|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
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
Underpinning the voting was an important rule:
Canonical boundaries are irrelevant in critical assessments of the
various sources of information about Jesus. 
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.
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.
 The Five Gospels, Polebridge Press,
1996, by Robert Funk & Roy Hoover