Biblical Scholarship


Take special note of the paragraph beginning "In fact, however," on how REAL scholars have criticized the Jesus Seminar. Since the Jesus Seminar is mentioned from time to time, it would be useful to quote what a learned and REPUTABLE biblical scholar said about it. The following text was quoted from Appendix 1, pages 819-823 of the late Fr. Raymond E. Brown's AN INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT (Anchor/Doubleday: 1998).

After 1980: The Jesus Seminar and Related Scholars

The rest of this Appendix will deal with the last quarter of the 20th century, for the date 1980 is approximate. One may speak of two tendencies, although the more conservative one is generally treated as the study of christology rather than as historical Jesus research. (Pursuit of that topic belongs more to a book on NT theology than to a NT INTRODUCTION; for that reason this Appendix devotes only one paragraph to it.) A willingness to attribute explicit christology to the lifetime of Jesus got new life in late-20th century scholarship, as once more it became respectable to hold that Jesus actually thought he had a unique relationship to God and reflected that outlook in his speech and attitudes. "Son of Man" is a title that many scholars think he used of himself. "Messiah" remains a title that others may have used of him during his lifetime, whether or not he accepted the designation.

The Qumran discoveries show that titles like Son of God and Lord were known in Semitic speaking circles of Palestine during Jesus' time. Moreover, the scholarly practice of assigning the introduction of certain christological titles to specific postJesus stages in the geographical and temporal spread of Christianity is now seen to be too simple. Therefore, a continuity between Jesus' lifetime and the Gospel portraits may be more inclusive than hitherto thought. Readers are encouraged to explore the trend to emphasize this continuity, for it has major following among highly reputable scholars.

SMB interjects. For a start, I recommend two books: AN INTRODUCTION TO NEW TESTAMENT CHRISTOLOGY (Paulist Press: 1994), by Fr. Raymond E. Brown. Second, RESPONSES TO 101 QUESTIONS ON THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS (Paulist Press: 1993), by Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, SJ.

THE JESUS SEMINAR. A more radical tendency in studying Jesus has received greater attention, sometimes because its proponents have advertised their results in the media. This Seminar was founded in 1985 by R. Funk with J.D. Crossan as co-chair; it has consisted of some fifty to seventy-five scholars who meet regularly, write papers, and vote on decisions about what the historical Jesus did and said. The color-coded voting was designed to catch attention: red = he undoubtedly said this or something very much like it; pink = probably he said something like this; gray = the ideas are his even though he did not say this; black = he did not say it.

Although partly drawing on criteria developed by the Post-Bultmannians, the Seminar stands out in several ways.

FIRST, it has operated to a remarkable degree on a priori principles, some of them reflecting antisupernatural bias. For instance, the bodily resurrection had no real chance of being accepted as having taken place. The session dealing with the authenticity of Jesus' predictions of his passion and death was dominated by the initial refusal of most of the participants to allow the possibility that Jesus could have spoken of his impending death by virtue of "super-ordinary" powers; accordingly they voted black on eleven Synoptic passion predictions. Again, almost as a principle, the eschatological character of Jesus' ministry has been dismissed, with an obvious negative result in judging the authenticity of Gospel statements that echo such an outlook.

SECOND, the results have been exceptionally skeptical. Of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels, some 50 percent were voted black and 30 percent gray, leaving less than 20 percent that have a chance of being authentic (red or pink). A red vote was accorded to no statement of Jesus in John and to only one saying peculiar to Mark!

THIRD, from the beginning the seminar has sought popular media coverage to an extraordinary degree--one reviewer has compared it to the style of P.T. Barnum. Claiming that scholarly views appearing in books and scientific journals do not reach the general public, the leading figures in the Jesus Seminar have turned to newspaper interviews and TV talk shows, attracting attention even in Sunday supplements and periodicals like GQ. Part of the piquancy is attributed to a proclaimed intention to liberate Jesus from the tyranny of the "religious establishment," represented in church or doctrinal tradition and Christian worship. Thus after almost every seminar session bombshell announcements are released to catch the public's eye, e.g., that Jesus did not utter the Lord's Prayer or any of the beloved words that appear in John. An impression has been created that these scandalous sound bites represent where scholars now stand.

In fact, however, although spokesmen for the Jesus Seminar like to pretend that the chief disparagement of their stances comes from "fundamentalists," scholarly evaluations and reviews of the productions of the Jesus Seminar have often been bluntly critical, e.g., those by NT professors like A. Culpepper (Baylor), R.B. Hays (Duke), L.T. Johnson (Emory), L.E. Keck (Yale), J.P. Meier (Catholic University), and C.T. Talbert (Wake Forest/Baylor). One finds therein such devastating judgments as: methodologically misguided; no signficant advance in the study of the historical Jesus; only a small ripple in NT scholarship; results representing the Jesus the researchers wanted to find; the pursuit of a specific confessional agenda; and dangerous in giving a false impression. We cannot here enter the discussions in detail, but I shall make pertinent evaluative observations as I conclude this Appendix.

Various participants in the Jesus Seminar have written their own books, but here we shall discuss separately only J.D. Crossan and M.J. Borg. The Seminar has dealt largely with the sayings of Jesus; these writers have fleshed out pictures of Jesus in the direction of some of the implications of the Seminar.

J.D. CROSSAN bases his presentation of Jesus on sources that he would date before 60: e.g., the reconstructed Q and apocryphal gospels (GOSPEL OF THOMAS, SECRET GOSPEL OF MARK, an early form of the GOSPEL OF PETER). He draws on social analyses of Roman rule in Palestine in Jesus' lifetime that posit much political unrest and assume as applicable to Nazareth a power pattern attested in larger cities. Jesus is seen as a combination of an itinerant Cynic preacher and illiterate Galilean peasant, who was strongly egalitarian. The historicity of Jesus' infancy narrative is dismissed by Crossan on the analogy of a 12th-century AD account of Moses' life (SOPHER ha-ZIKRONOT --see BBM 600).

There are no demons, and so Jesus performed no exorcisms in the strict sense even though he delivered individuals from duress that they regarded as possession. There were elements of magic as Jesus operated outside the normal religious lines, but there were no supernatural miracles. Most of the passion account was created from reflection on the OT; there was no Jewish trial of Jesus; he was executed by the Romans; and his body was probably eaten by the dogs; there was no bodily resurrection. Inevitably Crossan has been accused of flights of imagination that compromise
his claims to a historical approach.

M.J. BORG is in many ways in harmony with the Jesus Seminar, e.g., the "preEaster" Jesus was not a Messiah or a divine savior, nor was he eschatologically concerned with the end of the world--such views would make Jesus irrelevant to our times. Reflecting his own faith pilgrimage, Borg is attempting to find a meaningful Jesus; and his eloquence about Jesus' own spirituality has attracted some who would otherwise find the Seminar's claims offensive. Borg offers a compassionate [note 17 below] sage who taught a subversive wisdom (indeed one who regarded himself as a spokesman of divine wisdom), and a prophetic social critic who by the inclusivity of his appeal rejected a politics of holiness that involved separation.

Key to his picture is that Jesus was a charismatic, spirit-led holy man--one who had frequent mystical experiences of God or the Spirit and became a channel of that Spirit to others. Thus he was similar to Honi the rainmaker of the first century BC and the Galilean Hanina of the first century AD [note 18 below]. Aspects of Borg's presentation might find wide acceptance, but many would maintain that sufficient justice is not done to essential Gospel evidence by Borg's portrayal of a Jesus who had no definitive revelation and did not present himself as having a distinctive role in the final (i.e., eschatological) action by God that had now begun. The question has been raised whether once again, as with the discovery of the liberal Jesus in the last century, the quest is not producing the Jesus the quester wished to find.

[note 17] So compassionate that Borg's Jesus seems to make no absolute demands of moral purity; the more severe Jesus, e.g., in his demands about marriage, does not emerge.

[note 18] All this can be challenged. Jesus is not particularly remembered as a mystic or as communicating the Spirit to others during his ministry. The parallel to Honi and Hanina reflects the thesis of G. Vermes, JESUS THE JEW (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973); but the charismatic miracle-worker picture of such figures is historically dubious and reflects dependence on later rabbinic literature, which in this case aggrandized them--see Meier, MARGINAL 581-88. In the earliest tradition Honi was a man of persuasive prayer that brought God's extraordinary help. Jesus is not remembered as working his miracles by praying for God's help.


Iow, I wouldn't put much stock in the Jesus Seminar. Note how severely Fr. Brown criticized the seminar. And, in others of his footnotes Fr. Brown was quite stern in his criticisms of Seminar members like the Episcopalian Bishop John Spong. E.g., Fr. Brown mentioned in footnote 11 how poorly Spong's book BORN OF A WOMAN has been viewed by other scholars.

I also urge the necessity of all of us being careful not to confuse the dubious likes of the participants in the Jesus Seminar with genuinely reputable biblical scholars, Catholic or Protestant.

Pax tecum. Sean

SeanMBrook@aol.com 


Back to Apologetics Articles

Back to Home Page

About | Apologetics | Philosophy | Spirituality | Books | Audio | Links