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Re: Database of genuine Jesus material

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  • 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 1 of 3 , Oct 1, 1998
      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

      > 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

      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






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

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