Jesus Seminar (2)

Someone wrote to me:

I will take only a few presuppositions of the Jesus Seminar because a posting going through every presupposition would be much too large for this or any newsgroup; The Jesus Seminar based its examination on the presupposition, “The evangelists frequently attribute their own statements to Jesus.” How do they know this? Do they give evidence from an independent eyewitness source that challenges the contents of the Gospels. Their presupposition has no support. It would only have support were they able to quite some ancient author who heard Jesus preach and stated that Jesus did not say something attributed to Him by the Evangelists.

OK, that’s a fair objection. I’m going to comment on it, but not as a historian, because that is not my discipline. As you know, there are no independent witnesses to Jesus beyond the Gospels (and perhaps the apocryphal Gospels–but I don’t think we have much quality there). As a result, any attempt to discern what “Jesus really said” must be based, as I see it, on three things: the Gospels, what is known about the transmission of oral traditions in general and the literary form of Greek and Roman biography in particular, and what is known about the historical context, both of Jesus and of the Christian community from which the Gospel texts came. [The Jesus Seminar sometimes mentions that a saying attributed to Jesus is an aphorism which appears in other independent contemporary sources.]

At this point, I need to make an assumption which is: during the physical ministry of Jesus on earth NOBODY TOOK NOTES. While this is not certain, there is no tradition that anyone took notes and there are certainly no notes. From this assumption we conclude that the traditions about what Jesus said had some oral period–and perhaps a long oral period (e.g. 20 years or more).

If there is an oral period, then we have the question of how good human memory is. That is, could the Gospel writers and/or their sources remembered as much as what appears in the Gospel texts? I have some doubts that they could. [Since we are discussing this from a scientific stance, we will not consider divine agencies as aids to memory.]

What we do know from differences between the Synoptic Gospels is that some measure of editing, restructuring and filling in the cracks did occur. One major difficulty, for example, is the so-called “Messianic Secret” (in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells people not to speak of his miracles, but keep it to themselves, while in, say, John’s Gospel, open proclamation was required of the disciple.)

One final note, we do know that pious Christians did insert sayings in the Gospels. These known insertions date from later times and are evidenced by the different manuscripts for the Gospels. There is, for example, the longer ending to Mark’s Gospel. For other examples see Metzger’s book, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.

Now, the particular “presupposition” we are discussing is:

The evangelists frequently attribute their own statements to Jesus.

That statement appears in The Five Gospels on page 23. That statement is closely related to another earlier statement (p. 21) which says:

The evangelists frequently expand sayings or parables, or provide them with an interpretive overlay or comment.

Years before I ever considered the notion that some of the statements attributed to Jesus could possibly be inauthentic, I remember being frequently disappointed by the parables of Jesus. The parable was great, but the explanation seemed distinctly “uninspiring”. Over and over again this dynamite parable is followed by something that sounds like “conventional wisdom,” an amelioration or a pious reaction.

The very first time I noticed this was when I was a teenager and noted the ending of the Lord’s Prayer “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever” which sounds definitely like something “churchy” (i.e., designed for public worship) and not at all in character with the simplicity of the earlier parts. Of course, this particular text is not well attributed in the manuscripts either, but this is an example of how just listening to the text can point to an addition.

In the Gospels, one often finds Jesus teaching parables and then in a later scene “explaining them privately” to the inner circle and explains this by the rather remarkable statement “You have been given the privilege of knowing the secrets of Heaven’s rule, but that privilege has not been granted to everyone else” [Matthew 13:11 SV]. I don’t know, but that seems rather out of character. Jesus was known as one who “teaches with authority” and yet for this special teaching to the inner circle, he justifies the practice by quoting scripture. While Jesus needed no authority for his method of teaching, a later writer who was creating his own saying for Jesus might well feel that such creativity was only justified if supported by divine scripture (here Isaiah).

I think the interpretation of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:18 ff] is a fairly uninspiring interpretation. I’d like to have more time to dig out more examples.

My critic went on to write:

Another presupposition is “Sayings and parables in ‘Christian’ language re the creation of the evangelists or their Christian predecessors.” Once again, how do they know this? Just because they write, “Jesus was not the first Christian. However, he is often made to talk like a Christian by his devoted followers,” does not make it true. They provide no historical evidence to support this claim. They provide no independent sources that verify their presupposition.

Again going back to my Bible reading pre Jesus Seminar, one rather remarkable statement Jesus made is in Matthew 1:38

And those who do not take their cross and follow after me are not worthy of me.

This definitely sounds “post-Easter” to me.

My critic went on to write:

Why would a movement dedicated to the memory of Christ deliberately falsify his statements?

And I would ask, in turn, why dedicated Christian scribes in the written period of Gospel transmission would add pious additions or soften a difficult saying by changing a word here and there. But this is exactly what happened, and we have the documents to prove it.

I do not consider the license I think the evangelists took to be a “bad thing.” After so many years, they could not have remembered everything. They needed to fill in the gaps.

It is also clear from the Gospels themselves, that the disciples were pretty wooden in understanding Jesus. If they didn’t understand, how could they transmit faithfully (given that they couldn’t reproduce the exact words from memory)? That is, how can I paraphrase something I don’t understand?

Another justification is that many of the additions are actually quotes from Hebrew scripture. Hey, inspired is inspired.

The parables of Jesus were provoking. I think that Jesus didn’t explain things so literally to the disciples, because the whole purpose of a story is to go to the heart and not the head. Explaining a parable disarms it. But perhaps the Gospel writers didn’t share the need to keep things open-ended but rather felt that an interpretation was needed. So they supplied one, such as it was.

Finally, there were situations which arose in the later Christian community which, perhaps, Jesus never addressed. The Gospel writer felt that it was important to write down what his understanding of what Jesus “would have said”. Hence in the battle between those who held on to the Jewish law and those who worked with Gentiles, Jesus is made to condemn anyone who teaches that the entire Mosaic law would continue until the end of the world.

As the Catholic theologian, Hans Kung wrote (On Being a Christian p. 154):

…the Gospels are meant not only to report but to proclaim, to stir, to rouse faith. They are committed testimony or–as it is often expressed with the corresponding Greek word–“kerygma:” proclamation, announcement, message.

This orientation and peculiar character of the Gospels do not merely render impossible a biography of Jesus. They make any dispassionate, historical interpretation of the texts more difficult. Of course no serious scholar assumes today, as people did at the beginning of Gospel criticism, that the disciples deliberately falsified the story of Jesus. They were simply convinced that they knew better than in Jesus’ lifetime who he really was and what he really signified. Hence they had no hesitation in following the custom of the time and placing everything that had to be said in regard to him under his personal authority: both by putting certain sayings into his mouth and by shaping certain stories in the light of his image as a whole. …

I would encourage the reader who has access to Kung’s book to read this entire section.

My critic went on to write:

It just does not make sense.

I think it makes a lot of sense.

My critic went on to write:

Another presupposition is “Jesus’ disciples remember the core or gist of his sayings and parables, not his precise words, except in rare cases.” Once again, what is the proof of that presupposition? From what we know about the transmission of oral teachings in first century Judaism, we know that students memorized long sayings by their teachers and preserved those sayings in a highly accurate form.

How do we know they are accurate? Just asking. But Jesus disciples weren’t exactly formal students. They weren’t the “brightest and best” of the Jewish intelligentsia. They were with Jesus maybe only a year (or three DEPENDING ON WHICH GOSPEL YOU READ).

My critic went on to write:

Thus my point is, that if one examines the introduction to THE FIVE GOSPELS, it is evident that the Jesus Seminar adopted a set of unsupported presuppositions and then examined the text of the Gospels in the light of those presuppositions. Once again, that is not the historical method. The true historian tries to avoid all presuppositions, studies the documents and then develops his or her interpretation of the documents. The Jesus Seminar developed their interpretation and then looked at the documents. That is why I, as a secularly trained historian, do not take the work of the Jesus Seminary seriously.

There are enough contradictions in the texts themselves to convince a secular historian that any inerrancy claim is untenable. We know that things are not exactly right. Jesus cannot have been born under Herod the Great and at the same time that Quirinius was governor of Syria (since they are not contemporary). We know the Gospel writers created details which didn’t happen. There is strong reason to think that the story of the cursing of the fig tree was a literalization of a parable from Luke (see Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible and Harper’s Bible Commentary). Did Jesus tell his disciples to forgive seventy times seven and then turn around and curse two towns that did not listen to him?

The question is not IF the Gospel writers put words in Jesus’ mouth, but only what and how much. My personal feeling is that the Jesus Seminar goes too far on the “how much” question. But I have no doubt that the two criteria we discussed above are valid to some extent.

A defense of the Seminar by one of its members, Robert J. Miller is available on the web.


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