Scholars Sift Wheat of Jesus' Sayings

Article excerpt

Biblical scholars who have concertedly examined the sayings of Jesus for eight years believe they have finally heard him speak.

He never gave a straight answer, they say, and he loved to shock. He neither predicted the end of the world nor claimed to be the messiah.

And according to the scholars, he probably made only about 20 percent of the statements attributed to him in the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and another early collection of sayings called the Gospel of Thomas, which the scholars studied.

The scholars are members of the Jesus Seminar, an organization formed in 1985 to seek the historical Jesus through scholarly means. They examined the Gospel sayings and then voted on their authenticity.

The debates and findings are presented in "The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?" (MacMillan Publishing Co.), a book published in December and promising to be controversial. Some clergy have accused the scholars of trying to undermine church teachings.

But area scholars among the 74 seminary professors, college teachers and theologians in the Jesus Seminar say they have never intended to disparage Christianity. In fact, they say, the historical research has deepened their own Christian faith and probably will do the same for others.

"If I had not found Jesus through critical scholarship, I probably wouldn't even be associated with the church today," said Prof. Charles W. Hedrick of Springfield, Mo., an instructor at Southwest Missouri State University and a Southern Baptist minister. "Jesus is much more real to me in ways now than he ever was before."

In rejecting or accepting sayings, Hedrick and others considered such factors as the theologies of the Gospel writers and their need to reach a particular audience, the motives of the early church in perpetuating a certain image of Jesus and the Christian community, and the conventional beliefs in Jesus' time about the way God worked.

The Gospels all were written decades after Jesus' death, but the scholars believe the early evangelists passed on the gist of Jesus' parables and aphorisms - although they missed the point in most of them.

The Seminar rejected almost all the sayings in John. Many of those statements, the scholars said, were couched in the language of the writer, not of the Jesus who spoke in parables and aphorisms.

The Seminar eliminated sayings that portrayed Jesus as claiming divinity or messianic stature.

"Jesus taught that the last will be first and the first will be last," writes Robert W. Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, in the book's introduction. "He admonished his followers to be servants of everyone. He urged humility as the cardinal virtue by both word and example. Given these terms, it is difficult to imagine Jesus making claims for himself - I am the son of God, I am the expected One, the Anointed - unless he thought that nothing he said applied to himself."

People in Jesus' time commonly claimed divinity for their heroes, and many scholars believe the Christians probably were just following suit, says Stephen J. Patterson, professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves.

"There was a whole cult around Caesar, and Christians were interested in making an alternative claim," said Patterson, a Jesus Seminar member. …