YOUR PRESUPPOSITIONS ARE SHOWING
IN SEPTEMBER LAST year American academic and founder of the “Jesus Seminar”, Dr Robert Funk, visited Australia in order to teach his version of the historical Jesus.
The “Jesus Seminar” is a group of scholars, mostly from America, gathered by Dr Funk in 1985, whose initial interest was to discover what Jesus really said. “The Five Gospels”?, published in 1993, promotes their new and radical “forgotten” Jesus, who is purportedly responsible for only 16 per cent of the sayings usually attributed to him.
Funk and his team colour coded the sayings of Jesus from red (authentic) to pink and grey and black (definitely inauthentic). They make great use of the Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945 in Egypt, but not usually taken seriously as a sayings source for Jesus by other scholars. It is a telling point that like many liberals they support late dating for the canonical gospels, yet are prepared to date slabs of the Gospel of Thomas at around 50 A.D. (100 years earlier than most scholars would be comfortable with).
The Jesus Seminar hit the headlines here in Brisbane in the aftermath of Funk’s visit to the Parish of Drayton. The Parish Priest, Dr Greg Jenks, is a member of the “Jesus Seminar”?, and he wrote the visit up in “Focus”, the diocesan newspaper. But he spoke of the “?findings” of the “Jesus Seminar” as ground breaking scientific discoveries, implying that those of us whose Christology is orthodox are no better than fundamentalists.
It was pleasing to hear that the editor of Focus was deluged with letters of complaint from a wide cross section of church people who had began to see for the first time the dimensions of crusading unbelief right at the heart of the Church’s life.
On 17th December, I attended a public debate between Dr Jenks and the Rt. Rev’d. Paul Barnett, one of the regional bishops in the Diocese of Sydney. Both men are quietly spoken scholars. Dr Jenks, an amiable liberal, has been on university and theological college faculties for many years before returning to parish life; Bishop Barnett is an evangelical and an historian of note, greatly respected in academic circles down under. He has written a number of books on the historical claims of Christianity, the latest being his collection of lectures, “Jesus: the Logic of History”.
The debate took place at S. Francis’ Theological College, and presented a major headache to the college staff. So many people were interested, that there were literally more outside the lecture room than inside. Fortunately it was a hot summer’s evening, and the windows and doors were kept open, with loudspeakers pointed towards the overflow crowds. Christians of every persuasion were there, although it appears that a majority were evangelicals and catholics who came to support Bishop Barnett as he tackled the intricacies of Dr Jenks’ argument.
The evening began with a paper from each scholar. Dr Jenks spoke with excitement about the authentic “voice print” of Jesus that is now emerging from the Jesus Seminar’s work. Jesus is a “sage”, a wise teacher interested in subverting existing structures of belief and society in order to bring “bottom up” social reform. Jenks claimed that this is the Jesus of the so-called “Q” churches (“Q” being a sayings source accepted by most scholars on the basis of a study of common material in Matthew and Luke). And this is the “real”? Jesus. On the other hand, Christianity as it comes to us from the New Testament is a perversion of the early Church which moved from this “real” Jesus to an apocalyptic figure expressing the world view of John the Baptist and the corrupting influence of Paul. Clearly, the Jesus Seminar’s message to the contemporary Church is that by shedding these apocalyptic accretions and Pauline Christological corruptions, not only do we find the authentic Jesus, but we find a Jesus who speaks with relevance to our pluralistic generation.
Bishop Barnett went straight to the heart of the matter when he spoke of “utterly arbitrary revisionism”, and accused the Jesus Seminar scholars of “finding a Jesus that they went looking for”. He demonstrated his familiarity with the contemporary explosion of Christological studies, and then outlined the flaws that he, as a one time professional historian, found in the methodology of Dr Funk and his colleagues: An arbitrarily selective use of sources (e.g. leaning heavily on “?Q” and the “Gospel of Thomas” while ignoring Mark); an inconsistency that would not be tolerated in genuine historical research (e.g. leaving out of consideration awkward slabs of “?Q” that express a high Christology); a reliance on the “criterion of dissimilarity”? – in other words, a saying of Jesus is judged authentic only when it is dissimilar to antecedent Jewish tradition on the one hand, and subsequent Christian tradition on the other. This criterion automatically eliminates 82% of the saying of Jesus in the Gospels! Barnett accused the Jesus Seminar of circularity. Funk and his colleagues knew what they did not want to find: the Jesus of tired old orthodoxy (they admit this). Therefore they found what they were looking for, “rather like a Royal Commission with such narrow terms of reference that only certain conclusions could be reached.” Finally, Barnett said that the Jesus Seminar fails to understand the dynamics of history. He asked how a benign teller of parables could ever have got himself crucified for the capital crime for which Jesus was charged. (“This is a problem for all versions of Jesus as the ‘pale Galilean’ of liberal theology from Reimarus to the Jesus Seminar”).
Discussing unintentional historical evidence from the letters of Paul, Bishop Barnett asked whether this “real” Jesus could have been responsible for the rise of the Church. “?The so-called ‘real’ Jesus of the Jesus Seminar is a feeble mystic, a religious wimp, who would never have been crucified as ‘king of the Jews, nor been the catalyst for a movement that the zealot Saul attempted to destroy, which subsequently changed the course of history.”
The debate and question/ answer session ended up focusing (quite rightly) on the attitudes and assumptions that are brought to any evaluation of Jesus. Dr Jenks was obviously not going to admit any historical evidence that would support the Jesus of the rest of the New Testament and the apostles. He went on to so emphatically deny basic Christian teaching, (he even said that we must get away from immature notions of the faith, such as the resurrection having to do with flesh and bones!) that a number of questions were asked about his integrity in maintaining a licence to function as a priest of the Anglican Church.
In answering questions, Paul Barnett, firmly orthodox, but ever gracious, imputed no dishonesty to the members of the Jesus Seminar. He did, however, seek to understand the reason for the presuppositions with which they approach the historical evidence. He pointed out that (as in the case of John Spong) Dr Funk and many of his colleagues are good people reacting against US fundamentalism “with its premillennial eschatology and insensitivity to social justice”. Barnett, himself no fundamentalist, regretted that in “doing theology by reaction” even scholars who should know better end up exchanging one fundamentalism for another. They’ve gone to the opposite extreme without noticing the middle ground “commonly called catholic orthodoxy”, because their Jesus is the only one they feel comfortable with. (I’ve always seen the irony of one set of fundamentalists intent on turning poetry into history while the other lot are intent on turning history into poetry. Neither approach will do!)
Those of us who spend time with students know that the real difficulty is not struggling through the historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection. It is, rather, getting to the point where the inquirer is prepared to be as objectively driven by the evidence as would be the case if we were studying the Danish invasions of Britain! To be scrupulously fair, any investigation of Jesus and the resurrection must include in the range of possible conclusions (however unlikely it may seem) that the apostles might be right, that the man Jesus did rise from the dead, that the “Jesus of history” is in fact the “Christ of faith”. Then the student is able without prejudice to be propelled by the evidence itself.
If, on the other hand, we exclude the obvious conclusion before the investigation begins, no amount of otherwise persuasive evidence will be convincing. In any other field of historical study, this approach would not be accepted; but it is all too common amongst today’s reductionist biblical scholars and speculative theologians.
The orthodox came away from S. Francis’ College that night feeling that a small victory had been won in the area where the real battle rages in today’s Church. As John Broadhurst has repeatedly said, this battle is not about women priests or any of the other issues that take up so much of our time. It is the battle for a right understanding of Jesus.
Bishop Barnett concluded: “The ‘real’ Jesus is not ‘forgotten,’? but is recoverable through the pages of the gospels. He is the Jesus who did impact on the populace of Galilee as a powerful prophet and on the Jerusalem scribes as a powerful disputer from the north. But there was another ‘face,’ the face of ‘great David’s greater son,’? the ‘Son of Man’ who is the ‘Son of God,’ who is the shepherd of the ‘?lost’ and the ‘friend of sinners’ and their saviour. The Jews at large were not shown that face, only the Twelve. This face as revealed to the Twelve lives on in the faith, teaching and worship of the apostles and the early church, becoming the faith, teaching and worship of the church ‘catholic.’”
“There is only One Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the Son of God – perfect God and perfect man – who taught us the way of God, who died for our forgiveness and who was raised to give us hope in the face of death and he will come again in a second advent. This is he and there is no other. We believe ‘in’ him.”
David Chislett SSC is Vicar of All Saints’, Wickham Terrace Brisbane in the diocese of Brisbane.