Robert Miller’s thoughtful response to critics of the Jesus Seminar, myself included, is of value not least because of its irenic tone. It was my aim when I wrote The Jesus Quest (InterVarsity Press, 1995) to approach the matter in the same way. Arguments should be answered with arguments, not mere rhetoric or polemics. I have no complaints whatsoever about open forums of discussion on the historical Jesus and his life, times and teachings. Public discourse is certainly not the problem.
But the attempt to gain certain kinds of publicity by making dubious pronouncements is another matter. Miller’s tone and apparently his aims differ markedly from those of Robert Funk, the Jesus Seminar’s founder and guiding light. From the beginning, Funk has made inflated claims about the seminar’s purpose, describing seminar members as clear-sighted and others as fumbling in the dark: “[T]he Jesus Seminar is a clarion call to enlightenment. It is for those who prefer facts to fancies, history to histrionics, science to superstition, where Jesus and the Gospels are concerned.”1 Such inflammatory rhetoric also appears in Funk’s recent book, Honest to Jesus, where he writes, “It is a also good thing that the true historical Jesus should overthrow the Christ of Christian orthodoxy, the Christ of the creeds. The creedal Christ, no less than the best scholarly reconstructions of Jesus, is an idol that invites shattering.”2 On this score, Miller’s account of the Jesus Seminar as representing a scholarly “consensus” sounds like revisionist history.
Miller asserts that critical scholars agree that the Gospels in general and the words attributed to Jesus in particular are “a complex blend of fact and fiction.” He then adds that this comes as news to the American public.
I would not put it quite that way. It would be nearer the mark to say that many critical biblical scholars believe that a number of the sayings attributed by the New Testament to Jesus and others are probably inauthentic; certainly, almost all critical scholars doubt the authenticity of some forms of particular sayings. It is unlikely, for example, that the Roman centurion under the cross said both “Surely this man was God’s son” (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39) and also “Surely this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47). The latter saying likely reflects Luke’s translation of the basic idea for a Gentile audience. In other words, critical scholars recognize that the gospel writers edited their sources and rephrased various sayings; and, of course, at some point the sayings were translated from Aramaic into Greek.
This is no place for a grocery list of sayings I find inauthentic and nonhistorical. But I must respond to Miller’s suggestion that the seminar’s critics simply offer “theological assurances” of the historicity of Jesus, rather than engaging in rational debate. Is Miller right, for example, that “historical Jesus research” cannot proceed “if we start with the Fundamentalist belief in the literal historicity of every verse in the Bible”?
This statement is a red herring. Although some very conservative scholars believe that all of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels were spoken by him in the precise form that we find in the canonical Gospels, most evangelicals don’t fall into this camp. I, for one, recognize that the Bible consists of various genres of literature; there is some history, and there are literary fictions, like Jesus’ parables. Before deciding on the truth claims a particular passage in the Gospels presents, scholars must discern the type of literature they are dealing with.
What the seminar’s evangelical critics often object to is not that the seminar would dare to say, “Jesus did not say such and such”; rather, they object to the casual use of adjectives like “inauthentic” and “nonhistorical”—often simply as the result of a vote, which conceals a range of diverse opinions—to describe the theological editing or composing of gospel material, especially when the result is in accord with the basic “voice print” of Jesus. Frequently, even if we cannot know exactly what was said, as in the case of the Roman centurion, we can suspect that the Gospels capture the essence of what was said.
Is the general public unaware of such critical skepticism? Many may be unaware, but I doubt that this is because of a conspiracy of silence on the matter. Rather, it is more likely that even those interested in religious subjects hardly ever read scholarly works.
Miller implies that the seminar’s critics want to restrict the body of evidence concerning Jesus to the Four Gospels—that they dismiss such extra-canonical texts as the Gospel of Thomas. That’s not the problem at all. In fact, I agree with Miller that 024sayings in Thomas have helped to confirm the authenticity of sayings in the Gospels. I also agree in some respects that Thomas’s reworking of Jesus’ sayings is analogous to Matthew’s reworking of Mark. The real problem is that the Jesus Seminar has forced Thomas into the canon as the Fifth Gospel without giving good reasons for doing so. There are, however, a number of good reasons for not doing so. Thomas comes at the material much later, and he comes with a specific Gnostic agenda. Furthermore, unlike the canonical Gospels, Thomas shows no interest in narrative, history or the acts of Jesus and other New Testament figures. It is true, sayings in Thomas also appear in the Synoptic Gospels; but most scholars believe that Thomas is neither an independent nor an earlier source of this material, that Thomas borrowed from Matthew, perhaps even Mark. In short, Thomas does not get us back to a period before the canonical Gospels were written.
I disagree with Miller that a number of the most important conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are held by the majority of New Testament scholars worldwide. Consider one he mentions directly: “Regarding the Gospel of John, most Jesus scholars outside the seminar would agree with us that few, if any, sayings in it are demonstrably authentic.” This means that the material in the Gospel of John can simply be neglected as a historically reliable source of Jesus’ sayings.
But that is not the view of numerous distinguished New Testament scholars. Charles K. Barrett, Charles H. Dodd, Rudolph Schnackenburg, D. Moody Smith, R. Alan Culpepper, R. Jackson Painter, Rodney Whitacre and George Beasley-Murray have maintained that some authentic sayings of Jesus, as well as reliable information about Jesus’ life and times, are found in the Fourth Gospel. This list could be extended. According to Raymond E. Brown, for example, “John is based on a solid tradition of the works and words of Jesus, a tradition which at times is very primitive.”3 Even though the primitive material was modified in the writing of the gospel, Brown suggests, John nevertheless provides a useful portrait of Jesus not found anywhere else. For the seminar to dismiss the Gospel of John as a source of valid historical information is cavalier and reckless. Nor does it accurately represent the broad spectrum of New Testament scholarship.
Miller’s claim that a self-selected group of scholars is not an elitist group is puzzling. I would have thought that the very definition of elitism is a group that is self-chartering and self-defining. The Jesus Seminar is notable for having no connection whatsoever with the two major bodies of New Testament scholarship, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the Society for the Study of the New Testament. Neither of these groups has endorsed, or maintained regular interaction with, the Jesus Seminar. It is also misleading to say that any scholar with proper credentials can attend and participate in the Jesus Seminar. That is not the issue. Rather, the issue is, Who sets the agenda, who reads the major papers, who determines the voting procedures, who decides what gets published and, most importantly, who are the participants? In the case of the Jesus Seminar, the answer is: A small group of self-chosen “critical” scholars—with the term “critical” defined by Robert Funk.
Furthermore, an air of mystery hangs over the seminar’s publications. Polebridge Press was set up as the publishing vehicle for the Jesus Seminar, as well as for related projects deemed worthy of publishing by Funk and his editorial board. To my knowledge, the Jesus Seminar has not submitted any of its materials to the scrutiny of established scholars and editors associated with the major religious publishers—such as Fortress, Westminster, Eerdmans, Doubleday and Harper, among others—to determine whether this material passes scholarly muster. Rather the material has simply been published by what is in effect the Jesus Seminar’s own private publishing company. This should tell us something about how open to critical discussion the Jesus Seminar’s working methods and conclusions really are.
A word about the Jesus Seminar’s voting procedure, especially the seminar’s practice of using weighted averages.
To determine which sayings were actually spoken by Jesus, seminar members vote red (authentic sayings), pink (probably authentic sayings), gray (probably inauthentic sayings) or black (inauthentic sayings), with each color carrying a numerical 025value: 3 for red, 2 for pink, 1 for gray, 0 for black. The votes on any particular saying are tallied and the average determines the seminar’s verdict; a pink vote and a black vote produces a verdict of gray, and that saying is then colored gray in the seminar’s publication The Five Gospels. But this procedure is badly flawed: Even if a large percentage of seminar members, even a clear majority, vote red or pink on a particular saying, the final result might turn out gray because of a significant number of black votes cast on the other side. As N.T. Wright has observed, “If even within the Jesus Seminar itself, a majority of scholars thinks that a saying is probably or certainly authentic, for a minority to vote black and so make the saying ‘probably inauthentic’ simply cannot make sense.”4
Miller’s apparent attempt to rectify this problem only reveals the incoherence in the voting procedure. He says, “If you include some of the gray sayings—not all, but some—the amount of authentic material approaches, if it does not exceed, 50 percent.” But the Jesus Seminar defines gray as “a weak form of black” (or, alternately, as “Jesus did not say this, but the ideas in it are close to his own” or, in yet another definition, as “I would not include this item in the database, but I might make use of some of the content in determining who Jesus was”). These attempts to pin down the nature of the gray material suggest, at the very least, that it is of doubtful authenticity. Miller cannot simply declare that, when all is said and done, gray is really pink.
In sum, the problems with the Jesus Seminar are numerous. The seminar’s conclusion that the Gospels are by and large fiction, its voting procedure, its elitist approach and agendas, and its bent for publishing its results without any vetting by scholars of other opinions—in all these areas there are chronic problems.
The Jesus Seminar has done a service in forcing us to debate questions of the historical Jesus, even if some of its sensationalist claims have received publicity out of all proportion to their merits. Miller is right that this is an appropriate issue for public discourse and debate. But the public should not be fooled into thinking that the Jesus Seminar represents what most New Testament scholars are thinking about Jesus.
As a German scholar recently said to me, only in North America and only as an over-reaction to Fundamentalism, could we come up with something like the Jesus Seminar. The publications of the Jesus Seminar should come with a disclaimer on the title page reading “caveat emptor”—let the buyer beware.
Robert Miller’s thoughtful response to critics of the Jesus Seminar, myself included, is of value not least because of its irenic tone. It was my aim when I wrote The Jesus Quest (InterVarsity Press, 1995) to approach the matter in the same way. Arguments should be answered with arguments, not mere rhetoric or polemics. I have no complaints whatsoever about open forums of discussion on the historical Jesus and his life, times and teachings. Public discourse is certainly not the problem. But the attempt to gain certain kinds of publicity by making dubious pronouncements is another matter. Miller’s tone […]