The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus

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9780060630409: The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus

Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah?
Did he promise to return and usher in a new age?
How did Jesus envision the Kingdom of God?

The Five Gospels answers these questions in a bold, dynamic work that will startle traditional readers of the Bible and rekindle interest in it among secular skeptics. In 1985 the Jesus Seminar, comprising a distinguished group of biblical scholars, was founded by Robert W. Funk. They embarked on a new translation and assessment of the gospels, including the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas. In pursuit of the historical Jesus, they used their collective expertise to determine the authenticity of more than fifteen hundred sayings attributed to him. Their remarkable findings appear in this book.

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About the Author:

Robert W. Funk is founder of the Jesus Seminar and Director of the Westar Institute in Santa Rosa, California. He has been a distinguished leader in biblical scholorship for more than thirty years. A Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Senior Scholar, he is the author of a dozen books, including Honest to Jesus and The Five Gospels.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

The Gospel of Mark

1 The good news of Jesus the Anointed begins with something Isaiah the prophet wrote:

Here is my messenger,
whom I send on ahead of you
to prepare your way!
A voice of someone shouting in the wilderness:
"Make ready the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight."

So, John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness calling for baptism and a change of heart that lead to forgiveness of sins. And everyone from the Judean countryside and all the residents of Jerusalem streamed out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan river, admitting their sins. And John was dressed in camel hair [and wore a leather belt around his waist] and lived on locusts and raw honey. And he began his proclamation by saying:

"Someone more powerful than I will succeed me, whose sandal straps I am not fit to bend down and untie. I have been baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with holy spirit.

During that same period Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And just as he got up out of the water, he saw the skies torn open and the spirit coming down toward him like a dove. There was also a voice from the skies: "You are my favored son -- I fully approve of you."

And right away the spirit drives him out into the wilderness, where he remained for forty days, being put to the test by Satan. While he was living there among the wild animals, the heavenly messengers looked after him.

After John was locked up, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming God's good news. His message went:

"The time is up: God's imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways, and put your trust in the good news!"

God's imperial rule. Jesus' disciples remembered his public discourse as consisting primarily of aphorisms, parables, or a challenge followed by a verbal retort. Since Mark 1:15 does not fall into any of these categories, it drew mostly gray and black votes from the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar. The form of the saying was not, however, the only factor considered by the Fellows; they also examined the content of the words and phrases.

In exploring the ideas expressed in this saying, the Fellows concluded that some but not all of the ideas are Mark's own. Except for the phrase "God's imperial rule," which Jesus probably used, the words and phrases employed in this summary of Jesus' message are characteristic of Mark's language.

The three principal questions considered by the Seminar were:

1. Did Jesus speak of God's imperial rule or God's domain (in traditional language, the kingdom of God)?
2. Did Jesus proclaim that "the time is up"? Did this mean: the end of the age is near?
3. Did Jesus call on people to change their ways (in other words, to repent)?

The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar are convinced that Jesus did speak of God's imperial rule since that language appears in a wide array of sayings and parables in different levels and stages of the tradition. On the other hand, the majority of the Fellows do not believe that Jesus proclaimed that the end of the age was near.

The evidence of his parables and aphorisms shows that Jesus did not understand the rule of God to be the beginning of a new age, at the end of history, following a cosmic catastrophe. And he certainly did not speak of God's domain in the nationalistic sense as a revival of David's kingdom. Rather, in the judgment of the Seminar, Jesus spoke most characteristically of God's rule as close or already present but unrecognized, and thus in a way that challenged both apocalyptic and nationalistic expectations.

The popular idea that God was about to bring the age to a close, so characteristic of more radical movements of the time, was undoubtedly espoused by John the Baptist, by the apostle Paul, and by other segments of the emerging Christian movement. But some sayings and many parables attributed to Jesus do not reflect this common point of view. The best way to account for the survival of sayings representing a different view is to attribute them to Jesus, since such sayings and parables contradict the tendencies of the unfolding tradition. Oral communities tend to remember and repeat only items that suit their changing circumstances, except for memorable words spoken by a powerful voice that are carried forward as oral "debris." In other words, the transmitters of the tradition passed on numerous miscellaneous sayings and parables for which they did not have some practical application in mind.

The question of whether Jesus spoke of God's domain as something present or future is considered in greater detail in the cameo essay "God's Imperial Rule," pp. 136-37.

In the gospels, Jesus is rarely represented as calling on people to repent. Such an admonition is characteristic of the message of John the Baptist (Matt 3:7-12; Luke 3:7-14). Like the apocalyptic view of history, the call to repentance may well have been derived from John and then attributed to Jesus.

The Fellows concluded that the phrases that make up this saying, except for "God's imperial rule," are the language of Mark or his community. Mark has summarized in his own words what he believes Jesus said.

1 As he was walking along by the Sea of Galilee, he spotted Simon and Andrew, Simon's brother, casting (their nets) into the sea -- since they were fishermen -- and Jesus said to them: "Become my followers and I'll have you fishing for people!"

And right then and there they abandoned their nets and followed him.

When he had gone a little farther, he caught sight of James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John mending their nets in the boat. Right then and there he called out to them as well, and they left their father Zebedee behind in the boat with the hired hands and accompanied him.

Fishing for people. Jesus certainly had followers, both men and women, but scholars dispute whether he actively recruited them. The reasons for such skepticism are: (1) Many Fellows doubt that Jesus deliberately set out to organize a movement by recruiting disciples; they think he was probably an itinerant sage without institutional goals (he certainly did not have it in mind to found a church like the one that eventually came into being). (2) The tendency of the early disciples was to justify their own claims by attributing statements and stories to Jesus. The practice of attributing sayings to illustrious figures was exceedingly common in oral cultures in the ancient world, and even occurs in print cultures like those of modern Western societies. For example, Abraham Lincoln is frequently credited with saying, "I apologize for writing a long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one." The saying actually originated with Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher. Lincoln has also received credit for formulating the saying "A house divided against itself cannot stand." In fact, he learned this adage from a remark attributed to Jesus (Mark 3:25).

The metaphor of fishing for people may go back to Jesus. The saying in its present form, however, is not the sort of aphorism to have been repeated during the oral period. "Become my followers and I'll have you fishing for people" is suitable only for the story in which it is now embedded, since only a few of his followers were originally fishermen. Further, as scholars have long noted, the story of the call of the first disciples is expressed in vocabulary typical of Mark, which suggests that Mark created both the story and the saying.

1 Then they come to Capernaum, and on the sabbath day he went right to the synagogue and started teaching. 22They were astonished at his teaching, since he would teach them on his own authority, unlike the scholars.

Now right there in their synagogue was a person possessed by an unclean spirit, which shouted, "Jesus

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