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A good idea that falls short
on April 19, 2002
Watching Biblical scholars debate is not pretty. They split hairs, parse the subtitles of each other's books and peck at each other's religious fidelity, scholarly rigor, or intellectual integrity. This might be inevitable, given the scarcity of material they work with. They have only a few ancient texts, with scant corroborating historical evidence and little hope of finding new documents.
Add to this the fact that over the past two millennia, a gigantic political, military, social, religious and economic superstructure has grown up around the Bible, using it to accumulate vast power and to justify wide extremes of behavior, from the ruthless to the benevolent. The slightest peep that challenges any part of this superstructure is bound to bring down upon the peeper the wrath of one offended faction or another.
Fortunately for Biblical scholars (and probably for the rest of us, too), most of them work in obscurity. The Jesus Seminar is probably the exception.
I admire the Seminar's goals of establishing what is historically verifiable about the life of Jesus and, as Dr. Miller's writes in "The Jesus Seminar and its Critics," "providing an alternative to the unchallenged fundamentalist assumptions that pervade American discourse about the Bible." What Seminar members are doing is courageous and ultimately helpful. But I was disappointed by this book. I hoped to find an introduction to the Seminar's findings and an overview of the criticism. What I found was a detailed - very, very detailed - look at the Seminar's voting process and Dr. Miller's painfully painstaking responses to some of the Seminar's critics.
What's missing, for me anyway, is an explanation of how the Seminar's members established that any of the New Testament can be accepted as historically accurate, since none of it was written while Jesus was alive and most of it, if not all of it, is the product of early Christians attempting to buttress their beliefs. "The gospels were written decades after Jesus by people who worshiped him as a divine being and regarded him as the spokesman for their own beliefs and ideals," as Dr. Miller writes. He briefly touches on one standard: whether or not a statement attributed to Jesus is distinctive enough to be something that no one else would have said and that his contemporaries would have remembered. But there's little other explanation of how the vetting process works.
I didn't get much of an overview of the criticism of the Seminar from this book, either. It was a little like listening to Dr. Miller's end of a phone conversation and having to guess what was being said on the other end. In one case, I wondered whether Dr. Miller was distorting the argument of a critic, Luke Timothy Johnson. Dr. Miller seems to accuse Johnson of using the word "memory" to mean a historically accurate account and thereby "harvest the fruit of history without doing the hard work of historical reconstruction." I haven't read Johnson's book, so I don't know the context in which he uses the word. But recent research and common sense tell us "memory" connotes not just a verbatim recitation of history but also a dynamic and personalized interpretation of history that changes with the experience of the one remembering.
But most of Dr. Miller's rebuttals seem sound, if sometimes tedious. And he has the honesty to acknowledge the instances when he thinks the Seminar's critics make good points.
The writing in this book can be dense and repetitive. Dr. Miller sometimes knifes into an offending argument from every possible angle to make sure it's dead, dead, dead. Sometimes he tells us what he's going to say, then says it, and then tells us what he just said.
There are good things in this book. The final chapter is a succinct and, compared to the rest of the book, easy-to-read explanation of the context and purpose of the early Christian Resurrection stories. And I may be asking for things that Dr. Miller never intended this book to offer. But if you're looking for a non-academic layperson's introduction to the Jesus Seminar's work and the criticism of it, this isn't it.