The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar

Book reviews — The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar

Soards, Marion L

The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus

By Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar

New York, Macmillan, 1993. 553 pp. $30.00

The authors of this book describe the work as a report. That it is, and the readers of the volume should both regard and employ The Five Gospels (henceforth, TFG) as a statement of the work done by a particular group (The Jesus Seminar) on a particular topic (the question of what constitute the authentic words of Jesus). If this way of looking at TFG sounds less monumental than the frequent billing given this work of the Jesus Seminar, so be it; this report is, despite its usefulness, less startling, less original, less exciting, and probably less important than many have portrayed it to be.

A word about the Jesus Seminar may be in order before turning to look at the contents of the book. This group is an assembly of scholars, which met together for six years (their work began in 1985) to ask and to answer the question, What did Jesus really say? The group considered over 1500 sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels and formulated specific conclusions for each of the statements. Earlier works, press releases, and public interviews indicated some of the methods, conclusions, and direction of the Jesus Seminar, but TFG is an epitomizing work that brings together and presents the overall project to which the group devoted itself.

At its base, TFG is a translation of five Gospels: the four canonical Gospels–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–and the Gospel of Thomas (in that order). Indeed, the translation is a good one, turning the koine Greek into crisp, contemporary, everyday English, although, at points, the penchant of the Jesus Seminar to be original produces some questionable renderings. For example, not merely the prudish readers will wonder why the translation reads “Damn you!” for the Greek words ouai hymin, which are more often rendered quite sensibly through the partial transliteration “Woe to you!” Recognition of the use of this common Indo-European interjection as a denunciatory utterance does not justify such flamboyance. Indeed it is ill-advised and overdone, for in a work that seeks to identify “what Jesus really did say,” such translation may be misleading, given the common cultural connotation of “Damn you!” Despite such novel turns of phrase, the translation is generally sound.

In the context of the printed translations of the Gospels, the words of Jesus appear in four colors according to the Jesus Seminar’s evaluation: Red indicates words that Jesus undoubtedly or almost certainly said; pink (actually a near-purple fuschia) identifies words similar to something Jesus said; gray indicates statements that Jesus did not make, but that contain ideas similar to those of Jesus; and dark or bold black marks words attributed to Jesus that he did not say.

The translations of the Gospels are printed in paragraphs or units of coherent thought. When a paragraph contains a statement by Jesus–whether judged to be authentic or not–most often a section of commentary summarizing the opinion(s) of the members of the Jesus Seminar follows the text of the Gospel. Thus, the reader learns of the logic that led to the printing of the statements in one or another (sometimes several) of the colors. In addition, interspersed throughout the work at appropriate points in the translation are “cameo essays” and snippets of illustrative Gospel texts that explain the methods, thinking, and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar.

Before the printed translations, the report offers a preface and explains the basic project and how to use the book. Then, a lengthy introduction recounts something of the scholarly quest of the historical Jesus, discusses some dimension of modern critical study of the Gospels, and explains the methods and practices of the work of the Jesus Seminar–though the explanation is complex and even confusing in its arrangement and content. After the translations, one finds a roster of participants in the Jesus Seminar–giving their academic affiliations, their academic degrees, and the schools they attended; suggestions for further study–a list of a couple of classics in Gospels studies and several works by members of the Jesus Seminar and by others who work similarly or sympathetically to the Jesus Seminar; a glossary of terms and descriptions of ancient sources for Gospels studies; and an index of the red and pink letter sayings printed in the course of the translations in TFG.

TFG is a helpful report of the work of the Jesus Seminar, although the results are cast extravagantly. See, for example, the pompous dedication that implies that this work is revolutionary, controversial, iconoclastic–and right! Above all, however, this report is a monument to the illusions of scholarly neutrality and scholarly consensus. The members of the Jesus Seminar are not a balanced representation of the range and composition of contemporary New Testament scholars. Anyone who works in the guild of New Testament scholarship can spot the imbalance from a glance at the roster of Jesus Seminar “fellows.” The particular make-up of the Jesus Seminar jeopardizes the neutrality of the conclusions of the work reported in this book, for the assumptions about Jesus held by this group–about the style and content of his “authentic” teaching–preclude recognizing many possibly authentic sayings attributed to Jesus in the canonical (primarily synoptic) Gospels. For example, the Jesus Seminar rejects many sayings that a large number of New Testament scholars would judge to be authentic or, at least, typical of Jesus because of the apocalyptic or eschatological hue of the statements. Still, other assumptions of the Jesus Seminar regarding Jesus’ self-consciousness and self-understanding also force the elimination of whole groups or classes of sayings that many other scholars accept as authentic. Moreover, the whole project is (to this reviewer) painfully American. The report results from a process that alleges to establish truth by asserting a majority opinion–as if democracy (here, in fact, not fully participatory democracy, but a selective democratic group) guarantees the veracity or validity of conclusions.

The value of this book is as a report of the work and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar. Taken for what it is, the volume is helpful, but reckoned as something more, TFG is dangerous, for it gives a false impression. The organizers and members of the Jesus Seminar are to be commended for their creativity and tenacity. One must admire such imagination and discipline. The greatest contribution of the work, however, would be made by its provoking the real range of New Testament scholars to formulate and to communicate the consensus of current New Testament studies to as wide an audience as possible in straightforward honesty with appropriate modesty.

MARION L. SOARDS Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Louisville, KY

Copyright Theology Today Jul 1995

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