Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium

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Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium. By Robert W. Funk. New York: HarperCollins, 1996, ix + 342 pp., $24.00.

The book has its good points. (1) It is as clear an elucidation of Robert Funk's personal history (in capsule form) and convictions as one could wish. Given Funk's importance in the ongoing work of the Jesus Seminar, a single autobiographical volume detailing his views is likely to be valuable both now and in the futureconsider, e.g. the light shed on the tumultuous fundamentalist-modernist years by Harry Emerson Fosdick's The Living of These Days. (2) It is well written. This may be due in part to the expert editorial assistance he says he received (p. ix), but the end result is fetching prose and clear lines of argument. And Funk deserves credit for being rhetorically resourceful quite on his own. (3) It rightly calls readers to examine whether they know the Bible they profess to believe. (4) It asks whether Bible readers obey the teachings they say they affirm. (5) It underscores the truth that the Bible is not just a devotional guide. It demands historical investigation. (6) It is honest to life in recognizing the bankruptcy of much contemporary Biblical scholarship. These are just some of the legitimate points Funk makes.

His approach is straightforward, consisting of three sections: "Return to Nazareth" (pp. 17-139), "The Gospel of Jesus" (pp. 143-216) and "The Jesus of the Gospels" (pp. 219-314).

In the first section he lampoons orthodox Christianity, which he tends to conflate with televangelist chicanery and the materialist decadence of suburban American "churchianity." He does not seem to be aware that most Christians in the world are not even white, much less North American. He shows no interest in admitting that many American Christians decry the same hypocrisies that he denounces. The only friend of Jesus is, like Funk, an enemy of historic Christianity. The section as a whole aims toward the goal of enthroning the minimalist findings of the Jesus Seminar. It does this, basically, by tracing out the progress of the post-Bultmannian historical scepticism (minus Bultmann's formal Lutheran creedalism) that has marked Funk's own pilgrimage. As a result, the proper "chronology of the gospels" has Q, Thomas and Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1224 as the real primary sources of whatever we might know about Jesus, which is precious little. These date from 50-60 cE. Next come Mark and the Egerton "Gospel" (70-80 CE). At the third stage we find Matthew and Luke (which are dependent on earlier sources and so often of dubious historical veracity) at 80-90 CE, at a fourth the canonical John (which is largely fictitious) at 90100 CE, and finally a series of apocryphal or gnostic works at 100-150 cE. Because this last group often echoes Thomas, its Jesus tends to be favored over the one presented by the canonical gospels.

The second section analyzes the meaning of what Jesus says, in its minimalist version, measured against his actions, which are likewise drastically pared down when compared to what the gospels record. The conclusion is that Jesus was a sage, an utterer of aphorisms, an inveterate iconoclast who loved to party, who accepted all sinners freely as long as they made no pretext of being anything other than low-lifers, and who took no thought for tomorrow or anything related to it, including eternal life in the sense of heaven. "It is difficult to imagine Jesus projecting" a heavenly future "for himself or for others" (p. 215). What Funk cannot imagine cannot be true. Faith in future blessings would be self-serving. Heaven is therefore the here and now. We enter it by realizing we are already in it, such as it is. Be confident and bold; else all is lost: "Those who need to be authorized to pass" into God's kingdom, "who feel they must have permission, are not worthy of entrance" (p. 216). "Our ultimate future" is death (p. 29). This is the gospel of Jesus.

The third section is the climactic finale. …