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Unscrambling Jesus

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Jesus Seminar. Readers of Crosslight may have heard of this convocation of scholars who famously, over a period of several years, took a vote on each of the sayings of Jesus to establish whether or not he actually said them. Using a grading system that ranged from red-letter confidence (‘Yes, that’s Jesus!’) through to black-letter scepticism (‘There’s been some mistake’) the work of the Seminar achieved notoriety and influence.

The notoriety was understandable. Only one of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospel of Mark was judged to be authentic in the sense that ‘Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it’ (Mark 12:17 to be exact). Many of the sayings of Jesus, including large chunks of the Sermon on the Mount, were put into the category of ‘Jesus did not say this’.

Populist, conservative outrage at such audacious claims aligned with more sober scholarly challenges to the methods and results of the Seminar’s deliberations. But its key advocates had a knock down argument up their sleeve: we have found the real Jesus, based on the consensus of critical scholars, so it’s about time that the Church, and Christian faith and practice, caught up and changed.

In this way the Seminar’s influence grew and, in the words of its founder and greatest proponent, Robert Funk, people began to wonder what it might mean to ‘liberate the gospel of Jesus from the Jesus of the gospels’.

The Seminar’s careful and critical scholarly work was designed to prompt a ‘revamp’ of our understanding. Christian faith should become an ethical, not a credal, affair. Christian life should be focussed on imitating Jesus. Jesus himself must be ‘demoted’ from his place within Christian theology.

These are important claims, which, if followed to their logical extreme, would indeed require a new reformation in which the contemporary Church’s relationship to its own history and tradition undergoes a radical renegotiation.

It is only right that, in this 30th anniversary year, I declare my hand in relation to this bold, adventurous and radical move.

I believe that it is basically bunk, but not for the reasons that you might suspect.

My own view is that there is no part of the Jesus tradition for which we can draw the conclusion that ‘Jesus said it’. There are no red-letter sayings of Jesus, within or outside of the New Testament gospels. This is a conclusion borne not of a radical scepticism about the historical reliability of the gospels. It is rather the result of noticing some fairly basic facts about the gospels.

First, they were written in Greek. Although Jesus may have possessed some rudimentary knowledge of Greek, the consensus is that he taught in the common language of first century Palestine, Aramaic. With the exception of a word here or there (the most significant being Jesus’ cry from the cross in Mark 15:34) the gospels preserve translations of the sayings of Jesus. And then, as now, translation always involves a level of interpretation.

Second, recent New Testament scholarship has shown us that it is about as difficult to separate out ‘authentic’ words of Jesus from ‘inauthentic’ words as it is to unscramble an omelette.

Scholars used to think that they had a set of especially sharp tools that would enable them to cut away the dying flesh of the Church’s tradition, thus saving the life of the real Jesus for the benefit of his followers. They called these tools ‘criteria for authenticity’. I used to use them myself. I now realise that they were about as useful for finding Jesus as a scalpel is for eating eggs and bacon: you can try, but you are really missing the point.

The reason we know this is because we now better understand the way that human memory works. Memory is also the work of interpretation from the outset. If you don’t interpret it, you won’t remember it. And so it becomes entirely possible that in the gospels, we find words that Jesus didn’t actually say that preserve some kind of accurate historical memory, and vice-versa. The gospels provide us with translated memories of the sayings of Jesus.

Third, the gospels are not documents that are at all interested in telling us ‘what Jesus actually said’. They cannot lead us to the past because they were never intended to. What the gospels provide for us is an indication of the impact that Jesus made upon the memories of his earliest followers, and of the impact of those memories on subsequent communities of Christian disciples.

If we take these aspects of the gospels seriously we find ourselves having to say that the only Jesus we have is the remembered Jesus. We can continue to call that Jesus ‘historical’, I suppose, but ‘historical’ here can mean little more than ‘Jesus as he was remembered and understood by those who believed that God had raised him from the dead’.

We get closest to this Jesus not by trying to get behind or beyond the witness of the gospels and not by stripping away the theological convictions the first generations held about his relationship to God and saving work.

In the words of one recent scholar ‘the historical Jesus is not veiled by the interpretations of him. He is most available for analysis when these interpretations are most pronounced.’

All of which is to suggest that we can best celebrate the anniversary of the Jesus Seminar by returning to the gospels and exploring what kind of person, with what kind of message and, crucially, what kind of relationship to God, might generate these memories and these interpretations.

To answer that question might be to see more clearly the ways that the memory of Jesus can be preserved in the Church today.

Sean Winter

Sean Winter is the Head of Pilgrim Theological College. He teaches the New Testament and has a particular interest in the writings of the apostle Paul and their significance for Christian faith and practice today.

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