Major Book Reviews -- the Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar

By Meyer, Ben F. | Interpretation, October 1994 | Go to article overview

Major Book Reviews -- the Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar


Meyer, Ben F., Interpretation


"LEADING SCHOLARS," a self-designation of The Jesus Seminar, have here cast themselves in a heroic truth-telling role, battling dark forces in the cause of honesty on the Bible. (This, in our anything-goes world? So it seems.) The Jesus Seminar dedicates this effort to Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, and David Friedrich Strauss. Darwin does not make the dedication, but is honored on page 1. The book thus locates itself in the nineteenth-century battle of Protestant liberal theology to free those "held captive by prior theological commitments" (p. 5).

In its quest of the authentic words of Jesus, the Seminar relies on seven "pillars of scholarly wisdom": (1) the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith; (2) acknowledgement that the synoptists are closer than John to the historical Jesus; (3) the primacy of Mark; (4) the identification of Q; (5) Jesus' freedom from eschatology; (6) the contrast between oral culture (that of Jesus) and print culture (our own); (7) reversal of the burden of proof: Tradition is unhistorical until proved otherwise.

The discussion of oral and print culture is contemporary. Most of the other pillars are nineteenth-century acquisitions, some a little shaky. Pillar #7 has been in doubt at least since the 1960s, when Willie Marxsen, among others, punctured the burden-of-proof balloon: "If I want to declare something to be historical, I must prove it. If I want to declare something to be unhistorical, I must prove that, too" ( The Beginnings of Christology [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969]). Scholars of the most diverse tendencies have recognized the methodological sanity of this view: It tends to eliminate the role of mere supposition.

Pillar #5 (noneschatological Jesus) should not really be a "pillar" or starting point. It calls for a full-blown historical investigation. The thesis itself has had a mixed history. H. S. Reimarus, noting the unlikelihood of the church's invention of an eschatological expectation that turned out not to be met, affirmed an eschatologically mistaken Jesus. Still, pillar #5 was honored through the last century until in 1892 Johannes Weiss appeared to topple it. Who has reestablished it The Jesus Seminar merely supposes it. But since The Jesus Seminar systematically dismisses as unauthentic all those words of Jesus conveying eschatological themes and motifs, mere supposition is hugely problematic. The book's most challenging thesis is hardly discussed.

A concrete illustration: In the Q stratum as well as in other traditions, there are many Parousia texts, including parables, that originally intended not the Parousia but the looming eschatological ordeal. They became Parousia texts by transposition to the post-Easter situation of the church. In his Parables of the Kingdom (1935, revised 1961), C. H. Dodd observed that history had not precisely followed Jesus' prophetic scheme of events ("now" followed by the ordeal, which would be brought to an end by "the Day of the Son of Man"). Jesus' vindication had not awaited this Day.

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