303: THE DOUBTS OF ROBERT FUNK OF THE JESUS SEMINAR

Zingcreed tries to be even-handed.

While supporting the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar as expressed in their 3 main books,(i,ii,iii) I’m well aware that, even though it consists of about 200 of America’s top biblical scholars, the Seminar’s work is not received with universal acclaim by all in the church.

It takes quite an aggressively radical approach to biblical interpretation, which understandably upsets people on the evangelical wing of the church such as Bishop Tom Wright, one of the Church of England’s most prolific writers.(iv)(v)
Others are startled and incredulous at their voting system which involves the use of coloured beads.(vi). (This is the excellent  Wikipedia entry which lists 10 other critics of the JS’s approach.)

Geza Vermes (vii) and Gerd Lüdemann (viii) have come up single-handedly with their own compilations of Jesus’s authentic words and deeds.

An impressively detailed critique by Harvard trained theologian Mark Roberts can be found on the Patheos website. (ix) From it I have selected a list he has taken from a publication by the leader and founder of the Jesus Seminar: Robert W. Funk. This shows the doubts Funk had about many traditional Christian doctrines. The fact that Funk published this quite openly shows that he is not trying to hide his radical views – quite the contrary. And, of course, scholars are meant to disagree with each other – that’s what they’re paid for! If you conclude that Funk was not in any meaningful sense a Christian, does this matter? (I would maintain that he’s saving Christianity from itself.) He wouldn’t be the first or the last theologian in this position.

Roberts quotes from Funk’s paper entitled ‘The coming radical reformation’     (x)
“This paper included 21 theses (without arguments) that encapsulate Funk’s vision for the future of Christianity (or the end of Christianity).  I reproduce several of Funk’s theses:

1. The God of the metaphysical age is dead. There is not a personal god out there external to human beings and the material world. We must reckon with a deep crisis in god talk and replace it with talk about whether the universe has meaning and whether human life has purpose.

4. The notion that God interferes with the order of nature from time to time in order to aid or punish is no longer credible, in spite of the fact that most people still believe it. Miracles are an affront to the justice and integrity of God, however understood. Miracles are conceivable only as the inexplicable; otherwise they contradict the regularity of the order of the physical universe.

5. Prayer is meaningless when understood as requests addressed to an external God for favor or forgiveness and meaningless if God does not interfere with the laws of nature. Prayer as praise is a remnant of the age of kingship in the ancient Near East and is beneath the dignity of deity. Prayer should be understood principally as meditation—as listening rather than talking—and as attention to the needs of neighbor.

9. The doctrine of the atonement—the claim that God killed his own son in order to satisfy his thirst for satisfaction—is subrational and subethical. This monstrous doctrine is the stepchild of a primitive sacrificial system in which the gods had to be appeased by offering them some special gift, such as a child or an animal.

10. The resurrection of Jesus did not involve the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus did not rise from the dead, except perhaps in some metaphorical sense. The meaning of the resurrection is that a few of his followers—probably no more than two or three—finally came to understand what he was all about. When the significance of his words and deeds dawned on them, they knew of no other terms in which to express their amazement than to claim that they had seen him alive.

20. The Bible does not contain fixed, objective standards of behavior that should govern human behavior for all time. This includes the ten commandments as well as the admonitions of Jesus.”

For the complete 21 theses see (x) If they weren’t copyright, I’d print them all here.(xii)

Zingcreed comment: Far from finding these sentiments objectionable, I find them self-evident, just plain common sense. I wish I’d come across them earlier. Funk’s 21 theses encapsulate neatly the opinions I’ve come across in such writers as Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering, Gerd Lüdemann and John Robinson (See list of Posts below).

To see the late Robert Funk in action in a red waistcoat  in 1996, giving a 7 minute talk on ‘Jesus for a new millenium’ go to  (xi) . He lists 9 reasons for the renewed quest for the historical Jesus and why it may succeed:

  1. Theses and movements have a life cycle; they start off fresh and vigorous. Schweitzer’s earlier Quest for the historical Jesus died of old age.
  2. Much biblical scholarship is now carried out in  secular institutions. Researchers and teachers are no longer responsible to ecclesiastical authorities. They can pursue things in a totally new way.
  3. Scholars have put parochialism behind them. It is increasingly hard to tell the denomination of the contributors to the Jesus Seminar. Genuine ecumenical conversations can take place.
  4. The Christian Age has ended. Missionaries used to carry Western culture as well as the gospel. (‘Post Christendom’)
  5. The rediscovery of the parables and their true radical meanings.
  6. The rediscovery of the Wisdom tradition. The Hebrew Scriptures (O.T.) are divided into (1) The Law (2) the Prophets (3) the Wisdom books. The latter were traditions carried by the people, not the ‘professionals’. Christianity is a Wisdom tradition, not a Legal or Prophetic one.
  7. New sources like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library have modified our views.
  8. The end of canonical imperialism: all sources can be considered and not just those in the N.T.
  9. The collapse of the symbolic universe that has dominated for more than 2 millenia. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution have rendered the old world view unacceptable. A different framework is needed for the scriptures.

This is all on p.66 (chapter 4) of ‘Honest to Jesus’ by Funk. Interestingly he refers to this book as costing $100. Today I saw it on Amazon for $0.01 (one cent) ! Surely Funk’s work can’t be heading the way of Schweitzer’s already?! Perhaps he was joking about the price.
The scholars who comprised the original JS have moved on to tackle the Acts of the Apostles and the early church, and Lüdemann has written a guide to the first book written after Jesus’s death: First Thessalonians, written by Paul before the gospels were penned.

Sources:

(i) Funk, R.W. & the Jesus Seminar “The Acts of Jesus. What did Jesus really do?” Polebridge Press (1998)
(ii) Funk, R.W., Hoover, R.W. & the Jesus Seminar “The five gospels.What did Jesus really say? The search for the authentic words of Jesus” HarperCollins (1993)
(iii) Funk, R.W. & the Jesus Seminar “The gospel of Jesus according to the Jesus Seminar” Polebridge Press (1999)
(iv) ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Justice_Jesus.htm
(v) (Seven problems with the Jesus Seminar) catholicity.com/commentary/wright/00166.html
(vi) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Seminar
(vii) Vermes, G. “The authentic gospel of Jesus” Penguin books (2003)
(viii) Lüdemann, G. “What Jesus didn’t say” Polebridge Press (2011)
(ix) patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/unmasking-the-jesus-seminar/
(x) westarinstitute.org/resources/the-fourth-r/the-coming-radical-reformation/
(xi) wn.com/Robert_W_Funk
(xii) 2 weeks on from penning this, I’ve been unable to get a reply from Funk’s publisher, and I’ve gone ahead and copied his whole article anyway:-
Robert Funk’s 21 theses, the coming radical reformation

Other Related Zingcreed Posts:
Jesus was a sage, not a priest, prophet or king
Jesus’s authentic 5200 words
Don Cupitt for dummies
Radical theology
Radical Christian attempts to define God
Realist and non-realist views of God

[302 indexed & linked, t&c]

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