Scholars at seminar say Gospel truth probably isn't what Jesus really said

March 05, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

After six years of discussion and voting, the provocative Jesus Seminar has concluded that about 80 percent of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels probably were not his own.

Virtually all of Jesus' words in the Gospel of John were voted down by scholars meeting in Sonoma, Calif., including a pulpit favorite, John 3:16 -- "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son."

Formed in part to counteract literalist views of the Bible, the Jesus Seminar, a 200-member group of biblical scholars from all over the United States, has stirred controversy since its first meetings in 1985.

"Televangelists on talk shows say it's the work of the devil," said founder Robert Funk, a New Testament scholar.

The scholars have met twice a year to examine either particular Gospels or types of sayings, basing their discussions on earlier scholarship and their own studies.

Many academic colleagues have criticized the seminar's unconventional voting techniques -- red and pink beads dropped into a ballot box for probable or possible authentic sayings; and gray and black beads for sayings that allegedly reveal the theological bias of the Gospel authors or the beliefs of beleaguered early Christians, but not necessarily the messages of Jesus.

Almost 200 scholars from universities and seminaries have participated; their conclusions are often the same as those taught outside of fundamentalist and evangelical circles, Mr. Funk said.

Seminar member Marcus Borg of Oregon State University, who also chairs the Historical Jesus Section of the large Society of Biblical Literature, said that his experience of teaching adults is that the findings will "feed a hunger" in the churches.

"Many mainstream Christians can no longer believe the picture of Jesus they got as children," Mr. Borg said.

Mr. Funk contended that most mainline scholars would agree with the Jesus Seminar that in the parallel Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, "Jesus speaks regularly in adages or aphorisms, or in parables, or in witticisms created as rebuff or retort in the context of dialogue or debate. It is clear he did not speak in long monologues of the type found in the Gospel of John."

The only saying in John that received a pink vote was one (4:44) that has parallels in the other Gospels -- that a prophet has no honor in his own country.

"Most scholars, if they had worked through the sayings as we had, would tend to agree there is virtually nothing in the fourth Gospel [John] that goes back to Jesus," said Robert Fortna of Vassar College.

Because the Gospel of John is a favorite source in sermons, Mr. Fortna said the Jesus Seminar results "will be startling to most people and deeply offensive to many, not just fundamentalists."

By contrast, the Rev. Raymond Brown, a Roman Catholic authority on the Gospel of John, says he finds "a strong historical substratum" in that Gospel. Retired from teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Father Brown now is at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif. He said he had no interest in joining the Jesus Seminar discussions.

Mr. Funk had not tallied full results as of Sunday, but he said that, in all, 31 sayings in the four biblical Gospels and several apocryphal sources fell into the "red" category of authentic sayings (only 15 of which are actually different, due to parallel versions in more than one Gospel). They included the good Samaritan and mustard seed parables, the advice to love your enemies and some Sermon on the Mount pronouncements such as, "Blessed are you poor, for you shall inherit the kingdom of God."

Another 200 sayings were accorded pink votes, meaning that Jesus said something similar to the recorded words. Together, the red and pink sayings totaled about 20 percent of the total; another 30 percent fell into the gray class. "A gray vote meant that some of the ideas may have gone back to Jesus, but not those words," Mr. Funk said.

Mr. Funk said Sunday that the nearly two dozen scholars who voted over the weekend offered one caveat. "We don't know to what extent the Gospels have filtered Jesus' words and actually turned him into a teller of aphorisms," he said. "What we have may be the most memorable sayings; he may have spoken in more prosaic or pedantic ways, and if he did, that has been lost."

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