Birger A. Pearson

6. The Jesus Seminar's Interpretation of its Data Base

The "authentic" material in the Jesus sayings tradition comprises 18% of the total, according to the Jesus Seminar. This, in the view of the scholars, is the non-eschatological part of the tradition. But is it really? The fact is that eschatology is there, too, willy-nilly, and it requires a hermeneutical juggling act of considerable dexterity to remove it. I can only treat some examples of their juggling act here, and do so under three different rubrics.
a. "God's Imperial Rule." In a cameo essay, "God's Imperial Rule: Present or Future?" (pp. 136-37), the Seminar provides examples of sayings in which God's rule is future (Mark 13:24-27,30; Mark 9:1) and present (Luke 17:20-21; Thomas 113; Luke 11:20; Luke 11:2). The future-oriented "apocalyptic" sayings are in accord with the views of John the Baptist and the early Christian community. The question is,

Did Jesus share this view, or was his vision more subtle, less bombastic and threatening?
The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar are inclined to the second option: Jesus conceived of God's rule as all around him but difficult to discern. God was so real for him that he could not distinguish God's present activity from any future activity. He had a poetic sense of time in which the future and the present merged, simply melted together, in the intensity of his vision. (P.137)

The Seminar takes the following saying as "a key in identifying Jesus' temporal views" (p. 364; cf. 531):

You won't be able to observe the coming of God's imperial rule. People are not going to say, "Look, here it is!' or 'Over there!' On the contrary, God's imperial rule is right there in your presence. (Luke 17:20f., pink)

It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, 'Look here!' or 'Look there!' Rather, the Father's imperial rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it. (Thomas 113:2-4, pink)

This saying, addressed to "Pharisees" in Luke and Jesus' "disciples" in Thomas, lacks a narrative context in either. But is this saying really a non-eschatological saying? Indeed, I would submit that eschatology is present in it "right there in (the scholars') presence," but they "don't see it."
The key to a proper interpretation of this saying is provided by the next one which the scholars cite as exemplifying Jesus' "poetic sense of time": "But if by God's finger I drive out demons, then for you God's imperial rule has arrived" (Luke 11:20, pink). This saying is set in a larger context in which Jesus has exorcised a demon and is then accused by some as being in league with the Devil, referred to here as "Beelzebul" and "Satan" (Luke 11:14-26 // Matt 12:22-32 // Mark 3:22-29). In this context Jesus also says, in a saying our scholars also color pink: "If Satan is divided against himself --since you claim I drive out demons in Beelzebul's name --how will his kingdom endure?" (Luke 11:18).
Jesus' reference to "Satan" is part and parcel of his dualistic apocalyptic worldview, not "some subtle irony," as the scholars would have it (p. 330). In this key passage Jesus claims that his exorcisms are a sign of the arrival of the kingdom of God and an attack on the domain of Satan, i.e. part of an end-time struggle between the forces of God and Satan. [66]
The third saying the scholars cite as illlustrating the presence of God's rule is a surprising one because it does not fit the category:
Father, your name be revered. Impose your imperial rule. (Luke 11:2; "Father" is red, the rest is pink; cf. Matt 6:9-10)
This saying is recognizable, even in the SV translation, as the opening address and first two petitions of "the Lord's Prayer": "Father, sanctified (or hallowed, aJgiasqhvtw) be your name, your kingdom come (ejlqevtw)." The second petition is, in fact, a prayer for the "coming" of God's future (eschatological!) kingdom.
In their commentary (pp. 325-27; cf. 148-49) no notice is taken of an ancient Jewish prayer that is certainly reflected in Jesus' own reformulation, the Qaddish. This prayer, composed in vernacular Aramaic, was originally associated with the study of Torah as a dismissal prayer, but is now used mainly in connection with mourning for the dead. One of its ancient forms goes like this:
Magnified and sanctified be His great name in the world which He hath created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, ever speedily and at a near time, and say ye, Amen. [67]

This prayer, like that of Jesus, breathes the spirit of the ancient Jewish apocalyptic worldview.

b. Truncated Parables. One of the characteristic modes of Jesus' teaching and preaching was his use of parables. Many of Jesus' recorded parables are accepted as genuine by the Seminar, but in some cases only with the application of scissors and paste. The parable of the "Lost Sheep" (Luke 15:4-7) is colored pink, but only up to v. 6, which concludes with "'Celebrate with me, because I have found my lost sheep." The point of the parable is painted black:
I'm telling you that it'll be just like this in heaven; there'll be more celebrating over one sinner who has a change of heart than over ninety-nine virtuous people who have no need to change their hearts (p. 355).
The parable of the "shrewd manager" (Luke 16:1-8) is colored red up to the first part of v. 8: "The master praised the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly." The point of the parable is colored black: "for the children of this world [or this age] exhibit better sense in dealing with their own kind than do the children of light." This is like telling a joke and leaving out the "punch line"! The scholars do not like this parable's "punch line" because it "moralizes" the story (p. 359).
The scholars have other devices to use in interpreting Jesus' parables that are more inventive than simply cutting. The parable of "the Sower" (Mark 4:3-8 // Matt 13:3-8 // Luke 8:5-8a // Thomas 9, all pink) is one of the parables in which agricultural imagery occurs, here with special reference to the harvest (an eschatological metaphor!), and concludes with reference to a bountiful yield for the seed that fell on good soil. The Seminar refers to Thomas' version as the most original (and I am inclined to agree) but offers no interpretation except to situate it in the context of "hellenistic rhetoric" (p. 478). No notice is taken of the supernatural yield referred to (30-fold, 60-fold, 100-fold in Mark and Matt, 100-fold in Luke, 60-fold and 120-fold in Thomas). [68]
Another parable employing agricultural imagery is the one on the "Mustard Seed" (Mark 4:30-32 // Matt 13:31-32 // Luke 13:18-19 // Thomas 20; red in Thomas, otherwise pink), in which Jesus compares the growth of the kingdom to that of a small mustard seed which "produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky" (Thomas 20:3). Our scholars view this one as "a parody of the mighty cedar of Lebanon [Ezekiel 17:22-23] and the apocalyptic tree of Daniel [4:12, 20-22]" (p. 194). This parable is said to betray "an underlying sense of humor on Jesus' part. It is also anti-social in that it endorses counter movements and ridicules established tradition" (p. 485). No further comment is required here.
The two singly attested sayings in Thomas regarded as genuine by the Seminar are both parables. Thomas 97 compares the kingdom to a woman carrying a jar of meal home without noticing that it was broken at the handle and all of the meal was spilling out. This parable, which can be compared to that of the wise and foolish maidens in Matthew 25:1-12 (gray), is taken by the scholars as "a parody of the story of Elijah and the widow" (p. 524; cf. 1 Kings 17:8-16). Thomas 98, which compares the kingdom to a would-be assassin who tests his sword before using it, has to do with "reversal," in the view of the Seminar: "the little guy bests the big guy by taking the precautions a prudent person would take before encountering the village bully" (p. 525). The parable can more plausibly be viewed alongside such other parables as the "Tower Builder" (Luke 14:28-30, black) or the "Warring King" (Luke 14:31-32, also black), and viewed as a provocative example of the necessity of preparation in anticipation of the kingdom. But once the eschatology is removed, such parables are reduced to pure nonsense.
c. Contextless Aphorisms. A well known saying of Jesus attested no fewer than six times (Mark 8:35 [black]; Matt 10:39 [gray]; 16:25 [gray]; Luke 9:24 [gray]; 17:33 [pink]; John 12:25 [gray]) is the one on "saving" or "losing" one's life. The Jesus Seminar colors pink the version found in Luke 17:33: "Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it." In Luke 17 it is found in a context, preceding and following the saying, in which Jesus is warning of fearful events attendant upon the coming of the days of the Son of Man (Luke 17:22-37). This context is, of course, colored black and gray. The pink-colored saying is taken as a "paradoxical" saying supplied by the evangelist with a secondary context. The saying by itself is said to be "a contextless aphorism" (p. 367). But the eschatology in this saying, in and of itself, cannot be removed simply by jerking it out of the context in which it appears. It speaks of a future, preparation for which may necessitate the giving up of one's own life!
Indeed, the juxtaposition of the present situation with that of the future is a characteristic feature of Jesus' teaching, and is part of the chronological dualism of his Jewish apocalyptic worldview ("this age" / "the age to come"). It pervades the supposedly "non-eschatological" sayings material assigned by the Seminar to Jesus.
Another example of the same thing is also frequently attested: "Many of the first will be last, and of the last many will be first," as mistranslated in the SV of Mark 10:31 (better the RSV: "many that are first will be last, and the last first"). As found in Mark (and Matt 19:30; the first half in Thomas 4:2) the saying is colored gray (also the different form in Luke 13:30). Only in the version in Matthew 20:16 is it colored pink: "The last will be first, and the first last." The other versions are said to be "softened" (p. 224) or "qualified" by the addition of "many" (p. 473). Had our scholars paid attention to the underlying Semitic idiom, they would have seen that the version with "many" is likely to be more original. The meaning is really "(All) those who are first, who are many . . .," as in Daniel 12:2, where "many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake" means "all those, who are many . . . ." [69] Be that as it may, the meaning of the saying is the point at issue. The saying is rightly taken as "a memorable reversal," the basis for which, however, is not understood by the scholars.
We have seen that the Seminar has Jesus "congratulating" the poor (Matt 5:3; Luke 6:20; Thomas 54, red in Thomas, others pink). Their comment is interesting:
Congratulating the poor without qualification is unexpected to say the least, and even paradoxical, since congratulations were normally extended to those who enjoyed prosperity, happiness, or power. The congratulations addressed to the weeping and the hungry are expressed in vivid and exaggerated language, which announces a dramatic transformation. (P. 138)
What the scholars mean by "dramatic transformation" is clarified in their comment to Thomas 54 ("Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven's domain"): [70]
He announced that God's domain belonged to the poor, not because they were righteous, but because they were poor. This reverses a common view that God blesses the righteous with riches and curses the immoral with poverty. (P. 504)
And what consolation might the poor and the hungry derive from this? What Jesus does announce, in fact, is the dramatic reversal that he expects in the future, in the coming kingdom of God:
Congratulations, you poor! God's domain belongs to you.
Congratulations, you hungry! You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh. (Luke 6:20, rightly colored red) [71]
Many more examples could be cited of the Seminar's failure to notice the eschatology in their data base, but this discussion has gone on long enough. I cannot refrain, however, from citing one more instance, another saying colored pink by the scholars:

There are castrated men who were born that way, and there are castrated men who were castrated by others, and there are castrated men who castrate themselves because of Heaven's imperial rule. (Matt 19:12)

This saying about "eunuchs" calls to mind others in which Jesus counsels ripping out an offending eye, or cutting off an offending right hand, to prevent having one's whole body wind up in hell (Matt 5:29-30 // Mark 9:43-47// Matt 18:8-9, gray). The context in Matthew 19 is a discussion of Jesus' prohibition of divorce (19:9 [black]; cf. 5:31-32 [black]; Mark 10:11-12 [gray]; Luke 16:18 [gray]), and comes as a reply to the disciples' wondering if in view of this prohibition it were better not to marry at all (19:20). Jesus' colorful saying has to do with voluntary celibacy, which a man might elect for the sake of the coming kingdom, i.e. in anticipation of the resurrection life in which "people do not marry" (Matt 22:30, gray). Jesus' provision for becoming "a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom" cannot be understood apart from the eschatological worldview that informs it.

So why do our scholars color this saying pink? In their view the saying is "an attack on a male-dominated patriarchal society in which male virility and parenthood were the exclusive norms." Jesus is also here "undermining the depreciation of yet another marginal group, this time the eunuchs" (p. 226)! At the hands of these interpreters Jesus becomes, in effect, the prophet of late 20th-century "p.c."
As to the possibility that the saying might be about celibacy, this is entertained only to be rejected:
The Fellows of the Seminar were overwhelmingly of the opinion that Jesus did not advocate celibacy. A majority of the Fellows doubted, in fact, that Jesus himself was celibate. They regard it as probable that he had a special relationship with at least one woman, Mary of Magdala. In any case, the sayings on castration should not be taken as Jesus' authorization for an ascetic lifestyle; his behavior suggests that he celebrated life by eating, drinking, and fraternizing freely with both women and men. (Pp. 220-21)
The question posed earlier bears repeating: Who would want to crucify a fellow like this? Or why? Or was Jesus really crucified after all? Those who have nothing better to do can "stay tuned" to the next phase of the Seminar's work for the scholars' answers to these questions.

Next: Concluding Observations


66. There is a possible association of the "kingdom of God" and power over "the demons of death" in a recently published fragment from Qumran, 4Q525. Lines 3-4 have [mlk]wt / 'lwhym, and line 5 has reshp[y] mwt. For discussion of this fragment see Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries (cit. n. 44) 147-48.

67. Abraham E. Millgram, Jewish Worship (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1971) 154. The prayer as used in contemporary Judaism is found in the Siddur, the Jewish Prayerbook. See e.g. Rabbi Nosson Scherman (ed., trans.), The Complete Art Scroll Siddur (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1984) 800-01. I express my thanks for my copy to my doctoral student, Rabbi Harry Manhoff, who presented it to me as a gift.

68. A 5-fold yield was common in first-century Palestine, as recently demonstrated by Robert K. McIver, "One Hundred-Fold Yield -- Miraculous or Mundane? Matthew 13.8, 23; Mark 4.8, 20; Luke 8.8," New Testament Studies 40 (1994) 606-08.

69. This lack of attention to Semitic philology is surprising. A striking example occurs in the scholars' interpretation of Jesus' cry of dereliction, "My God, my God, why did you abandon me?" in Mark 15:34 (black), which they take simply as a quotation of Psalm 22:1 secondarily attributed to Jesus by the evangelist (pp. 125-26). They pay no attention to the fact that the transliterated words in Mark's Greek text (Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani) are Aramaic, not Hebrew, and that this fact may have a bearing on how the saying should be understood.

70. "The poor" is a mistranslation of the Coptic. There is no vocative case as such in Coptic; the definite article is used instead (as in Hebrew). In that case the context determines the translation, and here "you poor" is correct (as in Luke 6:20).

71. The corresponding woes ("damn you") on the rich, well-fed, and laughing in 6:24-25 are colored black by the Seminar.