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Finding the Historical Jesus: Rules of Evidence (Jesus Seminar Guides Vol 3) (Jesus Seminar Guides) Paperback – May 20, 2008
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Scott explains in this Introduction to this 2008 book, “How do we begin the search for the historical Jesus? What are the rules or criteria for sorting through the evidence? These are the most important questions in the quest for the historical Jesus, and their answers are not obvious. In fact, the answers are a matter of considerable debate among scholars. The essays in this volume will help us negotiate this thicket. If you are looking for a discussion of the Jesus Seminar’s findings about the historical Jesus, see the first volume in this series, Jesus Reconsidered: Scholarship in the Public Eye.” (Pg. 1)
He continues. “The quest [for the historical Jesus] has gone through several distinct phases, generally divided into two or three stages. The first stage, which ended with the work of Albert Schweitzer, ended with the conclusion that no firm historical basis for a life or biography of Jesus could be ascertained. The second stage gathered momentum after World War II among the students of Rudolf Bultmann. Sometimes referred to as the ‘new quest,’ this movement did not seek to write a biography, since that project had been repudiated in the first quest, but sought rather to study the sayings of Jesus to see how or whether they supported the preaching of the early community… [Some] members of the Jesus Seminar viewed their work as starting a third stage of the quest. This third stage has as its chief characteristic and effort to understand Jesus within the historical, social, and religious contexts of the Greco-Roman world.” (Pg. 6)
In his essay, Robert Miller explains four principles “that are essential for understanding what we are doing when we search for the historical Jesus.” (Pg. 8) The first principle is, “you do not know it if you cannot show it. We can also put this a bit differently: you cannot use it if you do not prove it.” (Pg. 9) The second principle is that “there are no absolute certainties in history. Historiography is a rigorous intellectual discipline, but it is not a science like chemistry or astronomy.” (Pg. 9) “The third principle is that all history is reconstruction. The events of the past are gone forever. They can influence the present and… the present is created by the lingering effects of the past.” (Pg. 14) The fourth and final principle is “that history has nothing to say about the truth of religious beliefs. To understand this principle we can use the example of a common Christian belief: Jesus died for our sins… ‘Jesus died’ is an historical statement, but ‘for our sins’ is not; it is a religious interpretation of an historical event. It does not tell what happened, but instead expresses the meaning of what happened.” (Pg. 15)
In the first of his three essays, Robert Funk explains, “The following are the tests scholars apply in sorting out the surviving records… 1. Jesus said things that were short, pithy and memorable… 2. Jesus spoke in aphorisms ---short, pithy, memorable sayings, and in parables---short, short stories about some unspecified subject matter… 3. Jesus’ language was distinctive… 4. Jesus’ sayings and parables have an edge… 5. Jesus’ sayings and parables characteristically call for a reversal of roles or frustrate ordinary everyday expectations: they surprise and shock.” (Pg. 20-22)
He continues, “Scholars now by and large reject the older criterion of dissimilarity, by which Rudolf Bultmann meant different from his Jewish context and different from the alleged Hellenistic context of the early church. Scholars are now inclined to the view that Judea and Galilee were under powerful Hellenistic influence, and that the early church retained more of its Jewish heritage than earlier interpreters allowed. Accordingly, the quest for the distinctive, or the peculiar, is understood as something quite different from the old criterion of dissimilarity.” (Pg. 23)
He concludes the essay, “It is of course the case that the fundamentalist Jesus is thoroughly apocalyptic. But Fellows of the Jesus Seminar have discovered a non-apocalyptic Jesus because it is the best explanation of the two positions found in texts: on the one hand, God’s imperial rule was expected in the near future; on the other, it was already present in the words and deeds of Jesus. Of the two, the first is more likely to be the popular, everyday expectation to which the Christian community immediately reverted to once Jesus’ unusual notion died away with his words.” (Pg. 24)
In his third essay, Funk quotes the different versions of the call of the first disciples in the gospels, and observes, “The very least that can be said… is that the gospel storytellers remember the inaugural contact with Jesus very differently. Different pairs or groups are involved, and in the Johannine version the location is different. In the earliest version, the Gospel of Mark, no motivation is supplied; in Luke and John motivation is supplied. Yet the words Jesus speaks are almost identical and the response is immediate and absolute. The principals involved either did not remember clearly how they came to be involved in the Jesus movement, or the stories they may have originally told were repeated and elaborated so frequently that they developed along rather different lines. In the process the tales became more and more idealized or abstract, and for the modern historian less and less believable as reports of specific events. They became legends rather than eyewitness reports of particular events.” (Pg. 37)
Robert Fortna says in his essay on the Gospel of John, “it comes as a great shock to many people to learn that in the collective opinion of the Jesus Seminar, by clear consensus, VIRTUALLY NONE of the words attributed to Jesus in John are authentic. This is startling to most lay people and especially offensive to conservative scholars, who want to retain the Fourth Gospel as a source for reconstructing the historical Jesus… I was initially inclined to think that a number of sayings [in John] would pass the test of being (somehow) historical; but in the end we all came to realize that in almost no case could this be maintained… The Fourth Gospel overwhelmingly presents us with a post-Easter Jesus.” (Pg. 50)
Fortna concludes his essay, “the result of the Seminar’s work is to throw out nothing; we are not in the business of ‘debunking’ the gospels, as Time magazine has glibly announced. On the contrary, we debunk the kind of simplistic, literal reading of the gospels (tacitly espoused by Time) that leads to fundamentalist and rigid interpretation and is dangerous in the modern world. Consider, for example, the malevolent and reactionary politics of some fundamentalists, or their savagely homophobic stance.” (Pg. 57)
Of Luke 21:20-24, Joseph Tyson observes, “The Jesus Seminar marked this section of Luke in black, concluding that it did not represent the words of Jesus… The Fellows noted that Luke had altered the Markan account, in part to eliminate obscure and possibly misleading references. For example, Luke eliminated Mark 13:18, ‘Pray that none of this happens in winter!’ because he knew that the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the summer. The point is that the Lukan author was aware of details concerning the fall of Jerusalem---the Roman siege, prisoners of war, the season of the event---that could have been known only after the event had actually occurred. Thus, since Luke was written after the events of 70 CE and Acts was written after Luke… it is reasonable to conclude that Acts was not written before 80 CE.” (Pg. 63)
Lane McGaughy explains in his essay, “Since the failure of the nineteenth century Old Quest to discover the historical Jesus had removed the historical foundation of Christian preaching, Bultmann’s question formed the agenda for the so-called New Quest of the last generation. Even though we do not have historical sources to construct a full biography of Jesus, and even though the sources we do have are written from the theological viewpoint of post-Easter faith, the New Questers attempted to recover at least the message of Jesus in order to determine whether the intention of Jesus’ words and the intention of early Christian preaching are coherent. Thus, Bultmann and the New Questers started with the sayings of Jesus, not the deeds… The agenda of the Jesus Seminar thus evolved from the New Quest… In distinction from the so-called Third Quest, which is attempting to locate Jesus within the religious and social world of first-century Judaism, the work of the Jesus Seminar may be seen as a renewal and extension of the New Quest. To be sure, some members of the Jesus Seminar may see their own work as part of the Third Quest, but … Robert Funk refers to the work of the Jesus Seminar not as part of the Third Quest, but as the Renewed Quest for Jesus.” (Pg. 73)
For anyone seeking a sympathetic portrayal of the work of the Jesus Seminar (whether or not one actually agrees with its findings), this book will be “must reading.”
The basics of the book: there are eight short chapters - three written by Robert Miller - to this book with no index and sparse footnoting, so I think that means you are supposed to read through the entire work and then ideally turn to the study questions, it is not a reference tool per se.
However, here's a couple of examples of why I find this book problematic and in need of tightening its arguments.
One: Miller's argument concerning possibility, in "Back to Basics: A Primer on Historical Method," is just a little strange in my opinion. He argues that possibility should be defined as essentially if we can conceive it without being self contradictory, then its possible, consequently, a square circle would be impossible but a flying elephant would not be, the concept of the flying elephant being possible, though no such animal exists. But I would counter that a flying elephant is also by definition a definitional impossiblity just as much as is a square cirlce since if its flying it can not be an elephant, a massive and heavy land based grass eating mammal on planet earth. Here I find that he has defined possible in a manner that I am not so sure that most people would agree with him on and then he proceeds to chide other scholars for the use of the term possible in historical Jesus work. This seems unjustified to me, and on a related note when I use the term probable I use it to indicate, likely to have occurred or more more likely than the other possible explanations. And a flying elephant for me is impossible, not a possibility at all. Elephants can not fly under any circumstances since they are incapbale of such by definition.
Clarifying my quibble, think of the situation of a little Barrack Obama asking his mother/grandparents, is it possible that one day I might become president of the USA? Yes, dear, as an United States citizen that is possible but a mixed race person has never done such and there are millions of potential citizen contenders, so it is not probable, in fact very very improbable - now yet this has happened. Consequently, the possible, but the very improbable has occurred in our lifetime, but I will never see a flying elephant since that is impossible by definition of an elephant on planet earth.
Similarly before man reached the moon, it was always impossible that it could have been made of green cheese, ice cream or any other substance made by human dairy activities. We did not have to develop a lunar lander to confirm this reality, that the moon could never have been made of green cheese. In our human experience we only encounter green cheese as the result of human activity derived from mammal milk, we never find green cheese naturally occurring on our planet anywhere and to propose that green cheese could occur in space, ie. the moon, let alone consist entirely of it, was just a ridiculous proposal, not a possibility at all, when it was first proposed - it would be fine to claim that looking through this telescope, the surface of the moon reminds me of the texture of green cheese, but that's it, it could never be made of green cheese, period and just because you could imagine it does not mean that it is possible until disproven, otherwise, angels, pegasi and the like would all be possible until the world was fully explored and or the age of flight had developed, and still humans do not fly anymore than an elephant or a horse properly secured and presurrized in the cargo hold a jumbo jet.
That said, Miller's point that we need to be careful how we use the terms possible, impossible, probable and improbable is important to engage.
My second example has to do with their presentation of the Gospel of Thomas and Acts. Contrary to Stephen Patterson, most (meaning greater than 50%) scholars do not date the Gospel of Thomas "to the last third of the first century" (p. 42). This is later followed up by Tyson's claim that Acts should be dated 110-120 C.E. which makes an argument that the Gospel of Thomas though first attested to by Hypolitus of Rome roughly 210-220 C.E., followed by Origin roughly 233 C.E., is earlier than Acts, which is alluded to by the middle of the second century C.E. by various church fathers. One can contest whether any of the early citations of either document are from the extant texts which we now have. However, my point is that at first pass by of the external evidence one would expect the opposite of what this book claims, namely that Acts was prior to Thomas. Since this is a book about historical methodology, getting it right in other words, I would at least expect them to inform their readers of these problems and why they are asserting their particular proposal.
A further complicating note, is that while Thomas may be attested later in church tradition, not until the third century, it is possible that at least one of the 3 known Greek fragments of Thomas is from earlier in the second century, as early as 140 C.E. according to Grenfell and Hunt. Scholars who late date Thomas to the end of the second century do not buy Greenfell and Hunt's earlier possible dating of the fragment in question, but again one would never learn that there is such a debate by reading this book. It appears to me that operative in this discussion is the assumption that internal clues are the driving force, while external attestestation is ignored by in large with the result that Thomas is more likely to be earlier than Acts, possibly so, but still tendentuous in my opinion.
Though the authors make many good points and observations, especially on the need for evidence for assertions, they really need to tighten up the presentation of their case at points. I remain unconvinced by their canonical bias concern, though by no means am I arguing that if a book is in the canon it should be treated as earlier, more reliable, or whatever comparative or superlative one wishes to use. There may be good reasons to treat Thomas as earlier than Acts, but they need to show why this is so, relative to competing understandings' of the "evidence" and have not done so in my opinion. Overall, their concern with the implicit credulity concerning the Bible as reliable history in our culture is much needed and appreciated, but some serious weaknesses, at times potentially misleading the reader, remain.
One of the major problems of historical research is ensuring that evidence that is collected is valid. The authors discuss the methodology that leads to data validation. Also present is the assertion that any religious scholarly pursuit is an on-going process and not an avenue to absolute truth.
If the reader is seeking validation for a personal religious belief then perhaps he or she should look elsewhere. The authors take no doctrinal stand on any issue. This is an excellent book for a study group or an individual that takes biblical study seriously. The questions at the back of the book for each chapter are challenging and helpful for clarifying thinking about the process of scholarly research. The Works Consulted section is a good place for beginning biblical students to find resources for further study.
This book answers many questions about the methods of biblical research that have been asked over the years by people in my classes and workshops. I will be using it as a resource in the future.