The Ineffectual Jesus of the Jesus Seminar

July-August 1996By Adam Brooke Davis

Adam Brooke Davis is Assistant Professor of English at Truman State University in Missouri. One of his specialties is comparative oral traditions.

The three major newsweekly magazines featured Jesus for Easter week. It's puzzling that these distinguished publications came to the conclusion that "the search for the historical Jesus" is news. All mentioned David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus (1835); one noted that precisely the same issues at least partially underwrote the Reformation, and another identified various attempts over the millennia to recast Jesus in the image of a particular agenda: Gnosticism and the Manichean heresy come quickly to mind, as does Mark Twain's remark, "God created Man in his own image, and Man, being a gentleman, returned the favor."

Nothing could be clearer from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians than that certain first-century Christians were "seeking a more rational basis for faith," as one report on the Jesus Seminar's mission put it. For example, Paul pointed out that "the message of the cross is complete absurdity to those who are headed for ruin, but to us who are experiencing salvation it is the power of God. Scripture says, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and thwart the cleverness of the clever'" (1:18-20; Isa. 29:14).

Being smart is no guarantee against error. I know many well-educated people, some of whom consider themselves Christians, who yet make it obvious they're under the impression that the Dead Sea Scrolls have somehow "disproved" the Gospels. When pressed, they refer vaguely to a book they've heard of. We folklorists recognize this cognitive structure. It corresponds to the FOAF (Friend-of-a-Friend) who always authenticates the Urban Belief Tale (the choking Doberman, the poodle in the microwave, etc.), but who can never quite be located. When we observe this operation in progress, we know we're in the presence of the will to believe -- or, as the case may be, disbelieve.

And so it is with the Jesus Seminar. Its "historical" inquiry includes a ritual of casting multicolored ostraka to banish, by majority rule (but without undertaking the responsibility of public argument), those words in the New Testament felt to be "inauthentic." What did the Jesus Seminar find dispensable? The Lord's Prayer, all words from the cross, any claims of Jesus to divinity, any reference to the Virgin Birth, most of the miracles, and all references to the bodily Resurrection. The "post-Easter" Jesus is reduced thereby to a series of wish-fulfilling "interpsychic experiences," hallucinations of a group of people demonstrably unstable to begin with, and further deranged by grief or a more purely political disappointment.

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