Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Does Anyone Remember the Enlightenment?

This article was published Saturday (August 16) in the Springfield Missouri News-Leader. It was written by Dr. Charles Hedrick, who has been a member of the Jesus Seminar since it began.

I am going to post it in full and include it on the sidebar as it provides information about the Jesus Seminar's work. It was written in response to
this misrepresentation of Westar.

Read Jesus Seminar's Work Misrepresented by Dr. Charles Hedrick

I wish to correct the misinformation about the Jesus Seminar published in last Saturday's News-Leader (Aug. 9). I am a member of the Jesus Seminar and have been since the first meeting in 1985, when 30 biblical scholars were invited to launch the Jesus Seminar. The late founder of the seminar, Robert W. Funk, was a highly respected New Testament scholar. Since that first meeting, more than 200 fellows have participated in work of the seminar, including international scholars. Their degrees are from the leading graduate schools and seminaries throughout the world. Jesus Seminar fellows are also active members of the Society of Biblical Literature and take an active and often a leading role in that society.

Our first project was to study all the early Gospel material within the first and second centuries, sorting the sayings of Jesus as to the probability that they originated with Jesus. That report was published in The Five Gospels (1993). Here is why that project was necessary. There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts and no two of them agree in all particulars. Except for two tiny fragments of John (@140 and @180) and a fragment of the non-canonical Egerton Gospel (@150), all manuscripts of the Greek New Testament are third century, about 170 years after the events they describe. There are no complete manuscripts of New Testament books until the 4th century. The New Testament read by Christians today is the product of liberal critical scholars, who reconstructed the books and decided what the New Testament was to read based on a critical methodology, the same methodology taught in mainstream seminaries and graduate schools throughout the world. What Dr. Nunnally really objects to are the conclusions of the seminar, which do not agree with his own.

The four New Testament Gospels actually contradict one another on the details of the public career of Jesus, on matters ranging from the sequence of events to the very words Jesus is represented as saying. In fact, the dissonance between Mark (earliest Gospel) and John (latest Gospel) is so great their authors would not recognize the account of the other writer as describing the same man. The Jesus Seminar met to decide what could be said with relative certainty about the human being Jesus of Nazareth using the methods of modern historical criticism.

Dr. Nunnally has unfairly represented both the seminar and critical biblical scholarship. He cannot possibly speak for the Society of Biblical Literature, which is the largest organization of biblical scholars in the world, or other scholars throughout the world. Here are a few brief responses to what he wrote. Space limitations make it impossible to be more detailed.


1. To be a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, one must hold a Ph.D or equivalent in the academic study of religion. Graduate students attend our meetings, as do a large group of associates, many of whom hold terminal degrees in other academic fields. At the last bi-annual meeting of the seminar this spring, there were over 500 fellows and associates in attendance.

2. What Dr. Nunnally considers "mainstream" scholarship is confessional. What I consider "mainstream" scholarship is critical. Scholars who teach in schools financially supported by religious denominations are required to work within certain confessional parameters. They can be fired if they stray over the confessional boundaries in either questions or answers. The Jesus Seminar represents a wide variety of religious traditions among the fellows, but we do not observe any theological or confessional boundaries. We study early Christian literature using the same methods as modern secular historians.

3. We are faulted not because of our methodology but because we do scholarship in the public eye and we vote at the end of our deliberations to register the consensus of the group, which is exactly the procedure followed by the International United Bible Societies Committee -- except we do it in a public arena, registering our votes with multicolored beads, and report our findings to the general public.

4. Rudolph Bultmann, a devout German Lutheran, who continued to preach each Sunday while in his academic post, set the agenda for critical biblical scholarship in the 20th and 21st centuries. His students did not abandon his critical approach to the New Testament but continued to follow the program his scholarship set for biblical studies. Contrary to the Saturday article, Bultmann did not remove the supernatural element from the Gospels. He aimed at reinterpreting these events, as the German title of his book makes clear.

5. The Jewish materials Nunnally cited provide little to no direct evidence about Jesus or later Christianity. They inform us about the religious and cultural environment of the period. The Nag Hammadi Library and the non-canonical gospels, however, do provide direct information about the earliest stages of the Jesus tradition.

6. It is alleged that the Jesus Seminar "preferred" the extra-biblical gospels and Acts for their sources. This is simply not true. Our goal was to assess all early Christian texts in the first two centuries of the Common Era. Of these texts, only the Gospel of Thomas yielded a large number of sayings that probably originated with Jesus. Thomas was judged to have more sayings originating with Jesus than even the Gospel of John.

7. I disagree that most people "embrace belief in the supernatural." Many may be superstitious, but they don't base their everyday lives on a belief in the supernatural. I do not know what Dr. Nunnally means by "postmodern." I suspect that, at bottom, the term describes a conservative reaction to the challenges modern science presents to a religious faith attempting to shore up the crumbling creeds of the church. Reinforcing belief in the supernatural fosters the hegemony of one particular kind of Christian faith. But, alas, it will not work unless "postmodern scholars" can stop scientific research. Does anyone remember the Enlightenment? We live in an age of reason, and when faith meets reason, there is a shaking of the foundations.

Charles W. Hedrick is a distinguished professor emeritus of Missouri State University.

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