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.] Continue reading

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The Letter Kills

(2 Cor 3:6 NASB) …who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

John, chapter 3, describes the visit under cover of darkness by a Jewish leader named Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born again”, but Nicodemus takes Jesus literally and asks how can an adult crawl back into the womb. Jesus expected some flexibility in thinking as he says: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The legacy of Nicodemus is alive and well in Christianity, and this literal mindedness is the single greatest threat to the movement that Jesus started. Continue reading

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This a topic about which I have written much both on USENET, mailing lists and IRC. It is a difficult topic to discuss because those with whom I’ve discussed it had strong opinions which were not really open to change. Nevertheless, out of conscience, I want to express my personal views on the subject here on my web site. Just as the racial bigotry I was brought up crumbled when I actually got to know people of other races, so did my views on homosexuality change when a friend came out of the closet.

The Bible and Homosexuality

A common response that I get from most religious people on this topic is, “What is there to discuss? The Bible is quite clear on the issue.” But from my viewpoint, the Bible is only clear for those who have already decided the answer. The reader at this point might bring to mind a number of verses from the Bible, and in particular from Leviticus and Romans. And I will discuss these here in general way.

What about Leviticus? The anti-homosexual texts in Leviticus appear in the same chapters as the dietary laws: no pork or shellfish. Now I would ask why someone would condemn homosexuality based on Leviticus on their way home from a nice shrimp dinner. I cannot think of any objective reason to pick one and discard the other prohibition. So, the Bible is clear only if the matter had already been decided. Continue reading

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I Don’t Know When Jesus is Coming, but Neither Do You

A few years ago I was pedaling my bicycle down a back road when a woman driving an old station wagon full of kids pulled up beside me, matched my speed, rolled down the window and shouted, “Do you know Jesus?” I shouted, “Yes,” at which the wagon began to pick up speed as the woman shouted back, “He’s coming soon!”

Whether God has a particular liking for years ending in “000,” or perhaps certain authors have discovered that there is money to be made writing books about the end times, there has been no shortage of speculation about the eminent end of the age and the second coming of Jesus, the technical term for which is “Parousia”.

The question which comes to me amid all this speculation is why people would venture a prediction in the light of all the failed predictions in the past. Are we so much smarter or so much more in tune with God than our forebears?

I guess the first misapprehensions about the return of Jesus date from the 1st century, some of which are recorded in the New Testament.

(Mat 16:27-28 NASB) “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and WILL THEN RECOMPENSE EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS. {28} “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”

Continue reading
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In 1997-98 the Lutheran Church (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), the Reformed Church (RCA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) all approved resolutions aimed at mutual recognition and unity.

When proposals of this importance are made, there are arguments on both sides, and a lively discussion results. Reading these discussions has reminded me of the distinction made in American courts between the standards of proof in civil and in criminal cases. In civil cases one must show a “preponderance of evidence” to prevail; that is, my evidence must be more compelling than yours. In a criminal case there is a higher standard of proof (proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”) because under the criminal law, everyone is presumed innocent.

In the case of church unity, the discussions I have seen seem to be carried out under the rule of “preponderance of evidence”. I have seen unity weighed against things like quality of organizational structure, or doctrinal purity. But I would suggest that the clear command of Christ for unity (reiterated in the rest of the New Testament) is a mandate so strong that it takes the status of presumption. To discard Christ’s own commands in a Christian argument should require an incredibly persuasive argument–an argument which must establish its point “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Continue reading

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A Historical Approach to Jesus

In the context of criticism of the Jesus Seminar, it has been claimed that the actual Gospel accounts are of high reliability, and further that no Christian who reveres Christ would dare “make anything up”.

Such a view is a faith view, not the view of a historian.

First, we know that Christian scribes frequently amended the texts of the canonical gospels. We know this beyond all doubt from the literally thousands of variant Greek manuscripts which exist to this day [1]. It is not a matter of speculation, but of observation that some Christians made stuff up.

One might argue that such glosses and “corrections” and emendations were minor. However, it appears that the story in John’s Gospel of the woman caught in adultery is, from manuscript evidence, not an original part of John’s Gospel. But perhaps it was a independent tradition that found a home there.

Fine, what about Christians making up whole books? There are several collections of these in the book stores now. Christians wrote Gospels by the scores! I would just mention two of them which are probably earlier than the rest of their fellows: The Infancy Gospel of James and the Gospel of Thomas. These are either real history or they are made up–which is it? There is the possibly early fragment from the Gospel of Peter. whose account of the resurrection cannot be reconciled with that of the canonical gospels. How about pseudo-Matthew in the 6th century who added details to the birth narrative in canonical Matthew based on his reading of Isaiah. Continue reading

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The Historical Jesus vs. the Christ of Faith

I’m a practicing Christian, and that means that I go to church and I participate in ritual actions and I speak ritual phrases. We have a canon of scripture and a body of doctrine. The Bible which we hold sacred was written by the faithful — that is, the story is told through the viewpoint of other Christians who also had their ritual and doctrine.

On the other hand there is historical research in to the life and times of Jesus. While there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus outside Christian Scripture (and someone like Schweitzer in The Quest of the Historical Jesus concludes that the historical Jesus must remain unknown), there is material about the times: about the culture, society and government; and there also those who try to uncover the layers in the Christian texts themselves to learn what lays behind them (for example as is done in The Historical Jesus by John Dominic Crossan or E. P. Sanders in his Historical Figure of Jesus).

The picture of Jesus which emerges from Historical Jesus research is wonderful and compelling — but it doesn’t look much like the Christ of Christian doctrine.

I’d like for it to all fit together and make sense and maybe it really does. Continue reading

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The New International Version of the Bible

The NIV is a Bible translation first published in 1978 by the International Bible Society coming out of work started by the National Association of Evangelicals. If you wish to learn more about this version from the publisher’s viewpoint, this link is provided to their web site. The publisher holds this version in much higher esteem than I do. I flat out don’t trust it.

I first became aware of the NIV when involved in a USENET discussion where I said that the Bible said one thing and someone else argued that it said no such thing. This started happening a lot, and at the root of the disagreement, there always seemed to be a NIV Bible. I eventually bought a copy of the NIV and made little marks in it whenever something came up. I never went looking for problems in the NIV; they came to me. [The New American Standard Bible is taken as the reference translation for this article; King James equivalents are linked at the bottom of the page.]


Let’s start at the beginning:

(Gen 2:17 NASB [KJV]) “but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” Continue reading

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Authentic Sayings of Jesus

Matthew 5:17-20

Why do I consider Matthew 5:17-20 inauthentic?

(Mat 5:17-20 NRSV) “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. {18} For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. {19} Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. {20} For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

There’s a short answer, and a long answer. The long answer deals with why I might think any saying of Jesus in the Gospels is inauthentic. Let me deal with the long question first, and then with the particular verses.

The first question is whether the New Testament Gospels are “supernaturally accurate”. That is, do they record events and words to a degree impossible for normal humans to have remembered them? Continue reading

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Why have you forsaken me?

A discussion of Mark 15:34 and Psalm 22.

This article was originally written in reply to a particular person, but it has general application to the critics of Christianity who read the saying of Jesus from the cross, “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” as an expression of failure and despair. This text has been updated since its original appearance on the talk.religion.misc newsgroup.

The fundamentalist Christian often interprets this saying as marking the point at which Jesus took upon himself the sins of all mankind requiring God (who they say cannot look upon evil) to turn away. I strongly disagree with this idea also, but that is another discussion for another article. Continue reading

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