Plus ça change… “The Jesus Seminar” and “The Jesus Project”

Jesus’ cultural setting had clearly been misjudged in much of Seminar’s deliberations during the ’eighties, and today its findings are widely recognized as being idiosyncratic.

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College
January 2009

“The Jesus Project,” convened in 2007 by R. Joseph Hoffman for the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, aims to pursue the task of “The Jesus Seminar,” but in a more critical vein. In a clever turn of phrase, Dr. Hoffman has written that “The Jesus of the [Jesus Seminar] is a talking doll with a questionable repertoire of thirty-one sayings. Pull a string and he blesses the poor.”

Two serious criticisms lie behind this characterization. First, Hoffman charges the Seminar with leading its presuppositions into just the anti-Fundamentalist, liberal Jesus that the majority of its members wanted to find in the first place. Second, he calls attention to the assumption of the Seminar that the sources at our disposal directly provide historical evidence concerning Jesus.

I was a Fellow of “The Jesus Seminar,” and I have been involved with “The Jesus Project” since its formal inception. By understanding where the Seminar lapsed, the Project might indeed offer the prospect of progress. So where did the Seminar fall down, and how is the Project doing in comparison?

When I attended meetings of “The Jesus Seminar,” I found the overall standard of discussion high, and often stimulating. But I was an isolated – more often than not unique – advocate of searching out the connections with Judaism implicit within the Gospels. Yet the director of the Seminar, Robert Funk, frequently repeated a principle, and his insistence encouraged me to persist. He often quoted Norman Perrin’s advice that an assertion about Jesus in the Gospels cannot be evaluated in historical terms until we have evaluated the history of the traditions of which that assertion is a part. Any consistent pursuit of that approach, of course, would eventually necessitate analysis of the Aramaic connections of the Jesus tradition.

In various presentations at meetings of the Seminar and in its journal, I called attention to signs of Aramaic antecedents in the language of the Gospels and to indications of sources behind the Gospels, both written and oral. On the whole, however, my Judaic approach did not find much resonance within the majority.

Two factors played into that response. The first has to do with the sociology of graduate education in the field of New Testament and early Christianity, which has notoriously skimped on the study of Semitic languages, although Aramaic and Syriac, as well as Hebrew, were clearly major languages of Christianity alongside Coptic, Greek, and Latin until at least the time of the rise of Islam. The second factor was more specific to the Seminar: a pronounced preference for a Greek Jesus over an Aramaic Jesus. That preference was reinforced by fashion within the Seminar and a few other circles, which has since been contradicted directly by archaeological work, to describe Galilee as an urban and Hellenistic environment, where Greek was mostly spoken.

To be sure, there were notable exceptions among the Fellows, perhaps most notably F. Stanley Jones. He repeatedly urged me, when we happened to attend the same meetings of the Seminar, to continue my project of retranslating Jesus’ teaching into Aramaic of the first century, a demanding task which I would not have taken up without prompting. At the same time, Robert Funk expressed an interest in my editing an anthology of Aramaic sources for a series connected with the Seminar. I agreed to do so, but the problems of producing a text in a Semitic language apparently proved insurmountable, so that while Coptic and Greek are within the Seminar’s publishing idiom, the challenge of factoring in Aramaic remains unaddressed. In the meantime, my interests were taken up by the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, for which I prepared an edition of the Isaiah Targum in Aramaic, and by a long project, recently completed, of retroverting into first-century Aramaic all the materials in Mark’s Gospel that show signs of deriving from Aramaic sources.

Although the issue of the place of Aramaic in the study of Jesus never emerged as a contentious topic within the Jesus Seminar, it became increasingly plain by the beginning of the ’nineties that serious linguistic work would have to be conducted outside that setting. I regretted acknowledging this was the case, but as I did so, my interest in the work of the Seminar inevitably waned. At the same time, the Seminar’s Hellenistic bias in the use of archaeological evidence and anthropological analysis was becoming increasingly obvious within the discipline of New Testament study. Jesus’ cultural setting had clearly been misjudged in much of Seminar’s deliberations during the ’eighties, and today its findings are widely recognized as being idiosyncratic.

An incautious treatment of sources was bound to emerge in the Seminar. Unlike the careful discussion that typically preceded votes by Fellows on what was authentic and what was not, voting itself was often a scrappy affair. Despite its overall and undeniable success, the Seminar’s membership shrank within a few years to approximately 80 more or less active members. This shrinkage of the total number of Fellows, together with a sporadic attendance at meetings that resulted in changing interpretative principles from season to season and year to year, exacerbated one of the Seminar’s most persistent weaknesses. Although its founding ethos stressed the importance of open, public debate among professional participants, publicity prior to and during meetings often set up findings well in advance of discussion, with results that distorted, not only the conduct of the Seminar, but the way in which its findings were reported. For example, Fellows were known to deny to the press that Jesus had ever prayed; he was portrayed as a Cynic philosopher despite evidence to the contrary that was always overwhelming; and Galilee has been treated as an urban, non-Jewish environment despite archaeologists’ findings to the contrary. Added to all these factors, the drive for results sometimes led to a retaking of votes, both within a given meeting, and from meeting to meeting, producing the effect of a push-poll in an election campaign.

Ideologically, these practices brought to the surface a deep difference among the Fellows that might otherwise have remained hidden, between a positivist and a humanist understanding of history. For the positivists, inspired by Leopold von Ranke during the nineteenth century, historical “criteria” produced findings of “authenticity” when applied to “objective” textual “data.” The humanist perspective, whose champion was R. G. Collingwood during the twentieth century, insists that historians of the ancient world cannot stand over their sources and find them right or wrong because they do not have access to events except through those sources. Rather, historians explain how their sources arose within their cultural environments, inferring the events that ultimately generated texts.

The challenge for “The Jesus Project” is to learn from the mistakes of “The Jesus Seminar.” I have contributed work to the Project, but I cannot so far report any great signs of progress.

To a large extent, immediate progress should in any case not be anticipated. Critical enterprises always need time to evolve operating principles, and the Project has had to devote time and energy to issues of method in the study of the historical Jesus. Unfortunately, however, the Project has attempted to address questions of critical approach without a thorough grounding in academic study since the eighteenth century. The result is that some of the assertions made by contributors to the Project are not well informed and invoke quests for “objectivity” that seem more at home in nineteenth-century Europe than in twenty-first century America. What is more worrying, actual knowledge of primary sources (and of their languages) does not seem as great among participants in the Project as among Fellows of the Seminar. Discussion of “method” apart from specific evidence was precisely one of the failings of the Seminar and directly fed its liberal, anti-Fundamentalist agenda.

The tyranny of method, a typical failing of American scholarship, skews and selects the evidence that is adduced. The Project has played into the hands of this weakness. Although the Project claims to limit its participation to scholars, meetings are in fact open to a predominantly non-specialist audience. Scholars make very short contributions and engage in little substantive discussion. That makes for the kind of set-piece presentation that is unlikely to advance knowledge. The Project seems no more positioned to assess the whole range of literary and archaeological evidence related to the study of Jesus than the Seminar was. The Project’s stated aim, to conclude that work of assessment within five years, makes success seem impossible on the basis of its performance to date.

Further, the Project has focused on an incoherent set of some of the least important questions in scholarship. For example, it keeps asking “Did Jesus exist?” as if that issue had not been raised repeatedly during the past two centuries and yet also features James Cameron’s film, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” which has been thoroughly discredited as an archaeological travesty.

The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion has put its reputation on the line in sponsoring “The Jesus Project,” but so far amateurism, special interest advocacy, and a lack of critical focus have undermined a commendably earnest intent. Anyone who has followed the work of “The Jesus Seminar” should have learned long ago that Fundamentalists are not the only partisans who permit their wishes to cloud what they see and that it takes more than a declaration of “objectivity” to acquire the discipline of reasoning from evidence, both textual and archaeological. But I gave the Seminar time, and I can see no reason not to hope that genuine exchanges of insight and a deepening of knowledge might emerge from the so far conventional proceedings of “The Jesus Project.”

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