Jesus Seminar and Historical Jesus Research

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This page is part of the Jesus Database project.


Introduction

Following earlier "quests" for the historical Jesus, in the final years of the twentieth century the scene was set for the "Re-Newed Quest" in which the Jesus Seminar was to play an important part — at least as a catalyst for critical debate within and beyond the academy, and (at least in some assessments) as ground-breaking scholarship.

The story of the Jesus Seminar begins with the early retirement of Robert W. Funk [1] from his position as Executive Officer of the Society of Biblical Literature in the early 1980s. After a distinguished career in NT scholarship, Funk set about doing what many other NT scholars have done as they contemplate less time in the classroom — namely, writing a book on Jesus.

He found that there was no consensus among the leading NT scholars as to exactly which parts of the Jesus tradition could be taken as authentic. Worse still, from an academic point of view, rarely did scholars indicate their own personal assumptions about which sayings or actions attributed to Jesus they drew upon when writing their articles and books about Jesus.

So, having found no consensus among scholars on the extent of the "assured words of Jesus," Funk set about organizing a collaborative research project to seek that agreement as the first step in a larger plan to write a definitive book on Jesus.

Invitations went to a wide circle of NT scholars, drawing on his long association with the SBL. Many declined to participate. That is not surprising. Other priorities and commitments explain part of it. Personal antipathy to Bob Funk arising from his long public career explains another part. And some were skeptical of the very idea itself, and saw no prospect of success in such a project.

Some of those who were originally involved in the Seminar have since left. In some cases, their academic and professional interests have moved to other topics. Others have disagreed with some of the directions in which the project was moving.

About one third of the original Fellows are still involved in the project. A remarkable commitment to collaborative research over more than 15 years. In all more than 200 scholars have been involved in the Seminar since 1985, with around 80 Fellows currently active in its work. We come from variety of faith traditions: Anglican, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish and Muslim, as well as people with no personal religious affiliation.


Core Principles

Certain core principles have provided a basis for the Fellows[2] of the Jesus Seminar in our work together:

  • As historians we are committed to historical truth rather than religious dogma.
  • The Seminar works collaboratively rather than competitively, and always comes to a conclusion one way or the other, and no matter how provisional the conclusion may turn out to be, rather than leaving things up in the air.
  • The project is totally self-funding, so it can remain free of any vested interests.
  • Fellows make all our findings public, rather than keeping them within the confines of the academic cloisters.

Since 1985 the Jesus Seminar has identified and assessed all available traditions about Jesus from the first 300 years of the common era. The material is not limited to the four canonical gospels of the NT, but includes the other 18 gospels that have survived from antiquity. More than 1,500 sayings attributed to Jesus and 387 reports of events involving him have been painstakingly examined.

Detailed public reports on the Seminar's assumptions, methodology and findings have been published:

  • The Five Gospels [3] (1993)
  • The Acts of Jesus [4] (1998)
  • The Gospel of Jesus according to the Jesus Seminar [5] (1999)

The last title provides a convenient collection of the authentic sayings and deeds in one volume.

Despite many of the claims by our critics, there is no distinctive methodology applied by the Jesus Seminar in its assessment of the Jesus tradition. Each Fellow is required to have an advanced graduate degree in biblical studies or some other relevant discipline, including the capacity work with the texts in at least one of the original languages. However, there is no attempt to select those scholars with particular approaches or theological preferences.

From the beginning of the project, a conscious effort was made to avoid extended discussion of methodology. Instead, using whatever tools each deems appropriate, the Fellows argue their case for and against particular items in the database. When the votes are taken, one person’s bias is balanced by that of another. The rules of evidence that have been identified emerged from the process and were tabulated in hindsight.

In a very real sense, the Fellows represent the mainstream of contemporary biblical studies. That is not to claim that our conclusions are those of all — or most—other scholars. Simply that we belong within that "broad church" of critical biblical scholarship found in mainstream seminaries, religious studies departments and theological faculties all around the world—and share essentially the same set of assumptions.


A Ten Point Outline of the Jesus Seminar

As a Fellow of the Seminar and a former Associate Director of Westar Institute[6], I have frequently had the opportunity to listen to critics of the Jesus Seminar and, at times, to offer a response. I have reduced the core issues to 10 items, a kind of new Decalogue, if you like. Let me review them briefly here.


As I see it, there are really just 3 things that are distinctive about the Jesus Seminar'€™s treatment of the historical Jesus:

1. THE SAYINGS COME FIRST

Beginning with and focusing on the sayings attributed to Jesus, rather than the narratives about his actions seems to be the most significant assumption of the Jesus Seminar. This is both a simple and a significant change of perspective. It makes a difference whether you begin with the deeds of Jesus, or focus instead on his sayings.

Events only happen once in time, and lend themselves to legendary embellishment. Historical judgments about them are more difficult. Sayings, by their nature, will have been delivered and remembered in a variety of contexts. They are more suited to preservation within an oral culture. They retain a residual voiceprint even when being performed by later speakers. The Seminar'€™s happy focus on the sayings results partly from the prior involvement of several of the original Fellows with parables research in the 1970s. I think it was a happy accident.


2. THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS

Another distinctive element is the early acceptance of the Gospel of Thomas as a valuable source for historical Jesus studies. This is now much more common, but not so in the mid-1980s.

The Gospel of Thomas was one of small cache of texts discovered in Egypt near the village of Nag Hammadi in 1945. Its existence in antiquity had been known from references in other writers, but it was long thought to have been suppressed. In fact, with a more or less complete text now available, scholars soon realized that we also had two Greek fragments of the same document which had remained unidentified. Thomas is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus: some quite similar to sayings in the canonical gospels, and some that appear to be gnostic texts.

Thomas has proved to be important for several reasons. It is independent of the canonical Gospels. It seems to preserve older material pre-dating even Mark. And its form is evidence that sayings collections (such as Q) may have been the earliest form of the Jesus tradition.


3. JESUS AND APOCALYPTICISM

A third distinctive aspect is our willingness to challenge the dominant assumption — fading at the time but still dominant in NT studies even now — that the historical Jesus is best explained as an apocalyptic prophet.

If there is one emphasis of the Seminar that appears to be unique within NT scholars, it is perhaps our judgment that Jesus was not an apocalyptic firebrand, but more a teacher of sacred wisdom within the tradition of ancient Israel. This view arises not from a bias against apocalyptic, but from a close study of the parables that extended over many years in North America but was largely ignored elsewhere.

What the Jesus Seminar has proposed is that the "voice print" of Jesus that emerges from a study of the parables and other sayings is one that seems to be in tension with the traditional representation of Jesus as an apocalyptic teacher. That conclusion is not accepted widely—as yet. But it is not found only among the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar. It is a significant minority report. It presents a distinctive alternative, and has shaped the recent debate in our field.


In terms of process, I would add the following items to the list—although I do not see them as having the same significance as the three points already mentioned:

4. COLLEGIALITY

The collegial and collaborative character of the Seminar's work has been instinctively different from the traditional model of individual scholars working in solitude surrounded by dusty books. It has resulted in a new social reality that is highly valued by the Fellows: we enjoy working together and value one another as colleagues even when differing strongly over specific issues. We are a community of scribes gathered around the Jesus tradition.


5. CLOSURE

The Seminar's decision always to bring a particular discussion to closure by framing specific propositions and voting on them is distinctive. It allows us to measure the consensus within the group present for that session. It has meant that conclusions—however tentative and incomplete—are reached rather than the question left open for ongoing discussion.

(We explicitly acknowledge that such closures are likely to be overtaken by new information and later scholarship. The option to do so is always open, and in fact some matters have been brought back for reconsideration at a later stage.)


6. TALKING OUT OF SCHOOL

The Jesus Seminar is an activity of Westar Institute and, as such, it is part of Westar's agenda as an advocate for religious literacy. The results of the Seminar's work have therefore always been reported to the wider public in non-technical terms, most famously in The Five Gospels with its 4 color coded texts and its (provocative) inclusion of GThomas.

We have "talked out of school" and not kept our conversations within the privacy of the academic guild. We conduct our business in public, with people able to come and watch. The technical papers that are prepared by Fellows and distributed in advance of meetings, are available for subscription by anyone interested in getting them and many are also published in other magazines and journals. And we do weekend programs all over North America and occasionally in other countries. That upsets some scholars.


7. VOTING

Early in its history, the Seminar made a deliberate decision to vote on specific proposals at the end of each piece of work. That helps to get closure, as already noted. It also allows us to capture the range of opinions present and to measure any consensus. In addition, the final weighted average provides a helpful way to express our decision to a wider constituency.

The four colors used are derived from the traditional Red Letter Bibles, but they allow two extra categories. In addition to "Jesus undoubtedly said this" [RED] and "Jesus did not say this, it comes from a later stage in the tradition" [BLACK], the Fellows opted to allow themselves two further categories: "Jesus probably said something like this" [PINK] and "Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained here are close to his own" [GRAY].

The informal definition of these colors runs as follows:

  • RED —€“ That's Jesus!
  • PINK — Sure sounds like Jesus.
  • GRAY — Well, maybe.
  • BLACK —€“ There's been some mistake.

Such voting is, in principle, no different from the voting that lies behind the decisions on which readings to include in the text of the UBS Greek NT and which ones to allocate to the critical apparatus. Similarly, translation committees for NRSV, NIV, etc all have to vote on occasion in order to choose between alternative renderings of texts. Despite this, the JS voting has been leapt upon by critics as somehow inappropriate.

On the contrary, as one of the Westar Associate members observed after once recent meeting, the opportunity to vote can be experienced as a profound moment of individual responsibility for our own decisions. Alternatively, as I have heard another pastor comment, the voting results also mean that — on most questions — the Seminar demonstrates that each response to a specific proposition has at least one scholar who finds it convincing: a remarkable affirmation of minority views, even if the overall consensus can at times be very strongly in one direction. (The results of votes, including the percentage voting for each option as well as the overall weighted average, are always printed in Forum and often in The Fourth R [7] as well.)


Now just a few words about outcomes or results from the Jesus Seminar:


8. SKEPTICISM

In some significant respects, the Jesus Seminar as a group is less radical than many individual NT scholars both within and outside the Seminar. Our findings that only 18% of the sayings attributed to Jesus and 16% of the deeds are probably (a key technical term, as it happens) authentic has to be taken in context. The database in question is comprised of all the extant Jesus traditions from the first 300 years, not just the canonical materials in the NT. If we narrow the focus to JS findings concerning the canonical gospels, we would find that John is mostly voted Black (no surprise?) while the Synoptics have considerable percentages of Red and Pink.

It has been estimated that the Seminar gave about 50% of the canonical materials a Red or Pink rating. This is more skeptical than conservative evangelical scholars, but less skeptical than many well-known Jesus scholars, including Raymond Brown, J.P. Meier and E.P. Sanders.

My own work on the Jesus Database project is demonstrating that on most sayings and events from the earliest Jesus tradition there is no consistent difference between the historical assessment made by the Jesus Seminar and those advocated by leading Jesus scholars who opted not to participate in the Seminar. Indeed, in many cases I have found that a key Seminar participants such as John Dominic Crossan will differ from the consensus view of the Seminar, while a conservative Roman Catholic scholar such as John P. Meier will take the same view as the Seminar.


9. PROFILES OF JESUS

The profiles of Jesus that have been developed by different JS Fellows show considerable variety, along with some predictable common elements. Typically, they understand Jesus more within ancient Jewish sapiential traditions than within the apocalyptic traditions. (See especially Roy W. Hoover, Profiles of Jesus[8], Polebridge Press, 2002.) They will be subjected to analysis and critique by other scholars.


10. IMPLICATIONS

The theological and ecclesial implications of the Seminar's findings, like those of any scholarly process, require a process of reception. For some they will be unacceptable, while others will experience them as liberating insights. The long term impact of the Jesus Seminar may be found more in its role as an expression of the contemporary unrest over traditional religious formulations, than in any specific finding of the Seminar on the historicity of a particular saying or deed.

Since its "Once and Future Jesus" conference in October 1999, the Jesus Seminar has moved into a new phase of of its work, engaging theologians and philosophers in an extended dialogue to explore the significance of its historical research for religious faith in a secular society.


In brief, then, the Jesus Seminar is part of a broadly-based discipline of critical New Testament studies and the Fellows share much in common with colleagues elsewhere, while also having some particular interests and a focus on making their findings accessible to the general public. It is that latter commitment to an audience beyond the academy that seems most to have frightened the academic and religious horses.

Further Reading


Greg Jenks