April 29, 2009

The Jesus Seminar under Fire — Again

Click here to read this column in the 4/30/2009 Springfield News Leader

Read/Post Comments to this Blog (2)

Two essays have recently appeared in the News-Leader attacking the Jesus Seminar (Rev. Brian Baker 4/24/09 and Mr. David S. Awbrey 4/27/09). The essay of Rev. Baker is either uninformed or dishonest; I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his misunderstanding is due to a lack of reading. The essay of Mr. Awbrey is actually well informed reflecting more than a general acquaintance with the problems of Jesus studies. He apparently has spent considerable time studying the gospels and reading widely in the history of Jesus research. Bravo! We should have more inquisitive readers like Mr. Awbrey. But I am rather surprised at two things.

What follows addresses his original premise and his conclusion. His premise is that the Jesus Seminar has developed a figure called the “historical Jesus” to correct the canonical gospels. Sorry, but that is clearly what we have not done! The original purpose of the Jesus Seminar was to sift the early sayings of Jesus to determine which ones had the highest claim to having originated with the historical human being, Jesus of Nazareth. The results were published in The Five Gospels. What Did Jesus Say? We did not publish a “historical Jesus” to compete with the canonical gospels. The consensus of the group was that about 20% of everything attributed to Jesus most probably came from the historical figure presumed to lie behind the gospels. So the “historical Jesus” consists of discrete sayings, fragments of his idiom. Some of us later published a “profile”—sketching out individual views of the historical figure lying behind these fragments (Profiles of Jesus). In a sense that is what everyone does, even with the four gospels, since even the most naïve reader can see the differences.

Mr. Awbrey knows the canonical gospels are not consistent in their portrayals of Jesus of Nazareth, and it surprises me that he decides to “stick with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” He is less than forthcoming, however, about the extent of the disagreements. If Mark (the earliest gospel) had met up with John (the latest gospel) in a wine bar someplace in the Roman Empire, neither would have recognized the Jesus presented in the gospel of the other. Mark’s Jesus taught in parables; John’s Jesus taught in riddles. Mark’s Jesus was baptized by water and spirit; John’s Jesus only by spirit. Mark’s Jesus performed exorcisms; John’s Jesus did not. Mark’s Jesus announced the immediacy of the kingdom of God; John’s Jesus did not announce the kingdom. Mark’s Jesus celebrated Jewish Passover with his disciples before his death; John’s Jesus did not. Mark’s Jesus was crucified after the Passover; John’s Jesus was crucified before the Passover. The last intelligible utterance of Mark’s Jesus before he died was: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” The last utterance of John’s Jesus was: “It is finished.” Mr. Awbrey, how would you reconstruct the historical figure behind these two different interpretations?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 5:23pm

Charlie, I have finally been able to read it all, understand some and question some, but I note that you note, "I did not address the subject of "inspiration." I'd like for you to do that...thanks. Again, I am amazed at you!

Love you,
Posted by Grace Menhel on 5/6/2009 at 1:38pm

I don’t know much about church history, Charlie, but I can’t help but wonder if the early Councils didn’t go through a process very similar to that followed by the Jesus Seminar when what we consider the Bible was assembled. There had to be hundreds of writings from which to choose. I know that most evangelicals will say they were inspired by God and so it really wasn’t the choice of men at all, but I wonder….

Marcia Morriset
Academic Advisor-Recruiter
Honors College
Missouri State University
Springfield MO 65897
Posted by Marcia Morriset on 4/30/2009 at 3:05pm

Hi Marcia,

We know very little about the process of selecting books for the canon. To begin there are no records of ancient church councils even addressing the issue. We must therefore look for the odd comment or two in other writings. Briefly: in the New Testament there is evidence that the writings of Paul became a guide for the group calling themselves “orthodox” but Paul was also being used by their opponents (for example, 2 Peter 3:15-16). The two best guides (I think) that set forth the situation in the fourth century is a comment by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical history (ca. 325) where he breaks down what was going on in the churches with respect to the books they were using. He divided the books into: accepted, disputed, rejected, heretical. And then in 367 Bishop Athanasius of Egypt listed the NT we use today. But remember that the process of selecting and rejecting books still continued. Not all early followers of Jesus were followers of the group that designated themselves “orthodox. For example the Syrian church never did accept second and third John (and in the fifth century there were others of the canonical books they rejected). There is no ancient text that lists the criteria that was used to approve books for the canon. Irenaeus (ca. 180) did have such a list but there is no evidence that it was a list used by all the “orthodox” churches. It is a much bigger question than this brief and all too short answer can cover. For example I did not address the issue of “inspiration.”

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 5/2/2009 at 10:49am