Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Jesus Seminar Jesus is bankrupt: Post 1

Lately my mind has been processing whether or not we need The Jesus Project (TJP). I am particularly worried that the people involved will do nothing more than maintain their positions as mythers or positivists and there will be nothing accomplished beyond a stalemate regarding Jesus' historicity - except a media blip that scholars yet again can't agree on anything, even Jesus' existence.

But this worry is not something I want to talk about today. I'll likely take it up in another post later on. I only mention it now because it is this concern that has fired me up today to think about the problem of the historical Jesus more generally. So what this post is about is the scholarly enterprise that TJP is a reaction to - the Jesus Seminar (TJS) and the numerous claims of books by scholars over at least a century and a half - that they have recovered "the" historical Jesus.

I also want to preface my comments by noting that the turning point for me - the THING if there was one THING - the moment when I KNEW I would become a biblical scholar - was when I was in my senior year in college and had just read Norman Perrin's fabulous book, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. I was walking across campus reflecting on the book, and I had been so inspired (one might even say liberated) by Perrin's words that I could see my own future as an academic very clearly for the first time in my life. I spent the next years gobbling up everything I could read from Bultmann to Jeremias to Vermes, fascinated with the quest for the historical Jesus. This was in the mid 80s, which marked the start of the Jesus Seminar and the industry of publishing portrait after portrait of historical Jesus. I had some qualms at the time that the authenticity of Jesus' sayings was tied to a democratic vote of colored marbles. But I understood the arguments and decisions that were being made by TJS because I understood the methodology which was standard fare for anyone studying bible. It wasn't so well-known to the public, but for academics the methods were quite traditional and acceptable in the Academy.

I have discovered something neat about my life since then - that I never stop growing and learning - that when I learn something new, it usually ends up affecting a number of other things that I thought I knew - and so this leads to new questions whose answers sometimes open up a can of worms, or lead to uncertainties, or re-orient my picture so that finally everything falls into place (which can be nice).

And so it has been. I defended my dissertation in December, 1993. Since then I have continued to learn, and I am now in the position of saying that Norman Perrin's book might be fantastic, but it is bankrupt, as is the Jesus Seminar Jesus. This Jesus is nothing more than a constructed person who exists only in our imaginations. I say this not because I am a myther. In fact, I think that the myther position cannot be maintained, because parallels between Jesus' myth and other ancient myths tell us nothing about whether or not he lived as a real person. It only tells us that ancient people cast their memories of Jesus into mythological narratives and schema that were part of their culture and minds. Rather I say this because I have come to realize over the years that the methodology and the assumptions of the methodology that were used to construct Perrin's Jesus and the Jesus Seminar Jesus are bankrupt.

I'm not taking these in any special order because I'm thinking aloud here. So in this post let's look at multiple attestation of independent sources. For this criteria to work it assumes that if I find the "same" saying of Jesus in more than one source (that do not have literary connections), I can be more confident that the saying is early (because the two sources are picking it up from something prior to them, rather than the author of the source creating it himself). The conclusion is that this is a saying that we can more confidently trace to Jesus.

But is it? If we study ancient oral and rhetorical culture, if we study human memory, such a confidence fades quickly. And when we realize that, in addition, the Jesus traditions are being transmitted within a charismatic environment where the believers are convinced that the living Jesus still speaks to them through their own prophets (which was an established "office" in the early church that was occupied by both men and women), any confidence left vanishes.

I can imagine a situation in which a prophet only a few years after Jesus' death might address an audience out of the spirit saying, "And Jesus says to you today, 'Do not cast your pearls to the pigs." Did Jesus say it? I mean the historical Jesus? Or the living Jesus of the spirit? I don't know. And I imagine the audience didn't know. But let's say that there were a number of people in the audience who liked it, and so they happened to pass the saying on to their families and friends, and it became quite popular, finding its way into a couple of our earliest Christian sources as words of Jesus.

So what does multiple attestation in independent sources actually tell us?
  • that the saying was remembered as Jesus' by some early Christians,
  • that it was well-known and popular enough to find its way into more than one early Christian book,
  • that early preachers and missionaries found it useful enough to keep it in circulation,
  • that the saying existed in more than one version.
The latter point further suggests that it is impossible to get back to one originating structure or version of the saying from which the other versions are deviations. Furthermore, if the sayings have no literary dependence on each other, it is impossible to reconstruct a linear development that would suggest what the original structure might have been. Even more to the point is the fact that in oral transmission there really is no original version of the saying, but many originals each time it is performed.

Thus multiple independent attestation does not leave us confident that multiply-attested sayings more likely represent sayings that the historical Jesus originated than singly-attested sayings. Morever, multiple independent attestation works against any program that wishes to establish Jesus' actual words because, without direct literary dependence, it is impossible to reconstruct a single originating structure and identify deviant versions, let alone confidently trace them to the historical Jesus. Multiple independent attestation leaves Jesus' words multiform and fluid and smack dab in the middle of the early Christian experience (not necessarily the historical Jesus').

Tomorrow I will try to post my thoughts on a second criteria used by the Jesus Seminar to determine Jesus' words.


Bob MacDonald said...

Delighted that you are posting on this. I will look forward to the rest of the series.

John Shuck said...

Hey April,

Thanks for doing this. This is great. I am wondering if what you will come up with is different than what Robert Price did in his book, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man?

Do you think there is any fact at all regarding the historical person of Jesus?

That is a question I ask myself.

You wrote about the Jesus Seminar Jesus,

This Jesus is nothing more than a constructed person who exists only in our imaginations.

I tend to agree. But I would also say that the same might be said for each of the gospel writers:

Mark's Jesus is nothing more than a constructed person who existed only in his imagination

Yet Mark's Jesus seemed to serve his community well, I suppose.

Perhaps the JSeminar's Jesus serves us.

April DeConick said...

Thanks Bob. I will keep posting pieces til we go through the whole thing. My time to blog is shorter these days than I would like.

John, yes you are correct that Mark's Jesus is also a construct. As is Matthew's, Luke's, John's and Thomas'. But we can't equate a construct with "ahistorical" nor is it accurate to consider one construct "more historical" than another. Each gospel has constructed a Jesus that supports and represents its own theology. I plan to blog on this topic as a future post in this series.

Because something like Jesus is constructed isn't the same thing as saying Jesus didn't exist.

You are right that the TJS's Jesus serves us. That was why he was created by us in just the fashion that he was. And he is serving many well and I imagine will continue to do so even in the face of bankruptcy.

I don't have Price's book to compare notes.

John Shuck said...

Thanks April.

Because something like Jesus is constructed isn't the same thing as saying Jesus didn't exist.

I agree. I am agnostic about his existence. I don't know how we can know, given what we have, any relationship between what person might have existed and the fables or constructs about him.

It is kind of like trying to find the historical King Arthur. It is layer of legend upon legend.

Is the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar bankrupt? I see what you mean if we want to say he was "the guy."

Yet, there is a theology behind the various historical Jesuses that I like.

I like that poet/rebel/healer fighter for peace and justice who sticks it to the man. He lives his integrity to the death and thus inspires change and hope.

Did he exist? No. He's a construct that resonates with many including me.

Like you say, I don't think that construct is more or less historical or necessarily more or less interesting than anyone else's including all the various constructs of early Christianity.

I suppose the hard part to face is when we realize that our construct is just that and stop pretending that it is the real or authentic/historical thing.

I resonated with Price's book, so comparing your deconstruction of the historical method to his is a compliment from my perspective.

Unknown said...

The thing I've never quite understood, is why we ever thought the Jesus Seminar would succeed at anything concrete, given that the achievement of the first search for the historical Jesus was a dim reflection at the bottom of a well of those theologians!

What I realise from these comments is distilled in April's words: "I like that poet/rebel/healer fighter for peace and justice who sticks it to the man. He lives his integrity to the death and thus inspires change and hope. Did he exist? No. He's a construct that resonates with many including me."

What the Jesus Seminar has done for many is demolish an old Jesus, and bring to light a new one which resonates with our time. Seems to me that's the point of theologising generally. It goes wrong when we believe it. Someone once said "Theology is mostly fiction."

Andrew Prior

Steven Carr said...

'It only tells us that ancient people cast their memories of Jesus into mythological narratives and schema that were part of their culture and minds.'

Whose memories of Jesus do Paul, the author of 1 Peter and Hebrews, or the authors of James and Jude use?

DO they ever say that person X has a memory of seeing Jesus do Y?

Anonymous said...

You've given some of the reasons why a different methodology is needed, which isn't dependent upon the circular reasoning of a NT account that produces a NT Jxsus.

Instead, since MMT and other recent findings, we find that extra-NT history dovetails the Judaic origins and political environment to delimit the historical 1st-century Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua. Unsurprisingly, it just doesn't square with the post-135 C.E. extensively-Hellenized NT to which Christians (and other traditionalists) are addicted and upon which so many academic careers are dependent.

Learn a different approach I've been publishing since the early 70s. See, particularly our History Museum and many glossary entries.

Paqid Yirmeyahu
(Mensan and former Baptist preacher, now Orthodox Israeli Jew in good standing in Orthodox Israeli synagogue)
Paqid 16
The Netzarim
Ra'anana, Israel

Quixie said...

Part of the problem with critiquing the "Jesus Seminar's Jesus" is that there are as many Jesus Seminar Jesuses as there are members of the Jesus Seminar. Are you saying that Norman Perrin's is emblematic of the whole group's?

Also . . . appeals to Pagan parallels are but a fraction of the mythicist case.

John Shuck: . . . I like what you have to say in your comments, dude. Very insightful and honest.



SteveA said...

The value of the Jesus Seminar does not track with the amount of video from that time that it reproduces. It is the pursuit and earnest, honest searching and making of connections and digging and uncovering of additional information that yields new insights. The value is in the exercise.

Michael F. Bird said...

Thanks for posting this. For me the defining moment for moving into academic study came with reading N.T. Wright's "Jesus and the Victory of God". I guess you started scholarship on the Wredebahn and I started on the Schweitzerbahn!

My concern is whether TJP will be any less ideologically driven that TJS. I have my doubts, but I sharen't rant on that subject here.

Ashique said...

Thanks for the share.

Blogger for Dummies

Ralph Hitchens said...

I agree with Steve that with regard to the Jesus Seminar the journey is more important than the destination. Some decent scholarship went into it.

Re. Yirmeyahu's comment, I think any student of history would acknowledge that (as Prof. Donald Akenson has argued) evidence of the Judaic origins of the "Jesus Movement" was lost to us with the destruction of Jerusalem and the suppression of the Jewish Revolt. What remained were the missionary congregations outside Palestine, largely gentile, many of which owed their existence to Paul and other Hellenized diaspora Jews.

Leon said...

The historical, Jewish Jesus is not that hard to recover. The Jesus in the Gospels is not merely a construct of each Gospel writer. There are many good details in each Gospel that make it possible to reconstruct accurate history. It is an incredibly big assunption to assert that each Gospel author is giving us his own Jesus.

The problem is that scholars keep assuming things and reading them into the Gospels. They rewrite the Gospels and then claim the evidence is a mess and we cannot recover anything. No one is prepared to face the two most important problems in this field: 1) There is still, right up until today, an incredible fear that the Jewish Jesus will be a too Jewish Jesus who will be harmful to Christianity; and 2) it is a basic scholarly assumption that Jesus was surrouned and done in by Jewish enemies; they erase all the positive evidence regarding Jesus' fellow Jews that tells us something different happened and they rewrite the ambiguous evidence into something negative about Jews.

Until these prejudices are faced, there will never be any progress. The truth is no one wants there to be any progress. I could tell people until I am blue in the face that there is a lot of evidence in the Gospels — and I mean a heck of a lot — that Jesus repeatedly talks about chutzpah (an Aramaic word) as a valuable quality to have when approaching God, but everyone gets scared that chutzpah will make Jesus too Jewish and so they do not want to hear it. If people push the evidence away and refuse to hear it, it is disingenuous to claim that the historical, Jewish Jesus cannot be recovered.

There are a ton of problems and none of them are in the Gospels. They are all in scholars who are bent on rewriting the Gospels to "prove" that no genuine history can be found there.

As for multiple attestation, this was always a false principle. It amounts to scholars saying that if many sources repeat a lie started by one source, we will tend to believe it, while one source telling the truth will be dismissed. There are better ways of evaluating the evidence, but scholars will have none of it for fear of what the historical, Jewish Jesus might look like.

Leon Zitzer

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liz said...

[from Stone; not Liz, my better half]

Hi --

My wife and I have a common blog account, so some are understandably confused reading our remarks unless each of us specify which one is doing the writing. The "short version" is that Liz is the practical one, and I am not;-)

Anyway, April DeConnick gives a very clear explication here of the potential pitfalls in the multiple-attestation method. My thanks to her for these remarks.

The distinction between making a good servant but a bad master may also be relevant here. While multiple attestation may merely point to a "bad penny" having circulated one too many times, one has to acknowledge (it seems to me, anyway) that all Jesus scholarship ultimately deals in varying levels of likelihood, rather than proof, anyway. Consequently, multiple attestation, as a servant and not a master, would indeed help in showing a somewhat greater likelihood re certain sayings being possibly more historical than others. Wouldn't it?

Of course, it doesn't prove anything. That's the key contribution of Ms. DeConnick's blog here, and my thanks. But it does serve (and I use that word deliberately) to highlight a saying as having been more closely associated with Jesus early on than many another -- for whatever reason. Therefore, candidly, since nothing regarding Jesus can be proved anyway, and since all conscientious Jesus scholarship ultimately deals in varying levels of likelihood only, I confess to viewing multiple attestation as a marginally better method of showing historical likelihood -- that's all, nothing more -- than many another.

View it this way: Since true scholars like Ms. DeConnick are ultimately dealing with likelihoods only, would it really make sense to view single-attestation sayings in literally the same light as multiple-attestation sayings? Now granted, an individual saying here or there might seem a special case sometimes because of intrinsic tone, and so on. No question. But as a group, can one really say that one group of singly attested sayings can be logically viewed in the same light as a group of multiply attested sayings? If we're dealing in levels of likelihood, I would think not. I would think, provided no kind of proof is claimed, that multiply attested sayings should still be viewed in a somewhat different light from singly attested ones.

That may seem like a trite truism, except that I'm wondering if there isn't an implication in Ms. DeConnick's remarks here that even that kind of working view re -- most -- singly attested sayings is open to question. Or is it?

Please be frank (and if Ms. DeConnick herself might respond to this, I'd be grateful), am I still missing something here?



Leon said...

Multiple attestation is not really a valid method of scholarship. In a court of law, no one would say that whichever side has more witnesses wins the case. It is the quality of testimony that counts, not quantity. One witness could turn out to be telling the truth, while many witnesses on the other side are lying.

Unfortunately, in historical Jesus scholarship. multiple attestation means that if one source lies and many other sources repeat it, we will tend to believe it, but if a single source says something, we will discount it.

The first rule of research is to get the historical context right, and in this case, it means 1st century Jewish culture. What must scholars do is rewrite Jewish culture so that it fits their theology of Jesus or their worldview. This is improper scholarship. The evidence in the Gospels is much clearer once you present Jewish culture on its own terms and not Christian terms.

Leon Zitzer

Liz said...

[from Stone; not Liz, my better half]

I'm not sure that Leon understood my point, and that may have been my failing. I was stressing the standing of single-attested sayings versus multiple-attested sayings, each as a _group_.

What I take away from (some of) the reasoning on this page is the implication (and I could be wrong in my inference) that all multiple-attested sayings and all single attested sayings, each as a _group_, can now be viewed in precisely the same light! Is that literally what is meant by what's been implied here?

If I'm wrong in my inference, then this query is moot, and I'm the one guilty of misunderstanding. But if the implication is indeed intended here that -- even as a _group_ -- the single-attested sayings can, as a _group_, be viewed precisely the same as multiple-attested sayings, as a _group_, and vice versa, then I would respectfully challenge that.

Regardless of the various reasons, there is still a discrete group of sayings that are multiple-attested, and I would suggest it still makes sense to view them somewhat differently than we do a discrete group of single-attested ones, whether or not one actually views the group of multiple-attested sayings as a whole as automatically historical, which I grant may be a leap too far.

All historical Jesus scholarship ultimately involves varying degrees of likelihood anyway, with certainty very rarely in sight. Consequently, given that narrow range, why should the inevitable absence of anything carrying absolute certainty with it induce us to collapse the range of likelihood even further rather than maintain at least some degree of discrimination using whatever slight indicators may be out there?

I wholeheartedly agree with the imponderables cited here in how we view one group of multiple-attested sayings versus one group of single-attested sayings. But that doesn't mean there's no practical difference between the two groups at all. That would be an exaggeration. There is still a difference, and I worry that we may fall into the trap of inadvertently concluding that because the reasons for that difference are not immediately certain, we should therefore take no stock of any differences in textual history at all.

Since the differences in textual history are still there, then that, as a pattern, is still worth pondering, however we view the reasons for those differences.



Leon said...

I don't think that distinguishing the multiple attested sayings is a key point. It might be somewhat interesting to point them out, but that overlooks what should be the primary point: Taking note of the quality of each piece of evidence. Some multiple attested sayings might be of very poor quality and some single attested sayings might be of very good quality. The constant (or multiple) repetition of a lie does not make it true.

Also, I disagree that very little in the way of certainty can be achieved in historical Jesus studies. Almost everything should be treated as a theory. But some theories are nonsensical because a) little or no evidence supports them, and b) a lot of evidence contradicts them. That is true of the theory that Judas betrayed Jesus.

Some theories, however, have a lot of evidence to support them and practically nothing to contradict them. Those theories are relatively certain. The key point is to focus on the evidence. Too much historical Jesus scholarship is about assuming your conclusions and erasing evidence that contradicts your conclusions. That kind of scholarship yields plenty of uncertainty.

Leon Zitzer

Liz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liz said...

[from Stone; not Liz, my better half]

You make some good points. While I still feel there are aspects that will always be uncertain, I agree there are others that attain something so close to certainty as to make the difference from certainty relatively minor.

The thing is, in order to assess cogently which aspects in the written record are all but certain, any and all aspects that may help in that endeavor should be factored in. You say some aspects "have a lot of evidence to support them and practically nothing to contradict them". Yes. It's just that multiple-attested sayings remain part of that mix -- a small part, but still a part -- essential to evaluating in each case whether or not we're seeing "a lot of evidence to support" or not.

Candidly, for instance, I don't think it negligible that the Gospel of Thomas, the parallel sayings in Matthew/Luke -- sometimes termed Q -- and the Gospel of Mark all coincide in 7 specific sayings. The fact that all 3 coincide in no more than these 7 (sometimes Q/Mark coincide in a couple of dozen, or Thomas/Mark do the same, or Q/Thomas, etc.) should not, of course, be taken as meaning automatically that all sayings outside these 7 are therefore suspect. But I still maintain common sense really places these 7 in a pretty central light.

Now obviously, once we've culled these 7, then a proper critical evaluation is needed for each saying in its own light. I don't gainsay your point, when you say "Taking note of the quality of each piece of evidence". The problem is, how does one assess quality? How does one keep such an assessment from being subjective? Maybe sometimes its quality, pro or con, may seem obvious, yes. But sometimes not. That's why I still view multiple attestation as a good _backup_. The bad penny syndrome does exist, but these 7 at least reflect some objectively viewable pattern -- arising for whatever reason.

Yes, it makes sense to evaluate each of the 7 on its own, reflecting a principle you have already implied. But I don't see how that evaluation can proceed independent of the central importance these seven sayings _may_ have in view of their appearance in all three of the earliest presumed strata of Gospel text.

I now welcome a case-by-case discussion of each of these 7 in their own right. I provide them here as rendered in Luke --

Luke 11

21 When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace:
22 But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils.

33 No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light.

Luke 12

2 For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.

10 And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven.

Luke 13

18 Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it?
19 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and was a tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.

30 And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.

Luke 19

26 For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him.

-- Respectfully,


Leon said...

You are right that multiple attestation is one factor that should be considered. I just don't think it ranks as very important and it can sometimes be misleading and harmful.

I am thinking particularly of a question like: Were Jewish leaders complicit with Rome in the execution of Jesus? The charge is made over and over that Jewish leaders plotted his death. But the evidentiary value of this is zero. An accusation can never be used to prove the truth of the accusation. The mulitple appearance of the accusation proves this charge was made and it came to be believed. It does not prove it was true. It could also have been the result of slander. Only a pattern of evidence outside the accusation can prove or disprove it. Mulitiple attestation here prejudices us into thinking something might be true, when it was really libel. No court of law would ever accept the principle that whichever side has the most witnesses wins.

What about the authenticity of Jesus' sayings? Here multiple attestation could have some value. But all it really proves is that the saying became popular, which could happen for a variety of reasons. The surest test of authenticity is historical context, which for Jesus is his own Jewish culture. Take the first example you gave above from Luke. I assume the parallel to this is at Matt 6:20 — store up treasure for yourself in heaven and not where thieves can break in.

In rabbinic lit, there is an exact parallel with the story of Monobaz. He was a king who decided in his old age to give away all his wealth to the poor. His family was pissed. But Monobaz explained that he wanted to store up treasure in a place (heaven) where the hand of man (human force) does not rule. Exactly the same point Jesus makes.

Not only that, but it fits the larger context of disputes between Sadducees and Pharisees. The Sadducees did not believe in life after death, so they believed in getting as much as you can while you were here on earth. The Pharisees believed treasure in the next life was more valuable and were willing to accept a life of poverty in this world.

I would attach a lot of credence to that saying in Luke and Matt, even if it were attested to only once — because it makes so much sense in the historical context.

These days there is a lot of lip service to acknowledging that Jesus was Jewish. But I don't know of any mainstream scholar who spends a lot of time investigating it by studying the material in rabbinic lit. Not Crossan, not Borg, not Sanders, not Meier. Even Jewish scholars in this field try to avoid it (with the possible exception of Hyam Maccoby).

The subject of historical Jesus studies is Jewish culture. You cannot study any subject without a deep love for it. It could be nuclear physics or entomology or botany or American history or Chinese history or anything. Without deep love, you will not learn or accomplish anything. The last Christian scholar who had a tremendous love for Pharisaic/rabbinic culture was R. Travers Herford. Almost no one today has that love. Love is the basis for all accurate historical study. Multiple attestation is just a side issue that reveals little.

Leon Zitzer

Liz said...

[from Stone; not Liz, my better half]

Something that LZ said earlier strikes a chord with me: "Too much historical Jesus scholarship is about assuming your conclusions and erasing evidence that contradicts your conclusions." Now this is something on which I couldn't agree more. It sums up (in my experience) the frequent method of many a myther, for instance.

As an admitted layman, I've still tried to avoid falling into such traps myself as best I can. I'm probably not perfect here, but I _think_ I've usually tried to apply some discipline at least in this regard.

Looking at these multiple-attested sayings, for instance, I find it both astonishing and disconcerting to see that both --

-- [Luke 13] 30 And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last. --

-- and --

-- [Luke 19] 26 For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him. --

are included in this highly select bunch of sayings. On a personal basis, I freely concede that the first of these two sayings has often struck me as among the most inspirational ones ever attributed to Jesus, while the second one has always seemed among the most uncomfortable. Yet I really feel it incumbent on me now to seek to resolve how one and the same individual could utter both sayings. Maybe this multiple attestation hardly proves for certain that Jesus did indeed say both things. But it does oblige me, if I'm going to be rigorous, to at least consider the possibility that he did.

And if I'm going to address the possibility that he did, what might his having possibly said both things -- contradictory as they may seem to me -- mean to either his contemporaries or to readers like me in the twenty-first century?

Things to ponder!



Leon said...

As I have said, it is all about love and love for 1st century Jewish culture, which is almost entirely absent in historical Jesus studies. Even on this blog, there is virtually no interest when I point out rabbinic parallels. Scholars would rather discuss parallels between Jesus and Buddha (as Marcus Borg does) than parallels between Jesus and other rabbis. The latter is perceived as a threat. When you regard Judaism as a threat, there is no hope of accurate historical study.

Out of context, a saying can mean anything. It is useless to speculate on things completely out of context. They mean nothing and anything.

The saying about the last and the first is easily explained. It has nothing to do with rank and order. The rabbinic idea is that people who are close to God, or who have been good all their lives, can wait for their reward because God knows they will continue to be faithful. But people who have been far from God and led bad lives need to get a reward sooner so they will start leading better lives. First and last means near and far. The last, those who are far, get rewarded first because they are the ones who need it most. The others can wait, they are last, because they do not need immediate reward.

But without love and intense curiosity for portraying Judaism accurately, it is not possible to see any of this.

Leon Zitzer

Liz said...

[from Stone; not Liz, my better half]

Understood. And how would one interpret the 7th saying, concerning those who have and those who have not --

-- [Luke 19] 26 For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him. --

And how might that dovetail with the interpretation of near vs. far for the 6th saying?



Leon said...

Offhand, I don't know of a specific parallel for the other saying. It sounds very rabbinic. The problem with any saying out of context, as I said, is that it can mean anything. That's the problem with the Gospel of Thomas. It's just a collection of sayings and it serves the purpose of meaning anything you want it to mean.

If I had to take a guess about the other saying (giving to those who have and taking away from those who do not have), I would say it has something to do with the dispute between Sadducees and Pharisees. Sadducees appear to have the Torah, but because they do not put it to good use and do not create new things, they end up losing it. It's like the parable of the talents — you end up losing if you just bury your money in the ground.

The Pharisees appear to have nothing because they are not part of the establishment and are not of noble descent. But their creative use of Torah gives them everything. If you use Torah creatively and with an eye towards helping the poor, the sick, the needy, the disadvantaged, then you have everything. More will be given — probably means more in the next world. The Pharisees believed that the more you get in this world, the less you get in the next, and the less you get in this world, the more you get in the next. Getting reward in this world could actually mean getting less in the world to come. Those who are near to God do not need reward in this world and do not mind getting it last.

These are reasonable guesses, but they are just guesses, until I one day find the exact parallel, I would be looking for.

Leon Zitzer