Saturday, 19 February 2011

Lives of Jesus 4 - Robert Funk

Enough of this frivolity!  After the bizarre speculations of Thiering and Pullman it's almost a relief to come to something as scholarly as Robert W Funk's Honest to Jesus.

Robert Funk was a serious American scholar, lifelong academic and biblical historian.  His biggest claim to fame is as the driving force behind The Jesus Seminar, the work of which I have already alluded to in discussing James Robinson.  However he is also the founder and during his life the director of the Westar Institute, "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" as it's own website says.

The first and most famous (or notorious) publication of The Jesus Seminar, edited by Funk, was The Five Gospels, a critical edition of the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) plus the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas.  What they did was this.  The two hundred or so members of the Seminar met regularly over a number of years to discuss the various saying of Jesus in each of these gospels, in an attempt to decide the extent to which each passage represented the "authentic" historical Jesus, as opposed to a later Christian or Jewish interpolation into his life.  At the end of their discussions they would vote, with four choices - red for "almost certainly Jesus", purple for "something like Jesus", grey for "not much of the original Jesus" and black for "certainly not".  The votes were tallied up, and the passages in The Five Gospels are printed in the colour of the conclusion reached by the Seminar as a whole.

This process, of course, required its participants to accept two premises - that the gospels contain a mix of "genuine" stories about Jesus and later additions, and that it is possible to tell which is which.  It's hardly surprising, then, that they ended up rejecting a large proportion of the gospel accounts.  Very little of John or Thomas survives their scrutiny.  All the birth and resurrection stories, and indeed all the miracles at every point, appear in black print.  All of Jesus prophetic statements, claims to divinity or special status are gone.  Many of the teachings also miss the cut.

Honest to Jesus picks up where The Five Gospels leaves off.  Where The Five Gospels presents the raw material and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions, Funk provides a context, rationale and his own solution to the question "who was Jesus".

This is no work of dry scholarship.  Part of Funk's mission is to bring critical Bibilical scholarship out of the closet.  In his view there is a huge dysjunction between what scholars (at least those in The Jesus Seminar) conclude about Jesus from their research, and what ordinary church members believe and are being taught.  This mission is deeply personal for Funk, a Bible scholar alienated from the Church.  His ambition is quite breathtaking.  He wants to rescue Jesus from the clutches of the church, from the hands of Peter and Paul, the New Testament writers and the Church Councils, and present him "as he really was".  He aims for a thoroughly radical seperation of the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

The aim of the quest is to set Jesus free.  Its purpose is to liberate Jesus from the scriptural and creedal and experiential prisons in which we have incarcerated him.  What would happen if "the dangerous and subversive memories" of that solitary figure were really stripped of their interpretive overlay? Were that to happen, the gospel of Jesus would be liberated from the Jesus of the gospels and allowed to speak for itself.  The creedal formulations of the second, third and fourth centuries would be de-dogmatised and Jesus would be permitted to emerge as a robust, real, larger-than-life figure in his own right.  Moreover, current images of Jesus would be torn up by their long affective roots and their attachment to pet causes severed.  The pale, anemic, iconic Jesus would suffer by comparison with the stark realism of the genuine article.

So who is this "genuine article"?  The miracles, the birth, death and resurrection stories, the prophecies and claims about himself, are all stripped away as later creedal additions which do not come from Jesus himself.  What is left are certain sayings, mainly parables and aphorisms extracted from the synoptic gospels by the critical processes of The Jesus Seminar.  These parables are allusive in nature, radical in the changes they ask of the listeners, and elusive in that their meaning is not plain and simple.  Jesus is a sage, a radical, secular sage who draws more inspiration from the Greek Cynic philosophers than from the Old Testament.

The renewed quest points to a secular sage who may have more relevance to the spiritual dimensions of society at large than to institutionalised religion.  As a subversive sage, Jesus is also a secular sage.  His parables and aphorisms all but obliterate the boundaries separating the sacred from the secular.  He can teach us something that has nothing directly to do with what we know as Christianity or, indeed, with organised religion as such.

Funk is well aware of the implications of this view.

Jesus is one of the great sages of history, and his insights should be taken seriously but tested by reference to other seers, ancient and modern, who have had glimpses of the eternal, and by reference to everything we can learn from the sciences, the poets and the artists.  Real knowledge is indiscriminate in the vessels it elects to fill.

This is as thorough a piece of skepticism as one can imagine.  Funk's deconstruction is complete.  Jesus is severed from his Jewish roots and his Christian followers, even those who knew him personally.  He emerges as a supreme individual, a Neitszchian or Randian superman who stands alone and misunderstood amidst a sea of mediocrity and religious obscurantism.  Yet far from being "larger than life" he is hardly there at all.  Only a few brief, obscure parables and sayings remain.  The rest is a product of Funk's imagination, his own construction to replace the bits cut from the gospels.

It seems to me that there are two problems with the approach taken by Funk and by The Jesus Seminar.  The first is inherent in the exercise itself.  The information we have from closest to Jesus' time is almost all in the canonical gospels.  This means that if you want to examine them critically with the aim of determining which parts are "genuinely" Jesus and which parts are not, you must have some other way of telling what the "genuine" Jesus was like.  Where will this information come from?

Funk's answer lies in the "criterion of dissimilarity".  If something sounds like a piece of Christian or Jewish theology, then it has come from a Christian or Jewish source, not from Jesus.  Jesus' unique voice is recognised by its difference from anything else.  This is a remarkable leap of faith, the hugest of heroic assumptions.  Jesus is, by definition, isolated from both his Jewish context and heritage, and from the subsequent thinking of even his most intimate followers.  It is tempting to believe that in jettisoning these connections, Funk has simply created Jesus is his own image.

The second problem follows.  Within a few decades of Jesus' crucifixion, a movement initiated by his closest followers had spread throughout the Roman Empire.  This was not a school of philosophy which celebrated Jesus' subversive sagacity, it was a religious movement which revered him as the Son of God.  How did this come about, in the face of a Jesus so completely different from the one we meet in the New Testament?  Either the disciples completely misunderstood him (and we had to wait a full 2000 years for Dr Funk to correct their misunderstanding), or they simply manipulated his name for their own devious ends, as Thiering suggests.  But what did they gain from this save for flogging, imprisonment and execution?

Funk says he is trying to rescue Jesus from the chains of dogma.  Perhaps Jesus didn't need rescuing as much as Funk himself, struggling with a theology he could no longer believe and yet yearning for a place to belong, a true sprituality by which to guide his life.  I find his concusions hard to swallow, but I can relate to his questions, and respect his passion, his honesty and his hunger for truth.

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