by Sean Winter [first
published in June 2015] https://crosslight.org.au/2015/06/21/unscrambling-jesus/
This year marks the 30th anniversary
of the formation of the Jesus Seminar. Readers of Crosslight may have
heard of this convocation of scholars who famously, over a period of several
years, took a vote on each of the sayings of Jesus to establish whether or not
he actually said them. Using a grading system that ranged from red-letter
confidence (‘Yes, that’s Jesus!’) through to black-letter scepticism (‘There’s
been some mistake’) the work of the Seminar achieved notoriety and influence.
The notoriety was understandable.
Only one of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospel of Mark was judged to be authentic in
the sense that ‘Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it’ (Mark
12:17 to be exact). Many of the sayings of Jesus, including large chunks of the
Sermon on the Mount, were put into the category of ‘Jesus did not say this’.
Populist, conservative outrage at
such audacious claims aligned with more sober scholarly challenges to the
methods and results of the Seminar’s deliberations. But its key advocates had a
knock down argument up their sleeve: we have found the real Jesus, based on the
consensus of critical scholars, so it’s about time that the Church, and
Christian faith and practice, caught up and changed.
In this way the Seminar’s influence
grew and, in the words of its founder and greatest proponent, Robert Funk,
people began to wonder what it might mean to ‘liberate the gospel of Jesus from
the Jesus of the gospels’.
The Seminar’s careful and critical
scholarly work was designed to prompt a ‘revamp’ of our understanding.
Christian faith should become an ethical, not a credal, affair. Christian life
should be focussed on imitating Jesus. Jesus himself must be ‘demoted’ from his
place within Christian theology.
These are important claims, which,
if followed to their logical extreme, would indeed require a new reformation in
which the contemporary Church’s relationship to its own history and tradition
undergoes a radical renegotiation.
It is only right that, in this 30th
anniversary year, I declare my hand in relation to this bold, adventurous and
I believe that it is basically bunk,
but not for the reasons that you might suspect.
My own view is that there is no
part of the Jesus tradition for which we can draw the conclusion that
‘Jesus said it’. There are no red-letter sayings of Jesus, within or outside of
the New Testament gospels. This is a conclusion borne not of a radical
scepticism about the historical reliability of the gospels. It is rather the
result of noticing some fairly basic facts about the gospels.
First, they were written in Greek.
Although Jesus may have possessed some rudimentary knowledge of Greek, the
consensus is that he taught in the common language of first century Palestine,
Aramaic. With the exception of a word here or there (the most significant being
Jesus’ cry from the cross in Mark 15:34) the gospels preserve translations
of the sayings of Jesus. And then, as now, translation always involves a level
Second, recent New Testament
scholarship has shown us that it is about as difficult to separate out
‘authentic’ words of Jesus from ‘inauthentic’ words as it is to unscramble an
Scholars used to think that they had
a set of especially sharp tools that would enable them to cut away the dying
flesh of the Church’s tradition, thus saving the life of the real Jesus for the
benefit of his followers. They called these tools ‘criteria for authenticity’.
I used to use them myself. I now realise that they were about as useful for
finding Jesus as a scalpel is for eating eggs and bacon: you can try, but you
are really missing the point.
The reason we know this is because
we now better understand the way that human memory works. Memory is also the
work of interpretation from the outset. If you don’t interpret it, you won’t
remember it. And so it becomes entirely possible that in the gospels, we find
words that Jesus didn’t actually say that preserve some kind of accurate
historical memory, and vice-versa. The gospels provide us with translated
memories of the sayings of Jesus.
Third, the gospels are not documents
that are at all interested in telling us ‘what Jesus actually said’. They
cannot lead us to the past because they were never intended to. What the
gospels provide for us is an indication of the impact that Jesus made upon the
memories of his earliest followers, and of the impact of those memories on
subsequent communities of Christian disciples.
If we take these aspects of the
gospels seriously we find ourselves having to say that the only Jesus we have
is the remembered Jesus. We can continue to call that Jesus ‘historical’, I
suppose, but ‘historical’ here can mean little more than ‘Jesus as he was
remembered and understood by those who believed that God had raised him from
We get closest to this Jesus not by
trying to get behind or beyond the witness of the gospels and not by stripping
away the theological convictions the first generations held about his
relationship to God and saving work.
In the words of one recent scholar
‘the historical Jesus is not veiled by the interpretations of him. He is most
available for analysis when these interpretations are most pronounced.’
All of which is to suggest that we
can best celebrate the anniversary of the Jesus Seminar by returning to the
gospels and exploring what kind of person, with what kind of message and,
crucially, what kind of relationship to God, might generate these memories and
answer that question might be to see more clearly the ways that the memory of
Jesus can be preserved in the Church today.
Rev Dr Sean Winter
is currently the Academic Dean, Co-ordinator of Studies in New Testament, and
Associate Professor within the University of Divinity. He teaches across a
range of New Testament subjects, is involved in the formation of candidates for
ordained ministries within the UCA and speaks regularly at conferences,
churches, and other events within and beyond the Uniting Church.