[ D. Seiple   Quest for the Historical Jesus ]


The Gist of Q



D. Seiple

© 2001



The debate over the historical Jesus, at least in mainstream academic circles, has been dominated over the last two decades by the agenda of the Jesus Seminar.  The Seminar’s approach has been decidedly non-confessional.  Though ancient apocryphal accounts were historical casualties of the canonical battles early on, canonical boundaries were deemed irrelevant in their deliberations.[1]   The decision on the part of the Seminar to ignore this verdict of history has precluded any of the confessional considerations that motivate more conservative Christian scholars, who of course draw their considerations from the Canon itself.  Instead, we are left with “the historical method.”

But the prominence of the Jesus Seminar comes, ironically, at a very odd cultural moment.  For nowadays, the confidence once promised to us, once we peel back the accreted layers of tradition, now seems reed-thin.  Among the larger academic community, there seems now to be no more solid consensus in favor of the possibility of historical foundations than there is in the certainty of logical foundations.[2]   This is somewhat distressing perhaps, for (as some have noted) it does run the danger of concocting consensus from nothing more than a “media circus” of “cute and casual discourse.”[3] Nonetheless, there seems to be no very promising alternative to some version or other of the historical method, and the Seminar has been happy to proceed with few admitted doubts about its reliability.

But there’s a problem.  It’s just not entirely clear any more exactly what that method entails.  The situation is methodologically quite fluid, and those of us who are admirers of the careful work done in historical-critical work, who feel that responsible scholarship in this area can be more than just rationalization for dogmatic prejudice (from the left or the right) – we might also feel an occasional pang of puzzlement over our own intellectual commitments on these issues.  For despite the non-assured results of scholarship, what “we know”[4] nevertheless is that no Jesus whose message is reducible to preparation for supernaturalistic cosmic intervention by a tribal deity has much to say to us.  In just this respect, Q scholarship seems to offer “liberation of the non-eschatological [or better: non-apocalyptic] Jesus of the aphorisms and parables.”[5]

So this is one big reason that recent Q research is so interesting – the general notion that Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet so much as a teacher in the tradition of Hellenistic moral philosophy.  What’s potentially at stake is the accessibility of Jesus of Nazareth, and, in the end, the very possibility of Christian faith – given, that is, the viability of moral philosophy in general.  For what we need is some means of bridging the historical gap between the Palestine of two thousand years ago and our own world, and philosophy, which at least aspires to universality, has traditionally attempted to undertake that general sort of task. 

Now how philosophy is even possible, given our postmodernists sensibilities, is an interesting question.  I think that its possibility rests on abandoning postmodernist anti-humanism.[6]  For a Christian, that involves assuming something like a natural power of moral intuition, perhaps a slumbering divinitatis sensum,[7] (which frequently fails, for whatever reason, to awaken within us). That, however, is a topic that lies fortunately beyond the scope of this paper.  I turn instead to a related question – to what may be at stake in the present attempt to reconstruct the sayings of Jesus.  And I shall claim that what’s at stake in the results of that reconstruction has implications for what we have to say about the way that research is conducted, and especially for the stance of the one conducting the research.


*     *     *


Let’s begin with a methodological observation.  What Robert W. Funk et al term the “seventh pillar of modern [sic] biblical scholarship” has to do with who bears the burden of proof in these debates.  Whereas D. F. Strauss undertook his original critique of the historical Jesus in an atmosphere of Scriptural credulity, and so had to assume the burden of disproof, today’s historical scholar has the opposite burden.  This accounts for the prominent role of the criterion of dissimilarity  -- the methodological decision to accept as authentic (only) those sayings that are “dissimilar to the characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early church.”[8] As Norman Perrin stated early on, this is regarded as “the fundamental criterion for authenticity upon which all reconstructions of the teaching of Jesus must be built.”[9]

But the weight of the discerned dissimilarity is really a matter of methodological decision, not a conclusion obviously thrust upon us by the sheer facts of the text.  And this raises some questions.  First of all, why should Jesus not be regarded as a Jewish theologian?[10]  His audience was Jewish for the most part, and had Jesus not spoken as a Jew, his place in the memory of the Jews who joined him would be totally inexplicable: his words would certainly have been incomprehensible and readily forgotten (and this point does not even touch upon the improbability of a Jew discoursing in a totally non-Jewish idiom). 

Similarly, should we really assume that the early church got it all wrong – or at least so embellished its own memory that we have to assume, by default, that nearly all the early confessional material is not only superimposed upon what Jesus actually said, but so gratuitous as to be misleading?  There are a number of variations of this latter complaint, and sometimes its formulation obscures the real issue.  For example, Darrell L. Bock caricatures the presuppositions of the dissimilarity criterion, when he objects that “the Evangelists did not create sayings of their own free will,” as if they had “felt perfectly free to put words into Jesus’ mouth that did not reflect at all what he had taught because of their intense desire to meet the needs of the churches they were addressing.”[11]  This way of putting things is unfortunate in two respects.  First, the alternatives Bock presents – “live, jive, or memorex” -- fail to capture what must have been going on in these early communities, which had to have been significantly different from what we aspire to in our own journalistic age.  Bock does his best to characterize the general culture of the day in terms of the standards of reportage that we might recognize, and it’s a truism that Tacitus, Thucydides and others paved the way for later historiography.  But the mere existence of the non-canonical variations shows a very different generalized consciousness at work, where the community’s sense of “what actually happened” would have been drawn from what Koester calls “scriptural memory.”  The form, the content, and the rationale for gospel would have been pulled out of some prevailing set of expectations, emblematized and transmitted by recitation of the Psalms and the Prophets.[12] Accuracy in our own historically sophisticated sense, while not exactly beside the point, was surely not a matter that was very high on the minds of those who’d never been instructed in its virtues. 

Secondly, Bock’s valid point gets obscured in the fire he draws from the Seminar’s defenders.  Given Bock’s wrong-headed reconstruction of the consciousness of the early communities, Roy W. Hoover is able to dismiss his discussion as “untouched by historical consciousness,” and then to accuse him of having “abdicated his role as critical historian in order to mediate a traditional form of belief.”[13]  Here Hoover slips in a very belabored modernist contrast, by quoting Van A. Harvey’s old distinction between “the ethic of religious belief and authority of tradition” and “the ethic of critical judgment and historical knowledge.”  Hoover of course identifies himself with the latter.  Trouble is, Harvey himself has renounced the distinction, in his preface to the 1996 reprint of the 1969 book,[14]and if we have learned anything at all from postmodernism, we have to allow that such a distinction is relative at best.

What then is Bock’s “valid” point?  Bock wants to say that the distinction to be drawn between ipsissima vox and ipsissima verba.”[15]can provide us with access to the “live” Jesus – which is to say that “anyone who reads his words in the Gospels should realize that the voice is present…”[16]  Now Bock further insists that the Master’s voice is “neither muffled nor created” but rather “loud and clear” – but that I take to be a matter that depends not on what’s actually in the text so much as the reader’s relation to the text.  And that’s a separate issue.  The primary concern has to be, first, whether or not we can, with whatever hermeneutical skills we might assemble on our own, draw from the text enough of the “gist” of Jesus’ original teaching (muffled or otherwise) to use as a basis for contemporary Christian practice.  Bock insists that we can.  And what is potentially at stake in Q scholarship is the possibility that he might be right.[17]


*     *     *


But what would it mean to say that we had gotten the “gist” of the message from reading the Scripture?  Is it a doctrine apprehended?  A logion paraphrased?  Or something else?  If we take our cue from what we do know about the teachings of Jesus, especially regarding the parables, we can reach only one conclusion -- it has to be something else.

To see this, let’s begin with an apparently harmless observation.  It is likely that even a conservative Evangelical, once he has at least understood what historical critical practice can achieve, would not object to a modest application of the criterion of dissimilarity.  For it’s not that the criterion of similarity does not work.  When appropriately applied, it does actually succeed in picking out original words of Jesus (or at least something very close to them). Conservative scholars do not make much of this  because they think it’s just perverse to limit what we think we know by such a narrow standard.  Hays makes this point forcefully in his review of The Five Gospels[18]:  the fact that the criterion identifies “a critically assured minimum” should not suggest that other supplementation is not also preferable.[19]

So it is obviously a major leap from saying that the criterion offers us a rather comfortable level of probability, to the claim that what does not fit the criterion is probably not original.  This is important.  For here at least, in a modest application of the dissimilarity criterion, is a promising starting point.  We can confidently assert that the original message concerned the advent of the Kingdom of God: “all else in his message and ministry serves a function in relation to that proclamation and derives its meaning from it.”[20]  This is “one of the few conclusions of research on which most scholars agree.”[21] 

This does not mean that the Kingdom’s coming can bear no further elaboration,[22] but it does suggest begin to suggest, in a way that I shall now try to lay out, that the coming is really about us humans – even though the words are framed with reference to “God.”  And this of course spells complications for the conservative Evangelical.  For it turns out that those parables are not translatable – at least not exhaustively-- into doctrine: they are metaphorical, and the point of contact is subjective – human, in other words.  The kingdom is like…well, what you yourself would experience in a concrete situation like the one being illustrated – like, say, finding a lost coin. 

But what is that like?  Words can’t capture, though they can reignite, the experience. And that’s the important thing.  To say that the message has been understood involves saying that a human experience has been actually had.  Which of course means that the experience can’t be reduced (or expanded) into familiar Reformed dogmatics (that’s bad news for conservatives who are awaiting a doctrinal “gist”).  But it also means that one can’t understand wholly from the outside (and that’s bad news for some liberal scholars).  


*     *     *


This leads to the next point.  We could say that the real content of the message involves, in some way or other, something like a subjective “response.”  Rudolf Bultmann is sometimes remembered as a kind of German hegemonist, who read Jesus as if He’d spent His forty days and nights in the Black Forest rather than in the desert, and after all that, actually succumbed to temptation – the temptation of existentialist philosophy!  But Bultmann was absolutely correct in the general point he wanted to make on this score, even if badly limited by a rather lumbering Heideggerian agenda.  Where Bultmann’s quaint pre-War jargon seems now oddly out of place, the most general contours of his project now present the most natural alternative to the chaotic (though exhilarating) pluralism of postmodernist scholarship.

His project is summarized in a comment Bultmann made in what is probably his single best-known essay: “…the importance of the New Testament mythology lies not in its imagery but in the understanding of existence which it enshrines.  The real question is whether this understanding of existence is true.”[23]  Half a century later, after having weathered (and benefited from) the postmodern moment, we now appreciate the challenge inherent in saying anything substantial regarding the “truth” about “human existence.”  But we are also now more alert to the significance of linguistic and cultural context (partly through Bultmann’s own work in this area), enough to appreciate how any human response is a function of a set of cultural, genetic, and habitual factors that can be fairly, if only generally, posited as typical possibilities for humans generally.  And a subjective element of response is certainly one feature of that complex.

However, “response” is certainly too deontological a term.  What’s at issue here, at the “subjective” level, is not just what an individual respondent does or causes to happen, in any normal sense.  Rather, what’s at issue here is an experience, rendered variously in the texts as exousia, energeia, dynamis, to pneuma to hagion.  This is an experience of “power” in other words, “but power of a peculiar sort.”[24] Following L. T. Johnson, we take this term “power” to designate a phenomenological category that is exceedingly difficult to characterize in a very precise way: “It is not simply mental, although it affects emotional and cognitive capacities. It is not simply individual, although it is personal.  Neither is it exclusively social, although it has social consequences.”[25] 

But in adopting this we need to be careful so as not to smuggle dogmatic metaphysics in on the sly. It is true, as Johnson says, that the texts themselves don’t speak about this power as we post-Enlightenment sophisticates might, “as something generated by or originating with those experiencing it.”   It is probably true that the texts themselves seem to speak of that power as (in our terms) “transcendent.”[26]  But this of course gives no assurance that there is in fact any such literally “transcendent” power, nor any such non-natural cosmic realm.[27]  Here “transcendence” must still be regarded as a phenomenological category that may still have a naturalistic basis.  What a person experiences at such moments strikes her perhaps as if it were entirely from without, but one has to wonder here whether the same experience might not equally well be rendered in the language of the Thomas community, as an “inner” dimension.  In any case, what is really crucial is that the event be registered in experience as life-changing, as radically unfamiliar, as transformative.   And insofar as it is, our concerns over the metaphysical explanation for it get decidedly, and appropriately, sidetracked – going the way of the bewitchments that Wittgenstein was warning about.[28]  Our very questions get transformed, and our old concerns no longer captivate us. (At that point, who cares if the power is “transcendent” or “inner”?!)

Given all this, what’s the status of this subjective element in the message itself?  Does the matter of the response itself lie wholly outside of the message, or is it part of that message?  This of course depends upon what one means by “message.”  If we mean here a content that can be publicly discussed without being subjectively experienced, then of course we have to treat the subjective as separable.  But this does not really address our problem here.  It puts us in the position of the most distanced scholar (liberal social scientist or conservative fundamentalist), who supposes that an objective take is even possible on a matter that is so intimately channeled.  It suggests that a message can be apprehended without being heard, and places us once again in a naïve position as regards historical method.  It skirts entirely the point of saying that the “gist” is parabolic, that it can be understood only “from within.” 

In other words, whether or not we want to include the subjective experience as the content of the message depends on how we treat the terms we are using.  But if we exclude subjectivity from the content of the message itself, on grounds of philosophical semantics or whatever, we then have to deal with the matter of understanding the message. And the problem just gets transferred: for now the question is whether or not we have anything interesting to say about it.  Without understanding the message, how could we?  From such a distanced perch, we can no more understand the message than could Palestinian peasants with no master of parables to instruct them.

So either way, the focus of the message becomes the transforming event one experiences in the process of receiving the message.  More needs to be said on this, but a brief summation here will have to do: The fact that this experience is “subjective” and therefore “present” should not impair the standing the event has, either in terms of what it supplants (viz., most doctrinal matters) or in terms of what doctrinal portions it preserves (viz., the agapic social interactions it empowers).


*      *      *


The notion that the Kingdom is to be regarded as a present reality was meeting with more and more resistance up until around the advent of the Jesus Seminar.  I suspect that this had had a lot to do with the convenient alternatives that scholarship afforded up to that point: for if we accept an overarching apocalyptic framework for the message of Jesus, then we could either slide back into more conservative discussions (arguing, say, over pre- and post-millennialism); or else we could coast into a “liberal” mode, emphasizing how very foreign to us Jesus’ own world is – which is a subtle way of casting the conservative as a kind of unselfconscious antiquarian and maintaining instead a bland religious aestheticism.  But the return of realized eschatology puts all that, at least potentially, in abeyance.

C. H. Dodd kept the torch burning on this one, through a rather dark apocalyptic interlude in scholarship.  And that light was not always burning very brightly.  For one of the unfortunate legacies of Dodd had been his robust Platonism. The Kingdom offers present blessedness in the here and now, but (declared Dodd) “it is never exhausted in any experience that falls within the bounds of time and space.  Our destiny lies in the eternal order…[29] (It’s of course only a small step here towards a doctrine of personal immortality.)  Now W. D. Davis pointed out that there appears to be some parallel here with Palestinian Judaism (I Enoch 71:115 and 39:4), so it would not be culturally impossible that the historical Jesus held such a view.  Norman Perrin, on the other hand -- adopting a strategy that does not much reflect his later endorsement of the dissimilarity criterion[30] -- once argued that those passages actually imperiled Dodd’s thesis, since the passages in Enoch seem to be referring only to a future physical realm.[31]

So realized eschatology has suffered from its metaphysical burdens. It has had its existentialist ones as well.  Bultmann characterized the Kingdom’s coming as “‘wholly other,’ heavenly.”  It is interesting here to notice that for a reason similar to Dodd’s, he reached conclusion exactly opposite to Dodd’s – which was that the Kingdom is “opposed to all the here and now.”[32] Bultmann’s Jesus radically reconceived the notion of obedience to God, which is indeed a matter of the here and now – “when the whole man stands behind what he does; or better, when the whole man is in what he does, when he is not doing something obediently, but is essentially obedient.”[33] But this places the Kingdom itself “not at all as a describable state of existence,” but as a point of orientation. At the same time, this does reflect Dodd, by portraying the Kingdom “as the transcendent Either-Or, which constrains [man] to decision”[34]  Bultmann’s preoccupation with combating legalism resurfaces in his own plodding  fixation on the language of obedience, and he thereby begs the question as to why existentialist deontology should trump realized aretology.  Why we should underplay the role that the here-and-now experience of blessedness must naturally be expected to play in the psychology of the follower of Jesus, and from which (in Young Lutherian fashion) our conduct then emanates – this is not made clear.

But despite Bultmann’s skewed emphasis, his reading carries an important point. Though even Stephen J. Patterson retains some remnants of Bultmann’s voluntarism towards the Kingdom (the Thomas Christian “must make it exist”[35]), the point is that the Kingdom of God is “within you” and “outside of you” (Thom 3.3)  – and “if it is not realized inside of you, it will not exist outside of you.”[36]  Here we notice the radicality, the all-or-nothing nature of the Kingdom, which Patterson nicely captures in his characterization of “actualized” eschatology. 


*     *      *


This emphasis on the presentness of the Kingdom, then, tends toward the interpretive and the subjective rather than the cosmic – though this certainly stands in the line of development toward the cosmic mythology of full-blown Gnosticism.  This “Gnostic” trajectory has sometimes been a little misleading, as when commentators have spoken of “gnosticizing” tendencies in communities that were certainly not Gnostic.  It is clearly less problematic if we keep these two phenomena distinct, and associate actualized eschatology with the Wisdom genre.  And the importance of this is to point out the function that Wisdom language performs --  it operates in an argumentative mode, one befitting the discourse of philosophy, and not just rhetorically or prophetically.  And this, I submit, is due to its larger social function, which is paradigmatically the task of philosophy – the function of authentication.

Let’s consider further this link to authentication.  The term “Wisdom literature” reflects the early Christian title for the book of Proverbs,[37] and one pervasive theme is the personification of the figure of Wisdom – as teacher,[38] as  protector,[39] -- but what is even more interesting is what we might call its cognitive soteriology.  In Jewish Wisdom, what saves is the knowledge of the law; in Gnosticism, on the other hand, what saves is the knowledge of the cosmic myth.  In the earliest strata this cognitive function is conveyed through the use of aphorisms.

Wisdom sayings express, as Koester says, “the truth about God and about the essence of the human self.”[40] But this alone is not especially helpful, since any text that is taken to be authoritative in a religious sense can be said to offer “truth” about God and self, insofar as it defines the appropriate human response to a specified deity.  What’s crucial about Wisdom literature is the form in which this takes – the use of aphorisms to provide argumentative support based upon familiar experience.[41]  This makes apparent what the presupposition of the genre really is: the “confidence in the power of proverbial insight.”[42]

Wisdom literature arose during what Jaspers once termed the “Axial Age” – the era, around the Mediterranean, that lasted through late antiquity, and was characterized by “the critique of and eventual rupture of the traditional, static, ‘holistic’ societies and aristocratic empires of antiquity.”[43]  Pre-Axial, static cultures[44] are not troubled (in the same way they would be after the Axial shift) by a “cognitive” problem of access to God.  It would be a gross simplification – but one that would have a heuristic point – to say that those ancient temple priests simply fulfilled their dramatic function in society, out of the natural imaginative appeal religious symbols have.  But in the midst of Axial uncertainty over the clash of contending vocabularies and practices, concern naturally arises over authentication (dokimē) – over which claimants (if any) offer access to the transcendent.  We know that authentication is a prevalent concern among very distinct NT communities,[45] and we can even regard the rise of the Socratic tradition in philosophy as an expression of this same social impulse.[46]  We might even imagine this to be a basic cross-cultural form of societal structure during incidents of intercultural contact.[47]

It is at least possible that Wisdom had its origins in a court setting,[48] whereas the aphoristic elements of the literature probably originated from a different tradition, or perhaps an earlier stage of development, than the personification of Divine Sophia.[49]  But given what has been said so far here, it is easy to see how the tie between authentication and sapientia became paramount for the “Divine Persona” tradition as well.  The use of personification comes into play as the “rendering of an agent”[50]: Wisdom is said to “pass into holy souls and make them friends of God and prophets” (Wis 7:27); on account of her the recipient is able to exercise the moral virtues – self-control and prudence, justice and courage” (the virtues Plato gave at Phaed.69C).  So Wisdom provides both human model and pneumatic thrust – “for she is the breath of the power of God…” (Wis 7:25a).  Personification of Wisdom privileges the reference to human empowerment, and Axial anxieties must have increasingly made the occurrence of such subjective empowerment seem both necessary and sufficient for authentication. 

Here then is the tie to actualized eschatology.  Subjectivity is always a matter of present experience.  One can of course speak of blessedness in a future realm, and imagine how that might be based upon the subjective glimmerings we have in the present, but that is naturally a function of theodicy: the present has not fulfilled our hopes, and so we trust in God’s future justice (etc).  Insofar as the concern is over authentication proper, however, proleptive eschatology gives way to the realized: the subjective sense of power one would just have to experience in a social setting entirely hostile to one’s own empowerment.  This is the Q-Cynic motif: woe to those who occupy positions of power (“you Pharisees, [who] load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not move your finger” – Q 11:47-8); and .who are obviously adept at intellectual obfuscations (“for you have lifted the key of knowledge; [but] you did not enter, nor did you permit those who were entering go in” – Q 11:52).  Whether or not this rises to the level of what Vaage calls “cultural criticism,”[51]  what is quite apparent is that this was politically risky, in an era where one had very little protection against abuse.  It meant developing a way not only of coping but, as a mark of the Kingdom’s arrival, of seizing the initiative and reasserting one’s own personal empowerment: if Walter Wink is right about the gist of Mt5:38-42/Lk 6:29-30, the recommendation is to “rob the oppressor of the power to humiliate”[52]

The subjective side of this is made more vivid when we consider that this was an era where one was likely to be, literally, demonized for one’s outsider status.  In an Axial era where access to transcendence was disputed by contending factions, “demons” represented what the outsider experiences when most vulnerable to disempowerment.  (At a later point, when the political standing of the Christian communities in the Empire was beginning to shift, we find Celsus making this very point for us, when he warns that Christians get their power by pronouncing the names of demons![53] ) Reference to “demons” was a common occurrence in the Graeco-Roman world, designating any “form of religious deviance whereby individual or social goals are sought by means alternate to those normally sanctioned by the dominant religious institution.”[54] And so we notice that the Beelzebub controversy occurs in Q: demons are cast out “by the finger of God” – clearly a reference to exorcism in the practice of Jesus.[55] The fact that there is comparatively little narrative material in Q, and so rather few references to demons, does not undercut the main point here, which is to suggest how psychologically remarkable must have been the sense of gaining power over such threatening forces, and how self-authenticating it must have been.

Now obviously this line of thinking does not bring us very far back to Bock’s original theological agenda.  One has to be impressed here by the distance from sectarian dogma this leaves us.  No talk of atonement Christology, no confessional proclamation of the person of Jesus as the Son of Man.  In fact, no reference at all to the uniqueness of Jesus.   These are aphoristic sayings that are “self-contained and require no specific narrative content.”[56]  And the “gist” of the message, at least as it gets conveyed in the Q tradition, seems to center upon the arrival of a transforming experience of power (as conditioned by the social conditions of the time).  The person of the messenger seems beside the point, except as the personality of a teacher plays a vivifying – and ultimately eliminable -- role in the receptivity of the student.


        *     *     *                     


The integrity of the teaching apart from the person of the teacher is one of the marks of the philosophical ideal.  Each pupil is to rise to the level of being his or her own teacher, and this is supposed to be possible through the appropriate exercise of the intellect.  Because this is purportedly a universal human capacity, the bare content of the teaching is assumed not to be context-restricted.  What is presupposed rather is that the authentication of the teaching be internal to the experience of the student.

Now this might lead us to suppose that a modern philosopher hears no narrative in such reifications as “the mind-body problem” or “universals.”  But this would be to miss the crux of the arguments made around such topics, which (if they are interesting) always involve a reference to concrete, real-life examples, and invoke associations (often unconscious) with the student biography of the philosopher herself.  Teachings do not get conveyed (and authentications don’t get registered) without some localized context embedded in them – which is still not to say that they cannot also be universalized.  This holds as well for Wisdom, whose aphorisms require, as Piper says, no “specific” narrative.  But every telling, every teaching implies a narrative, or it would be unintelligible.  That’s because we think in narratives, explicit or implicit. 

This is a point that postmodernists have continually made, in one form or another, and it must be granted.  There is wide play of significance in the words of any linguistic communication.  Thus, far too much can be made of the observation that, for example, “aphoristic sayings are most frequently expressed in impersonal terms, since they are ostensibly not limited to a particular situation or context.”[57]  That statement is not so much wrong as incomplete. Just because there are no explicit contextual references does not of course mean that context is not presupposed – otherwise, form criticism could not get very far.  But the mere fact that a context is presupposed does not imply that meaning has to be restricted to the intended audience – otherwise, the text would be useless as a document for the contemporary church. 

And what does seem to characterize Wisdom is that its pronouncements, though contextually imbued, are not themselves limited to the context of actual utterance.  That means that they might be available perhaps even for our own use today.  This would involve some historical digging on our part.  We need to reconstruct the actual listening of its original hearers, and we don’t always succeed.  Some sayings will probably remain forever opaque, because the historical data is incomplete.  But this is not a distance that is unbridgeable in principle, for two reasons:  (1) Historical method, for all its uncertainties, does yield a limited measure of assured plausibility insofar as the general cultural contours of some ancient communities are concerned.  This is not substantial enough to get us very far in discussions as to where to draw the line on the originality of certain specific sayings. Those are usually judgment calls we make, based on more than what the objective evidence presents.  And it leaves us very far from understanding what the sayings themselves intend to convey.  (2) But then the results of that cultural reconstruction allow us to read ourselves into the position of the original audience, well enough to imagine the impact of what’s being said to us.  We are not, after all, so very different from them, given the power of our own historically tutored imagination.  And once we have done that, we are in a position to get the “gist” of the message of Jesus, because, out of what we share as human beings with that original audience, the message is not just about them.  It’s about us as well.

This then may be behind Koester’s original comment about self-understanding, which takes the definition of “Wisdom” beyond a narrow taxonomy of literary motif.  Here the distinction offered by J. L. Crenshaw is useful.  Not all literary forms of so-called Wisdom literature actually reflect what he calls “wisdom thinking” – which he defines as “the quest for self-understanding in terms of relationships with things, people, and the Creator.”[58] We have already noted Koester’s similar view.  And if I am correct in what I have argued here, that additional substance has to do with the phenomenology of subjective, authenticating empowerment, very much akin to the most powerful workings of the philosophical imagination.

 Bock then is right in just this respect: one may, as a working assumption, take the view that we have a series of gospel accounts, each of which may well involve a “retell[ing of] the living and powerful words of Jesus in a fresh way…while faithfully and accurately presenting the ‘gist’ of what Jesus said.”  It is made “live” for us in this way as well.[59]  But there is no dogmatic comfort in thus preserving the “gist” of Jesus.  Bock’s evangelical reading turns out to be one among many – any of which can presumably elicit the empowerment that the words, as (often truncated) narratives of their own, convey to us.  And this does not, or should not, disempower the crux of the Evangelical’s own account except insofar as uniqueness is deemed a prerequisite for authentication.[60] 

*     *      *


But then where does all this leave historical-critical scholarship?  Funk’s project is very much a modernist undertaking.  Modernity, however, never attained the wholesale cultural renovation nor the methodological assurance it once heralded.  It did not, as John Dewey expectantly predicted, free Western culture from “the infallibility of men who lived many centuries ago in periods of widespread ignorance, of unscientific methods of inquiry, of intolerance and persecuting animosity….”[61]  And George S. Marsden points out that this is not just because of the tenacity that anti-intellectualism has on village yokels.[62]  The problem with late modernism is that empirical science – and this of course includes historical-critical research – has not made good on its methodological promises.  The breakdown of modernism is directly related to this inability to provide with us with methods of research, methods so reliable that we would be willing to declare, with the lapsed Congregationalist: “Though this method slay my most cherish beliefs, yet will I trust it!”….”[63]

So we should not be entirely perplexed as to why many folks still don’t shirk before the breathtaking audacity of apocalyptic imagery, and why instead they embrace it as the mark of a good Christian’s resistance to the secular world.  They distrust modernist pretensions.[64]  And just here is where Funk’s modernist leanings are so apparent: a large part of Funk’s agenda, as Walter Wink has pointed out, is aimed at “grinding fundamentalism to powder.”[65] Funk and Hoover apparently think that disinterested scholarship can somehow avoid the trap of agenda-driven research and still have something interesting to say at the end of it all.

But if what I have argued here so far is sound, this seems to be at least partly wrong.  It’s not that there is no important difference between responsible scholarship and narrow sectarian apologetics.  It’s not that scholarship cannot, as we have indicated here already, uncover the general cultural matrix and likely receptive stance of the original audience. But, to put it rather bluntly, without an understanding “internal” to that listening, the historian has little to say that’s really very interesting.


*     *     *


The first responsibility of a scholar is to understand her material, as much as possible, on the text’s own terms, and this would mean that if the content of the text refers to human subjectivity, then that is the field in which understanding must be gathered.  And one can’t gather one’s own subjective harvest in another’s cropland – by restricting the domain of discourse to observation reports or linguistic performances or literary genres.  As Troels Engberg-Pedersen[66] says, reading ancient texts should involve a “reading from within,” which is to say: (1) interpretation distinct from the view one already holds, and yet (2) interpretation that expresses a real option for the reader.[67]

Now the fact that Q scholarship does indeed have something interesting to say derives from the fact that it does not consistently maintain a sacrosanct distance from the text.  Otherwise, the text would make no sense.  Vaage,[68] for example, observes that “the language of the text has meaning only if and when it worked in practice.”  Understanding the text here involves two steps.  First, we have to reconstruct, as best we can, the original social setting.  In the case of Q 6:27ff (which begins with the admonition to “love your enemies”), we can safely posit “a simmering state of unresolved hostility and sporadic military repression, with personal enmity and the permanent threat of abuse as constant problems.”  But then -- what sense do we make of such an odd saying, which is nonsensical on its face?  What would it mean to say that it “worked in practice”?  Given what we can reconstruct of the social setting, it seems “reasonable” to assume a rhetorical function here  -- “‘liberation’ of some sort from the menace of these things.” Fair enough.  But on what basis does it seem “reasonable”?  Vaage draws a parallel with the Cynic notion of self-sufficiency.  But regardless of how many parallels we can heap upon the text, it will make no real sense to us unless we can imagine what it would actually be like to heed the admonition under similar circumstances – as African-Americans in the South, for example, or as a lesbian and or gay man living just down the road from Bob Jones University.  “Reasonableness” is really “reasonableness-to-us.”  The reading remains flat unless we make vivid for ourselves what it means to be stifled by dehumanizing treatment, and what it would be like to “have taken back the power of choice.”[69]

There is of course a description one can give to the content of the Q material that does not presuppose an internalist reading of the text.  We can draw conclusions from the social setting and, on the basis of comparative analysis, describe what we take to be the socio-rhetorical function it most probably fulfills.  This we recognize in much contemporary scholarship.  But ironically, this shares at least one feature of late Reformation scholasticism and American fundamentalism.  It would turn us into what  Stephen D. Moore’s calls “cerebral” readers.[70] Crossan makes this point himself, in fact – the very function of parables is “to help others into their own experience of the Kingdom and to draw from that experience their own way of life.”[71] And no historian can hope to understand the text before her unless she’s willing to listen to it, in an engaged, subjectively vivid way – which is a cautionary comment to liberals and conservatives alike.







Aune, David E. "Magic in Early Christianity." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, edited by H. Temporini and W. Haase, vol. 2. Berlin, 1980.

Bock, Darrell L. "The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?" In Jesus Under Fire, edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, 73-99. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1995.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Jesus and the Word. Translated by Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress Lantero. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.

———. "New Testament and Mythology," translated by Reginald H. Fuller. In Kerygma and Myth, edited by Hans Werner Bartsch, 1-44. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Edited by John T. McNeill. The Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.

Crenshaw, J. L. "Method for Determining Wisdom Influence Upon 'Historical' Literature." Journal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969): 129-42.

Crossan, John Dominic. In Parables. Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1992.

Dewey, John. "Fundamentals." In John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899-1924, edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Dodd, C. H. The Parables of the Kingdom. Edited by  Revised. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961.

Engberg-Pedersen, Troels. Paul and the Stoics. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.

The Five Gospels. Edited by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and  The Jesus Seminar. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Harvey, Van A. The Historian and the Believer. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1996.

Hays, Richard B. "Review Article: The Corrected Jesus." First Things 43 (May 1994). <http://print.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9405/articles/revessay.html>.

Hoover, Roy W. Review of Jesus Under Fire, by Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994). Journal of Higher Criticism 3, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 310-15.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Real Jesus. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

———. Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.

Koester, Helmut. Ancient Chrisian Gospels. Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press International, 1990.

———. "Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels." Harvard Theological Review 73 (1980): 105-30.

Lakatos, Imre. "Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes." In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Laktos and Allen Mograve. Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, 4. London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Marsden, George S. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism? 1870-1925. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Moore, Stephen D. "Stories of Reading: Doing Gospel Criticism As/With a 'Reader'." In Society of Biblical Literature 1988 Seminar Papers, edited by David J. Lull, 141-59. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.

Patterson, Stephen J. The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus. Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1993.

Perrin, Norman. The Kingdom of God and the Teaching of Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963.

———. Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1967.

Piper, Ronald A. Wisdom in the Q-Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Robinson, James M. "Jewish Wisdom Literature and the Gattung, LOGIO SOPHON." In The Shape of Q, edited by John S. Kloppenborg, 51-58. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.

Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis. Translated by Robert McLachlan Wilson. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.

Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Penguin, 1993.

Smith, Wilbur M. "The Second Advent of Christ." In Fundemantals of the Faith, edited by Carl F. H. Henry, 251-70. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969.

Soper, Kate. Humanism and Anti-Humanism. LaSalle IL: Open Court, 1986.

Vaage, Leif E. Galilean Upstarts. Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994.

Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana/Collins, 1985.

Wimbush, Vincent L. "The Ascetic Impulse in Ancient Christianity." Theology Today 50, no. 3 (Oct 1993): 417-28.

Wink, Walter. "Neither Passivity Nor Violence: Jesus' Third Way." In Society of Biblical Literature 1988 Seminar Papers, edited by David L. Lull, 210-24. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.

———. "Response to Timothy Luke Johnson's The Real Jesus." Bulletin for Biblical Research 7 (1997): 233-48.

Witherington III, Ben. Jesus the Sage. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Third Edition, 1958.

Young, Brad. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995.



[1] The Five Gospels, edited by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and  The Jesus Seminar (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 35.

[2] I am referring to the demise of both rationalist and empiricist versions of epistemological foundationalism.  See e.g., Imre Lakatos, "Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes," in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. Imre Laktos and Allen Mograve, Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, 4 (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 94ff.

[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 15.

[4] Cp oidamen: used in Christian scripture to indicate statements of faith

[5] The Five Gospels, 4.

[6] For a thorough discussion of some of the issues involved, as well as the history of the debate, see Kate Soper, Humanism and Anti-Humanism (LaSalle IL: Open Court, 1986), passim.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, edited by John T. McNeill, The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), I, iii, 1.

[8] Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1967), 39.

[9] Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 39.

[10] See, e.g., E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993), and Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995).

[11] Darrell L. Bock, "The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?" in Jesus Under Fire, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1995), 75-6.

[12] Helmut Koester, "Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels," Harvard Theological Review 73 (1980): 127.

[13] Roy W. Hoover, Review of Jesus Under Fire, by Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), Journal of Higher Criticism 3, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 313.

[14] Van A. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1996), xi.

[15] Bock, "The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?" 77.

[16] Bock, "The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?" 94.

[17] Even the Jesus Seminar seems to allow this general point – as evidenced by the frequency of “pink” and “grey” designations for various passages.  Bock of course wants to admit this without having scholars vote – or rather, the real vote was taken long ago by those who first composed the Canon.

[18] The Five Gospels.

[19] Richard B. Hays, "Review Article: The Corrected Jesus," First Things 43 (May 1994), <http://print.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9405/articles/revessay.html>.

[20] Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 54.

[21] John Dominic Crossan, In Parables (Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1992), 22.

[22] At least two aspects come to mind.  (1) There is the promise of that power’s actual occurrence in the proper hearing of the message.  The power is not unattainable, and it is attainable to those who are not socially ranked or politically favored.  And then (2) there is an indication of the kind of social relation that flows from that occurrence, which relates of course to agapē.

[23] Rudolf Bultmann, "New Testament and Mythology," translated by Reginald H. Fuller, in Kerygma and Myth, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 11.

[24] Luke Timothy Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 6.

[25] Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity, 6.  However, I take issue with Johnson’s claim that this “power” has “nothing to do” with social rank or status.

[26] Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity, 7-8.

[27] At the same time, however, let’s not make the mistake of supposing that we know all there is to be known, even in general, about the natural world, nor that the experiences of the earliest Christians might not be entirely explained as natural phenomena – and without discrediting them in the least.  It all depends on our willingness to take Wittgensteinian therapy regarding the metaphysical questions that keep rearing their unwelcome heads.

[28] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, Third Edition (1958), §109.

[29] C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, edited by  Revised (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961), 169.

[30] Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 38ff.

[31] As evidenced from, for example, the fact that the prerequisite to the Kingdom’s coming is not a lifting of the righteous into a transcendent realm, but a driving of sinners from the face of the earth.  See Norman Perrin, The Kingdom of God and the Teaching of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 70-71.

[32] Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, translated by Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress Lantero (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958), 37.

[33] Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, 77.

[34] Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, 40-1 (my emphasis).

[35] Stephen J. Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1993), 210.

[36] Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus, 210.

[37] Eusebius refers to “the Proverbs of Solomon All-Virtuous Wisdom.  See James M. Robinson, "Jewish Wisdom Literature and the Gattung, LOGIO SOPHON," in The Shape of Q, ed. John S. Kloppenborg (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 55.

[38] Prov 8:10

[39] Wis 10:1

[40] Helmut Koester, Ancient Chrisian Gospels (Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press International, 1990), 81.

[41] Ronald A. Piper, Wisdom in the Q-Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 154.

[42] Piper, Wisdom in the Q-Tradition, 157.

[43] Vincent L. Wimbush, "The Ascetic Impulse in Ancient Christianity," Theology Today 50, no. 3 (Oct 1993): 420.

[44] Such a term is of course an idealization.  No culture is entirely “static,” and there are always contending power groups. Even Ancient Egypt – the paradigmatic “static” culture -- had its conflicts over theology (cf Ikhnaton).

[45] Cp 1 Cor 11:19 and 1 Jn 4:1.

[46] Cp. Apol. 21 b-c.  This naturally suggests a tie between the sapiential genre and Hellenistic philosophy, but, though important, that’s another story.

[47] Eventually, one strand of the genre took a skeptical turn, “on the fringes of the wisdom tradition” Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis, translated by Robert McLachlan Wilson (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 281. – as when the writer of Ecclesiastes, in one of his (or her) moods, seems to have lost confidence in Wisdom altogether : “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow” (Ecc 1:18).  However much such disillusionment actually represents a failure of authentication, the preoccupation over it remains obvious.

[48] Ben Witherington III, Jesus the Sage (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 5ff.

[49] Piper, Wisdom in the Q-Tradition, 173.

[50] Cf Karl Barth.

[51] Leif E. Vaage, Galilean Upstarts (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), 67.

[52] Walter Wink, "Neither Passivity Nor Violence: Jesus' Third Way," in Society of Biblical Literature 1988 Seminar Papers, ed. David L. Lull (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 213.

[53] Origen, contra Cels. 1.6.

[54] David E. Aune, "Magic in Early Christianity," in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, ed. H. Temporini and W. Haase, vol. 2 (Berlin, 1980), 1515.

[55] Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 65.

[56] Piper, Wisdom in the Q-Tradition, 4.

[57] Piper, Wisdom in the Q-Tradition, 5.

[58] J. L. Crenshaw, "Method for Determining Wisdom Influence Upon 'Historical' Literature," Journal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969): 130-2.

[59] Bock, "The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?" 77.

[60] This naturally raises the next stage of the debate, which an Evangelical would readily enter at this point – which is to ask whether this means that just any interpretation that feels “empowering” is equally authentic.    I would not want to go that far, and neither would Paul (1 Cor 12:31-14:1a) nor would the writer of 1 Jn 4.

[61] John Dewey, "Fundamentals," in John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899-1924, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 6.

[62] George S. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism? 1870-1925 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 212ff.

[63] Dewey, "Fundamentals," 7.

[64] “Ultimately our hope is not in democracy, the United Nations, peace treaties, culture, or science, but in the coming of the Lord.” Wilbur M. Smith, "The Second Advent of Christ," in Fundemantals of the Faith, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969), 268.

[65] Walter Wink, "Response to Timothy Luke Johnson's The Real Jesus," Bulletin for Biblical Research 7 (1997): 234.

[66] Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 16-17.

[67] This latter notion is borrowed from Bernard Williams: “an outlook is a real option for a group either if it already is their outlook or if they could go over to it; and they could go over to it if they could live inside it in their actual historical circumstances and retain their hold on reality, not engage in extensive self-deception, and so on.”  Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana/Collins, 1985), 160-1.

[68] Vaage, Galilean Upstarts, 40ff.

[69] Wink, "Neither Passivity Nor Violence: Jesus' Third Way," 218.

[70] Stephen D. Moore, "Stories of Reading: Doing Gospel Criticism As/With a 'Reader'," in Society of Biblical Literature 1988 Seminar Papers, ed. David J. Lull (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 153.

[71] Crossan, In Parables, 51.