Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Miracles and the Jesus Seminar


adapted from a report by David Millikan on a visit to Sydney of the Jesus Seminar in Sept. 1998


John Squires teaches New Testament at the School of Ministry. He spent an hour giving a fine introduction to the major texts and developments in what is now called the "Renewed Search for the Historical Jesus". He was talking about the torrent of information now available to New Testament scholars who wish to broaden their understanding of the culture, politics, religion and economic circumstances in which Jesus lived.

Compared to the early search for the historical Jesus which made its way into the public arena through the writings of Albert Schweitzer (1910) , there is an extraordinary amount of detail now available to us about the life of Jesus. It is this mass of material which fuels many of the studies that emerge from the Jesus Seminar. The state of the economy in Palestine, the character of the Roman occupation, the kinds of wine and food consumed, the condition of religion and many other questions about life in Jerusalem and Galilee during the time of Jesus can now be answered with some assurance. It is remarkable that the further we move away in time from the first century, the greater is our knowledge of what happened.

In the last 20 years a number of ideas about Jesus have emerged. There are those who say that we should see Jesus as a Rabbi among the other Rabbi's of his day. Robert Funk disagrees with this saying that Jesus clearly did not have the training necessary to inhabit this role. Others have suggested that he was a Zealot and part of the resistance movement which flared into life in the years after his death.

Others argue that Jesus was a sage, or a sort of wise man. There are those along with A.E. Harvey, E. Wright and E. Saunders have argued that Jesus was an eschatological prophet, whose central message was the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. Dominic Crosson, a Catholic priest and a well-known member of the Jesus Seminar, has taken another view, arguing in his recent books that Jesus was a peasant or marginalised Jew at the bottom of the social structures of his day. Other views see him as an Essene, a magician, or a "holy man"whose preoccupation was in criticising the contemporary concept of holiness.

All the scholars of the Jesus Seminar have in common the view which says God does not interfere with the natural process of this world through miracles. Beginning from this point of view, they are highly sceptical about stories of Jesus healing people, walking on water, bringing a man back from death, turning water into wine and so on. They have taken a position which puts them at odds with the orthodox center of Christianity.

Robert Funk, and the others in the Jesus Seminar, approach the New Testament already convinced that any stories of miracles, are not true. They look on the miracle stories as something other than history. For example, John Squires spoke with great assurance about the sort of house Jesus lived in (flat roof, made of mud), the sort of food he ate, the sort of clothes he wore etc. These are conclusions we can draw from historical data. But when we approach the miracle stories, Squires says: "Now we are moving from historical stories to stories which bare the character of confessional statements."

The argument proposed by the Jesus Seminar in regard to miracles goes like this: "At the end of the 20th century, Christians can no longer cling to a pre-scientific view of the world which puts God in heaven making the occasional foray into the world to disturb the natural order of things, so that he can achieve his divine purposes. The rise of modern science means that we must now read the miraculous stories of the New Testament aware that the early Christians had a naive belief that many things in the world were supernatural or miraculous."As Funk put it: "Why do we refuse to believe in the miracles which Homer wrote about and accept the miracles of the Gospels?"

It is Funk's view that the era of believing in miracles is well past. The world as we know it has moved beyond the primitive philosophical categories which dominated the thinking of the early Christians. There may be a large number of people in the churches who remain convinced that the miracle stories of the New Testament are true. But they will in time change. Funk says that the church is on the brink of a change which he calls the Second Reformation.

Funk talked about the early years of his life when he also held to this naive view of miracles. First he discovered the rich historical detail in Josephus, which he said was the moment when he "lost his innocence". Why this was the cause of his loss of innocence he did not explain. But I presume that it was the moment when the vision of Jesus given to him by his conservative American Protestant church was suddenly revealed to be at odds with the reality.

The next stage in Funk's development was through an encounter with the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth. It was from his reading of Barth and later Bultmann and Brunner that he realised that all theological statements are philosophically conditioned. He then spent some time as a parish minister but found the experience so constraining, he realised that his time within the doctrinal straight jacket of the Church was over.

He then moved to teaching in seminaries but again found the compromises asked of him too much. He began teaching in universities where his academic activities were not subject to the scrutiny of the churches. Finally, he came to teaching only graduate students who had no intention of proceeding toward the parish ministry. But even here he was not at rest. Funk said he found it, "painful beyond measure"that there seemed to be no future for his students. He was also saddened by the limited reach the discussion had outside of the university. "I saw colleagues who voted against tenure for scholars whose books were read by thousands rather than hundreds". So Funk left his University teaching and the "Jesus Seminar "was born.

What they are proposing is the most radical rewriting of the Christian vision of Jesus possible. For the last 2000 years the church has maintained that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was an action of God in Jesus. But the Jesus Seminar scholars do not begin from this point of view. Robert Funk (and Dominic Crosson and Marcus Borg [3]) speak of Jesus as only a man. This surely is one of the most radical challenges to the orthodox Christian view of Christ possible.


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