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on August 6, 2000
This book provides a useful overview of both the Jesus Seminar's efforts to reconstruct the historical Jesus and the critical response such efforts have drawn from conservative Biblical scholars. Author Robert J. Miller makes it clear from the beginning that he is himself an active member of the Jesus Seminar and proud of its accomplishments. This volume is a collection of Miller's published essays about the Jesus Seminar divided into two parts. The first third provides background about the Jesus Seminar, explains its controversial voting methods and gives the principles that guide its work. The second two-thirds of the book concentrates on criticisms, especially those written by Luke Timothy Johnson and Ben Witherington. Miller diputes most of these criticisms, but carefully lays out the points of argument on both sides. His chapter on how scholars view the resurrection is especially fascinating for its focus on how nonbelievers respond to a religion's core beliefs. In sum, this is a carefully organized and thoughtful discussin of a pioneering project in biblical scholarship.
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VINE VOICEon July 23, 2003
Dr. Miller provides a fairly detailed explanation of what the Jesus Seminar is and how it works, and then answers two of its most prominent critics, Luke Timothy Johnson and Ben Witherington. Johnson appears to be somewhere near mainstream Christian and Witherington Fundamentalist (neither is identified by denomination). Dr. Miller is Roman Catholic.

Fellowship in the Jesus Seminar is open to anyone with an accredited earned doctorate in Religion, Theology, etc. The Seminar has published numerous books, including "The Five Gospels," in which the words attributed to Jesus are printed in (in decreasing order of perceived authenticity) red, pink, grey, or black. Red means the consensus of fellows of the Seminar is that these words are authentically a close English equivalent of what Jesus actually said (in Aramaic or possibly Greek) Black means the consensus of the fellows is that these are not authentic words of Jesus, OR that they are something that most any Jew of Jesus time probably said on occasion; that is, not distinctively of Jesus. Pink and grey are lesser degrees of certainty than red, but more than black.

One common criticism of the four-color schema is that any particular saying either WAS or WASN'T said by Jesus, there can be no in-between. This is, of course, true, but there ARE varying degrees of certainty as to whether particular sayings are authentic. Pink does NOT mean that the saying is, say, 66% authentic (that is an absurdity) but that the fellows, looking at the available evidence from nearly 2000 years ago, averaged to be about 66% convinced that Jesus actually said it (or 34% convinced that the didn't).

One small change that I think would be beneficial would be to show some distinction between those words which are in black because Jesus very likely did not say them, and those which are black because most Jews of jesus' time said them on occasion. I suppose the distinction is so obvious to professional new testament scholars as not to require a difference in print, but it would be helpful to us lay persons. They could use italics for the words not distinctively of Jesus, but which he probably did say. Also, it might blunt some criticism.

In any book that criticizes another, or responds to criticism, one may wonder whether the objects of criticism or the arguments of the critic(s) are presented fairly. To be certain, one must read the work(s) in question, in this case The Real Jesus : The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels by Luke Timothy Johnson and The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth by Ben Witherington.

However, I trust Miller's integrity enough to believe that he has presented the criticisms of Johnson and Witherington honestly, not in a watered-down, easy-to-refute version.

I recommend this book highly. It is not only interesting and informative, but lucid and well-written.

watziznaym@gmail.com
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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.
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on March 17, 2005
I highly recommend _The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics_ as an introduction to the work, methodologies, premises of the Jesus Seminar, and as its title tells us, to some of the critiques that have been hurled at it. (For a more extensive discussion of the "rules of evidence" employed by the Seminar please see _The Five Gospels_ and _The Acts of Jesus_, both by the JS.)

The project founded by Robert Funk in 1985 known as the Jesus Seminar (JS) is controversial (particularly back in the 90s). To some that may be an understatement. Not only evangelicals and fundamentalists but even such noted critical scholars as Catholic priest (now monsignor) John Meier have criticized and taken potshots at the JS. But why?

Reading Miller and other Fellows of the JS, it seems that what has earned the ire of nonJS scholars and "conservative" Christian groups is not the findings of JS per se, since a good deal of what the JS is making public are matters which critical biblical scholars have known for decades. Rather, what has triggered the avalanche of somtimes very emotionally laden criticisms is the fact that the JS had the gall of making these findings public, and actually making it a policy to maintain close ties with the public. Thus, in an interview with americancatholic[dot]org we hear Fr. Meier deriding the JS:

"Everything [in the US including biblical scholarship] has been turned into televised soap opera. Robert Funk, head of the Jesus Seminar, at one point was planning televised sessions of the Jesus Seminar in which there'd be debates and then scoring; it almost sounds like a hilarious send-up. You can't mock it because it is such a caricature even to begin with!

"But I think one of the great problems is precisely that. Serious scholars have--my goodness, down from Reimarus onward--a whole history of writing serious works on a serious topic. And none of them, thank God, ever descended to the TV tabloid-show approach. This, unfortunately, is a uniquely American phenomenon of just the past two decades."

It seems Meier would have had no objection to the JS had it not gone public, had it kept its work within the "serious" setting of universities and seminaries, in the manner of Reimarus, Schweitzer, Bultmann, et al. Miller's contention is supported by the fact that findings of critical scholars, JS or otherwise, are hardly that divergent. As writer Russell Shorto evinces in his _The Gospel Truth_, Meier's and the JS' findings actually converge. As with the JS, Meier believes in the existence of the Sayings Gospel Q[uelle], claims that various events and sayings by Jesus in the gospels are nonhistorical and instead are overlays by the evangelists, and rejects nearly two thirds of the miracles stories attributed to Jesus, deeming them to be later overlays. Moreover, in the above interview, speaking of Jesus' resurrection Meier tells us that "not everything that is real either exists in time and space or is empirically verifiable by historical means." In the same vein, and without need to resort to such "safe" language (bear in mind Meier is operating under the dagger of the Vatican), most JS Fellows do not see the resurrection as a historical event.

The thing is, we, the public, have been in the dark about historical Jesus research long enough. Miller tells us that "[s]cholars using the historical-critical approach have known for over a century that the gospels are a blend of historical remembrance and Christian interpretation, which means that not every deed and word attributed to Jesus in the gospels can actually be traced to him....Yet no one, professors and clergy alike, tries to communicate this way of understanding to the public." (p. 11)

As for those who find fault in the JS, Miller says "[c]ritics are right to protest that many scholars disagree with the Seminar's results, but they do a disservice if they perpetuate the impression that doubts about the historical accuracy of significant portions of the gospels are confined to some radical splinter group." (p. 67)

In the spirit of having *everyone* lay their cards on the table, Miller rightly desires that "reporters who interview critics of the Seminar...ask *them* [the critics] which items in the gospels *they* consider non-historical." (ibid., emphases original) Indeed, Miller in the second part of his book (and Robert Price in an article in the _Journal of Higher Criticism_), tells us that Luke Timothy Johnson--a most vociferous critic of the JS--is more radically skeptical than the JS. It is Johnson's contention that hardly anything in the gospels is historically reliable. For instance Johnson "does not identify a single saying of Jesus that he considers historically authentic." (p. 88) Given such a stand, instead of looking for the historical Jesus, Johnson would have us stick to the Jesus/Christ of Christian faith.

Apropos of Johnson, it is interesting to note that professor and evangelical William Lane Craig cites Johnson in his critique of the JS. Craig is a firm believer in the literal historicity of, for example, the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus--resurrection as the resuscitation of a corpse. So it's rather ironic that Craig would haul Johnson in his defense. It would be quite interesting to interview Craig and ask him to what extent he agrees with Johnson on the matter of historicity of the gospel accounts.

In the last chapter Miller tackles apologetics. He shares his own experience as an apologist during his youth. While Miller had no problems convincing people with his apologies--using as guinea pigs his Catholic teachers, friends, and classmates, and receiving useful feedback from them--things turned out rather differently by the time he took graduate studies at a secular university. Suddenly, his apologia made not a dent on his nonChristian schoolmates. None of them were persuaded by his arguments for Christianity. Miller admits it took several years for him to realize that the reason why apologetics does not convince "outsiders" is that "insiders" have implicit assumptions which they take for granted but which of course outsiders question and are skeptical about.

Overall, Miller has written a lucid and enlightening look into the Jesus Seminar, and has satisfactorily tackled the critiques of L.T. Johnson and Ben Witherington. Perhaps Miller and the Fellows of the JS are right. That the ruckus raised by its critics are fueled more by fear of the consequences of letting the cat out of the bag and allowing the public to be scandalized by what scholars have been keeping, by default, a secret all this time in the cloisters of academia and seminaries. Perhaps it isn't so much what the JS is telling us that's driving these critics up the wall, as that they are spilling the beans, the fruits of over a century of biblical scholarship.
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Author Robert J. Miller [who also wrote Born Divine] wrote in the Introduction to this 1999 book, "The Jesus Seminar began its work in 1985, the same year I completed my doctoral dissertation in New Testament Studies. A year later a friend invited me to attend the Seminar's fall meeting. Although I was only marginally interested in the historical Jesus, I decided to go, mostly out of curiosity... I remember my mixed reactions the first time I dropped a colored bead in the voting box... It was one thing to agree theoretically that the gospels contained both historical and non-historical material, but to make a decision about a specific passage was a bit unnerving... I had been persuaded by the discussion that my vote on the first item should be black. When the box was passed to me... I felt a twinge of guilty fear. I dropped in a gray bead." (Pg. 1-2) Later, he confesses, "I must admit that sometimes I just had to take my best guess. For a number of sayings... I could not remember even how I had voted." (Pg. 59)

He explains, "Let me mention four reasons why I continue to participate in the Seminar. 1. The Seminar's ethos of genuine collaboration among scholars... 2. The Seminar's commitment to working in public.. 3. The Seminar's large-scale, holistic agenda... 4. The Seminar's focus on a topic that really matters." (Pg. 2) He adds, "I wrote each of these essays for its own purpose. I did not write the earlier ones in anticipation of the later ones... each piece stands on its own." (Pg. 4) He admits, "Some Fellows are eminent New Testament scholars, but most have the modest publication records typical for college or seminary professors who are full-time teachers... All got one vote." (Pg. 18) Later, he notes, "Some learned and respected members argued in favor of the apocalyptic Jesus but the votes consistently went against them. (Unfortunately, most of the members who championed the apocalyptic Jesus eventually left the Seminar." (Pg. 72)

He defends their practice of voting: "While voting obviously cannot decide the truth of things, it is a simple and easily understood means of reaching a conclusion when there is not unanimity. It is also a traditional method in biblical studies for achieving results in group projects... the ecumenical translation committee responsible for the Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version voted when deadlocked over how to best translate certain passages." (Pg. 12)

He concedes, "[Marcus] Borg, [John Dominic] Crossan, and [Burton] Mack do have theological agendas and they make no attempt to hide them. Does [Luke Timothy] Johnson seriously intend this as a criticism? If having a theological agenda is sufficient to impeach one's work, then, obviously, Johnson's book ] is similarly endangered." (Pg. 85)

For anyone wanting to know more about the workings of the Jesus Seminar, this book will be virtually "essential reading."
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on January 3, 2007
The author laments critics of the seminar who cross the line from objectivity into vitrol, and takes the moral high ground with respectful rebuttals. Superbly written with logical, introspective, and fair summaries of the seminar's strengths and weaknesses.
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on October 26, 2013
Again, I found this book to be very helpful and enlightening. Without question, my fundamentalist friends and relatives would have been among the critics.
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on September 26, 2013
The problem with this book is that it claims to be an Apologia Pro Jesus Seminar, but is really an Apologia Contra Jesu. It does not reveal the real intentions of this so-callrd "seminar", which is to re-write the Four Gospels sccording to their own ideological bias, under the cover of "scholarship" and "textual criticism", but are guilty of textual manipulation of the most unscholarly kind and downright deceit, by the comparative analysis of documents that no longer exist.

My first answer is to refer them to the Biblical work of Dr. Daniel Wallace, who explodes most of their myths in the area of textual analysis and exposes indirectly their real intentions: the trashing of the Four Gospels as fabrications of Jesus's followers, for the purpose of immortalizing a dead Messiah. So that the real founder of Christianity is not Jesus of Nazareth, but unnamed followers usually described in terms of the "sitz im leben der Kirche".

When a bunch of anti-Christian "scholars", with pen in hand and with the avowed intention of dismantling the Four Gospels before your very eyes insist that they are doing scholarly work and are innocent of the charges that they are bigoted and biased - one has to wonder what motives brought them together to perform such a blessing for benighted believers.

What testimony brought them to this state of Biblical agnosticism? Was it Paul or Justin or Athanasius or Basil or the two Gregories or Leo or Augustine or Origen - who were closer to the times and the early manuscripts than they are. What piece of evidence in those manuscripts made them suspect that the Codex Sinaiticus or the Codex Vaticanus did not contain correct copies of the Four Gospels? And what about the Chester Beaty Papyrus or even the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are living proof that documents could be handed down free from all textual error?

The whole thesis of the Jesus Seminar - and they should know better, if they are real scholars - is based on an unproved and undocumented assertion that someone, after the death of their Messiah, doctored the true events of his life to create the Jesus of the Gospels - these persons unnamed, unidentified -without any documentary proof and contrary to three centuries' witness to the contrary.

There is no evidence of any doctored documents, the only evidence for the truth of that assertion is their Biblical agnosticism , based upon no observable manuscript data. Theirs is a child born out of wedlock, a child of wishful thinking, along with the latest theory one of them can concoct for their occasional gatherings.

The Jesus Seminar is no gathering of scholars. It is a an American verson of the German-Continental school of Biblical research, with its headquarters at Marburg Unuversity, and died a happy death with the rise of the Scandinavian and English schools, who laugh in their beer at Uppsala and Oslo Universities at the naivete and gullibility of certain American Biblical scholars who trip over the methodological limitations of Form criticism and fall flat on their Biblical faces when it comes to facts.

Their "Jesus" is a figment of their own biases, but they have a good time together, to bolster each others ego and declare once more that all who hold the Gospels as history are deluded children looking for some kind of cosmic security. But the Jesus of the Gospels is a more complicated figure than the can possibly imagine and the history that surrounds the Gospel narratives is at last coming alive with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the archeological work of the State of Israel.

If you want some verification of this review, pick up the writings of Asher Finkle, Israel Abrahams and Jacob Neusner, and a host of writings emerging from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a book that came off the presses ten years ago: Jesus Through Jewish Eyes:.. It will show that the Jesus Seminar is really passe and that their childish and cheap assessment of the Jesus of the Gospels is so personal, private and ideosyncratic that it only demonstrates a bias that died when a little Bedouin shepherd boy chased a goat into caves on the Dead Sea and ushered in a new age of Biblical science. Whether They know it or not, the Jesus Seminar is dead in its tracks.

Father Clifford Stevens
Boys Town, Nebraska
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on March 3, 2016
collection of previous articles, not a monograph
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