Shuck and Jive

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Does Anyone Remember the Enlightenment?

This article was published Saturday (August 16) in the Springfield Missouri News-Leader. It was written by Dr. Charles Hedrick, who has been a member of the Jesus Seminar since it began.

I am going to post it in full and include it on the sidebar as it provides information about the Jesus Seminar's work. It was written in response to
this misrepresentation of Westar.

Read Jesus Seminar's Work Misrepresented by Dr. Charles Hedrick

I wish to correct the misinformation about the Jesus Seminar published in last Saturday's News-Leader (Aug. 9). I am a member of the Jesus Seminar and have been since the first meeting in 1985, when 30 biblical scholars were invited to launch the Jesus Seminar. The late founder of the seminar, Robert W. Funk, was a highly respected New Testament scholar. Since that first meeting, more than 200 fellows have participated in work of the seminar, including international scholars. Their degrees are from the leading graduate schools and seminaries throughout the world. Jesus Seminar fellows are also active members of the Society of Biblical Literature and take an active and often a leading role in that society.

Our first project was to study all the early Gospel material within the first and second centuries, sorting the sayings of Jesus as to the probability that they originated with Jesus. That report was published in The Five Gospels (1993). Here is why that project was necessary. There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts and no two of them agree in all particulars. Except for two tiny fragments of John (@140 and @180) and a fragment of the non-canonical Egerton Gospel (@150), all manuscripts of the Greek New Testament are third century, about 170 years after the events they describe. There are no complete manuscripts of New Testament books until the 4th century. The New Testament read by Christians today is the product of liberal critical scholars, who reconstructed the books and decided what the New Testament was to read based on a critical methodology, the same methodology taught in mainstream seminaries and graduate schools throughout the world. What Dr. Nunnally really objects to are the conclusions of the seminar, which do not agree with his own.

The four New Testament Gospels actually contradict one another on the details of the public career of Jesus, on matters ranging from the sequence of events to the very words Jesus is represented as saying. In fact, the dissonance between Mark (earliest Gospel) and John (latest Gospel) is so great their authors would not recognize the account of the other writer as describing the same man. The Jesus Seminar met to decide what could be said with relative certainty about the human being Jesus of Nazareth using the methods of modern historical criticism.

Dr. Nunnally has unfairly represented both the seminar and critical biblical scholarship. He cannot possibly speak for the Society of Biblical Literature, which is the largest organization of biblical scholars in the world, or other scholars throughout the world. Here are a few brief responses to what he wrote. Space limitations make it impossible to be more detailed.


1. To be a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, one must hold a Ph.D or equivalent in the academic study of religion. Graduate students attend our meetings, as do a large group of associates, many of whom hold terminal degrees in other academic fields. At the last bi-annual meeting of the seminar this spring, there were over 500 fellows and associates in attendance.

2. What Dr. Nunnally considers "mainstream" scholarship is confessional. What I consider "mainstream" scholarship is critical. Scholars who teach in schools financially supported by religious denominations are required to work within certain confessional parameters. They can be fired if they stray over the confessional boundaries in either questions or answers. The Jesus Seminar represents a wide variety of religious traditions among the fellows, but we do not observe any theological or confessional boundaries. We study early Christian literature using the same methods as modern secular historians.

3. We are faulted not because of our methodology but because we do scholarship in the public eye and we vote at the end of our deliberations to register the consensus of the group, which is exactly the procedure followed by the International United Bible Societies Committee -- except we do it in a public arena, registering our votes with multicolored beads, and report our findings to the general public.

4. Rudolph Bultmann, a devout German Lutheran, who continued to preach each Sunday while in his academic post, set the agenda for critical biblical scholarship in the 20th and 21st centuries. His students did not abandon his critical approach to the New Testament but continued to follow the program his scholarship set for biblical studies. Contrary to the Saturday article, Bultmann did not remove the supernatural element from the Gospels. He aimed at reinterpreting these events, as the German title of his book makes clear.

5. The Jewish materials Nunnally cited provide little to no direct evidence about Jesus or later Christianity. They inform us about the religious and cultural environment of the period. The Nag Hammadi Library and the non-canonical gospels, however, do provide direct information about the earliest stages of the Jesus tradition.

6. It is alleged that the Jesus Seminar "preferred" the extra-biblical gospels and Acts for their sources. This is simply not true. Our goal was to assess all early Christian texts in the first two centuries of the Common Era. Of these texts, only the Gospel of Thomas yielded a large number of sayings that probably originated with Jesus. Thomas was judged to have more sayings originating with Jesus than even the Gospel of John.

7. I disagree that most people "embrace belief in the supernatural." Many may be superstitious, but they don't base their everyday lives on a belief in the supernatural. I do not know what Dr. Nunnally means by "postmodern." I suspect that, at bottom, the term describes a conservative reaction to the challenges modern science presents to a religious faith attempting to shore up the crumbling creeds of the church. Reinforcing belief in the supernatural fosters the hegemony of one particular kind of Christian faith. But, alas, it will not work unless "postmodern scholars" can stop scientific research. Does anyone remember the Enlightenment? We live in an age of reason, and when faith meets reason, there is a shaking of the foundations.

Charles W. Hedrick is a distinguished professor emeritus of Missouri State University.

Come see for yourself! A rare event in the Bible Belt happens September 12-13 at First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton. Register by Thursday (Aug. 22) for the early bird discount.


  1. A lot of misinformation gets spread about the Jesus Seminar by religious conservatives. It gets falsely accused of somehow preselecting its fellows based on theology and of having a monolithic, biased agenda. It is nothing of the sort.

    Marcus Borg has this to say about it in his book "Jesus in Contemporary Sholarship":

    Fellows reflected a spectrum of contemporary scholarship. Requirements for membership were not "ideological," but formal: typically a Ph.D. in relevant areas of gospel research. Most were professors in universities, colleges, and seminaries...

    Fellows also reflected the spectrum of mainline denominations. Though the seminar had no connection to any church body and no records of church membership of Fellows were made (so far as I know), my impression was that there were about equal numbers of Catholics, Protestants, and non-religious. Many were ordained. A few Jewish scholars were involved. Though fundamentalist scholars were welcome, none became members, presumably because their understanding of Scripture as a "divine product" made the activity of the seminar unnecessary and irrelevant (and perhaps even blasphemous.) A few Southern Baptist scholars took part until pressure from within their denominations forced them to withdraw.
    (p. 162)

  2. Thanks for that quote. I think part of the difficulty for some is realizing that the Jesus Seminar uses secular methods, as Charles Hedrick put it:

    The Jesus Seminar represents a wide variety of religious traditions among the fellows, but we do not observe any theological or confessional boundaries. We study early Christian literature using the same methods as modern secular historians.

    Of course, most people who are interested in Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity come at it from a confessional perspective.

    The church would be wise, in my view, to appreciate what secular methods can teach us regarding Christian origins.

    Similarly, secular methods teach us a great deal about cosmology, biology, and sexuality that a purely confessional perspective will miss.

    If the church is going to be anything but a "sacred grotto" (Hoover) it will have to embrace secular wisdom and conclude that God is revealed in this manner as well as through our religious symbols and practices.

  3. Hedrick wrote about the Jesus Seminar: "We are faulted not because of our methodology".

    There actually have been many criticisms of the methodology. One criticism is presupposition. The Jesus Seminar originally came up with rules of evaluation. In these rules, they state conclusions, before any evaluation of the evidence is done. For example:

    • Words borrowed from the fund of common lore or the Greek scriptures are often put on the lips of Jesus.

    • The evangelists frequently attribute their own statements to Jesus.

    As Mark D. Roberts points out that these "rules" were established before the examination of the gospels actually took place. These were meant to be rules that guided inquiry. But in fact they look much more like results of inquiry, not the rules of evidence.

    There are many criticisms of the methodology that anyone who does a quick Internet search can find.

  4. I value the Jesus Seminar, not so much for the accuracy on the authenticity of any particular verse, but because of their larger efforts to undeify the Bible. Of course their methods are not perfect, nor are their decisions. The Jesus Seminar is a human project, and hence errors are expected. But to look for small defects as reasons to discard the entire enterprise is to strain at a gnat.

  5. Re: criticisms of methodology - I just want to note that the Jesus Seminar is not the beginning of critical scholarship. Those involved come into it with suppositions, but they are not arbitrarily chosen due soley to bias (tho bias always plays a role). They come from the lifelong work of critical scholarship to which all of these Jesus Seminar members are committed.

    Your doctor also comes to the practice of medicine with "presuppositions", like the germ theory of disease, which are the result of hundreds of years of medical research. Just pointing out a supposition isn't anywhere near enough to prove that it is an *unfounded* supposition.

    Looking for scholarship without any 'presuppositions' is like going in search of the last unicorn. What you have to do is decide which suppositions are justified, and go from there. It isn't as if critics of the JS don't have their own suppositions functioning as well. One thing I respect about the JS is that their suppositions are all put out there in front so that it is clear what is going on - and anyone can make up their minds what they think of the project.

    I wish most Biblical scholarship was anywhere near as honest as that.

  6. Doug wrote:

    One thing I respect about the JS is that their suppositions are all put out there in front so that it is clear what is going on - and anyone can make up their minds what they think of the project.

    I wish most Biblical scholarship was anywhere near as honest as that.

    Agreed. That is what I like I about them, too.