Monday, March 5, 2007

Setting Scholars Straight about the Bible


By Rev. N.T. Wright

The Jesus Seminar, so-called, recently has been running out of steam. Its two flagship projects on the words of Jesus and the deeds of Jesus recently have been completed. The chairman, Robert Funk, has great agendas for reconstructing the whole of the first five centuries of Christianity, showing that the creeds and theology of St. Paul were mistakes. Funk wants to produce a very odd, thinned-down version of Christianity to replace traditional Christianity, but most of the significant members of the Jesus Seminar, like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, are not following his lead.

The reason for the popularity of the Jesus Seminar, at least for a short time, was not because it was brilliant, cutting-edge, top-notch scholarship. Rather, its popularity lay in that it was saying something many Americans wanted to hear. The Jesus Seminar sounded scientific, while appealing to the popular imagination. These scholars were saying there is a different way of construing Christianity, which is neither the right-wing Protestantism nor the right-wing Catholicism with which we grew up -- and it is certainly quite unlike televangelism.

The Jesus Seminar teaches that there is a different way of being Christian, which just involves having Jesus as a kind of "guru figure," an interesting, savvy teacher who had some sharp things to say from time to time. Jesus made many people feel good about themselves and then left us to carry on with that same task. Obviously, such a presentation of Jesus Christ won't do. There are seven problems with this interpretation. Ultimately, though, the mistakes of the Jesus Seminar lead us away from the seminar itself to wider problems of biblical interpretation that have been unsettled for some time.

Jesus and the Story of Israel

The first problem is the danger of a methodology that takes Jesus out of the context of the story of Israel. First-century Jews, for all their wide variety, were living within a story, a controlling narrative. It was the story of how Israel's God would address, bless, and judge the world. They told that story in Scripture and sang it in their psalms. They retell their story in books like Maccabees; we see it in many texts from the first century -- and we see it lived at Qumran. The Jesus Seminar, however, and many others beside, have said that all we know about Jesus are fragmentary sayings -- a little nugget about this, a little wise saying about that, and a fragment of a parable here -- that do not actually retain the stories. These were all made up later! This is a de-Judaizing of Jesus, a phenomenon that happened originally in post-war German scholarship as a way to reconstruct Jesus as a great teacher about the kingdom of God. The present wrenching of Jesus from his Jewish context has happened for a very different reason. The great prophet of postmodernity, Frederich Nietzsche [pictured right], deconstructed big stories into collections of aphorisms, little fragments to try to make sense of a life. The Jesus of the Jesus Seminar has become a Nietzschan Jesus who is deeply non-Jewish -- and actually deeply non-Christian. This is why the so-called Gospel of Thomas has been so popular, precisely because it gives you a set of detached aphorisms. It is what part of our culture wants. But, in the end, it is a lousy way of doing history.

The second problem that must be confronted is taking Jesus out of a Jewish apocalyptic worldview. In the first century, the book of Daniel was extremely influential, not because it was about the end of the world but because it was about how God was going to vindicate Israel and thus bring justice to the world. It was about God's future for the world, not how He would end it. The world is good; God made it, and He wants it to be redeemed. Jewish apocalyptic, properly understood, was about history reaching the climax of the kingdom of God. The Jesus Seminar has completely relativized and set aside this teaching because it does not like fundamentalism -- and it does not like 20th-century apocalyptic preaching. But the world of first-century Judaism is the world to which Jesus belonged. He, too, was telling, and living by, and retelling the story of the book of Daniel. But He did it to say that the kingdom of God was coming in and through His work and that of His followers, and especially in and through His own fate, which would be unique.

Messianic Movements

A third and very serious problem is that the Jesus Seminar takes Jesus out of the context of first-century messianic movements. It is often said that Jesus was not a would-be messiah at all -- Jesus did not think of Himself as messiah. Most of His first followers, we are told, did not think of Him as messiah. Don't believe it! Jesus belongs on the map of first-century messianic movements. There were at least a dozen messianic or quasi-messianic movements within 100 years before and after Jesus' life. Jesus said, "Many will come in my name saying I am the one," and "False messiahs will arise." Jesus knew that would happen and had happened. Some people have thought that the words "Jesus Christ" were Jesus' Christian name and Jesus' surname. Jesus is His personal name, the name He has in His human nature -- Jesus of Nazareth. Conversely, Christos means "the messiah," the one who sums up God's purposes for Israel in Himself and brings them to their destiny. To be truly understood, Jesus must be viewed in the context of first-century messiahs. If you ignore that, you misunderstand and misread Jesus, and the apologetic and evangelistic task will suffer.

The fourth problem, which again is not limited to the Jesus Seminar, is the attempt to reinvent Jesus as a wandering cynic teacher. The cynics were a school of philosophers who called themselves cynics, the Greek word for dog, because they went around barking and snapping at the heels of the righteous, religious, and respectable. They were socially subversive, living counterculturally to thumb their noses at the establishment. Crossan [pictured left], in a dangerous phrase in his book The Historical Jesus (1991), refers to Jesus and His followers as "hippies in an age of Augustine yuppies." I think he has probably regretted that phrase.

Controversial Figure

The fifth problem presented by the scholarship of the Jesus Seminar lies in exactly the opposite direction -- and it, too, is quite prevalent in some circles. It is the concept of the "noncontroversial Jewish Jesus." To be historically credible, you have to picture a Jesus who is both comprehensible and crucifiable within first-century Judaism. That, simply stated, is a problem history must always deal with. Jesus was not simply a nice Jewish boy who taught nice Jewish truths about God and general truths about the kingdom to other Jews and who would have been horrified to think of a Church established in His name, with people worshiping Him and having a special meal where they broke bread and said that it was His body. This has been stated again and again.

Often, the people saying this have been from among our own selves and who still, in some measure or other, consider themselves Catholic, Protestant, or whatever. They have lived all their lives with a docetic Jesus, that is a Jesus in fairyland, going about wearing a halo. When such people study history, they discover that Jesus was a Jew! They discover that it was exciting to be a first-century Jew; much happened in that historical epoch, and we can understand much about Jesus. If we are to be true to historical data, we arrive at a Jesus who is both comprehensible and crucifiable within the world of Judaism. Frankly, that is a most difficult task in a post-Holocaust world, when what we say is scrutinized and can result in the retort, "I think your Jesus is anti-Semitic; you must make sure your Jesus is not anti-Semitic." But, how can one truly arrive at a Jewish Jesus who is anti-Semitic? Such an invention would be nonsensical. Rather, what you have in Jesus is critique from within, which is the noblest, oldest, and most Jewish form of critique.

The sixth problem to confront is a new and very powerful myth of Christian origins, one envisioning Jesus as a type of cynic teacher. Such a Jesus neither thought He would die a redemptive death nor rise bodily from the dead. The early Church, in turn, became divided between those who followed Jesus the cynic teacher and those who invented this thing called Christianity. When they invented Christianity (which evolved into Paul and then into the Gospels that we have in the canon), they were inventing something more socially and politically comfortable, in contrast to the quite dramatic and subversive cynic or Gnostic teaching that Jesus actually gave. It is only then that we see the Church settling down at the end of the first generation into the steady line of thought that would take them to the settlement of Constantine when the Church became part of the empire. This, then, was when they had achieved their aim. This account of Christian origins is historically mistaken at every point.

The seventh problem is that most reconstructions of Jesus, including those most traditional, have great difficulty in integrating Jesus' public career with His death and resurrection. The creeds tell the story of Jesus as though His public career did not exist. Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried and on the third day raised -- what happened to the bit in the middle? Were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wasting their time telling us about Jesus' public ministry? Does it matter for our faith? The creeds happened for certain specifiable, historical, doctrinal, and theological reasons. But they do not tell the whole story. Indeed, in some of today's liturgies, we have developed ways of telling the story that put the Gospels back in. Yet, still when we think of Jesus first being born of a virgin, we talk of the incarnation; when we think of Him teaching about the kingdom, we talk about social justice and ethics; and when we think of Him dying on the cross, we talk about atonement. But we never integrate the picture.

Putting Jesus Back Together Again

This brings us to one of the biggest problems that overshadows the whole quest for the historical Jesus -- right-wing, left-wing, Catholic, Protestant, atheist, agnostic, you name it: What do we say historically about Jesus' death? What do we say about His resurrection? How do they go with the agendas of His ministry? Simply stated, we have to put Jesus back together again. There is a huge cost: we have to face that pain. But if we, the people of God in Jesus Christ, cannot face pain in the power of the Spirit, then we are of all people the most to be pitied.

I propose seven steps to lead us forward in our quest. First, we must integrate the things we do with the Gospels and allow them mutually to inform one another.

Second, at the personal level, each one of us must integrate our thinking and our praying. This will be deeply challenging. At the beginning of the book that Marcus Borg [pictured left] and I wrote together, we set ourselves the task of addressing the quest: How do we know about Jesus? I began by stating that we know about Jesus in two ways -- history and faith. At once, I could feel friends and colleagues on either side of that great divide shaking their heads sorrowfully and saying, "You just can't do that." Some said, "If you bring faith in, you are no longer a historian," while others said, "If you bring history in, you are no longer a man of faith." This is like a three-story house, not like Bultmann's three-decade universe, but a three-story house with an attic and a basement. The attic is where people live who want to live a long way from terra firma. They live by faith, but please don't talk with them about history. The basement is where people live who do history all the time. They have their hands dirty with the reality of history, but they are never quite sure if there will ever be a staircase up to faith.

I want to live on the main floor of the house. I want all the treasures from the basement, and I want all the view from the attic. I want to live in that house and for it to be one house. Instead, I get shot at by people who live in the basement because they suspect that, because I am in the middle, I might actually be in the attic. I also get shot at by people in the attic because they think I am too near the earth. I want to have the best of both worlds, because it is God's world, it is one world, and it is our world. We have to integrate history and faith.

More particularly, and third in terms of my suggestions, we must integrate the story of Jesus' ministry with His death and resurrection. Here I follow Albert Schweitzer to this extent: by seeing Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God, which is at a moment in time of great crisis gathering over God's people, Israel. This crisis is one that He has to confront alone. Here, Schweitzer was correct. Jesus knew that the storm clouds were gathering and that they were not simply wacky apocalypticisms. They took the form of Roman soldiers who crucified Jews outside the walls of Jerusalem. Jesus went ahead of His people to take the messianic tribulation upon Himself, and all the lines of the ministry point toward that moment. Once you make that move, breathtaking though it is, it has the force of a huge, historical screen -- suddenly, the whole picture makes sense.

Theology in History

Fourth, we have the task of integrating history and theology; that is, of bringing together what we say about our historical research and what we say about God. If you take the historical picture of a Jesus who is announcing the crisis coming on Israel and the world, there is a straight line to Christian atonement theology. He took the biggest incarnational symbol existing and applied it to Himself. Israel's God returning to Zion -- what will that look like? Jesus literally staked His life on His belief that when Israel's God returned to Zion, it would be neither with a flash of lightning nor like Ezekiel's whirling wheels coming back through the desert; it would look like a young prophet riding on a donkey over the Mount of Olives in tears. There is a straight line from there to the highest incarnational Christology you could ever possibly want: Jesus is divine and human. It is earth-shattering.

The fifth step is to integrate all of that with our proclamation to the world. We have to retell the story of Jesus in drama, music, and poetry within "post-postmodernity," which is where we're moving toward quickly. Hurling dogmas at people's heads will not do. Actually, it never really did. We can only tell the story by using story, symbol, and all the means available to us. There is wonderful talent out there, not just to do theology in an abstract sense but to live it profoundly. We must integrate all those tasks and pray for the grace to take this extraordinary, many-layered story, which as historians we can get our hands on better and better, and make it live for the world.

The sixth step is then to integrate this theology and action of evangelism with the healing and social justice ministries of the Church. One of my great joys as dean of Litchfield was that we had the chance to do in the cathedral what not all parish churches are able -- to explore symbolic ways of doing what I am proposing. One thing we did, which was a great joy to me personally, was a series of broadcast Advent services under the theme of "From Darkness to Light." We invited a fine, blind theologian, John Hull, from Birmingham, England, to share on live television his experiences of our theme as a blind person. It was most moving and sent signals to the community quite different from the signals the Church sometimes sends. It was a symbolic way of telling the story that the world has been redeemed in Christ and now the message must go out to all: the marginalized, the poor, and those on the wrong side of the tracks.

Liturgical Purpose

Ultimately, using the Gospels in worship and prayer is not about coming back to a safe place. It is coming back to the place that is the lightning rod, the place where you are likely to find God uncomfortably at work. How do we know Jesus Christ in the Gospels? In all the ways we have examined, but supremely when we come together in worship and read the Gospels again and again -- to invoke Jesus. After all, what are we doing in the liturgy when we read the Gospels? We could give a stock answer: "We are reminding ourselves about the parable Jesus told." It is a peg to hang a sermon on. No, the Gospels in the liturgy are an invocation of Jesus, a celebration of Jesus, a giving thanks to God for Jesus. It is a way, both symbolic and actual, of being shaped by Jesus so that when we stretch out our hands to receive the body of Christ, it makes sense, because we know Jesus as historians and as people of faith, as people working in the places where society is hurting. It comes together: Jesus, the Gospels, God, and us. We bring that explosive combination together, with all our critical historical faculties awake. After all, God gave us a mind to use, not to leave at the church door when we come in. It is then that we find ourselves moving forward, by God's grace, to the Jesus who comes to meet us both in the Eucharist and in the day of His appearing.

[Rev. N.T. Wright is a priest of the Church of England and canon theologian of Westminster Abbey. He is the author of numerous books in the field of scriptural studies. Most recently, these include The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan And N.T. Wright in Dialogue (2006), Paul: In Fresh Perspective (2006), and The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (2005). His article, "Setting Scholars Straight about the Bible," was originally published in Crisis magazine (June 2000), and is reproduced here by kind permission of Crisis magazine, Morley Publishing Group, Inc., 1814 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036.]

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Funding of the Jesus Seminar


By John Burger

When Robert Funk announced the founding of the Jesus Seminar in 1985, he made a point of saying that all its work would be above-board. “We are going to carry out our work in full public view,” the New Testament scholar told a gathering of scholars in Berkley, California. “We will not only honor the freedom of information, we will insist on the public disclosure of our work and, insofar as it lies within our power, we shall see to it that the public is informed of our judgments. We shall do so . . . because we are committed to public accountability.”

Funk soon founded the Westar Institute to sponsor the Jesus Seminar and other such projects and named the institute after the first communications satellite because “we’re in the communications business,” he said in a recent interview. Funk’s point was that the general public needs to know what’s going on in Bible scholarship – and needs to hear it in terms an untrained layman can understand. But the candor and communication of which he boasts do not apply to information about who is financially behind the think tank, which is part of a broader effort to challenge traditional teaching about Jesus.

Westar has begun a major fund-raising campaign to further its goals, with a view to expand its Internet activity; build a new headquarters in Santa Rosa, California; grant fellowships; and bring in a scholar in residence. It is well on its way to raising its goal of $100,000 for this purpose, having received $60,000 in pledges or contributions at its fall 1999 meeting. But Westar refuses to identify its contributors, including a Californian who offered a $20,000 challenge grant for the current campaign.

More Than Meets the Eye

Charlene Matejovsky, a member of Westar’s board of directors, told Crisis that it is the institute’s policy, out of respect for privacy, not to reveal names. She explained that some of the fellows of the Westar Institute – scholars who vote on whether or not the Gospel accounts of Jesus are historically true – have already been harassed; two have lost their university positions. But her refusal to show a reporter the list of donors – even off the record – leads one to wonder what Westar is hiding. “I don’t think you’d learn anything,” she said, insisting that contributors are “ordinary people” who have “discovered us over the years” by coming to meetings or reading books put out by Polebridge Press, the institute’s publishing arm. “There are no big corporations” behind Westar, she said, “no big organizations.”

Neither was there any organizational help in starting the Jesus Seminar, Funk said. He explained that he wrote to 100 Gospel scholars with his idea to systematically inventory all the words and deeds attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, and about 30 came to the first meeting. He and his wife paid for the meeting “with a credit card,” he told Crisis. “It took us three or four years to pay it off.” He asked each of the 30 to write three or four other scholars, and the networking led to some 200 joining the effort. The membership has gone up and down, and today there are a little more than 100 fellows in the organization.

According to income tax returns obtained by Crisis, Westar has about $180,000 in annual income. About $58,000 of this is membership dues. Fellows, who must have advanced degrees in biblical studies and be able to read the biblical languages, pay $75 a year. Some 2,000 associate members pay $25. Contributions have grown significantly since 1993, when Westar received its tax-exempt status. In that year, it took in $5,393 in contributions, with $13,208 the following year, and $17,733 in 1995. In 1996, it was $45,431. The 1997 return, the latest one filed, lists $28,914 in direct public support. The rest of the income is in the form of program service revenue: admission fees, merchandise, or other services. These were nil in 1993 and 1994 but $1,050 in 1995 and a whopping $75,667 in 1996. The registration fee for twice-yearly meetings is $300. Though last fall’s attendance of 600 was unusually large, most draw 150 or so, like the four-day meeting in Santa Rosa, California, in March.

Westar’s publishing arm, Polebridge Press, puts out three or four books a year, which Funk would like to increase to make Polebridge “financially stable.” It has 30 books in print, on subjects such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Q document, and the infancy Gospels. Two Polebridge books by Westar fellow and former Servite priest John Dominic Crossan, In Parables and The Dark Interval, have done “very well,” Matejovsky said. Polebridge also sells audiotapes and videotapes from meetings at prices from $12.50 to $49.95, with discounts for members. Some books are copublished with major houses because Polebridge could not afford the color printing required on its own, she said. So Macmillan published The Five Gospels, a new translation, with commentary, of the canonical Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas by Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Seminar. HarperCollins published The Acts of Jesusby Funk and the Seminar. Both use red to show which words and deeds of Jesus the scholars strongly believe to be authentic, pink to indicate a lower level of consensus, and gray and black even less. Harper also has the paperback rights to The Complete Gospels, edited by fellow Robert J. Miller, a member of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. The anthology of 20 canonical and noncanonical Gospels sold about 90,000 copies.

Westar also publishes a scholarly journal, the working papers of Westar seminars, and a bimonthly magazine that covers issues and trends in religion and biblical scholarship – a slim volume with only in-house advertising written for the literate general reader. Funk and Matejovsky said Westar has never applied for any foundation grants. “It’s all been pretty much self-supporting,” Funk said. Westar manages to do all this work with a very small, mostly volunteer staff, including Funk, his wife, Matejovsky, and a tax lawyer. The only paid staff member is Associate Director Gregory C. Jenks [left], an Episcopalian priest who wrote a book on the “myth” of the Antichrist. Much of the work, including mailing, printing, and other services, is contracted out.

But a large part of Westar’s effectiveness is due to its fellows, who are tenured professors spreading their unorthodox views through classroom lectures – some in Catholic colleges and universities – publishing, radio addresses, and various public service activities. Roy Hoover, for example, was a citizen ambassador with the Delegation of Religious Educators to Russia and Uzbekistan in October 1992. Some fellows are ordained and preach their views Sunday after Sunday. Some, like controversial Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong [right], have larger pulpits than others.

Hitting the Mission Trail

The institute also relies on its associate members as foot soldiers. Many coordinate regular local lectures of fellows in the so-called Jesus Seminar on the Road, which is where two Westar fellows spend a weekend speaking to local gathering in places like New York, Houston, and Kansas City. Westar seems fully committed to this project. Dynamic presenters are chosen so as to appeal to laymen with a limited knowledge of the Bible scholarship (which is most of us). Those who invite the seminar to their hometowns organize and publicize the event, providing staff and a place to meet – sometimes a church. Westar tries to support the endeavor with the collection of a modest registration fee. As many as 130 people attend. Funk says the project is “self-supporting,” though he admits Westar loses money on a few. “We discovered it was an effective way to promote our work,” Funk said.

The institute also coordinates a network of some 45 local study groups that meet in North America, with a few in Australia, New Zealand, and Africa, to discuss the work of the Seminar. “We need to produce more curricular materials for the study groups,” Funk said when discussing Polebridge. He is in England this spring to give lectures and start more Jesus Seminar scholarship to the wider church and have taught many adult classes in mainline Protestant and Catholic churches over the past 10 years,” said Dr. Mark Rutledge, who runs a group in Durham, North Carolina. “By far the majority of ‘average’ laypersons in these classes have been very receptive to the work of the Seminar, with a small minority still remaining threatened within their conservative orthodoxy. But, by being gentle, I am able to introduce the traditional biblical scholarship represented by the Seminar in ways that people find liberating.” Westar also disseminates its views through two Web sites, one designed by a professor at Rutgers University, Mahlon H. Smith [left], and another wherein the institute bills itself as a “member-supported, nonprofit research and educational institute dedicated to the advancement of religious literacy.”

Darling of the Media

Perhaps what has helped Westar the most is exposure in (some would say rapt attention by) major media. Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report featured the Jesus Seminar in its issues around Easter 1996. And the four-hour PBS Frontline special of a couple of years ago, From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, devoted a massive amount of resources to interviewing scholars and historians and going on location in the Middle East to show that Jesus is not the man we thought He was. Two of the dozen scholars who appeared in the special are Westar fellows: Crossan, who was cochairman of the Jesus Seminar from 1985 to 1996, and Harold W. Attridge, formerly of Notre Dame, now at Yale. Elaine Pagels [right] and L. Michael White, principal historical adviser and editorial consultant, respectively, for the special, both have addressed Westar meetings. Producers even hosted a follow-up colloquy at Harvard on questions that had arisen from the TV special, which was aired during Holy Week. An intricately designed Web site, which includes a transcript of the colloquy, is still accessible.

Marilyn Mellowes, the originator of the Frontline report, is said to have wanted to bring new findings of New Testament scholarship to a lay audience, which is exactly the reason Funk says he started the Jesus Seminar. Funk also has led a couple of highly publicized tours of biblical lands, and although only about 30 people went along on them, the inaugural tour of the Holy Land in 1998 was covered by ABC News and the Chicago Tribune (in a three-part series), again around Easter time.

Although its donor income is modest, compared with some nonprofit organizations, Westar manages to use many avenues—and use them well—disseminate its “findings.” For an organization that claims to be supported by “ordinary people,” Westar has been effective in spreading its Bad News—and in undermining the faith of traditional believers.

[John Burger is news editor for The National Catholic Register. His article, "Funding of the the Jesus Seminar," was originally prublished in Crisis magazine (May 2000), and is reproduced here by kind permission of Crisis magazine, Morley Publishing Group, Inc., 1814 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036.]

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Biblical Scholarship & the Faith of the Church


By Kenneth D. Whitehead

Biblical scholarship is usually granted instant credibility today because it is considered "scientific." Thus, the findings of the Jesus Seminar, however ill founded, nevertheless quickly became front-page news. The assumption is that "science" has once again exploded claims about the Jesus found in the New Testament and preached by the Church.

On the other hand, the faith of the Church, handed down in the Church from the apostles of Jesus, is not defined as science in the modern sense. It is, therefore, not granted the same status in today’s world. The Church knows, however, that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15); therefore, she continues preaching the words of Jesus both as His words and as true words, regardless of the supposed findings of such groups as the Jesus Seminar. It is not that the Church fails to respect scholarship, but she does have problems with certain kinds of scholarship. For at least the last few centuries, the Church has had to contend with the effects on the faith of a certain type of biblical scholarship that has too often aimed at undermining and discrediting certain truths testified to in Scripture that the Church considers essential to her faith.

Since the 18th-century Enlightenment in particular, there has been a formidable procession of scholars wielding modern critical methodologies aimed at explaining away the transcendental, supernatural, and miraculous elements found in Scripture, usually on the a priori grounds that none of these things could be true. Therefore, critical methodologies have had to be used to "prove" them untrue.

The Historical-Critical Method

What is generally called the historical-critical method has almost by definition been limited to providing naturalistic, empirical, and evidentiary explanations for what is written in Scripture. In the past, Catholic scholars were not the foremost practitioners of this method. However, following Pope Leo XIII's 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus (On the Study of Sacred Scripture) and, especially, Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (On Promotion of Biblical Studies), Catholic exegetes have gone into the historical-critical method with a vengeance, though not always with the happiest results.

It was always likely that a rigorous if not hostile historical-critical examination of the Holy Bible and the scriptural foundations of the Christian faith would be undertaken. Even as Catholics continue to affirm that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and rightly deplore the use of scholarship to undermine the faith, we still cannot regret all that has been learned about the Bible over the past two centuries by the use of critical methods. Nothing that is itself true, provided that it is true, can ultimately be harmful to the Christian faith.

The Church has had to contend with the effects on the faith of biblical scholarship that has aimed at undermining and discrediting certain truths testified to in Scripture.

In 1993, for example, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a lengthy, in-depth document on biblical scholarship entitled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. While emphasizing more traditional methods of exegesis, especially the relationship of exegesis to theology, the document also describes the historical-critical method as an "indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts." But this document also specifies that, "the historical-critical method cannot lay claim to enjoying a monopoly.... It must be conscious of its limits, as well as to the dangers to which it is exposed [emphasis added]."

The problem, then, lies not in the use of the method as such, but rather how it is used, by whom, and with what prior assumptions. Obviously, if a critic approaches the Bible with the conviction that miracles cannot occur, it is not likely that his critical evaluation will exhibit much appreciation for the meaning of the miraculous and supernatural elements that Scripture undeniably presents.

Can such methodologies be used to serve the faith? Yes, provided that the Christian scholar continues to view his subject as the inspired Word of God and that both the limitations and dangers of such methodologies are kept in mind.

More is required, though. The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, lays down three essential rules the Christian interpreter of Scripture must follow. "Since sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with its divine authorship in mind," Dei Verbum teaches: (1) "...attention must be devoted to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, (2) taking into account the Tradition of the Church, and (3) the analogy of faith, if we are to derive their true meaning from the sacred texts. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules [emphasis added]." By the term "rules," the council fathers meant that the exegete could not interpret texts in a way that contradicts either established doctrines of the faith or interpretations of other passages of Scripture accepted by the Church.

Many Catholic scholars are working within these guidelines. Even a superficial acquaintance with some of the biblical scholarship being conducted by scholars publicly identified as Catholics today, however, raises the question of whether these Vatican II guidelines really are being observed by all, or even most, contemporary Catholic scholars in the field. This is a question we must look at, but first, we need to glance briefly at the broad general picture that seems to find credence among many Scripture scholars today after more than 200 years of "critical" scholarship.

Who Do You Say That I Am?

The results of biblical scholarship that generally come to public notice generally have to do with Jesus. This is not surprising. After all, the principal question today, as it was in New Testament times, remains, "What do you think of the Christ? Whose Son is he?" (see Matthew 22:42). It is a question that has to be answered in every generation. Among biblical scholars, however, there seem to be as many answers to the question as there are authors attempting to write "lives" of Jesus. To name only a few beyond the stereotype of Jesus the ideal man and ethical teacher, there is Jesus the dreamy Galilean romantic, Jesus the political revolutionary, Jesus the Messianic plotter, Jesus the magician and wonder worker, Jesus the Mediterranean peasant, and, more recently, Jesus the marginal Jew.

The many attempts of modern scholarship to describe "the historical Jesus"—as opposed to "the Christ of faith" preached by the Church—have a long history, rooted especially in the perennial ambition of German scholarship to recreate history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist (how it really was or what really happened). In the first decade of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer, in his famous book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, chronicled the previous century's mainly German efforts to get at the "real" Jesus behind the myths and legends supposed to have been invented by the Church and recorded in the New Testament. Since Schweitzer wrote, we are told that there has been a second and even a third "quest for the historical Jesus."

Little attention is paid by most new Catholic exegetes to Tradition or the analogy of faith; they approach Scripture piecemeal, in isolation, and from an almost wholly naturalistic perspective.

Schweitzer himself wrote, "There is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a life of Jesus.... Each individual creates him in accordance with his own character." In a judgment not without relevance to our present inquiry, Schweitzer also identified the motive for much of the modern historical study of the Bible, describing the whole enterprise as "a struggle against the tyranny of dogma [emphasis added]." That the verifiable results of much modern biblical scholarship would seem to bear out this last judgment of Albert Schweitzer has been noted by more than a few knowledgeable observers. For example, the young Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, writing as a theologian in his Introduction To Christianity (1968), provides an apt description of what he called the cliché about Jesus that has been established as a result of modern scholarship:
Who was Jesus of Nazareth, really? How did he understand himself? If we believe the modern cliché ... this is perhaps the way things happened: we must picture Jesus as a kind of prophetic teacher who came on the scene in the overheated eschatological atmosphere of the late Judaism of his time, and, in accordance with this eschatological high-pressure situation, preached the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. At first this was to be an entirely temporal thing; the Kingdom of God [meant] the end of the world.
This message, though, was misunderstood. The future Cardinal Ratzinger [and Pope Benedict XVI] goes on to explain that:
For reasons, which can no longer be properly reconstructed, Jesus was executed and died a failure. Afterwards, in a way that can no longer be discerned, a belief in his resurrection arose. The idea was that he still "lived" on or at least he still "meant" something very significant. Gradually, the idea emerged...that Jesus would return as the Son of Man, or the Messiah.

The next step was to project this hope back upon the historical Jesus, put it all in his own mouth, and then re-interpret him accordingly. Thus were things re-arranged so that Jesus appeared to have announced himself as the Son of Man who was to come, or the Messiah.
And thus, in this brief reconstruction, Ratzinger explained how mainstream modern scholarship, supposedly looking only at the historical evidence and the "facts," has tried to reinterpret the phenomenon of Jesus. Ratzinger had much more to add in his Introduction To Christianity, but we can move directly to his conclusion:
To anyone who thinks historically, the whole theory amounts to a really absurd picture, even though it still attracts hordes of believers. For my part, I must confess that, even apart from my Christian faith, and simply on the basis of my own knowledge of history, I would sooner and more easily believe that God became man than that such a conglomeration of hypotheses could ever possibly be correct.
In short, the faith of the Church, according to Cardinal Ratzinger, does not stand up at all badly by comparison with what the "best" modern scholarship has come up with. How do some of our contemporary Catholic exegetes view the matter?

America's Foremost Catholic Biblical Scholar?

Msgr. George A. Kelly in his book, The New Biblical Theorists (1983), looks carefully at the work of the late Sulpician priest Fr. Raymond Brown as the most prominent member of a whole school of post-Vatican-II Catholic exegetes committed to critical methods. He shows Fr. Brown and his "school" to be rather far from being in compliance with the requirements for sound Catholic exegesis laid down by Vatican II.

Although Fr. Brown and his typical colleagues have customarily claimed to be interpreting Scripture in accordance with Providentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu, Msgr. Kelly shows the reality to be rather different. Little attention is generally paid by most of these new Catholic exegetes to the Tradition of the Church or to the analogy of faith; they regularly approach Scripture piecemeal, in isolation, and from an almost wholly naturalistic perspective. Msgr. Kelly identifies numerous opinions of Fr. Brown that appear to be in conflict with the established faith of the Church, such as:
  • The stories of Christ's birth represent dubious history.
  • The virginal conception of Jesus is an unresolved historical problem.
  • Any idea that Christ instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper must be "nuanced."
  • The Twelve were neither missionaries nor bishops.
  • Sacramental powers were given to the whole Christian community (not just to the "ordained" clergy).
  • Vatican II was "biblically naive" when it called the Catholic bishops successors to the apostles, and so on.
When such opinions as these—and we have cited only a few identified by Msgr. Kelly—are tranquilly espoused by the man considered to be America's foremost Catholic biblical scholar, then it would seem that there is a very real problem with some Catholic biblical scholarship today as it relates to the faith of the Church. The Tradition of the Church, particularly the Church's living magisterium, is, in fact, rarely even mentioned by most of America's contemporary Scripture scholars. It is not so much that they adopt a position of open dissent from the teachings of the magisterium, as so many moral theologians do today: On the contrary, they customarily claim to be wholly loyal to the Church and her teachings. In practice, though, they lecture, write, and publish as if the magisterium did not exist.

Msgr. Meier's Contribution To The Fray

Typically, many of these Catholic scholars appear proud to be considered as simply scholars committed to modern critical methods rather than Catholics committed to the faith. One contemporary scholar, Msgr. John Meier of the University of Notre Dame, in a book on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, that attracted considerable attention when it appeared in 1991, states in his introduction that it was his conscious ambition to "prescind from what Christian faith or later Church teaching says about Jesus, without either affirming or denying such claims." He writes, "I will try to bracket what I hold by faith and examine only what can be shown to be certain or probable by historical research and argumentation."

Whatever else might be said about Msgr. Meier's plan, we can surely conclude on the basis of his own words that it decidedly does not square with what Vatican II says about conducting Christian biblical scholarship. His whole proceeding, in fact, entails doing exactly what Vatican II taught that a Catholic exegete should never do, namely, prescind from the faith of the Church and the analogy of faith. More than that, there is something very disingenuous (if not actually dishonest) in asserting conclusions on historical grounds that must necessarily be disavowed on faith grounds—if one truly holds the faith. For example, concerning the "brothers" of Jesus mentioned in Matthew 12:46, Mark 3:31, and Luke 8:19, Msgr. Meier states that viewed simply from a philological and historical point of view, "the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were his siblings." Yet, as everyone knows, the Church affirms the perpetual virginity of Mary, and therefore, Jesus could not have had any siblings. However, we might interpret the New Testament texts in question.

Both of these views, the probable "historical" view and the fixed and firm "faith" view cannot be correct, and it is not at all clear what purpose is served when a member of the faculty at a Catholic university insists on promoting what can only appear to be some kind of double truth. His announced method allows him to deconstruct the New Testament as thoroughly as any atheist does, as thoroughly as the Jesus Seminar does—and then blandly announce that he holds on faith what he has just judged improbable or impossible by reason. In the present intellectual climate, his colleagues no doubt honor him for his unflinching "honesty" in the face of the "facts." Unfortunately, it is not clear to the outside observer that all of his facts are facts. Moreover, in the nature of the case, to prescind from the faith comes perilously close to disregarding, if not abandoning, the faith for all practical purposes.

Without being able to examine this particular scholar in any further detail, we can nevertheless conclude on the basis of what we have seen that there is a widespread and serious disjunction between the approaches, methods, and results of the "latest" Catholic biblical scholarship and the faith of the Church.

Fr. Boismard Of The Ecole Biblique

Is this downplaying and even prescinding from the faith in some current Catholic biblical scholarship purely an American problem? No. Take the example of a prominent French Catholic scholar, the Dominican priest, Fr. M.-E. Boismard. For 43 years, he has been a professor at the famous Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, the prestigious institution that produced the famous Jerusalem Bible. Fr. Boismard has a long list of scholarly publications and is apparently very highly regarded in the field. How does this distinguished Dominican approach his work? Does he adhere to the threefold rule for biblical scholarship laid down in Article 12 of Vatican II's Dei Verbum" The very title of one of his recent works provides us with an immediate answer: The title (translated) is Should We Still Be Speaking about the Resurrection? (1995) [Our Victory over Death: Resurrection? (Liturgical Press, 1998)].

The first reaction of the average Catholic to this question would surely be: Can we fail to speak about the resurrection from the perspective of faith if the New Testament and the Creed do? Fr. Boismard places great emphasis on the fact that the Nicene Creed speaks of the resurrection of the dead, not of the body; and he has a theory that there really is no resurrection for us, properly speaking, but only immortality of the soul in the Greek sense. He appears to hold, following on a minute examination of the relevant texts in the New Testament, that eternal damnation really means annihilation of the unrepentant; he apparently cannot abide a God who would keep souls in being to punish them for all eternity. His main point, though, is that the resurrection of Jesus does not mean resurrection for us; when dead bodies decay, they are gone forever. The Apostle's Creed, however, nevertheless continues to speak of "the resurrection of the body," as does The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which includes as one of its headings, "Christ's Resurrection and Ours."

In his most recent book, The Dawn of Christianity, which bears the subtitle Before the Birth of Dogmas (1998), Fr. Boismard reinforces our impression that, for all practical purposes, he has simply abandoned the Catholic faith. This book covers the early years of Christianity up to near the end of the first century when, according to current scholarly opinion, most of the Gospels were finally written down. It is important for Fr. Boismard's thesis that dogmas came to "birth"—and that there was a time before they came to birth.

We know that dogmas (or doctrines) do "develop," of course. In this book, however, Fr. Boismard does not deal with the "development" of dogmas or doctrines based on an original revelation coming from the words and acts of Christ. His approach seems to assume that there was never any definite original revelation. His idea seems to be that these dogmas simply grew up in the Church, sometimes on the basis of influences from other sources than the Gospels. Thus, to take the example of the divinity of Christ, he flatly asserts that in Mark, supposedly the "most primitive" of the four Gospels, "Jesus is not God." Only later, and certainly not until around 80 AD, did the "final redactor" of the late Gospel of John, under the supposed influence of Philo of Alexandria, identify Jesus as God, adding at that point the phrase, "and the Word was God" to John 1:1.

The way in which a number of other Church dogmas allegedly came to birth in the same fashion as the dogma of the divinity of Christ are also covered in this book. While we cannot analyze them in detail, we can summarize briefly a couple of Fr. Boismard's other conclusions on the virginal conception and the Trinity.

While admitting that the virginal conception of Jesus is reported in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, Fr. Boismard nevertheless concludes that these accounts are "late redactions," the one in Luke modifying an original account in which Fr. Boismard claims it was originally written that Jesus had been conceived in the normal manner of all human beings. How he could know this in the absence of any actual text of this earlier version of Luke is apparently one of the mysteries of modern biblical scholarship inaccessible to the uninitiated.

Fr. Boismard asks whether Jesus Himself believed in the Trinity, along with the first Christians. He points out that the dogma presupposes Greek philosophy, which recognizes distinctions between "substance" (one and unique) and "persons" (three) and concludes from this that Jesus and the apostles did not believe in, and could not have believed in, the Trinity. These particular distinctions, of course, were indeed made when the Church finally defined the dogma at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century; but this in no way means that the Trinity was not "revealed," nor that the first Christians could not have believed it before its final formulation. Fr. Boismard insists that the Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28:19 does not go back to Jesus but was added by the "final redactor" of Matthew, again, around the year 80 AD—we begin to see why so many "layers" and "redactions" are necessary!

We may perhaps bring this rather unedifying recital to an end by mentioning that, according to Fr. Boismard's interpretation, the final redactor of John's Gospel added the phrase, "and the Word was God" to John I: I to compete with the cult of the goddess Artemis, daughter of Zeus, which was flourishing at the time at Ephesus in Asia Minor. How could the lowly and obscure crucified Jesus possibly compete with the splendid Artemis and her temple at Ephesus, one of the ancient Wonders of the World? Only if He Himself were God and the Son of God. Ergo, add an appropriate phrase to that effect to the prologue of the Gospel of John and make Jesus God!

All this would be laughable if it were not so sad—and if the stakes for the faith were not so high. It would certainly appear, though, that the faith of the Church is being challenged by scholars far beyond the ranks of the Jesus Seminar; the faith of the Church is evidently being equally challenged by some of the scholars supposedly within the Church's own ranks.

[Kenneth D. Whitehead, a writer, editor, and translator, is a former US assistant secretary of education. He is the author of numerous books, including his recent volumes, One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic: The Early Church Was the Catholic Church(Ignatius, 2000) and John Paul II: Witness to Truth(St. Augustine's Press, 2001). His article, "Biblical Scholarship & the Faith of the Church," was originally published in Crisis magazine (March 2000), 37-41, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Crisis magazine, Morley Publishing Group, Inc., 1814 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036.]

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Robert Funk & The Jesus Seminar


By William R. Farmer

The Church canonized only four Gospels; however, Robert Funk, the leader of the Jesus Seminar, wants to add the Gospel of Thomas and the Sayings Gospel Q to our canon. This poses the question: Why did the Church canonize four Gospels and no more? The answer is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only Gospels that tell the story of "the flesh and blood martyrdom of the Son of God."

The Church rejected all Gospels that failed to tell this story. The Gospel of Peter says that while Jesus hung on the cross, He felt no pain. If Jesus felt no pain, His death was not a flesh-and-blood martyrdom. If he did not experience the pain we would have felt, His death could not have been redemptive. Similarly, the Gospel of Thomas is only a collection of Jesus’ sayings. There is no flesh-and-blood martyrdom—no redemptive death of Jesus. The same can be said of the scholarly collection of sayings the Seminar calls “Q.”

Despite all its faults, I find the Church to be essentially trustworthy. Robert Funk (pictured right) and other prominent members of the Jesus Seminar, such as the Catholic scholar Dominic Crossan (pictured left), not without reason are constrained to draw our attention to the shortcomings of the Church when compared with the vision of Jesus. However, instead of being what they claim to be—historians—Robert Funk and his colleagues in the Jesus Seminar have collectively turned their backs on sound historiography.

Their first major failure has been their inability to properly construe the importance of certain data preserved in the letters of Paul for understanding Jesus and His role in Christian origins. The second major failure is they don’t offer a credible account of Jesus’ relationship to Judaism.

A Crucial Text

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 clearly provides important data on the question of Jesus as a historical figure. It is important to set these verses within the context of Paul’s pastoral concerns. Some at Corinth were confused about the requirements of what Paul refers to as “The Lord’s Supper.” He writes, “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk.” Paul ends this section of his letter with these words: “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if any is hungry, let him eat at home—lest you come together to be condemned” (1 Corinthians 11:33-34). In giving apostolic documentation for the ruling he expects the Corinthians to observe, Paul provides us with certain information of fundamental importance for understanding Jesus and His role in instituting the Church.

After letting the Corinthians know that he is informed about the abuses going on among them, he asks rhetorically, “What? Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” Then before laying down his trump card, Paul prepares his readers by asking, “What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this?” (1 Corinthians 11:22). Paul, in effect, answered with a categorical “No!” He said that he would not commend them for this because what they were doing was not in accord with what he received from the Lord and what he faithfully handed on to them, namely:
On the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which takes your place. Do this in remembrance of me.” He took the cup, too, after supper, in the same way, saying, “This cup is the new covenant ratified by my blood. Whenever you drink it, do it in memory of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
This text is of decisive importance for the historian who wants to understand Jesus. Before analyzing it to determine what can be established concerning what Jesus probably did and said that night, there are two questions that must be answered: (1) From whom did Paul receive this tradition?, and (2) Is this the only example of Paul passing on tradition he received?

In Chapter 15 of the same letter to the Corinthians, there is another example of Paul passing on the tradition that he received. Before citing the authoritative tradition on this matter of the resurrection, Paul introduces it with: “Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved...” Then, using the same technical language as in Chapter 11, language used by Jewish rabbis when passing on received tradition, Paul writes:
For I delivered to you as of first importance, what I also received, namely, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, he was raised on the third day in accordance with scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the Grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preached and so you believed [emphasis added].
This is a stunning autobiographical statement: To whom is Paul referring when he states that he worked harder than any of them? In this context, the antecedent of “them” includes Peter, the twelve, the 500 brethren to whom Jesus appeared at one time, James, and all the apostles. These include those he refers to elsewhere in his letters as “those who were apostles before me” (cf. Galatians 1:17).

Apostle Before St. Paul

But as stunning as this autobiographical statement may be, it pales in comparison with what Paul tells us about himself and his relationship to those who were apostles before him in his letter to the Galatians. For in this second autobiographical statement, we are provided information that sheds light on the other preliminary question that must be discussed before proceeding with an analysis of the text concerning what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed. In other words, before taking up the tradition concerning what Jesus did that night, we need to know more about where this material came from, namely, from whom did Paul receive the tradition he is handing on?

Beginning with Galatians 1:13, Paul writes:
[Y]ou have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.... But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me in order that I might preach the good news about him to the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, rather I went away into Arabia, and then returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas.
At this point, we pause to explain the importance of the word historesai that Paul uses to describe the purpose of his going to Jerusalem. The histor in ancient Greece, among other things, was the person who questioned witnesses in court.

The first Greek historians explored the great rivers and penetrated inland as far as they could safely travel. Then they would interrogate people from further inland, obtaining eyewitness accounts about the vast unknown interiors of the surrounding continents. The reports of these geographers constituted the beginnings of what became known as “history.” Thus, the verb historesai can mean “to inquire into or about a certain matter” or “to inquire about a person.” Or it can also mean “to examine” or “to observe.” Such a questioner or observer would then become “one who is informed” about something or “one who knows.”

The plain meaning of what Paul writes is that he went to make inquiry of Peter. Paul is not making himself subservient to anyone in his decision to ask questions—his apostolic concern to “get it right” is foundational for Christian life and faith. His use of historesai in this context conceptually places Peter in the witness box. Paul is the histor. Peter is the one being questioned. For example, Peter could have been an expert witness in matters of dispute about the “faith” of the church of God (Galatians 1:23 and 1 Corinthians 15:3) or as an eyewitness on matters about traditions handed on in the church of God, especially in the case of tradition involving words and/or actions of Jesus that could have been decisive for the faith of the church of God.

Fifteen Days with St. Peter

The question is from whom did Paul receive the traditions he passed on to the Corinthians? According to the Jesus Seminar, the Church’s Eucharist grows out of Hellenistic cultic practices in Asia Minor or Greece. But the evidence fairly construed clearly supports the Church’s teaching that the Eucharist is historically grounded in the words and actions of Jesus: He took bread, he broke it, and he said, “This is my body.” This is simply the difference between a Church with the Eucharist and a Church without it.

Paul, in going up to Jerusalem to question Peter, was moving up the stream of Church tradition to its very source, that is, to those eyewitnesses involved in the formulation of this tradition. But when and from whom did Paul first receive notice of this tradition? And who took the responsibility of seeing that this tradition was handed on to Paul properly formulated?

We return to Paul’s account in Galatians. Paul has just told the Galatians that three years after his return from Arabia to Damascus, he went up to Jerusalem to make inquiry of Peter, and he adds, “I remained with him fifteen days.” Then he continues his account by saying in effect: “At this point in time [i.e., after the 15 days spent with Peter in Jerusalem] I went [northward] to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still not known by face to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, ‘He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy’. And they glorified God because of me.” In this report, there are historical data that help us to know from whom Paul received the tradition about what Jesus did and said on the night he was betrayed.

Paul has just completed his 15-day stay with Peter. He is about to embark on a journey northward into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and for some reason, he wants the Galatians to know that at that time he was still unknown by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea, that is, the churches in and around Jerusalem. All they knew was what they heard, and what they heard presumably came from churches in the areas in which he had been preaching during the preceding three years. No doubt this included churches in the area of Damascus, but it may also have included churches as far north as Antioch and as far south as northern Galilee—but not in Judea. These churches in Judea only knew what they heard from other churches, ones Paul had once persecuted. And what they heard was simply, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith [emphasis added] he once tried to destroy.” In other words, the “faith” Paul had been preaching and had brought with him when he came to Peter in Jerusalem was a pre-Pauline faith.

The first possibility is that Paul received the tradition from the church of God he had once persecuted (Galatians 1:13). This follows from the fact that after his conversion, he began to preach the faith of that church. And it would have been fitting for him to have received from that same church the tradition that served to undergird that faith. Therefore, those he had once persecuted would have taken responsibility for seeing to it that Paul was equipped with properly formulated tradition serving to undergird that faith and to offer apostolic guidance to those who wished to put it into practice (cf. 1 Corinthians 11-15).

Of course, this reconstruction is a hypothesis, but it is grounded in historical data preserved in our earliest source, the letters of Paul, whereas the suggestion of the Jesus Seminar is a hypothesis that hangs in the air without any historical support or reasoned defense.

True Source of Paul’s Faith

This hypothesis, however, is not complete, for it is crucial to ask where this Church of God that Paul once persecuted and ravished came from. There is only one credible historical source for this church’s coming into being: the preaching of the faith by those who were apostles before Paul. Whether it was the preaching of Peter, some other apostle, or more than one apostle is not decisive. The point is that the faith Paul began to preach according to this report did not originate with Paul but went back to an earlier time before Paul began his persecuting activity.

The heart of the issue is this: The Jesus Seminar suggests that Paul’s version of the Last Supper sprouted in a soil of pagan Gentile tradition in Asia Minor or Greece. But historical scholarship suggests that the tradition of the Last Supper Paul received and handed on to his churches was handed on to him by the same church he once persecuted and whose faith he had tried to destroy.

Thus, at long last, we can answer the question of from whom did Paul receive the tradition concerning the Lord’s Supper, with “He received it from the church he once persecuted.” The faith Paul preached was closely related to the tradition he received, specifically, the tradition that “Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3), which he handed on to his churches, along with other traditions that were decisive for the Church, including what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed.

In the tradition concerning the Lord’s Supper handed on by Paul, Jesus identified His body with the broken bread, representing His death as a death for others (1 Corinthians 11:24). This offering of one’s life for others is in accord with Isaiah 53, which is included in the Scriptures referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:3: “Christ died for our sins in accordance to the scriptures.” The point is the tradition concerning the Lord’s Supper that Paul handed on is doctrinally bound to the tradition that Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3).

Through the interrelationship of these traditions, Paul, in giving counsel concerning pastoral problems in the Church at Corinth, is drawing on a larger body of authoritative tradition, namely, that formulated by, or under the influence of, Peter, John, and other apostles.

The faith Paul brought with him when he came to Jerusalem and spent 15 days with Peter must have been a faith Paul and Peter shared. However, this is not to say that he received it directly from Peter, certainly not during his 15-day stay, since it was a faith he had already been preaching during the preceding three years.

It is not surprising that this faith was embodied in the tradition Paul passed on to the Corinthians. Paul gives expression to this faith in the words of 1 Corinthians 15:3: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” It is clear that Paul embraced this faith and made it central in his preaching. For example, he addresses the churches of Galatia with these words: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins” (Galatians 1:4).

Jesus and the Jewish Tradition

This leads to the second charge against the members of the Jesus Seminar—namely, their failure as historians to credibly reconstruct the historical Jesus at the point of His relationship to Judaism and especially to the Jewish scriptures. There is a historical disconnection, if not a disruption.

From the perspective of the Seminar’s “Galilean sage,” the scriptural account of Jesus’ words and deeds on the night He was betrayed can be regarded as simply bizarre—totally out of character for a sage. Therefore, it could not have happened. But is that the only alternative? Suppose Jesus was the kind of Jew who was well acquainted with Jewish scriptures, including the books of the prophets.

Prophets were known to engage in bizarre behavior when it was called for or when it was what the prophet believed was in accordance with the will and plan of God. For example, in Isaiah 20, God says to the prophet: “Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put off your sandals from your feet.” And Isaiah did so, walking naked and barefoot. And the Lord said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years, as a sign and symbol against Egypt and Ethiopia, so will the King of Assyria lead off the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Ethiopia, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt...” (Isaiah 20:2-4).

What Paul and the evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that Jesus did and said on the night he was betrayed comes across as somewhat less bizarre than we might at first think once we see it in the light of his Jewish background, specifically in the light of the witness of the prophet Isaiah. Here is a “servant of the Lord” who once walked the streets of Jerusalem for three years naked and barefoot as a sign from God, carrying a message that had a bearing on the salvation of God’s people.

The Church and most historians do not question that Jesus was a Jew who knew the Jewish scriptures intimately. One way for us to get a better idea of Jesus in relation to Judaism is to make an attempt to place ourselves in the upper room the night Jesus was betrayed. This we can do by focusing imaginatively on what Jesus is reported to have said and done that night in the two versions of the Lord’s Supper preserved in the New Testament, making use of wirkungsgeschichte where we take account of later interpretations of texts in making our own credible imaginative reconstructions.

On that night, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks to God over it, broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body broken in your behalf.” In so doing, he took the first step toward preparing his followers to identify his death with that of the redemptive death of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53, who gave his life as a ransom for many. To reinforce this identification, and to imprint it indelibly on the minds of his disciples, after supper Jesus took the traditional cup of blessing and, after blessing it, gave it to his disciples, saying: “Take, drink. This is my blood of the New Covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The use of the expression “poured out” in this context is an allusion to the words of the prophet Isaiah in reference to the redeeming death of the Servant in Isaiah 53:12: “He poured out his life unto death.” The use of the fuller expression “poured out for many” is an even clearer allusion to Isaiah 53:12: “He poured out his life unto death...he bore the sins of many.”

Finally, the full expression “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” is an unmistakable allusion to the fuller text of Isaiah 53:12: “He poured out his life unto death...he bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors.”

Reasonable doubt that Jesus had in his mind this teaching of Isaiah concerning the Servant of the Lord when he spoke and acted as he did is further lessened when we reflect on the verses preceding Isaiah 53:12. Take, for example, verse 5: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.”

Finally, there are the comforting and redeeming words of Isaiah 53:11 that remind us of the restorative purpose of the Servant’s suffering: “The Lord shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.”

What Jesus did that night functioned as a prophetic, symbolic act in the tradition of Isaiah. It was also a parabolic act in which what Jesus was saying and doing was to be compared to what Isaiah had said that the wounded Servant would accomplish. Only when this connection was made would the full impact of the text of Isaiah grasp the minds of his heretofore disbelieving hearers. At that point, all who had ears to hear would have had their minds turned by what Jesus was communicating to them. For all who had eyes to see and ears to hear, this was an exhilarating moment, calling for a repentance for unbelief that was pregnant with hope: “Because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; He bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors [emphasis added].”

Of course, until Jesus had actually (not just symbolically) freely given himself over into the hands of the transgressors, had been buried, and had been raised up and vindicated, most of Jesus’ disciples would only continue to falter, as we are told Peter did. But the seeds for belief in Jesus’ messianic vindication and exaltation were sown in the hearts of His disciples that night. Thus, after they had sung a hymn and had walked out into the night, there was still a song abiding in their hearts, and they followed Jesus to see what the Lord would do. The incredible words of Isaiah concerning the Servant would, as the word of God, hover over the chaos of God’s new creation as the Spirit had hovered over the chaos of God’s first creation.

What then keeps the Jesus Seminar from recognizing that the Jesus who spoke the parables is the same Jesus who died for the sins of others, a Jesus who freely accepted His death as a voluntary giving of himself for others? The answer is they acknowledge no such connection. They misconstrue the data that make this connection possible and give them short shrift.

The failure of the Jesus Seminar to properly construe the importance of historical data that are decisive for understanding Jesus, preserved in the letters of Paul, is far reaching. The short shrift members of the Jesus Seminar have given to 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and all related data from Paul’s letters is representative of the myopic approach they take to much of the historical data concerning Jesus. Convergence between the second to fourth century Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and the hypothetical Q is a case in point. For them such convergence is given more weight, in general, than they have given to this case of convergence between our earliest historical witness, Paul, and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

[William R. Farmer is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Southern Methodist University and research scholar at the University of Dallas. His recent publications include, The Gospel of Jesus: The Pastoral Relevance of the Synoptic Problem (1994), Anti-Judaism and the Gospels (1999), and The Last Twelve Verses of Mark (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series) (2005). His article, "Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar," was originally published in Crisis magazine (March 2000), 20-25, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Crisis magazine, Morley Publishing Group, Inc., 1814 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036.]

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Genesis of the Jesus Seminar


By Prof. John McCormick

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” Sadly, P.T. Barnum’s famous saying applies not only to the circus but also to academia. It seems that the scholars of the Jesus Seminar bank on gullibility in their efforts to spread a reconstructed Gospel that presents a Jesus to their own liking. The Jesus Seminar, chaired by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, is a self-promoting, pretentious attempt to popularize a historical Jesus, which is more culturally appealing. While claiming to represent the mainstream of critical New Testament scholarship, the Seminar might be likened to a sideshow rather than the center-ring attraction.

In many ways, the analogy of a traveling circus is apt. The members of the Seminar have taken their twice-yearly meetings on the road. They advertise their coming and invite the press to observe their proceedings where they identify those aspects of the Gospels that represent the authentic Jesus—by their account, very little. Boasting of some 74 scholars who are active in its proceedings (contrast this impressive number with that more marginal group, the Society of Biblical Literature, with a mere 6,900 membership), the Jesus Seminar has set out to dissect the Gospels to separate historical fact from mythical baggage.


In 1985, Robert Funk (d. 2005, pictured left) convoked a meeting of 30 scholars in Berkeley, California, to begin this quest for the historical Jesus. They sought to recover the authentic voice of Jesus that lies hidden in the Gospels and which they believe the evangelists and the memory of the early Church have obscured. For six years, they debated interpretations presented in technical papers, prepared and circulated in advance, and then voted to determine the degree of authenticity of Jesus’ words found in the Gospels. Of the sayings of Jesus, 18 percent were accorded the status of probable to definite. The second phase of the Seminar (1991 to 1996) examined the deeds of Jesus and found that of the 176 recorded events in which Jesus was the main actor, only ten are certain; an additional 19 probably occurred—yielding roughly 16 percent of the total. The conclusions of their studies can be found in the books edited by Robert Funk and Roy W. Hoover, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the AUTHENTIC Words of Jesus and The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus.

Over the years, slightly more than 200 Fellows from various traditions (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) have participated in some way in the Seminar. Only an average of 30 to 40 actually attends each meeting. They have adopted a system of voting with colored beads, which indicate the degree of authenticity of the saying or deed of Jesus.
  • Red: Jesus undoubtedly said/did this or something very much like it (as they informally state, “That’s Jesus!”).
  • Pink: Jesus probably said/did something like this (“Sure sounds like Jesus”).
  • Gray: Jesus did not say/do this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own (“Well, maybe”).
  • Black: Jesus did not say/do this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition (“There’s been some mistake”).
They base their judgments on what they call the seven pillars of scholarly wisdom:
  1. We must separate the Jesus of history from the Christ
    of faith.
  2. The Synoptic Gospels are closer to the historical Jesus than the Gospel of John.
  3. Mark was written before Matthew and Luke and was the basis for both.
  4. The hypothetical source “Q” explained Matthew’s and Luke’s common tradition not found in Mark.
  5. The noneschatological Jesus who speaks in aphorisms and parables must be liberated from the eschatological Jesus, whom the Church constructed.
  6. The contrast between the oral culture of Jesus and the print culture of later times (Jesus only spoke in short, memorable, oft-repeated phrases, never longer discourse).
  7. The Gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the Church’s faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the Gospel story for the first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand.
However, the Seminar demurs that as useful and necessary as these pillars might be, there can be no final guarantee of the results. According to the Seminar, “The last temptation is to create Jesus in our own image, to marshal the facts to support preconceived convictions.” But one might wonder if this is not what the seven pillars of wisdom in fact guarantee, a Jesus in their own image. Though claiming to engage in critical scholarship, the Seminar is uncritical of its own starting point. Operating from a bias against prior ecclesial perspectives of Jesus, it rejects out of hand anything that tokens of a traditional understanding. Anything that might be favorable to a confessional position must automatically be discounted:
The Scholars Version (SV) is authorized by scholars and is free of any ecclesiastical and religious control, unlike other major translations in English…. Since SV is not bound by the dictates of church councils, its contents and organization vary from traditional bibles. The Five Gospels contains the Gospel of Thomas in addition to the four canonical Gospels. Because scholars believe the Gospel of Mark was written first, they have placed it first among the five.
The noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945, is given equal footing with the canonical Gospels. The Seminar refuses to be cowed by the dictates of councils in its re-creation of the historical Jesus:
The Christ of creed and dogma, who had been firmly in place in the Middle Ages, can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope. The old deities and demons were swept from the skies by that remarkable glass.... The church appears to smother the historical Jesus by superimposing this heavenly figure on him in the creed: Jesus is displaced by the Christ as the so-called Apostle’s Creed makes evident.
Though claiming to be on the cutting edge of critical scholarship, the Seminar’s findings are not new. The so-called quest for the historical Jesus began when scholars sought to use the sciences of critical history in the interpretation of the biblical texts. Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) was one of the first champions of the quest. He maintained that the New Testament view of Jesus was not historical but rather a fabrication by His disciples who desired to see the kingdom fulfilled despite the crucifixion of Jesus. To recover a truly “historical” Jesus, it was necessary to expose the false “dogmatic” interpretation of Jesus as the Christ. Influenced by the antireligious sentiment of the early Enlightenment, he denied the historicity of the miracles and resurrection because he believed them to be the creation of the disciples as a means of validating their aspirations to preside over the kingdom intended by Jesus. For Reimarus, Jesus was no more than a moral sage who sought to realize the ideals of the kingdom and who mistakenly believed Himself to be the Messiah.

David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) (pictured right), with his Life of Jesus Critically Examined, followed in the wake of Reimarus. Applying Hegelian dialectic, Strauss sought to recover the authentic Jesus of history by contrasting the traditional interpretation of the Gospels, which smacked of supernaturalism, with the more rationalistic interpretations then coming into favor. For a supernaturalist, the resurrection was a clear example of divine intervention in history, whereas the rationalist would explain it as a bodily resuscitation or as a hallucination. Strauss argued that neither approach was correct. He insisted that the Gospel stories are products of religious imagination, what he called “myth,” though he did allow that there might have been a kernel of historical truth. The criteria? Any account that contradicted the known laws of nature would be considered mythical; anything contradicted by another biblical account also was to be discounted. Strauss’s basic argument concluded that the Gospels do not treat Jesus historically and therefore it would be impossible to write a truly historical account of his life. Liberal Protestants, however, continued the quest.

Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) (pictured right) thought the quest for the historical Jesus illegitimate. He argued that the Gospels only establish the bare fact of Jesus’ existence and His death by crucifixion. The Jesus of history is concealed under layers of kerygma—later proclamations about Jesus as the risen Christ. We cannot get back to the Jesus of history but only to the Christ of the early Church’s faith. In addition to his historical concerns, Bultmann denied the Jesus quest on theological grounds as well. His Lutheran belief in justification by faith alone led him to believe that it is a mistake to base our faith on historical research. The kerygma assumes the fact of the earthly Jesus’ historical existence, but it is only the kerygma that grounds our faith in Christ. Sharing the rationalist prejudices of the earlier seekers, he sought to demythologize the kerygma of the New Testament, arguing that it expressed the categories of a first-century worldview. The interpreter’s task is to remythologize the Gospels by expressing in contemporary terms what had been said in the early kerygma. Thus, contemporary experience becomes the norm by which Scripture is to be interpreted. It is our faith, not the faith of the first-century Christians.

In contrast to Bultmann’s historical skepticism, the Seminar proposes to establish the historical reliability of at least some of the data found in the Gospels. However, when all is said and done, what remains is a severely mutilated portrait of a Jesus who little resembles the Christ presented in the Gospels, for the Seminar seeks only the authentic historical Jesus. Since the majority of the participants reject out of hand a divine Jesus who worked miracles, who spoke of a future judgment in apocalyptic terms, or who was raised from the dead, anything in the Gospels that refers to these had to be the fabrication of persons with an agenda.

The Gospels record the miracles of Jesus, which obviously could not have occurred, such scholars argue; therefore, the Gospels cannot be trusted to be completely historically accurate. We, therefore, must sift through the Gospels and glean only that which is compatible with reason—that is, a reason that lacks faith. The Seminar starts with philosophical presuppositions that determine what counts as historical evidence, presuppositions fundamentally at odds with the message of the Gospels.

A Wolf in the Midst of the Flock

If this were merely a group of crank scholars left to themselves, one could say no harm done. But the Seminar’s claim to represent the mainstream of Christian scholarship is misleading to the uniformed public and disingenuous at best. Aided by secular media that seek to capitalize on controversy, every Christmas and Easter the public is treated to the Seminar’s interpretation of the meaning of these mysteries, as if this is what most scholars believe. The Seminar’s participants try to present a false dichotomy, as if the issue was historical fact versus religious faith. Many scholars recognize the two are not incompatible.

The Seminar’s thinking is illustrated by many examples. In its version of Mark 1:17, we read: “Become my followers and I’ll have you fishing for people!” The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar mark this gray because they doubt whether Jesus actively recruited followers. They are skeptical that Jesus deliberately set out to organize a movement by recruiting disciples; they think he was probably an itinerant sage without institutional goals. To them, he certainly did not have it in mind to found a Church like the one that eventually came into being. The Seminar also claims that it was the early disciples’ tendency to justify their own claims by attributing statements and stories to Jesus.

But how are we to know whether Jesus had any institutional goals? Or that He never intended to found the Church? According to the Seminar, we ought to appeal to the seven pillars of scholarly wisdom, which tell us that Jesus only spoke in aphorisms and parables and was not concerned about the future and that the Church sought to establish a Christ of faith as the means of legitimating her own claims. The Seminar says, “Christian conviction eventually overwhelms Jesus: he is made to confess what Christians had come to believe.... The axiom bears repeating: Jesus was not the first Christian. However, he is often made to talk like a Christian by his devoted followers.”

Recreated in Their Image and Likeness

In their re-creation of Jesus, the itinerant sage, the Fellows state: “Like the cowboy hero of the American West exemplified by Gary Cooper, the sage of the ancient Near East was laconic, slow to speech, a person of few words.” From this compressed characterization, they develop certain generalizations or working principles:
  • Jesus as a rule does not initiate dialogue or debate, neither does He offer to cure people.
  • Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about Himself in the first person.
  • Jesus makes no claims to be the Anointed, the Messiah.
They then offer this caveat: “The fact that some words attributed to Jesus were not likely spoken by him does not necessarily diminish their importance.”

Based on their criteria, Jesus probably said in response to a question about taxes, “Pay to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21, red print). In response to the disciple’s request that He teach them to pray, Jesus probably said, “Father, (red print)/your name be revered. Impose your imperial rule. (pink print)/Provide us with the bread we need day by day. Forgive us our sins, since we too forgive everyone in debt to us. And please don’t subject us to test after test (gray print)” (Luke 11:2-4 SV).

Occasionally, they do admit that Jesus offered unsolicited advice, as during the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “Congratulations you poor! God’s domain belongs to you” (Luke 6:20, SV, red print) or “Congratulations to the poor in spirit!” (Mt 5:3, SV, pink print).

Matthew’s version is less likely than Luke’s because the reasons for the congratulations are religious rather than socio-economic. Hence, the Seminar believes they are much more likely to have been spiritualized by the later Christian community. The term “blessed,” the Seminar notes, is too archaic for its tastes. However, one might question whether there is a fundamental difference in worldviews expressed by the term “congratulations” as compared with “blessed.” Congratulations may be appropriate if someone wins the lottery, but to say someone is blessed permeates the notion with a recognition of God’s grace and favor, not merely human luck.

The Church Speaks

In contrast to the approach of the Jesus Seminar, the Pontifical Biblical Commission offers a more balanced and—dare I say—less ideological approach to biblical interpretation. In its 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, it notes that Catholic exegesis does not adhere to any one scientific method as its own. It recognizes that the biblical texts are the work of human authors, who used their own capacities for expression according to the time and social context in which they lived. Catholic exegesis is free to make use of those scientific methods that allow a better appreciation of the meaning of the texts in their linguistic, literary, sociocultural, religious, and historical contexts. This exegesis is to be carried out in the living tradition of the Church, recognizing that various methods offer both possibilities and limitations. Though acknowledging a legitimate use of the historical-critical method, it notes that the method in itself cannot imply a priori assumptions that rule out the possibility of God acting in a unique way within history—to do so would be to distort the method.

The Biblical Commission also shares some of the Jesus Seminar’s concerns regarding fundamentalism. It warns against the dangers of a fundamentalist approach to Scripture that, while rightly insisting on the divine inspiration of the Bible and the inerrancy of the Word of God, nevertheless tends toward a naive literalism that fails to take into account the historical origins and development of Scripture, a fundamentalism that bars any scientific or critical method for the interpretation of Scripture. The danger is the tendency towards an “intellectual suicide,” which fails to recognize that the expression of the Word of God is conditioned by human language and culture and that proper interpretation must recognize the various literary forms and the modes of thinking and speaking found in the biblical texts. The fundamentalist tendency is to historicize material the authors never intended to be historical and to rule out the possibility of any symbolic or figurative meaning. As the commission notes, “It accepts the literal reality of an ancient, out-of-date cosmology, simply because it is found expressed in the Bible; this blocks dialogue with a broader way of seeing the relationship between culture and faith.”

Authorship of Inspired Texts

The bishops of the Second Vatican Council in their document on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, recognized a certain development in the Gospel texts from the events of Jesus, through the early kerygma, to the written Gospels. Nonetheless, they also unhesitatingly affirmed the Gospels’ historicity as handing on faithfully what Jesus, the Son of God, did and taught. Unlike the Seminar, the bishops do not believe that the Gospel development is the result of a distorted ecclesial agenda, but the work of the Holy Spirit:
The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form, others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, all the while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus.
The bishops also noted the distinction between God as the “principal author” of Sacred Scripture (that is, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) and the human writers who are the “instrumental authors.” This instrumentality is not passive but active. “To compose the Sacred Scriptures, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.” Since the Holy Spirit is the primary author, Scripture teaches “firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”

Since in Scripture God speaks to man in a human way so that man can correctly interpret Scripture, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words. To discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. Furthermore, Scripture must be interpreted in accord with the Spirit who inspired it by being especially attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture, reading the Scripture within the living tradition of the whole Church, and recognizing the analogy of faith. There is a coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.

For the Church, biblical interpretation is an indispensable task. In our attempts to understand the Scriptures, we must acknowledge our limitations as well as our presuppositions. The Christian faith was not meant to rest on the shifting sands of critical scholarship but on the proclamation of the Gospel, which Christ announced and to which the Church must be faithful.

[John McCormick is assistant professor of theology at Newman University in Witchita, Kansas. His article, "The Genesis of the Jesus Seminar," was originally published in Crisis magazine (March 2000), 16-19, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Crisis magazine, Morley Publishing Group, Inc., 1814 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036.]