Shuck and Jive

Friday, February 22, 2008

Jesus Seminar on the Road in Elizabethton!

We are proud to host another
Jesus Seminar on the Road this coming Fall in Elizabethton!

You, dear Shuck and Jivers, get to help pick the topic! Here are the topics with descriptions for each below:

1) How Archaeology Reshapes Christian Origins
2) Jesus in the First and Twenty-First Centuries
3) The Parables of Jesus
4) Competing Early Christian Voices: The Contest for Authority
5) Peter, Paul and Mary: Three Early Christian Voices
6) Jesus From Cradle to Grave

Cast your vote on the sidebar!

1) How Archaeology Reshapes Christian Origins:
Do the Dead Sea Scrolls, James Ossuary, Da Vinci Code, Bible Code, and Jesus family tomb destroy or vindicate the proverbial pillars of Christianity? Some journalists and scholars have coated the silent artifacts with a theological veneer. When the veneer is wiped away, what does archaeology have to say about the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity?

2) Jesus in the First and Twenty-First Centuries:
The historical Jesus announced that God's kingdom was already here, not something coming in the future. He challenged others to join this kingdom and to celebrate its presence, without ignoring the harsh injustices forced on them by another kingdom, the Roman Empire, whose victim he became. Jesus' vision of the kingdom put him at odds with the official religion of his day and continues to pose a profound challenge to contemporary Christian theology.

3) The Parables of Jesus:
Lost for ages in the backwaters of allegory and simplistic preaching, the parables of Jesus have emerged in modern scholarship as the creation of a great artist. Brandon Scott will explore what parables are and how they differ from allegories. The parable of the Leaven will serve as the primary focus of the presentation.

4) Competing Early Christian Voices: The Contest for Authority:
In the beginning, orthodoxy was but one of many diverse movements tracing their origins in some way to Jesus of Nazareth. Initially these groups used a Greek form of the Hebrew Bible as their scripture, but that collection proved inadequate to their needs. So they eventually reduced their new visions of faith to writing. Beginning in the fourth century, some self-proclaimed orthodox representatives selected certain religious texts to serve their communities, texts which, centuries later, would become “divinely inspired scripture.” Other texts, from movements competing with orthodoxy, they libeled as “heretical,” or “not genuine.”

The workshop will look at some of the so-called “heretical” texts and competing religious visions that survived from that early period, such as Thunder, Perfect Mind; The Gospel of Thomas; The Treatise on the Resurrection; The Gospel of Mary; The Aprocryphon of John; The Gospel of Judas; The Testimony of Truth; and The Apocalypse of Peter.

5) Peter, Paul and Mary: Three Early Christian Voices:
What can we know about the place of Mary Magdalene in the early Jesus movement? Both the official and unofficial versions of Christian tradition silence and defame this “apostle to the apostles.” Why? Where do the traditions of Mary as repentant prostitute and Jesus’ wife come from? How does the portrait of Mary in the canonical gospels differ from that found in early Christian apocryphal texts? And what, exactly, were Peter and Mary fighting about?

6) Jesus From Cradle to Grave:
In a nearly unanimous vote, the Jesus Seminar agreed that the resurrection proclamations are not reports of an historical event. This session will trace the idea of resurrection from the Book of Daniel to the end of the first century C.E. and discuss why the affirmation that Jesus was raised from the dead is better understood as a claim of faith than a statement of fact. The presenters will conclude by engaging participants in discussion about what meaning the stories of Jesus' birth and resurrection can have for contemporary Christian faith.


  1. Hey, John,

    Do you buy into all the conclusions of these folks? I don't think that the majority of scholars do all over the world.

    Just read through this gnostic literature, for instance, which most agree dates into the second century. I'm no huge expert, but even I can see why these writings eventually did not make the canonical cut. :)

    I mean it has everything from talking crosses that can walk, to the child Jesus striking his playmates dead.

    And, here's a tidbit relating to women from the Gospel of Thomas which some of these scholars think should have been included in the canon. (shudder)

    "Simon Peter says, Mary should leave us. And, Jesus answers, Look I shall guide her to make her male, so she to shall become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."

    I think it's a total injustice to imply that the orthodox in the early church (1st. century) were only about power, cared nothing for truth, and that there were all these equally competing Christianities in the first century.

    There's a difference in saying there were disputes in the earliest decades of the church, then to say there were these radically alternate Christianites from day one.

    My concern would be if the people in your church, are not going to be given opportunity to hear any rebuttal of some of this teaching by equally informed, orthodox scholars.

    Are they going to be led to accept all this "scholarship," as just the objective "gospel truth," no pun intended.

    John, hope you are not taking offense. But, I care, and felt I needed to open my mouth.


  2. John,

    I don't live anywhere near Elizabethton, so I don't think I should really participate in the vote, but if I were to vote, I would really love to see a seminar on topic #6. That is a topic that is really interesting to me, and I think it really has the potential to inspire a lot of people to think about what the Christian faith can and should be about.

    Hmmm, maybe one of these days I will find the ability to take a couple of days off and go up to Santa Rosa for a Jesus Seminar event on their home turf! It's only an hour's drive away, I keep wanting to go there, but I never manage to make it.

  3. Oh, vote anyway, Seeker. This is simply a poll for me to see what might be popular. This Spring meeting (which I unfortunately, cannot make) is going to be great. Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, and Karen Armstrong will be some of the big names.

  4. Grace,

    What exactly are the conclusions of "these folks?" I think your questions reflect a common misconception regarding historical work into Christian origins.

    We see it from the "winner's" perspective, so the literature is familiar. Historically, what is the difference between a talking cross, and "God" talking from the clouds?

    Legend crosses canonical boundaries.

    The point is not to elevate any of these other writings to scripture, but to see this literature was part of an incredibly diverse beginning in Christian history.

    Yes, there were radically alternative voices from day one. These voices are found within the canonical literature itself.

    Don't take my word for it. Attend a JSOR in your area and ask these questions.

    Thanks for the input!

  5. Oh, where to begin with my list of questions and objections relating to the Seminar.

    For one thing, I don't feel that it's true that the gospel writers had no historical interest, and that there's this dichotomy between the Jesus of history, and the Christ of faith as the seminar would claim.

    On top of this, as far as I can see the fellows of the Jesus Seminar are all committed to a kind of philosophical naturalism. So, they automatically assume that any record of supernatural events in the gospels are inauthentic. I mean how objective and unbiased is this for heavens sake.

    To them the historical Jesus is nothing more than a mere man, a shaman like figure who mediates the spirit, a mystic, Jewish cynic, or a kind of social revolutionary.

    Then on top of this, switching gears here, they seem to want to date this gnostic literature very early, when this all is in total dispute. Gnosticism was more a second-century heresy, or collection of heresies.

    Among other things, gnosticism taught that the material world was evil.. was the product of an evil creator, and that we need to be rescued from it through secret knowledge. My concern runs alot deeper than the obvious mythical elements in this literature, I can tell ya.

    Hey, are we just arbitrarily seeing all this from the winner's perspective, or from a firmer basis and conviction of truth. Gnosticism is the antithesis of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    If I'm wrong about any of this, and these are really the good guys in white hats, I'll, I don't know, I'll "eat my hat." :)

    But, seriously, can you see any of my concerns?? I just can't understand how anyone can get too excited about the Seminar, truly. Although, I suppose we can increase our understanding, and find some elements of truth in anything.

    And, John, I know this may seem offensive. God forgive me if I'm judging wrongly, but as far as I can humanly see, Bishop Spong, sadly, has totally left the Christian faith.

    Judging from this man's last book, I'm not at all sure if he feels that there is even a loving, personal God who is really there intervening in our lives at all.

    We should all be loving this man, and in tears praying for his conversion to the Lord.

  6. Hey Grace,

    History vs. theology. Two different disciplines, like evolution and theology.

    You can think what you like about Spong. I happen to think he makes a lot of sense.

  7. John,

    I guess there's some truth in Bishop Spong's concerns, but why does he speak to you, John, and make greater sense than the historic witness of the church?

    Among, other things, he dismisses the reality of the incarnation, the very center of Christian faith.

    And, his last book seems to go even further than this. What are we really about together as the church?

    I think church is primarily about the fellowship, and worship of Jesus Christ, and then walking all that out in our lives together.


  8. Well, I cast my vote and I'm the only person who voted that way. That's why I hate elections. Nobody every votes the way I do.

  9. I think church is primarily about the fellowship, and worship of Jesus Christ, and then walking all that out in our lives together.

    Whatever the shortcoming of the historical search for Jesus may be, it has done us a great service by recoving the truth that Jesus' own message was theocentric, and not christiocentric in the sense that the statement above makes his life and teachings out to be.

    As Nels F. S. Ferre notes, Christians hid under idolatrous doctrines of Christ, the Bible, and the church. They called Jesus the Savior and forgot that "God alone is to be worshiped." Many of them treated the Bible as revelation rather than a witness to revelation.

    Paul F. Knitter also notes:

    One of the few issues on which New Testament experts are in full agreement is that the focus and core content of Jesus' original message was the "kingdom of God." Jesus' main task was to announce this kingdom, a kingdom soon to come, yet already mysteriously present and at work (Luke 11:20; 17:21). The present moment was heavy with urgency and responsibility; persons must turn their lives around, convert, in order to be part of this kingdom. Jesus' mission and person, therefore, were profoundly kingdom-centered, which means God-centered. All his powers were to serve this God and this kingdom; all else took second place. "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done," was the content of his prayer and his work. (Knitter 1986: 173)

    But if the original message of Jesus was theocentric, the pervasive message of the New Testament is undeniably christocentric. After his death and resurrection, the proclaimer became the proclaimed. The focus shifted. As we shall see, there is a logic, even a necessity, in this shift. In it, the original message of Jesus was transformed, not lost. [my italics] The christocentrism of the New Testament does not lose hold of Jesus' original theocentrism. Jesus never takes the place of God. Even in the three texts in which Jesus is proclaimed as God or as divine (John 1:1, 20:28; Heb. 1:8-9), an evident subordination is preserved. Even Paul, in urging his radical christocentrism, reminds his communities that "You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God." (1 Cor. 3:23). His final vision is "that God may be everything to everyone" (1 Cor. 15:28). The New Testament maintains a delicate, sometimes difficult, balance between chrisocentrism and theocentrism. (Knitter 1986: 173-174)

    When Jesus takes the place of God, the Universal Father, the procaimer becomes the proclaimed:

    Why did the proclaimer become proclaimed? How did Jesus' original message about the kingdom of God come to be translated into the early communities' proclamation of Jesus as Messiah, Lord, Christ, Word, Savior, Son of God? An overview of how contemporary New Testament scholars are trying to answer those questions offers valuable help for our own efforts to understand the uniqueness of Jesus in contemporary interreligious dialogue. (Knitter 1986: 175)

    From what both the scholars and common sense tell us, it is clear that all New Testament christology, all the titles and proclamations about Jesus, have their origin in the saving experience of Jesus by individuals and the community. We must be careful not to distinguish experience and interpretation too neatly, as if it were possible to have a naked experience without any interpretation. Still, when we try to grasp the constellation of New Testament interpretations of Jesus, we find that they originated in a big-bang experience that transformed persons' lives, an experience of what can be called salvation. In their encounter with this man, they met the power and the reality of God, a reality that enabled them to feel, understand, and act differently from before. They had hope now, for this life and the next. (Knitter 1986: 175)

    Such a saving experience of Jesus was an experience of revelation. Jesus made something know to them, something that not only satisfied their minds but transformed their entire being. This experience of a saving power or revelation was the source and sustenance of all the interpretations of Jesus found in the New Testament: "It was the sense that they found what they were looking for in Jesus that started the whole christological ball rolling."[13] (Knitter 1986: 175)

  10. Rob,

    I just can't agree with much of what you're saying. If you're interested I could recommend some good books to read which would present an alternate view to you.

    Let me know. :) Ok.


  11. Another scholar, James Robinson, writes:

    The focus of Jesus' gospel was God taking the lead in people's lives, God remaking the world through people who listen to him. Jesus' favorite idiom for God in action was the "kingdom of God." A better translation might be the "reign of God" or "God reigning."

    (Robinson, James M. The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News. New York: HarperCollins; 2005; p. vii.)

    The rash title of this book, The Gospel of Jesus, does not have in view the gospel about Jesus that Paul preached, which, following him, the Christian church down through the ages has believed as the one and only gospel. Rather, the title refers to the gospel that was Jesus' own message in Galilee during a very brief period, probably no more than a year, before his crucifixion. These two gospels are not the same, and, what is even worse, Jesus' own gospel has been lost from sight, hidden behind the gospel truth.

    (Robinson, James M. The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News. New York: HarperCollins; 2005; pp. 1-3.)

    This is not new knoweldge:

    In his own experience he was a religious subject, but in the experience of the earliest Christians he was always a religious object. As such he gave to the Christian faith its distinctive character and content.... (Bundy 1928: 280)

    The New Testamant itself is not made up of injunctions of Jesus but of faith's fervent interpretations of his person. Outside of the first three Gospels there are not in the New Testament more than a dozen sentences from his religious message. The first Christians preached Jesus himself. Jesus had his own message, the kingdom of God, and the early Christians had their own distinctive message, Jesus himself, to whom they attached the whole body of their religious hopes. (Bundy 1928: 280-281)

    Between the religious experience of Jesus and that of the first Christians there is a complete shift in the centers of interest and emphasis.... How it was that this shift from religious subject to religious object, from the Jesus of history to the Christ of faith, came about we are not in a position to explain, but it stands as a clear fact in the testimony of the New Testament itself. It goes back to the first faint dawning of the Christian consciousness and it had its birth in the Easter experiences of the original witnesses. Jesus as religious object was inherent in the resurrection faith of the first witnesses. Thus, the most radical change came at the very outset. (Bundy 1928: 281)

    Theologies and Christologies required time for formation and formulation, but faith in Jesus as religious object was the work of a moment. It transpired with a flash because it was the one ignition point in the experience of those who claimed that Jesus was alive and that they had seen him. Long before the Gospels were written the Christian faith had received its its distinctive features which later were to mark it as a new religion. The belief in Jesus' Messiahship, his divine dignity, and his present exaltation and glorification, was a fixed element that reached back beyond Paul to the resurrection faith of the first witnesses. Paul did not create the Christian faith in Jesus as a religious object. He speaks of himself as the last of the Easter experients. (I Cor. 15,8.) Paul was simply the sharer of a faith that was older than his own Christian experience. (Bundy 1928: 281-282)

    In the history of Christianty, from the first Easter morning down to the present, we see the Christ of faith gradually suppressing the Jesus of history, the supernatural and superhistorical object of the Christian faith slowly but surely submerging the human historical subject of the richest religious experience of which we know. This process was only natural, for it was the involuntary outgrowth of the experiences of the first disciples at the center of whose lives stood the firm conviction that Jesus was not dead but lived and that they had seen him. This process of obscuration is at work in the New Testament itself and there it has already accomplished this great shift from religious subject to religious object. (Bundy 1928: 282)


    In the past Jesus has been approached almost exclusively from the theological point of view. Each word of his, each incident in his life, has been fitted into the great systems of Christian thought. Until the last century the Christian interest in what Jesus said and did confined itself to a quest for confirmation of theological theories in his words and deeds. This theological approach reaches back to the New Testament itself and it has invaded even the thought of Jesus. An excellent example of this is found in Mark 10,45:

    "For the Son of man also came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." [Luke 22: 25-27] (Bundy 1928: 282-283)

    In the first part of this passage we have a genuine word of Jesus, the very essence of whose mission was not to be ministered unto, but to minister. However, the closing clause is a Christian conviction cast about the death of Jesus. That it is of Christian origin is clear from the fact that it looks back on his life as closed; it surveys and appraises his work as a whole. It presents a Christian interpretation rather than a personal conviction of Jesus, who did not regard his death as a part of a great divine drama.... (Bundy 1928: 283)

    Christian theology has seemed to aim at system rather than at a sharing of Jesus' religious experience. (Bundy 1928: 283)

    (Bundy, Walter E. The Religion of Jesus. First ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company; 1928; c1928 pp. 280-283.)

  12. Grace once complained because the Jesus Seminar didn't always agree with one another, as if that it somehow a mark against them that they engaged in free academic inquiry (which naturally led to disagreements). But now she is making sweeping generalizations about them, and treating them as if they were a monolithic body.

    The Jesus Seminar is about research and discussion. I don't agree with everything that everyone there says. I don't think much, for example, of Amy-Jill Levine's views about the historical Jesus, and lately she seems to have attached herself to the Jesus Seminar. But so what? I don't expect to agree with everyone there. So as far as I am concerned, a question like "do you buy into all the conclusions of these folks" is meaningless.

    As for them "wanting" to date the Gnostic gospels a particular time--I know this is a radical concept, but some people actually date ancient documents a particular way because--hold your breath now--because they think there is evidence to support it. This is what academic research is supposed to be about. Unfortunately, this approach stands in stark contrast to the way conservative scholarship runs, which assumes from the start that the entire Bible is true, and then makes assertions and fits the data to to support that assumption. I can understand how those who think that dating ancient documents is all about coming up with dates that support one's assumptions would turn around assume that everyone else does this. But that isn't the case. Ultimately, this complaint about how they dated the Gnostic texts is a case of the kettle doing some name calling. (And do all the Jesus Seminar scholars agree on the dating of the Gnostic texts? Do they agree that the Gospel of Thomas is a Gnostic text? Again, we have the problem of assuming that the Jesus Seminar is a monolithic body, when it clearly is not.)

    It gets a little tiresome when people make sweeping statements about the "Jesus Seminar" as if they were monolithic. In contrast to those conservative scholars who assume everything the Bible is true and then fit the data accordingly, the Jesus Seminar is engaged in the effort at trying to figure out what in the New Testament is authentic and what is not. And this is what really rankles--the idea that it is even possible that parts of the Bible are not true, that we have to investigate and do research to try to figure out what is true and what isn't--that is really the problem that some people have with it. The idea that people should even investigate whether something in the Bible is true or not--instead of just assuming it is all true a priori--is just too much for some people to take. They would rather close their ears and eyes and just accept the dogma as is, unquestioningly.

  13. Seeker,

    Keep hope alive. Someone may yet vote with you. But it does appear so far that folks are curious about those other texts. BTW, nice response about JS not being monolithic.

    Good thoughts, Rob. Thanks. I have to read over your stuff many times!

    On another note, it is interesting how the issues of Christian origins and Cosmic origins have so many parallels.

    I alternate between being amused and ticked off regarding the statement that the reason we question the dogma of creationism or of supposedly "orthodox" christology is because we are sinners and do not know the Lord.

  14. The search for the historical Jesus has resulted in many different portrayals of his life and ministry, as we have already seen. A historical portayal can be described as a telling of the Jesus story based on the evaluation of available sources following certain principles of historical interpretation. The historical portrayal of Jesus, therefore, is an expression of reason, historical reason. Some writers about Jesus are professional historians. Other writers are amateurs. Some write to serve and to nurture Christian faith, while others write to challenge and to undermine Christian faith. But all authors of historical portrayals claim to be telling the Jesus story, or a portion thereof, "as it really happened." (Tatum 1995: 110)

    Even the historian, of course, tends to make Jesus over in his or her own image. This was Albert Schweitzer's main criticism of many writers on the subject in the nineteenth century. He claimed that they had depicted Jesus as a teacher congenial to the modern era instead of an ancient apocalyptist. Certainly this historian brings to the task assumptions and commitments which influence what is said and how it is said. Nonetheless, historical inquiry persistently persued does establish a kind of distance between the interpreter and the subject matter. Historical portrayals should be "objective" by reflecting on objective quality in contrast to Gospel portrayals, on the one hand, and admittedly fictitious portrayals, on the other. Gospel portrayals and fictitious portrayals are primarily expressions of Christian faith and the literary imagination respectively. Historical portrayals are products of historical reason. (Tatum 1995: 110)

    (Tatum, W. Barnes. In Quest of Jesus. Nashville: Abingdon Press; 1995; p. 110.)

    There are as many portayals of the story of Jesus as there are portrayers ;-) Balanced analysis keeps in mind that Even the historian, of course, tends to make Jesus over in his or her own image.