Biblical studies: September 2005 Archives

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.

There's almost nothing in the gospels about circumcision. Jesus was circumcised. There's one appearance besides that, I believe, and it's almost a side issue to a much more specific discussion about something else. Jesus didn't seem very interested in it. That's interesting for a number of reasons, but I want to suggest one thing that we should conclude that may not be as obvious.

A number of modern scholars seek to explain most of the material in the gospels, particular Matthew, Luke, and especially John, as later developments in Christian thought that don't trace back to Jesus, with the evangelists placing these words in Jesus' mouth in order to give them more authority. In Matthew in particular, they frequently will find something Jesus is saying as being more about the situations Christians were facing with Pharisees in the post-70 Jewish world without a sacrificial system. The key distinctive of Jews without the sacrificial system was a distinctive beforehand, but it became even more significant after the temple was destroyed. That distinctive is circumcision.

Why do the gospels contain so little about circumcision? If this view of modern scholars is correct, and the gospels are primarily about what Christians and non-Christian Jews were fighting over post-70, then wouldn't circumcision play a great role in the gospels? Or is it rather that the gospels more accurately reflect Jesus' own concerns in his own time, and he just wasn't all that concerned with circumcision? There are many other reasons to reject (or at least be skeptical about) the view that the gospels are really about concerns that came much later, but I think this one alone is almost decisive against it.



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