Wednesday, September 25, 2002

The Jesus Seminar

[Jesus was] "a secular sage who satirized the pious and championed the poor. . . . Jesus was perhaps the first stand-up Jewish comic. Starting a new religion would have been the farthest thing from his mind" (Robert Funk, convener of the Jesus Seminar).
It is not my wont to engage in ad hominem attacks on those with whom I disagree.

Ayn Rand was not only a flaming atheist, but a bona fide religio-phobe. She didn’t just deny God; she despised all viewpoints save her own extreme form of humanism. Yet I would not call her “stupid” or “idiot” for it is clear she possessed a superior intellect.

Likewise for Bertrand Russell, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, etc. Regardless of vast differences of opinion, I can restrain myself from labeling these men, as much as I would like, with terms that simply don’t apply.

It is just too easy and too unproductive to call someone with whom you disagree an “idiot”. I won’t do it.

With one exception: the self-selected "scholars" of the Jesus Seminar. Their work is beyond the pale. For them I make an exception.1

For those who do not know, the Jesus Seminar was convened in 1985 by "recognized biblical scholar", Robert Funk. It is a group of left-wing lunatic-fringe New Testament (mostly) academics (bear in mind an advanced degree does not make one a scholar) that set out to discover the real, historic Jesus.

The best that can be said regarding the talents of the Jesus Seminar Fellows is that they were geniuses at self-promotion. The obtained enviable media coverage of their sloppy work by cleverly marketing their academic credentials, misrepresenting themselves, not only as the crème-de-la-crème of New Testament scholarship but, more insidiously although just as inaccurately, as a representative cross section of biblical ideology. Their strategy was to bypass the inconvenience of normal, independent peer review and go straight to the masses with, for example, a cover story in Time magazine.

The signature product of the Seminar is the color coded The Five Gospels : The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. That’s right, five. They include the gnostic-laden, thoroughly discredited Gospel of Thomas as canonical. Although dated by most scholars at no earlier than the mid second century, The Seminar divined that some of the writings from the Thomas, those that most support their predetermined conclusions about Jesus, were actually written earlier than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The Jesus Seminar used colored beads to vote on the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings. (As I said: marketing genius). The Five Gospels was color coded based on the results of the voting. The colors and their meanings were:
  • red: Jesus definitely said it
  • pink: Jesus probably said something like it
  • gray: Jesus did not say it, but the ideas expressed are close to his own
  • black: Jesus did not say it, it represents the perspective or content of a later tradition
The conclusions:
  • Jesus did not say 82% of what is attributed to Him.
  • Only 2% of the sayings attributed to Jesus were deemed worthy of "red"
In one of the more notorious examples, only two words (Our Father) from the Lord’s prayer were voted "red". (They must have slipped up on the word "Father"-- surely Jesus would have opened his prayer with "Our Parent".)

The Jesus Seminar blatantly and unashamedly set out to prove their own presupposition, that Jesus was just a really good man (and stand-up comic). They masqueraded as scholars, misrepresented their work as serious scholarship, and sold a bill of goods to the media. Brilliant it was—brilliant and insidious.

Consider the question of Jesus’ miracles. The logic of the Jesus seminar regarding miracles is:
  • Jesus was a man
  • No Fellow of the Jesus Seminar ever witnessed a miracle
  • Science cannot explain miracles, therefore they cannot happen
  • Therefore Jesus could not have performed miracles
  • Since he performed no miracles, we can conclude he was just a man (and stand-up comic)
Consequently, any reference to miracles was summarily dismissed as inauthentic because miracles don’t happen.

The Jesus Seminar used some interesting and novel criteria for determining the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings. One beauty is double dissimilarity, which states that any Gospel saying of Jesus that looks like something either a Rabbi or 1st century Christian leader would say must be rejected as inauthentic. The "logic" being that if someone else could have said it, they did-- and then it was edited into the alleged sayings of Jesus.

This is in spite of the fact that Jesus was a Rabbi and a 1st Century Christian leader. It is as if a historian claimed Abraham Lincoln might have said some things attributed to him, but certainly not those that sound as if they were made by a mid nineteenth century American politician.

Another criterion is the somewhat reasonable sounding double attestation, which means that there must be more than one source recording the alleged quote. Even on the surface, this is only “somewhat” reasonable because it is a stronger restriction that is used by other (respected) scholars of (nonbiblical) ancient history. The Jesus Seminar used this criterion as a bludgeon because they combined it with their (baseless) presupposition that Matthew and Luke copied Mark, so the three synoptic gospels are really only one source. Thus, according to the Jesus Seminar, the synoptic gospels cannot corroborate one another for that would be circular-- a logical flaw of which they are quite knowledgeable.

So even before any "serious, deliberate, and thoughtful" consideration, the Jesus Seminar rejected any saying that referred to a miracle, sounded like something a Rabbi or early Christian leader would say, and did not appear in both John and a synoptic gospel.

The scholarship of the Jesus Seminar has been rebuked by many serious bible scholars, both Catholic and Protestant. For example, Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic professor and bona fide New Testament scholar at Emory, in his book The Real Jesus, wrote about the Jesus Seminar: "This is not responsible, or even critical, scholarship. It is a self-indulgent charade."

1 Truth be told, I'd also make an exception for Bishop Spong. But that's it, really it is. Just don't get me started on Jesse Jackson.

UPDATE: Alert reader Joel pointed out that Bishop Spong IS an Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He also corrected my labeling of Ayn Rand as a Humanist. The preferred label is Objectivist.

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