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A Credible Jesus
Robert W Funk, Polebridge Press, 2002

The great Christian vision which once captured the imaginations of many is beginning to fragment. As it shatters into many forms, so anxiety and irritation tend to replace the original inspiration.

That malaise today afflicts that great body of Christians we call the Church. For many centuries it has been able to build upon Christian teaching formulated in the first few centuries of its history. The elaborate paradigm of Medieval times now no longer reflects enough light to illuminate the way ahead. It is now left to a few brave pioneers in each generation to pioneer new paths despite the prevailing gloom.

Robert Funk (who died only recently) was the single most important driver behind a thirty-year endeavour known as the "Jesus Seminar". It aimed to recover a Jesus of Nazareth who does not carry on his shoulders the baggage of previous interpretations.

Like to many in the 1960s, Funk found himself no longer convinced by the

... assumption ... that Jesus is pretty much as he is represented in the New Testament gospels ... We now know that the New Testament gospels are theological from beginning to end ... Critical scholars are agreed that the historical figure differs in numerous important respects from the picture painted of [Jesus] in the four canonical stories.

If the gospels are theological expositions larded with snippets of history, it may not be justifiable to claim certain things for Jesus and therefore for the Church. But much more importantly, the traditional figure of Jesus as Messiah stands to lose his impact on ordinary people living ordinary lives, if not in developing countries, then certainly in Western democracies.

Funk was convinced that he should attempt to recover a Jesus  who would stand up to examination by secular historians. To achieve this, he gathered together influential scholars to discuss the fine details of the gospels in groups. But he took it a step further, no doubt aware that scholars seldom agree. He introduced a system of weighted voting to force the members of the Seminar off their scholarly fences. 

Underpinning the voting was an important rule:

Canonical boundaries are irrelevant in critical assessments of the various sources of information about Jesus. [1]

The only rules or canons to be used were those of historical enquiry. Also excluded was the interpretation of data. The gospel texts were classified into four types, regardless of what traditional teaching said or famous scholars thought. 

First, there were sayings and events which are definitely historical. Second were those passages about which the participants had substantial reservations. Third come the non-historical pieces which were judged to nevertheless contain ideas close to those of the historically authentic Jesus. Finally, there are those parts of the gospels which are not historical except insofar as they reflect the teaching and interpretations of early Christians.

The outcome was that at most some twenty percent of the gospels are what Jesus actually said or did. That conclusion, plus the working principle "When in sufficient doubt, leave it out" has attracted a startling degree of vilification and dismissal from Funk's fellow Christians in the United States and elsewhere.

Be that as it may, if Funk and the Jesus Seminar are even partly correct, the Church is faced with a substantial challenge, for it is possible that those who dismiss or oppose traditional Christianity do so on entirely reasonable grounds. It is therefore hardly surprising if they think that Jesus is irrelevant. 

For if we accept the broader findings of that analytical discipline we call "history" then it turns out - not only on the findings of the Jesus Seminar, but also of many scholars of the past two centuries - that the Jesus of tradition is not credible. This is true not because tradition is wrong or inadequate, but because the modern mind does not construe truth as did those which preceded it. Asking Mr and Mrs Average to think like an ancient Roman or even a medieval monk just doesn't work, except insofar as they can partition their minds into "religious" and "secular" compartments.

Hence the title of this book. How, asks Funk, do we place Jesus as a dynamic, influential person in the 21st century when all we have is a sketchy framework of his sayings and an even sketchier account of his actions? What is left after the fierce flames of reasoned history have been applied to the gospels? Are we perhaps left to sort through the ashes for a few scorched and twisted scraps?

His response is not a hefty tome laying out in scrupulous detail all the possible conclusions we can draw from the historical Jesus. Rather, as he says,

Visions come in bits and pieces, in random stunning insights, never in continuous, articulated wholes. That is because visions are more than the sum of their parts. Yet from these fragments we can begin to piece together some sense of the shape of the whole.

The bits and pieces of Jesus' vision are presented here in seventeen short essays. Together they attempt to portray the tenor of what Jesus said and did

... which is something quite different from the subject matter of his aphorisms and parables. The parable of the mustard seed, for example, is not about gardening. Indeed the tenor of his words often seems unrelated to the literal sense of his words.

The Jesus of history, it turns out, does not lecture us. Nor does he attempt to give us rules to live by. He does not attack or judge anyone. He is utterly different from the God-person the New Testament portrays and who the Church over centuries built up into a fabulous world-rescuer.  

Everything he says seems to be indirect rather than head-on. To understand him we must have some idea of the culture in which he lived, says Funk, for it is misleading to read the history if we don't know the context.

Funk's essays are brief and plain. It is that which makes them easy to grasp and tantalisingly blurry. A quick read through the book's contents will prove interesting. But reflecting on the substance of the historical Jesus he sketches will prove much more rewarding.

Central to the message of Jesus is what Funk calls "The invisible realm". This is usually rendered as the "kingdom of God" - theological shorthand which spouted by preachers and touted by scholars regardless, it seems, of its usefulness. In fact it is an archaism which conceals rather than reveals. Analysing Jesus' use of the term leads Funk to conclude that

The domain of God is not visible to those bound by traditional notions of power and authority. Jesus believed God's reign to be present, but not discernable to lazy or sleepy eyes, or eyes conditioned by the received world.

Nevertheless, everything that we know for sure about what Jesus said and did appears to Funk to aim at presenting in his typically offbeat way what is meant by God's domain.

Funks' conclusions are fascinating if they are carefully pondered. Jesus meant us to trust God and to celebrate every aspect of our lives. He actively sought time with outsiders and outcasts, while also heralding the end of kinship and tribalism as defining aspects of human society. His values are "counterintuitive" - by which Funk means that formulaic living is not what Jesus is trying to give us:

The divine domain runs counter to recipe knowledge ... whenever we become certain that we know what [God's rule] is, we can be even more certain that it is not that. That requires living without reservation into a completely open future.

True rewards, in Funk's vision of Jesus, are always intrinsic. The gospels promise extrinsic rewards - both positive and negative, earthly and heavenly. If we listen to Jesus, God will approve of us. We will join the flock of sheep, not the herd of goats. If we don't do what we're told by Jesus to do, then we will join other evil people in the fiery furnace. But Funk points out that take away the concerns of the early Christians and we are left with the the counsel that God is generous to all alike.

This is not a heavy book. Its simplicity is pleasing and its brevity somewhat unusual for the subject covered. However, it is likely to dismay or disconcert those who need a drawn-out, detailed blueprint from Jesus about life and its meaning. The Church today lays out a vast supermarket of spiritual goods for us to buy into. Funk's version of Jesus is more like a stall at a country market - a nice variety, but not sophisticated.

It is at this point where traditional understanding most obviously branches off from Funk's vision of Jesus. It could be argued that the Jesus of history he presents is too minimal to be of much use.

But that is true only if we expect to run our lives by rote, if we think that the New Testament, and the gospels in particular, is a manual of truth by which we can work out all the answers. It is now plain that we have inherited two distinct versions of Jesus:

  1. The first is that of the Church - that vast body of thought, preaching and teaching which begins in the gospels and continues to this day. This is the Jesus of tradition, the interpreted Jesus, the second-hand Jesus who has a maker's stamp on him.

  2. The second is an historical Jesus - the man who remains when all the teaching and tradition has been stripped away. Even then he is not first-hand, for everything we know about Jesus is by definition relayed to us through others. But it is the nearest we can get.

If the second is skimpy, the challenge to the Christian today is nevertheless both greater and very different from what has gone before.. 

It is greater because we are left more to our own devices than the traditional Church version of Jesus allows. Previously there was supposed to be an orthodox version of Jesus, one which was given by the Church as it were for our consumption. Now it appears that we may have to face starting anew with a minimal Jesus and working out for ourselves how to put flesh on him.

And of a different sort because we no longer depend on authority to be Christian in today's world. We have nobody to do it for us (what Funks calls "brokered religion") and we do it not by responding to example or edict, but by living out in our own way what Jesus began.

Although Funk doesn't discuss it here, the historical Jesus he presents is without doubt a threat to established Christianity. The sacred hierarchy's role is drastically diminished, and its power base totally destroyed. We must expect a backlash from those who have derived their life's meaning from vested authority.

For those who embrace this exciting vision the future holds enormous promise and excitement, for it is they who will carve out a new response to Jesus. This book can only be a great help in the task.
[1] The Five Gospels, Polebridge Press, 1996, by Robert Funk & Roy Hoover

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