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The Jesus Seminar - Revisited

Dear Friends,

Last week I wrote about the Jesus Seminar assertion that only 18% of the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament originated with him. I of course, was highly critical of that notion. I objected on theological grounds. Basically, it is impossible to develop an understanding of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God based on this 18% theory. A couple of people challenged that theological assumption. They suggested it was not enough to object to the Jesus Seminar on theological grounds I should object on grounds of biblical scholarship. I am not sure I agree. It seems to me that changing the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith that were developed only a few years after the death of Christ is an arrogant and in the end futile undertaking. If they are right our historic faith is fundamentally challenged. In the end, as Paul said, "If Christ has not been raised then your faith is futile and you are still in your sin." However, the Jesus Seminar notions are not just bad theology they are also bad scholarship.

One example is their assertion that much of the sayings attributed to Jesus were faint memories of the original Semitic stories. In this months' JERUSALEM PERSPECTIVE, a magazine devoted to the study of Jesus from both a Christian and Jewish perspective was an interesting article on the chronological disorder found in the Synoptic Gospels. In this article, was an insight into accuracy of the teachings of Jesus found in the gospels.

"Though the stories of Jesus' Hebrew biography were preached and taught piecemeal. As long as they were transmitted orally, they were accurately preserved. It is hard for us today to appreciate the trustworthiness and accuracy of oral transmission within Pharisaic circles of the first century. The disciple of a Pharisaic sage was not permitted to alter even one word of the tradition he had received from his teacher. The disciple was also required to cite his sources. Thus many rabbinic sayings are introduced, "Rabbi Y in the name of Rabbi X," in other words, "Rabbi Y, who is transmitting a tradition he has received for Rabbi X." It also is hard for us to appreciate the volume of orally transmitted material that disciples of a first-century Pharisaic sage had to committed to memory. They knew a vast oral literature they way Christians know the Lord's Prayer.

We tend to view orally transmitted material as less trustworthy than material transmitted in writing. This is because we are familiar only with the oral transmission of myths such as Viking sages, which were modified with each retelling. transmission of oral literature by first-century Pharisaic sages and their disciples approached 100% accuracy, far greater accuracy than can be achieved through written transmission. When literature is transmitted in writting, inevitably mistakes know as "scribal errors" creep in. The sages were aware of this danger. They knew that if their literature were transmitted in writing, it would lose its high degree of accuracy. Therefore they forbade its written transmission.."

The notion that first century rabbi's and disciples were that scrupulous with their oral tradition is new to me. But it does offer insight into the reliability and authenticity of the words of Jesus found in the Gospel story.

Happy New Year!

John Miles II

John Miles is:
  • an Elder in the North Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
  • is currently pastor of Heber Springs United Methodist Church
  • is a graduate of Hendrix College and Perkins School of Theology
  • is on the Board of the Confessing Movement of Arkansas and is active in Walk to Emmaus and Kairos Prison Ministry
  • In 1997 his church won the large church of the year award for the North Arkansas Annual Conference

John Miles also publishes a weekly E-mail newsletter on issues facing the United Methodist Church. If you would like to recieve that E-mail write

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