Seminar considered Paulís portrayal of Jesusí brother James (Gal. 1-2) as "pre-eminent among the three leaders of Ďreputeí " among Jerusalem Christians as historically accurate (95%).

/64/ B. B. Scott notes the lack of congruence between Lukeís fictional audience & the elder son and that "in the parable narrative itself there is no rejection" (Hear Then the Parable, p. 103).

/65/ Scott also notes: "The Christian adoption of the [two sons] mytheme...is inappropriate to Jesusí context...." (Hear Then the Parable, p. 124).

/66/ From this angle, the fatherís words "this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life" (Luke 15:31) reads like a post-crucifixion but pre-Lukan expansion.

/67/ J. R. Michaels proposed the older son as Jesusí fictive persona because the father identifies that son as his heir who is always with him: "Like most other hearers, Jesus would have found himself drawn into the story of the lost son precisely through the figure of the older brother, and so called upon to share the fatherís joy and compassion. But for Jesus, unlike other hearers, the self-identification was part of a larger pattern. Here as elsewhere he found his sonship confirmed, while at the same time he learned obedience to his Fatherís will regarding tax collectors and other prodigals" (Servant and Son, p. 219). The primary problem with this reading, as Michaels himself notes, is that the parable ends with no indication that the heir is reconciled to the prodigal.

/68/ Hear Then the Parable, p.122.

/69/ Beyond the Lukan parables of the Samaritan, shrewd manager and prodigal, instances of Jesusí rhetorical concession of criticsí slander are found in Q (Luke 7:34 // Matt. 9:19 and Luke 11:19 // Matt. 12:27).

/70/ Theissen summarizes the consensus of biblical critics since Wrede and Bultmann: "The chronological and geographical outline of Mark is secondary to the individual traditions; its form is determined by the authorís theological premises and therefore [is] historically worthless (Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, p.27).

/71/ The Seminar overwhelming endorsed (85%=red) this unequivocal conclusion: "It is not just the content of the trial but the fact of a trial that lacks historical foundation" (Fall Ď95; cf. Acts of Jesus, p. 147f). The thesis on the dating of the crucifixion was less precise --- "Jesus was crucified in some conjunction with Passover" --- and the vote less conclusive (48%=gray). But an earlier vote (Spring Ď94) overwhelmingly rejected the thesis of the synoptic gospels that Jesusí last supper was a Passover meal (10%=black). Thus, the Seminar decisively rejected the historicity of the synoptic passion narrative without ruling out the Johannine dating of Jesusí execution prior to the paschal seder.

/72/ Three quarters of the Fellows endorsed this thesis: "The underlying structure of the Passion narrative was taken from the Septuagint texts."

/73/ The Seminar considered it probable (pink) that the movements focused on John and Jesus were rivals both during (67%) and after (70%) the lifetime of their leaders [Tatum, John the Baptist, p.163-166]. But it deemed the synoptic thesis that "Jesus began his public ministry at the time JB was imprisoned" only possible (46%=grey). There were no red votes on that chronological marker.

/74/ The Fellows confirmed the historical basis of the gospel accounts of Johnís career with the following red votes: "There was a person named John the baptizer" (96%); JBís exhortations and activities had a widespread appeal" (86%); "JBís time precedes and overlaps that of Jesus" (81%); "JBís activities posed a threat to Herod Antipasí ability to maintain peace and stability" (89%).

/75/ This saying was weighted gray largely because the second strophe can be interpreted as primitive Christian propaganda. "The Fellows agreed that few in the Christian community would have been willing to say that Ďno human is greater than Johní" (The Five Gospels, p. 302). A subsequent vote (Spring Ď92) affirmed that "Jesus identified JB as a great figure" (85%=red).

/76/ The majority of Fellows (55%) deemed this thesis historically probable (pink): "Jesusí disciples considered Jesus to be JBís successor."

/77/ The Fellows overwhelmingly rejected the thesis that "Markís temporal statements are historically accurate" (10% = black; Spring Ď93).

/78/ Pace L. T. Johnson (see above p. 3 n. 8).

/79/ The Fellows agreed that Johnís baptism was a sign of repentance (81% = red) but were less certain that it was regarded as a sacrament of forgiveness (67% = pink) [Tatum, John the Baptist, p. 121-124].

/80/ Although the Fellows thought the story of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12) had a historical core (pink), the Markan parenthesis on the forgiveness of sins (2:6-10) was deemed less probable [Spring Ď93; Acts of Jesus, pp. 63-65]. Mark 2:16 was voted pink (63%; Fall Ď94/5; Acts of Jesus, p. 66). The only time Mark credits Jesus with a call to "repent" is a generalized proclamation of Godís basileia (Mark 1:15). But there the Greek verb metanoeite is best taken literally ("Change your mind") since Mark gives no clue of the morality of intended auditors. This saying was voted black anyway (20%; Fall Ď86).

/81/ The Fellows overwhelmingly agreed John was an ascetic (there was no black and only one gray vote on item 18S; Spring Ď92). A bare majority (51%) thought the Markan characterization of his rustic diet historically probable. No vote was recorded on his disciples practices (Tatum, John the Baptist, pp. 116-117).

/82/ The Fellows overwhelming concurred in characterizing Jesus as an exorcist (88% = red; Fall Ď92 item 46; Acts of Jesus, p. 61). An exorcism in the synagogue at Capernaum was weighted possible but historically uncertain (36% = gray; Fall Ď92 item 20; Acts of Jesus, p. 57).

/83/ The Seminar deemed descriptions of Jesus as socially deviant (79% = red) and opponentsí labeling him possessed (90% = red) historically accurate (Fall Ď92; items 11 & 15). No vote was recorded on references to his physical contact with people in states of ritual impurity.

/84/ While questions about the wording of the Q sayings about children in the marketplace (Luke 7:31-35) and the kingdom and violence (Luke 16:16) initially left these passages gray (Spring Ď89), a subsequent vote (Spring Ď92) colored the general thesis "Jesus contrasted his behavior with that of JB (Q 7:31-35, 16:16)" bright pink (71%).

/85/ The Seminar was practically unanimous (91%) in endorsing the historical proposition that John baptized Jesus; there were no black votes [Tatum, John the Baptist, p. 148].

/86/ The Seminar deemed that it virtually certain (red) that John both preached repentance (78%) and baptized to signify repentance (81%) [Tatum, John the Baptist, pp. 122, 127].

 

 

 

 

EXCURSUS 1

I thank you, Father,
Lord of heaven and earth,
because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned,
and revealed them to infants!

Yes indeed, Father,
because this is the way you want it.

-- Luke 10:21 // Matt. 11:25 (SV modified)

This saying was weighted gray by the Jesus Seminar because it received a divided vote (36%). As an echo of Ps. 8:2 traceable only to Q, it cannot automatically be assumed to be a formulation of Jesus. But it was the fact that Q prefaced it to a quasi-Johannine christological formula exalting Jesus as sole revealer of God (Luke 10:22, Matt 11:27-28) that led the majority of fellows to consider it the creation of an early Christian scribe.

There are three good reasons for reconsideration, however:

(1) Discontinuity. The logic of the first saying (Luke 10:21 // Matt. 11:25) is contradicted by the second (Luke 10:22 // Matt 11:27-28) and is, therefore, the product of a different mindset. While the creedal formula identifies "the son" (singular) as sole broker for any knowledge of "the Father," the prior thanksgiving affirms a radically immediate knowledge of God by "babies" (plural) in general. Infants are impervious to verbal instruction by anybody. (The Greek word nťpios carried connotations of a newborn and was even used to refer to fetuses). The subversive consequences of this thanksgiving for catechetical instruction probably led some Christian scribe to append the creedal affirmation to prevent the originally independent thanksgiving from being interpreted as an affirmation of innate human knowledge of God apart from Jesus.

(2) Coherence. The thanksgiving by itself is a perfect corollary of Jesusí genuine declaration (Mark 10:14) that Godís kingdom belongs to "little children" (paidia). The ironic social logic of both sayings overturns the worldís hierarchical pyramid that equates wisdom and authority with seniority. So, the mind that formulated one saying could easily have drafted the other.

(3) Embarrassment and environment. No follower who revered Jesus as the ultimate revealer of wisdom would have created a categorical debunking of sages in general. (Compare this saying with Paulís less paradoxical contrast of worldly and divine wisdom in 1 Cor. 1-2.) Since the author of Q presented Jesus as divine Wisdomís offspring and spokesman (Luke 7:35, Luke 11:49-51), this thanksgiving is probably not a scribal fabrication. The only voice in Christian tradition that could have composed such a gleefully positive devaluation of wisdom is that Jewish wit who regularly celebrated the Creatorís subversive irony of social history: Yeshu bar Yosef of Nazareth. Therefore, Luke 10:21//Matt. 11:25 should be rated at least pink.

 

 

EXCURSUS 2

Abba, Father

Much has been written in recent years to challenge J. Jeremiasí thesis that the Aramaic word Abba was Jesusí distinctive way of addressing God, indicating his unique sense of childlike intimacy with the Deity. Yet Jeremiasí observations have not yet been disproved. Though scholars have produced many examples of Jews addressing God as "(Our or my) Father (in heaven)," it remains a fact that no example of a Jew using the Aramaic form Abba as a direct address to God has yet been found apart from primitive Jesus tradition.

G. Vermes (Jesus the Jew, p. 211) identified a rabbinic anecdote about the hasid Abba Hanan as an exception (b Taíanith 23b). It is not. In this story school-children (i.e., pre-teens) address this plea to Hanan: "Abba, Abba, give us rain!" Hanan then turns and addresses God with proper deference as "Lord of the universe!" and asks him to ignore the impertinence of children who fail to make the distinction between "the Abba who gives rain and the Abba who does not." This story proves the rule that adult Jews were not accustomed to addressing God as Abba. In Palestinian Judaism Abba was sometimes used by children in addressing their teacher to show both respect and a family loyalty, much as Christians later adopted Papa as a designation of their bishop. In the case of Hanan, children deliver a petition that only the Almighty could grant, to their teacher. The teacher then forwards the misdirected petition to the Person with the authority to grant it by changing the address ("Lord of the universe"). Hananís indirect reference to God as Abba in this context is a pun prompted by childish impertinence and, therefore, is not historical proof that either he or Jewish children in first century Palestine were accustomed to addressing God as Abba. On the contrary, this anecdote was recorded by non-Palestinian rabbinic scribes only hundreds of years after Hananís death. Whether it is a historically reliable report or not, the fact that it was considered remarkable enough to be recorded at all, can be taken as evidence that it was regarded as a unique deviation from Judaic custom.

In first-century Greek Christian sources, the Aramaic term Abba was used as a term of direct address to God. But this term is exclusively ascribed to Jesus (Mark 14:36) or to the voice of the spirit that Paul claims God sent into "whoever is baptized into Christ" (Gal 3:27): "the spirit of his son" (Gal 4:6), which is clear evidence that "we are children of God" and "co-heirs with Christ" (Rom 8:16-17). So, while some of the conclusions drawn from Jeremiasí claim that Jesusí address of God as Abba was unprecedented may have to be modified in the light of subsequent scholarship, the gist of his insight is still historically valid: Abba was Jesusí characteristic designation of God that the first generations of his followers imitated precisely because they found it socially innovative and spiritually liberating.

 

 

WORKS CITED

Borg, Marcus J. Jesus: A New Vision. Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.

_____. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Bornkamm, GŁnther. Jesus of Nazareth. ET by I. & F. McLuskey & J.M. Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.

Crossan, J. Dominic. In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1973.

_____. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992.

Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Funk, Robert W and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998.

Funk, Robert W. Language, Hermeneutic and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

_____. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative. Sonoma: Polebridge Press, 1988.

_____, "Profiles of Jesus: A Protocol," The Fourth R 8/5-6 (Sept.-Dec. 1995), p. 22.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Prayers of Jesus. ET by John Bowden. Napierville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1967.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gosples. San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1996.

Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1879.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. Servant and Son: Jesus in Parable and Gospel. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981.

Patterson, Stephen J. The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning. Harrisburg, OA: Trinity Press International, 1998.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Trans. by W. Montgomery. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1910.

Scott, Bernard Brandon. Hear Then the Parable. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

_____, "The Reappearance of Parables," The Fourth R 10/1-2 (Jan.-April 1997), pp. 3-14.

Talbot, Charles H., ed. Reimarus: Fragments. ET by Ralph S. Fraser. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.

Tatum, W. Barnes. John the Baptist and Jesus: A Report of the Jesus Seminar. Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1994.

Theissen, Gerd. The Shadow of the Galilean. The quest of the historical Jesus in narrative form. ET by John Bowden. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.

Theissen, Gerd and Annette Merz. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. ET by John Bowden. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1998.

Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew: A Historianís Reading of the Gospels. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol 2. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

 

Copyright © 1998 by Mahlon H. Smith
All rights reserved.

  • This essay is a revised edition of a paper presented at the Fall meeting of the Jesus Seminar (Santa Rosa CA) 18 October 1997. It was published in FORUM n.s. 1,2 (Fall 1998) 431-466. An updated version was published in Profiles of Jesus (Roy W. Hoover, ed.) Santa Rosa CA: Polebridge Press, 2002. This prepublication draft was posted August 30, 1998.
  • Hypertext links to this web page and brief quotations in scholarly reviews and publications are invited. But the text as a whole may not be posted or reproduced elsewhere without express written permission of the author & Polebridge Press.

 

 

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