THE JESUS SEMINAR IN RETROSPECT

Now that Jesus Seminar is now effectively part of our recent history it is fair to ask what difference it has made to the understanding of the body of knowledge about the Bible for thoughtful Christians?

Before we turn attention to the opinions and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar it is worth reflecting on some of the reasons why this particular group of scholars should have wanted to subject the Biblical account of Jesus to radical examination in the first place.

The historical setting for this late twentieth century research project had a variety of substantial causal factors. First the Biblical studies were starting to be informed by a whole variety of strands of learning and the building blocks of Biblical knowledge were being systematized and disseminated in ways in ways undreamt by scholars of previous centuries.

Just to take one example, an increasing number of scholars were matching recently discovered ancient versions and fragments of texts and comparing them with standard translations while at the same time improved knowledge of ancient languages was becoming more widely available.

Although for many conservative Christians, questioning the infallibility of scripture was a bridge too far, at the same time, the careful, and it should be admitted, widely criticized work of those like David Strauss, Albert Schweitzer and John Robinson had popularized some of the more serious discoveries about problems with the Jesus record to the point that they could no longer be ignored.

Unfortunately despite a variety of extensive research projects it had become virtually impossible for non-Bible scholars to evaluate the scholastic opinions. In practice with so few of the lay people with systematic knowledge of the literature it had even become virtually impossible to get a feeling for the current consensus expert view on whether or not to trust much of the New Testament as a literal record.

In the distant past, those who dared to raise objections to traditional teachings had been roundly condemned and identified as heretics. By the late nineteenth and for almost of the twentieth century the previous rejection and even violence received by those who tried to make contemporary Bible scholars’ work more accessible to the general public was now the exception rather than the rule.

What had happened was that theological study had gradually coalesced around on one hand a rather large set of traditional schools serving the so-called conservative denominations while a smaller group of more liberal scholars made occasional forays to announce plausible assertions that followed from the examination of new evidence.

From the drip feed  of such knowledge, far more scholars were becoming aware that the various books and parts of the books of the Bible had many problems in interpretation. Inconsistencies in the reported teachings and in the reported actions of Jesus were also becoming better known. If that wasn’t enough some of the previously acceptance of the miracle claims in the Bible was becoming widely suspect in view of the nature of the real world as revealed by science and it was felt in some quarters that to pretend otherwise was to consign Christianity to followers who were proponents of naive or even deliberate unquestioning ignorance.

In addition some fragments of earlier versions of scriptures discovered more recently had revealed evidence of substantial editing which raised questions about whether or not there should have been questions about which parts of the Bible were authentic to the first authors. Given that the traditional gospels were clearly assembled a good number years after Jesus had finished his mission, there was the awkward question of how accurately his actions and words had been reported.

The traditional assumption that the Bible had some sort of theological immunity from standard scholastic analysis had previously been enshrined in creedal beliefs and strongly worded claims by past Church leadership. It should also be remembered in defence of earlier attitudes to the Biblical accounts that until sophisticated methodology had established strong evidence for plausible alternatives in the Bible record, and until Biblical history was sufficiently tested there had been no sufficient reason to reinterpret part of the textual record.

In one sense the challenges to the old accepted wisdom are always partially doomed because the knowledge gleaned as a result of testing new hypotheses is always incomplete and may contained serious weaknesses. However as with scientific theory building, the true value in each new approach is whether or not there seems a closer approximation to observed reality. In other words, each new theory becomes valuable if it causes us to notice aspects that we had previously been ignoring.

Again using a scientific analogy we may well start with a naive view of a young earth. When we encounter the experimental evidence for the dating of rocks, for continental drift, for the dating of fossils, and look to astronomical evidence for the age of the universe most modern scholars claim that such evidence should shift our earlier understanding.

Just because a theoretical advance does cause us to understand and notice more it does not follow that the premises of that advance were complete, correct or even certain they will not be subsequently replaced by a better theory. In practice each eventual change in accepted wisdom is typically far from easy and when substantial changes are mooted, those who are on record as supporting a previous position are understandably slow and reluctant to shift.

This brings us to the Jesus Seminar. In 1985, the Seminar’s founder, a Bible scholar, Robert Funk assembled a group under the auspices of the Weststar Institute which subsequently grew to number more than 150 scholars and laymen prepared to subject the gospels to critical analysis. The fact that the group turned out to include a good number of liberal scholars from schools of theology like Harvard, Vanderbilt and Claremont is hardly surprising in that these three schools in particular had a reputation for seeking to push the boundaries.

The seminar was particularly active in the 1980s and 1990s. It preceded the short-lived Jesus Project, which was active from 2008 to 2009. Amongst the group were a number of fellows (I have heard currently about 80  ?) each of who was required to have a post graduate degree in Theology, Biblical Studies or some closely related discipline, and also required to have familiarity with one or more of the Biblical languages.

One striking and apparently novel method chosen to establish how much agreement there was about each conclusion was a much streamlined version of the traditional method of a publication appointing referees to decide whether or not a paper should be accepted for publication in a journal. The Jesus Seminar alternative was to have each fellow vote on each conclusion with a series of coloured beads.

Although subsequent outside commentators from conservative traditions were later scornful about this voting system, this may well be because the Jesus Seminar group conclusions were often at odds with the traditional positions supported by the critics.  The system did at least provide a relatively unambiguous view of how each examined passage was understood by the Seminar in terms of historicity and to reflect to what extent they trusted the record of the individual event to be true in the sense that it happened as described.

The voting system was summarized as follows:

Red beads – indicated the voter believed Jesus did say the passage quoted, or something very much like the passage. (3 Points)
Pink beads – indicated the voter believed Jesus probably said something like the passage. (2 Points)
Grey beads – indicated the voter believed Jesus did not say the passage, but it contains Jesus’ ideas. (1 Point)
Black beads – indicated the voter believed Jesus did not say the passage—presumably coming from later admirers or a different tradition. (0 Points)

A confidence value was then determined from the voting using a weighted average of the points given for each bead.

The evaluation was based on something like 500 statements and events.  Much of the subsequent criticism was based on the high number of grey and black decisions. It should be stressed that the statements and events to be considered came from more than just the first four gospels. For example, the earlier gospel of Thomas, together with the other main gospels circulating in the first three hundred years after Christ, were also considered. The superficial criticism that only a very small percentage of the words and deeds were accepted as red or pink is taken out of context in that many of the rejected words and deeds came from non canonical sources. As it happened many of the accepted (red and pink evaluations) were found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke whereas the much later Gospel of John considered by many theologians to be intended as theological commentary had a much higher proportion of non acceptance of strict authenticity.

The other frequent criticism of the Seminar is that its membership included a good proportion of unrecognized scholars. While the lay people and non scholars were part of the discussions the key leaders and representatives of the group were the appointed fellows (ie the recognized scholars). My purely personal view is that the criticism on that point is largely unfounded since the group was led by respected Bible scholars some of who like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg who are extremely well known scholars and perfectly capable of identifying weaknesses in evidence or conclusions.

The fact that the group also produced new translations of both the New Testament and the Apocrypha to use as textual sources shows that there must have been a significant number of effective scholars in their midst. These translations are now published and collectively called the Scholars Bible and accepted as a helpful document at many schools of theology. This acceptance inevitably lends weight to the work of the Seminar.

The group published their initial results in three reports:
• The Five Gospels (1993)
• The Acts of Jesus (1998),
• The Gospel of Jesus (1999)

They also have also run a series of lectures and workshops in many of the major U.S. cities and been invited to make presentations to various international symposia and conferences..

The Jesus Seminar was very active through the 1980s and 1990s, and into the early 21st century. Although never formally disbanded, it effectively ceased functioning as “The Jesus Seminar” in 2006, shortly after the 2005 death of its founder, Robert Funk. Former Seminarians have carried on the tradition of the Seminar, and continue to publish works researched and developed using the methodologies of the original Jesus Seminar.

The Seminar’s reconstruction of the historical picture of Jesus find him in a human setting, born of two human parents, performing no miracles that were outside the laws of nature, functioning as a faith healer using the techniques of his day, teaching a gospel of liberation, teaching the kingdom as being already present, and using parables, unexpected aphorisms to challenge the perceived weaknesses of the conventional religion of his day and make it clear that outsiders were equally deserving of a place inside the kingdom. The group also rejected the evidence for a physically risen Jesus as being more probably associated with visionary appearances amplified in the retelling by his followers, rather than agreeing Jesus to have “died for our sins” they believed evidence suggesting he was crucified by the Romans as being a potential threat to an occupied Palestine.

These claims are by no means unique and have been made repeatedly by other scholars, particularly in the last two centuries. It is also true that traditional Christians have been most reluctant to accept such challenges and the conservative reaction to the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions was entirely predictable. Historically however there has been some movement. As late as 1992 the Catholic Church formally accepted the theory of evolution and conceded Copernicus and Darwin had not been committing heresy with their theories!

Although the challenges to the Seminar’s work have been frequent and at times vociferous I can’t help feeling that given the nature of the evidence that rather than just saying they are wrong on all points, the burden of proof is on the critics.

The accounts of the most spectacular events in Jesus life obviously contain serious misreporting (cf examples in my own post “The Shaping of God” found elsewhere on this website) and this misreporting to me suggests editorial imagination. Because these same events eg the loaves and fishes where atoms for the molecules in the fish and bread were presumably created in defiance of the accepted laws of nature, the walking on water ( defying the law of flotation) water into wine (transmutation)or Matthew’s account of tombs bursting open and hundreds of corpses walking around (unnoticed by any other contemporary historians – and even unnoticed by any other Gospel writer) are all nature defying and I feel where a strange event is reported and there is a probably believable alternative we should always favour the most likely explanation until persuasive contradictory evidence appears.

I know some prefer the magical explanations but if Jesus was indeed the super magician I would have thought that suggests Jesus most certainly could not have been the Son of Man. That doesn’t mean the strange miracles are wrongly reported but since John Dominic Crossan has suggested a plausible alternative that these were more likely to be parables ABOUT Jesus surely we need some persuasive argument to shift us from that view.

Having attended one of the workshops (in Sydney) and having my own interest in the scriptures rekindled as a consequence I have a personal debt of gratitude to the Jesus Seminar.   Because the Jesus Seminar continues to draw attention to many key questions about the authenticity of the Jesus accounts worth which I think are worth discussing in the Church today I think their work deserves serious consideration. I am more than happy to consider contrary views.

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