The Jesus Seminar Reviewed

Written by Bob Brinsmead

There are those who attack something or sit in judgment upon authors whom they have not even read.

What authors  (Funk, Crossan, Borg, Breach, Sheehan, Paterson, Vermes – the recognized world authority on the Sea Scrolls – or the ex-nun Karen Armstrong) in the Jesus Seminar.  Have you actually read these authors to qualify you to make your assessment of the Jesus Seminar? Have you read a  Jesus Seminar member like Marcus Borg; maybe you should read his delightful comparison between Jesus and Bhudda – truly written in the spirit of openess, tolerance and the importance of praxis above abstract doctrine.  If you read Borg, I really think you would sing his praises; or maybe you could read Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.   I am sure you would find a lot there to feed your soul.  If you want to read a book that is one of the most wonderfully educational outlines I have ever read,  read the classic by Karen Amstrong, The History of God.
To start with, it was the consensus of the Seminar scholars that 18% of the Jesus sayings in the NT were truly historical.  They also thought that about 50% could be taken as an approximation of what Jesus said.  Some of you seem to be under the impression that in coming to their conclusions they simply sat around and followed their gut instincts or biases. This is not so; as historical scholars and as literary scholars, they first very carefully formulated what they called “the rules of the road;”  in other words, what criteria would indicate that a statement was grounded in historical reality, and what might indicate that a statement might reflect the later teaching of some author or some section of the Christian community?  One of the rules of the road, for instance, is “multiple attestation” – meaning that it appears in more than one source, or in some cases, many sources.  For instance, take John’s story of the woman taken in adultery.  This only appears in the fourth gospel, and now it has been found that this did not appear in some of the earlier copies of the Fourth Gospel.  Again, it is pretty clear that Jesus ate with unwashen hands, but it is not certain as Mark reports (and Matthew does not) that Jesus actually declared there was no distinction between clean and unclean foods, for among other things, that would contradict Peter’s post-resurrection understanding of things according to the book of Acts.  Why hhold a whole Jerusalem Conference in 50 AD to settle the question of clean and unclean foods if,as Mark says, Jesus had declared that all foods were clean?  Why didn’t James use these words from Jesus to settle the controversery?  There are other “rules of the road,” or criteria that sholars try to follow in arriving at their conclusions.  The process is not dissimilar to trying a case in a Law Court – judges are expected to know the rules of evidence that have to be adhered to, otherwise an Appeal Court will find it is a mis-trial.  This is called “proceedural fairness” and “natural justice.”   So the Seminar scholars spelled out some rules of historical evidence, and then applied them.
The first Christians were hard put to explain the embarrassing circumstances of Jesus’ death.  The doctrine of atonement was put forward as their answer, or the apologia for the shameful death of Jesus; it is not a side issue, and it goes to the heart of NT teaching; it would not be intellectually honest not to concede this.  “Christ died for our sins.”  “God set him forth as a propitiation for our sins.”  “God sent him as a propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.” “He gave himself for our sins…”
“the just for the unjust…”  “God spared not his own son, but offered him up for us all.”  “Without shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin.”  Please tell me, what teaching of Paul is more central than this?  (The teaching is actually absent from Luke/Acts)
We cannot reconcile the teaching of Jesus generally reflected in the Sermon on the Mount and his other aphorisms and parables with the theology of Paul.
May I point out that Jesus’ teaching about God’s scandalous generosity and love was an offence to the good, righteous people of his day, and it is still an offence.  For instance, the older brother was offended at the Father’s kind of love for the waster son.  The older brother was moved by a sense of fairness – after all, the waster had already taken his portion of the family estate, and it looked like he was going to be given a second helping of the Father’s estate.  By most human standards and cultures, the father did act fairly, did not show tough love or just love.  So too Jesus said that we should be like the Abba Father who sends his rain upon the just and unjust without making any distinction – love is unconditional!  He said that we should freely forgive debts, give to every one that asks, and never hope to get it back.  Why can’t we see that Jesus was not a teacher of conventional wisdom, but scandalous wisdom that offends good people who want justice and fairness.  The Christian doctrine of atonement, the Pauline and the Hebrew author’s view of a blood sacrifice to make amends for human sin, is inimical to the teaching of the historical Jesus.  I taught the penal and substitutionary theory of atonement during the ’70s; so did Luther and Calvin – Calvin was a lawyer and put the capstone on the substitutionary atonement.  It is said that there has been no advancement on this doctrine since John Calvin.  He put the case clearly and logically – but now I would say he was mistaken just the same.  John Calvin, used all the “right” words – atonement, sacrifice, propitiation, substitue, penalty, payment, and was very clear that the penalty for sin was irrevocable on account of God’s law.  This all stood in the tradition of Athanasius and Anselm, the later writing; ‘Why God Became Man’.  The central argument in all this was the atonment on the cross for human sin.
To their credit, Roman Catholic theology was always a bit more circumspect and restrained, preferring to stay closer to the mystery of Christ’s passion, and so stopped short of Calvin’s penal sustitutionary theory.  Other than that, both branches of the church agreed on how Salvation was provided by the Act of God in Christ.  The difference between Rome and the Protestantants was not about the saving event so much as it was about Soteriology – how the benefits of Christ’s passion became available to us.
As for me now, it has all become reduntant, irrelevant.  It all comes back to what you think God thinks of you.
Yes, what do you really think God thinks of you.  If you think about that, you might find yourself laughing with me – laughing because of the scandalous generosity of eternal love.
But if anyone is contrary minded on this point, welcome to my goodwill and acceptance just the same.  If our friendship and fellowship is conditional on common opinions, that does not reflect the good news of the kingdom of God.