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Monday, August 28, 2006

What Did Jesus Really Say?

One question that often comes up on the other blog to which I belong is how we can correctly assass the authenticity of a scriptural passage ... if we're reading a gospel, we wonder, Did Jesus really say that? I don't know enough about theology or NT studies to know the right answer to this question.

A group of scholars who felt up to the challenge of answering the question - did Jesus really say that? - was the Jesus Seminar fellows (one of whom is JD Crossan). A brief snip from Wikipedia ...

The Jesus Seminar is a controversial research team of about one hundred academic New Testament scholars founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk under the auspices of the Westar Institute. The seminar's purpose is to determine what Jesus, as a historical figure, may or may not have said or done. The scholars attending attempt to reconstruct the life of Jesus. They try to ask who he was, what he did, what he said, and what his sayings meant using all the evidence and available tools. Their reconstruction is based on the triple pillar of social anthropology, history and textual analysis ...

The Jesus Seminar fellows wrote their own translation of the four canonical gospels, plus the gnostic gospel of Thomas, called The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus . Using contemporary phrasing, they color-coded their translation to show which sayings of Jesus they felt were most likely authentic ... red = Jesus did say this, pink = Jesus probably said this, grey = Jesus didn't say this, but it does represent his ideas, and black = Jesus didn't say this and it is from some other tradition. Below I've pasted from the Wikipedia article the Seminar's choices for the read coded sayings of Jesus, with the percentage = the agreement of the voters ...

1. Turn the other cheek (92%): Mt 5:39, Lk6:29a
2. Coat & shirt: Mt5:40 (92%), Lk6:29b (90%)
3. Congratulations, poor!: Lk6:20b (91%), Th54 (90%), Mt5:3 (63%)
4. Second mile (90%): Mt5:41
5. Love your enemies: Lk6:27b (84%), Mt5:44b (77%), Lk6:32,35a (56%) {compare to "Pray for your enemies": POxy1224 6:1a; Didache 1:3; Poly-Phil 12:3}
6. Leaven: Lk13:20–21 (83%), Mt13:33 (83%), Th96:1–2 (65%)
7. Emperor & God (82%): Th100:2b–3, Mk12:17b, Lk20:25b, Mt22:21c (also Egerton Gospel 3:1-6)
8. Give to beggars (81%): Lk6:30a, Mt5:42a, Didache1:5a
9. Good Samaritan (81%): Lk10:30–35
10. Congrats, hungry!: Lk6:21a (79%), Mt5:6 (59%), Th69:2 (53%)
11. Congrats, sad!: Lk6:21b (79%), Mt5:4 (73%)
12. Shrewd manager (77%): Lk16:1–8a
13. Vineyard laborers (77%): Mt20:1–15
14. Abba, Father (77%): Mt6:9b, Lk11:2c
15. The Mustard Seed : Th20:2–4 (76%), Mk4:30–32 (74%), Lk13:18–19 (69%), Mt13:31–32 (67%)

While I admire scholarly research and I am somewhat influenced by this work cited above, I should mention that there are a ton of criticisms of the Jesus Seminar and their Scholar's Version of the five gospels, some being that the pov of the scholars is too secular, another that not all of the members are reputable NT scholars - for instance, Paul Verhoeven, one of the members of the Seminar, is famous (or infamous :-) as a science fiction film director (Robocop). N.T. Wright wrote a criticism of the Scholar's Version - Five Gospels But No Gospel: Jesus and the Seminar.

Though I can't say how others should decide about the authenticity of sciptural passages, one possible way to discern, a way that you probably won't find expressed in a book by the Jesus Seminar fellows, is by comparing the Jesus of a scriptural passage with the Jesus known in prayer ... it's a method that depends on experience and relationship, and though it may be fraught with subjectivism, it's still my favorite.


Blogger Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

I like your approach, based on prayer and relationship.

The way I've heard the Jesus Seminar attempt to explain their criteria is like this, which I lifted in this case from here:

To test the sayings of Jesus, the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar employed three dominant criteria:

(a) coherence,
(b) dissimilarity
(c) multiple attestation.

Under this approach, the sayings are more likely to be authentic to the extent they cohere in form and content with other acts and sayings of Jesus. Otherwise, if Jesus were not reasonably consistent, his identity would be elusive.

Further, the Jesus Seminar evaluated whether the sayings were dissimilar with those in both Jewish and Christian lore. The Jesus Seminar contended that a sorting process would have softened the difficult sayings of Jesus process, so words that might embarrass the Christian community would not have been likely to have been invented by them.

Finally, the Jesus Seminar valued sayings as authentic that could be found in multiple sources or in multiple forms, such as in a parable, which would necessarily exclude the “I am” sayings.

Funk overtly cloaks these criteria with the language of law, astonishingly calling them “rules of evidence”.[11] However, these criteria do not equate to the rules of evidence actually employed in courts of law. Moreover, these criteria incorporate a “burden of proof” that does not exist in the law. These two deficiencies in the Jesus Seminar will be explored in light of well-settled principles of evidentiary law. At least one commentator has concluded that the Jesus Seminar's case “would not stand up in any court”.[12] Professor Witherington similarly stated: “I will leave the reader to decide whether it is a truly scholarly and unbiased approach to reject the majority of one’s evidence and stress a minority of it. In a court of law, where there is plenty of critical scrutiny, point and counterpoint, this sort of approach would never stand up.”

6:00 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for the information, Jeff. Interesting link. Have you visited Ben witherington's blog? - link

7:09 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...


No, I didn't know he had a blog. Interesting. I once skimmed a book he wrote on the Ossuary of James, and I've read some of his Scholarly Smackdown debates on Beliefnet - one between him and Elaine Pagels on whether or not Paul distorted Christianity (Paul's background and motives are fascinating to me), and another between him and Crossan on the Passion movie.

2:35 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for the link ... I'd like to read those debates :-)

5:15 PM  

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