Jesus Seminar co-founder Robert Funk has a lot interesting insights into the gospel texts. But he (along with probably a vast majority of his biblical studies colleagues) also carries a few assumptions that set his historical studies a world apart from the methods of historians of nonbiblical themes.
But first the good rule that just about any historian of nonbiblical topics would support. It should be so obvious that it should not even need to be spelled out.
. . . storytellers may take their listeners to the time and place of the event and allow them to see and hear what went on — all by means of words, of course. . . . Because [this description seems] realistic — the words of participants in the story are quoted and their actions are described, sometimes in graphic detail — it is often assumed to be more historically reliable. That assumption is misleading: writers of fiction know how to narrate realistically . . . , and when they do a good job of it, readers willingly accept as true what they are being told. To be convincing, writers of fiction must of course achieve a high level of plausibility. (p. 3 of The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus — also somewhere in Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium)
Actually Funk does not list that as a “rule” but more as a base awareness before studies begin.
Before discussing the Passion Narrative Funk does indeed list “rules of evidence”. Here are the first two — and I will show how they actually contradict each other if applied consistently. (And if not applied consistently, they are Lenin pie crust rules made to be broken.)
Rule number one
This is the good old “criterion of embarrassment”:
Events and characterizations that would have been an embarrassment to Jesus’ followers, to those forming and relating the story of his death, and yet were preserved by them, have some claim to be historical. The lack of motivation to create and transmit unflattering details is positive evidence . . . (p. 223 of Honest to Jesus)
The second rule
On the other hand, anything based on prophecy is probably a fiction. It is clear that the authors of the passion narrative had searched the scriptures for clues to the meaning of Jesus’ death and had allowed those clues to guide them in framing the story: event was made to match the prophecy. (p. 223)
And they all deserted him and ran away
The pink colour is the attribution of the Jesus Seminar to indicate it is thought to be “probably reliable”.
The Fellows [of the Jesus Seminar] were relatively certain that the disciples fled at the time of the arrest, as the reports indicate. This story would probably not have been made up by the disciples since it was an embarrassment to them (it is not beyond Mark, however, in view of the fact that he had a rather low opinion of the inner circle of followers.) (p. 145 The Acts of Jesus)
So if we apply Rule #1 to this passage, we can conclude it is probably true.
This is a puzzling conclusion if we stop to recall the second “rule of evidence”. The earliest gospel account (I avoid the term “report” because it carries the presumption of historicity — the question we are seeking to answer) of the fleeing disciples is directly associated with the fulfilment of prophecy:
Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of me this night, for it is written:
I will strike the shepherd,
And the sheep will be scattered.
If events were made to match the prophecies (according to the second rule) then we have a prima facie case for doubting that the disciples ever did flee from Jesus at his critical moment.
So if we apply Rule #2 to the same passage above, we can conclude it is probably fiction.
Other (nonbiblical) historians of whom I am aware do not struggle over finding “rules” to decide if this or that particular event happened or not. Their “rules of evidence” are much more thorough and their debates accordingly focus more on explaining what happened, not trying to discover what happened by applying this or that criteria to a reading of a text. The fragility of Funk’s (and his many colleagues’) approach is demonstrated by simply noting that if we apply one of his rules we can decide that an event is likely to be historical, while if we apply another rule from the same set to the same event, we can conclude that it is a fabrication!
But why would anyone make up such an “embarrassing” event?
The gospel authors were crafting Jesus in the image of traditional biblical (Old Testament) godly heroes.
The godly man’s Gethsemane and rejection by his family and closest confidants is a motif as old as Joseph, Moses and David. It is a common theme of the Psalms. The author of Acts put a speech in Stephen’s mouth comparing Jesus with Abraham, Joseph and Moses in the way they all forsook or were rejected by “their own”.
It is a “typical” event that serves to dramatically highlight the steadfastness of the godly through the worst sufferings. When Jesus is rejected by his family and deserted by his followers he joins the company of Abel, Abraham, Joseph, Moses and on through to David and beyond.
If the disciples of Jesus came to revere Jesus so much, if they sought to direct their followers to worship of Jesus and not esteem themselves so highly, would it not be natural for them to deliberately belittle themselves in comparison with Jesus? Note in this context Acts 3:12
And when Peter saw it, he answered unto the people, Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk?
If the disciples found themselves having to go to lengths to separate themselves from Jesus with respect to the honour heaped on them by their followers, why not imagine them exaggerating the extent to which Jesus left them looking like foolish and weak dummies by comparison?
But there’s another explanation, too, of course. But for this we need to turn to another rule that Robert Funk overlooked entirely.
The long overlooked rule
Now this rule really does set apart historians of nonbiblical subjects from those who claim to be doing the same thing in religious departments and faculties.
A primary rule of any historical examination ought to be to begin by carefully evaluating the nature and provenance of the sources. There seems to be an unwritten assumption among most “biblical historians” that I have read that the narrative content of the biblical sources is, in varying degrees, based on historical events. If that assumption is made by modern historians about their sources it is quickly tested. Historians working with “classical literature” know the importance of discerning when claims for historicity are really fabrications.
This warning was published for biblical scholars over a century ago in a discussion about the evidence so often used to support the claims of Papias about gospel traditions.
With regard to the recurrent inclination to pass off Papias’s remarks about the first two Synoptists as “ancient information” and to utilize them in some fashion or other, a somewhat more general observation may not be out of place. The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration. It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand . . . . how much more is this not the situation in the case of the Gospels, whose authors intentionally or unintentionally adhered to the obscurity of the Church, since they neither would nor could be anything other than preachers of the one message, a message that was independent of their humanity? . . . .
This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.