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Jesus Creed


Historical Jesus 3: Jesus Seminar

posted by xscot mcknight

Bultmann unleashed a set of criteria that were used to determine if what is attributed to Jesus in the Gospels really came from him. Now once again let’s remind ourselves of something: the historical Jesus quest is about discerning what the “real” Jesus was like in comparison to what the Gospels say about him. It is nearly always a deconstructive process (convering “red” letters into grey or black letters — see below) and then a reconstructive process (picturing a Jesus on the basis of what one finds to be historically-reliable). Everything depends on the “criteria.”
These criteria became sensationalized in the work of the Jesus Seminar led by Robert Funk, which led to the famous The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? where we were treated to the red/pink/grey/black letter edition of the Gospels — red being “said by Jesus” and black being “not possibly said by Jesus.”
It operates on this assumption from Norman Perrin: “The early Church absolutely and completely identified the risen Lord of her experience with the earthly Jesus of Nazareth and created for her purposes, which she conceived to be his, the literary form of the gospel, in which words and deeds ascribed in her consciousness to both the earthly Jesus and the risen Lord were set down in terms of the former” (Rediscovering, 1).
Here is a brief statement of the major criteria, and these are then applied to the Gospels to see what floats to the top as “authentic.”
1. If a saying or event shows clear tension both with Judaism at the time of Jesus and with the early churches, then it neither came from Judaism nor from the early church, so therefore it came from Jesus. Jesus calling God “Abba” is typically used as an example since it is rare in Judaism and not used in Aramaic very often in the early churches. (Don’t pick on examples.)
2. If a saying or event is found in more than one of the Gospel sources then it is from Jesus. This like the “more than one witness” element in law. If it is found in Mark and in Q and in “M” (stuff only in Matthew) and “L” (stuff only in Luke) and in John and in Gospel of Thomas etc it is more likely to have been said or done by Jesus. The less sources, the less provable. (Jesus practiced table fellowship with sinners.)
3. If a saying or event coheres with what we know from the above then it is probable that it comes from Jesus. Jesus preached a kingdom theology of inclusion — or something like this.



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John Byron

posted August 15, 2007 at 7:18 am


Scot,
Number 2 has always bothered me because it assumes that multiple witnesses confirm authenticity when that is not necessarily the case. The two source hypothesis would seem to undermine this assumption since the authors may have reused the story or saying simply because it had theological rather than historical value. For instance, in Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart never said “Play it again Sam”. But people have endlessly quoted that line as if he did say it. What he actually said was “play it Sam”. Now the difference here is we can still go to the source to get it right, but with the Gospels this is impossible. A saying or event could have easily been introduced into the tradition and either never happened or been said by Jesus. My point is not to split hairs, but to point out that the single occurrence of a saying or event could have as much if not more historical value than one which is duplicated in all four Gospels. I think this is where Dagmar Winter and Gerd Theissen have a better approach with the criterion of historical plausibility.



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Randy Barnhart

posted August 15, 2007 at 7:21 am


Though not exactly on point, the first hundred pages or so of Wright’s New Testament and the People of God offers an interesting (to me anyway) perspective on historical method, what impacts it, and how to approach history.
Thanks for some great work, btw.



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Jon Bartlett

posted August 15, 2007 at 8:37 am


I have always thought #1 to be a completely false filter. Jesus was Jewish, so of course Jesus would echo Judaism at that time. And the early church worshipped Jesus, so of course there would be echoes there too. I like Wright’s ‘double similarity’, in that a saying that has echoes both in Judaism and in the early church is more likely to be authentic.



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Randy Barnhart

posted August 15, 2007 at 8:47 am


Jon, the Criterion of Dissimilarity really isn’t “a false filter,” imho anyway. It is, though, a tough taskmaster and if allowed to do so, will run all other criteria into the ground. A quick glance at the literature shows this to be the case.
The real problem with dissimilarity is that it only serves to give us what is distinctive about Jesus, though it does that quite well. But if we only take what is distinctive in any historical figure we wind up with a) not much material (Bultmann), and b) a caricature of the person (Crossan).



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Scot McKnight

posted August 15, 2007 at 8:57 am


I agree with Randy on this one. Double dissimilarity can only give us what is distinctive to Jesus, what distinguishes him from Judaism and the early church. It does not necessarily give us what is characteristic of Jesus. But, the stuff that is unique to or distinct to Jesus is a good place to start.



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John W Frye

posted August 15, 2007 at 9:28 am


I agree with Randy (#2) that NT Wright has shown the fallacy of Perrin’s conclusion. In Wright’s favor is the brief historical time frame. IMHO, the risen Lord of the church’s experience IS the earthly Jesus of Nazareth.



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ChrisB

posted August 15, 2007 at 10:07 am


Don’t forget the naturalism. Their 4th criterion is that Jesus wouldn’t have said anything supernatural about himself — he would never have stated or implied his own divinity, nor would he have claimed to be able to predict the future (e.g., the destruction of the temple). This is part of why there are almost no red letters in the Jesus Seminar’s version of John.



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B-W

posted August 15, 2007 at 11:00 am


For instance, in Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart never said “Play it again Sam”. But people have endlessly quoted that line as if he did say it. What he actually said was “play it Sam”.
Just to add a wrinkle to this whole problem, note that the Gospels were written in Greek, whereas Jesus is assumed to have spoken Aramaic. All translation (by necessity) has an interpretive element. There’s no exact one-to-one correspondence of any word or phrase in one language to what it would necessarily look like in another.
If we posited that Casablanca was a translation of what “really” happened, rather than an exact portrayal of events (i.e., let’s assume that Bogey was really speaking French, but we see “Play it, Sam” in English on screen), then when someone says (in English or any other language) that Bogey said “Play it again, Sam” in the exact events portrayed, we really wouldn’t know whether it was an accurate assessment until we investigated whether the original language (or the destination language) had some element of “again” in the meaning that might have been lost in the “Casablanca” translation. And even then, all we can get is a “best guess.”
For the purpose of Gospel study, any assessment that says Jesus said something like “Play it again, Sam” when the Gospel really said “Play it, Sam” would probably be considered pretty close to the same thing. The question is really “Did Jesus say anything of the sort?”



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Scott M

posted August 15, 2007 at 11:35 am


Hmmm. I think a properly historical perspective of that time and place would be that Jesus read, wrote, and spoke at least Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Probably at least a smattering of Latin as well. That probably strengthens your point rather than weakening it, but I did want to say it. ;)



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tom

posted August 15, 2007 at 1:28 pm


Scott M. @ 9: This is the first time I’ve heard anyone suggest that Jesus spoke Greek and/or Latin. What evidence is there for this? I’m not attacking your statement, just genuinely curious about it and would like to know more. Thanks.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 15, 2007 at 1:53 pm


tom,
I’m not sure if Scott M has studied this one. It is pretty hard to prove Latin, but Stan Porter recently attempted to prove that Jesus’ interactions with Greeks probably involved speaking some Greek. Say, Mark 7:25-30; 12:13-17; 8:27-30; 15:2-5 and he has some suggestions about Mark 13 as well.



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Tony Stiff

posted August 15, 2007 at 2:00 pm


Criteria #1 makes me think about Jimmy Dunn’s “New Perspective on Jesus” booklet, how the third quest brought the Christ of faith and the Christ of history back together.
How does Dunn’s picture of ‘Remembering Jesus’ in the gospels relate to that first criteria?



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RJS

posted August 15, 2007 at 2:01 pm


Scot,
So how are the calming the lake/walking on water stories dealt with under these criteria? Accepted as having an element of truth – or ruled out by ChrisB’s criterion #4 in comment 7: no supernatural allowed.



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tom

posted August 15, 2007 at 2:26 pm


Scot @ 11: Thanks, that gives a place t start.
RJS @ 13: Isn’t the supernatural not allowed in any historical quest? Historians can only look at probabilities. Miracles, by definition, are highly improbable.



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Scott M

posted August 15, 2007 at 2:37 pm


I didn’t even know there was a question about Greek. It was spoken throughout the region certainly would have been the common language through Jesus’ early years in Egypt (very likely Alexandria). Greek being such a common language, even among the Jews, necessitated the translation of the Hebrew Bible in the Septuagint — before the time of Jesus. Simply from a historical perspective, I didn’t know there was any doubt on that one. Similarly, though Aramaic was typically spoken, the majority of Jewish children were still taught to read and write Hebrew. I can’t imagine Jesus was the exception. A little Latin was more of an afterthought. It was the language of the Empire and virtually everyone who was in a kingdom subject to the Empire picked up some Latin. While Greek was actually more of the common language even among the Romans of the region, Latin was still pervasive. But again, that was an afterthought. I seriously didn’t know there was any question about whether or not Jesus knew Greek.



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Randy Barnhart

posted August 15, 2007 at 2:45 pm


RJS,
Great question. I find Pannenberg’s approach to the question instructive. Maybe you will, too. He thinks history does have a place for unique events (even so-called supernatural ones). In fact, he says, that is the only sort (unique, that is) of events we have anyway.
Of course, he’s dealing specifically with the resurrection, but the principle seems to apply. In Faith and Reality (p. 72) he writes: “In particular there are many scholars today who think that the resurrection of Jesus cannot be an historical fact. There are all-too-few analogies to an event of this kind; it is all-too-unusual for the historian to be able reasonably to assume it is a fact… the objections against the fact of Jesus’ resurrection as a real event in the past are not properly historical. They arise not so much from the character of the resurrection accounts as from the assumption that the historian cannot accept such an unusual event as a fact. This is an unhistorical argument…The mere unusualness of an event is not sufficient reason to deny its reality.”
He sort of turns the argument around on those with a narrow world view.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 15, 2007 at 2:46 pm


Tony,
Jimmy Dunn’s “historical model” is one of seeking, not the Jesus behind the Gospels, but the Jesus embedded in the core tradition. It’s different altogether.
RJS,
Supernatural is nearly always eliminated — it can’t fit the criteria as a general rule since it flows out of one’s general presuppositions.
Scott M,
Very few scholars think Jesus spoke Greek.



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tom

posted August 15, 2007 at 2:56 pm


Scott M. @ 15: Now you’ve totally lost me. Other than as an infant, I thought there was no evidence that Jesus ever left Judea. Am I wrong?



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Scott M

posted August 15, 2007 at 2:57 pm


Do you mean Christian theological scholars, Scot? If so, I’ll accept that, though it surprises me. And I wonder why? Greek was the common language of the whole larger region. What do they think Jesus and his family spoke while in Egypt? In what language do they believe Jesus conversed with Pilate? I mean those are just a couple of examples, but the list would be much longer just thinking about daily life.
Strange…



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RJS

posted August 15, 2007 at 3:02 pm


Scot,
So a supernatural explanation is ruled out a priori. But this doesn’t rule out a root event (with a presumably natural explanation) behind the gospel reports. I bring up this particular example because the report is in John and the synoptics.



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Scott M

posted August 15, 2007 at 3:11 pm


Again, I’m a little perplexed. Sometime between his birth and his second birthday, they left and lived in Egypt for a period of time. Sometime after Herod the Great died, they returned, but this time went to Nazareth instead of back to Bethlehem. Jesus’ family lived a period of time in Egypt and he lived with them during those years as he was learning language. So I guess my question is what language do people think they spoke while in Egypt? And it also seems to ignore the cultural context. There’s a reason everything we have preserved from the early church was written in Greek. Clearly, I’m out of step with Christian scholars, but I have to wonder how they envisage first century Palestine. Obviously, I don’t get it.



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Randy Barnhart

posted August 15, 2007 at 3:27 pm


Scot,
Just curious about the first sentence in your piece above, “Bultmann unleashed a set of criteria…”
If I recall, Bultmann never formally spelled out his criteria, correct? They are sort of inferred from his work, I think.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 15, 2007 at 3:48 pm


Scott M,
In Egypt … probably Aramaic. There was a sizable Jewish community there.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 15, 2007 at 3:58 pm


RJS,
The tendency to find a “root event” that is not supernatural is usually found among the Rationalists. Otherwise, the tendency today is to see it as “fiction” or “midrash” of a Scripture.
Randy,
Yes, that’s right. It is the logic Bultmann uses, though, that gave rise to Perrin’s articulation.



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Scott M

posted August 15, 2007 at 3:58 pm


A sizable Jewish community that never spoke with anyone outside the community? I’m just having a hard time wrapping my head around this one…



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RJS

posted August 15, 2007 at 4:28 pm


Ok – so what do scholars think is behind the very similar story related in Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 8 (except only calming, no walking), and John 6? This incident struck me specifically because it is in all four – and strikingly similar in Mark and John.



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Mike Clawson

posted August 15, 2007 at 4:36 pm


Since all of these have to do with what to retain rather than what to cut out, does that mean this method starts with a “guilty until proven innocent” assumption? In other words, is everything in the gospels considered inauthentic unless it meets one of these criterion?
Also, for what reason do they assume that the gospels are not mostly authentic in the first place? Why not start with an “innocent until proven guilty” approach?



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Mike Clawson

posted August 15, 2007 at 4:40 pm


A sizable Jewish community that never spoke with anyone outside the community? I’m just having a hard time wrapping my head around this one…

Well Scott, think of the sizable Latino communities in American cities these days where many recent immigrants see no need to learn English at all.
Though I’m not saying I disagree w/you. Jesus very well may have spoken Greek.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 15, 2007 at 4:46 pm


RJS,
I’d say most HJ scholars would say “not authentic” in the sense that “this didn’t happen” and they’d say that, not on the basis of the gospel tradition criteria but because they don’t think things like that happen in real time.
Scott M,
Sure, there were some who could speak the lingua franca, but most would say — whether you agree or not — that there’s no evidence Jesus spoke in Greek.
Mike,
Depends on the scholar. I would say most like to think they begin with “neutral” and let’s see what the evidence suggests. It is a complex dialectic for most of us … involving our theology, our disposition, our methods, our context. There have been some very good debates on the so-called burden of proof. I side with the innocent until proven guilty, but once you get into this debates it can get complex fast.
On Greek … the question we ask is: On what basis does one say he spoke Greek? We know Aramaic is the common speech; Hebrew would be next but it was more formal; Latin — if he spoke with Romans up in Sepphoris or in Tiberias. Did he? We have no evidence for it. Greek — the Greeks in John 12? Did they not perhaps know Aramaic? We don’t know.



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Peggy

posted August 15, 2007 at 5:00 pm


Scott M,
Maybe it is helpful to remember the “separatist” nature of the Jews. The didn’t regularly mingle with “gentiles”. I had long believed that Jesus spoke mainly Aramaic–along with everyone else. Hebrew was for scripture. There are even those who go so far as to say that Jesus wasn’t that highly educated. Don’t know how far to push that one…



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Julie

posted August 15, 2007 at 5:07 pm


Innocent until proven guilty or vice versa puts a value judgment on the outcome.
In historical research (of any document – Shakespeare, Homer, etc.) the goal is to correlate the text and its contents with outside verification. The criteria of the JS isn’t all that different than the criteria used for any historical document and its authors, reported speakers etc.
I do agree with Scot that it’s also impossible to separate our theology, wishes, dispositions and methods from the outcome. One of the benefits of the JS was that the scholars had to make a case to their peers which went to a vote. Not too many other fields are that rigorous in how they handle the arguments made by their peers, kwim?



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Scott M

posted August 15, 2007 at 5:52 pm


Jesus was treated as a rabbi. his stepfather was tsadiq at least and probably a rabbi at some point. And the structure of his parables and teachings certainly have overtones of rabbinic methods. I don’t think I would push the uneducated too far. And Greek was the lingua franca of that part of the Empire. Even among the Jews in Jerusalem, some spoke primarily Greek while others spoke primarily Aramaic or Hebrew. Galilee was very cosmopolitan and would have had a lot of Greek speakers. We see Jesus conversing with Pilate, a Roman Centurion and traveling among the cities of the decapolis. In Alexandria, the Jewish worship was even conducted in Greek. In Galilee, we have evidence of day to day writings, grave markings, and more in Greek. I was beginning to think I was really off in left field until I stumbled across an answer to that question by Tom Wright that looked remarkably like what I originally wrote. Not that that proves anything, but it does make me feel better. Ancient history has been an interest of mine longer than I’ve been a Christian. I didn’t think I could be completely off base.



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Ish Engle

posted August 15, 2007 at 7:24 pm


While I don’t disagree that the Jews were very separatist, and that they would not mix a great deal with Gentiles, I think the case that Egyptian Jews spoke Greek is fairly obvious when you consider that the entire reason we have the LXX is that the Jews in Alexandria were struggling with Scripture because they were so used to dealing in Greek.
Why would we assume that they spoke more Hebrew AFTER the Septuagint than they did when they had it translated? I’m with Scott M on this one. While I don’t think that Jesus spoke primarily Greek, I would truly wonder how any one could assume He did not know at least enough Greek to do business (considering that before He became an itinerant preacher He was a carpenter, involved in business).



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Scot McKnight

posted August 15, 2007 at 7:36 pm


I should add that it is not that I think Alexandrian Jews had no capacities in Greek; Philo and his brother are great examples. I think I overstated my point; I was thinking about what Jesus’ family would have done there — and I suspect they found plenty of Aramaic-speaking Jewish friends. Going to Alexandria would not lead to learning Greek.
What I’m pressing is this question: Is there evidence that Jesus spoke Greek? Any answer is purely theoretical for there is no evidence that he did. It is easy to say (1) Jesus was in Egypt; some Egyptian Jews spoke some Greek, maybe many; (3) therefore Jesus spoke Greek. It doesn’t work this easily. Here’s why: the English no longer go to church; John Stott is an Englishman; therefore he doesn’t go to church.
In short, arguing from the general to the specific holds only if we have sufficient numbers of “specific” people. To argue from the general to the specific for one is specious logic.
Or, one can argue that Greek was pervasive in Lower Galilee; Jesus was a Lower Galilean; therefore Jesus spoke Greek. If we have 200 Lower Galilean Jews we probably have a number who can speak Greek. To infer from the general to the specific doesn’t work.
Mike Wise, an expert on languages, in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, contends Jesus spoke a dialect of Aramaic and some Hebrew but everything else is conjecture.



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Scott M

posted August 15, 2007 at 7:47 pm


He conversed with Pilate. He conversed with a Roman Centurion. He traveled through at least some of the cities of the decapolis and conversed with non-Jews there. Is the conjecture that he had an interpreter or that those people spoke Aramaic? Are we wrong to attach the significance we do to Jesus’ use of agape, especially in John’s gospel? After all, that’s a word that doesn’t really have an Aramaic or English equivalent. If Jesus did not speak Greek, then that is just John editorializing in his word choice. The list goes on …



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Ish Engle

posted August 15, 2007 at 8:31 pm


Scot,
I wouldn’t be shocked if Jesus did not speak Greek. However, being a former businessman, in an area of Judea that spoke a a significant amount of Greek, in an Empire whose primary business dealings were done in Greek, who spent his formative, language learning years in an area with a high percentage of Greek speaking Jews, who wandered through several highly Hellenistic areas conversing with the inhabitants has a high likelihood of speaking Greek.
Could he have somehow gotten by without speaking Greek? Possibly (perhaps even probably). My guess is that he did.
That being said, I think this is a rabbit trail. So what if Jesus did/did not speak Greek. MOST of his speech in an Aramaic speaking culture would have been Aramaic, so we are left with the point of translation being moot (or at least problematic for either side, as absence of proof is not proof of absence).
Just my $0.02.
I am really enjoying this “history” of the search for history. Thanks Scot!



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Ted Gossard

posted August 16, 2007 at 12:52 am


Interesting post and thread.



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Randy Barnhart

posted August 16, 2007 at 6:06 am


RE #29 to Mike, I find it curious that some still see themselves as beginning from a “neutral” pov. Even if it were possible to “read from nowhere,” surely it wouldn’t be an advantage.
RE the burden of proof, maybe Hooker has it right, namely that the burden falls not to this side or to that (as attractive as it must be to shift it to the other side), but to each person who would make a case. “It is the duty of every scholar, in considering every saying, to give a reasonable account of all the evidence; for he is not entitled to assume, simply in the absence of contrary evidence, either that a saying is genuine or that it is not.” So, maybe it’s not a matter of innocent until proven guilty or the other way around. It’s just, here is a saying. Here are my biases. Here is my argument.



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Bill Samuel

posted August 16, 2007 at 7:06 am


Well Scott, think of the sizable Latino communities in American cities these days where many recent immigrants see no need to learn English at all.
My wife maintains that her command of English actually deteroriated in her first years in the U.S. because she did virtually everything within the Korean community.



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Mike Clawson

posted August 16, 2007 at 2:29 pm


Correct me if I’m wrong, but the implication of these criteria then seems to be that we can’t really say whether Jesus’ definitely did not do or say something recorded in the gospels. All we could really say based on these criteria is “Here are the things we’re relatively certain Jesus did do or say. The rest we don’t really know for sure one way or the other.”
In which case it would seem rather hubristic for anyone to claim that the Jesus Seminar has found the “true” Jesus or even an alternative Jesus. To claim such seems to be more about marketing than about responsible scholarship. All they can say is “Here are the parts that are more or less historically verifiable.”



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Scot McKnight

posted August 16, 2007 at 2:58 pm


Mike,
Yes, “more or less historically verifiable” is the methodological conclusion of how historians operate. If we are doing “history,” of course, this is the sort of method one has to use because by saying “I’m going to do history” one locks oneself into a historical method.



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Mike Clawson

posted August 16, 2007 at 3:23 pm


Yes, I quite understand that Scot. What I don’t understand is this dichotomy between the Christ of history vs. the Christ of faith. It seems to me that if these Jesus historians recognize the limits of their own discipline then they can’t really claim that their pictures of Jesus excludes the Christ of faith. They’d just have to say that history can’t definitively confirm the Christ of faith.
Why then does it seem like I hear some of these scholars setting up these kind of dichotomies? Or is that just due to the sensationalistic ways their findings get reported by Time and Newsweek and the History Channel? Not having read the Jesus Seminar scholars first hand, I don’t know whether they are perhaps more balanced in their claims about what exactly their findings can tell us about Jesus.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 16, 2007 at 3:26 pm


Mike,
I guess it begins with Strauss who said the miracles didn’t happen. Once you have a miracle-less Jesus, our understanding of Jesus really was changes.
Then one thing after another got eliminated and you end up with a different Jesus.
Overall, after having worked in this stuff for years and years, scholars are pretty confident about what they think Jesus didn’t do and didn’t say. Then there is the process of reconstruction.



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