Thursday, February 6, 2014

Jesus Seminar - Fini

Conclusions Reached by the Jesus Seminar
If one flips through The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus the first thing that jumps out is what Jesus did not say.  “Matthew 5:5 Congratulations to the gentle! They will inherit the earth”[1] is in black denoting that according to the Fellows this is not an authentic saying of Jesus. “You are the salt of the earth” is also in black.  Matthew 18:10,  “See that you don’t disdain one of these little ones”[2] is in black, as well as Luke 14:27, a verse many consider one of Jesus’ pivotal teachings “Those who do not carry their own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciples” did not make the cut.  In fact, as the book jacket states “only 20 percent of all the sayings of Jesus are colored red or pink.”[3]   Only 15 sayings of Jesus are colored red and often the parallel passage is found not be spoken by Jesus. The red sayings are all short, pithy "aphorisms" (unconventional proverb-like sayings) such as, "turn the other cheek" (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29), "congratulations, you poor" (Luke 6:20; Thomas 54), and "love your enemies" (Luke 6:27; Matt. 5:44) -- or parables (particularly the more subversive ones) such as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-8a), and the Vineyard Laborers (Matt. 20:1-15). The only saying that appears in more than two Gospels that was colored red each time was, "Pay to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and God what belongs to God" (Matt. 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25; Thomas 100:2). This was also the only saying in the entire Gospel of Mark to be colored red. 
We see Jesus as a non-Jewish Cynic, the very picture that we have if we read the earlier works of Robert Funk, and John Dominic Crossan (The Co-Chair of the Jesus Seminar). A good description is given by Crossan, The wandering Cynic philosophers are in some way analogous to the earliest Christian wandering charismatics. They too seem to have led a vagabond existence and also to have renounced home, families, and possessions. The Cynics, it will be recalled, were itinerant preachers of a philosophy of freedom from every constraint and a life lived with minimal requirements "according to nature." Flouting social convention, they derived their name (kynikoi,"dog-like") from an epithet applied to one of their founders, "the Dog" Diogenes (of Sinope, 4th-cent. BCE), who went about Athens doing in public everything that a dog might do, all the while hurling insults on his contemporaries.”[4]  It seems that once we read what the Jesus Seminars’ Jesus say’s then we find the Jesus that they started with – an unmiraculous vagabond who challenges societal norms. 

Now that we have looked at what the Jesus Seminar concluded, some evaluations are in order.  We will first note the positive contributions.
First, the various quests for the “Historical Jesus” and the Jesus Seminar in particular, force all Christians to focus on Jesus.    Paul says emphatically to the Corinthians “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”[5]  But often in the American church today we focus on everything except Christ.  The Jesus Seminar helps correct the emphasis the church has placed on man, and his self-image, and place the emphasis back on Jesus. 
Secondly, the Jesus Seminar looks to an “Un-marbleized” Jesus.  Too often in churches today the Jesus that is presented would seem quite out of place on the dusty streets of Nazareth.  In an effort to protect a high view of Christ we have inadvertently created a kind of practical Docetism that must be guarded against. 
And finally, the work of the Jesus Seminar forces Christians to know “Why” they believe what they do.  Once, a gentleman was visiting my churches Sunday school for Easter.  With many allusions to “Biblical Scholars” and “Factual contradictions in the gospel account of the resurrection” this man had many members of the class sputtering and confused.  The Jesus seminar and its myriad press releases and talk show visitations have forced the twenty first century Christian to know not only “What”, but “Why” we believe what we hold about Jesus. As Christians we must search the scriptures and prepare a logical response to these unorthodox pictures.  This study cannot help but have positive effects in the life of a believer.  And, as the media responds to the Jesus Seminar’s press releases and spotlights Jesus, this opens opportunities for evangelism and dialogue with folks who otherwise might be closed to any religious discussion.
Charles Spurgeon said “When a man wants to beat a dog, he can soon find a stick”[6]
However, I think the shortcomings with the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions are glaring, and we need a look at the significant problems the Jesus Seminar presents to a modern believer is in order.
First, I think it is fairly obvious that the presuppositions of the scholars color the conclusions that they come to in their work. Birger A. Pearson brings this out when he points out that “some ninety years ago a man named Albert Schweitzer addressed this very issue in an important book entitled The Quest For the Historical Jesus. In this book Schweitzer convincingly demonstrated that those who set out to “discover” a historical Jesus “behind” the (supposedly) mythological Gospels of the Bible invariably ended up creating a Jesus in their own image. In other words, critical scholars tend to “discover” the Jesus they want to “discover.” This same criticism, I maintain, can be levied against much of the liberal New Testament scholarship being covered by the media today.”[7] This prejudice was highlighted by Crossan in a debate with William Lang Craig, a contributor to Jesus under Fire.  Crossan made the following analogy :
“Let’s go to Aesop-Aesop’s fables-and imagine a three-way argument.  One person says, “Did you know that animals could talk in ancient Greece?”
      “A second person says “No, no, no.  They couldn’t, but there was a stupid Greek who thought they could.”
      “And of course, the third person says, “Wait a minute.  You’re both wrong.  Aesop told a certain type of story- a genre called fable.  Animals are allowed to talk to make a basic moral principle evident.”
      “Now how could I today prove that animals could or couldn’t speak in ancient Greece?  I’d hate to have Johnnie Cochran coming after me in court on that one.”
      “Were you there, Dr. Crossan?”
      “No, I was not”
      “Have you checked out all the animals?
      “Well, no, I haven’t”
      “Then how dare you say what could or could not happen in ancient Greece!”
      “Well, animals don’t usually talk.”
      “That’s a prejudice, Dr. Crossan, that’s a presupposition.”
      “Well, yeah, I guess.”[8]

One can see that since miraculous things do not occur now (In Dr. Crossan’s estimation) then they could not have occurred then, and thus the stories that include elements of the miraculous must be allegorical.  This presupposition colors every aspect of Jesus’ deeds and teachings.  Thus, we can see that the fellows of the Jesus Seminar do not start as neutral observers but rather with a broad philosophical slant that must effect the conclusions that they reach.
Secondly, it seems that the The Five Gospels is out of touch even with mainline scholarship. For example, two of the major contributors to “The Third Quest” for the historical Jesus, James Charlesworth of Princeton and E. P. Sanders of Duke, agree that "the dominant view today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”[9]
Thirdly, after reading The Five Gospels, one is left with the question, “Why Crucify this guy?”  Or as leading Catholic scholar John Meier puts it in his recent work on the historical Jesus, "A tweedy poetaster who spent his time spinning out parables and Japanese koans, a literary aesthete who toyed with 1st-century deconstructionism, or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field -- such a Jesus would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one.”[10]  The crucifixion, which even the Jesus Seminar Fellows agree occurred, just doesn’t make sense if Jesus is just a traveling bard.
Time does not allow one to speak to the problems one has with the removal of all of Jesus’ prophetic sayings, the Time/Date issues, the lack of scholarly ascent to the voracity of the Gospel of Thomas, the Gnostic flavor of the Jesus Seminar’s Jesus, or the idea that Jesus never spoke to the Law.  I do, however, wish to focus my final concern on the denial of the resurrection.  Does the resurrection really matter?  Well, Paul felt that it mattered more than anything.  “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”[11]  According to Strong’s Concordance the word that is translated as “Raised” is the Greek word egeiro which can be interpreted to mean.  .  . RAISED![12]  .  If Jesus was tossed into a common grave to be eaten by dogs then our faith is in a lie and worthless.  Paul goes on to suggest that if Christ be not raised then “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die”[13]  However, transformed lives throughout the centuries speaks more loudly to an empty grave than scholarship ever could.  It is this faith in Jesus; it is this transformation that I have known in my own life that makes the other pieces of the puzzle fit for me.  I know this Jesus intimately.  He is my companion, savior and Lord. Or, in the words of Alfred H. Ackley “You ask me how I know He lives:  He Lives within my heart.”[14] 

[1] Funk et al, 138.
[2] Funk et al, 214.
[3] Funk et al, Jacket.
[4] John Dominic Crossan. Jesus a revolutionary biography (San Francisco:  Harper, 1994), 127.
[5] I Cor 2:2 ESV
[6] Charles H. Spurgeon. John Ploughman’s Talk.  (New York: 1898), 20.
[7]  Pearson 32.
[8] Paul Copan.  Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?  (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 36.

[9] E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM, 1985), 2; quoted by James H. Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism(New York: Doubleday, 1988), 205.
[10] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 177.
[11] I Cor 15:14 ESV
[12] James Strong.  Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 1995) , 25.
[13] I Cor 15: ESV
[14]  Alfred Ackley Baptist Hymnal .ed by Walter Sims (Nashville:  Convention Press, 1956), 279.

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