The Jesus Seminar--2010
Bill Long 3/19/10
The Show Comes to Salem OR
Thre is no movement in modern biblical scholarship more familiar to the general public than the "Jesus Seminar." Begun more than 25 years ago through the entrepreneurial efforts of the late Prof. Robert Funk, it has morphed into the "Westear Institute, housed now in Salem OR. The Spring meeting of the Seminar/Institute is now meeting in Salem. I decided to drop in on a day's session to see what I still knew from my earlier days as a biblical scholar, whom I knew from those days and the nature of claims people were making today. I will only focus on the first seminar of the day.n
The first seminar (9-10:30) featured a person from my deep past, Prof. Helmut Koester. I attended a wonderful seminar he co-lead with Prof. Zeph Stewart at Harvard in 1976-77. Thus, when I heard his distinctive voice present his theses on early Christianity today, I was delighted and my memory was piqued. One of the features of his work, which I didn't fully understand 33 years ago, is his ability as a provocateur. He skillfully weaves "contemporary" language with biblical language to articulate precise theories (too simplistic, in my judgment) about the nature of early Christianity.
His five theses, on which people voted (the Jesus Seminar is famous for voting with vari-colored pencils/boxes to express levels of agreement) include the following:
1. Story and ritual are the religio-political cornerstones of the foundation of nations in Antiquity. Thus, in the founding of earliest Christianity, it is these that are the most important features. He argued, in fact, that theological disagreement was minimal compared to the liturgical, calendrical and ritual differences of the earliest days. Most all agreed with this formulation.
2. More controversial was his second statement: "The beginnings of the early Christian movement are political rather than 'religious.' Paul wants to create a new nation of justice and equality opposed to the unjust hierarchical establishment of imperial Rome." Behind this is a sort of "myth of decline" which has been part of scholarship on early Christianity, and especially Germanic-inspired scholarship, for two centuries. It is simple, clear, and probably not right. There was vigorous discussion on the notion of the distinction between "religious" and "political" in the Roman world. The distinction is probably not helpful, because it reflects "separation of church and state" language from our time rather than that of 2000 years ago. But we see where he is going. In Paul, he claims, there is a sort of "hard-core" message of love, community, and ethics that will wash over to the rest of the world and aid in formulating an alternative social vision in the Roman world. There was also considerable discussion on this claim--with disagreement on whether Paul indeed was more "inward" or "Israel-community" looking than "outward" looking to the reality of the Roman world.
3. The third thesis is that "As early Christian churches tried to find their place as a 'religion' in the G-R world, they soon began to become conformed with the morality and citizenship of the Roman society." Not much debate; most agreed.
4. "In the struggle to find a self-definition for themselves Christians were more likely to opt for piety and morality than for the prophetic-political eschatology of the beginning." This wasn't much discussed, but it opens up a wonderfully huge and important issue. How to we conceptualize the "movement" from the first to second generation of the early Christians? Do we go from "politics" in Paul (perhaps Jesus?) to "piety" in the Pastoral Epistles? But if we do that, how do we explain the "new nation" language of I Peter, which seems to reflect a consciousness of building a new society, and not just internalizing the teachings of the founders in a personal piety direction? So, do we go "Politics" to "piety" in some circles and then "politics" again? Or, more specifically, is the "politics" of the founder (Paul in this instance) more of an "internal" politics--trying to reconnect people to Judaism, and then it takes on an "external" political dimension in some later traditions of early Christianity? It seems that Christianity was perceived as dangerous by the Roman world--the only reason this would be the case is that Chrsitianity indeed was threatening the social order or, alternatively said, was threatening to undo the social order.
In my judgment, we need not posit a flow from "political" to "pietistic" or "inner political/pietistic" to "external state building." Rather, we can simply caress the language of Paul and realize that the language is so fraught with meaning, so full of explosive possibilities, that both politics and piety are there, both a call to people to return to Israel as well as a call to people to reformulate an empire. Paul is, in this thesis, a "plastic" person, with his rhetoric able to be taken in a number of directions. This, rather than historical movements of ebb and flow, is a more satisfying way of reading the "founders." Great traditions often come into conflict not because they have origins in different figures and places, but because their roots are in the same person.
5. His fifth thesis wasn't developed. It is "Gnosticism finally carried away the victory in defining Chrisitian piety and provided the appropriate language, especially evident in Chrisitan hymnology." No time to discuss this--and it is, as is usual with Koester, overstated.
The virtue of Koester's theses is that it provokes useful discussion and crystallization or re-formulation of approaches to basic questions. In that regard, I would have to say that he is a "great" scholar. He provokes thought in a very helpful way. But, as one colleague said to me once about the work of Michel Foucault, "he is absolutely brilliant, but almost everything he says is wrong." I think the same thing about Koester. He helps us all think through our understanding, clarify our categories, refine our thinking. And, he does so through statements/theses that are, certainly, wrong. Another of life's delicious paradoxes.