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Plus ça change… “The Jesus Seminar” and “The Jesus Project”

Jesus’ cultural setting had clearly been misjudged in much of Seminar’s deliberations during the ’eighties, and today its findings are widely recognized as being idiosyncratic.

Plus ça change…

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College
January 2009

The Jesus Project,” convened in 2007 by R. Joseph Hoffman for the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, aims to pursue the task of “The Jesus Seminar,” but in a more critical vein. In a clever turn of phrase, Dr. Hoffman has written that “The Jesus of the [Jesus Seminar] is a talking doll with a questionable repertoire of thirty-one sayings. Pull a string and he blesses the poor.”

Two serious criticisms lie behind this characterization. First, Hoffman charges the Seminar with leading its presuppositions into just the anti-Fundamentalist, liberal Jesus that the majority of its members wanted to find in the first place. Second, he calls attention to the assumption of the Seminar that the sources at our disposal directly provide historical evidence concerning Jesus.

I was a Fellow of “The Jesus Seminar,” and I have been involved with “The Jesus Project” since its formal inception. By understanding where the Seminar lapsed, the Project might indeed offer the prospect of progress. So where did the Seminar fall down, and how is the Project doing in comparison?

When I attended meetings of “The Jesus Seminar,” I found the overall standard of discussion high, and often stimulating. But I was an isolated – more often than not unique – advocate of searching out the connections with Judaism implicit within the Gospels. Yet the director of the Seminar, Robert Funk, frequently repeated a principle, and his insistence encouraged me to persist. He often quoted Norman Perrin’s advice that an assertion about Jesus in the Gospels cannot be evaluated in historical terms until we have evaluated the history of the traditions of which that assertion is a part. Any consistent pursuit of that approach, of course, would eventually necessitate analysis of the Aramaic connections of the Jesus tradition.

In various presentations at meetings of the Seminar and in its journal, I called attention to signs of Aramaic antecedents in the language of the Gospels and to indications of sources behind the Gospels, both written and oral. On the whole, however, my Judaic approach did not find much resonance within the majority.

Two factors played into that response. The first has to do with the sociology of graduate education in the field of New Testament and early Christianity, which has notoriously skimped on the study of Semitic languages, although Aramaic and Syriac, as well as Hebrew, were clearly major languages of Christianity alongside Coptic, Greek, and Latin until at least the time of the rise of Islam. The second factor was more specific to the Seminar: a pronounced preference for a Greek Jesus over an Aramaic Jesus. That preference was reinforced by fashion within the Seminar and a few other circles, which has since been contradicted directly by archaeological work, to describe Galilee as an urban and Hellenistic environment, where Greek was mostly spoken.

To be sure, there were notable exceptions among the Fellows, perhaps most notably F. Stanley Jones. He repeatedly urged me, when we happened to attend the same meetings of the Seminar, to continue my project of retranslating Jesus’ teaching into Aramaic of the first century, a demanding task which I would not have taken up without prompting. At the same time, Robert Funk expressed an interest in my editing an anthology of Aramaic sources for a series connected with the Seminar. I agreed to do so, but the problems of producing a text in a Semitic language apparently proved insurmountable, so that while Coptic and Greek are within the Seminar’s publishing idiom, the challenge of factoring in Aramaic remains unaddressed. In the meantime, my interests were taken up by the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, for which I prepared an edition of the Isaiah Targum in Aramaic, and by a long project, recently completed, of retroverting into first-century Aramaic all the materials in Mark’s Gospel that show signs of deriving from Aramaic sources.

Although the issue of the place of Aramaic in the study of Jesus never emerged as a contentious topic within the Jesus Seminar, it became increasingly plain by the beginning of the ’nineties that serious linguistic work would have to be conducted outside that setting. I regretted acknowledging this was the case, but as I did so, my interest in the work of the Seminar inevitably waned. At the same time, the Seminar’s Hellenistic bias in the use of archaeological evidence and anthropological analysis was becoming increasingly obvious within the discipline of New Testament study. Jesus’ cultural setting had clearly been misjudged in much of Seminar’s deliberations during the ’eighties, and today its findings are widely recognized as being idiosyncratic.

An incautious treatment of sources was bound to emerge in the Seminar. Unlike the careful discussion that typically preceded votes by Fellows on what was authentic and what was not, voting itself was often a scrappy affair. Despite its overall and undeniable success, the Seminar’s membership shrank within a few years to approximately 80 more or less active members. This shrinkage of the total number of Fellows, together with a sporadic attendance at meetings that resulted in changing interpretative principles from season to season and year to year, exacerbated one of the Seminar’s most persistent weaknesses. Although its founding ethos stressed the importance of open, public debate among professional participants, publicity prior to and during meetings often set up findings well in advance of discussion, with results that distorted, not only the conduct of the Seminar, but the way in which its findings were reported. For example, Fellows were known to deny to the press that Jesus had ever prayed; he was portrayed as a Cynic philosopher despite evidence to the contrary that was always overwhelming; and Galilee has been treated as an urban, non-Jewish environment despite archaeologists’ findings to the contrary. Added to all these factors, the drive for results sometimes led to a retaking of votes, both within a given meeting, and from meeting to meeting, producing the effect of a push-poll in an election campaign.

Ideologically, these practices brought to the surface a deep difference among the Fellows that might otherwise have remained hidden, between a positivist and a humanist understanding of history. For the positivists, inspired by Leopold von Ranke during the nineteenth century, historical “criteria” produced findings of “authenticity” when applied to “objective” textual “data.” The humanist perspective, whose champion was R. G. Collingwood during the twentieth century, insists that historians of the ancient world cannot stand over their sources and find them right or wrong because they do not have access to events except through those sources. Rather, historians explain how their sources arose within their cultural environments, inferring the events that ultimately generated texts.

The challenge for “The Jesus Project” is to learn from the mistakes of “The Jesus Seminar.” I have contributed work to the Project, but I cannot so far report any great signs of progress.

To a large extent, immediate progress should in any case not be anticipated. Critical enterprises always need time to evolve operating principles, and the Project has had to devote time and energy to issues of method in the study of the historical Jesus. Unfortunately, however, the Project has attempted to address questions of critical approach without a thorough grounding in academic study since the eighteenth century. The result is that some of the assertions made by contributors to the Project are not well informed and invoke quests for “objectivity” that seem more at home in nineteenth-century Europe than in twenty-first century America. What is more worrying, actual knowledge of primary sources (and of their languages) does not seem as great among participants in the Project as among Fellows of the Seminar. Discussion of “method” apart from specific evidence was precisely one of the failings of the Seminar and directly fed its liberal, anti-Fundamentalist agenda.

The tyranny of method, a typical failing of American scholarship, skews and selects the evidence that is adduced. The Project has played into the hands of this weakness. Although the Project claims to limit its participation to scholars, meetings are in fact open to a predominantly non-specialist audience. Scholars make very short contributions and engage in little substantive discussion. That makes for the kind of set-piece presentation that is unlikely to advance knowledge. The Project seems no more positioned to assess the whole range of literary and archaeological evidence related to the study of Jesus than the Seminar was. The Project’s stated aim, to conclude that work of assessment within five years, makes success seem impossible on the basis of its performance to date.

Further, the Project has focused on an incoherent set of some of the least important questions in scholarship. For example, it keeps asking “Did Jesus exist?” as if that issue had not been raised repeatedly during the past two centuries and yet also features James Cameron’s film, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” which has been thoroughly discredited as an archaeological travesty.

The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion has put its reputation on the line in sponsoring “The Jesus Project,” but so far amateurism, special interest advocacy, and a lack of critical focus have undermined a commendably earnest intent. Anyone who has followed the work of “The Jesus Seminar” should have learned long ago that Fundamentalists are not the only partisans who permit their wishes to cloud what they see and that it takes more than a declaration of “objectivity” to acquire the discipline of reasoning from evidence, both textual and archaeological. But I gave the Seminar time, and I can see no reason not to hope that genuine exchanges of insight and a deepening of knowledge might emerge from the so far conventional proceedings of “The Jesus Project.”

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Comments (4)

Perhaps I missed it, but was there anything supernatural about Jesus' birth, life, and death? I read the book "Rabbi Jesus" and did not find anything attributed to an act of God. Did God have anything to do with Jesus?
Thank you for an answer. I am not being critical, I sincerely would like to hear your thoughts.
#1 - Alton E Paris - 03/29/2010 - 17:46

What you missed is that the vision of God has been acknowledged as of divine origin from the time of the prophets, and was specifically embraced within the New Testament and the Patristic tradition. The references, both primary and secondary, are cited in "Rabbi Jesus."
#2 - Bruce Chilton - 03/29/2010 - 20:38

A viable historical solution to the “Jesus Puzzle” has taken place within the Guild of NT studies, the only discipline capable, not only of identifying our primary Scriptural source of apostolic witness, but of appropriately interpreting this source as well. However, “few are they who find it” even among well-known NT scholars. Finding it, this historical solution, is “a task to which specialized knowledge in the areas of philology, form and redaction criticism, literary criticism, history of religions, and New Testament theology necessarily applies.” (Hans Dieter Betz). “Over the last two centuries, there gradually emerged a new access to Jesus, made available through objective historical research.” (James M. Robinson). Under the force of present historical methods and knowledge this new access was brought to a highly creditable understanding during the 1980’s. Schubert Ogden: “We now know not only that none of the Old Testament writings is prophetic witness to (Jesus), but also that none of the writings of the New Testament is apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church itself understood apostolicity. The sufficient evidence for this point in the case of the New Testament writings is that all of them have been shown to depend on sources, written or oral, earlier than themselves, and hence not to be the original and originating witness that the early church mistook them to be in judging them to be apostolic. [“the sufficient evidence” without the agonizing detail of what they do contain which now supplies the grist for the blogosphere mythicists’ mill] - - the witness of the apostles is still rightly taken to be the real ‘Christian’ norm, even if we today have to locate this norm, not In the writings of the New Testament but in the earliest stratum of (Scriptural) witness accessible to us, given our own methods of historical analysis and reconstruction. Betz identifies this earliest stratum to be the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3-7:27). “This source presents us with an early form – deriving from (the Jerusalem Jesus Movement) - which had direct links to the teaching the historical Jesus and thus constituted an alternative to Gentile Christianity as known above all from the letters of Paul and the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the New Testament. [All are written in the context of imaging the Christ of faith, not the man Jesus]. If the Sermon on the Mount represents a response to the teaching of Jesus critical of that of Gentile Christianity, then it serves unmistakably to underline the well-known fact of how little we know of Jesus and his teaching. The reasons for our lack of knowledge are of a hermeneutical sort and cannot be overcome by an access of good will (apologetics). The Gentile Christian authors of the Gospels transmitted to us only that part of the teaching of Jesus that they themselves understood, they handed on only that which they were able to translate into the thought categories of Gentile Christianity, and which they judged to be worthy of transmission.” (More to the point they included no more than they felt to be sufficient to lend historical credence to their Pauline Christ of faith myth). This calls for a new reconstruction of post death Jesus traditions.
#3 - Edward H. Jones - 05/20/2012 - 22:59

Our most certain sufficient historical evidence for knowledge of Jesus, who he was, what he said and what he did rests “solely on the basis of the original and originating faith and witness of the apostles”. (Schubert M. Ogden). Over against this initial fact of history, one must take account of The FATEFUL HISTORICAL MISTAKE which took place in the earliest apostolic period 30 CE-65 CE at the very beginning of post-execution Jesus traditions. This period was marked by two distinctly different movements, the Jerusalem Jesus movement having claim to this apostolic witness, soon followed by the Pauline Christ myth movement (the enemy of the Jesus movement) which developed in the Gentile world, meeting with ready success, to become Gentile Christianity, finally to become orthodox Christianity. Becoming the winners in the struggle for dominance, Gentile Christianity was able to place this original movement under a conspiracy of silence; to even at a later point, have it declared a heresy, to effectively remove it from the pages of history. Under these Gentile conditions some 40 years later, the writings of the NT took place, to mistakenly be named the official canon, the apostolic witness to Jesus. Only since the 80’s have certain of our top scholars under the force of our present historical methods and knowledge fully come to a real objective historical understanding of this mistake, not only to say none of the writings of the NT are apostolic witness to Jesus, but to understand the how and the why of this fateful mistake. This is a human mistake, one of those ultimate mistakes related to the issue of God-man relationship, which bears testimony to unknowing mankind’s pervasive fallible mistake prone history. (Developing eyes that cannot see.)
A brief history of this fateful mistake: In this apostolic period there were two movements each with its own interpretation of the significance of the Jesus event. Chronologically the first, the Jerusalem Jesus Movement which began (within weeks) with the key disciples, having fled to their native Galilee, overcome with grief and utter disillusionment , emboldened by Peter’s and others vision (some form of extrasensory cognition), at great risk, returning to Jerusalem, purposing to again take up the teaching of their revered Master. This was soon followed by a group of Hellenist Jews hearing talk of Jesus rising from the dead (as the visions began to be interpreted), with their traditions of dying and rising gods together with Jewish animal sacrificial rites, took up the sense perceived (not revelation) notion that the significance of Jesus was the salvific effects of his death and resurrection which abrogated the Torah. This was in effect treason for temple authorities. The Acts story of the stoning of Stephen, the leader in this Hellenist group, seems to reference a put-down by temple authorities of some kind of anti-Torah demonstration. Paul is named as a participant holding the garments of those casting the stones. Next we find Paul having his “vision” experience on the road to Damascus, to where the Hellenist fled, as persecutor, then converting to this group with their Christ myth beliefs. It was from this group that Paul received his Christ myth kerygma. In taking his Christ kerygma to the Gentile world, meeting with ready success, becoming Gentile Christianity as known above all in the writings of the New Testament, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the New Testament, the source for orthodox Christianity, becoming winners in the struggle for dominance, to declare the Jerusalem Jesus Movement heresy to effectively remove it from the pages of history. Only because Matthew included the Q material, which contained the Sermon on the Mount, do we have an alternative source which contains our sole original and originating faith and witness of the apostles, our certain source of knowledge of the real Jesus.
#4 - Ed Jones - 10/27/2012 - 22:36

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