Institute on Religion and Democracy
November 15, 1999
You are probably familiar with the Jesus Seminar, a colloquium of revisionist scholars who collectively decide which parts of the Gospels are really true. Their usual answer is: not much. The Seminar produces a steady stream of conferences and books denying the historicity of the Jesus whom Christians worship. Their pronouncements are little more than the conventional wisdom of over 100 years of liberal skepticism. But the Seminar's media savvy and pithy phrasing have earned it more than its fair share of headlines.
Few are aware of the Seminar's outreach to local congregations. Not content to influence the media and academia, scholars from the Seminar speak at dozens of churches every year. I recently attended a Jesus Seminar event at a suburban United Church of Christ outside Washington, DC.
About 70 mostly older church members gathered on a weekend in their newly remodeled church building to hear Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar. Unlike some of his Seminar fellows, who claim they are simply redefining Christianity or even saving it, Funk does not affect any sympathy for the traditional faith. It must be debunked and replaced by a new universal spirit of secular brotherhood and sisterhood, he frankly proclaims.
Amazingly, and inexplicably, the pastor and his elderly flock listened sympathetically as Funk explained that theism has no relevance in the modern world.
"Fewer than 20 percent of [Jesus'] sayings [in the Bible] are authentic," Funk announced. "But we have a profile of this historical figure that is at least worth contemplating."
Funk said the Jesus Seminar made no claims to "absolute truth" or final answers but was employing the best scholarly skills available. Professing that the Seminar is comprised of historians, not theologians, Funk nonetheless was not hesitant about sharing his own theology.
"Most of us in this field believe we've come to the end of the Christian era," Funk said. "The symbolic universe for our creeds has collapsed. But a lot of people don't know that yet."
White haired, plump and professorial, Funk spoke to his attentive audience in the church's sanctuary. A large cross was displayed on the wall behind the pulpit. "We know there's no heaven or hell," he said, claiming that Pope John Paul II now agrees. (Funk either misunderstood or was misrepresenting a recent papal statement on the meaning of hell.) "We know why Jesus is not coming back," he added.
Funk explained that the physical universe is "very different" from what early Christians imagined and scientific discovery has consequently made Christian beliefs outdated. He noted, not unapprovingly, that Christianity is now in competition with "other religions as old and venerable as our own, if not more so." He rejoiced that theology was not longer under the oversight of "ecclesiastical officials," and was now free for dramatic revision, as represented by the Jesus Seminar.
He boasted that one third of the Seminar's fellows are Roman Catholic, but regretted that only one of them is a priest, because of the church's intolerance towards theological adventurers. "The church has espoused the persecution of witches, Jews, women and gays," Funk charged. "The Nazi horrors were perpetrated in part with Christianity's blessing."
Funk said many of us need a "moral housecleaning" as a result. Anxious to serve as the "herald of a radical reformation," he left the university where he was having "no influence as a professor." He was also frustrated when his students, freshly enlightened in the ways of the "historical" Jesus, were unable to find churches to nurture their new beliefs. Even liberal clergy were not being frank with their congregations.
Today, the Jesus Seminar has 75 fellows, plus 2500 associates who are financial contributors to the Seminar. The latter are a lot more "radical" than the fellows, Funk acknowledged smilingly. The Seminar agrees that Jesus got "Christianized" during the 40 years between his death and the writing of Mark's Gospel, which was a collection of stories stitched together from the church community.
Jesus himself was never a Christian, but a Jew, Funk said. As a humorous aside, he said we know Jesus was Jewish because he lived at home until he was 30, worked in his father's business, thought his mother was a virgin, and she thought he was a god.
Luke and Matthew based their Gospels on documents called "P" and "Q" that are now lost, Funk said. The Gospel of Thomas, found in 1947, is as close to the "oral tradition" about Jesus as we'll ever get, he added. (He did not mention the Gnostic influence found in Thomas' "Gospel.") The Seminar dismisses the stories about Jesus as a deity and miracle worker and accepts the historicity only of his parables and witty sayings. Any one of these parables would have earned Jesus a death sentence, Funk said.
Jesus operated on a "truth ethic," admonishing his followers to take no thought for tomorrow. He knew the people, and not God, would take care of the disciples. Jesus could not possibly have been apocalyptic because he celebrated often, Funk surmised. Jesus broke down social barriers, including family lines. He advocated community but not cult rituals. The Eucharist and baptism did not originate with Jesus. Funk claimed we do not have any stories from "people directly affected by Jesus." The Seminar refuses to "pretend" any of the Gospel authors were eyewitnesses.
"We haven't made theological statements," Funk boasted of his Seminar. "We are historians." He admitted that the Seminar does now feel the need to address the moral implications of its scholarship. "How can I take the Jesus Seminar to church?" many people are asking the Seminar, he said.
The Jesus Seminar has produced its own "Gospel of Jesus" containing only the sayings its fellows believe to be historical. "It's a little thin book," Funk remarked with a smirk. "It gives a very different impression of who Jesus was." The Seminar is also examining the letters of Paul, searching for the "authentic ones."
Other scholars from the Seminar are looking at the whole biblical cannon, looking for more scripture to delete. "Lots of things in the Bible are an embarrassment," Funk said. "Literalists use these to beat us over the head. Let's edit the Bible."
Funk called the Nicene Creed "nonsensical" and not worth revising. But the Seminar wants to invent "new stories" that speak to the modern imagination. The ancient church creeds were, he said, only "products of imagination." Artists and poets are now needed to convey these new stories. Funk mentioned the Hollywood producer of the racy movie "Showgirls," with whom the Seminar is working to develop a movie about Jesus.
"We've embarrassed many of our critics and caught them with their pants down," Funk claimed without providing any examples. He said the Jesus Seminar is looked upon as scholars who have organized a "Reform Party," as they are unwilling to work within more conventional structures. But Funk never explained how his Seminar was significantly different from earlier searches for the "historical" Jesus that started by denying the historical reliability of the Gospels.
Funk distributed 21 theses that are conclusions of the Jesus Seminar. Despite Funk's protestations, they seem to be more theological than historical. Here they are, in a slightly abbreviated format:
Funk's theses spoke of Jesus' atonement and other traditional Christian beliefs as "sub-ethical." But he did not, or could not, explain how anything could be labeled immoral within the context of the Seminar's admitted moral relativism.
Most of the attendees of Funk's presentation were upper-middle aged or elderly. They were members of an affluent but not large suburban mainline congregation. I did not leave the event concerned that the Jesus Seminar represents the future. Its tiresome rehashing of liberal theology ensures that it does not.
But I was distressed that long-time church members, with no help from their pastor, who effusively introduced Funk, were persuaded that the Jesus they once worshipped has no basis in historical fact. These church members should know better, of course. But they also deserve better guidance from their pastor and church.