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The Jesus Seminar:

Historians or Believers?


Currently 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.

Conservative 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 the secret.

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 need.


 By Robert M. Price



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