Monday, November 8, 2010

Bock on the Jesus Seminar

Recently I found a very helpful excursus by Darrell Bock on the Jesus Seminar in his commentary on Luke.  He gives a little background, their basic position, and their stated presuppositions of their approach to the gospels, and offers some criticisms of their presuppositions.

The Jesus Seminar was formed in 1985 under the sponsorship of the Westar Institute.  The goal of the Seminar “was to determine precisely what teaching in the Gospels actually went back to Jesus.”  They voted according to the following code:

Red      Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it
Pink     Jesus probably said something like this
Gray     Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own
Black   Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later of different         tradition

The results were published after much labor in The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Funk and Hoover 1993).  Of the 555 verses in Luke’s Gospel that are saying material, the seminar printed 4% in red, 23% in pink, 22% in gray, and 51% in black.  The results are based on seven fundamental premises – “pillars” – stated in the introduction:
1. The distinction should be drawn between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.
2. The Synoptic Gospels are much closer to the historical Jesus than is John’s gospel.
3. The Gospel of Mark is prior to Matthew and Luke.
4. The hypothetical source Q represents the teaching tradition shared between Luke and Matthew.
5. The noneschatological Jesus of aphorisms and parables should be separated for the eschatological Jesus.
6. The oral culture of the Gospels does not work in the same manner and our modern print culture.
7. The burden of proof in Jesus studies lies with those who hold to historicity.

Bock then gives a number of solid , in my opinion, criticisms of these “pillars”.  First, Bock asks,

What does it mean to say the Synoptics are closer to the historical Jesus than is John?  History is not a static entity in which something is immediately obvious upon its being said or done.  Sometimes it takes later events to clarify earlier events and utterances.  A Gospel like John’s thus represents a reflective portrait of Jesus (see John , ) …. History is inevitably interpretive, so reflective understanding of a person and his saying may shed real light on that person.  All of this is obscured in pillar 2…

Pillar 1 is intended to upholds seeing over half of the teaching tradition of the Gospels as “Christ-of-faith” embellishments that have no roots in the teaching of Jesus.  But, Bock asserts, this “is hard to sustain historically in terms of explaining the tradition as we have it.”

Pillar 5 is a detailed application of Pillar 1, which rejects any of his teaching “about judgment, any sense of Jesus as returning, and many elements of Jesus’ teaching that parallel the OT prophets’ call to accountability before God.  “With one affirmation large strands of Jesus’ teaching become excluded almost by definition.”

Bock points out with regard to Pillars 3 and 4 “that oral tradition (or variant written traditions) may stand behind what is normally represented by Q.  Variation may reflect the presence of multiple expressions of the itinerant Jesus, making it more difficult to conclude, based on variation, that the evangelist(s) altered the tradition.”

Further on, Bock says of Pillar 7:

To add a burden of proof that says in effect “guilty until proven innocent” so that single testimony does not count at all in favor of a saying, produces a method that will not allow any Gospel writer to complement the portrait of Jesus with fresh detail he may be aware of­­—even from oral sources … One addendum to this test makes matters more difficult: if someone else could say it, then Jesus did not.  This test of dissimilarity says that something is authentic if it is unlike Judaism or early church teaching; when it is applied negatively, then only the Jesus that is unlike his cultural background is treated as authentic.  Such a Jesus would have been so eccentric that it is unlikely that he would have been taken seriously.

Bock summarizes:

The pillars function like a tightly knit strainer that allows little to get through the process of assessment.  If we treated other ancient works with similar standards, there would be little that we could say about ancient history.

What kind of Jesus emerges for the Jesus Seminar?  He is a Jesus who had no mission, whose miraculous activity needs some other explanation, who did not judge or make messianic claims.  In fact, he rarely discussed himself or his mission, since the “I” sayings are later creations.  There is no prediction of suffering, no major apocalyptic concern, and no concern about heavenly rewards in the future.  The Jesus of the seminar was interested in the poor and other social concerns and in creating in humanity a devotion to God and a concern for others.  On these points he created social offense, but he was not particularly offensive in his religious teaching.  For a figure that multiple traditions attest was publicly perceived as a prophet, is this kind of distinction historically credible? … that portrait of him does not have enough historical credibility to explain how he ended up crucified for claiming to be Israel’s Promised One … The Jesus that surfaces  … is not well enough historically constructed to explain what happened to him and what caused him to be sent to the cross.

In contrast,

Luke [and the other gospels] has much more to offer us about the historical Jesus that the Jesus Seminar does … Luke wrote his Gospel in order to reassure disciples.  He sought to make clear the reasons to trust in the Jesus who came and is coming again.  Luke builds such reassurance on the pillar of a historically grounded portrait of Jesus … Harvey describes his historical inquiry about Jesus this way:

But it is an enquiry for which, I believe, the materials are now available, and which will enable us to understand better what it might mean to claim that “God was with” a person of history in such a unique and decisive way that he could be regard as an actual agent of the divine, and become thereby an object, not only of our endless and fascinated study, but of our love and worship.

To put it another way: In the beginning there was Jesus, and without him there would be no Gospel, no explanation for the existence of the church, and no need for commentary.

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