Item description for The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics by Robert J. Miller...
The pioneering work of The Jesus Seminar has come in for high praise as well as searing denunciation from the press, the clergy, the scholars. Now a veteran member of the Seminar, Robert Miller, examines its agenda and its inner deliberations, dissecting the rationale of the Seminar's historical work and clearly explaining what its findings portend.
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More About Robert J. Miller
Father Robert Miller is Pastor of St. Dorothy Church in Chicago. He is the author of five other books, the most recent of which is Surprised by Love.
Reviews - What do customers think about The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics?
Miller body-slams the conservatives Jun 13, 2008
Robert Miller in this well-written book takes on and dismantles the presuppositions of certain distinguished spokesmen of the Christian evangelical camp. This is an important book, not because the (in)famous Jesus Seminar needs Miller to defend its methodology particularly, but because a strong case for rationality, reasonable objectivity and close examination of presuppositions in approaching biblical literature in general is laid out.
Much has been made of the "voting" method of the Seminar, both in the popular media and among biblical specialists. Miller does a great job here breaking down the mystique (and sometimes fear) of the rationale for the process, which essentially is not much different than any group of religious figures used throughout history to try to derive a consensus of some type... Think of the famous creeds in the early church. No, the ancient participants didn't use colors to make personal judgments, but the debate process, argument, and fleshing out of a consensus view wasn't really much different than the Jesus Seminar does today. And dissenters were always present, and remained dissenters afterward. The JS crowd surely hasn't invented much new here except maybe a simple color scheme, in spite of the sensationalist hoopla.
So much for methodology criticisms...personally, I don't see a problem with the rationale. Of course, we are not here assuming a fundamentalist position, which BY VERY DEFINITION sees these sorts of debates and personal judgment calls as an affront to the literature's own internal claims for infallibility. But surely initiating any study of the scriptures with the assumption that they are "absolute truth" is an arbitrary, if not completely non-empirical, way of beginning. The only reason one holds these kinds of suppositions is because of prior conditioning from perhaps family, plus religious "authority figures", maybe over a lifetime. But conditioning doesn't automatically equate to factuality. The whole field of biblical criticism the last several hundred years has realized the Bible, as a document handed down to us today, is just that- it cannot be treated any differently than other world literature. It is subject to historical scrutiny, criticism, examination for scientific accuracy, and so on, just as much as any other literature that claims to be a guide for a particular worldview. This is unavoidable, if one really wants to be a "truth seeker". Alas, it is also the main reason why debate between religious evangelicals and liberals is largely doomed. The presuppositions between the two camps cannot be more different. The alleged "infallibility" of biblical literature, then, is the crucial battle zone, and involves strong emotional attachment, perhaps on all sides. Whether the Jesus Seminar has a lousy voting methodology or not is an interesting topic, but it pales before the larger question of whether one presupposes the Bible to be inspired and infallible, or not. I submit this is the real reason for the strong backlash from evangelicals (the non-evangelical criticisms have a different motive) concerning the JS "voting" method.
In saying all this, don't think this review is a blanket support of the Jesus Seminar crowd, however... I believe, like many others, that the JS group of scholars is largely a local U.S. phenomenon, since there are hardly any Europeans in it, for one thing. And it projects a certain mentality of its own, thanks in large part to prominent, vocal scholars in it such as J.D. Crossan, Marcus Borg, Stephen Patterson and so on. The results of the scholarship of this group have produced some idiosyncratic- if not downright questionable- methodologies and conclusions, such as Jesus supposedly being a wandering cynic with a non-apocalyptic message, whose entire ministry seemed to consist of spouting out clever one-liners and pithy counter-culture stories. While such a "Jesus" (I use the name loosely) might be attractive to moderns, especially living in California, it might occur to readers that it has very little to do with the actual Synoptic portraits. To be that far removed from the Synoptics probably tells us more about the Jesus Seminar that it does about Jesus...(see my this site review of the non-apocalyptic debate in the book "The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate"- another fine book!).
Be that as it may, Miller's book here really has a broader purpose than to promote the Jesus Seminar, so my criticisms of the group really have little bearing on the fine work he has accomplished here baring the empirical and rational poverty of the evangelical approach. Regardless of where one stands on the debate, the book deserves to be purchased as a valuable contribution and clarification of dividing lines between evangelical assumptions vs. mainstream bibical scholarship.
Four stars, not five, merely because anything with "Jesus Seminar" in the title shouldn't get five, just out of principle...just kidding, Crossan and Co.
A good intro to the Jesus seminar Jan 3, 2007
The author laments critics of the seminar who cross the line from objectivity into vitrol, and takes the moral high ground with respectful rebuttals. Superbly written with logical, introspective, and fair summaries of the seminar's strengths and weaknesses.
A most lucid introduction to the Jesus Seminar Mar 18, 2005
I highly recommend _The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics_ as an introduction to the work, methodologies, premises of the Jesus Seminar, and as its title tells us, to some of the critiques that have been hurled at it. (For a more extensive discussion of the "rules of evidence" employed by the Seminar please see _The Five Gospels_ and _The Acts of Jesus_, both by the JS.)
The project founded by Robert Funk in 1985 known as the Jesus Seminar (JS) is controversial (particularly back in the 90s). To some that may be an understatement. Not only evangelicals and fundamentalists but even such noted critical scholars as Catholic priest (now monsignor) John Meier have criticized and taken potshots at the JS. But why?
Reading Miller and other Fellows of the JS, it seems that what has earned the ire of nonJS scholars and "conservative" Christian groups is not the findings of JS per se, since a good deal of what the JS is making public are matters which critical biblical scholars have known for decades. Rather, what has triggered the avalanche of somtimes very emotionally laden criticisms is the fact that the JS had the gall of making these findings public, and actually making it a policy to maintain close ties with the public. Thus, in an interview with americancatholic[dot]org we hear Fr. Meier deriding the JS:
"Everything [in the US including biblical scholarship] has been turned into televised soap opera. Robert Funk, head of the Jesus Seminar, at one point was planning televised sessions of the Jesus Seminar in which there'd be debates and then scoring; it almost sounds like a hilarious send-up. You can't mock it because it is such a caricature even to begin with!
"But I think one of the great problems is precisely that. Serious scholars have--my goodness, down from Reimarus onward--a whole history of writing serious works on a serious topic. And none of them, thank God, ever descended to the TV tabloid-show approach. This, unfortunately, is a uniquely American phenomenon of just the past two decades."
It seems Meier would have had no objection to the JS had it not gone public, had it kept its work within the "serious" setting of universities and seminaries, in the manner of Reimarus, Schweitzer, Bultmann, et al. Miller's contention is supported by the fact that findings of critical scholars, JS or otherwise, are hardly that divergent. As writer Russell Shorto evinces in his _The Gospel Truth_, Meier's and the JS' findings actually converge. As with the JS, Meier believes in the existence of the Sayings Gospel Q[uelle], claims that various events and sayings by Jesus in the gospels are nonhistorical and instead are overlays by the evangelists, and rejects nearly two thirds of the miracles stories attributed to Jesus, deeming them to be later overlays. Moreover, in the above interview, speaking of Jesus' resurrection Meier tells us that "not everything that is real either exists in time and space or is empirically verifiable by historical means." In the same vein, and without need to resort to such "safe" language (bear in mind Meier is operating under the dagger of the Vatican), most JS Fellows do not see the resurrection as a historical event.
The thing is, we, the public, have been in the dark about historical Jesus research long enough. Miller tells us that "[s]cholars using the historical-critical approach have known for over a century that the gospels are a blend of historical remembrance and Christian interpretation, which means that not every deed and word attributed to Jesus in the gospels can actually be traced to him....Yet no one, professors and clergy alike, tries to communicate this way of understanding to the public." (p. 11)
As for those who find fault in the JS, Miller says "[c]ritics are right to protest that many scholars disagree with the Seminar's results, but they do a disservice if they perpetuate the impression that doubts about the historical accuracy of significant portions of the gospels are confined to some radical splinter group." (p. 67)
In the spirit of having *everyone* lay their cards on the table, Miller rightly desires that "reporters who interview critics of the Seminar...ask *them* [the critics] which items in the gospels *they* consider non-historical." (ibid., emphases original) Indeed, Miller in the second part of his book (and Robert Price in an article in the _Journal of Higher Criticism_), tells us that Luke Timothy Johnson--a most vociferous critic of the JS--is more radically skeptical than the JS. It is Johnson's contention that hardly anything in the gospels is historically reliable. For instance Johnson "does not identify a single saying of Jesus that he considers historically authentic." (p. 88) Given such a stand, instead of looking for the historical Jesus, Johnson would have us stick to the Jesus/Christ of Christian faith.
Apropos of Johnson, it is interesting to note that professor and evangelical William Lane Craig cites Johnson in his critique of the JS. Craig is a firm believer in the literal historicity of, for example, the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus--resurrection as the resuscitation of a corpse. So it's rather ironic that Craig would haul Johnson in his defense. It would be quite interesting to interview Craig and ask him to what extent he agrees with Johnson on the matter of historicity of the gospel accounts.
In the last chapter Miller tackles apologetics. He shares his own experience as an apologist during his youth. While Miller had no problems convincing people with his apologies--using as guinea pigs his Catholic teachers, friends, and classmates, and receiving useful feedback from them--things turned out rather differently by the time he took graduate studies at a secular university. Suddenly, his apologia made not a dent on his nonChristian schoolmates. None of them were persuaded by his arguments for Christianity. Miller admits it took several years for him to realize that the reason why apologetics does not convince "outsiders" is that "insiders" have implicit assumptions which they take for granted but which of course outsiders question and are skeptical about.
Overall, Miller has written a lucid and enlightening look into the Jesus Seminar, and has satisfactorily tackled the critiques of L.T. Johnson and Ben Witherington. Perhaps Miller and the Fellows of the JS are right. That the ruckus raised by its critics are fueled more by fear of the consequences of letting the cat out of the bag and allowing the public to be scandalized by what scholars have been keeping, by default, a secret all this time in the cloisters of academia and seminaries. Perhaps it isn't so much what the JS is telling us that's driving these critics up the wall, as that they are spilling the beans, the fruits of over a century of biblical scholarship.
An Excellent Overview of a Most Valuable Enterprise Jul 23, 2003
Dr. Miller provides a fairly detailed explanation of what the Jesus Seminar is and how it works, and then answers two of its most prominent critics, Luke Timothy Johnson and Ben Witherington. Johnson appears to be somewhere near mainstream Christian and Witherington Fundamentalist (neither is identified by denomination). Dr. Miller is Roman Catholic.
Fellowship in the Jesus Seminar is open to anyone with an accredited earned doctorate in Religion, Theology, etc. The Seminar has published numerous books, including "The Five Gospels," in which the words attributed to Jesus are printed in (in decreasing order of perceived authenticity) red, pink, grey, or black. Red means the consensus of fellows of the Seminar is that these words are authentically a close English equivalent of what Jesus actually said (in Aramaic or possibly Greek) Black means the consensus of the fellows is that these are not authentic words of Jesus, OR that they are something that most any Jew of Jesus time probably said on occasion; that is, not distinctively of Jesus. Pink and grey are lesser degrees of certainty than red, but more than black.
One common criticism of the four-color schema is that any particular saying either WAS or WASN'T said by Jesus, there can be no in-between. This is, of course, true, but there ARE varying degrees of certainty as to whether particular sayings are authentic. Pink does NOT mean that the saying is, say, 66% authentic (that is an absurdity) but that the fellows, looking at the available evidence from nearly 2000 years ago, averaged to be about 66% convinced that Jesus actually said it (or 34% convinced that the didn't).
One small change that I think would be beneficial would be to show some distinction between those words which are in black because Jesus very likely did not say them, and those which are black because most Jews of jesus' time said them on occasion. I suppose the distinction is so obvious to professional new testament scholars as not to require a difference in print, but it would be helpful to us lay persons. They could use italics for the words not distinctively of Jesus, but which he probably did say. Also, it might blunt some criticism.
In any book that criticizes another, or responds to criticism, one may wonder whether the objects of criticism or the arguments of the critic(s) are presented fairly. To be certain, one must read the work(s) in question, in this case The Real Jesus : The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels by Luke Timothy Johnson and The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth by Ben Witherington.
However, I trust Miller's integrity enough to believe that he has presented the criticisms of Johnson and Witherington honestly, not in a watered-down, easy-to-refute version.
I recommend this book highly. It is not only interesting and informative, but lucid and well-written.
A good idea that falls short Apr 20, 2002
Watching Biblical scholars debate is not pretty. They split hairs, parse the subtitles of each other's books and peck at each other's religious fidelity, scholarly rigor, or intellectual integrity. This might be inevitable, given the scarcity of material they work with. They have only a few ancient texts, with scant corroborating historical evidence and little hope of finding new documents.
Add to this the fact that over the past two millennia, a gigantic political, military, social, religious and economic superstructure has grown up around the Bible, using it to accumulate vast power and to justify wide extremes of behavior, from the ruthless to the benevolent. The slightest peep that challenges any part of this superstructure is bound to bring down upon the peeper the wrath of one offended faction or another.
Fortunately for Biblical scholars (and probably for the rest of us, too), most of them work in obscurity. The Jesus Seminar is probably the exception.
I admire the Seminar's goals of establishing what is historically verifiable about the life of Jesus and, as Dr. Miller's writes in "The Jesus Seminar and its Critics," "providing an alternative to the unchallenged fundamentalist assumptions that pervade American discourse about the Bible." What Seminar members are doing is courageous and ultimately helpful. But I was disappointed by this book. I hoped to find an introduction to the Seminar's findings and an overview of the criticism. What I found was a detailed - very, very detailed - look at the Seminar's voting process and Dr. Miller's painfully painstaking responses to some of the Seminar's critics.
What's missing, for me anyway, is an explanation of how the Seminar's members established that any of the New Testament can be accepted as historically accurate, since none of it was written while Jesus was alive and most of it, if not all of it, is the product of early Christians attempting to buttress their beliefs. "The gospels were written decades after Jesus by people who worshiped him as a divine being and regarded him as the spokesman for their own beliefs and ideals," as Dr. Miller writes. He briefly touches on one standard: whether or not a statement attributed to Jesus is distinctive enough to be something that no one else would have said and that his contemporaries would have remembered. But there's little other explanation of how the vetting process works.
I didn't get much of an overview of the criticism of the Seminar from this book, either. It was a little like listening to Dr. Miller's end of a phone conversation and having to guess what was being said on the other end. In one case, I wondered whether Dr. Miller was distorting the argument of a critic, Luke Timothy Johnson. Dr. Miller seems to accuse Johnson of using the word "memory" to mean a historically accurate account and thereby "harvest the fruit of history without doing the hard work of historical reconstruction." I haven't read Johnson's book, so I don't know the context in which he uses the word. But recent research and common sense tell us "memory" connotes not just a verbatim recitation of history but also a dynamic and personalized interpretation of history that changes with the experience of the one remembering.
But most of Dr. Miller's rebuttals seem sound, if sometimes tedious. And he has the honesty to acknowledge the instances when he thinks the Seminar's critics make good points.
The writing in this book can be dense and repetitive. Dr. Miller sometimes knifes into an offending argument from every possible angle to make sure it's dead, dead, dead. Sometimes he tells us what he's going to say, then says it, and then tells us what he just said.
There are good things in this book. The final chapter is a succinct and, compared to the rest of the book, easy-to-read explanation of the context and purpose of the early Christian Resurrection stories. And I may be asking for things that Dr. Miller never intended this book to offer. But if you're looking for a non-academic layperson's introduction to the Jesus Seminar's work and the criticism of it, this isn't it.