Scholars tackle the Historical Jesus
By Charlotte Allen
If Jesus wasn't Jewish, what was he--Irish?"
The New Testament professor sounded exasperated, and for good reason. It was a frustrating session for the Jesus Seminar, the consortium of biblical scholars who meet twice a year to vote on whether the man Christians call Savior actually said or did any of the things attributed to him in the Gospels. There they were, about thirty-five of them, cooped up on a fine October day in a hotel ballroom in Santa Rosa, California, haggling over such matters as: Was Jesus really a descendant of Abraham, as the Gospels of Matthew and Luke aver? Does that mean literally a descendant, or could the statement be true figuratively, in the sense that Jesus was a Jew? And who was his father, anyway?
It had been a long day, and many of the assembled professors at the Jesus Seminar must have wished they could ditch the scriptural quibbling and clear their heads with a snort at one of the numerous Sonoma County wineries a few miles down the road.
Back in the 1980s, when the Jesus Seminar was young, the going was smoother. The scholars' agenda was merely to decide whether the words the Gospels place in Jesus' mouth came from him or were inventions of his early followers. Compared to assessing Jesus' deeds, that was a fairly straightforward proposition, and led to the seminar's 1993 publication, The Five Gospels (the canonical four plus the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnosticism-tinged collection of Jesus-sayings that the seminar believes was written before the others). In eye-catching style, The Five Gospels prints Jesus' reported words in color-coded type--red, pink, gray, and black--to reflect the seminar's assessment of their varying degrees of authenticity: Red means he said it; pink means he probably said something like it; gray means maybe he said it and maybe he didn't; and black means Jesus' disciples or enemies put the words into his mouth. The Five Gospels is not exactly an endorsement of the evangelists' accuracy: Only 18 percent of Jesus' words appear in red or pink type.
The typeface colors track the unusual balloting system that has been the Jesus Seminar's hallmark since 1985, when Robert W. Funk, a former religion professor and Society of Biblical Literature president, convened its first session in Berkeley, California. During the seminar's early years, a member dropped a colored plastic bead--red, pink, gray, or black--into a hopper to reflect his assessment of the authenticity of a particular Gospel saying. Volunteers tallied the beads, and the seminar employed--as it still does--a computer-assisted weighting system to determine the vote's outcome (a red bead has more value than a pink, and so on). The seminar has recently switched to mostly paper ballots, which are less dramatic but easier to count, saving the beads for one or two high-profile votes per session.
The Jesus Seminar is one of the latest developments in that quintessential Enlightenment project known as the quest for the historical Jesus. Starting in the mid-eighteenth century, biblical scholars and intellectuals attempted to sort out the philosophically attractive ethical teachings of Jesus in the Gospels (such as the Golden Rule) from what they perceived as the superstitious debris of Christianity (walking on water). Jesus-questers proceed on the assumption, still hotly debated in scholarly circles, that it is possible to discern a "historical" Jesus through a critical reading of the Gospels and other evidence: a purely human figure radically different from the Messiah and Son of God whom traditional Christian faith presents. The questers also assume that Christianity itself comes not from Jesus (who they say had no intention of founding a new religion) but from some of his early followers.
As might be expected, the eighteenth-century questers came up with an eighteenth-century Jesus: a pithy philosophe who issued provocative statements and advocated freedom and the brotherhood of man. This "liberal" Jesus (who lives on, interestingly enough, as an economic and political libertarian in The Wall Street Journal's annual Christmas editorial) lasted well into the nineteenth century. Toward the century's end, however, a new generation of biblical theorists decided that the liberals had embarked on a wild-goose chase--that they had wrongly separated Jesus' ecumenical and ethical wisdom from his wilder statements (such as those about cataclysmic upheavals in the natural and political order). These fin-de-siecle scholars--Albert Schweitzer being the most famous--put forward the idea of an eschatological Jesus, a sandwich-board prophet who believed (mistakenly) that the end of the world was nigh. This mystical Jesus, like the philosophe Jesus, had a long shelf life, and it still has many partisans to this day (E.B. Sanders of Duke University, a leading authority on Jesus as a would-be Jewish reformer, is the most well known).
In most academic circles, however, the quest for the historical Jesus ground to a halt in the mid-twentieth century under the influence of Rudolf Bultmann, a towering figure among German New Testament scholars. As a Christian existentialist, Bultmann could not have been more different from both Schweitzer and his liberal predecessors. Whereas the eighteenth-century rationalists had fished from the Gospels a philosophe like themselves, and the Schweitzerian eschatologists had found a Jesus who was off his head in his messianic and eschatological preoccupations, Bultmann believed that the historical Jesus couldn't be retrieved at all. He considered it quite impossible for twentieth-century humans to reconstruct the truth about Galilee. Instead, Bultmann deemed all the Gospel stories--ethical maxims, eschatological admonitions, miracles, temptations by the Devil, and birth and death narratives alike--to have been mythological window dressing for the teachings of the early church. It was the task of theologians, Bultmann argued, to demythologize the stories--to strip away the fantastic trimmings in order to appeal to a new generation of Christians. Bultmann practiced a technique known as form criticism, which picked apart each of the Gospel stories to discern the purpose the tale served for the early Christian community that had invented it.
During the late 1960s existentialism went out of fashion in Christianity as elsewhere. The Bultmann mind-set pretty much vanished, and the academic effort to dig the historical Jesus out from under the midden of Christian faith resumed. The failed eschatological prophet of the late
nineteenth century made an updated comeback. In the hands of the Jesus Seminar and its sympathizers, so did the eighteenth-century wisdom-teacher, spruced up with a new countercultural and, more recently, multicultural wardrobe. To spread the news, "I thought it was time for scholars to make a public report," says Funk, who co-chairs the seminar with John Dominic Crossan, a former Catholic priest who teaches at DePaul University. "I thought that the scholars could learn to write and speak for a general audience."
Besides trying to arrive at (and to promote) a consensus about Jesus, the Jesus Seminar has a polemical mission: combating Christian fundamentalists who still read the Bible literally. "The fundamentalist mentality generated a climate of inquisition that made honest scholarly judgments impossible," states the introduction to The Five Gospels (which goes on to invoke Galileo, Thomas Jefferson--who used a razor blade to slice references to the supernatural out of his Bible--and Darwin, as well as the Scopes trial and other stories from the annals of freethinking). Although The Five Gospels and Crossan's Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994) were both on Publishers Weekly's religious bestseller list when the seminar convened last October, Funk and other seminar fellows boast with the intensity of early Christian martyrs about their persecution by the biblically literal-minded. One fellow, whose name the seminar will not reveal, reportedly lost his teaching job at a church-affiliated college on account of his participation.
The seminar's quest for certainty and consensus troubles many non-fundamentalists as well. Some scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity are put off by the seminar's use of voting to maintain a unified front on questions that are still wide open on the pages of academic journals. Other biblicists wonder if it is possible to determine the authenticity or inauthenticity of any Gospel statement with the seminar's red-letter certainty.
"I don't think you can pick out the cherries in the fruitcake," says Leander E. Keck, a professor and former dean at Yale Divinity School who has written extensively about the historical Jesus but does not participate in the Jesus Seminar. Keck believes the seminar focuses too exclusively on the exact wording of Jesus' sayings: "The assumption seems to be that Jesus said things only once, which is highly unlikely."
Several onetime Jesus Seminar activists dropped out once the proceedings shifted from Jesus' sayings to his life. One was John Kloppenborg of the University of Saint Michael's College in Toronto, a leading expert on "Q," a hypothetical collection of Jesus aphorisms that many scholars believe served as a common source for Matthew and Luke. And, indeed, the thirty-fiveparticipant turnout in October was rather low--less than a quorum, strictly speaking--despite a roster of scholarly presentations bearing enticing titles such as "Eating with Toll-Collectors" and "Away With the Manger."
The seminar's move from the sayings of Jesus to the narrative material about his life has made the balloting process tougher and more tedious. It involves an assessment not just of the historicity of scriptural passages but of their meaning. The last session was devoted largely to the narratives concerning Jesus' infancy in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, with the scholars managing to finally agree on two points: that he was indeed Jewish and that his mother's name was Mary.
As for the infancy lore itself--shepherds, stable, star of Bethlehem, wise men, and the rest--the seminar junked the contents of the Christmas creche like so many bald tires, deeming the stories to be as strictly mythological as the magic-laden fables surrounding the births of gods, heroes, philosophers, and emperors elsewhere in the Hellenistic world. During the lengthy voting process, there was much argument among seminar participants over how to frame ballot propositions, and many invocations of Robert's Rules of Order, as they moved glacially through their agenda of dismantling Christmas.
"Let's see," said one tired and befuddled scholar. "The consensus is that the census"--alluded to in the Gospel of Luke and a genuine historical event--"didn't take place at the time of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. But since we've already decided he wasn't born in Bethlehem, the question seems kind of moot."
Furthermore, some scriptural claims about Jesus--for example, that there was divine intervention in his conception and birth--entail the intersection of history and theology, making it all the more difficult to assess the historical truth of Gospel claims. The problem of divine entanglement reached a climax when the seminar faced a crucial--and, to Funk, disappointing--series of votes on the Virgin Birth.
Virgins don't give birth in the course of ordinary affairs, so the scholars had little trouble rejecting the Christian creedal tenet that Mary conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse. The vote was twenty-six black and one gray on Mary's carnal innocence. "Who was that gray vote?" quipped a scholar looking quizzically around the table.
The balloting continued. Could Joseph have been Jesus' dad? The seminar split between gray (maybe) and pink (probably). Was an unknown man the biological father? Naah, said the seminar (mostly gray and black ballots).
Then came the most difficult vote of all: Did the Holy Spirit play any role in Mary's impregnation, as the Gospels--and the Christian creeds--hold? The seminar participants were stumped. After much argument, they decided to sidestep the issue, voting that the assertion "Mary conceived of the Holy Spirit" was not a historical one.
The decision infuriated Funk, who seethed visibly while pacing the hallways outside the meeting room. "I think they're just a bunch of cowards," he declared with customary bluntness. "Scholars believe that Jesus had a human father," he said, adding that he had wanted the seminar to explicitly reject the notion that Jesus was begotten of the Holy Spirit. "I think that [notion] is a mythological statement that doesn't belong to the modern age."
Funk's disappointment spoke volumes about the mind-set of the Jesus Seminar. This is a group that has little patience with anything that cannot be established empirically, a trait that gives the seminar
the old-fashioned air of a village atheists' convention. Its members are chosen for their devotion to facts, and many have distinguished fact-finding reputations in their own right: James Robinson of Claremont University is a leading authority on the lost Gnostic texts (including the Gospel of Thomas) that were discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Funk, who chaired several university religion departments before retiring from academic life in 1986, is a highly regarded Greek grammarian and exegete of Jesus' parables.
Others, however, have the curricula vitae and corollary views of Bible-college grads who, suddenly exposed to divinity school sophistication, have decided that the Good Book's contents ain't necessarily so. They are, you might say, the Gary Harts of religious studies. A religion professor who has socialized with them informed me that a favorite after-hours activity for these Jesus Seminar members is to belt out the rousing evangelical hymns of their church-going childhoods.
Funk himself bears many marks of this how-ya-gonna-keep-'em-down-on-the-farm metamorphosis: An ordained Disciples of Christ minister from Evanston, Indiana, he became a protégé of a protégé of Rudolf Bultmann while working on a doctorate at Vanderbilt University in the mid-Sixties. During his Bultmannian years, Funk became a Christian existentialist as well, writing dense philosophical analyses of Gospel hermeneutics. Later, changing with the times, Funk traded in his existentialism for scientific rationalism (although he still professes Christianity), adopted a slangier prose style, and took up a direct-hit approach to demythologizing that would have raised Bultmann's eyebrows.
"Bultmann was a great man, but we've gone beyond him," Funk told me at one of the sumptuous (and not cheap) booze-and-Brie receptions that finished off each day's Jesus Seminar session. "I think there are things we can know about the historical Jesus."
Partly because the technique of voting--and then baldly publicizing the results--has transformed the Jesus Seminar into a powerful scholarly bloc and partly because of the influence of Funk, Crossan, and a handful of other dominant personalities, the seminar has been able to push its own historical Jesus with some success. The seminar's Jesus was a dirt-poor, illiterate peasant sage from Galilee influenced perhaps by Greek Cynic philosophers, and is most vividly described in the writings of Crossan, an eloquent stylist who mixes cultural anthropology with liberation theology. Crossan's Jesus, whose role model seems
to have been Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, ate with outcasts and led a raggedy band of first-century hippies from village to village, preaching a message of radical egalitarianism to the oppressed denizens. His message "did not invite a political revolution but envisaged a social one at the imagination's most dangerous depths," Crossan writes excitedly in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.
A laconic fellow who seldom spoke unless spoken to, Crossan's Jesus displayed a wry, antiestablishment sense of humor. By working a brand of peasant magic, he exorcised imagined demons and cured victims of psychosomatic ailments (or at least made those ailments he could not cure feel socially acceptable), gaining a reputation as a healer. Unlike the Jesus of the Gospels, who traveled occasionally from Galilee to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals, Crossan's Jesus, peasant that he was, couldn't afford the fare.
This summer of love ended abruptly and unfortunately for Jesus--as we all know. Which raises the logical question: Why would anyone bother to crucify this tatterdemalion eccentric? In the seminar's view, the answer is that his crucifixion was more or less accidental. One day Jesus ventured into Judea for Passover, and the act that had played so well in Galilee bombed. It alarmed the Roman authorities, who rounded him up and dispatched him as they would have any suspected insurrectionist. Jesus was, in a time-honored tradition, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
To assemble this reconstruction of Jesus, the seminar relies heavily on the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), which present Jesus as an ethical teacher, among other things. The seminar pretty much dismisses the historicity of the Fourth Gospel, John, in which Jesus engages in a series of theatrical confrontations and miracles, such as the raising of Lazarus, and spouts bold claims to divinity that do not exactly fit the tight-lipped personality of the seminar's wise man. The riveting, poetically charged text of John's Gospel is a favorite of evangelical Christians. Anyone who has looked up from a bus seat and read, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" among the advertisements will recognize the Fourth Gospel's allure. Nonetheless, the Jesus sayings in John (including that one) receive a nearly 100 percent black rating in The Five Gospels.
There are other historical Jesuses in circulation besides the Jewish peasant/Cynic sage that the Jesus Seminar retails, but seminar fellows tend to give rivals short shrift. Asked to comment on John P. Meier, a priest (and Jesus Seminar critic) who teaches biblical studies at the Catholic University of America and whose massive just-published second volume of A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Doubleday) paints a less radical picture of first-century social relations, Funk snaps, "He's a blockhead!"
But it's not only the perdurability of rival Jesuses that troubles the seminar. The fellows have hitched their wagons to the star of modernity, and where there is modernity, postmodernity cannot be far behind--with its critique of the scientific rationalism that is modernity's hallmark. Postmodernity arrived at the Jesus Seminar in the form of feminist guest lecturer Jane Schaberg of the University of Detroit Mercy. In her book The Illegitimacy of Jesus (Crossroad, 1990), Schaberg had riled Catholics by suggesting that Mary might have been raped.
Unlike the seminar, Schaberg did not dismiss the Gospels' infancy narratives about the miraculous birth of a god. In her view, the stories of Mary's unexpected pregnancy and Joseph's agreeing to marry her contained some historical truth. As a finishing touch to her lecture, Schaberg recounted the story of an inner-city mother who told her out-of-wedlock child, "God will just have to be your father."
The seminar fellows, almost all of them men, didn't seem to know what to make of Schaberg's feminist revisionism. "I still think it was Joseph," an attendee joshed to her the next day.
Schaberg, whose no-nonsense demeanor does not suggest a sense of humor, flashed him a look that would freeze nitrogen. "Most interesting," she murmured.
The biggest blow to hit the recent session of the Jesus Seminar came still later, when film director and seminar fellow Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct) arrived at the last minute to read his paper‹a plot outline for a movie about the historical Jesus that he has been developing since 1986, when the seminar invited him to join. Verhoeven's academic background is not in biblical studies but mathematics (he has a doctorate from the University of Leiden). Such a lack of specialist credentials would disqualify most people from becoming fellows of the seminar, but, oh well, Verhoeven is famous, and the footnotes to his paper displayed a better command of New Testament Greek than most American theological students possess these days.
Furthermore, the riveting physical presence of the tall, steel-haired Dutchman in tight black jeans and an expensive plaid shirt unbuttoned practically to the waist created an arresting visual contrast to the array of elbow-patched professors. As the academics were speculating that first-century peasants would have been too busy, and too demoralized, to form the crowds around Jesus that the Gospels described, Verhoeven, who had come into contact with real-life peasants while filming a movie about the Crusades in Morocco, intervened. He and his camera crew had drawn nothing but crowds wherever they went, because real-life villagers are always eager to drop what they are doing to view a novelty.
Then, as Verhoeven read through the outline for his Jesus movie (tentative title: Fully Human), the faces of his fellow seminarians slowly froze. For it became clear that despite eight years of faithful attendance at the Jesus Seminar, he hadn't been paying much attention. The Jesus limned in Verhoeven's plot wasn't a neoeighteenth-century sage, but a fin-de-siecle Jesus a la Schweitzer, complete with messianic dreams and eschatological preoccupations. Furthermore, Verhoeven's chief scriptural source for his movie turned out to be the far-from-credible Gospel of John.
Following John's narrative structure minus the miracles, Verhoeven deftly turned Jesus into a young fugitive from justice who had outraged the Jewish priestly class by driving the money-changers out of the temple. This Generation X-er on the lam later sneaks back to Judea for the raising of Lazarus (who stays dead). Swayed by the adulation of the crowds in a Palm Sundaystyle parade into Jerusalem, Verhoeven's Jesus comes to believe that he really is the Messiah, and that he has a divine mandate to restore David's kingdom. Finally, betrayed by Judas (there's no Judas in the Jesus Seminar's scenario, just as there's no Lazarus) and crucified, Verhoeven's Jesus realizes his glorious mission was all an illusion and accepts his death with courage and resignation.
When Verhoeven finished, there was a long silence. Then, speaking practically all at once, the seminar's participants took him to task. He was pandering to fundamentalists by relying on John's Gospel. He was creating a "Western, individualist male" as his central figure.
"What I like best is that you haven't given us the Jesus of Christianity," Mahlon Smith of Rutgers University said patiently. "But we voted black on all those things you've got him saying and doing."
"You've gone back one hundred years in the scholarship with that royal Messiah idea," reproved Funk.
"I'm looking for movement, dramatic movement that is more of a story!" Verhoeven shouted in agonized reply. "Basically, he was killed because he was the king of the Jews, wasn't he? I have a problem with the idea that he was killed, like, in a car accident!"
After the scholars retired for a break, I and others in the press corner made a mosh-dive for Verhoeven. I asked him the question that anyone would ask: Did he plan to include a love interest for Jesus in his film? (I was mentally casting Sharon Stone as Mary Magdalene and, while I was at it, John Travolta as the Good Thief.)
"Of course," Verhoeven replied with a grin. "But I'm aware that the feminist scholars emphasize the fact that Jesus had female disciples, so it will probably be platonic. Besides, Jesus doesn't have time. He's always on the run."
Verhoeven also elaborated on his contention that the seminar's Jesus just wasn't the stuff of film. "You'd have a man walking about from marketplace to marketplace saying aphorisms," said Verhoeven. "That isn't much of a movie."
Despite their disapproval of his script, the seminar hasn't abandoned Verhoeven. Indeed, if it came to choosing between scholarly historicity and future opportunities to hobnob with a celebrity, the seminar would apparently jettison historicity in a minute: At a briefing session the next day for Jesus Seminar associates--mostly members of the clergy and amateur biblicists--objections to Verhoeven's presentation surfaced again. Verhoeven wasn't present, but he didn't need to be: Funk jumped to his defense.
At the session, Glenn Earley, a teacher of Holocaust studies at the University of Santa Clara in California and a local program director for the National Conference of Christians and Jews, had raised objections to Verhoeven's use of John's Gospel. The Fourth Gospel, Earley pointed out, dramatizes tensions between Jesus and his Jewish enemies (the Gospel's author refers to them collectively as "the Jews"), lending credence to Christian anti-Semitism. In sumary, Earley denounced Verhoeven's plot outline as "unhistorical and dangerous." (Verhoeven had explained the day before that he was merely trying to show that some first-century Jewish officials had collaborated with Rome in the way that some Dutch officials had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers of Holland during his own childhood.)
Funks response was swift. "He probably knows more about this than you do," he told Earley. "We're not going to get in a commotion with a major filmmaker," he added, calling Earley a "blockhead" for good measure. Earley stalked out of the room.
Indeed, with voting on the Scriptures becoming more difficult, and competing views of Jesus threatening to undo the seminar's rationalist-liberationist consensus, Funk and his fellows may need all the Hollywood assistance they can muster. At the session this March, the seminar plans to vote (just in time for Easter) on the historicity of the Resurrection, another highly controversial theological topic. This will "test the honesty and integrity of every participant," warns the flier for the meeting in language obviously designed to discourage the sharp conflict that accompanied the balloting on Jesus' conception.
Still, the votes of the Jesus Seminar won't end everyone's quest. "What do you think about angels?" I overheard a gray-haired female seminar associate ask one of the scholars during a break in October's session. The sweet-faced woman, like many seminar hangers-on, evidently viewed the search for the historical Jesus as part of a personal spiritual pilgrimage.
The scholar's eyes narrowed and hardened. "We don't get into angels," he finally replied. "We're historians."
Charlotte Allen is writing a book about the search for the historical Jesus. Her article "Their Cheating Hearts" appeared in the July/August 1994 issue of Lingua Franca.