But this worry is not something I want to talk about today. I'll likely take it up in another post later on. I only mention it now because it is this concern that has fired me up today to think about the problem of the historical Jesus more generally. So what this post is about is the scholarly enterprise that TJP is a reaction to - the Jesus Seminar (TJS) and the numerous claims of books by scholars over at least a century and a half - that they have recovered "the" historical Jesus.
I also want to preface my comments by noting that the turning point for me - the THING if there was one THING - the moment when I KNEW I would become a biblical scholar - was when I was in my senior year in college and had just read Norman Perrin's fabulous book, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. I was walking across campus reflecting on the book, and I had been so inspired (one might even say liberated) by Perrin's words that I could see my own future as an academic very clearly for the first time in my life. I spent the next years gobbling up everything I could read from Bultmann to Jeremias to Vermes, fascinated with the quest for the historical Jesus. This was in the mid 80s, which marked the start of the Jesus Seminar and the industry of publishing portrait after portrait of historical Jesus. I had some qualms at the time that the authenticity of Jesus' sayings was tied to a democratic vote of colored marbles. But I understood the arguments and decisions that were being made by TJS because I understood the methodology which was standard fare for anyone studying bible. It wasn't so well-known to the public, but for academics the methods were quite traditional and acceptable in the Academy.
I have discovered something neat about my life since then - that I never stop growing and learning - that when I learn something new, it usually ends up affecting a number of other things that I thought I knew - and so this leads to new questions whose answers sometimes open up a can of worms, or lead to uncertainties, or re-orient my picture so that finally everything falls into place (which can be nice).
And so it has been. I defended my dissertation in December, 1993. Since then I have continued to learn, and I am now in the position of saying that Norman Perrin's book might be fantastic, but it is bankrupt, as is the Jesus Seminar Jesus. This Jesus is nothing more than a constructed person who exists only in our imaginations. I say this not because I am a myther. In fact, I think that the myther position cannot be maintained, because parallels between Jesus' myth and other ancient myths tell us nothing about whether or not he lived as a real person. It only tells us that ancient people cast their memories of Jesus into mythological narratives and schema that were part of their culture and minds. Rather I say this because I have come to realize over the years that the methodology and the assumptions of the methodology that were used to construct Perrin's Jesus and the Jesus Seminar Jesus are bankrupt.
I'm not taking these in any special order because I'm thinking aloud here. So in this post let's look at multiple attestation of independent sources. For this criteria to work it assumes that if I find the "same" saying of Jesus in more than one source (that do not have literary connections), I can be more confident that the saying is early (because the two sources are picking it up from something prior to them, rather than the author of the source creating it himself). The conclusion is that this is a saying that we can more confidently trace to Jesus.
But is it? If we study ancient oral and rhetorical culture, if we study human memory, such a confidence fades quickly. And when we realize that, in addition, the Jesus traditions are being transmitted within a charismatic environment where the believers are convinced that the living Jesus still speaks to them through their own prophets (which was an established "office" in the early church that was occupied by both men and women), any confidence left vanishes.
I can imagine a situation in which a prophet only a few years after Jesus' death might address an audience out of the spirit saying, "And Jesus says to you today, 'Do not cast your pearls to the pigs." Did Jesus say it? I mean the historical Jesus? Or the living Jesus of the spirit? I don't know. And I imagine the audience didn't know. But let's say that there were a number of people in the audience who liked it, and so they happened to pass the saying on to their families and friends, and it became quite popular, finding its way into a couple of our earliest Christian sources as words of Jesus.
So what does multiple attestation in independent sources actually tell us?
- that the saying was remembered as Jesus' by some early Christians,
- that it was well-known and popular enough to find its way into more than one early Christian book,
- that early preachers and missionaries found it useful enough to keep it in circulation,
- that the saying existed in more than one version.
Thus multiple independent attestation does not leave us confident that multiply-attested sayings more likely represent sayings that the historical Jesus originated than singly-attested sayings. Morever, multiple independent attestation works against any program that wishes to establish Jesus' actual words because, without direct literary dependence, it is impossible to reconstruct a single originating structure and identify deviant versions, let alone confidently trace them to the historical Jesus. Multiple independent attestation leaves Jesus' words multiform and fluid and smack dab in the middle of the early Christian experience (not necessarily the historical Jesus').
Tomorrow I will try to post my thoughts on a second criteria used by the Jesus Seminar to determine Jesus' words.