Alchemy and Accuracy
BY: John Dominic Crossan
In "21st Century Alchemy?
," Dr. Paige Patterson wrote as follows concerning the procedures of the Jesus Seminar:
"No evidence of the sort you would expect in a physics experiment or, for that matter, even in an investigation of Shakespeare is brought to the table--just opinions, mere hypotheses with the barest support. Oh, yes, and then there are the colored marbles with which the Seminar members vote. To roll out a red marble, according to their rules, means that the voting member thinks Jesus actually said what the Gospels purported he said; a gray one means the saying is doubtful. One can almost be forgiven the suspicion that most of the 'marbles' in the room are on the table. Any other body of scholars who voted this way about history would be ridiculed."
Those two assertions are factually incorrect.
First, on evidence. All votes were taken after papers had been prepared, circulated in advance, and discussed in seminar. We proceeded, in other words, just like any seminar during the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). I know that because, in addition to co-chairing the Jesus Seminar for ten years, I have also chaired a SBL Seminar on Parables for five years as well as a SBL section on the Historical Jesus for six. Those processes, of course, are never those of the physical sciences, but the standard ones of the human sciences.
Second, on marbles. (By the way, they were beads, not marbles, and my secret plan was to see how many Protestant scholars I could get plying their beads.) Once again, our procedure was standard, as I will explain.
I am depressed almost to tears at the general lack of respect for the faith of others (especially for differences within our common Christian faith) and for personal attacks which replace conceptual debates. If we have Jesus in our hearts, why is there so much hate in our words?
-- John Dominic Crossan
The official Greek text that everyone uses is "The Greek New Testament," fourth revised edition, from the United Bible Societies (1993). A committee of their scholars had to decide in many cases which textual variant should be accepted as the most likely original version. However, according to the edition's own forward, when, "in a number of cases the evidence from such sources points to the possibility of different solutions and thus involves different degrees of certainty with respect to the form of the original text, the letters A, B, C, or D [are] employed...so as to mark one of four levels of certainty.... The letter A indicates that the text is certain. The letter B indicates that the text is almost certain. The letter C, however, indicates that the Committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text. The letter D, which occurs only rarely, indicates that the Committee had great difficulty in arriving at a decision." That is, of course, the only honest way that a group can indicate to their audience the security-degrees of their judgment.
The Jesus Seminar sought to decide what was historically original as distinct from what was evangelically created in the words and deeds of Jesus. Once again a group was involved, here a seminar rather than a committee, and votes had to be taken to see what the members concluded, to find out if there was a consensus, a majority, a split, etc., etc. Since we of the Jesus Seminar prefer colors to letters we used red, pink, gray, and black to mean exactly the same as A, B, C, and D. Dr. Patterson may, of course, agree or disagree with our conclusions, but he is not free to deny the normalcy of our procedures.
As with the Word of God made text, so with the Word of God made flesh, both are subject to the vagaries of historical reconstruction as the price of divine presence in a human world.