Monday, April 13, 2009

Honest to Jesus

Review of Robert Funk's Honest to Jesus
Dennis Ingolfsland

According to Funk, in Honest to Jesus, Christianity did not begin with Jesus and it was the job of scholars to work back to the real Jesus from the orthodoxy which, from the second to fourth centuries elevated Jesus of Nazareth to god (Funk 1996, 31, 45). Some of the barriers blocking the quest were ignorance, naïve literalism, a self-serving clergy and traditional views about Jesus as Son of God and the Bible as inerrant (Funk 1996, 47-56).

Since historical sources for Jesus were often slanted and distorted, the trick was to separate the historical from the unhistorical.[1] Historians were obligated to verify every scrap of information before accepting it as factual. The historian’s job involved.1) Isolating particular bits of historical information.[2] 2) Classifying the particulars into groups. 3) Compiling comparative evidence. 4) Arranging groups into strata. 5) Studying evidence of literary transmission. 6) Placing the subject into a broader social context. 7) Analyzing how the observer affected the observed. 8) Noting how scholarly biases affected the selection of data and resulting reconstructions (Funk 1996, 57-62).[3]

Funk discussed the Old, New and Third Quests for the historical Jesus, noting how scholars like Raymond Brown and John Meier took critical scholarship as far as it could go without violating their church traditions (Funk 1996, 62-65). Funk explained what he termed the Renewed Quest of which he was a part. The Renewed Quest was characterized by secular scholarship and tended to place emphasis on the parables, wisdom literature and various non-canonical sources for first century Judaism;[4] often to the exclusion or negation of canonical texts (Funk 1996, 66-76).

Funk provided the reader with information on transmission, translation and canonization of the biblical text. Funk informed readers that all translations were misleading (Funk 1996, 81)[5], that no two copies of the Greek New Testament were alike[6], that there were 70,000 variants in the Greek texts of the New Testament[7], that all critical editions of the Greek text were creations of the editors and not identical with any ancient Greek text (Funk 1996, 94-95)[8], and that in the Middle Ages the publishers decided which books were included in the Bible (Funk, 1996, 106-107).[9]

Funk concluded Part 1 with a discussion of the creation of the canonical Gospels. According to Funk, after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 the writer of Mark collected oral traditions about Jesus’ teachings and created the first gospel in which Jesus was part of a story plot.[10] Much of the story plot, Funk assured his readers, was the result of the creative imagination of the writer (Funk 1996 131).

In the 80s or 90s the Gospel of Mark was revised and expanded by the writers of Matthew and Luke who also used the sayings gospel Q as a source and invented even more material to include in the Gospels (Funk 1996, 121-122, 132). Since Q and the Gospel of Thomas lacked references to Jesus’ birth, death, childhood or resurrection, Funk speculated that the original Gospels consisted primarily of pronouncements and parables of Jesus and the much of the rest was simply Christian overlay (Funk 1996, 135-137).

In Part 2 of Honest to Jesus, Funk informed readers that there were over 1500 variations of the 500 sayings attributed to Jesus. Sifting through the sayings attributed to Jesus led Funk to conclude that Jesus was a comic savant who mixed humor with subversive teachings. For example, when Jesus was asked about clean and unclean foods,[11] Jesus replied that it is not what went in that polluted, but what came out—leaving his hearers to decide what orifice he had in mind (Funk 1996, 160). Funk simply assumed that the context which made clear that Jesus was thinking of that which came from the heart and proceeded out of the mouth, was something the evangelist supplied and thus changed Jesus’ meaning.

Funk used similar methodology in interpreting the parables. Funk spoke of how Luke misunderstood and misrepresented the story of the Good Samaritan (Funk 1996, 170, 178). The Good Samaritan was really about how God’s kingdom came only to those who did not have a right to expect it and could not resist it, and that such help always came from someplace unexpected (Funk 1996, 180).

Funk viewed Jesus as a Galilean, socially promiscuous deviant (Funk 1996, 204) who was an irreverent, secular sage (Funk 1996, 302) but who preached about God’s domain (Funk 1996, 149). Jesus was not eschatological,[12] not a moralist, did not claim to be equal with God (Funk 1996, 210), and did not call for repentance (Funk 1996, 163). Jesus preached love for enemies and was more inclusive than exclusive (Funk 1996, 200). According to Funk’s Jesus, those who thought they belonged to God’s kingdom, did not. Those who were afraid they did not belong were precisely those who entered: the prodigal, the homeless, tax collectors, and prostitutes, (Funk 1996, 215), all apparently without repentance.

The Passion accounts, according to Funk, were filled with contradictory fictions that had been elaborated as the story grew. According to Funk, Jesus was probably eaten by dogs or crows (Funk 1996, 219) and the resurrection was apparently based on subjective visions that were eventually fictionally written down as a physical occurrence in response to the Gnostics (Funk 1996, 257-276). There were, according to Funk, no facts in the Christian story that were immune from doubt.[13] It appeared to Funk as though Mark had created the first version of the story and every other version was based on Mark’s Gospel (Funk 1996, 219-240). The gospel story was then propagated and changed by Christians who wanted to market the messiah and legitimate authority over the churches (Funk 1996, 241-256, 272-273, 276, 295).

It would have taken a book to respond to all the problems in Funk’s work, only a few were addressed here. First, Funk was a master at using facts to mislead readers. When Funk informed his readers that all translations were misleading (Funk 1996, 81) he was correct to the extent that all translations were to varying degrees interpretations. Nevertheless, the way Funk made his case led the uninformed reader to conclude that there were no good translations, except possibly the Scholars Version, produced by the Jesus Seminar.

Another example of using facts to mislead was when Funk asserted that publishers in the Middle Ages decided what books went into the Bible (Funk 1996, 106-107). While it was true that publishers differed on the order of New Testament books and on whether to include the apocrypha, the impression Funk left on the uninformed reader was that there was no consensus on the canon until the Middle Ages and that is not true. Unfortunately, the examples of apparent deception were not isolated instances but were so pervasive throughout the book that it appeared as though Funk was more interested in pressing an anti-traditional agenda than in pursuing objective scholarship.

Second, Funk wrote that the first step in historical methodology involved isolating bits of historical information (Funk 1996, 60). While Wright’s methodology challenged the approach (Borg and Wright 1999, 23), Meier used the approach with considerable success. Unlike, Funk, Meier engaged in rigorous, painstaking analysis of the text using standard historical criteria. While Funk gave lip service to some of the standard historical criteria, he often referred to the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar rather than demonstrating his conclusions. Rather than interact with Meier’s study, Funk dismissed the conclusions out of hand. It appeared as though Funk was more interested in pursuing his agenda than interacting with serious biblical scholarship.

Third, Funk’s method of explaining how the evangelists misunderstood Jesus was dubious at best (Funk 1996, 160, 170, 178). It was certainly valid to question the authenticity of a parable or saying of Jesus based on lack of multiple attestation or lack of coherence as Meier did, for example. But to take that saying or parable out of context, reinterpret it apart from the context, and then explain that the evangelist had obviously misunderstood Jesus appeared to be less than objective scholarship.

[1] By Funk’s time it had long been popular among non-evangelical New Testament scholars to dismiss the Gospels as unhistorical because they were biased theological writings. As Wright, pointed out, however, all history was interpreted and the Gospels were no less historical simply because they were theologically interpreted (Wright 1992, 95).
[2] Wright pointed out that the method of isolating bits of historical information was based on two unproven assumptions. First, it assumed that isolated bits of Jesus material circulated in the early church apart from narrative frameworks. Second, the rules for assesing the bits of Jesus material were already predetermined by a well-developed theory about the nature of Jesus and the early church (Borg and Wright 1999, 23).
[3] Wright provided an alternate assessment of historical methodology. “The guild of New Testament studies has become so used to operating with a hermeneutic of suspicion that we find ourselves trapped in our own subtlties. If two ancient writers agree about something, that proves one got it from the other. If they seem to disagree, that proves that one or both are wrong. If they say an event fulfilled biblical prophecy they made it up to look like that. If an event or saying fits a writer’s theological scheme, that writer invented it. If there are two accounts of similar events, they are a ‘doublet’ (there was only one event); but if a single account has anything odd about it, there must have been two events, which are now conflated. And so on. Anything to show how clever we are, how subtle, to have smoked out the reality behind the text. But, as any author who has watched her or his books being reviewed will know, such reconstructions again and again miss the point, often wildly. If we cannot get it right when we share a culture, a period, and a language, it is highly likely that many of our subtle reconstructions of ancient texts and histories are our own unhistorical fantasies….” (Borg and Wright 1999, 18).
[4] For example: The Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hamadi library, and various non-canonical texts.
[5] While all translations were, to varying degrees, interpretations, to say that all translations were misleading was itself a misleading statement.
[6] To the biblical scholar who understood that New Testament Greek manuscripts were handwritten and therefore had occasional omissions, spelling errors, etc., Funk’s statement made perfect sense. But to a popular audience, to whom Funk’s book was addressed, Funk’s statement had the potential for misleading readers into thinking that the two copies of the same gospel contained different stories.
[7] To the New Testament scholar who understood that there were 5,000 extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and that every minor spelling variation in every one of those manuscripts counted as a variant, Funk’s statement made perfect sense. But to a popular audience, to whom Funk’s book was addressed, Funk’s statement had the potential for misleading readers into thinking that with 70,000 variants the New Testament couldn’t be trusted. In fact, the evidence for New Testament textual relaibility was stronger than for any other text in the ancient world and was considered highly reliable by scholars (Bruce 1963, 178; Greenlee 1964, 15; Metzger 1968, 34).
[8] To the New Testament scholar who understood that modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament removed the spelling errors, obvious omissions and word duplications, and provided footnotes or critical apparatus for other variations, Funk’s statement made sense. But to a popular sudience, to whom Funk’s book was addressed, Funk’s statement had the potential for misleading the reader to thinking that modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament were not reliable reflections of ancient Greek New Testament texts.
[9] In the Middle Ages the Christian Bible was the Vulgate which was virtually unquestioned until the time of Luther. Publishers after Luther’s time began to question whether the Bible should contain the apocrypha or not but otherwise the content of the Bible was virtually unquestioned. New Testament scholars and church historians understood this, but Funk’s statement had the potential for misleading the average reader to thinking that the canon of the New Testament was still largely undecided in the Middle Ages and was the result of publishers’ decisions.
[10] Funk believed that Q and an early version of the Gospel of Thomas were in existence before the Gospel of Mark, but these consisted of sayings by Jesus, not a story about Jesus.
[11] Mark 7:17-23.
[12] An eschatological prophet was one who preached that God would one day, maybe soon, dramatically intervene in human affairs with cosmological signs and wonders, possibly bringing human history to an end.
[13] The fact was that absolutely nothing was immune from doubt to some skeptics, so Funk’s statement was essentially meaningless.