Birger A. Pearson

3. Methodology of the Jesus Seminar

We have already discussed the procedures by which the Jesus Seminar came to its results as published in The Five Gospels. As we saw, the aim of the Seminar was to answer the question, "What did Jesus really say?" The second question, "What did Jesus really do?" was put off to a second phase of the project. But this separation of "word" from "deed" is itself untenable, and leads to a distortion of the evidence. Jesus is presented as a "talking head," [38] one that bears little or no relationship to what the historical Jesus, the head's body, did or what was done to him, from his (highly significant!) baptism by John to his (also highly significant!) death on a Roman cross. "Actions speak louder than words," and that is especially true of symbolic actions. [39] Thus, a much better case could be made for asking the "deeds" question first and then situating the sayings into that framework, has been done e.g. by E. P. Sanders. [40] The Jesus Seminar's exclusive attention to the sayings tradition, reminiscent of the emphases of the now old "New Quest," inevitably issues in skewed results.
In their assessment of the sayings tradition the Jesus Seminar adopted an important rule: "Canonical boundaries are irrelevant in critical assessments of the various sources of information about Jesus" (p. 35). All words attributed to Jesus in extant material from the first three centuries CE were taken into account, canonical and non-canonical. This is consonant with the stated intent of the Seminar, to act "in accordance with the canons of historical inquiry" (ibid.). This is one of the more laudable aspects of the work of the Jesus Seminar, at least as a statement of intent. Thus, the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus, is included as the fifth gospel in The Five Gospels, and fragmentary sayings material is also often included in the commentary.
The dating of some of these sources, however, is open to criticism. In a "cameo essay" on "Stages in the Development of Early Christian Tradition" (p. 128) [41] dates are assigned to the earliest sources, actual and hypothetical. In the case of the Gospel of Thomas, for example, a supposed "first edition" of Thomas is assigned to the same period as the hypothetical sayings source "Q" (50-60 CE), its "surviving edition" (more plausibly) to between 100 and 150. No convincing case can be made, however, for an early "first edition" of the Gospel of Thomas. While some of its 113 sayings may put us in touch with very early tradition, independent of the canonical gospels, such a finding can only be made by close analysis of each individual saying. The redacted version of those sayings that we have in the Gospel of Thomas represents a de-eschatologization of the tradition and is furthermore completely dominated by a (probably Syrian) type of Christianity oriented to mysticism and informed by a myth of the descent and ascent of the soul. [42] The assumptions about the Gospel of Thomas made by the Jesus Seminar are quite naive, though in actual fact even they could only find two of its singly attested sayings (i.e. sayings lacking canonical parallels) to warrant so much as a pink rating (Sayings 97 and 98), a judgment with which I have no quarrel.
Much of the methodology of the Jesus Seminar is, of course, standard and based on the results of two centuries of critical scholarship. The basic critical approach is presented in a discussion of seven "pillars of scholarly wisdom" in the Introduction to The Five Gospels. The first four of these are:
1. The distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of Christian faith.
2. Preference for the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) over John as sources for the historical Jesus.
3. The chronological priority of the Gospel of Mark.
4. The hypothetical source "Q" used independently by Matthew and Luke. (P. 3)
These four pillars represent the findings of 19th-century scholarship now commonly accepted. The last three reflect more recent trends:

5. "The liberation of the non-eschatological Jesus . . . from Schweitzer's eschatological Jesus."
6. The fundamental contrast between an oral culture, such as that of Jesus, and a print culture.
7. The "burden of proof" on those who argue for authenticity, rather than on those who argue for inauthenticity. (Pp. 4-5)

The last two "pillars" lead to the development of elaborate "rules of oral evidence" and "rules of attestation" that reflect refinements of older discussions of form-history and criteria for determining authenticity, such as "multiple attestation" (pp. 25-30). [43]
One interesting holdover from the old "New Quest" is the criterion of dissimilarity, referred to here as "distinctive discourse" (p. 30). The "distinctiveness" of Jesus vis-a-vis the early Christian tradition is, of course, one of the refinements of the first "pillar of scholarly wisdom." That "Jesus was not the first Christian" (p. 24) is a fundamental starting point for critical research in the study of the Jesus tradition, for there can be no denying that early Christian faith has not only preserved but heavily impacted the Jesus tradition. The other side of this criterion, however, is not so obvious. The Jesus Seminar describes Jesus' "distinctive discourse" as follows:
While there is some truth to these observations, such as the "call for a reversal of roles" that is prominent in the Jesus tradition, the overall thrust of the application of this emphasis on the "distinctiveness" of Jesus in the work of the Jesus Seminar is that the historical Jesus must be viewed over against the Jewish society and religion in which he was reared.The key feature of the Jesus Seminar's method, which also inevitably results in the rejection of 82% of the sayings tradition from the data base of Jesus' authentic sayings, is reflected in pillar five, the rejection of eschatology. The following comments are highly instructive:

The eschatological Jesus reigned supreme among gospel scholars from the time of Weiss and Schweitzer to the end of World War II. Slowly and surely the evidence began to erode that view . . . . The creation of the Jesus Seminar coincides with the reemergence of interest in the Jesus of history, which was made possible by the wholesale shift of biblical scholarship away from its earlier academic home in the church, seminaries, and isolated theological enclaves. . . . As that interest came back to life in the 1970s and 1980s, scholars were surprised to learn that they no longer labored under the tyranny of either neo-orthodoxy or an eschatological Jesus. . . . The liberation of the non-eschatological Jesus of the aphorisms and parables from Schweitzer's eschatological Jesus is the fifth pillar of contemporary scholarship. (Pp. 3-4)
The "evidence" leading to the "erosion" of the eschatological Jesus paradigm is not cited, for the very good reason that it does not exist! On the contrary, all of the real evidence that has come to light since Weiss and Schweitzer --the massive evidence now available in the Dead Sea Scrolls is probably the most important-- only serves to confirm the fact that the apocalyptic worldview was pervasive in first-century Jewish Palestine. And this evidence is of direct relevance to the study of the historical Jesus. [44] So one begins to wonder about a possible "hidden agenda" in the rejection of eschatology by the Jesus Seminar.
With the gospel of "liberation" from the "tyranny" of the eschatological Jesus so fervently embraced, what paradigm does the Jesus Seminar propose to put in its place? Answer: "the laconic sage":
An obvious question that the Jesus Seminar has not entertained, but will presumably have to be faced in its second phase of work, is this: Who would want to crucify a laconic sage, even one whose discourse is "distinctive"? And why?

Next: Historical Premises of the Jesus Seminar



38. This expression is used in a highly critical review of the Jesus Seminar by Richard B. Hays, "The Corrected Jesus," in First Things 43 (May 1994) 43-48, esp. 46.

39. For example, silent burning of the American flag is (at least so far!) protected under the "free speech" amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

40. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985). Sanders lists eight "almost indisputable facts" which he takes as his starting point (p. 11):

41. Cf. also the essay on "The Discovery of the Gospel of Thomas" (p. 474).

42. On this variety of early Christianity see Bentley Layton on "the School of St. Thomas" in his source book, The Gnostic Scriptures (Garden City: Doubleday, 1987) 359-409. Gregory J. Riley (Resurrection Reconsidered: Thomas and John in Controversy; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) argues for an early date for the beginnings of the "Thomas Tradition" but not for the Gospel of Thomas as we know it.

43. Cf. note 22 (above).

44. See now esp. Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies (Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums 25; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), esp. 83-154 on the Qumran material. See also n. 66, below.