I have been reading a lot about Christianity lately. I recently
finished reading “The Five Gospels: What did Jesus really say?” by the Jesus Seminar. As a complement, or in some cases an
anodyne, to this fare I also watched the documentary film The God Who Wasn’t
There and skimmed “Holy Writ as Oral Lit : The Bible as Folklore” by Alan Dundes, both of which postulate the idea that
Jesus was not a historical figure at all, but rather a construct of
folklore. In addition, I am currently halfway through listening to the
audio edition of “The Gospel of Judas” by Simon Mawer
about the discovery of a previously unknown account of Jesus’ life from
the viewpoint of Judas Iscariot. In sum, I have of late been steeped in
I didn’t have any particular program or goal in mind in digesting this
material, I just felt that I hadn’t taken a good look at biblical
scholarship of late, and there might be something of interest in either
fiction or non-fiction. With the runaway success of essentially
heretical biblical scholarship in “The DaVinci Code” I thought I would
get ahead of the curve and see what might be next to hit the Christian
To have a personal relationship to Jesus, I imagine you have to conceive of him as a person who once existed and who now continues to exist in some sort of transcendent fashion as part of the triune God. As there isn’t much in the way of evidence of what Jesus is saying now (outside of that little voice some Christians hear in their heads, presumably), the best way to know him is to examine what he said during his life. That is the project of the Jesus Seminar. Starting from the premise that Jesus was a real person, they seek to discover what in the Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, plus the recently discovered book of Thomas) can be attributed to Jesus with a high degree of certainty. Their conclusion is that an astonishing 82% of the words attributed Jesus are unlikely to have ever been said by him.
The Seminar is a large group of scholastic biblical scholars from schools of divinity and antiquity around the world. They are categorically not fundamentalists who hold the biblical cannon to be the inerrant word of God. They are scholars first, and Christians second. In fact, many fundamentalists would simply consider them atheists and be done with it. Many of the fundamentalist bible colleges founded over the past 50 years have been motivated in large part by disagreement with the deeply critical scholastic tradition fostered in the relevant schools of public institutions. To some Christians the assumptions, methods, and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are simply heretical. However, their conclusions also present a fresh basis from which Christianity can begin a new reformation, based on the wisdom of Jesus the prophet, freed from the dogma and accommodations of the subsequent centuries of church politics. Such a purely Jesus centered New Testament might well prove relevant and revolutionary in our modern society, as Jesus’ ministry was always intended to be.
There is a great strain between the authoritarian aspects of the Christian faith the more personal, revolutionary, and prophetic aspects of the faith. That strain is beginning to fracture the Christian community along partisan lines: a conservative, fundamentalist, dogmatic and republican Christianity versus a liberal, purely protestant, intellectually open and democratic Christianity. I suspect that the work of the Jesus Seminar is helping to energize and evangelize for the latter faction.
A perennial problem of the inerrant Bible faction is the great number of irreconcilable differences between accounts within the New Testament. Many forests have been felled in attempt to explain such conflicts among the Gospels away, but in the end no credible Jesus emerges from an ‘inerrant’ reading of the Gospels. Instead, many scholars seek after the ‘historical’ Jesus; the one who speaks in parable and with passion about social justice and the power of love, rather than pronouncing about issues of eschatology. Such scholarly pursuit of historical Jesus has a deeply American pedigree with no less a personage than Thomas Jefferson having done serious scholarship on the subject.
The Jesus Seminar rests their work on what they, perhaps ironically, call the Seven Pillars of Scholarship: 1) distinguishing myth from history, 2) a belief that the overlapping (or synoptic) gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are the most reliable sources for Jesus’ life, 3) an understanding the Mark precedes, and is often the source for, Matthew and Luke, 4) the Q hypothesis (that there is an as yet undiscovered common source for all the gospels, at least in part), 5) seeking to establish the facts of the non-eschatological Jesus, 6) recognizing that written and oral traditions are distinguishable by their characteristics and that because the Gospels were written well after the events they purport to describe, the historical Jesus will be marked by the characteristics of oral tradition, and 7) that the Gospels, not historical scholars, bear the burden of proof.
The historical Jesus is almost entirely subsumed and concealed by mythological trappings of the Nicene Creed and the dogmatic additions of early Church fathers seeking to evangelize a pagan public. Alan Dundes in his book “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” even argues that the entire mythical aspect of Jesus bears the unmistakable imprint of folklore. Multiple existence and variation are folklore’s hallmarks and the Gospels are exactly what one would expect from folkloric traditions that have been committed to text – multiple existence (the Gospels are multiple tellings of essentially the same story) and variation (those pesky irreconcilable variations among the versions). To a surprising degree, the Jesus Seminar uses these same hallmarks to identify the ‘authentic’ voice of Jesus. They too are looking for the hallmarks of oral tradition. What they tend to be left with is the short pithy saying and memorable parables that tend to have variants in the Gospels, but obviously identifiable themes. The authentic voice of Jesus is the folkloric oral tradition of the early Christian society.
Dundes says of the Jesus Seminar’s work:
“The members of the Jesus Seminar certainly acknowledged the existence and influence of oral tradition, but their goal in part was to distinguish what Jesus said from what they term "common lore." One of their announced assumptions was that "Jesus’ characteristic talk was distinctive—it can usually be distinguished from common lore. Otherwise it is futile to search for the authentic words of Jesus". This goal is predicated upon the idea that the Bible itself, although it may contain elements of folklore, is not itself folklore. It is, to put it another way, a continuation of the "folklore in the Bible” tradition. If there is folklore in the Bible, then it would in theory be possible to weed it out, thereby leaving only authentic history or non-folklore to consider. The argument I am proposing is different. If the entire Bible is folklore, codified oral tradition, then there can be no way of weeding out the folklore.”
I tend toward Dundes’ view, but I don’t completely discount that there was a prophet names Jesus who lived and may have been the source for some of the Christian folk tradition. Some posit that there may have been no historical Jesus at all, such as the makers of the documentary “The God Who Wasn’t There”. They tend to heavily emphasize the gap of at least 40 years between the time of the supposed death of Jesus and the penning of the Gospel of Mark. Combined with the uncanny degree mythic syncretism from literary and religious traditions of the 1st century, and the lack of any real historical evidence where the story of the Christ intersects with secular institutions of the time, and the whole story begins to look like it might have been created from whole cloth. To me, such an assertion, while healthily skeptical, seems like the product of an insecure atheistic desire to ‘disprove’ a central Christian tenet.
Does Christianity need a historical Christ? Obviously not; it doesn’t have one now. Christianity would get on just fine even in the complete absence of historical proof, or even in the face of fairly conclusive historical evidence of his absence or lack of mythic attributes. In “The Gospel of Judas” papyrologists discover Judas’ gospel in which he denies the resurrection of the Christ and claims to have seen his corrupted body after his death. I don’t know how the story sorts out yet, but the immediate reaction of the true believers is to insist that it nothing but rank anti-Christian propaganda from the 1st century. Nothing overcomes blind faith, especially when you are conditioned to expect that dark forces will test your faith.
So, Christianity doesn’t need a historical Christ, but could it benefit of one? I think so. If you accept any part of the Jesus Seminars methodology and goals, you are left with a small but precious horde of wisdom from the mouth of the Christ himself. Certainly, it should be that which is the heart of the faith and the practice of Christianity, if anything? What does he say? He is a rabble-rouser. He questions authority, rejects commonly accepted mores, honors the low and ridicules the high. He is a radical leveler of society who hates false piety, self-importance, and putting the material ahead of the moral and spiritual life. Here are some of my favorite Seminar approved quotes (the wording may strike you as odd as they are using new translation, done by the Seminar):
“It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain.” Mark 10:25
“Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.” Matthew 5:39
“Love your enemies” Matthew 6:24
“No one can be slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and distain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account.” Matthew 7:3
“Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. Congratulations, you hungry! You will have a feast. Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh.” Luke 6:20-21
“Give to everyone who begs from you” Luke 6:30
“If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back.” Thomas 95
“A prophet gets no respect in his own country” John 4:44
Will Christians begin to give more respect to their own prophet? One can only hope.