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Heroic and Flawed: The Jesus Seminar

2013-07-18 12 min read General marco

Unlike with many other religions, the words of Christianity’s founder were not written down during his lifetime. Jesus really didn’t seem to care much about literality in general, talking in metaphor, analogy, parable, and absurd. To make things worse, soon after he died, a series of calamities befell the new religion that brought it almost to extinction.

First there was the great fire of Rome in 64AD, to the day 1,949 years ago. One of its consequences was the tragic persecution of Christians blamed by Nero for the event. Roman Christianity was almost gone by the time the events had ended.

Less than ten years later (and maybe in direct relation to this persecution), the Jews revolted against Roman rule. The consequence was a brief war and the complete annihilation of the city of Jerusalem. The catastrophe was such that the minor centers of Antioch and Alexandria, both outside Israel, became the focal points of the new religion.

It is now, after these two calamities, that early Christians start feeling the need for a conclusive account of the life and words of Jesus. Scholarship believes that the first of the canonical Gospels in existence, the Gospel of Mark, was written soon after 70 AD, with the others following. The last canonical Gospel is supposed to be the Gospel of John, written around the year 100 AD.

That’s a problem, because it means that the first account of Jesus’s life was written a full 35 years after his death. The last generally accepted one (and most deviating from the others) looks back at a time almost 70 years prior. That would be like writing an account today of something that happened somewhere between 1946 and 1976, without newspapers and other sources, and with most if not all of the eye-witnesses gone.

Intense fighting between rival factions of Christianity began almost immediately after Jesus’s death, and were foreshadowed even in his day (see the story of the supremacy of the sons of Zebedee, Mark 10 and Matthew 20). Peter and Paul are reported in Acts to have quarreled at length about doctrine (Paul won). The disciples of John and Thomas are reported to have been in open conflict. Christianity has been a religion of strife against each other: Arians vs. Orthodox; Romans vs. Greeks; Catholics vs. Protestants, etc.

The books written in those early days bear the traces of these conflicts. Different versions of the same Gospel book have words, phrases, stories added or removed. Sometimes there are glosses, or explanations, that are tendentious. Clearly, some of the writers had a religio-political agenda they were pushing. In the end, it’s hard to know (a) what in the books is truth vs. fiction, and (b) which of the books are really what they claim to be.

Scholarship has much improved over time. We are able to look at the books that are extant, now, and figure out a lot of things about authorship just based on language, or historic accuracy, or choice of words used. What archeological scholarship won’t do, though, is present us with an idea of the real ideas of the real Jesus. We need to figure out which words attributed to Jesus are his, as opposed to those put in his mouth.

Enters the Jesus Seminar. A brain child of liberal Christianity, the Jesus Seminar was (or is) a group of people (many of whom were theologians) who decided to take every statement in the Gospels, debate it, and vote on it. Voters had a choice between four colors:

  • red for statements found to be accurately reproduced from the historical Jesus
  • pink for statements found to be close reproductions of pronouncements of Jesus
  • gray for statements of questionable accuracy, but that were in the spirit of Jesus’s teaching
  • black for statements that were not by Jesus, at all

The result of discussion and voting was a collection of statements reflecting what the seminar thought was Jesus’s real teaching. A new translation of the Gospels was prepared and published, in the form of an annotated version of the New Testament Gospels (plus the Gospel of Thomas), and in the form of a new gospel, the Gospel of Jesus.

I believe the Seminar’s work is most important in highlighting that some of the material in the gospels is unlikely to originate with Jesus. Some of the stories have always sounded odd to the trained and untrained ear alike, because they present a Jesus that behaves completely differently than in other stories, or says the opposite of what he’s been heard saying somewhere else.

As an example of the former, I will cite the story of the convicted adulteress whom Jesus saves by asking a man without sin to cast the first stone. The story is beautiful, because it ties in with the general sense of unity of sinners that is spread throughout the teaching of Jesus: there is the story of the speck in the neighbor’s eye, there is the admonition that Jesus is here for sinners only.

The snag is that, in the story, Jesus has a massively passive role. He is goaded by the Pharisees to say what he thinks should happen to the woman, and cite the Law brought by Moses. Jesus, instead of intervening, decides to draw with his fingers in the ground. The Pharisees badger him some more, and then he tells them the famous retort that sends them all packing: “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he goes on drawing in the dust. When everybody has left, he looks up and seems almost surprised the woman is still there, still alive, and everybody else has left. Then he lets her go, and asks her to sin no more.

Now, the man drawing in the dust unperturbed is not a typical representation of Jesus. He does show up, though, as a typical representative of the Greek philosopher. In particular, the story is told of Archimedes of Syracuse. When the city was conquered by the Romans, soldiers found him drawing in the sand. The soldiers, under orders to spare the man’s life, asked for his name. His reply, without looking up, was simply, “Do not disturb my circles!” The soldiers must not have had a whole lot of time for ID verification, because they reportedly simply killed the man.

So, Jesus may well have saved an adulterous woman from stoning, but the setting is contrived. We would expect Jesus to have had an active role, of him being the one walking in front of the marauding people, trying to save the woman. Instead, he draws on the ground and is almost more concerned with whatever he drew than with the woman’s life.

While this is a good example (I believe) of a story that is unlikely to be an accurate reproduction of the words of Jesus, we have to deal with Jesus contradicting himself, too. There is no place where that sounds weirder than in the role of the parents in the life of a Christian.

Jesus repeats several times the commandment to honor your father and mother. So much so, indeed, that the commandment is used as a bedrock foundation to explain other things. For instance, in Matthew there is this heated exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding tradition: the Pharisees complain that Jesus’s disciples do not follow tradition and don’t wash their hands before eating. Jesus tells them to get lost, and that their tradition is not worth much. Indeed, he says, according to their tradition a son can tell his parents that stuff the parents need is devoted to God, thus allowing him to withhold it from them, in defiance of the commandment.

On the other hand, there is also a strange multitude of sayings that report the opposite sentiment. Jesus is said to repudiate his own family when they come to visit, telling everybody that his disciples and followers are his real family. There is also Luke 14:26:

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.

Well, I will admit, that sounds harsh and outside the boundary of the commandment to honor your parents.

Traditional Bible scholarship has long focused on harmonizing. That a fancy word for the simple smoothing over of rough spots, or explaining away contradictions. The idea being that the Gospels are inerrantly correct, so if there is something that sounds like a contradiction, it must be a misunderstanding.

Some of that is a little pathetic. For instance, both the Gospels of Luke and Matthew start with a genealogy of Jesus. The problem: the names in the list are (slightly) different. And both end with Joseph, who may have been many things, but not the (biological) father of Jesus. Explaining away this discrepancy is a little ridiculous, but has been standard practice for almost 2000 years. It would have been much more realistic to point out that Jesus never made the claim he was a particularly noble descendant of King David, and that the genealogies included are pretty pointless to us.

But back to the Jesus Seminar and its work to sort out truth from fiction. The method used is interesting, if dangerous: the Seminar analyzed the style of statements made by Jesus and found it to be remarkably consistent. Jesus talks about the same things, using the same type of analogies, opting for the same rhetorical devices. He loves the unexpected, the twist ending, the paradox.

I think this is exemplified in no story better than in the parable of the day laborers. Jesus tells of the owner of a vineyard who had to hire farm workers. So he went to the market and hired a bunch for a certain daily wage. When he saw he needed more, he walked back and hired some more. Then he walked back again and hired a bunch to finish off the day. This last bunch was hired at the 11th hour (which is the last hour before sunset, and from which we get the phrase “at the eleventh hour”). When the day is over and all the work done, the owner pays all workers. Pissing off those that have worked for him all day, he gives them the same as those that came last and worked for just an hour.

We would think that unfair, too. Jesus, though, tells us that God feels that same way. What we learn from this is that to God it doesn’t matter when we subscribe to his tenets, as long as we do. It’s an important message that we learn from a paradox.

The seminar, on the other hand, decided that a series of topics were unlikely to be original Jesus, because they so clearly touched on early disagreements in the community. For instance, there is the passage where Jesus makes Peter the head of the church (Matthew 16) – despite the fact that Peter was not the head of the church after Jesus died (James, the brother of Jesus was, and Peter led a faction).

I think it’s hear that most of my personal criticism of the seminar’s work is concentrated. First, I agree that Jesus had a personal teaching style that was so characteristic that you can pick one of his parables and realize it’s certainly his, like listening to a piece by Mozart and realizing it’s his, or seeing a Monet and smiling at the instant recognition.

The opposite, though, is not true. A statement made that is not typical Jesus can both logically and historically be by Jesus. The result of the culling by the Seminar ends up being too restricted, with a lot of potential Jesus landing on the dust bin because the Seminar deemed it inauthentic a priori.

I guess the part where I found this most concerning is with the decision by the Seminarians that Jesus was not a doomsday prophet. According to them, since the red sayings didn’t talk about the end of times, Jesus was unconcerned about Judgment Day and all references to tumbling temples and end of times must have been attributed to him.

That’s odd on many fronts. For instance, we know that Jesus was close to John the Baptist, whose spiritual successor he (sort of) was. John was clearly an apocalyptic prophet, so it seems very, very strange that Jesus would not have shared that outlook.

The problem is that, once the decision is made that Jesus didn’t talk about a particular topic, all statements made about that topic are automatically not of Jesus. The Gospels, though, are full of statements about the end of times and judgment day. Removing all of that seems patently absurd or plainly stupid.

Similarly, the Seminar rejects all statements in the Gospels that relate to concerns of the early community. We do know that the early community acted in ways completely dissimilar to the way Jesus would have acted: for instance, there is the scene in Acts where a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, withhold money from the community and are dead on the spot, killed by God for lying. When the rich man asks Jesus what he should do, it’s a reluctant Jesus that tells him to give everything to the poor, and the man simply walks away sad – he’s not dead by a mile.

But removing a statement because it relates to some early quarrel is too expansive and includes many statements that could have touched on quarrels that started while Jesus was still alive. As mentioned, the arguing in the church started early on, despite the ministry of Jesus apparently lasting only three years.

So, what’s the deal? I think the Jesus Seminar did the right thing in creating a framework where people can discuss the authorship of different statements in the Gospels. Just like with the much simpler problem of the authorship of the Pauline Epistles (half of whom are no known not to be written by Saint Paul), it is important to realize that you cannot blindly trust the Gospels, but that you have to be careful about the text you quote.

The Seminar, though, made some poor choices. The result is a much poorer image of Jesus than the one that emerges from the Gospels themselves.

I guess it was a good first stab, with all the right mechanisms put in place. It should be followed up by a wider approach, one that allows for alternative theories but keeps faith with the original idea of separating truth from possibility and fiction.