The Jesus Seminar:
one of the hottest-selling species of "Jesus junk" (as it is actually
called in the Christian trinket trade) is a whole series of items, from
T-shirts to Teddy bears, emblazoned with the letters WWJD. They stand
for the question posed in Charles Sheldon's old novel In His Steps, in
which a local pastor and his flock agree upon an experiment: for one
year they will handle every situation, every question that arises, by
asking themselves, "What would Jesus do?" One thing Jesus would no doubt
not do is exploit religious sensibilities by selling WWJD lapel pins and
dolls. Besides this, many of us think the whole WWJD question is a bit
premature. One might better ask first, WDJD--What did Jesus do? WDJS--What
did Jesus say? These questions are necessary because, as they say in
Porgy and Bess, "Things that you're liable to read in the Bible ain't
necessarily so." To the dismay of many Christians, these questions have
been loudly and publicly asked by the notorious Jesus Seminar, founded
by Robert Funk, literary critic and New Testament scholar, in 1985.
The Jesus Seminar
has also come to the attention of many skeptics and humanists who relish
the prospect of the Seminar afflicting the comfortable but are not
otherwise quite sure what it stands for. As one of the most avowedly
skeptical and non-theological Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, I would like
to provide what I hope will be an accurate profile.
First, who are
these people? There are some 75 active Fellows of the Jesus Seminar,
scholars with advanced degrees in New Testament (or some allied field),
as well as an outer circle of informed nonprofessionals. All members in
either category are enthusiastic proponents of the critical study of the
Bible and especially of the ongoing quest for the historical Jesus. Most
have some sort of religious affiliation. Among the Fellows are a handful
of Jews, one Unitarian, a few Roman Catholics, and a majority of
left-leaning Protestants. Most are professors in denominational
seminaries or university religion departments. The Seminar requires of
its Fellows only the proper academic credentials; it is indifferent to
confessional identity or the lack of it. There are no fundamentalists
among its membership for obvious reasons. They are excluded by no rule
but by the nature of the enterprise, since the whole point of being a
fundamentalist is to take every bit of the Bible as literal fact, while
the point of the critical method is not to.
The proceedings of
the Jesus Seminar are a model of cordial collegiality. One happily
misses any hint of the posturing and one-upmanship that are so
characteristic of many learned societies. Individuals prepare papers on
this or that Gospel text, recommending that the Fellows vote it either
black (Jesus didn't say or do it), gray (he probably didn't), pink (he
probably did say or do it), or red (he definitely said or did it). Votes
are cast by dropping colored beads in circulating baskets. The eventual
result has been the publication of a pair of color-coded volumes, The
Five Gospels (1993) and The Acts of Jesus (1998). Each
presents the Gospel texts divided according to the four levels of
authenticity, with explanations of the reasoning leading to the votes.
The method was adopted from the deliberations of the United Bible
Societies scholars who rate the authenticity of New Testament textual
variants by the same sort of discussion and voting, yielding an A, B, C,
or D rating for each debatable passage.
critics often complain that the Seminar Fellows have set themselves up
as a magisterium presuming to pass judgment on delicate matters over
which opinions must differ widely: "By what authority doest thou these
things?" They miss the point. Just as any Bible translation committee at
work on a new English version of scripture is assumed to be composed of
a representative sample of scholars conversant with the original
languages, so does the random-sample character of the Jesus Seminar
allow it to represent what is usually the mainstream opinion of
professional New Testament scholarship. Where the Jesus Seminar differs
from the rest of the scholarly guild is in the simple fact of blabbing
Few if any of the
Seminar's critical results can possibly strike the better informed of
their detractors as anything new or startling. It's stale news. But it
is news, at least to most people. For generations scholars have shared
such heresies only among themselves, knowing that the laity would either
not be interested or would be outraged, more likely the latter. On a
less charitable reading, the professors, most with church connections
themselves, did not care to endanger their livelihood. On a more
charitable reading, they may simply have wished to protect the delicate
sensibilities of their unenlightened "weaker brethren." But the Jesus
Seminar is broadcasting those heresies. And this puts these more tactful
(= timid) scholars in a real bind. It is a sad spectacle to see former
colleagues covering their backsides by denouncing the Jesus Seminar like
Peter denying his Lord as many times as he can before the cock crows.
All this raises
the question of whether the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar should be
considered historians or believers, or a bit of both. I refer to Van A.
Harvey's brilliant 1966 book The Historian and the Believer, in
which he delineated in excruciating detail the moral dilemma of the
biblical critic who has a theological vested interest in having his
questions answered in a certain way. How can you set aside your dearest
convictions long enough to do your critical work in an impartial manner?
Many of us have in fact done it. We either lost our faith in the bargain
or were able to see our way to some sort of negotiated settlement.
Personally, I gave up my religious identity. Others do not feel they
have to go so far, and I am not about to accuse them of deceiving
themselves. Intelligent people of good will often disagree; why not
here? The resulting historian-believer hybrids are fascinating to see.
One Jesus Seminar Fellow, a university professor and Episcopalian
priest, is quick to defend the cogency of the Nicene Creed and just as
quick to reject the occurrence of literal miracles out of hand. (The
Seminar voted down virtually all the gospel miracles as legendary,
including the physical resurrection of Jesus). And there are endless
variations on the theme.
Though they may be
maligned by biblicists outside the Seminar, from my perspective the
Fellows are too conservative! Though they have arrived at the conclusion
that only some 18 percent of the Gospel sayings go back to Jesus
himself, this total strikes me as absurdly high. Most of the sayings
they count among their bedrock database for the historical Jesus seem to
me obviously tendential concoctions by early Christian prophets and
apologists. Faced with tough questions of belief and practice, early
Christians were no less quick than modern ones to ask "What would Jesus
say, or do?" And then they said he did say or do it!
I take quite
seriously the likelihood that there was no historical Jesus in the first
place, though certainty is never possible on such matters. I am one of
only three Fellows I know of who are this far to the left. But the
Seminar is not concerned to define once and for all the "true"
historical Jesus. Any impartial historian knows such a goal to be
futile. Many of the Fellows are favorably inclined to view Jesus as a
sage and prophet as one reads in John Dominic Crossan's The
Historical Jesus and Burton L. Mack's The Lost Gospel: The Book
of Q and Christian Origins. (Both Crossan and Mack have been
prominent Fellows of the Seminar at one time or another.) But others,
fewer, understand Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet along the lines
suggested by Albert Schweitzer in The Quest of the Historical Jesus.
The goal of the Seminar is to show that no one owns Jesus; no one can
rightly claim him as the figure-head for their policies and dogmas, not
even the Jesus Seminar.
I believe that
Humanists should view the Jesus Seminar, as they usually do their
counterparts in common social and church-state causes, as friends and
allies. Both are in agreement on the need to increase public
acquaintance with biblical criticism and its findings, to counteract the
Bible-waving legions of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition.
Beyond this, I urge the energetic revival of Free Inquiry's Biblical
Criticism Research Project, whose 1985 Ann Arbor conference "Jesus in
History and Myth" was in many ways a kind of precursor to the Jesus
Seminar, only with a more radical orientation, which is just what we
By Robert M.