Monday, February 3, 2014

Jesus Seminar - part 3

The Jesus Seminar Fellows
In the preface to The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus Funk states “The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar represent a wide array of Western religious traditions and academic institutions.  They have been trained in the best universities in North America and Europe.”[1]  Is the Jesus Seminar really made up of the best and brightest of the theological minds of our age?  Craig Blomberg researched the credentials of the Fellows and found that “As many as two hundred scholars participated in the Jesus Seminar over the years, but the final group dwindled to seventyfour. People dropped out for various reasons. Some expressed discomfort with how the most radical fringes of New Testament scholarship were disproportionately represented on the Jesus Seminar.”[2]   Funk himself bemoaned that some left because they “voiced disagreement with Funk's propagandistic purposes of popularizing scholarship in a way designed explicitly to undermine conservative Christian credibility.”[3]
Blomberg goes on to point out “Of those who were left, the "Fellows" of the Jesus Seminar, fall roughly into three categories. Fourteen of them are among the leading names in the field, including a few who have published major works on the historical Jesus in recent years (e.g., John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University and Marcus Borg of Oregon State). Two of these fourteen are sympathetic to many evangelical concerns: Bruce Chilton (of Bard College, New York) and Ramsey Michaels (of Southwest Missouri State).  Roughly another twenty are names recognizable to New Testament scholars who keep abreast of their field, even if they are not as widely published. These, too, include several who have written important recent works on the Jesus-tradition, particularly in regard to various noncanonical gospels (e.g., Marvin Meyer of Chapman University and Karen King of Occidental College).”[4]
It is of interest that “the remaining 40 -- more than half of the Jesus Seminar -- are relative unknowns; most have published at best two or three journal articles, while several are recent Ph.D.s whose dissertations were on some theme of the Gospels. A computer-search of the ATLA and OCLC databases of published books and articles turned up no entries relevant to New Testament studies whatsoever for a full 18 of the Fellows.”[5]  In Blomberg’s conclusion he states “the Jesus Seminar is composed of Protestants, Catholics, and atheists, professors at universities and seminaries, one pastor, three members of the Westar Institute in California which sponsored the project, one filmmaker, and three others whose current occupations are entirely unidentified. Of the 74 there are three women and two Jews. Thirty-six, almost half, have a degree from or currently teach at one of three schools -- Harvard, Claremont, or Vanderbilt -- universities with some of the most liberal departments of New Testament studies anywhere. Only a handful come from outside North America; European scholarship is almost entirely unrepresented.” [6]  So it seems that the Jesus Seminar is not quite the cross section of religious thought that it might appear at first blush.  One might think that such a group could very well come to the table with a list of presuppositions that would color their thoughts just a bit.

Presuppositions of the Jesus Seminar
Philip Yancey quotes William Blake in his popular book The Jesus I Never Knew
The Vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy:
Thine has a great hook nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine. . . .
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.[7]
We all bring our presuppositions to the table in any discussion of Jesus.  I must confess that Romans 3:4 which states “Let God be true though every one were a liar” figures heavily in my personal presuppositions. However, in the introduction to "The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus funk declares that the “Fellows of the seminar are critical scholars.  To be a critical scholar means to make empirical, factual evidence-evidence open to confirmation by independent, neutral observers-the controlling factor in historical judgments”[8]  But, just how independent and neutral were the fellows of the Jesus Seminar?  There are several important areas in which the Jesus Seminar assumes things to be fact that show a bit about where they were coming from:
1.     The four canonical Gospels are not authored by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as traditionally believed.[9]
2.     The traditionally held time line for the gospels is thrown out in favor of a radically different set of dates.
3.     The Gospel of Thomas is accepted without question.  In fact it is referred to as “a gold mine of comparative materials and new information.”[10]
4.     The oral tradition of Jesus' sayings was quite fluid. Simple teachings were often greatly expanded, embellished, and distorted in the process.
5.     Various people in the early church, including the Gospel writers themselves, felt free to invent sayings of Jesus that had little or no basis in what He actually taught.
6.     If a saying can be demonstrated to promote later Christian causes, it could not have originated with Jesus.
7.     The historicity of John's gospel is extremely suspect.
8.     Historical analysis cannot admit the supernatural as an explanation for an event. Therefore, Jesus' words after His resurrection -- like His earlier predictions about His death, resurrection, and return -- cannot be authentic.
9.     Jesus never explained His parables and aphorisms. All concluding words of explanation, especially allegorical interpretations of parables and metaphors, are thus inauthentic.
10.  Jesus never directly declared who He was. All such "self-referential" material (in which Jesus says, "I am..." or, "I have come to...") is therefore also inauthentic.
11.  The burden of proof rests on any particular scholar who would claim authenticity for a particular saying of Jesus and not on the skeptic.
Funk warns us to “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you”[11] But after looking over the presuppositions the Jesus Seminar began with it seems that one couldn’t help but find a very specific Jesus; one could go so far as to suggest that the Jesus Seminar found the very Jesus it was looking to find.

[1] Funk et al , ix.
[2] Craig L.Blomberg. “The Seventy-Four ‘Scholars’: Who Does the Jesus Seminar Really Speak For?” The Christian Research Journal, Fall 1994, 32.
[3] Robert W. Funk and Mahlon H. Smith, The Gospel of Mark: Red-Letter Edition (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1991), xvi-xvii.
[4] Blomberg.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] The Jesus I never knew
[8] Funk et al, The Five Gospels, 34.
[9] Funk et al, 20.
[10] Funk et al, 15.
[11] Funk et al, 5.

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