Hugh Bates continues his examination of contemporary views of the historical Jesus

AT THE CLOSE of my previous consideration of Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (1) I raised the question of the current fashions in biblical, and particularly Gospel, studies and their relationship to the broader Church scene in the United States. I do not have a particular denomination in mind, though some will be more susceptible than others. Nor am I complaining about these or those specific conclusions of academic research. The trends which these researches seem to be often taking may not be to everybody’s taste – certainly not mine – but the conclusions will have to stand or fall by their own merits. What is more disturbing is the way that some Church leaders and special interest groups, not otherwise noted for their scholarly abilities, seek to appeal to the academic fashion for the endorsement of their own programmes and policies. This is, of course, a very grey area. It is not always clear whether the dog is wagging its tail or the tail is wagging the dog. In any event who knows which is dog and which is tail? This is what produces a queasy feeling in me.

The Five Gospels (2), however, does represent a serious attempt at popularisation. Published in 1993, it summarises the ‘results’ of six years work by the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar was made up of a number (in the end two hundred) “professionally trained specialists called Fellows” who met twice a year, for six years, under the auspices of the Westar Institute in California. As in any well organised seminar they met to discuss papers circulated in advance, and then to vote, using a curious system of coloured beads to evaluate the authenticity of each of the Lord’s recorded sayings in turn. The blurb on the book’s dust cover declares the operation to be “the search for the authentic words of Jesus”. It seeks to answer the question “What did Jesus really say?” We are promised a second instalment at some future date, “What did Jesus really do?” Apparently the seminar is having problems with this! The blurb continues: “The Five Gospels answers these questions in a bold dynamic work that will startle traditional readers of the Bible and rekindle interest in it among secular sceptics”. So now you know!

What has attracted most notice, or notoriety, is the singular and novel way in which these amazing conclusions are presented. The sayings of Jesus, including those found in the Gospel of Thomas and other apocryphal sources are colour-coded according to the likely degree of their genuineness. The colours match those of the beads used to vote on each saying at the end of their discussions. Red is the top rating, pink is quite possible, grey, some degree of probability, and black, altogether negative. This is very convenient, as it makes it possible for most of The Five Gospels to be printed in black type. In the seminar the votes were counted by independent scrutineers, and the final count was evaluated in a manner not unlike the grading (American style) of students’ examination papers. The whole tortuous process was summed up by one seminar member as follows: “Red = That’s Jesus; Pink = Sure sounds like Jesus; Grey = Well maybe; Black = There’s been some mistake”. So much for the Fourth Gospel! This way of describing it is convenient but, at the same time rather revealing. The cat has escaped from the bag. At least one member of the Jesus Seminar had made up his mind about what Jesus would or would not, could or could not, have said. Once you are sure of that, anybody can read off the answer.

The colour code is reproduced on the printed page. No expense would seem to have been spared on the graphics or the presentation, but still $30 for such a lavish and solid hardback is remarkably, some would say suspiciously, inexpensive. The tone of the introduction is an odd mixture, now aggressive and confrontational, now apologetic and defensive, and generally condescending and patronising. We are left in no doubt about the gratitude that we must owe to the tireless and devoted scholars who gathered twice year by year at the Westar Institute in an effort to set us all free from the cruel bondage of our several church traditions. These liberated free-thinking academics have here provided us all with the “basic reality toolkit” of historical knowledge that will enable us to dismember all the oppressive systems of church dogma, and to deconstruct the Christ of faith in order to discover a Jesus to whom we can really relate. Where have we heard all this before?

There now follows a thumbnail sketch, or a bold caricature, of the heroic rise of the enlightened criticism of Christian doctrine and the Bible in general, and of the Gospels in particular. You lucky people! We are now about to share with you the established results of these centuries of struggle and progress! Á propos of the Gospels the editors now proceed to enumerate seven pillars of scholarly wisdom. But things are not always what they seem. Take, for example, two of the “pillars”, the priority of Mark and the existence of Q. We must not be mislead. These are not established conclusions, but working hypotheses, which can be, and have been challenged in living memory. Dom. B.C. Butler in The Originality of St. Matthew (1951) and W.R. Farmer The Synoptic Problem (1963) argue the case for the priority of Matthew. Similarly Austin Farrer produced an idiosyncratic if plausible argument for “dispensing with Q” (1955). This is not to claim that any or all of these three scholars have made their case, but only to say that there is a case to be made. A working hypothesis is only valid as long as it works and delivers the results. It is wrong and misleading to pretend that things are other than they really are.

The Five Gospels itself may be mistaken for something that is not. It is not a critical tool like a Synopsis, a Dictionary or a Concordance – or even like Kittells Worterbuch of Strack/Billerbeck’s Kommentar. For what it is worth it is simply the reflection of a relatively restricted section of academic opinion in a particular region of a particular large country. Whether it is pretending to be more than it really is hardly for me to say. Nevertheless, the editors give one piece of advice, which I can most heartily endorse. “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you” – in red type! Hence I find it very hard to come to terms with a Jesus who pronounced a blessing on the undeserving poor. I suppose that this much at least, I am still part of Middle England. But that is what he said I am shocked and startled when I discover that the Greek word for the “sinners” who Jesus befriended is the same as that which is used to translate the Hebrew for “the wicked” in the Greek version of the Psalms. Come to think of it, I remember being thrown out of a Divinity lesson at school in my early teens for making something like this point, but unfortunately I then did not have the linguistic knowledge to support my argument! The Gospel is not, and never was for the fainthearted. However I am afraid that the members of the Jesus Seminar may not always be following their own good advice. Social anthropologists, if they put their minds to it and were able to secure the necessary research funding, might discover a far greater degree of cultural homogeneity among American college professors in the second half of the twentieth century than ever existed in the broad sweep of two millennia of Mediterranean peasantry. It is this tight-knit common college culture that gives rise, for example, to Crossan’s description of Jesus and the disciples as “hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies”(3). After all the members of the Jesus Seminar were all lads (or most of them were) in the heady days of Berkeley in the 60’s, when it was ” bliss in that dawn to be alive and to be young was very heaven”. Now, thirty years or so on they have secured their numerous Masters’ and Doctors’ degrees, and achieved their professorships. But still, perhaps, from the safe confines of campus routine they hanker after the lost age of innocence, the gentle people of San Francisco, and the gurus handing out subversive wisdom to all who wanted it. Unfortunately the description is as anachronistic as it is misleading. There was only very sporadic upward mobility in the ancient world, and, anyway, not as we now understand it. Only Trimalchio making his fortune, more by luck than judgement, and sitting on it. Neither is the modern hippy the same creature as the wandering Cynics of the first century, who had no state welfare or indulgent and misguided families to support them. That is why the Cynics were so rare! Yuppies and hippies are phenomena of the developed Western world. In practice is the poor and dispossessed of the Third World, and those who speak for those who would seem to have a greater rapport with the Jesus who lurks somewhere between the lines of the Gospel pages. I have no figures for the sales of The Five Gospels in the States. But the endorsements of the great and good on the dust cover are suggestive. John Dominic Crossan. You would expect that. It is his baby. Herschel Shanks, I do not know but Elaine Pagels, the feminist publicist we do know. Last but not least, the one you have all been waiting for, John Shelby Spong. It has taken a long time for all this to reach these shores, but in July this year the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church is taking the Chair at a conference entitled “Jesus for the Third Millennium”. We are told, “This conference is about meeting Jesus again through the perspective of those perceived to be on the theological margins of the mainstream Church, and seeing how this relates to the Jesus we meet through a serious engagement with history”. It has taken some time, but he appears to have woken up to the possibilities at last!

Inevitably every passing age is going to fashion the Historical Jesus according to its own image. In nineteenth century Germany he was a serious Idealist philosopher who proclaimed timeless moral truths. In post-1945 Europe he assumed the disguise of a Heidiggerian existentialist. It is no surprise, perhaps, that he should have moved on from here to become a New Age Traveller. What will the next Historical Jesus look like, I wonder. Critical research is valuable and important, but it can only take us so far. We now know more than we did about the historical background of the Gospels, and the constraints of history under which Jesus lived, worked and died, and, no doubt, we have still more to learn. But the problem still remains whether and to what extent this now more clearly delineated historical personage can be understood as the human prism through which the glory of the eternal God is uniquely refracted. To quote the famous words of Albert Schweitzer, “He comes to us as one unknown, as of old, by the lakeside …” Only now the lakeside is no longer that of Mark, 1, but of John, 21. Like Simon Peter, then, so I find myself now in a leaky open boat with the water lapping at the rowlocks, struggling with a load of fish wriggling and thrashing about in the bottom. Away on the land there is a smoking fire and a figure beside it. Because of the smoke and the early morning mist I cannot see him clearly. Often he vanishes altogether from sight. I only recognise him when a beloved disciple catches me by the arm, points in his direction, and says, “It is the Lord!”. John 21 is most certainly inauthentic by the standards of The Five Gospels, but it is surely paradigmatic of our Christian experience as much now as it was then in the first generation after Easter. We could not recognise the Lord without our brothers and sisters in Christ, and it will be enough if I have helped to do for others what they have done for me.

Hugh Bates is a retired priest living in the diocese of York.


(1) Marcus J. Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, Trinity Press International, Pennsylvania, 1994

(2) Robert W. Funk and Roy W. Hoover & The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, Macmillan, New York, 1993.

(3) John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, T & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1991. p. 421.