Unmasking the Jesus Seminar

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Lots of people have written criticisms of the Jesus Seminar, but one of the best short ones I've seen is the series Mark Roberts just finished on his blog, entitled Unmasking the Jesus Seminar. I know some of these issues pretty well, and I learned a few things in just about every post, so it's not just a rehash of some of the things I've seen before. Mark is typically one of the fairest and most congenial bloggers when it comes to engaging with those he disagrees with, but this time he's not really pulling his punches. The Jesus Seminar is an embarassment to some of the genuine scholars who were part of it, and Mark is pretty clear about why, giving a few examples that stand for wider tendencies. He's about to launch into a more thoroughgoing defense of the historicity of the gospels in a new series, so stay tuned for that.

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Hi Jeremy. I've long been interested in bibilical scholarship and work on the historical Jesus in particular, although in truth my reading and knowledge level is still very limited. Looking at this criticism of the excesses of Funk and the Jesus Seminar, it leads me to the following thought and then a question for you. It seems to me that despite the radical tilt and overt public relations agenda of the Seminar, its work was not that far removed from the mainstream scholarly work on the subject. The first book I read on this was Albert Schweitzer's summary of the 19th century work in Germany (The Quest for the Historical Jesus). In recent years I was a fan of John Meier's "Marginal Jew" series (waiting in vain for a fourth volume!). Do you have an author or source which you recommend for scholarly criticism of the mainstream of historical Jesus research from the Christian perspective?

The Jesus Seminar isn't quite of a piece with mainstream scholarship, for the reasons Mark explains in the series. I don't know if you read it. When about half of the scholars in the Jesus Seminar think Jesus probably or almost certainly said something, they list it as in doubt because half of them take him not to have said it. It makes it seem as if most of them doubt it, when half of them don't. The results of the method don't even show the diversity among the Jesus Seminar, never mind among mainstream scholarship.

Meier is a good deal more conservative than many of the members of the Jesus Seminar, certainly moreso than Funk. Look at the resources Mark recommends in his series. I pretty much agree with his list. Meier is the most mainstream on the list, with Luke Timothy Johnson second and N.T. Wright probably third. Johnson drops the ball on the resurrection, but the rest of his book is excellent. Wright's first two volumes deal pretty comprehensively with all of what Johnson is good at, but he also dodges the resurrection in those books. He added a third one that tackles it head on, and by all reports that book is brilliant. It's been sitting on my shelf for a while now, and I haven't had a chance to delve into it too much, but if it's anything like his handling of the other things, it should be a good apologetical resource.

I'm worried about Wright's work on the New Perspective on Paul, and I think he's a bit reductionistic in trying to account for everything Jesus says as being about Israel and the new covenant when it might plainly be teaching an ethical principle, but overall he really has shown how when you take Jesus in the context of his time and the Hebrew scriptures it's very hard to dismiss parts of it because the whole picture is exactly what you'd expect to find from someone revolutionary enough in thought to begin the kind of movement Christianity became.

Craig Blomberg's stuff is pretty good. Darrell Bock and Paul Barnett both have good books on this issue. I don't think Mark mentioned either of them. D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo just released the second edition of their Introduction to the New Testament, which has plenty of good stuff on these issues and also has great bibliographies. I picked mine up yesterday and have been flipping through it a bit. It deals with the whole NT, but it has a separate chapter on each gospel and a fourth on the synoptics and all the issues involving their similarities. Carson has commentaries on Matthew and John that are widely regarded as excellent, and Moo is also a brilliant NT scholar whose Romans commentary gets good reviews from mainstream scholars.

Ben Witherington is also very good on these things. I'm a little hesitant on some of his sociological and rhetorical stuff on the epistles, but his apologetical work has been very good, and his commentary on Acts contains some of the best defenses of its historicity that I've seen. I'm sure his stuff on the gospels is equally good (though I've read some critiques of his treatment of John as wisdom literature).

Thanks very much. I confess I didn't get to his section 10 on other scholars before commenting here -- but I'm grateful for your take on this.

I didn't previously know anything about Roberts. But his web page, linked to above, does make me wonder a bit. He's attacking Robert Funk, who just died, and does so by posting a picture of Funk together with a picture of the Skipper from Gilligan's Island, and asking: "Has anybody ever noticed how much Robert W. Funk looks like the Skipper from Gilligan's Island?"
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Hard to get a clearer case of a personal attack -- and against someone who just died, too.

Mark is a PCUSA pastor in Hollywood and adjunct faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary.

I've never understood why it's supposed to be morally worse to say something negative about someone who died a week ago than it is to say something negative about someone who died ten years ago. How does proximity in time make a negative statement worse? It's saying the same thing, and he's dead in both cases. That sounds like the people who said it was ok to criticize the U.S. months after 9-11 but wrong to do so immediately afterward. Immediately afterward seems to me to be the right time to do it, if the criticism is genuine, when people will actually listen because they care. Prophetic messages only have their strongest effect in light of the events they're about.

I'm also not sure why comparing his picture with a great comic actor from a very funny TV show is supposed to be bad. I'm not sure why you see that as an attack rather than simply good humor.

Did you read his obituary post for Funk? He said some positive things about him there and really saved anything negative for this series. He also combined the obituary post with his obituary of Bob Denver, who played Gilligan and died around the same time. The reference to the Skipper ties in with that. I can't think of any reason why you could see that as an attack, even ignoring the tie-in with the post from the day before, but it's even more clearly not one in context.

I guess I'm trying to figure out what it is to be a personal attack and then what makes a personal attack bad. This is clearly a criticism of some of the things Funk said and did, and those seem to me to be things worth criticizing. If that's all it takes to be a personal attack, then being a personal attack isn't sufficient for being bad. I seem to think of a personal attack as being much more and much worse than that. People wrote critical things about Derrida's views when he died. Some people joked about how he was now a dead white guy. Similar things happened with Andrea Dworkin. Would you criticize those too? I'm just trying to figure out what a personal attack is and what makes it bad, because my understanding of what Mark has done is nothing like yours.

If the pictures & comment were just by somebody noting the passing of Funk, injecting a little humor, that would be another story. But it's bad form as part of a post -- actually, a series of posts -- whose purpose, I think it's fair to say, is to discredit the man. When the crack is made in that context, it is easily viewed as part of the attack, part of the effort to discredit, rather than letting one's arguments do the work.

As for timing of personal attacks: I always thought that engaging in them very soon after someone dies is thought to be particularly bad form b/c the pain felt by friends & loved ones is still fresh. Makes sense to me.

I'll grant that the intent of the series is to discredit one element of his work, the most famous element of his work, though Mark insists that it's not the majority of his work and says that he used some of his real scholarly work in his own dissertation. I don't think, therefore, that it's really fair to say that it's to discredit the man.

As for the timing, I'll just say that it doesn't make sense to me. I know that it's thought to be particularly bad form. It's that mindset that I'm questioning. I understand that it's not good to say things to certain people in certain places (e.g. at the funeral), but this is a public persona, and this is a public critique of his most famous work. I just don't see how the fresh pain of his loved ones makes it illegitimate to be honest about your criticisms of someone's claims.

When my brother died, I didn't want people telling me only good things. I wanted to hear what sorts of things he'd been up to, and it was nice to hear good things amongst that, but I thought the time to remember and let go would best be served if we remembered him as he really was and not some candy-coated image of just the things we liked. I don't think any member of my family would have disagreed with that. Some things should be kept private, so we didn't talk about everything about him that we could have, but because something was a fault worthy of criticism wasn't a good reason to refrain from talking about it.

Well this was a most unexpected and insightful exchange, for which I am grateful. It never occurred to me that anybody would take my noting a resemblance between Funk and Hale as some sort of insult. There are a couple of reasons why.

First, as Keith mentions, the post with the picture of Hale/The Skipper originally followed immediately on the heels of a post that connected Bob Denver/Gilligan and Funk. When I broke off the new post to start a new series, I didn't realize that the context would be lost for most readers. So what was meant to be a bit of harmless irony in context, could look rather like an ad hominem insult out of context.

Second, I have always had fond feelings for The Skipper, so any associatiion of Funk with the Skipper would be to Funk's advantage, not the other way around. It wouldnt' have occured to me that pointing out a physical resemblance between Funk and Hale would have seemed like an attack on Funk.

Given the dialogue above, however, I have rewritten the first part of my Unmasking the Jesus Seminar series. The Skipper is still there, but I've introduced enough context to make sense of things, at least that's my point. Plus I added a bit more text to make sure people get my ironic point.

I actually thought long and hard about whether it was appropriate to go after Funk's ideas so soon after his death. Frankly, if I actually thought his loved ones would have seen this series, I would have waited. But I considered this highly unlikely.

Moreover, there were lots of comments in the news about Funk, some of them resurrecting the Jesus Seminar myths, so to speak. It seemed like the right time, while Funk's ideas were newsworthy once again, to take on these ideas. I did not mean to make a personal attack on Funk, though at a couple of points it's hard to see how he was being honest in his communication with the media. I did mean to attack his ideas, however, which I believe to be both wrong and dangerous.

At any rate, thanks for helping me to see my first post in the series from a perspective I would never have imagined. You've helped me, I think, to communicate a bit more clearly and respectfully.

Peace,

Mark

Thanks for that gracious response, Rev. Roberts.

The added context (some of which Jeremy supplied in a comment above) helps, as does knowing how you felt about the Skipper. I believe that for most people, the characters on Gilligan's Island (with the possible -- but not likely -- exceptions of the professor and Mary Ann) serve as examples of buffoons, so they will interpret a likening of someone to these characters as an attempt to get the reader to not take the person seriously.

On whether to "go after" Funk's ideas soon after his death: that's a tough call for me -- as for you. But I think I agree with you. I'm just advocating care in *how* that's done. But I wouldn't say it's bad form to go after the man's ideas at all during the time period.

I remember some people wrestling with the same question right after Pres. Reagan's death. Some in fact first decided not to criticize his ideas, but then changed their minds in light of all the glowing praise that was being heaped upon him & his ideas. Some who thought his ideas were wrong felt almost compelled to respond. And that seems fine to me. And to respond to Funk's ideas right after his death -- esp. if those who agreed with him were speaking up in favor of his ideas -- seems fine. One should just be careful about how that's done -- which, I now see, you agree with.

Keith: Yep, your point is a good one, which is why I made some changes in the text. Thanks again. One of the great things, I think, about the blogging world is that there is the potential for rather immediate accountability and correction. If, in the future, you ever find anything that seems odd or wrong to you in my blogging, please let me know. As much as I can, I want to get things right, both in content and in tone. Peace, Mark

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