Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

March 15, 2009: “The Jesus Seminar: What Did He Really Say? Palm Sunday”

The Carpenter’s Son

One day Jesus was out for a walk, strolling near the walls surrounding heaven, when he heard an old man's voice call from the other side.

"Hello? Hello?"

Jesus replied, "Who is it?"

"Just a poor, old carpenter searching for his son," the old man replied.

Jesus' heart leapt with joy and he called out, "Joseph?"

The voice answered back, "Pinocchio?

The first Church I attended as a child in a small New Hampshire town was not big enough for two churches so it had what was not uncommon for small towns a union church, Not a merger, but more of a compromise between in this case the Baptists and the Congregationalists.  Every other minister would be Baptist and Congregational, and the Bible they used was the King James version, with the language of the 17th century, which of, course, was often like Jesus reading Shakespeare and did not always make sense in 20th century America, especially if one took it literally, and I was taught to take it pretty much that way though not as a fundamentalist.

When we moved to a small city and started going to the more liberal and larger Congregational church, we used the Revised Standard Version which used more contemporary English and though we could interpret liberally, we still were expected to hold to the Apostles Creed!  The sermons and the liturgy were all predicated on the supposition, in fact, that everyone believed about the same, and that meant in the Apostles Creed.  In true Protestant manner, there was always the balance between whether we are saved by good works or by faith with the general agreement that it took both. Salvation wasn't something that was stressed a lot in the Congregational church; it was more expected than talked about. Living a good Christian life was really the important thing and church was supposed to help you do that. Not a bad idea, really, but it was based on right belief as much as right relationship and that became the rub!  For me and many of us who started growing away from the doctrines of right belief of creedal formulas millennia old, we felt left out, and the Christ of the church, the supernatural Messiah God became part of the mythological pantheon that held as much meaning as the Greek and Roman Mythology we would come to study in school, but would never be expected to believe in literally!

It's strange when you really stop and think about the Bible as a book. Let's take the Bible I read from for Xmas Eve, the King James Version that I was presented in 1959 when I graduated from one of the levels of Sunday School in that little village church. I have read that Bible since childhood, obviously, looked at the colorful pictures of the Bible stories and of Jesus and his miracles, of course, as a book of history as if it could be placed alongside another book of ancient history or modern history, yet it isn't the same at all is it? But neither is it fairy tales nor mythology., for those we might say, know today believe to be true, yet the Bible today we know some believe to be literarily true, every word  and every story and every miracle literally true.

Others who still claim to be within Christina tradition, who still recite the Apostles Creed every Sunday, perhaps, and claim also to believe in the Bible will say, no we must interpret the Bible for today. Because God reveals wisdom anew in every age and we must see it in metaphor.

Scholars use some terms that must be understood to talk more about the Bible, 'the study and investigation of biblical writings that seeks to make discerning and discriminating judgments about these writings. It asks when and where a particular text originated; how, why, by whom, for whom, and in what circumstances it was produced; what influences were at work in its production; what sources were used in its composition and the message it was intended to convey. It also addresses the physical text, including the meaning of the words and the way in which they are used, its preservation, history and integrity. Biblical criticism draws upon a wide range of scholarly disciplines including archaeology, anthropology, folklore, linguistics, oral tradition studies, and historical and religious studies. Wikipedia

The next term is hermeneutics which basically means interpretation, eschatology, which means the end times, or the study about the end of the world, related to the apocalypse, Armageddon, etc., and lastly, biblical canon with one n, is a list or set of Biblical books considered to be authoritative by a certain religious group or authority. Believers usually then consider these canonical books to be inspired by God There are differences between the Jewish and Christian canons, and between the canons of different Christian denominations. When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he left out certain books of the Old Testament that he didn’t think belonged in the canon and they became non-canonical in Protestant Bibles, so that the Catholic Bible and the Protestant Bible have some different Books in the OT. Called the Apocrypha, meaning that the texts have uncertain authenticity or writings where the authorship is questioned. Then there are different translations of the Bible, probably now numbering more than 20.

Well, Biblical studies in the last part of the 19th century began with Biblical criticism especially in Germany and brought back to this country, especially by many of the liberal Unitarian ministers because the conservatives were still taking much of it literally of course, not wanting to open it up to interpretation. Emerson’s Transcendentalism, of course, was the beginning, really of really opening up the Bible and t was Emerson who was the first to publicly deny the miracles for instance, a radical proclamation for the time, in 1838. He had already quit his pulpit, by then, so he could get away with it!

The search for the historic Jesus movement of the 19th century Historical Jesus actually starts with Reimarus in 18th century , then David Friederich Strauss 1835 Life of Jesus Critically Examined, ending with Albert Schweitzer’s seminal work Quest for the Historical Jesus in 1906 where he concludes we really can’t find a historical Jesus, that Jesus is relative to his and out time, and then actually loses interest, and becomes a doctor in Africa, even though he also had a doctorate in theology. The Historical Jesus movement dies out during the two world wars and neo-orthodoxy is born, fundamentalism seems revived and conservative Christianity grows and the TV Ministers thrive, Praise the Lord!

But a group of progressive Christian scholars, theologians, ministers, priests, begin something called the Jesus seminar and restart the movement. Looking at two Jesuss- the Christ of History and Christ of Faith- between Synoptic gospels-Matthew Mark Luke and John and Gospel of John,

They came out of Westar Institute is a member-supported, non-profit research and educational institute founded in 1986 and dedicated to the advancement of religious literacy. Westar’s twofold mission is to foster collaborative research in religious studies and to communicate the results of the scholarship of religion to a broad, non-specialist public.

Why is Westar important?

Until a few years ago, essential knowledge about biblical and religious traditions was hidden in the windowless studies of universities and seminaries away from the general public. Such research was considered too controversial or too complicated for lay persons to understand. Many scholars, fearing open conflict or even reprisal, talked only to one another. The churches often decided what information their constituents were “ready” to hear. Westar is not affiliated with any religious institution nor does it advocate a particular theological point of view.

The first and best-known project of Westar Institute is the Jesus Seminar. Launched in 1985, the Seminar was organized to discover and report a scholarly consensus on the historical authenticity of the sayings (phase 1) and events (phase 2) attributed to Jesus in the gospels. A third phase of the Jesus Seminar resulted in profiles of Jesus drawn by individual scholars using the results of the first two phases on the sayings and deeds of Jesus. Mission Statement

The first , The Five gospels is Dedicated to: Galileo Galilei, who altered our view of the heavens forever; Thomas Jefferson, who took scissors and paste to the gospels; David Friedrich Strauss, who pioneer the quest for the Historical Jesus. The Five gospels include the Gospel of Thomas, which was one of the non-canonical books found in 1945 in the Nag Hammadi Library in Egypt. The Jesus Seminar felt it had many saying of Jesus that should be included in their new Scholars translation of the Gospels, which are the 4 books, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which are the story of the life, sayings, and acts of Jesus, and mean the Good News. Now having said that, there is precious little about the actual life of Jesus other than the very few years of his ministry, and even that doesn't agree on whether it was one of three years. Two gospels, Matthew and Luke, mention his birth briefly, two don't. One gospel has him in the temple being about his father's business and worrying his mother because she doesn't know where he is, but other than that story, we know nothing about his growing up, no matter how many interesting anecdotes about his studying in India or on other planets, there is simply no scholarly historical record of Jesus life other than the brief record in the gospels, and they are very brief!  They caution us at the beginning - Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you. Because isn't that what we all want, a Jesus in our own image, if you will, either so we can reject him or idolize him! They come to the conclusion that eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to him in were probably not actually spoken by him!

Robert Fink, the main editor had wanted to write an authoritative red-letter edition of the New Testament since he had found out that there was actually a variety of editions because there was no standardized one. He knew there had been more translations since the King James version from the 1600s because there had been more Greek documents found that had later translations that were better; after all, we still don't have the first edition! So the first step was actually to do a whole new translation which they called the Scholars Translation which utilized the latest findings in scholarship and translations as well as free of any ecclesiastical or religious control! Also important! I will admit that I didn't like their poetry as much as other translations, but that's another issue.

What I do like about the Jesus Seminar is that it is ongoing and made up of a variety of scholars, theologians, as well as professors, ministers, priests, and even a TV Director who is also a scholar! It includes at least on UU, the former minister of the First Church in Austin, Dr. Davidson Loerh. I was inspired to preach on this because I recently listened to a 7 hour tape series on the Jesus Seminar that he gave a few years ago. It was like taking a seminary course!

So how do they decide whether a saying of Jesus is authentic? Four colors of beads, not just a red letter edition, but also pink, gray, and black:
  • Red beads indicated the voter believed Jesus did say the passage quoted, or something very much like the passage. (3 Points)
  • Pink beads indicated the voter believed Jesus probably said something like the passage. (2 Points)
  • Gray beads indicated the voter believed Jesus did not say the passage, but it contains Jesus’ ideas. (1 Point)
  • Black beads indicated the voter believed Jesus did not say the passage it comes from later admirers or a different tradition. (0 Points)

Red-Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it. Pink: Jesus probably said something like this. Gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.

Black: Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.

In other words, there has been a lot of history put into the writing of the gospels and a lot of f church doctrine interwoven and it is difficult to find which is which, the difference between faith history and scholarly history.

Now, most folks actually didn't bother to read it, and while there were debated, most remained among the scholars and the average church go-er might not have been aware of it. But for the next few centuries in European history the Catholic and Protestant pendulum of ruling would bloodstain the changing map up until the present day.

Indeed, the Jesus that the Jesus Seminar found was a more progressive social gospel kind of Jesus, They said that rather than preaching an apocalyptic eschatology, remember those terms- which would mean the main message would be to  instruct his disciples and followers to prepare for the end of the world, and therefore salvation would be the most important message, the Seminar wants to  argue that the authentic words of Jesus seem to point toward him preaching  a sapiential eschatology, or encouraging  all of what he considered God's children to repair the world. What in Hebrew is called, Tikun Olam.
  1. Turn the other cheek
  2. Coat & shirt: Parable
  3. Most of the Beatitudes, though instead of blessed are, they translate it as Congratulations, Congratulations, poor!
  4. Second mile Parable
  5. Love your enemies: but probably not (compare to black rated “Pray for your enemies”: and here’s my disappointment, probably not, I bring you a new commandment, “Love one another”:
  6. Give to the Emperor what his and to God what is Gods-
  7. Give to beggars
  8. Good Samaritan – story
  9. The Shrewd manager parable
  10. Vineyard laborers parable
  11. Abba, Father saying using that familiar term like calling God, Dad, or even Daddy.
  12. The Mustard Seed: parable
    The top 15 (of 75) Pink sayings are:
  13. On anxieties, don’t fret
  14. Lost Coin
  15. Foxes have dens:
  16. No respect at home:
  17. Friend at midnight
  18. Two masters:
  19. Treasure:
  20. Lost sheep
  21. What goes in:
  22. Corrupt judge
  23. Prodigal son
  24. Leave the dead
  25. Castration for Heaven
  26. By their fruit
  27. The dinner party, the wedding celebration So what does this all tell us? For me, the message of Jesus is about right relationship with each other in so many different ways in which we live in all those particular ways of relationship we experience in all that we do and in all the ways we live. The early Jewish dietary laws were not so that you wouldn’t get trichinosis; they were partly so that one could not eat without thinking of God! In other words, thinking of God made one live a certain way in relationship with the world around one as well as the people and even the animals around one! Perhaps the dietary laws became institutionalized and that’s why Jesus seemed to say that they were no longer needed! He spoke with an authority that was not given by institutional religion and he had a unique relationship with the divine, a mystical sense that was incarnation, not that he was divine but that the divine was in all of us, the kingdom of god is within us.

Not that he came to be the scapegoat or sacrifice for our sins, but that he came to bring us the message of love and light, that we hold the holy and we are all capable of doing and being good, but that we must love deeply, even our enemies.

 Here in the figure of Jesus, a human prophet, sage, mystic, rabbi, teacher, guru, charismatic, deeply spiritual mystery, who for so many reasons inspired a religion which has lasted and thrived for more than two thousand years up to this very day and in whose name great evil as well as great good has been done, and out of whose tradition this church grew. There is more light yet to break through. His message must be universal and unifying.  There is more love to spread; let us love, let us love.

Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos, Vaya con su Dios`