Category Archives: Biblical Scholars

Prominent and not-so-prominent scholars of the Bible.

Should Scholars Vote? Mocking The Jesus Seminar / The Jesus SeM&Minar

Religion Prof James McGrath has a class on the historical Jesus in which he regularly pokes fun at the Jesus Seminar for supposedly attempting to decide the authentic words of Jesus by voting.

I have an activity that I run in my class on the historical Jesus, in which I get students to reenact what the Jesus Seminar became famous for doing at its meetings. The Jesus Seminar, for those who may not be familiar with it, produced a variation on the classic red letter editions of the Gospels. They voted as a group on which sayings of Jesus they consider authentic – the actual words of Jesus; which provided the gist but probably not something really close to what Jesus said; which may be in essence still true to the emphases of Jesus but owe more to the later church; and which are simply inauthentic. They voted using colored beads: red, pink, grey, and black. These correspond to the views on the authenticity of the saying in question listed above, so that the resulting edition still has “the very words of Jesus himself in red letters,” but very few of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels end up printed in that color.

I got students to do the same things, giving them a particular saying in its various forms across ancient sources, letting them debate, and then asking them to vote.

The especially “fun part” this time was that customized M&M’s were used:

This year, I took a step that I never did before. In the past I’ve simply had students bring M&Ms and we’ve decided what the regular colors would correspond to in the scale. This year, I placed an order for custom M&Ms for use in this activity. They are red, pink, grey, and black, and some of them say “Jesus SeM&Minar” on them!

McGrath’s idea has been taken up by another scholar, Keith Reich, who explains

The idea is to, Jesus Seminar style, vote on various sayings and/or deeds of Jesus as to their historical probability, but instead of using colored stones, one uses M&Ms.  More fun, and hey, you get to eat your vote after you are finished. 

McGrath hews to the point of making fun of the Jesus Seminar:

Then we vote, secretly, by dropping a colored M&M into a box with a hole cut in the top. We then tally the votes and figure out the average. (Students can also learn the useful skill of calculating their grade point average through this activity).

. . . . .

The Jesus Seminar, as far as I know, doesn’t get to eat the beads used for voting once that process is over, and so the case can be made that our way of doing things doesn’t merely imitate theirs, but is superior.

As if “truth” or “history” can be decided by a vote! Ha ha.

One often sees the Jesus Seminar ridiculed in this way. So let’s give the Seminar a chance to explain itself.

The Jesus Seminar was organized under the auspices of the Westar Institute to renew the quest of the historical Jesus and to report the results of its research to more than a handful of gospel specialists. At its inception in 1985, thirty scholars took up the challenge. Eventually more than two hundred professionally trained specialists, called Fellows, joined the group. The Seminar met twice a year to debate technical papers that had been prepared and circulated in advance. At the close of debate on each agenda item, Fellows of the Seminar voted, using colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of Jesus’ words. Dropping colored beads into a box became the trademark of the Seminar and the brunt of attack for many elitist academic critics who deplored the public face of the Seminar.

(Funk, 34. Bolding in all quotations is my own)

What were the methods to be followed in those debates?

This was the rule the Fellows adopted:

• Canonical boundaries are irrelevant in critical assessments of the various sources of information about Jesus.

They refused, in other words, to privilege the gospels that came to be regarded as canonical by the church. The Seminar thus acted in accordance with the canons of historical inquiry.

(Funk, 35. Red text original)

So where did the voting come in? What was that all about? read more »

The Phlogiston Jesus

Fourcroy (Wikipedia): “There are now nearly as many theories, as many different kinds of phlogiston, as there are defenders of phlogiston.”

PZ Myers: A consensus doesn’t necessarily mean anything. 200 years ago there was a consensus phlogiston existed. The key thing is: show me the chain of evidence and the logic that you use to derive this.

(From video discussion with Eddie Marcus; see also transcript/paraphrase.)

….

Tim O’Neill: If we look at relevant non-Christian scholars, both current and recent, we find people like Maurice Casey, Zeba Crook, James Crossley, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Robert Funk, Jeffrey Gibson, Michael Goulder, Amy Jill Levine, Gerd Ludemann, Jack Miles, Christina Petterson, Alan Segal and Geza Vermes. None of these people accept or accepted Mythicism.

Nor, as far as I am aware, have most of these scholars ever published or publicly stated a view about mythicism, either for or against. Nor have they all even published a perspective on the historical Jesus, either. It is probably fair to say, however, that in their writings they all have, when and where relevant, embraced the assumption of a historical Jesus.

And to [suggest] that these scholars are simply too unimaginative or too timid to examine and accept the idea that there was no Jesus at all is [without foundation]. [Some of these names are] the leading proponents of conceptions about Jesus and the origins of Christianity that are so much at odds with orthodox Christian ideas that conservative Christian apologists write whole books warning their faithful to beware of their supposedly wild and radical theories. . . . So if [some] leading non-Christian scholars are so shackled to the Christian idea of a historical Jesus because of the vast influence on them of Christian culture, [we need to explain why] this highly Christian influence [appears to be] so narrowly focused and selective. Why is it only on the question of Jesus’ existence that this supposedly pervasive Christian orthodoxy has such influence on these non-Christian scholars, but not any other ideas? How is it that this supposed Christian control only works on the historicity of Jesus, but somehow fails completely on topics such as the rejection of Jesus as

  • a Jewish apocalypticist,
  • or the promotion of the Farrer Thesis over the Two Source Hypothesis
  • or conservative views on the dates and authorship of the gospels
  • or any of the dozens of other issues on which the scholarship is sharply divided between non-Christians and orthodox Christian scholars?

Why can and do these scholars present Jesus as

  • a Jewish preacher,
  • a charismatic hasid
  • or a Cynic-style sage

– all ideas substantially at odds with Christian orthodoxy – yet baulk at the idea that he did not exist? . . . It makes no sense that this supposedly powerful cultural bias would only affect non-Christian scholars on historicity and not across a much wider range of disputed topics.

(From O’Neill, Tim. 2018. “PZ Myers and ‘Jesus Agnosticism.’” History for Atheists (blog). September 29, 2018. https://historyforatheists.com/2018/09/pz-myers-and-jesus-agnosticism/.)

I have replaced words in Tim’s original post that I believe are not in the best interests of a sober discussion (some contain rhetorical flourishes laced with unprofessional attitudes; some are sweeping, misleading or incorrect statements) with my own hopefully more neutral words in square brackets and italics. The bolded highlighting and dot-formatting is my own.

Tim’s question is clearly intended to be rhetorical but actually a little reflection on PZ Myers’ reference to the scientific consensus on phlogiston will suggest a ready answer. read more »

A scholarly hankering….

Michael Goulder

Scholars who have assumed a position over many years do not quickly recant it and publicly admit their error; nor can a novel hypothesis expect to carry the day at once in a conservative profession. It may be particularly difficult to shift opinion over texts which are fundamental to the faith of the critic. With time scholars came to treat sympathetically my arguments for the evangelists’ creativity: their freedom to create Nativity stories out of Old Testament types, and their ability to create or develop parables in line with their own stylistic and doctrinal concerns. They have been less willing to accept Matthew and Luke as embroiderers of earlier Gospel traditions, because there is a hankering after putative lost sources and oral traditions which would take us back to the historical Jesus.

And then there’s the suspicion that a challenge to fundamentals implies a questioning of scholarly integrity:

The Q hypothesis has been part of the ‘assured results of scholarship’ for more than a century, and despite my aggressive campaigning against it, it is still the standard teaching in most universities. I have over the years proposed two potent arguments in favour of Luke’s knowledge of Matthew, neither of which has been adequately criticized by defenders of Q . . . . . The puzzle to me has been why such arguments, which seem so conclusive, have failed to convince my leading opponents. I once had an uncomfortable conversation with Christopher Tuckett, with whom I have had a slightly uneasy friendship over twenty-five years. He asked me two disturbing questions: first, ‘Do you really not believe in Q, Michael?’ and second, ‘Do you think I am honest?’ as though he thought that one or other of us must be playing games, rather than seriously pursuing the truth.

Once committed….

I do think that Christopher is honest, but I am unable to understand how, after years of discussion orally and in print, he still finds the evidence I have produced so unconvincing. It was reassuring to be told by Francis Watson, when he was Professor at Aberdeen, that I had persuaded him about Q; but I think it is probably asking too much to expect those like Neirynck and Tuckett, who have nailed their colours to another mast, to be able to consider with the necessary open-mindedness a view which so undercuts their own position.

Goulder, M. D. 2009. Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press. p. 134

Tribute to an Influential Scholar – Philip R. Davies

Philip R. Davies

Philip R. Davies has died. Philip Davies was a major influence on my own understanding of the origins and history of ancient Israel, including the origins and nature of the Hebrew Bible. I understand that his book, In Search of Ancient Israel, was groundbreaking in that it influenced the way many of his peers came to view the “primary history” found in the Old Testament books Genesis to 2 Kings. My understanding as an outside amateur is that he brought together various ideas that had received little attention prior to 1991 and challenged the assumptions and fallacious reasoning underpinning traditional scholarly ideas about what was labelled “biblical Israel”.

Many readers may already have seen my webpage that I began with several pages setting out the argument of his book, In Search of Ancient Israel.

I never finished those posts. When I came to write about his views on who wrote the biblical books and why, and how the details of the biblical myth arose, I found myself branching out into much wider reading, including more recent publications by Davies, discovering competing theses — and I am still engaged in those explorations. I have Philip Davies to thank for these discoveries and ongoing journey.

Davies was part of known to be part of a group of scholars known as (derogatively) “the minimalists”. Some referred to it as the Copenhagen School. Two of the other pillars of this group were Thomas L. Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche. I have posted about their works many times on this blog. Traditional scholars sometimes viewed their work as being cynically sceptical. I viewed it as sound, fundamental scholarship. Read, for example, the approach set out in The Bible — History or Story?  and Common Sense and Credulity. I copy the first of these here. See it onsite if it is too small to read below.

Some readers may recognize the argument there from many posts on Vridar. It expresses what I consider to be the fundamentals of sound historical inquiry and scholarly treatment of evidence. (The logic expressed applies equally to the approach to the New Testament books, I believe — but that is a step too far for many.)

Some books by Davies that I enjoyed reading, some of which I continue to use as regular references . . . .

Thank you, Philip R. Davies.