Monday, July 18, 2005

Book Review: The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say?

The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say?
Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar
1993, Polebridge Press. 553 pages

About halfway through their introduction to The Five Gospels, Funk and his fellow writers refer to a passage in Mark in the midst of a description of their methodological approach to the Gospels. First they cite two understandings that should be adopted in interpreting the sayings of Jesus, one that states that the writers of the gospels expand on or interpret sayings or parables, another that says that the gospel writers revise or edit sayings.

Funk et al then go on to cite Mark 2:19-20 as an example of this. First, they claim that the followers of John and of the Pharisees fasted, while apparently Jesus and his followers did not. Mark 2:19 runs:

And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. (RSV)

The Five Gospels writes: "This aphorism, which has no specific Christian content, may well go back to Jesus. But Mark, or someone before him, has appended a Christian expansion (Mark 2:20)."

The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. (RSV)

The Seminar interprets that addition as placed there to justify the Christian renewal of the Jewish practice of fasting, even though Jesus and his disciples did not fast. The Five Gospels even goes on to provide an excursus on page 48 that purports to demonstrate that Jesus did not fast, citing Mark 2:19, and Luke 7:33-4. Page 49 provides additional discussion.
"In applying the coherence test, the Fellows agreed that Jesus liked to eat and drink (Luke 7:33-4) and probably enjoyed weddings (he attends a wedding at Cana, John 2:1-11). Th evidence shows why Jesus seemed to many of his fellow Judeans to be a "party animal."
It is interesting to contemplate the tension between the Jesus Seminar and its conservative critics. Although the political and theological distance between the two groups is great, the methodological distance is small. Each interprets the Gospel of Mark in ways that are both overly literal and selectively so, dismissive of the characteristics of the narrative except as a vehicle for transmission of historical information. Here in Mark 2:19 the Seminar, by disarticulating the saying from the Gospel, and the two parts of the saying from each other, and treating one part metaphorically and the other literally, has created a historical fact where none exists. And that, in essence, is what is wrong with the Jesus Seminar.

Let us return to this saying. Note how, in Mark 2:19-20, the word bridgegroom is clearly figurative, indicating Jesus.
And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. (RSV)
Similarly, the terms "guests" (literally, "sons of the wedding hall' -- the groom's attendants) is also figurative, representing Jesus' disciples. The Seminar wants to argue that in that passage the words bridegroom and wedding are figurative, but that we ought to take fasting literally. Yet the presence of food-related vocabulary in connection with Jesus and his mission throughout the Gospel of Mark provides a powerful context that indicates the meaning of fast is figurative and cannot be taken literally. Consider that in the same situation in Mark 7:24-30, where Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman have their famous discussion about dogs and scraps from the table, the Seminar does not claim that Jesus was feeding dogs from his table. Food vocabulary in Mark is a metaphor for the message of Jesus. It has nothing to do with history.

Burton Mack has pointed out that the chreia structure of this part of the pericope is masked by the apparent yoking of two sayings together. Mack (1995, p314) simplifies it thusly: challenge: Why aren't your disciples fasting? response: Who fasts at a wedding? The reader should recall that the construction of chreia was part of an education in Greek. It should also be noted that the sayings on either side of this one are both known sayings found in the larger Hellenistic or Jewish culture. In other words, given the proper context in the narrative habits of the writer of Mark, it is not difficult to see that the writer of Mark has invented this entire sequence.

In practice, the Seminar's understanding appears to be that the overall narrative context of a particular gospel does not have much weight in assessing the historicity of the sayings, observing"The evangelists frequently group sayings and parables in clusters and complexes that did not originate with Jesus." The Seminar's position is that the narratives are "embellished by mythic elements" and by "plausible fictions." The result is that the Seminar does not consult the narrative for clues as to the historicity of the sayings as often and as deeply as it should.

Although the Seminar's states that it assumes the burden of proof in demonstrating that elements of the gospels are historical, again in practice it takes as an axiom that some elements are historical, and in reailty attempts to determine which elements are historical, and which are not, based on that axiomatic assumption. The Seminar's position is not so different from its fundamentalist critics as it likes to imagine. Both are working off axiomatic positions whose difference is essentially one of degree, not of kind.

Like most scholars working on the problem of the historical Jesus the Seminar does not make many of its methodological assumptions formally clear. Its most important one, that some sayings go back to Jesus, is not explicitly stated, though it is certainly clear in the discussion that begins on page 30. Although the commentary in The Five Gospels is studded with negative criteria ("this cannot be a Jesus saying because..."), none are made explicit in the discussion at the beginning.

Several methodological assumptions are listed by the Seminar. It begins with perhaps its most important one.
Jesus' characteristic talk was distinctive.
The Seminar argues that a good example of this is Mark 7:15
14: And he called the people to him again, and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand:
15: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him."
The Seminar considers this an example of Jesus' distinctive voice. If that is true, then Jesus is speaking with the distinctive voice of the writer of Mark. The passage is most likely an anachronism that is meant to address the meal issues of a later era, which could not possibly have been so controversial had Jesus actually left a strong and memorable saying about the issue. A second problem with taking this as the authentic word of Jesus is that Jesus essentially abrogates a core Jewish law, intimately connected to Jewish identity, yet nine chapters of Mark go by and no one challenges him on this issue (although my own belief is that this passage was moved here from elsewhere in Mark). I personally am convinced that the writer of Mark knew the letters of Paul intimately, and there are two passages in Romans, 14:14 and 14:20, that could easily serve as the source for this. Whether or not one agrees with my analysis of Mark and Paul, the key point is that the Seminar can offer us no way to distinguish between distinctive voice of the writer of Mark and the distinctive voice of Jesus. Hence this assumption collapses into a kind of hopeful subjectivity.
Jesus' sayings and parables cut against the social and religious grain and Jesus' sayings and parables surprise and shock; they characteristically call for a reversal of roles or frustrate ordinary, everyday expectations
Again we run into the problem of distinguishing between the creativity of the gospel writers and the creativity of Jesus. Walter Schmithals (1997) writes:
"If the existence of an oral tradition of the parabolic teachings of Jesus can nowhere be demonstrated, however, and if we encounter the parables exclusively in literary forms, one must reckon in the main with their literary origin. The old conception that the synoptic parables, because of their originality in form and content, could have derived only from an extraordinary genius, namely Jesus, is for good reason no longer repeated today."
The greater Hellenistic context of parables also argues for a literary origin; they are found in the ancient Greek novels (there is even a parable duel in Luekippe and Clitophon) and in other ancient writings, as well as the Old Testament. Additionally, in Mark, the two major parables of the Sower and the Wicked Tenants serve to establish the framework for the narrative (the former) and the Passion (the latter). Their function is literary; their counterparts are literary. "Sowing" as a metaphor for instruction was widespread in the ancient world. One is forced to ask: who does the creativity belong to, the writer of Mark or Jesus? Well, we have concrete evidence of the former's creativity. And Tolbert has warned us about falling into the habit of studying the parables as parables of Jesus and not as parables of the writer of Mark.

The Seminar ends its discussion of its methodological assumptions by saying that
Jesus' images are concrete and vivid, his sayings and parables customarily metaphorical and without explicit application.
The Seminar cites Mark 12:17 as an example:
Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (RSV)
As noted earlier, the writer of Mark has most likely sourced this from Romans 13. The context is profoundly fictional. The Pharisees do not answer Jesus' cryptic comment, though they were noted quibblers and wits themselves. The ending is thus implausible, as no one seriously out to entrap Jesus would let Jesus' non-answer go unchallenged. Tolbert (1989, p251) notes that the "saying" appears to stand out simply because it is the syllogistic conclusion to an argument, and its smoothness differs from the disjointed style normal to the writer of Mark. According to Tolbert, Aristotle emphasizes that "gnomic sayings or maxims" are especially suited for premises and conclusions of enthymematic arguments (p251). In general the pericope presents the familiar structure of setting and riposte seen elsewhere in Mark. The pericope also has a beautiful structure with a typical complex Markan center:

A: So they left him and went away.
..B And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Hero'di-ans, entrap him in his talk.

.....C And they came and said to him, "Teacher, we know that you are true, and care for no man;
.........for you do not regard the position of men, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay
.........taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?"
.........D A But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, "Why put me to the test?
................Bring me a coin,.and let me look at it."
.............B And they brought one.
.........D A And he said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"
.............B They said to him, "Caesar's."
......C Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's,
..........and to God the things that are God's."

..B And they were amazed at him.
A And Sad'ducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection;

Additionally, as Brodie has argued, the story here is tracking the end of the Elijah-Elisha cycle in Kings, where the prophet is confronting the priests of Ba'al. Here, similarly, Jesus is confronting the pharisees. In short, at every level, the pericope is a fictional creation of the writer of Mark. When the reader recalls that the chreia-like feel for the saying is well within the capabilities of the writer of Mark -- indeed, within the capabilities of anyone with a Hellenistic education (moreover, he probably had Romans in front of him). The Seminar has declared the narrative an embellished tale, but then ignored the implications of that for the sayings contained within that narrative.

The problem of determining whether the distinctive voice belongs to the writer of Mark or of Jesus is only accentuated by those cases of Jesus' words rejected by the Seminar. For example, the Seminar accepts Mark 7:15 as authentic, but rejects the sayings in Mark 2:5-10. The Seminar here runs into another problem that has not been given its due in scholarly discussions of methodology, that of mixing positive and negative criteria in the same analysis. Most scholars actually use both sets (but make only the positive criteria explicit) and in every case, do not even discuss, let alone resolve, the issue of which have the most weight. In Mark 2:5-10 the Seminar felt that the words appear to be something invented for the occasion. Yet the same could be said of Mark 7:15 -- the words are invented for the "occasion" of resolving dissension over whether Jewish food laws applied to Christians. The problem of clashing positive and negative criteria also surfaces in the discussions of secular parallels. Mark 2:17, the saying about physicians not going to the healthy, was accepted as probably going back to Jesus despite secular parallels dating back centuries before Mark. Having noted that the saying has many parallels, the Fellows promptly voted to accept it because it sounded like something Jesus might say! Hence the Seminar has made Bultmann's remark that witty sayings tend to accrue to the great man come true in a new and fascinating way.

In Mark 3 the problem of the Seminar's dismissal of the narrative as a source of information on the historicity of the sayings once again appears. The Seminar accepts Mark 3:27:
27: But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house. (RSV)
The Seminar then commits an error quite common in such analyses, stating:
It is difficult to conceive of the early Christian community attributing this robust and colorful figure of speech to Jesus if he did not, in fact, say it.
But the Gospel of Mark was not written by a community; but by a single human being, its writer. Later individual human beings redacted it. If one assumes that the saying goes back to a community, perhaps the Seminar's claim will hold water (yet communities habitually attribute sayings to their revered figures that they never said). Once more we face the problem of distinguishing the creativity of the writer from the creativity of Jesus. The problem grows acute because the Seminar has ignored the literary aspects of the pericope. Drawing on my commentary on Mark, we will first examine the structure of the sayings surrounding this one:

A casts out demons by the prince of demons
A How can satan cast out satan?
......B kingdom divided against itself cannot stand
......B house divided against itself cannot stand
...........C satan risen up against himself and is divided,
...........C he cannot stand, but is coming to an end
......B no one can enter strong man's house plunder his goods
......B unless first binds strong man, then may plunder his house
A all sins forgiven and all blasphemies
A whoever blasphemes Holy Spirit is guilty of eternal sin

The repartee of Jesus and the scribes form a nifty little chiasm all by themselves, as is common in Mark. It is organized around pairs of paired keywords in paired lines, demons/satan, kingdom/house, concluded in the pair of lines in the center that collects the keywords satan/divided/stand into one structure. It then unrolls out with the keyword strong man/house signaling an opposition to the previous pair of kingdom/house. The final paired structure opposes demons/satan to blasphemy/holy spirit. This structure is a masterwork. Note too how the writer has framed it with remarks that mean exactly the same thing -- the passage opens with "He is possessed by Beezebul" and closes with "He is possessed by an unclean spirit." The entire passage is a literary creation from top to bottom, courtesy of the writer of Mark.

Further, at the larger level of the narrative, binding is a key theme in the Gospel of Mark. The "strong man" here might be Satan, or it might refer to Jesus. The passage exhibits thematic unity and creativity, as well as structural complexity, and a certain amount of interpretive ambiguity, worthy of any good writer. In short, there is no reason to imagine that the writer of Mark did not create that saying as well. Certainly the Seminar can offer what looks remarkably like an argument from incredulity -- we can't believe that Jesus didn't say these words -- which is not an argument at all, but an emotional appeal to the reader in the face of a conundrum. But I have no trouble attributing these words to the writer of Mark -- the rest of the passage certainly comes from him, the passage itself is replete with Markan structures and themes, and it fits into the writer's larger narrative goals.

Space does not allow for a longer deconstruction of the Seminar's approach. Nevertheless, it should be clear from the foregoing that the Seminar's historical methodology is confused, subjective, contradictory, and often inexplicable. The Seminar's claim that it can discern "the distinctive voice of Jesus" is no more valid than its conservative foes who claim that the gospels represent the testimony of eyewitnesses writing in the authentic voice of God.

Despite its many problems from the methodological standpoint, The Five Gospels is a useful compendium of commentary, arguments, and information on the Gospels. The scholars did their own translation of the Greek, which is often lively and interesting. On that basis, and as a popular work from an important group of scholars, The Five Gospels should be on every NT exegete's shelf. Sadly, though, for exegetes interested in reliable historical methodology that can recover information about Jesus' life, it offers only negative lessons.

UPDATE: Steve Carlson has some good insights in response. And Loren Rosson III takes issue with my post here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A poster on JM opined in response to this review:

The irony of this position is that almost nothing said by the gospel
Jesus is particularly profound or new, including the sayings that the
Jesus Seminar endorses as genuine. In fact, if Jesus only said the "red
letter" words of the Seminar gospels, then there is no intellectual basis
for any new following, philosophy, or religion. The Seminar starts with
the assumption that Jesus must have been an extraordinary human being
who had an extraordinary impact upon his world, yet they ultimately
present us with a totally banal and irrelevent persona. In an ironic way, their conclusions argue against their assumptions.(Rod)