In part one of our report, we looked at The Jesus Seminar and its impact on other “seminars” conducted as part of the Westar Institute.
I admit to being slightly amused at this statement on the Westar Institute website –
“Westar is not affiliated with any religious institution and does not advocate a particular theological point of view.”
That’s an interesting statement in light of their stated point of view about Christian theology, as you read in our previous report.
In part two, we will look at the founder of The Jesus Seminar and Westar Institute and his stated purposes for “rewriting” the history of Christianity.
[Podcast version available at the end of this post.]
Robert W. Funk (1926 – 2005) had a long history as an academic. He earned a B.D. from Christian Theological Seminary, an M.A. from Butler University, and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Funk’s teaching career included Texas Christian University, Harvard Divinity School, Emory University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Montana where he was Professor of Religious Studies from 1969-1986. Funk became Co-Chair of The Jesus Seminar in 1985 and founded Westar Institute a year later.
This is how Funk was memorialized after his death –
“A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and publisher in the field of religious studies, Robert Funk retired from the University of Montana in 1986 to found the Westar Institute, a non-profit research and educational institute dedicated to the advancement of religious literacy. Westar’s first project, the Jesus Seminar, renewed the quest for the historical Jesus begun by David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century and later taken up by Albert Schweitzer at the beginning of the twentieth. At the opening session of the Jesus Seminar in 1985, Funk defined its mission as follows: “We are going to inquire simply, rigorously after the voice of Jesus, after what he really said.” The Jesus of Nazareth discovered by the Jesus Seminar was a wisdom teacher whose parables proclaimed the arrival of God’s kingdom. He was not, in the judgment of the Seminar, the messiah of the end-times. These and other findings of the Seminar drew widespread attention throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Funk further influenced the course of biblical scholarship by insisting that Fellows of the Jesus Seminar communicate the results of biblical scholarship directly to the literate public.” Robert Walter Funk, In Memoriam – Westar Institute
The Quest Renewed
The “quest” for the historical Jesus began long before The Jesus Seminar convened in 1985. David Friedrich Strauss (1808 – 1874) was a German philosopher and theologian who published The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet) in 1835. He denied the historical value of the Gospels and rejected their supernatural claims as “historical myth.” He believed that came from 2nd century writers who wrote the “legend” of Christianity because of the “hopes” of believers. Strauss published The Old Faith and the New (Der alte und der neue Glaube) shortly before his death. It was his attempt to replace Christianity with a Darwinian type scientific materialism.
Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965) was a French-German theologian, philosopher and mission doctor who received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1952. He was also the author of The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1931).
Schweitzer summed up his findings in The Quest this way –
The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the kingdom of heaven upon earth and died to give his work its final consecration never existed. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in a historical garb …
Whatever the definite solution may be, the historical Jesus whom research will depict, on the basis of the problems which have been recognized and admitted, can never render modern theology the services which it claimed from its own semi-historical, semi-modern Jesus. He will no longer be a Jesus Christ to whom the religion of the present can ascribe, according to its long-cherished custom, its own thoughts and ideas, as it did with the Jesus of its own making. Nor will he be a figure who by a popular historical treatment can be made as sympathetic and universally intelligible to the multitude. With the specific characteristics of his notions and his actions, the historical Jesus will be to our times a stranger and an enigma.” The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer, First Fortress Press, 2001, p 478
Robert Funk wrote about historical milestones in the “quest” for the historical Jesus and included this –
“The quest for the historical Jesus has been underway for more than two centuries. It was launched about 1775, the same time the United States was being founded. Its progress is marked by milestones, landmark developments that represent the transition from one stage to another. The axioms that govern the current consensus emerged over that span of time.” Milestones in the Quest for the Historical Jesus, Westar Institute, 2001
Funk included the following scholars as part of the “milestones” in the quest for the historical Jesus –
- Hermann Samuel Reimarus – The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples – 1778
- David Friedrich Strauss – The Life of Jesus Critically Examined – 1835
- Christian Hermann Weisse – The Gospel History Critically and Philosophically Investigated – 1838
- Heinrich Julius Holtzmann – The Synoptic Gospels – 1863
- Johannes Weiss – Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God – 1892
- Wilhelm Wrede – The Messianic Secret in the Gospels – 1901
- Albert Schweitzer – The Quest of the Historical Jesus – 1906
- Karl Ludwig Schmidt – The Framework of the Gospels – 1919
- Rudolf Bultmann – History of the Synoptic Tradition – 1921
- Ernst Käsemann – “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” article – 1953
- Günther Bornkamm – Jesus of Nazareth – 1956
- James M. Robinson – The New Quest of the Historical Jesus – 1959
- Rudolf Bultmann – “New Testament and Mythology,”essay in Kerygma and Myth – 1961
- Amos Wilder – The Language of the Gospel: Early Christian Rhetoric – 1964
- Robert W. Funk – Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God – 1966
- Dan O. Via – The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension – 1967
- Geza Vermes – Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospel – 1973
- John Dominic Crossan – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus – 1973
- John Dominic Crossan – In Fragments: The Aphorisms of Jesus – 1983
- Marc Borg – Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus – 1984
- Thomas Sheehan – The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity – 1986
- Marc Borg – Jesus: A New Vision – 1987
- E. P. Sanders – Jesus and Judaism – 1985
- Burton Mack – A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins – 1988
- John P. Meier – A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vol. 1, The Roots of the Problem and the Person – 1991
- John Dominic Crossan – The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant – 1991
- Ben Witherington – The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth – 1992
- E. P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus – 1993
- Burton Mack – The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins – 1993
- Stephen J. Patterson – The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus – 1993
- Marc Borg – Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith – 1994
- John Dominic Crossan – Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography – 1994
- Leif E. Vaage – Galilean Upstarts: Jesus’ First Followers According to Q – 1994
- John Dominic Crossan – Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus – 1995
- Burton Mack – Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth – 1995
- N. T. Wright – Jesus and the Victory of God – 1996
- Robert Funk – Honest to Jesus – 1996
- N. T. Wright – The Original Jesus – 1997
- Dale Allison – Jesus of Nazareth. Millenarian Prophet – 1998
- Stephen J. Patterson – The God of Jesus. The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning – 1998
Robert Funk wrote this about the “renewed” quest in 2001 –
“The Renewed Quest, on the other hand, is by and large dedicated to the separation of Jesus from the views of his early followers, and thus to the goal set by Reimarus and endorsed by D. F. Strauss. The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus have attempted to carry that task to its logical conclusion. And it has attempted to do so by rigorous adherence to the milestones sketched above. Of course, like our predecessors, the Fellows of the Seminar are acutely aware that some of their work is tentative and will require modification. At some future generation, it will be decided whether we succeeded sufficiently to be awarded a place in a new history of the milestones of the quest.”
Westar Institute Today
What about the Westar Institute today, 13 years after the death of its founder Robert Funk?
“Westar Institute — home of the Jesus Seminar — is dedicated to fostering and communicating the results of cutting-edge scholarship on the history and evolution of the Christian tradition, thereby raising the level of public discourse about questions that matter in society and culture.
Westar is a non-profit, public-benefit research and educational organization that bridges the gap between scholarship about religion and the perception of religion in popular culture. In pursuit of its mission:
Westar conducts collaborative, cumulative research in the academic study of religion, addressing issues, questions, and controversies that are important both to the academic community and to the general public.
Westar communicates the results of its research in non-technical terms, equipping the general public with tools to critically evaluate competing claims in the public discussion of religion.” Westar Institute Mission Statement
How “cutting edge” is the scholarship of the Westar Institute? We’ll look at that in the next part of our report on The Jesus Seminar Revealed.