The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels [Reprint ed.] 9780060641665

The Real Jesus the first book to challenge the findings of the Jesus Seminar, the controversial group of two hundred sch

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The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels [Reprint ed.]

Table of contents :
Preface to the Paperback Edition vii
Preface xi
1. The Good News and the Nightly News 1
2. History Challenging Faith 29
3. Cultural Confusion and Collusion 57
4. The Limitations of History 81
5. What's Historical About Jesus? 105
6. The Real Jesus and the Gospels 141
Epilogue: Critical Scholarship and the Church 167
Index 178

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THE REALJESVS The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus alld the Truth of the Traditiollal Gospels



HarperSanFrancisco A~



B(b~ quotaOOM. unltss otkrw~ noted. art from ttlt Rtvised Standard Version of the BibII-. ropyright 0 1946. 195]. 1971 by the Divi5ion of e liristian Education of the National Coundl of Churdles ofChelSt in tht uS,'" UStd by permiSSion.


JES!;S: The Mi.5g1lided QIlt.5r for the HistOl"icolJesm Qlld Ih~ Trulh of the Tradi-

tional Gospels Copyright 0 1996 by Lukt Tilliothy Johrlsoll. All I(ghts restrved. PriMed In the United States of A~rica No part of this book may bt' ustd or rtproductd irl any marl· whatsO(ver withOlJt written ptrmissioll e Xl~pt 11\ tile case ofblief quotatioos embodied in critical articles and reviews, For inrormatlon addu'55 Harp!'TCollirlS Publls~ 10 E.1st 53rd SlTttt. New York. NY 10022.


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HarptrColllns®. and Har~rSanFrand sco'" art trademarks or HarptrColiins PublJshrrs Inc. FIRST HARPEkCOLl.. I!sus, to free him up again so hr can say what he has to say aboul the tradition"" (San Jose Mercury News, 11 Feb. 1Q94)? How did he suppose such readers would react when told Funk's idr:i of how a movie about Jesus should portray him: his '·only real friends are the religious. economic. and moral outcasts of society." and in thr end ··he is aCcidentally crucified along with other rabble-rousers·· (WashillglOll Post, 12 Nov. I~ )? How did Funk suppose this characterization would lind acceptance among the pious: ·'This Jesus was a social gadfly. upsetting now this. now that. convention. he was clearly no conserver of traditional values; he was no goody ·two sh()("S·· (Atlanta Joumal·Constiwtiol1, 30 Sept. 19139): or this one: Jesus is ., something of a pany-animal"· jLos Angeles Times. 13 Dre. 1Q92)? Did he imagine that such folk would also then take seriously his protestation that "We·re trying to put the mystery back into the religion that bears J('sus· n3me·' (San Jose Mer. cury News, 12 Feb. 1994P Did he think that no offense would be taken by his having stated thaI ordinary Christians ··don·t want the Tral Jesus. They want one they can worship. The cultic Jesus ·· (Los Angeles Times, 24 Feb. 1994. View seClionp Did he imagine that his own characterization of tne "real Jesus'· would be viewed as the deduction of serious scholarship and piety: "a


The Good News and the Nightly News sort of flower child with an idealistic view of life that is virtually impossible to achieve. more than half the members of the Seminar believ(" that Jesus probably was nOI celibate. that he did not advocate celibacy as a lifestyle, and that he had a ·special" (t'lationship with at least one woman. but that it may not have been a sexual relationship ,. (AllmltQ JourtJal. 30 Sept. 19&1)? As I page through the file of clippings from which I am working. I know that some readers might object to my procedure. Why such a focus on Funk.? And why draw 011 statements from press rt'ports, especially when they are obviously quotfii out of (ontext? It is appropriate to assert in response to such ohjmions that I have no personal knowledge of Funk at all. no( any reason to consider him as anything but a worthy person. He is known to me only as he has made himself known through this media machinr that J am analyzing. My analysis is of Funk as he appears in these discrete statements. I focus on him because ht' is tnt' voice most often qlloted , from beginning to end. and because he appears in these stories as the magister I~di. the coordinator of the game. If my reader objects that a selection of random commt'nts taken out of narrative context does not lead to an understanding oflht' ··real Funk ." I shall be delighted For I would then ask my n'adrr if the appliGltion of the samr procedure with the Gospels is any more likely to yield the ·' real Jesus.·· Funk was by no means tht' only Jesus Seminar participant quoted in tbe papers. But his style of discourse continues in Ihe comments of others. Karen King of Ocridelllal College is quoted reaSSUringly. ··Our motives afe nOI to be destructive offaith. nor does anyone think we could be . . . but scholars do not want to sacrifice intellecTUal integrity for a naive approach to the texts ·· (ArImHtI Journal. 11 Nov. IQ85l. All the more unfortunate that another quotation attributed to Professor King does not aUlomatically Sllgg("St intellectual rigor; referring to tbt' parable of Lazarus and Dives in Luke 16: 19- 31 . her tone is dis· missive and casual. ··This parable is so banal .. . it"s almost too convenient that Luke has just picked up something that suits him ·· (Sa" Francisco Chronicle. 9 Mar. I~) Since when is '· nonbanality·· a aiterion of historicity? Hal Taussig was a United Methodist Church pastor in Philadelphia when he was quoted as saying that the Seminar was providing ··good. objective information aboUl Jesus" for Christians who ··feel threatened by Fllnda mentalism·· (Atlanw JourNal. 11 Nov. 1985) Then he was a professor at St. '3


Joseph '5 University in Pennsylvania when he gave one of the papers at the Seminar on the lord's Prayer- according to the Christian Cenwry (23 Nov. (988). the paper on which the subsequent vote was ba5ed_ The Seminar voted that the Lord 's Prayer did not come from Jesus. Among the reasons alTered was tht one by Professor Sttven Patterson of Eden TheSus did not pub· licly proclaim himself as the Messiah,'" despite the fact that an official "vole"



was still a m~ting away_The Madlines o n~n present a picturt starker and more negative even than the stories they introduce, thus performing a sort of pretmptive interpretation for the less than CTItical r~ader. A sample: "Scholars Say Jesus Was Often Misquoted" (San Francisco Chronicle, 9 Mar. 1()86); Jesus Didn't Claim to Be Messiah, Srholars Say" (San FraMcisco Chrotlic/e, 18 Oct 11)87): ·· lord's Prayer Not Jesus 's. Scholars Say," (A/lanla JoI4,nal· Consli/uliotl. 15 Dc1. lC)88): ··Jesus Nrver Predicted His Rerum . Scholars Say." (Ai/mHa Cons/irwion. 5 Mar IQ&) , "Jesus Didn', Promise 10 Return. Bible Scholars Group Says" (Los Angeles Times. 5 Mar. I ~) . What is re markable about thest hradlines (and they could eaSily be multlplied) is that they all combine two features: first. they negare some part of the Jesus tradition, and second, !hI:- negation is attributrd to scholars. Th(' press helped stirn · ulate precisely the sort of controversy that tile Jesus Seminar sought , and became the arena for a confused culture waf between church and academy. w

The Five: Gospels The regular media C'Qverage of the Jesus Seminar's meetings and reactions to them was only part of the commotion . Members of the Seminar such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan publishN. their own v('rsJons of the historical Jc=sus, and a variety of other writers (Barbara Th iering, A. N. Wilson , Stephen Mitch('Il, Bishop Spong, Burton Mack ) also ht'l~d stir the pot with provocative revisions of Jesus and Christian origins. These books will be considered in the next chapter. All th('se publications have come out since 19QO. All were reviewed by the press. Major attention was drawn to the "his· torical Jesus phenomt'non " by an article by Peter Stemfels, "Peering Past Fa ith to Glimpse the Jesus of HiStOry," that appeared in the New York Times (2) Delf as the soberest of historians. No Oight to faith, no theological fantasies . But what are the assumptions the reader must accept at the various stages? First. the material found jn Matthew and Luke but not in Mark comes from the same source: that is. these diverse sayings came not from several compositions but from one. Sfi:ond. what we now have from that source is all it ever contained: this is critical, for jf it had other material in it that we don't now have. then that would naturally affect our analysis of it. Third, the original form of the composition can be recovered by omitting the alterations and


History Challenging Failh emeooations made by Matthew and Lukl!: when they uSM it as a sourct'. Fourth, the document thus reconstituled ('()ntains the sale literature of a specine social movement- its members read nOlhing else and held no other beliefs than those contained in thiS single writing. Fifth. it is possible lO de· marCHe Sfages in the redaction of Q according to the principles of literary analysis. Sixth. these stages are thematically self·enclosed there is no connee· tion between the Cynic·type silyings in Q1 and the rules and rejection motifs found in Ql or the apocalypti( mytho!ogization in Q3. Seventh . these stages of redaction correspond exaclly to stages in the hypothetical community's social "development:' These are a great many assumptions to demand But Mack asks still an· other of the reader: that this group was an eilrly form of the "Jesus movement" untouched and uninfluenced by the "Jerusalem Church " or the Paul ine "Christ Cult:' So mesmerizing is this progression, and so similar to the procedures carried out by other scholars to less dramatic conclUSions. that ollly upon reflection does it become clear that the entire argument is pure flimfl am. There is no positive evidence for a community of this character in Galilee. Mack has based his entire argument on a set of arbitrary assumptions concerning the way texts and communities work . If the "Q Community" read anything beSides "Q.. ' Mark's argument is invalidated----even if we were to grant all the other premises! Mack also requires of us that WI!: ignore all the evidence proVided by other canonical writings (especially the Acts oflhe Apostles and Paul's letters) CO/Kerning earhest Christianity. Most of all, Mack leaves us with the quest ion left also by Borg and Crossan. If there was no impressive "founder" and no real"founding experirnce," then how do we account for such a prolileration of movements and sllch a production of literature "in this name"? The historical question of origination is not answered , only avoided. h is very unlikely, however. that Mack is really interested in history. At the end of Myth ojIl1nocence, Mack turned to what he considered the disastrous runsequences of Mark's Gospel' Mark 's making Jesus the fou nder of Christianity was tlte fust step on the road to everything bad in Christianity and then in Western cu lture, down to the genOCide of Native Americans, Star Wars. and ReaganomiCS (pp. 35}--"16) . Now. in the epilogue to Lost Gospel. he 5J


offers the antidote. NOIe these three sentences: "Q's challenge strikes to the heart of the traditional undrrstanding of Christian Origins:'. . "Q is the best record we have for the first forty years of the Jesus movements:'. '"The question now is whether the discovery of Q has any chanet' of making a differ· ence in the way in whirh Christianity and its gospel are viewed in modern times" (pp . .l45- 47j. Mack SetS no trouble in moving direa.Jy from the de· scr!ptive to the normative. He declares that Christians can no longer privilege the narrative Gospels of the canon. sinn' thry "are also products of mythic imagination " (p. 250) Mack wants Q to help in "brea king the taboo that now grants privilege to the Christian Myth" in Amf'rican culture (p 254) . In short. just as Q represented a l{'aderJess group of cultural critics in an imaginary Galilee of the past. so should Christians today " make some contribution to the urgent task of cultural critique where it seems to matter most--understanding the sodaJ consequences of Christian Mythology" (p 158). Meager history reveals itself as thin theology. Constant Traits Although differing greatly in style and in quality of scholarship. these books on the historical Jesus sha re certain consistent featllTes: I To a remarkable extent. thly different literary structurf>s- makes agreement on these few points the mor(' villuable. But the yield is not great. Only Luke reports the incident concerning the adolE'scent Jesus in Jerusalem. Even jf it happeneehalf of humanity, Tllis is the Jesus that classical Christianity has always proclaimed: this is an understanding of diScipleship to which classl('dl elu istianity has always held, Docs the church act triumphalistically, or treat its people arrogantly? Is it an a8~nt for the suppf('s." ion or human needs and aspirations? Does it fos ter Intoleram:r and small-mindedness? Docs the church proclaim a gospel of ~l1('('PS~ (tnd offer Jesus as a belter husiness partner) Does it encourage an ethos of prosperity to the neglect of the c