In the last part of our report, we looked at the founder of The Jesus Seminar and Westar Institute, Robert Funk. He was a leader in the new “quest” for the historical Jesus until his death in 2005.
Westar Institute’s “mission” statement claims that the organization “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.”
Question: how “cutting-edge” is Westar’s scholarship?
[Podcast version available at the end of this post.]
“The reason for the popularity of the Jesus Seminar, at least for a short time, was not because it was brilliant, cutting-edge, top-notch scholarship. Rather, its popularity lay in that it was saying something many Americans wanted to hear. The Jesus Seminar sounded scientific, while appealing to the popular imagination. These scholars were saying there is a different way of construing Christianity, which is neither the right-wing Protestantism nor the right-wing Catholicism with which we grew up – and it is certainly quite unlike televangelism.” N.T. Wright, Seven Problems with the Jesus Seminar, 2001
I begin with N.T. Wright because Robert Funk included Wright in his “milestones” of the quest for the historical Jesus (detailed in our last report).
I addressed the “presuppositions” of Funk and The Jesus Seminar in an earlier report. Here’s more on that from Christian philosopher and professor William Lane Craig –
“Now look carefully at what the Jesus Seminar says about Strauss:
‘Strauss distinguished what he called the ‘mythical’ (defined by him as anything legendary or supernatural) in the Gospels from the historical . . . . The choice Strauss posed in his assessment of the Gospels was between the supernatural Jesus, the Christ of faith, and the historical Jesus.
Anything that is supernatural is by definition not historical. There’s no argument given; it’s just defined that way. Thus we have a radical divorce between the Christ of faith, or the supernatural Jesus, and the real, historical Jesus. Now the Jesus Seminar gives a ringing endorsement of Strauss’s distinction: they say that the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith is “the first pillar of scholarly wisdom.’
But now the whole quest of the historical Jesus becomes a charade. If you begin by presupposing naturalism, then of course what you wind up with is a purely natural Jesus! This reconstructed, naturalistic Jesus is not based on evidence, but on definition. What is amazing is that the Jesus Seminar makes no attempt to defend this naturalism; it is just presupposed. But this presupposition is wholly unjustified. As long as the existence of God is even possible, then we have to be open to the possibility that He has acted miraculously in the universe. Only if you have a proof for atheism can you be justified in thinking miracles are impossible.
This raises the very real question of whether the fellows of the Jesus Seminar even believe that God really exists.” William Lane Craig, Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar, Reasonable Faith
Dr. Craig had the opportunity to question John Dominick Crossan of The Jesus Seminar about the existence of God and you can read about it here.
Westar presents itself as a scholarly institute, but is it? Can a scholarly institute that operates as an agenda-driven organization to undermine orthodox Christianity be called “scholarly?” Funk, who spoke about the Bible as “fiction,” wrote this about Jesus –
“Those of us who work with that hypothetical middle—Jesus of Nazareth—are hard pressed to concoct any form of coherence that will unite beginning, middle, and end in some grand new fiction that will meet all the requirements of narrative. To put the matter bluntly, we are having as much trouble with the middle—the messiah—as we are with the terminal points. What we need is a new fiction that takes as its starting point the central event in the Judeo-Christian drama and reconciles that middle with a new story that reaches beyond old beginnings and endings. In sum, we need a new narrative of Jesus, a new gospel, if you will, that places Jesus differently in the grand scheme, the epic story … The fiction of Revelation keeps many common folk in bondage to ignorance and fear. We require a new, liberating fiction, one that squares with the best knowledge we can now accumulate and one that transcends self-serving ideologies. And we need a fiction that we recognize to be fictive.” Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar Opening Remarks, 1985
That was part of Funk’s speech at the launch of The Jesus Seminar more than 30 years ago. Not sure how his need for “a new fiction” concerning Jesus Christ advances scholarship – but there you have it, part of Funk and Westar’s “fostering and communicating the results of cutting-edge scholarship on the history and evolution of the Christian tradition.”
The “scholarship” of Robert Funk and Westar Institute reached the bottom rung (humble opinion) in 1998 when he wrote these words about theology. Be sure to fasten your seatbelt!
“The God of the metaphysical age is dead. There is not a personal god out there external to human beings and the material world.
The deliteralization of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis brought an end to the dogma of original sin as something inherited from the first human being.
Miracles are an affront to the justice and integrity of God, however understood.
Prayer is meaningless when understood as requests addressed to an external God for favor or forgiveness and meaningless if God does not interfere with the laws of nature.
We should give Jesus a demotion. It is no longer credible to think of Jesus as divine. Jesus’ divinity goes together with the old theistic way of thinking about God.
The plot early Christians invented for a divine redeemer figure is as archaic as the mythology in which it is framed. A Jesus who drops down out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the power of sin, rises from the dead, and returns to heaven is simply no longer credible. The notion that he will return at the end of time and sit in cosmic judgment is equally incredible. We must find a new plot for a more credible Jesus.
The virgin birth of Jesus is an insult to modern intelligence and should be abandoned. In addition, it is a pernicious doctrine that denigrates women.
The doctrine of the atonement—the claim that God killed his own son in order to satisfy his thirst for satisfaction—is subrational and subethical. This monstrous doctrine is the stepchild of a primitive sacrificial system in which the gods had to be appeased by offering them some special gift, such as a child or an animal.
The resurrection of Jesus did not involve the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus did not rise from the dead, except perhaps in some metaphorical sense.
The New Testament is a highly uneven and biased record of orthodox attempts to invent Christianity.
The Bible does not contain fixed, objective standards of behavior that should govern human behavior for all time. This includes the ten commandments as well as the admonitions of Jesus.” Robert Funk, The Coming Radical Reformation, 1998
Keep in mind that The Jesus Seminar completed its work in 1998, so Funk was writing from the vast array of great “scholarship” that he and scores of other “scholars” were able to determine after 13 years of collaboration.
I learned many years ago as a radio and television journalist to let people speak for themselves whenever possible. There’s nothing like hearing what people believe from their own mouths. Remember that Funk called himself a scholar. How does this “scholar” recommend we deal with his “revelations” about God, the Bible and Jesus?
“In rearticulating the vision of Jesus, we should take care to express ourselves in the same register as he employed in his parables and aphorisms—paradox, hyperbole, exaggeration, and metaphor. Further, our reconstructions of his vision should be provisional, always subject to modification and correction.” The Coming Radical Reformation
Playing the Public
One of Funk’s primary goals for The Jesus Seminar was that everything they did would be “public.” That was public relations genius on his part.
“Our basic plan is simple. We intend to examine every fragment of the traditions attached to the name of Jesus in order to determine what he really said—not his literal words, perhaps, but the substance and style of his utterances. We are in quest of his voice, insofar as it can be distinguished from many other voices also preserved in the tradition. We are prepared to bring to bear everything we know and can learn about the form and content, about the formation and transmission, of aphorisms and parables, dialogues and debates, attributed or attributable to Jesus, in order to carry out our task.” Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar Opening Remarks, 1985
The media ate up the opportunity to interview Bible “scholars” who believed the theological points listed earlier from Funk. There is a strong ‘anti-God, anti-Bible, anti-Christ’ view among members of the news media and it’s been that way for a long time. I used to be one of them in my early days in radio and television in the 1960s. The Jesus Seminar was a ready-made ‘revisionist agenda’ machine for people trying to erode belief in historic Christianity. Funk and other members of the Jesus Seminar were interviewed many times for many years and were presented by the media as biblical “experts.” For many members of the public who didn’t know better, they bought what the Seminar members were selling.
Here’s a media coverage example from a Los Angeles Times story from March 22, 1995. I found the writer’s question to be insightful.
“The Jesus Seminar has asserted most of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are fabrications. They also advised us of their opinion that the physical Resurrection of Jesus is also a fabrication. It’s only a matter of time before they decide there was no crucifixion and, from there, it’s just a short hop to the declaration there was no Jesus at all. Why are they fudging? Instead of chipping away at the Christian faith, why not just declare the whole thing a hoax and be done with it?” Los Angeles Times Articles Archives
The Jesus Seminar concluded its work 20 years ago, but the work of Westar Institute continues. Other seminar topics have been completed and two more are still active. Robert Funk died 13 years ago, but the work of Westar Institute continues. It would be a mistake to think that the influence of The Jesus Seminar has disappeared or even waned. The impact of its conclusion in 1998 and the many books that seminar members have written since that time is still being felt in our world – from the classroom to the boardroom. The impetus of the seminar that has led to even more seminars and books continues to bring fresh debate into the public arena through the media every Christmas and Easter season as the media places Westar’s so-called “scholarship” about Jesus Christ on public display. Thousands of today’s college and seminary professors once sat in classrooms as students and learned about the Seminar’s conclusions. They are now teaching those same beliefs to their students who will one day be teachers and business, community and church leaders. Many are now teaching ‘theology’ in Christian colleges and seminaries and leading another generation down a bad path of poor scholarship and erroneous theology.
I hope this brief series of reports about The Jesus Seminar Revealed will stir within you the desire for good biblical scholarship .. and to that end please click on the links below to learn more.