on July 20, 2002
One can often decide whether a book is "worth reading" by the amount of controversy surrounding it. Judging by the emotionalism vented against the work of Funk and Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, I would think any serious, curious readers would want to look at this book --if for no other reason than to find out what all the fuss is about.
It's a shame such an attempt at rational, dispassionate biblical scholarship should have been received in such a tepid way by the general public who, frankly, understand very little about biblical scholarship, methodology, linguistics, historiography, genre, etc.
For the reader whose mind remains fluid, whose horizons have not been rendered brittle and narrow by faith and emotionalism, this book will present many interesting insights about not only the authorship of the canonical gospels and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, but also explains how the 72 scholars arrived at the conclusions presented in this volume, particularly the phrasing of the text (SV) and how the opinion of the Jesus Seminar was reached. Also interesting for the lay-reader, armchair philosopher and others are the few unabashed statements about how the early Church leaders tampered with the several gospels, though this is not a point the Jesus Seminar dwells upon.
As an introductory book that is easy to read and understand, I recommend it to any person unafraid to think critically, beyond the box, about the nature of not merely the canonical gospels and their message and origins, but also the humanity --the divine humanity-- of what inspires so much of what informs human consciousness and awareness in whatever form, be it parable, fable, myth, or other borrowed story.
While I was writing my doctoral thesis I became less and less concerned about the trappings of traditional lore and became more interested in just what the original cultural and historic importance of these texts were in their own time, and what they might convey for our own lives today. I think Profs. Funk and Hoover and the other Jesus Seminar members have, with this book, made an important step, and the results --clear and easy to understand-- are accessible to any person wishing to enrich a personal understanding of the history and meaning of these gospels; to any study group, Unitarian Universalist or otherwise. Where there is visceral emotionalism amok there can be no reason. No reason no peace. No peace, no understanding. No understanding, no light. No light.... Well, just look around.
This book isn't the light of the world and does not pretend to be. It is the work and opinions of some learned men of our time, i.e., a group of biblical scholars. It is not a gospel unto itself. In spite of that it is a volume I would include in any library intended for the study of Christianity and its development in the first millennia of the common era with respect to the canonical gospels. This book could only frighten or offend those who have transcended all objectivity and insist upon maintaining a status quo that represents the worst kind of myopia. Read this book and decide what YOU think.
on October 3, 2004
I have to admit I liked this book a great deal. It was very thought provoking, and that is what I wanted.
As anyone can note from the title, this is an attempt to add a new gospel to the canonic testaments of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Without saying as much, the book seeks to raise the standing of a newly discovered ancient 'book': 'the Gospel of Thomas'. The 1945 discovery of 'Thomas', a previously unknown gospel of about the same antiquity as the canonic gospels, demands a reassessment of the traditional canon. Some might say this reassessment is the job of scholars, and has already been accomplished with a dismissal of Thomas as derivative and heretical. This book presents an extensive argument against this conclusion, and makes it in an accessible manner for the lay reader,
The format of Thomas presents a significant problem. Thomas is not a narrative, but a list of 114 'sayings'. Thomas tells many of the canonic parables, but the Thomas versions are shorter and often bereft of any moral interpretation. 10 or 15 sound very much like 'Jesus', but are entirely missing from the canon. Many of the remaining 50 or so sayings invoke what scholars might call 'Gnostic' philosophy. Thomas fails to mention the resurrection story and includes only one mention of 'the cross.'
Fitting Thomas into any holistic understanding of Jesus will not be easy. In particular, a 'list of sayings' is far harder to trust than a coherent narrative. It is far easier for the man writing a copy to insert their opinions when no 'statement' need continue a thought from the prior paragraph.
Without making integration of Thomas into the canonic literature an overt goal, the 'Jesus seminar' simply sets out to see how much trouble one faces when applying a single standard to the four canonic gospels AND Thomas. The Jesus Seminar concludes Thomas is far more authentic than John.
The '5 Gospels' reports on this process leading to this conclusion. The 'conference' assumes one can deconstruct the 'real' voice of the historical Jesus by cross-referencing all available 'Jesus quotes' in the 5 documents. What we are going to do with the historic Jesus is politely avoided, but the clear assumption is the 'real' is good.
I had no idea how subtle a notion this goal turns out to be. By sticking strictly to the nominal goal: 'hear the historical Jesus speaking', a host of controversies can be sidestepped. The agnostic and atheist can 'hear' the historical Jesus. The same follows for the Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. All hear people talk through written texts. All can relate to the question, do a historical man's actual words speak through the evangelist (be they an individual or a community) and the host of people who copied the source prior to 'canonical' versions were provided institutional copy producing traditions.
This is also a 'lowest common denominator' strategy. While reading, it struck me this was a very 'safe' Jesus that the seminar could agree upon. The conventionality gets tiresome. It seems the 'safe' Jesus is a witty hippy sort of guy. Here are the 'top 5' (and I paraphrase):
1. Turn the other cheek (92% agreement)
2. If someone asks for your shirts, give him your coat, too (92% agreement)
3. Blessed are the poor (91%)
4. If someone asks you to carry his load for 1 mile, carry it for 2. (90%)
5. Love your enemies (84%)
Everything with the slightest aspect of mystery is dismissed.
1. He didn't use the 1st person pronoun "I", and if he did, it was in exactly the same unimportant way you or I use it. In other words, Jesus never said 'I am the light..." This entirely discounts the Jesus quotes in John.
2. He didn't talk about a cataclysmic end to the world as we know it.
3. He didn't talk about his death and resurrection, or the Solomon's temple being dismantled.
4. If he did say anything after the resurrection, no one wrote it down accurately.
The seminar simply didn't agree on the mysteries, and who should expect them? Given their backgrounds, at least 25% of the seminar were agnostic or atheist.
While reading the scholarly arguments, I wondered if I could authentically quote anything my wife has ever said. I'm sure she said 'I do' at some point, but would be hard pressed to 'quote' a story or piece of wisdom she has shared with me. It isn't for lack of listening! It is almost impossible to remember exactly what anyone said without making a point of writing it down 'in the moment'.
And, if it is written down, the individual units of text are always commonplace. I was often reminded of an old Victor Borge routine. The great pianist would stop playing a wonder Mozart piece and announce he had in his pocket a piece of paper with the first 'note' Mozart ever wrote. After carefully pulling it from his pocket and lovingly discussing it's history, he announces that he also has a scrap of paper with the last 'note' Mozart ever wrote. After retrieving this precious document, he looks at the two and says, 'Interesting, the first note as a 'C' and the last a 'D'. Mozart didn't get very far, did he?'
So there is the problem of trusting that someone got it written down fast enough combined with the fact all sentences are constructed of commonplace words. The two make textual deconstruction of 'original words' a speculative game. Old quotes might be worthless paraphrasing or outright fantasy. Alternatively, old quotes always reflect the commonplace phrases of a community, devoid of individual character. What we find important is the 'whole picture'.
So, nothing is really proven here. The authors carefully avoid the 'whole picture', suggesting everyone work that out on their own. I found it possible to suspend judgment long enough to get through all 5 'critiqued' gospels, but it was a bit of a struggle. I'm glad I kept pushing to get to the end. That 'end' is a reassessment of Thomas, and this volume is by far the best available.
The Jesus Seminar, whether famous or infamous depends on your religious barometer. This is not a book for the conservative Christian who accepts every word written in the gospels, Acts and the Letters to be the actual words of Jesus, written by his Apostles, (which the evangelists were not). If you are an open-minded seeker of truth and are not easily shocked by religious controversy, you will delight in this easily readable unbiased examination of the Words of Jesus and the attempts by the Seminar to pin down what really was said and by whom, 2000 years ago.
The Seminar is a group of liberal biblical scholars, with a historical perspective on Jesus. They, herein vote on the efficacy and accuracy of the recording of Jesus' words. Sentences in RED are those they believe probably came from the lips of the Master, pink, gray and black denote how the vote rated the words attributed to Jesus, only about 20% of which are accepted as most likely his ideas, as he might have spoken them.
The of the rest of the words of Jesus in the four gospels are seen as either created by the evangelists, writing 35 - 87 years after his death as more shedding light on their problems within the infant church of their day, than Jesus' struggles in his. Much of the rest of the material (of the gospels) is not rejected but instead Is subjected to varying degrees of uncertainty as to whether or not they were the original words and intent of Jesus or simply created by writers, redactors and revisionists, from tradition, hearsay, educated guesses by the evangelists on what Jesus might have said in certain situations, and/or insertions of self-serving, propaganda by biased others.
If you enter the reading in a searching mode, ready and open to all ideas on who Jesus was and what he really did say, you will find this book very engaging. I was not at all threatened by the content, but a Catholic Fundamentalist friend was outraged by it. The book is simply an example of scholars doing what they are supposed to do, theorizing on something of which we have precious little unbiased material.
on May 25, 2005
This book is a brave attempt to find the genuine Jesus in amongst the advertising hype of the early Christian church. The authors set out to discover what in the gospels was likely to be from the mouth of Jesus and what more reflected the views of the gospel writers and the early church than Jesus himself. The methodology involved a group of interested people voting on each of the gospel sayings. The composition of the voting group was not constant and it is likely that individuals may have voted differently on different occasions if given the opportunity so for any one gospel saying there is little certainty in the attribution to Jesus or someone else. However taken as a whole the flavour of the real Jesus comes through. I found the book very helpful in reevaluating the gospels. The Jesus I discovered preached love, the equality of all, the futility of the pursuit of wealth, the necessity of caring for the poor and ill, tolerance for others and forgiveness. He said nothing about sexual behaviour or building grand churches which have been the preoccupations of the established Christian communities ever since. It is strange how those who insist on the primacy of the gospels in our society seem not to have read them.
on July 10, 2003
Sensationalist accounts of this academic endeavor are quick to proclaim such things as "Only 18% of the attributed sayings of Jesus are authentic, says Seminar". Reactions to that kind of bold statement, as one can witness just by reading the other reviews here, tend to be pretty knee-jerky in one direction or the other.
But let's look at what that 18% actually represents. It doesn't represent, or even claim to represent, the entirety of the recorded words of Jesus. The 18% represents basically the minumum amount of data that can be critically and historically traced back to Jesus in more-or-less the form we now have it. Excluded are sayings demonstrating strong signs of linguistic redaction, sayings which seem tailored to later theological disputes, and sayings which would have been so common in first-century Palestine that they can't be isolated as coming from Jesus. The Seminar's methods are inherently reductionist, sifting through the evidence for data that "stands out", leaving as black and gray material that comfortably "fits in". In reality, it's quite remarkable that as much as 18% passes through these strict methodological filters in tact.
So, really, the headlines should read: "Academic Seminar concludes that AT LEAST 18% of the words attributed to Jesus can be traced back to him using critical historical methods." Regarding the remaining 82%, some will say it's nearly all bunk, some will say that the 82% is just as reliable as the red/pink 18%, but any responsible intellect will not accept either premise at face value. Rather, they may begin to understand the gospels themselves as historical reflections, as documents containing truth on different levels, from remembered fact to metaphorized divine truth.
That said, there certainly are problems with this book. In my opinion, they start with the editorial remarks by Funk and Hoover, which reflect their own somewhat confrontational view and not necessarily that of the seminar as a whole. The commentary wasn't a collaborative effort, and it wasn't voted upon by the members. Funk and Hoover (and of course, all of the sensationalistic accounts) are probably most responsible for the view of this book as some sort of attack upon the Christian faith. Yet, any person of any theological inclination ought to find a useful resource here, provided they themselves are capable of thinking critically about the undertaking and the methods employed.
on September 4, 2003
You may not agree with their conclusions, but the Jesus Seminar sure asks some fascinating questions. How can the first written gospels purport to be literal accounts if they were written some 30 to 50 years after Jesus' death? What sorts of stories about Jesus would survive 30 years of oral tradition?How did the political infighting of the early church affect the gospels? What is the core of Jesus' message, Jesus' call to love our neighbor and destroy social injustice, or Paul's insistence on resurrection and redemption? Just the historical explanations of the "turn the other cheek" and "allow the children to come to me" incidents made the book well worth reading. Sometimes the Seminar may confuse absence of proof with proof of absence, but they really opened up my eyes and started me on a quest to know Jesus better.
on February 13, 2007
Perhaps it does not occur to the casual reader of the Bible that we have gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John but nothing from Jesus himself. What kind of person would we find if we discovered an original work produced by this most influential man of all time? We may never know, but thanks to the efforts of groups of scholars like the Jesus Seminar and the International Q Project we are beginning to acquire an exciting new picture of a Jesus free from the matrix of theological dross, a Jesus that lived and taught in history.
From my study of this work, it appears that the historical Jesus had no preoccupation with the "sinfulness of man" but held a rather elevated view of humanity's potential. His compassion for others seems to flow from an insight not only into his own spiritual integrity, but the spiritual integrity of every individual. He was a healer, not because he was a divinely appointed worker of miracles, but because he understood how to open people's minds to their inner spiritual power, to get them consciously reconnected to their own divine nature and bring about their innate wholeness.
Some critics have charged that The Five Gospels diminish the relevance of Jesus. For me, this book makes Jesus a much more plausible and inspirational example of what lies in store for us all on the spiritual journey. This is a remarkable book and I commend those who dedicate their talents to stripping away the thick cloud of myth and superstition surrounding Jesus and reveal the real light of historical truth.
J Douglas Bottorff, author of The Whisper of Pialigos.
on January 11, 2004
There have been many critics of the Jesus seminar, many of which wouldn't be able to tell you the first thing about it, other then that it consists of a bunch of "Damn liberals".
With the release of "The Five Gospels" the ground breaking work of the Jesus seminar is finally allowed to speak for itself.
The introductory sections to the Five Gospels are worth the ticket price alone, concise summaries of modern research and theories on the Gospels.
I also found the "Scholars version" a highly readable translation. Where the Greek contains a colloquism, a play on words or outright bluntness, the translators have sought to reproduce this in English, the "present tense" originally found in Mark is also preserved. One of my favourite examples is when Jesus is brought before the High priest and asked if he is teh Messiah, he responds "You said it".
But to me, the real value of "The Five Gospels" is the insight into the construction of the Gospels "Matthew" and "Luke".
After examining the parellels between the source text Mark and Matthew and Luke, I cannot imagine any self respecting scholar denying Markan priority or the existance of Q while keeping a straight face.
Previously, I was unaware that Matthew uses an amazing 90% of Mark, with Luke totalling around 50%, and noting instances where Mark is either left out altogether, "softened", or "improved" is a most revealing insight into the mindset of the Authors.
After rereading the synoptics I was shocked at how foreign the Gospel of John is in comparison. As noted in the introduction, in the synoptics Jesus never talks about himself and speaks in parables. In John, Jesus tells no parables and talks about no one else except himself!
Perhaps most striking of all is The Gospel of Thomas. The orthodox Church continues to rail against Thomas as " pure heresy" while more and more Christians are turning to the text for insights beyond anything in the canonised account.
After examining the parallels between Thomas and the synoptics, it is impossible to call Thomas a work of "pure heresy", at worst it is 60% heresy!
It is easy to criticise the criteria by which the Jesus Seminar worked, but no criteria was ever going to please everyone.
For example, Matthew's sayings about maintaining the Law of Moses were voted "black" with the fellows believing Matthew was a "Rejudaiser", on the contrary it is my opinion that thse saying were an authentic part of Q and Luke ignored these passages for his Hellenistic audience.
To the people who work themselves up in a tizzy because their favourite saying was voted black, I have a very simple solution.
Get out your red highlighter and correct the "mistakes" of the fellows, but by no means throw the baby out with the bathwater!
on August 7, 2006
This is an interesting book. I fully recommend it to anyone looking for answers about Christianity. You may not agree with everything -- and that's certainly OK. But take whatever you get from this book and do some additional research!
ALSO RECOMMENDED: "What Did Jesus Really Say, How Christianity Went Astray: [What To Say To A Born Again Christian Fundamentalist, But Never Had The Information]" by Peter Cayce
on November 29, 2001
Groundbreaking attempt to clean off two thousand years of plankton. If there are those that disagree with apects of the methodology, that's reasonable. But at least we finally have an ATTEMPT to present a multi-dimensional view of the flawed text that has come down to us. I am persuaded that there are textual problems with the traditional Gospels; they are not what they seem. I welcome honest and well-informed attempts to bring them into better focus.