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The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus Paperback – December 19, 1996
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From Library Journal
The Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who have attempted to locate the authentic words of Jesus, made headlines two years ago by reporting that, of the entire Lord's Prayer as found in Matthew, the only words that could conclusively be attributed to Jesus are "Our Father." In this book they have published their results. This new translation of the four gospels, augmented by the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, presents Jesus' words printed in colored code: red for words Jesus almost certainly spoke, pink for his probable locutions, gray for the less than likely, and black for the implausible. The translation itself is far more colloquial than most. More germane, though, is that the four levels of authenticity were determined by the casting of ballots, which the editors admit is problematic and represents the fundamental weakness of the book. Whether Jesus actually spoke certain words matters little in the long view of Christianity, making this book a theological curiosity and religiously superfluous.
- W. Alan Froggatt, Bridgewater, Ct.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Based on the work of the Jesus Seminar, which brought together a group of biblical scholars, this new translation of and commentary on the five Gospels offers an answer to the perennial question, What did Jesus really say? The group not only surveyed all the surviving ancient texts for words attributed to Jesus, but also examined the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Then, juxtaposing the Synoptic Gospels against John and Thomas, the seminar scholars began a long and arduous process to see if they could discover which sayings are close to what Jesus said, which might have originated with Jesus, those that are not his (though the ideas may be), and those that were created by his followers or borrowed from folklore. The story of how the scholars put together this translation is fascinating in its own right, but even more so is the color-coded New Testament itself, bolstered by enlightening commentary that explains why and how category decisions were made. A strong addition to religion collections. Ilene Cooper --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
Hopefully as we gain chronological superiority, we also gain wisdom, and realize we need to dig deeper and look at our faith in non childish ways. We must look at the way the Bible has come to us historically, and see who Jesus is, as we Christians have built our faith and lives around Him. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an open mind and passion to learn more about their faith.