What is the Jesus Seminar?: An Interview with Dr. Robert Strimple

Friday, August 31st 2007
Nov/Dec 1995

MR: What is the Jesus Seminar?
Strimple: The Jesus Seminar has captured the imagination of the public in our day with all the publicity given to it, and the business about the way in which these alleged scholars have voted on the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Many have read how they sit there with their four-colored beads and vote by putting in the black bead if "there's no way Jesus could have said that," the gray bead if "very unlikely that Jesus would have said it," the pink if "well, just possibly," and the red if "yes, we can be confident about that." Perhaps the very way of voting has added to the interest in the Jesus Seminar.

MR: How does this differ from roulette? How does a Jesus Seminar "scholar" say this is a reliable saying of Jesus?
Strimple: We all have to recognize that when we read in the press about how new all of this is, that to call into question the authenticity of the Gospels is certainly not new at all. The early pagans did that. The Gospels criticism that we call modern goes back at least two hundred years. The Jesus Seminar is based upon a method of Biblical criticism that is called form criticism that goes back to three German scholars writing soon after the First World War, about 1920. The name most important and most well-known is Rudolph Bultmann. Form criticism had as its primary goal to get behind our written Gospels to look at the oral original form which they claimed was made up of a whole series of sayings and deeds of Jesus with no interconnection among them. So, the first thing they say you have to do is to break up all the connections in the Gospel, look at each individual saying, and then the primary thing to remember about the Jesus Seminar is that it works on the basis that anything in the Gospels ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth that could be thought to be of use to the early church, that would have met a need in the early church, we then must see was written by the early church to meet that need and does not go back to Jesus himself.

MR: That's not the way we treat any other text, is it, with those kinds of prejudgments?
Strimple: Certainly not. The primary test that works on that background is called the "Criterion of Dissimilarity." This simply means that they insist that it's only those sayings of Jesus that we can see that don't relate to anything in the Old Testament Judaism, or anything in the faith or practice of the early church, it's only those sayings that relate to neither one that we can be confident had to be said by Jesus himself.

MR: That's circular reasoning. So, you rule out things before you actually look at the text as a text. You say, "It couldn't say that because we say it couldn't say that."

C. Peter Wagner at Fuller Seminary says, "People are coming to church now to do instead of to listen." Very often in churches now there is sort of a signs and wonders craze, and this could be one reason why the coinage of miracle is devaluing. A lot of skeptics come and they watch this and say, "I don't really see a miracle here."

TIME magazine seems to have gotten the picture on the Jesus Seminar. The latest issue on miracles says, "Last month, just in time for Lent, the rebel scholars of the self-appointed Bible tribunal called the Jesus Seminar gathered once again, this time to vote on the most explosive question of the Christian faith: 'Did Jesus really rise from the dead?' and you will never guess what they voted." They voted no. Don't you find, Dr. Strimple, that's pretty remarkable, after the way the popular press has naively and superficially treated this, that now at least you find this kind of thing in TIME magazine?
Strimple: Yes. We can be grateful for that kind of statement even in a source such as TIME magazine. I wonder if it says something even about the members of the group. I understand the original group was composed of something like 200 New Testament scholars. By the February vote of whether or not the Resurrection took place, they were down to 40 members. It may only have been 20 who actually voted on that, so the numbers are dwindling even in attending the seminar itself.

MR: Amazing. But it still has credibility with many journalists. You mentioned the criterion of dissimilarity. What did you mean by that?
Strimple: I was saying that according to the Form Critics, like the members of the Jesus Seminar, we can have confidence that Jesus actually spoke certain words in the Gospels only if those words do not relate to the Judaism of his time, or to the Christianity of the early church. As I say in my new book, The Modern Search for the Real Jesus, I believe it's not a caricature to say that criterion of dissimilarity isolates and permits us to accept as authentic just those elements in Jesus' teaching that never seemed important to God's people, either before Jesus' birth or after his resurrection. And therefore, they had absolutely no influence on the thinking of the Christian church. I think that shows us how foolish that criterion is. In divorcing the historical Jesus from everything he held in common with Judaism, the criterion of dissimilarity eliminates Jesus' share in his heritage as a son of the covenant, and eliminates his role as the hope of Israel, the fulfillment of the promises of God. And by divorcing Jesus from everything he held in common with the early Church, this method eliminates precisely those elements in Jesus' life and teaching that had the greatest creative effect in bringing into being the infant Christian community, the new Israel of God.

Let me make one thing clear, lest someone from the Jesus Seminar say I've misrepresented them. They would be very upset with me if I gave the impression that they were saying that the only sayings that Jesus could have said are sayings that do not tie in with Judaism or the faith of the early church. They would say, "No, what we're saying is that it's only such statements that we can have confidence that Jesus said. We can't know about the others." The fact is, in actual practice, it becomes a criterion for exclusion, and it's on that basis, as a matter of fact, that they come up with the conclusion that 80 percent of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were never spoken by him.

MR: What would be the difference in this and, say, a Mormon going through the text and saying, "Jesus couldn't have said, 'I and my Father are one?'" Is that basically the same method?
Strimple: You're point about Mormonism is that in both cases it goes back to a presupposed theology. That's the test. As Christians we need to keep reminding ourselves as well as others that we are in submission to the Scriptures as the Word of God written. We don't tell the Scriptures what their theology should be. We learn our theology, the rule for our faith and for our life, from the Scriptures alone.

MR: Do academics take this seriously? Ray Brown, a Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, says in the L. A. Times, "As soon as I hear someone say 'the Jesus Seminar' I run the other direction." When great scholarship is not on its side, buyer beware.

Once again, from an article in TIME magazine, Professor Crossan, professor of Biblical studies at DePaul University, and also part of the Jesus Seminar, says "Israel was an occupied country with a lot of poverty, malnutrition, and sickness; Jesus was healing people ideologically, saying the kingdom of God is against this system. It's not your fault you're sick and overworked. Take command of your body and your destiny." Isn't it amazing that just as the old liberals looked in the mirror and turned Jesus into a German, they've turned Jesus into Oprah or Phil Donahue. This is something Norman Vincent Peale or Robert Schuller would say. This isn't something that an ancient Palestinian Jew would say.
Strimple: This has been going on for a long time. For example, C. S. Lewis, who always has a way of putting things, back in 1943 wrote his well-known Screwtape Letters where he has the wily demon Screwtape writing his advice to his nephew Wormwood, and right at our point about the historical Jesus, he has Screwtape write:

You will find that a good many Christian political writers think that Christianity began going wrong in departing from the doctrine of its founder at a very early stage. Now this idea must be used by us to encourage once again the conception of a "historical Jesus" to be found by clearing away later "accretions and perversions," and then to be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition. In the last generation we promoted the construction of such a "historical Jesus" on liberal and humanitarian lines. We are now putting forward a new "historical Jesus" on Marxian, catastrophic and revolutionary lines. The advantages of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold. In the first place they all tend to direct man's devotion to something which does not exist. Because each "historical Jesus" is unhistorical. The documents say what they say and they cannot be added to. Each new "historical Jesus" has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another point. And by that sort of guessing, brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to this method, on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life, the "historical Jesus" is always to be encouraged.

MR: You know, that brings up the whole question of the "Christ of Faith" versus the "Jesus of History" in historical Christian scholarship. What does that mean, and why should we be on the lookout for that kind of dichotomy between a "Christ of faith" and a "Jesus of History"?
Strimple: The "Jesus of History," of course, it is assumed in these critical schools, is a Jesus who could not have been more than a mere human, could not have been the incarnate Son of God, because it is assumed to be a canon of history as we know it, that all history is of a piece, shall we say, that it all has the same basic quality. That is that nothing that supposedly happened in another time that doesn't mesh with our own experience can be received as actually having happened.

MR: So, if I've never seen a God-man, Jesus couldn't have been the God-Man.
Strimple: I haven't seen an axhead floating. I haven't seen a few fish and loaves that would feed five thousand. Therefore, it's assumed that it could have never happened. So, the Jesus of history has to be that kind of Jesus. It's so important to recognize that.

Sometimes evangelical Christians hear the phrase, "the Historical Jesus," and they say, "I believe in a Jesus who was historical, don't I?" But you were talking about "the Jesus of History," "the Christ of Faith." It's assumed by so many of these critics that the "Jesus of History" being that kind of Jesus, a man like other men, that therefore there is a great distinction, a great gap, between such a one and the Christ of the Church's faith. The Christ of the Church's faith never lived in history and certainly did not rise again from the grave.

MR: We need to get back to the fact that if Christ is not raised, then we are still in our sins and Christianity is bankrupt, regardless of how it helps us raise our families.

One thing we have to point out is that most of these people are pietists. Most of them were raised in evangelical pietism, where even if there is not a belief in the truth that Christ was raised from the dead, it can still be true in the heart of a person, as a personal religious experience.
Strimple: First Corinthians 15:14, "If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is vain. Your faith also is vain." That's in a context in the chapter. We can't just jump in and make that mean what we want it to mean. Paul, you remember, has said at the beginning of this chapter, that of first importance to the Gospel that he preached is that "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and was buried," and we all know what was buried, not the spirit of Jesus, but the body of Jesus, and "he was raised on the third day." That which was raised was that which was buried. And unless that has happened, our faith is in vain.

MR: It's not enough to believe the resurrection is an experience of the early community that I also can have as an experience in my heart. I have to believe it was a literal, physical, bodily resurrection in order to have my sins forgiven.
Strimple: First Corinthians 15:12-19, Paul says, "If Christ be not raised then there is no resurrection from the dead for anyone,"’Jesus included’and that means there's no resurrection for us. "Christian preaching is useless and so is your faith." So, all of the morals, politics, and ethics of Jesus are right out. Paul says we are found to be false witnesses about God; we've lied about God because we've said he raised Christ from the dead and he didn't. All of our loved ones are lost. All those who have died in the faith before us are lost. Paul says our faith is futile because we are still in our sins. And he concludes by saying, "We are to be pitied more than all men."

MR: One of the ancient heresies was Gnosticism, denying that God came in the flesh because the flesh is evil, and denying the bodily resurrection because it is bad that the body has been resurrected. Do we in our culture have this Gnostic, Greek, sort of influence to the extent that we don't care if Jesus rose from the dead physically, or for that matter that we'll rise from the dead physically, as long as our spiritual life is affected by this experience?
Strimple: Again, if we were thinking biblically, we would realize that the doctrine of creation has underscored the importance of the whole person, body as well as spirit, and that biblical creation is the foundation for the biblical promise of the new creation. The life that is eternal, that will be a resurrected life. Again, salvation for the whole person, body as well as spirit.

MR: Do you think that modern religion is simply coming to our emotional rescue? According to the Scripture, it's not enough for Jesus to come to our emotional rescue, he has to come physically, to bodily rescue us from the wrath of God. As Paul says, "If we have only hope for Christ in this life, then we are of all men the most to be pitied."
Strimple: One of the ways this is clarified by Paul is the theme of death, dying. If we're unclear about a doctrine of sin, we need only take a visit to a cemetery.

Friday, August 31st 2007

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