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Database of genuine Jesus material

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  • Greg Forbes
    As a relative newcomer to this debate, and being from downunder where things tend to happen a little slower anyway, forgive me if all this has been said
    Message 1 of 3 , Oct 1, 1998
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      As a relative newcomer to this debate, and being from 'downunder' where
      things tend to happen a little slower anyway, forgive me if all this has
      been said before. We have just had Bob Funk in town, looking a little jet
      lagged, but still able to quite adequately push the Jesus Seminar barrow.
      One of Bob's main gripes was the way in which the 'fundamentalist' (his
      badly used term) side of scholarship has reacted to the Seminar and its
      fellows. I agree that things could have been said with a little more
      humility and graciousness than they have been, but I can't help but think
      that the Seminar and its fellows could have saved themselves a lot less
      trouble by being a little more circumspect re the way their findings were
      presented.
      Given that their aim is to establish an authentic database of Jesus
      material, and that much of the criteria used (e.g. multiple attestation,
      dissimilarity etc.) does have some validity in establishing likely genuine
      material, why didn't they stick to these parameters and not pass such
      negative judgment on material that does not meet the criteria. A saying or
      action might only have single attestation, and might mirror what we would
      expect from the early church, but that does not prove that Jesus did not
      say or do it. It very well might mean that, but that is beyond the bounds
      of historical inquiry to establish.
      So I would suggest that less confidence about what is not authentic and
      more of a willingness simply to say 'not proven' or 'unsure' would go along
      way to bridging the gulf that separates the two sides of the debate.

      Regards
      Greg Forbes (Melbourne Australia)
    • Stevan Davies
      ... I think Mahlon might disagree here, but as I see it Bob Funk has a publishing house to run and that requires books that sell... preferably hundreds of
      Message 2 of 3 , Oct 1, 1998
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        > From: "Greg Forbes" <gforbes@...>
        > To: <crosstalk@...>
        > Subject: Database of genuine Jesus material
        > Date: Fri, 2 Oct 1998 10:17:13 +1000
        > Reply-to: gforbes@...
        Welcome! to Greg Forbes who wrote:

        > As a relative newcomer to this debate, and being from 'downunder' where
        > things tend to happen a little slower anyway, forgive me if all this has
        > been said before. We have just had Bob Funk in town, looking a little jet
        > lagged, but still able to quite adequately push the Jesus Seminar barrow.
        > One of Bob's main gripes was the way in which the 'fundamentalist' (his
        > badly used term) side of scholarship has reacted to the Seminar and its
        > fellows. I agree that things could have been said with a little more
        > humility and graciousness than they have been, but I can't help but think
        > that the Seminar and its fellows could have saved themselves a lot less
        > trouble by being a little more circumspect re the way their findings were
        > presented.

        I think Mahlon might disagree here, but as I see it Bob Funk has a
        publishing house to run and that requires books that sell...
        preferably hundreds of thousands of copies. You don't sell books that
        way by being discreet, gentle with opponents, and so forth. You
        sell books by being in-your-face to the fundamentalists (which is
        properly used as a polemical term in the USA, not proper if we are
        scholars of American religion) so that the national TV and Time
        Magazine and so forth see a big hoo hah debate and get your
        books massive publicity. If you ask yourself "what did Funk
        accomplish by his excesses" I think the answer will explain the
        excesses.

        > Given that their aim is to establish an authentic database of Jesus
        > material, and that much of the criteria used (e.g. multiple attestation,
        > dissimilarity etc.) does have some validity in establishing likely genuine
        > material, why didn't they stick to these parameters and not pass such
        > negative judgment on material that does not meet the criteria. A saying or
        > action might only have single attestation, and might mirror what we would
        > expect from the early church, but that does not prove that Jesus did not
        > say or do it. It very well might mean that, but that is beyond the bounds
        > of historical inquiry to establish.

        The dream is to get a database upon which we can almost all agree.
        Then we move forward. That does mean that things will either be in
        the database or out. If a great deal is left fuzzy then we don't have
        a database we can work with. If only a little bit was left fuzzy I
        doubt that the JSem's detractors would have been any more pleased.

        I can sympathize with the JSem aims quite
        a bit... but in the end it didn't work. I cannot write an article for
        the JBL including the reference "this saying is authentic because the
        JSem has said so" and get it published. I'd have to either ignore the
        question of authenticity entirely (JBL doesn't mind that particularly) or
        make my own case for authenticity from scratch.

        > So I would suggest that less confidence about what is not authentic and
        > more of a willingness simply to say 'not proven' or 'unsure' would go along
        > way to bridging the gulf that separates the two sides of the debate.

        This is true. But then you have no database and the efforts of the
        JSem to establish one would not have been successful. In the end
        though I do think you are right, the gulf would have been much less
        if there was a category "white" for many sayings about which no major
        consensus developed.

        Hope to hear more from you on crosstalk.

        Steve
      • Mahlon H. Smith
        ... Stevan Davies replied ... I don t disagree with Steve s evaluation. As founder of Scholars Press & editor of several major series for Fortress, Bob Funk
        Message 3 of 3 , Oct 1, 1998
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          Greg Forbes wrote:

          > One of Bob [Funk]'s main gripes was the way in which the 'fundamentalist'...side of scholarship has reacted to the Seminar and its
          > fellows. I agree that things could have been said with a little more
          > humility and graciousness than they have been, but I can't help but think
          > that the Seminar and its fellows could have saved themselves a lot less
          > trouble by being a little more circumspect re the way their findings were
          > presented.
          >

          Stevan Davies replied

          > I think Mahlon might disagree here, but as I see it Bob Funk has a
          > publishing house to run and that requires books that sell...
          > preferably hundreds of thousands of copies. You don't sell books that
          > way by being discreet, gentle with opponents, and so forth. You
          > sell books by being in-your-face to the fundamentalists (which is
          > properly used as a polemical term in the USA, not proper if we are
          > scholars of American religion) so that the national TV and Time
          > Magazine and so forth see a big hoo hah debate and get your
          > books massive publicity. If you ask yourself "what did Funk
          > accomplish by his excesses" I think the answer will explain the
          > excesses.
          >

          I don't disagree with Steve's evaluation. As founder of Scholars Press &
          editor of several major series for Fortress, Bob Funk was well-schooled
          in the marketing of books before he even dreamed of convening the Jesus
          Seminar. We all know controversy sells. But the JS was convened to
          measure & create consensus, not controversy. We all knew that the
          project would have its critics. But we were totally unprepared for the
          type of criticism & many of the sources from which it came. Steve & Greg
          are right in noting that Funk's representation of these critics as
          "fundamentalists" is not exact. I wouldn't call Ray Brown, Birger
          Pearson or Howard Kee "fundamentalists." It would be more accurate to
          characterize the spectrum of JS critics as Christian conservatives. But
          some long-time members of the JS would also characterize themselves as
          "conservatives." The difference lies in what one or the other is trying
          to conserve.

          To address Greg's Monday morning quarterback claim that the JS lacked
          circumspection in presenting its findings thereby creating negative
          reaction: this is historically inaccurate. In fact, the "fundamentalist"
          reaction to the JS was already full-blown in press & pulpit before we
          had published any of our materials. And the viciousness of our critics'
          campaign of slander & misrepresentation (all in the name of Christ, of
          course) was full-blown long before any JS Fellow, including Funk,
          challenged any of our critics. If the commentary in 5G & Acts of Jesus
          sometimes tends to be an "in-your-face" challenge to conservative
          Christians, this has to be understood against a background of more than
          a decade of muckraking by preachers & scholars, who used just about
          every tactic to discredit the JS project since its beginning. These
          people were not reacting to anything the JS itself presented but to
          reports (that were not always accurate or unbiased) about our meetings
          in the news media.

          Greg continued:

          > Given that their aim is to establish an authentic database of Jesus
          > material, and that much of the criteria used (e.g. multiple attestation,
          > dissimilarity etc.) does have some validity in establishing likely genuine
          > material, why didn't they stick to these parameters and not pass such
          > negative judgment on material that does not meet the criteria.

          IF one is trying to establish consensus on a data base of authentic
          material, it is impossible not to "pass a negative judgment" on what
          material is (by consensus) not to to be included. Every Jesus scholar
          has his/her own data base of material that is probably historically
          reliable. But most simply conveniently ignore other Jesus material. Funk
          challenged us to take every tid-bit of info about Jesus in antiquity
          seriously & to defend our judgment for including or excluding each item
          on the basis of historical criteria rather than personal whim or
          theological bias.

          > A saying or
          > action might only have single attestation, and might mirror what we would
          > expect from the early church, but that does not prove that Jesus did not
          > say or do it.

          It is hermeneutically impossible to prove that something did not happen.
          The JS recognized that. The historical question, however, is rather
          whether such-and-such a thing really did happen as reported. Here is
          room for a spectrum of historical options ranging from virtual certainty
          (red) to improbable (black). Theoretically, a singly attested saying
          that reflects common views of gentile churches might have originated in
          something a Galilean named Yeshu bar Yosef actually said. But unless
          there is some way of distinguishing features of that saying that were
          not likely to have been invented by anyone other than HJ there is no way
          of demonstrating the the author of the text was right in ascribing it to
          Jesus.

          > It very well might mean that, but that is beyond the bounds
          > of historical inquiry to establish.

          Such material can only be regarded as gray at best (possible but beyond
          proof).

          Stevan wrote:

          >
          > The dream is to get a database upon which we can almost all agree.

          That was Funk's original dream. But when many Jesus scholars declined to
          participate, his original goal was reduced to more modest proportions:
          to produce a database on which almost all Fellows of the JS could agree.


          > If a great deal is left fuzzy then we don't have
          > a database we can work with. If only a little bit was left fuzzy I
          > doubt that the JSem's detractors would have been any more pleased.

          Actually the JS data base of red/pink items does allow for individual
          scholars to present a case for including some of the "fuzzy" (i.e., gray
          material). In the unpublished collaborative commentary on the red/pink
          sayings there will be several gray items. I developed a case for Jesus'
          authorship of Q's "children in the agora" pericope.
          >
          > I can sympathize with the JSem aims quite
          > a bit... but in the end it didn't work. I cannot write an article for
          > the JBL including the reference "this saying is authentic because the
          > JSem has said so" and get it published.

          The JS never intended its judgments to be taken on authority by other
          scholars. It simply polled its own Fellows. As I tell my students every
          semester: the importance of the JS decisions lie more in the reasons pro
          & con than in the exact weighted ranking of the items.

          > I'd have to either ignore the
          > question of authenticity entirely (JBL doesn't mind that particularly) or
          > make my own case for authenticity from scratch.

          Which is as it should be. Hopefully, at least some of the arguments pro
          & con will sound cogent enough to help people form their own judgments
          regarding what material is historicallyreliable & what not.

          >
          > So I would suggest that less confidence about what is not authentic and
          > more of a willingness simply to say 'not proven' or 'unsure' would go along
          > way to bridging the gulf that separates the two sides of the debate.
          >

          This is like telling an engineer not to be so confident that a bridge
          will not support the weight of traffic: just say it has not been proven
          or is unsure. True some who cross such a bridge may get to the other
          side unscathed; but anyone who takes that route risks not getting to
          one's desired destination. If one's goal is to construct a historically
          reliable portrait of Jesus, is it wise to include much material that is
          historically dubious?

          Steve commented on Greg's suggestion:

          > This is true. But then you have no database and the efforts of the
          > JSem to establish one would not have been successful. In the end
          > though I do think you are right, the gulf would have been much less
          > if there was a category "white" for many sayings about which no major
          > consensus developed.
          >
          We did have such a category. It was called gray: material that contains
          some elements that possibly could have come from HJ but not enough to be
          considered probable. One fellow suggested a designation of "brown" for
          muddy material where the vote was so evenly divided that there was no
          clear tendency one way or the other.

          > Hope to hear more from you on crosstalk.
          >
          > Steve

          Ditto!

          Shalom!

          Mahlon

          --

          *********************

          Mahlon H. Smith,
          Associate Professor
          Department of Religion
          Rutgers University
          New Brunswick NJ

          http://religion.rutgers.edu/mhsmith.html
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