2009-11-14

Honest to Jesus: Robert Funk’s mix of good, contradictory and overlooked “rules of evidence”

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

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  • 2009-11-14 22:05:34 UTC - 22:05 | Permalink

    I appreciate your point about the contradictory character of Funk’s two rules. But there seems to be a more natural solution: throw out the idea that “events” were created in large number from ancient Jewish prophecy.

    Finding Scripture that “had to be fulfilled” it seems was precisely one of the ways early Christians sought to justify problematic things that had transpired. And we have plenty of examples of the criterion of embarrassment working as a historical principle across a wide range of cultures, time periods and literatures, whereas we don’t in fact have evidence for people making up alleged recent historical events based on prophecy.

    Having said that, I don’t have real problems envisaging early Christians “filling in the gaps” about things they didn’t witness based on “what must have happened because the prophets predicted it.” But what we see in a range of Jewish literature is an attempt to interpret one’s experience by finding “prophecies” however much of a stretch it was to relate them to one’s own experience, rather than rewriting of history based on what was understood to have been predicted.

  • 2009-11-14 23:07:42 UTC - 23:07 | Permalink

    I would be more easily persuaded that the gospels turned to scriptures to find justification for problematic things that had transpired if we read in them narrative details that could stand alone, apart from the prophetic connection. We don’t see, for example, a detailed narrative with a scriptural reference in a colophon or concluding aphorism to interpret the narrative. We see dot-point details that rarely go beyond the associated prophecy. Try covering up the details that specifically match the prophecy and there’s pretty much nothing left.

    It is easier to see this when we compare the Gospel of Peter. I have a table that attempts to illustrate this point. The Gospel of Peter is a good control tool because its less familiar character allows our perception to be less swayed by cultural assumptions we bring to bear when reading the canonical gospels. But with the Gospel of Peter’s new and overlapping narrative details, it is clear that such details were created to “prove the prophecies”. We do not have a variant narrative tradition reporting alternative viewpoints or memories that stand alone, apart from the prophetic allusions behind them. It is clear in that case that the events are crafted from the prophecies. That the canonical gospels followed a similar process — listing bare bones events that answer to prophecies — is apparent when viewed in the table. I would be more easily persuaded that the gospels turned to scriptures to find justification for problematic things that had transpired if we read in them narrative details that could stand alone, apart from the prophetic connection. We don’t see, for example, a detailed narrative with a scriptural reference in a colophon or concluding aphorism to interpret the narrative. We see dot-point details that rarely,if ever, go beyond the associated prophecy.

    It is easier to see this when we compare the Gospel of Peter. I have a table that attempts to illustrate this point. The Gospel of Peter is a good control tool because its less familiar character allows our perception to be less swayed by cultural assumptions we bring to bear when reading the canonical gospels. But with the Gospel of Peter’s new and overlapping narrative details, it is clear that such details were created to “prove the prophecies”. We do not have a variant narrative tradition reporting alternative viewpoints or memories that stand alone, apart from the prophetic allusions behind them. It is clear in that case that the events are crafted from the prophecies. That the canonical gospels followed a similar process — listing bare bones events that answer to prophecies — is apparent when viewed in the table.

    But even if we did see fuller narratives that can well stand alone apart from the prophecy attached to each, we would still be no closer methodologically to historicity. All we would have would be a narrative that derived from other sources. Historicity is another question again.

    I don’t argue that the gospels were made up by authors “alleging recent historical events based on prophecy”. I think Mark was essentially a parable. There are so many contradictions and inexplicable details and literary craftings for it to make much sense as an “historical report”. Later authors rewrote it to make it sound more plausible as history. I also see little reason to think that the gospels were written in the first century, and more evidence to point to a second century origin.

    Could you point me to examples of what you mean by “plenty of examples of the criterion of embarrassment working as a historical principle across a wide range of cultures, time periods and literatures”? I am not doubting your point, but would like to know the sort of thing you refer to specifically.

    Thanks,
    Neil

  • 2009-11-15 02:53:45 UTC - 02:53 | Permalink

    I believe that the basic facts of the gospels’ passion narrative are historically accurate. Certainly they are plausible. Also, the narrative contains certain little details that are unlikely to have been invented. Many scholars think that the basic narrative pre-dates the gospels themselves. If so, the references to the prophesies may very well have been introduced later.

    • 2009-11-16 07:55:33 UTC - 07:55 | Permalink

      Some authors make much of Mark writing that a crowd of 5000 sat down on grass that was green, and that when Jesus slept in a boat he rested his head on a cushion, and think such details could only have originated from an eyewitness. You might like to consider how ancient authors were as adept at adding details to create a sense of realism in fictional works as any modern author is. See Too Detailed To Be Legend?

  • 2009-11-15 12:57:48 UTC - 12:57 | Permalink

    Thanks for the reply. It seems to me that we DO have some places where the attempt to justify an event by appeal to prophecy is obviously contrived. When Paul says “he rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures” it has never been clear WHAT Scriptures he had in mind. Of course, the reference in Hosea “after three days he will raise us up” might be what he was thinking of. But it scarcely serves as an impressive clear prediction of the resurrection – and so I find it even harder to imagine that, from such a verse, Paul or others before him concocted the whole story.

    I suppose I should confess that I cannot inundate you with an impressive deluge of examples from outside Biblical studies. One example that DOES come to mind is from reading Jan Vansina, who recommends use of a similar principle when dealing with oral history. He provides examples taken from several African oral cultures whose history he has investigated. His basic principle is essentially the NT-scholars’ criterion of embarassment: when a tradition does not serve the purpose of those preserving it, it is unlikely to have been invented by them. In a sense, this seems to me to be a lot like asking about the motive of witnesses in a trial. At least, that’s the way they do it on TV! 🙂 But seriously, I will try to track down some other examples of the same principle being articulated by other historians studying other periods.

    It is obvious that none of this constitutes knock-down proof. And when dealing with a figure like Jesus, who did not write things himself or rise to political or military power and conquer nations in a way that left tangible evidence, we are dealing with lesser degrees of certainty. But the unlikelihood that any Jews would invent a crucified Messiah and seek to persuade others to believe in him remains an important piece of evidence. And when I add to that Paul’s references to having met people who knew Jesus – his brother James and disciple Peter – it makes a scenario that views Jesus as a myth invented from whole cloth far less plausible than one in which we are dealing with a historical figure who has been overlaid with myth, legend and interpretation. But in the latter case, a historian still has the potential to get at information that has some historical value.

  • 2009-11-16 07:49:53 UTC - 07:49 | Permalink

    Given the assumptions underlying the questions raised against the Jesus-myth idea I can understand why many — even some nonreligious people — think the notion perverse. I should try to address some of these assumptions more fully in a post some time.

    But the stark either-or notion that your opposing argument assumes bypasses the likely scenarios and assumes dates of sources that are based on the historicist assumption.

    Levenson, to take just one example, has an interesting thesis that the Christian myth was an outgrowth of Second Temple Isaac “theologizing”(?), as I’ve outlilned here. If some Jews could and did attribute atoning value to the blood of Isaac . . .?

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  • gmalcolms
    2012-05-11 15:52:20 UTC - 15:52 | Permalink

    Your point about funk’s 2nd rule overriding his 1st here (or at least being in conflict with it) is a valid one, but there’s an even more basic reason why his 1st rule may not apply in this case: As he admits himself, this was not an embarrassment for Mark, judging by his generally low regard for the disciples. And since Mark’s Gospel is the only known source for idea that the disciples fled, the other Gospels being dependent upon it, the 1st rule wouldn’t apply for the creation of this bit of “tradition.”

    • 2012-05-11 16:29:58 UTC - 16:29 | Permalink

      Good point. The same applies to the John the Baptist scenario. One so often sees scholarly lit taking it for granted that this was some sort of embarrassment for the church, but the only embarrassment in evidence is that of those evangelists who found themselves modifying Mark’s completely unembarrassed adoptionist or separationist portrayal of the event.

      And let’s not skirt around the crucifixion itself. Far from this being an embarrassment it was for evangelists like Paul a proud boast: Galatians 6:14; 1 Cor. 1:23-24; 2 Cor. 12:9 etc.

      • gmalcolms
        2012-05-11 20:03:55 UTC - 20:03 | Permalink

        Completely agree on the Baptist. In fact, that’s probably the most-cited application of the criterion of embarrassment, but it is totally useless for that tradition.

        However, there is one difference in the application of this criterion for these 2 cases when one looks at the other Gospels, as they obviously play down or eliminate the baptism they found in Mark while not letting the disciples off the hook for abandoning Jesus. (Although you could argue that calling Peter the Rock or even the post-resurrection appears serve this function in them.) But when one reflects a little further on this, you realize that the criterion of embarrassment is meaningless for transmission of details; otherwise, such embarrassing details would never have been passed down to us at all.

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