This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 5th, 2010.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Robert Price. Point of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grass roots, I have the great fortune of talking with an old friend of mine and colleague of the Jesus seminar, Robert J.
Miller. Bob is a professor of religious studies at Juilliard, a college in Pennsylvania, and he’s been a fellow of the seminar. That’s what they call us. By the way, fellows, not mere members since 1986, which is pretty close on the heels of the founding of the group. And he was a scholar in residence at the WestStar Institute in 2001. You might have seen his books in this case. His name sounds familiar. That’s probably why that and a few newspaper stories. He’s the author of Born Divine, a fascinating comparative study of nativity myths and such. And then the apocalyptic Jesus debate. That brings up a question I’m going to quiz him on later. And then a really fascinating book called The Jesus Seminar. And its critics and Bob Say edited a book called The Complete Gospels in 92 and revised in 94, which contains new translations of just about every scrap of a gospel that has been discovered. The four familiar ones and everything else you’ve you’ve never even heard of. Endlessly interesting. And so let me after that long winded miss. Welcome you on to the show, Bob.
Well, thank you very much, Bob. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.
How long have you. Well, you started at 86 back in the seminar. How did you come to be involved with it?
Well, it had begun just in eighty five. So I just heard about it from a friend and he said, you know, this thing sounds really unusual and interesting. Why don’t we go check it out? So I didn’t really have any strong discordantly commitment to studying the historical Jesus. But I thought it would be, you know, something worthwhile to investigate. And I came to my first meeting and I was just amazed that somebody scholars could tackle such a serious problem and do so in a way that was collaborative. I mean, course, there was a lot of vigorous debate, but it was not the sort of staid kind of more, shall we say, stand offish thing that I was used to from professional meetings.
This was a real meeting of the minds, even if there was a lot of, like I said, a lot of disagreement. And it was a way in which people had committed to a project in which the which the group work seemed to be more important than individual egos and in scholarship. That’s that’s quite rare. So I was I was hooked a lot by the ethos of the work as much as by the topic of it. I echo that.
I have to say, having been to society of Biblical literature meetings where needless to say, a lot of great work is done, and having been to the Jesus seminar many more times, v.. The difference is immediate and palpable. You don’t get the impression that so many of the people as and other professional society conferences are there to pad their resume maze to try to get a raise, and none of which is blameworthy. But but somehow the the motivation is and the feeling is completely different, as you say, with the camaraderie. And it’s it’s a unique thing I hope can be emulated, though it’s harder to imagine that being done on a bigger scale. But who knows?
Yeah. What does one of the things that made people may not know is that, you know, that your typical academic meeting, what happens is that someone will come and maybe have half an hour and that person will essentially read a paper for like 25 minutes and then take a few questions and then it’s on to the next topic. Whereas at the seminar, all the papers are distributed many weeks ahead of time and people come having read everything. And so no one actually read the paper we spend the whole time in given take in conversation and sometimes, you know, real knockdown debate. And at the end of that, what’s quite unique about the seminar is that there is a process of voting in which the fellows then have to answer on their ballots, you know, how they stand or fall on various propositions which were offered in each in each paper. So it gives people who present papers immediate feedback, which is sometimes very gratifying and sometimes. Quite chastening. And so it is a it is a place where your ego really tends to rub down a bit because you have to take seriously the fact that you’re. That your peers are rendering their verdict on your work.
Yeah, I only got nearly got into a fist fight once. There it’s it’s been very, very positive. And now Pat shut things on that guy. How what would you say is that this seems obvious, but I don’t think it is. What would you say is the goal of the Jesus seminar?
Well, the seminar really has to is, shall we say, basic formal goals. And one is to pursue topics of vital concern to scholars in Christian origins. And to do that in collaborative ways, in ways that harness people’s energies and work together in terms of group work on a long term project. So instead of people pursuing projects as loan scholars, often their study that the work is all through through all through the process being worked out in dialog with others. So it’s that unique collaborative venue, which is very important. And secondly, and this makes a seminar, I think, unique among any other academic organizations. It has an explicit mission to public education in that are our work is always done with a view towards informing the public about it without pulling any punches as to our or our presuppositions or our results and trying to make the work of biblical scholars accessible to people, not by talking down to them, but by trying to speak in language that everyone can understand.
I noticed that there was an awful lot over the four years in Time, Newsweek, anybody else that took notice, they would say, look at this bunch and nuts. They’re they’re publicity hounds and they have crazy ideas that no one else agrees with. When I knew from the first discussion, I heard there that all of this was though so innovative, was well within the mainstream.
It was not eccentric in any way, but it sounded that way to people who had never heard of what was, you know, what’s been going on for a couple of centuries and biblical scholarship and to save it. The seminar was just a bunch of publicity grabbers was just a pejorative way of saying what you just did accurately, that they wanted people to get a whiff of this. Finally, and you could tell, while a lot of folks were were very upset, they didn’t want this coming, arguing. This is what biblical scholars really think. And and it is they just don’t like to say so.
Yeah, it’s it’s amazing from our perspective as scholars. Is that is that what sometimes the public found most shocking were things the scholars have routinely just assumed for about 200 years and in the shock value didn’t come from the work itself. It came from the fact that this stuff has been kept under under wraps. The scholars have have had really no interest in talking to the public and in most cases have just not been not been willing to because they were afraid to come up against the kind of fundamentalism which case to be taken and taken for granted in our culture. I mean, until the Jesus seminar came on the scene, whenever the media wanted to get an expert’s advice on the Bible, they turned to someone like Jerry Falwell or somebody like that. And in the seminar change, that seminar was really the first time that this public airing, that scholarship went out. Yeah. Through the mass media. And so we had, you know, a series of articles in Time and Newsweek, even on some TV documentaries about that. And what it did was expose, you know, Americans who wanted to learn about it. To what critical biblical scholars had been had been doing for quite some time. And you’re right, Bob. It put a lot of our peers on the hot seat because then they had to answer the question, well, why haven’t you been telling us about these things?
I’ve had students in rural North Carolina, community colleges, adult students here, just some basic stuff about the older New Testament.
And they’d say, why did I never hear of this? I thought I would never understand this till I got to heaven. And they had the big seminar up there on unanswered questions. You know, we got a lot of those answers, but you might not want to hear them or somebody might not want you to hear them. But you always have both reactions. This is heresy or thank God I can understand this now. And it’s just amazing the reaction you get from Bible fan.
On both sides, it is quite I mean, I want to affirm that that’s my experience, too, both as a college teacher and as someone who speaks a lot in in public, is that many people are quite threatened by it. But many people who have a kind of affection for the Bible and the Christian tradition, but can’t take it literally haven’t until they come across this kind of exposure to our work. They don’t know how to take the Bible at all. So so they just ignore it. And what this worked in the seminar does and it’s not just the seminar, but scholars like us is open up the way by which people can fully engage as critical thinkers and still take the Bible seriously, though not literally and understand it as one of the pillars of our Western culture.
I founded my work with a Freethought community that there is nothing that will garner immediate, galvanized interest as much as questions about the Bible. All these atheists and agnostics. Man, more Bible. They want to hear about this. They’ve always kind of heard it’s all true or it’s all bunk. But to actually get into the unraveling the thing, Vaisse seemed to be fascinated by it. That’s fascinating. Do you think the direction of Jesus seminars changed since Bob Funk’s untimely passing? He would case people don’t know. Robert W. Funk was one of the founders and the really the leading light of a seminar from the beginning. And he passed away a few years ago. And it’s been carrying on pretty vigorously. But has has there been any change of direction since then?
No. That the change of direction. As much as we lament Bob Bob’s passing the work of the seminar has continued more or less in continuity with with what was before. The major change in the work of the seminar came to after we actually finished the work on the historical Jesus. I mean, we began that project in 85 and it took us 12 years actually of meeting twice a year and all the time in between. Took us twelve years to work through all the Gospels, verse by verse, and do our analysis and our voting and then give judgments as to the historical value of each and every verse in those gospels. After that, then we really is fascinating because we really didn’t quite know what to do. I mean, once you have tummy’s, so to speak, done Jesus. I mean, where do you go from there? Right. I mean, we’ve had projects going on.
Paul on the historical Paul, which actually I think in terms of upsetting the Orthodox applecart would probably be more explosive, actually. Hence our findings on Jesus. We’ve had a seminar on the Acts of the Apostles, which is, you know, the New Testament book purporting to tell the history of the early church. But historically turns out to be 99 percent fictitious. And we’ve had a seminar on Christian origins trying to understand how we got historically from Jesus to Christianity. But that work has been more diffuse and left, of course, less able to gather media attention or the public’s interest, because it’s not so, shall we say, laser focused on something as attention getting as Jesus himself.
I remember being in one of these latter day sessions where of the topics all had to do with the economics of ancient Galilee.
I have to admit, I had trouble stay in awake for that one. You’re not going to get any protesters outside.
Go get it.
But you can see why scholars would take that seriously because, yeah, the message of Jesus about the kingdom of God is largely having to do with, you know, how how human beings should live on this earth in a way that allocates resources so that so that poor people, so that every human being gets treated with the dignity of a child of God. And of course, Jesus’s message for it to be real, you know, has to be understood against the real life facts of his time and place. And so the economics of godly, it’s actually very important to getting a handle on on the sort of real time effects of the message of Jesus. But as you say, that’s a very hard thing to explain in a soundbite, you know, to a reporter.
You’ve written these various books. So which is your own favorite of your books? And what is the present focus of your own scholarly research?
Well, I. I mean, the book that I wrote called Born Divine was just a real adventure for me to write in, because as you pointed out earlier, the heart of it is a comparative study between the stories about the birth of Jesus and the stories of other people in these world who were known to be or believed to be sons of God because they had a god for a father and a human for a mother. And I just thought, you know, what can we learned about the early Christian mentality by putting those stories in that context? And it was just so interesting for me to get into the nitty gritty of that, as well as in that book. What I did also was follow out the string of what we call infancy gospels as far as like a trace in infancy gospels were worth. Stories mean all very fanciful, written by Christians to sort of fill out in imaginative detail all the things that the Bible is silent about. You know, all the details of the early life of Jesus, of his boyhood adventures, of his superpowers, you know, as a kid.
And it was fascinating, Bob, that Christians continued to write these gospels up into like the 10th and 11th centuries. Wow. So even as late as that, Christians were very consciously writing fictions about the life of Jesus.
And these were being understood, of course, as fictions and and being read in. Nonetheless, cherished for the sort of parable, I guess, truth they had about Jesus. And what that tells me is that in people’s minds in the ancient world were just as supple as ours, that they could tell the difference between history and fiction and treat each accordingly. And it’s just the stupid wooden heads today we have in which everything has to be either either a fact or a falsehood that we don’t easily understand how fiction can be a vehicle for a different kind of truth. And that’s partly because, you know, we’re having to fight the whole fundamentalist issue that sort of creates this polarization. But it was really just a delight for me to be able to pursue that research for that book right now. I happened to be writing a book on the early Christian belief that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies. What I’m doing is tracking down many of the claims the New Testament makes that Jesus fulfills this or that prophecy. And most of the time, when you actually compare the prophecy that they’re quoting to this original text in the Old Testament, you’ll find that it’s been changed. Oftentimes, the New Testament writers, because Jesus doesn’t quite fulfill these prophecies, they just change the Old Testament texts so that he does fulfill them. And I just find that really interesting. And hardly anybody knows about this. And it’s so simple. All you have to do is compare the actual text from the Old Testament to the text, quoted it in the New Testament. And you see. Well, that’s interesting. The New Testament writers are just rewriting the Bible to suit their purposes. And that’s fascinating to me, especially because this belief that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies throughout Christian history has been used as kind of a stick to beat the Jews with. You know, the Jews should have known that Jesus was right. Because look how he fulfills all these prophecies. Whereas, in fact, you know, any Jew who knew his Bible would not even be remotely persuaded by these so-called proofs because the Christians were monkeying around with the with the wording of the of the biblical text. So that’s what got me interested now. And it’s it’s it’s quite an adventure to get up to get a hold on it.
I got to read that. That is fascinating. It’s sort of like a step in the direction of what Randall Helmes said. Yeah. Goswell fictions that so much of the New Testament or the good narratives are rewrites of the Old Testament. And in what you’re suggesting is like, yeah. Here is a step in that direction where it’s not exactly proof value from prior documents. It’s like, let’s recast those prophecies to fit our story raises a whole different thing.
Or let’s rewrite the story to fit the prophecy. Yeah. Yeah.
But let me just give you one just incredible example of that. And that’s the story where Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Everyone probably knows about that scene. Right. And people are putting palm trees down their palm leaves and all this business. And when Mark tells that story, it says that this is to fulfill the prophecy. I don’t know the exact words, but you know that you’re your king comes riding on a on a cold on the fall of a donkey. Now, when math. Picks up Mark’s gospel, Matthew using Mark as his source. And he reads that verse on the on a cold. The fall of a donkey. Matthew reads that as if the privacy’s talking about two different animals. And so, sure enough, when Matthew writes the story. Believe it or not. Matthew says that Jesus got these two animals and he sat on them in the plural. And he wrote them both into town. So we have Jesus doing this rodeo stunt in in in Matthew in order that Matthew can show.
Look how literally Jesus fulfills this prophecy. And it’s the most ludicrous scene you can imagine. And you can see it’s the clearest proof, right, that New Testament writers felt free to alter the story if it would help them score a theological point, even if if it’s based upon a rather, I think, ridiculous under understanding of the Old Testament text.
Yeah, that’s gotta take the cake. But Matthew loves to mind Zach Ariah. How does he know how much Judas got for turning in Jesus? Oh, 30 pieces of silver. Oh, where’d you get that gospel abar. Q Christian tradition.
That’s an example of the same thing. If if you read it carefully, you’ll see that the verse he quotes from Zach Ariah, Matthew says, comes from the Prophet Jeremiah, which is which is really given a headache to people who believe the Bible contains no errors.
Because here we have one biblical writer making a Bible knowledge mistake, which is very, very embarrassing by quite a tangled web we weave when first we practice to believe this.
That is so fascinating. Yeah. You have such a gift for in print and in the spoken word for clarifying issues. I want to try this one on you, though many would not dare to do this on on a radio interview. But answer this.
Enforcer, Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultman and loads of other scholars thought Jesus was a proclaimer of the imminent end of the world. But now most of the fellows of the Jesus seminar and lots of other scholars just don’t buy this anymore. Why did the apocalyptic. Jeez, I know you’ve written a book about this. I figure it’s a good question. Why did the apocalyptic Jesus model decline and what sort of Jesus was he replaced with?
Well, this is the thing that among scholars, the seminar is probably the most well-known for is that the Jesus seminar was the first.
So is a scholarly movement to question seriously and in fact, in our minds, at least two, to reject the dominant consensus that Jesus was the preacher of imminent end times. And there’s several lines of evidence that lead to this conclusion. And each of them by itself is not that amazing. But when they all come together, it makes a very strong case. One of them is that our earliest gospel, which is Mark’s gospel, portrays Jesus as an as an end times prophet. But it turns out that a careful analysis of that gospel shows that that portrait of Jesus is largely the result of the author’s own touches on the story, so that we believe that Mark himself is the one who decided to portray Jesus that way. And then if we take away the identifiable Marken coloring of the story that we don’t see an apocalyptic figure beneath that. Another very important piece of evidence is that the parables of Jesus, when you look at them in their own context and don’t read into them meanings that come from someplace else. They’re not about the end of the world. They’re about how God’s kingdom comes to Earth right now and begins to spread out among among people here, you know, and that these in times, interpretations of the parables have been added at a later time in biblical scholars have pretty sophisticated literary tools for identifying what’s original in a parable and what’s an added interpretation. And usually the apocalyptic readings of those parables are in those added interpretations. And then one final thing is, is this is gonna be rather technical. But it’s important is there’s another text called the Q Gospel, which we don’t actually have any physical copies of, but has been pretty carefully reconstructed by comparing passages in Matthew’s gospel with Luke. Gospel and and the experts in the Q Gospel are fairly well agreed that that gospel was not written all at once, that it was written in two stages, and they can tell that by use of these literary analytical tools. And that’s the first stage of this gospel is the gospel that has no end time teaching in it at all, and that the entire material comes in in the second edition of this gospel. And what that tells us is that the very first Christians did not think about Jesus at an end times prophet and that that portrait of him comes to play later at a time around the Jewish Roman War, which, if you’re living in Palestine, is the end of the world.
It was a horrible, violent, absolutely unbelievably horrific war to work to be part of. I mean, the Romans slaughtered about one million Jews, and it’s just completely off the charts, if anything, we would think of in terms of atrocity. So people living through that and thinking about Jesus, you know, began to see him in their own context. And we think that’s where so much of the apocalyptic thinking about Jesus comes to play it. That’s what Mark’s gospel, for example, is is written. So there’s more I could say, but you mean it. That’s the kind of thing that the seminar began to take seriously and not thinking in general terms, but going through verse by verse, all the Gospels and asking these hard questions about it just over and over and over again. The non apocalyptic portrait of Jesus began to see more and more credible so that instead of an end times prophet preaching imminent end of the world and coming judgment, we found that this Oracle Jesus was more likely to be a wisdom teacher, someone we call a sage who was telling parables and giving teachings to help people understand a whole new way to look at the world around them and to perceive how God was working within it and that that was not connected to threats of going to hell in the end times.
If you didn’t didn’t accept it, that is very well put. And very compelling evidence. Say this cool thing, for instance, how one of the chances that if this were the big thrust of Jesus, you just wouldn’t find it in the bedrock straight of it. That’s just the defies probability.
And yes, it’s very hard to understand that if Jesus really was this fiery preacher of judgment, why the cue gospel in its first edition?
This doesn’t have that in it. I mean, that’s just almost impossible to explain how that could have happened. And so the alternative hypothesis just makes much, much more sense that the apocalyptic coloring in the gospels comes in at a time when or at a later time when Christians are running into into problems that make that portrait of Jesus much more appealing and much more relevant to their very difficult life.
The Mark Apocalypse in Chapter 13 all most says as much when it warns people not to confuse the prophetic revolutionary leaders of the temple. The siege period with Jesus. I mean, you know, you have a warning against what people are not doing. And for somebody to have been doing that is almost to say they were reimagining Jesus as if he were Simon Barg or as or one of these other warrior messiahs.
So this is just some sort of idle speculation that even this is directly anticipated in the text. It’s amazing. And the one accomplishment that the seminar in general and you in particular have made to to point this out, it’s like having a veil removed in many, many ways.
Yeah. And it also just helps, too. It just makes it much more intelligible. What Jesus was about, because he could take all the teachings of the gospel sort of at face value and try to put them together into into a coherent portrait. What you get really is two very different kind of oil and water things which don’t really mix too well. You’d have on the one hand, this guy who teaches in these fascinating parables and aphorisms or shall we say wisdom sayings and then says, you know, let those who have ears to hear about the parent, which means figure it out for yourself and who teaches people to love their enemies and to do all these unexpected things like, you know, like love people who are of different ethnic background than your own.
So you’ve got that portrait. And on the other hand, you’ve got. The other guy saying, oh, yeah, and by the way, the rules ending soon and God’s going to smoke, you could get on online, unlike train. Those two things just seem so completely incompatible. They seem like it’s two different characters who are being mixed together.
And historically, solenoids work has helped us to see that both of those portraits are intelligible. One comes from the historical Jesus and the other comes from the Christians, about 30 or 40 years after his death to try to redo his his life and teachings and in a context that makes sense to them in their times of enormous stress.
Of course, this is the kind of thing that a lot of our detractors and apologists don’t buy.
I kind of run out of time, but I cannot let this go past. I just find I debate fundamentalist scholars and apologists fairly regularly, and it’s often frustrating. I’d like to hear your stance about whether these debates have any value. I believe I know what it is. It’s very interesting.
I think that the net effect of these is, is to lend legitimacy to fundamentalist scholars because it looks as if we are taking them seriously as colleagues and peers. Whereas in fact, their assumptions are so fundamentally different from what I would think of as true and honest, critical scholarship. I mean, all of their decisions and all of their positions are pre dictated by their conservative theology. And I just I’m really worried that the net effect of this, you know, people like you and me debating with them is to lend them a credibility that they really don’t deserve. So I have a lot of reservations about about these debates. What do you think?
Well, I believe you’re correct. But on the other hand, it enhances their credibility in the eyes of their own constituency anyway. They’re believing the same thing they would about the legitimacy of their scholars and their viewpoint, no matter what I might say. And I feel like there are probably there probably is a thin edge of questioning or unconvinced people that may hope the apologetics are true and fear they are not. And if I have the chance to get in there and say, we know your fears are well-founded, these people sadly do not know where they speak. I think I might be doing a favor to those people in the other ones. If it’s just entertainment to them, so be it. I think you are right. It’s just above all, I’m kind of aiming at a very thin slice of the audience. And the questions I usually get when they exchanges over tends to kind of confirm my hope that a surprising number of them have genuine questions and aren’t just trying to put me in my place and and which I thought they would all be doing. But as surprisingly, a lot of them really do seem to want to hear another side. So I keep it up when I am asked to do and I’d never initiate them. And you are right, though. There are one bad, bad byproducts like Dawkins says about evolution. There is the risk of making people think that we’re taken more seriously than we are.
Well, I mean, I was talking about the effect this creates among scholars. You’re talking about the effects on the real life audience. So I think what you had to say is really doesn’t contradict what I say. And and I you know, I happen to think more about what you think. You know, many of us, you know, who are in this position, you know, came out perfect for a traditional background, can point to some experience of reading or hearing someone talk. You know, that really helps us, helped us to question things in a way that says that set us free from those kinds of intellectual shackles.
They used to be this. It may still be this. This radio show done kind of like an old soap opera with organ music, etc. from the Pacific Garden mission called Unshackled. And each one of them was how I got saved from drunkenness or whatever. It’d be great to do an intellectually unshackled.
Where people said, oh, I got no I got saved from fundamentalism. Yeah.
Yeah, that would be right. Oh boy.
Well, not so fascinating though is this interview. You’re really a great guest. Not love to have you back on the point of inquiry. Thank you so much for spending the time with us.
Well, it’s been a real pleasure, Bob. Thanks.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join me online discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. And if you haven’t already subscribed to point of inquiry on I tunes, views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feed back at point of inquiry dot org.
Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winner Michael Whalid. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host. Robert Price.