Birger A. Pearson

4. Historical Premises of the Jesus Seminar

The approach taken by the Jesus Seminar brings with it a number of historical premises, most of them unwarranted or unsupportable. These premises inform the choice of colors to be assigned to the sayings of Jesus. Some of these premises arise from the Seminar's a priori rejection of eschatology; others are based on other factors. Here are my comments on a few of them:

a. John "the Baptist" is one of the more colorful figures in first-century Palestine, attested both in the New Testament and in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. [45] Preaching a message of repentance, in preparation for the coming of God in judgment, he offered his hearers a purificatory bath ("baptism") in the waters of the Jordan river as a sign of their repentance and the forgiveness of their sins. This would enable them to escape the wrath of God's coming judgment and the "unquenchable fire" of hell (Matt 3:1-12 and parallels). We do not know the names of very many of the Jews who underwent this baptism and became John's followers, but we do know the name of one: Yeshu`a bar Yoseph of Nazareth (or "Nazara"), better known as Jesus of Nazareth.
The Jesus Seminar will now have us believe that Jesus, after his baptism by John, rejected John's "mentality" of impending cataclysm, "quit the ascetic desert, and returned to urban Galilee" where he "took up eating and drinking and consorting with toll collectors and sinners, and developed a different point of view" (p. 4), one much like that of "the Cynic philosophers who probably wandered about Galilee in Jesus' day" (p. 316). The apocalyptic worldview characteristic of John the Baptist and early Christians such as Paul and others was attributed to Jesus by his followers after his death; they, in turn, had learned it from John the Baptist (pp. 40-41, 135). Jesus himself did not proclaim "that the end of the age was near"; rather he "spoke most characteristically of God's rule as close or already present but unrecognized" (p. 40). Accordingly, virtually all of the sayings in the Jesus tradition that refer to the future kingdom of God, or judgment, rewards and punishments after death, etc., are colored black by the Seminar.
By what canon of historiography such a view of Jesus is developed is a mystery, for it is not only intrinsically improbable but strains credulity to the breaking point.
That early Christians reinterpreted Jesus' message in the interests of their developing christology is, of course, most probable, but these early Christians also preserved much of Jesus' own teaching. Indeed, a common-sense application of historical method can distinguish between Jesus' eschatology, focusing on the "coming" of God's "kingdom" or "rule," and that of the early church, focusing on the "coming" (i.e. return) of Jesus as the heavenly "Son of Man" (presumably in view of the non-arrival of the kingdom coupled with a belief in his resurrection from the dead). [46] Jesus referred to himself enigmatically as "the Son of Man"; it is probably early Christian interpretation of the Jesus tradition that explicated this self-designation in terms of an interpretation of Daniel 7:13, with its reference to "one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven." [47] Thus, there is a clear distinction between the expectation of a coming "kingdom" and the expectation of a coming heavenly "Son of Man." [48] To attribute the latter to early Christian interpretation is fully in accord with instrinsic probability, but it is intrinsically improbable that both are the product of early Christian interpretation. Even more improbable is the notion that early Christians consciously rejected a non-eschatological message of Jesus in favor of one gotten from John the Baptist, whose message, in turn, Jesus himself is supposed to have rejected. But this is the view of the Jesus Seminar, and the premise upon which they color Jesus' eschatological sayings black. Of course, they also have to color black Jesus' depiction of John as "more than a prophet" and "the messenger" predicted in Malachi 3:1 (Matt 11:9-10 // Luke 7:26-27, a "Q" saying), and similar sayings about John.
b. How did the Jesus tradition get its eschatology? The Jesus Seminar has a ready answer: "Q people." These are people who carried out some sort of (unspecified) mission in Galilee and who resentfully developed a message of judgment against the people of villages there who did not respond positively. For example, the "woes" (which the Jesus Seminar transforms into curses) [49] against Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Matt 11:20-24 // Luke 10:13-15, "Q") were not pronounced by Jesus but by "prophets" of the "Q community" (pp. 181, 320). Jesus' refusal to provide any "sign" except that of Jonah, and his prophecy of judgment against "this generation" (Matt 12:39-42 // Luke 11:29-32, "Q") is likewise attributed to the "Q community" on the grounds that Jesus "did not share the common apocalyptic view that the end of history was near, nor did he threaten judgment" (p. 332; cf. 188). One finds throughout The Five Gospels such references to the "Q community" or "Q people," supposedly active in Galilee in the period ca. 40-60 CE. Who were these people?
That there were followers of Jesus in Galilee after his death is, indeed, probable. The problem is that we have no evidence at all about them. The only Galilean followers of Jesus of whom we have any record are the ones referred to in the Acts of the Apostles (chs. 1-12) as active in the formation of the church in Jerusalem, people like Simon Peter and Jesus' brother James (Jacob). We can suppose (though the Jesus Seminar does not) that the Galileans in Jerusalem were in contact with those back home in Galilee, and later with Jesus believers in places like Caesarea and Antioch on the Orontes, but our evidence is scanty (Acts 10-15). The "Q community" of the Jesus Seminar is, in fact, extrapolated from a supposed "apocalyptic" second layer of the hypothetical "Q," and lacks any evidentiary support. Indeed, it is not all that obvious that the authors of Matthew and Luke got their copies of "Q" from co-religionists in Galilee, or that "Q" was produced there. So the Galilean "Q community" is, simply, a figment of scholarly imagination. [50]
c. One of the items in the gospel tradition that is usually taken for granted is that Jesus had twelve disciples. [51] The Jesus Seminar would seem to dispute this, although the issue of "the Twelve" as such is not discussed. They grant that Jesus had followers, both men and women, but they argue that Jesus did not actively recruit them. Thus, Jesus' call to Simon and Andrew (Mark 1:16) is colored gray. It is argued that Jesus, as "an itinerant sage without institutional goals," did not recruit people, but he might have used the metaphor of "fishing for people" in another context (p. 41). Elsewhere the exhortation "Follow me" is colored black, with one exception: "Follow me, and leave it to the dead to bury their own dead" (Matt 8:22 // Luke 9:59-60, "Q"). This reply to a would-be follower who first wants to bury his father is colored pink on the grounds that it "contradicts traditional familial relationships" and advises the potential follower "to dishonor his father," something not only socially unacceptable but a violation of one of the Ten Commandments (pp. 160, 317). This interpretation of the pericope requires us to assume that the potential follower is actually arranging for, or about to arrange for, the burial of a father who has just died, something that is not given in the text. [52] In any case, Jesus' attitude toward the commandment in question is clearly enough stated in a discussion with some Pharisees where he brings up their halakah (legal interpretation, lit. "walking") on qorban (meaning "consecrated to God"), a passage that the Seminar regards as inauthentic (Matt 15:3 -9, grey // Mark 7:6-8, black).
As Jesus did not recruit followers for a special mission, so also did he not have a "mission" of his own: "he probably did not think of his work as a program he was sent to carry out" (p. 47). Accordingly, all of the "I have come . . ." pronouncements of Jesus, i.e. those announcing his mission (e.g. Mark 2:17; Luke 12:49-51), are regarded by the Seminar as inauthentic (p. 343).
d. It is usually assumed by critical scholars that Jesus restricted his activity to Israel, i.e. his fellow Jews. [53] The Jesus Seminar, however, believes that "a restricted mission was not characteristic of Jesus." Thus, Jesus' command to his disciples not to go to non-Israelites or Samaritans but to restrict their activity to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 10:5-6) is colored black as reflecting "the point of view of a Judaizing branch" of the early church (pp. 167-68). Jesus himself "is believed to have had frequent contact with gentiles in the towns and cities around the Sea of Galilee" (p. 204), presumably to stay in touch with the (historically unattested!) "Cynic philosophers who probably wandered about Galilee in Jesus' day" (p. 316).
In fact, there were a number of predominantly gentile cities in Galilee. The most important of these were Tiberias, on the shore of the lake, and Sepphoris, a rather short distance from Jesus' home village of Nazareth (ca. 7 km. as the crow flies). But these cities are conspicuous in the gospel tradition by their absence! The geographical information we have, such as it is, suggests that Jesus restricted his activity for the most part to the Jewish villages of rural Galilee.
Tyre and Sidon, on the Phoenician coast, are mentioned in the tradition, but it is not reported that Jesus went into these cities, only that he spent some time in their "environs" (mevrh, lit. "parts" - Matt 15:21 par.), where he is reported to have healed a "Canaanite" or "Syrophoenician" (Mark 7:26) woman's daughter. Zaraphath, a place located between Tyre and Sidon, was the site of a healing miracle reportedly performed by Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24), an event mentioned in one of Jesus' sayings (Luke 4:26, colored black by the Seminar). But why Jesus went to this district, if he did, we do not know.
Similarly, Caesarea Philippi appears in the sources (Banias in northern Gaulanitis, now part of the Golan, the site of a sacred grotto dedicated to the god Pan), but again Jesus is not represented as going into the city but only its "environs" (mevrh again - Matt 16:13) or "villages" (kw'mai - Mark 8:27). Site of Peter's "confession" (Mark 8:27-30 par), the area, located at the foot of Mt. Hermon, was part of Israel's "sacred geography." [54]
The Decapolis, east of the Sea of Galilee, is also mentioned in the tradition (Matt 4:25; Mark 5:20; 7:31). The well known story of Jesus' exorcism of demons who entered swine and caused them to plunge into the lake to their deaths (Matt 8:28-34 // Mark 5:1-20 // Luke 8:26-39) is variously located in the "region of the Gadarenes" (cwvran tw'n Gadarhnw'n - Matt 8:28) or the "region of the Gerasenes" (cwvran tw'n Gerashnw'n - Mark 5:1 // Luke 8:26). Gadara, modern Umm Qeis, the home of the Cynic philosopher Menippus (3rd cent. BCE) and the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus (1st cent. BCE), and Gerasa, modern Jerash, were both prominent cities of the Decapolis (= "ten cities"). It is noteworthy that a textual variant Gergeshnw'n, "of the Gergesenes," appears in all three gospels, attested in numerous manuscripts and versions, and may very well be the correct reading. Gadara is located at a considerable distance from the Sea of Gailee, Gerasa even further. The obscure Gergesa, modern kursi, is located on the lakeshore, a more likely setting for the exorcism story. [55] The manuscript tradition, with its variants, probably reflects a scribal substitution of more familiar places in the Decapolis, Gadara and Gerasa, for the obscure Gergesa.
To be sure, one cannot necessarily take as historically reliable all of the geographical references in the gospel tradition, or the stories associated with them, but it is a telling fact that in no case at all is there any reference to "urban Galilee" (p. 4) or the gentile cities as the locus of Jesus' activity! [56]
e. The assumption that Jesus had regular contact with gentiles in their urban centers leads to a gross misunderstanding of Jesus' relationship to the Jewish Law. We have already encountered the claim that Jesus advocated violating one of the Ten Commandments (pp. 160, 317). Thus it is no surprise to find the Jesus Seminar claiming that Jesus set about "undermining a whole way of life" by hurling "a categorical challenge to the laws governing pollution and purity" (p. 69). This claim is based on the saying, "It's not what goes into a person from the outside that can defile; rather it's what comes out of the person that defiles" (Mark 7:14 par, colored pink). The saying in question, set in the context of Jesus' challenge to a specific Pharisaic halakah regarding hand-washing, does not represent "a categorical challenge to the laws" because there were so such "laws" in the Torah, only, in this case, a Pharisaic opinion regarding purity. In Mark 7:19b (without parallel) we read (in the Revised Standard Version) the following parenthetical comment: "(Thus he declared all foods clean)." [57] This is clearly a late gloss, representing a gentile Christian misunderstanding of Jesus' saying. Though the Jesus Seminar takes no notice of this gloss in its translation, its interpretation of the saying is in accord with this gentile misunderstanding, and just as perverse as an interpretation of Jesus' own pronouncement!
Similarly, the injunction to traveling disciples, "whenever you enter a town and they welcome you, eat whatever is set before you" (Luke 10:8, colored pink) is taken by the Jesus Seminar as an indication that Jesus advocated a non-observance of kosher laws (p. 319), or indeed that "Jesus apparently ignored, or deliberately transgressed, food laws" (p. 481, commenting on the [obviously secondary] parallel in Thomas 14). But this interpretation is only possible if we accept the assumption of the Jesus Seminar that Jesus regularly dined in gentile homes, which we have no reason to believe is the case. In fact, there is not a single instance in the Jesus tradition, including the data base accepted by the Seminar as authentic, in which it can be shown that Jesus violates, or counsels others to violate, the Jewish Law. [58]
Consistent with the Jesus Seminar's portrayal of Jesus as a habitual violator of the Law is their representation of him as a "party animal," with a reputation for being "a glutton and a drunk" (e.g. pp. 49, 180, 303). This view of Jesus, given prominence in The Five Gospels, is ultimately based on a saying of Jesus that the scholars color gray:
Just remember, John appeared on the scene neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He is demented.' The son of Adam came both eating and drinking, and they say, 'There's a glutton and a drunk, a crony of toll collectors and sinners!' (Matt 11:18-19 // Luke 7:33-34, "Q").
The contrast set up by Jesus between himself and the ascetic John the Baptist appealed to the Seminar, but a gray vote resulted because of the presence in the saying of the supposedly "apocalyptic" figure of the Son of Man (which they translate as "son of Adam").
In a cameo essay on "Feasting and Fasting" another contrast between Jesus and John is discussed. The claim is made that Jesus did not practice fasting, as did John the Baptist and his followers. "The early Christian community immediately reverted to fasting as a religious practice," thus departing from the practice of their master (p. 48). Such a view of Jesus fits well the assumption of the Seminar that Jesus consistently violated every provision of his religious tradition, and taught others to do the same.
f. In the gospel tradition Jesus is often presented in dialogue with his opponents on points of law, using scripture to buttress his arguments. All such cases are regarded as inauthentic by the Seminar on the assumption that the historical Jesus did not invoke scripture, but rather "taught on his own authority" (e.g. p. 68; cf. 201), presumably because he lacked training in scripture interpretation (e.g. p. 236). While one might argue with some plausibility that Jesus' education was limited, [59] it is odd that the Seminar, while assuming his ignorance of scripture on points of law, also grants him enough knowledge of particular scriptural texts and traditions to create subtle "spoofs" on them, or "parodies" of them, in his parables. [60]
g. Among the opponents of Jesus in the gospel tradition the Pharisees stand out in greatest relief. Thus, it is with some surprise that we find in The Five Gospels the suggestion that there were no Pharisees in Galilee in Jesus' time; Pharisees were only active there after the Jewish War of 66-70 (pp. 217, 239, 242, 244, 369). This claim is made despite the fact that the parable of the Pharisee and the toll collector (Luke 18:10-14) is colored pink. Even in their commentary to that parable they say, "it would be anachronistic to portray Jesus as engaged in polemics with them or about them in Galilee during his life" (p. 369).
Here we encounter an astonishing misunderstanding of the facts. It is, of course, true that some of the wholesale denunciations of Pharisees in the gospel tradition, such as those in Matthew 23, reflect the bitter polemics of Jesus-believing Jews against leading Jews of the developing normative Judaism of the late first century. [61] But by that time the Pharisees (perushim = "separatists") are no longer a competing party within a variegated Second Temple Judaism. The Pharisaic interpretation of Torah is in the process of being established as normative ("rabbinic") Judaism, both in Galilee and in Judea, and the term "Pharisee" is falling out of use as a party designation. In Matthew 23 and similar passages it is used, together with "hypocrite," as a code-word of reproach in an intercommunity (but arguably still intra-Jewish) rivalry. As to the earlier situation in Galilee, there is no reason at all to doubt the presence of groups of Pharisees there in the Jewish towns and villages, and probably even in the Jewish minority communities living in the Hellenistic cites. [62] And there is every reason to believe that Jesus of Nazareth entered into debate with them.
Other examples of the Jesus Seminar's distortion of the historical record could be cited, but enough has been said of this set of distortions because there are others yet to take up.

Next: The "Scholars Version" Translation


45. Antiquities of the Jews 18.116-19.

46. An illustration of this is found in a comparison between Mark 9:1, where Jesus predicts the imminent coming of the "kingdom of God," and its parallel in Matt 16:28, where he predicts the imminent "coming in his kingdom" of "the Son of Man."

47. The interpretation of the "Son of Man" sayings in the gospels is one of the most contentious topics in New Testament research. My own view, reflected here though not elaborated, is only one of many possibilities. See the excellent summary by George W.E. Nickelsburg in his article, "Son of Man," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:137-50, with extensive bibliography.

48. One of the problems in Albert Schweitzer's reconstruction of the historical Jesus is that he failed to notice this distinction. Cf. n. 8 (above).

49. See discussion of the Scholars Version, below.

50. For two recent examples of imagination run amok in "Q" scholarship see Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993); and Leif Vaage, Galilean Upstarts: Jesus' First Followers according to Q (Valley Forge, Trinity Press International, 1994). For a critique of Mack see James M. Robinson, "The History and Religious Taxonomy of Q: The Cynic Hypothesis," in Holger Preißler and Hubert Seiwert (eds.), Gnosisforschung und Religionsgeschichte: Festschrift für Kurt Rudolph zum 65. Geburtstag (Marburg: diagonal-Verlag, 1994 [1995] 247-65. For a similar critique of Vaage, see Robinson, "Galilean Upstarts: A Sot's Cynical Disciples," forthcoming in another Festschrift.

51. This is one of the "almost indisputable facts" cited by Sanders (cf. n. 40).

52. The Seminar's interpretation of this passage is a common one, especially in German scholarship, and is surprisingly even upheld by E. P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism, 252-55). Geza Vermes provides a more plausible scenario: the man's father is not dead yet, and the son's eventual filial responsibility is an excuse for procrastination. See The Religion of Jesus the Jew (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 27-29.

53. This is another of Sander's "almost indisputable facts."

54. See G.W.E. Nickelsburg, "Enoch, Levi, and Peter: Recipients of Revelation in Upper Galilee, Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (1981) 575-600, esp. 582-86; 590-600.

55. For a brief but useful discussion see John J. Rousseau and Rami Arav, Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary (Minneapolis: Fortrss Press, 1995) 97-99.

56. There is a considerable literature on the question of the extent of Jewish cultural and religious influence in Galilee. For a recent discussion see Shmuel Safrai, "The Jewish Cultural Nature of Galilee in the First Century," in Malcolm Lowe (ed.), The New Testament and Christian Jewish Dialogue: Studies in Honor of David Flusser, Immanuel 24/25 (1990), 147-86. For recent discussions of the archaeological evidence and its bearing on Jesus research see James F. Strange, "First-Century Galilee from Archaeology and from the Texts," Richard A. Horsley, "The Historical Jesus and Archaeology of the Galilee: Questions from Historical Jesus Research to Archaeologists," and Douglas E. Oakman, "The Archaeology of First-Century Galilee and the Social Interpretation of the Historical Jesus," in Society of Biblical Literature 1994 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994) 81-90, 91-135, 220-51. See now also Seán Freyne, "Jesus and the Urban Culture of Galilee," in Tord Fornberg and David Hellholm (eds.), Texts and Contexts: Biblical Texts in Their Textual and Situational Contexts, Essays in Honor of Lars Hartman (Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1995) 597-622; and Richard A. Horsley, Galilee: History, Politics, People (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1995).

57. The SV reads Mark 7:19b as a comment on the digestive process described in 7:19a: "'. . .because it doesn't get to the heart but passes into the stomach, and comes out in the outhouse?' (this is how everything we eat is purified)." Considerable liberties have been taken with the text of 7:19b, which reads kaqarivzwn pavnta ta; brwvmata (lit. "purifying [or declaring pure] all foods").

58. This is the view of Geza Vermes, a prominent Jewish scholar who, unlike the Jesus Seminar, is thoroughly familiar with the ancient Jewish evidence: Religion of Jesus the Jew (cit. n. 52), esp. ch. 2: "Jesus and the Law; The Judaism of Jesus," 11-45. The strange saying in Gos. Thom. 14:1-2 ("If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits") is alien enough to the authentic Jesus tradition that even the Jesus Seminar colors it black.

59. For a careful analysis of the probable extent of Jesus' education see Meier, A Marginal Jew (cit. n. 24) 1:268-78. On Jesus' use of scripture in both Hebrew and Aramaic (Targumic traditions) see Bruce D. Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible: Jesus' Use of the Interpreted Scripture of His Time (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1984). It is very strange to see Chilton's name on the roster of Jesus Seminar "Fellows" (p. 534)!

60. Examples are cited below, section 6.

61. See esp. Anthony J. Saldarini, Matthew's Christian-Jewish Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), esp. ch. 3, "Matthew's Opponents: Israel's Leaders," 44-67. The "woe" pronouncement at Matt 23:15 may be an authentic saying of Jesus, and the reference to the making of converts may reflect actual attempts on the part of Pharisees to attract other Jews to Pharisaic teachings. On this passage see now Martin Goodman, Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994) 69-72. (I owe this reference to A. T. Kraabel.)

62. A convenient summary of the evidence on the Pharisees, with extensive bibliography, is provided in Anthony J. Saldarini's article, "Pharisees," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 5: 289-303.