Remembering the Jesus Seminar

Three major news magazines did it this past Easter season. One should feel guilty about letting these journals set the agenda for theological discourse, or for any discourse, for that matter. C. S. Lewis thought that the reading of any magazine was bad for one’s English (he died before the advent of Crisis). It cannot be better for one’s theology. But what is not said says it all: The face of Jesus on the cover of a secular magazine sells more copies than the image of anyone else who has ever lived.

On April 8, 1996, Time featured a split image of the Holy Face. Thirty years before, to the day, it ran the pictureless cover: “Is God Dead?” As a student in New York back then, I was fascinated by the way a glossy magazine could send such a chill down the vestigial spines of so many theologians. The fact that Christ appears on the cover now, albeit drawn by some Eutychian in Time‘s art department, may underlie the anxiety of those who gamble for the seamless garment of the man whose words they largely dismiss.

They would have to believe that something so unscientific as casting lots in a California resort hotel two thousand years after the event is more reliable than listening to the voices of those who had first been part of the event, like the one who made a concluding point: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.” A spokesman for the Jesus Seminar, who rejects the entire Fourth Gospel but says his own testimony is true, claims that he left the priesthood and took a wife as the result of inconsistencies in the Synoptics. By a similar reasoning, any Shakespeare scholar should drop all his incongruent folios and take a whole harem.

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Nothing is new about remarking the lack of science in pseudoscience about the Scriptures. The Catholic modernists, Loisy and Tyrrell, blind to their own flaws, saw the cracks in German historical criticism in the nineteenth century. Martin Kähler had seen the same earlier when he distinguished between the historical Jesus and the historic (that is, suprahistorical) Christ. But that was just another variation of the Kantian mood that, along with Hegelianism and Romanticism, became the mental ether of the age. At least Kähler challenged the inculturated presumption of subjective historical critics. In a winter term lecture at the University of Berlin in 1899, the erudite Adolf Harnack would boast: “The Germans mark a stage in the history of the Universal Church. No similar statement can be made of the Slavs.”

At the time, a ten-year-old boy in Austria, already hoping for an artistic career, knew nothing of this; but he would find useful resources in those advanced cultural notions when he became führer of the Third Reich. In 1909, even Albert Schweitzer could write: “nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors — of philosophical thought, critical acumen, historical insight, and religious feeling — without which no deep theology is possible.”


Spurious Scholarship

We are not superior for seeing through the sentimental unwinding of the nineteenth century that gave us the Teutonic Christ. We may be more culpable at the end of the twentieth century for replacing that stolid modernity with a capricious postmodernity, and coming up with a Californian Christ who sounds like a hybrid of Ralph Nader and Maya Angelou. Whimsy builds upon whimsy, and we are told with half-concealed pathos that Judas was not a betrayer, and that this “Jesus-Lite” had several siblings noticed in the past only by a few Nestorians. This passes as scholarship in the Flamingo Resort Hotel in Santa Rosa.

The panelists there took seriously the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, while ignoring recent paleographical evidence for dating some canonic texts earlier than the year 70 (including Matthean material, if the Magdalen College papyrus fragments are substantive). Dr. John A. T. Robinson, whose name was almost synonymous with the “Death of God” controversy, even argued in his last years for a radically earlier date for the Johannine texts. But he is dead, and officially dead people do not attend the Jesus Seminar.

Thoughtful Latin stoics and Semitic Sadducees would not have considered the Jesus discovered in the Flamingo Resort Hotel worth killing. It is sobering, however, to consider that the president of the United States said that he prayed deeply before vetoing the ban on partial-birth abortions. Perhaps the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar is the sort of Messiah who hears such prayers from the White House and replies in mellow tones, “OK.”

This brings to mind that nun who a few years ago said of a genially beclouded prelate: “He affirmed me in my OK-ness.” The pervasive inarticulateness of our times surely has roots in the philosophical autism of which that poor woman was a lurid example. The problem has become too widespread to be noticed by many. It has conditioned a quest for the historical Jesus that is less like a Victorian expedition to a dark continent and more like a sensitivity session. This is not to say that the historical Jesus is elusive. He is the measure of historical meaning. The Incarnation is the template of all births and deaths. The historical Jesus is not the problem; the subjectivity of the quest is. Schweitzer noticed that his own teachers had tended to fabricate the Lord in accordance with their own character.

Sometimes liturgical revisionists cast their own lots as languidly as any dilettante in a Jesus Seminar by purging from the lectionary references to Satan, the order between husbands and wives, the Fatherhood of God, and the hard sayings about fire and flesh. Or some may take on the cheerful task of suburbanizing the whole Gospel, like the “Contemporary English Version” of the American Bible Society that greets the entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday with the refrain, “Hooray for God in heaven above!”


Logic of Logos

God seeks man and finds him hiding behind a tree. In the Upper Room he comes to men who are huddled in confusion, and from the shore he calls to men pulling empty nets – scenic icons of his appeal to postmodern man on the edge of a nameless age. When a novice asked how to find God, a mature monk answered, “Open your eyes.” Two figures in dazzling apparel asked the women at the tomb, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” At the Ascension, two similarly dressed figures asked, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” It is hard at the end of this millennium to admit that these figures have pure intelligence, for we had hoped that by this time we might have it. But we can listen to those who do have it, and they say that Christ is not an artifact. He comes into history as history, and is discerned by locating the self of his events. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Precisely in obedience to this logic of the Logos, St. Augustine said that the Scriptures tell how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. And so, too, in the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pius XII distinguished the levels of interpretation according to literary genres: discursive, allegorical, analogical, and so forth. All of which may seem esoteric if one dismisses more texts out of hand. Textual criticism is semantic embroidery outside the communal grace of ecclesial life, for talk about the historical Jesus is chatter unless it starts with talk to Jesus at our moment in history, which is prayer. The Church’s teaching on scriptural inspiration is part of this divine commerce, a teaching that is most importantly expressed in the Church’s prayer, the Liturgy.

In Mystici Corporis, Pius XII condemned the proposition of contradictions between the external juridical elements and internal mystical elements in the life of the Church. In 1907, Tyrrell had indeed posited that dichotomy. He used as an example the spirituality of St. Bernard of Clarivaux, whose combination of scholasticism and mysticism was to the modernist like oil and water. A certain will-o’-the-wisp renewal in contemporary Church life has proceeded on this analysis, animated by the “transcendental Thomists” who effectively manipulated liturgics and catechesis, in an internal Kulturkampf more destructive than any external assault in the annals of Christianity.

I suspect that men are being ordained to the priesthood today who have never read a single sentence of the Second Council of Orange. If they had, they might be more aware that the critical issues that seem novel have had a long past and have been addressed by better minds. Both Vatican Councils alluded to this economy, and so did the seminal encyclicals on exegesis: Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus of 1893, and Pius XII’s Humani Generis of 1953. They witnessed to this crucial rubric the appearance of contradictions in inspired texts is evidence of contradictions in our cognitive faculties, and the right use of reason requires that higher criticism acknowledge this.


The Brief Record of Jesus

The brevity of historical records about Jesus is a natural argument for their authenticity. This includes extracanonical witness, like Polycarp’s testimony from John recorded by Irenaeus. Legends would be more detailed because the gods of legends are invented: Much of the best pagan literature is poetic detail about the gods. This is also the case with early Christian apocryphal texts; and it is precisely because of the Church’s historical sense that she has relegated these to the class of apocrypha. In contrast, the appearance of Christ, and many of his sayings, are taken for granted in the canonical texts and not mentioned, precisely because he is granted to the human intelligence, and not invented by it. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is a major, and in many ways unique, advance in classical historical narrative. Its attention to facts should humble the social historians and psycho-biographers of our generation. But it is familiar with Jesus the way ideologues are not.

So its record of his worth and the apostolic response to them is biographical chiefly as a biography of the Church. It does not conjure up a historic Christ in suprahistorical counterpoint to any historical Jesus. The Church rejoins from experience: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” He who is and will be is none other than he who was.

The evangelists are conscious that their own lives are determined by this mystery, so they do not write their “own” gospels. There really is no warrant for speaking of “Matthew’s Gospel” or “Luke’s Gospel” as you might speak of “Euclid’s Theorem” or “More’s Utopia.” There is one Gospel, that of Jesus, written “according” to them. The Book of the Acts is an astonished reflection of Christians on how “the outcome of their life” is not a federation of lives, but the singular life of Christ alive in them as the Church. This kind of astonishment is a switch from the bewilderment of those who had walked with Jesus toward Jerusalem, becoming faint of heart. Subjective criticism apart from the Paschal mysteries will always be relegated to that mental state.

On those who stay with him along the road, the Lord confers an authenticity that they did not have. This is Christ’s search for the historical man. Man is historical in Adam; he becomes historic in Christ. Those who died in Adam become alive in Christ by drinking of Christ’s cup and being baptized with his baptism. Once the Word is made flesh, the flesh of the Word is more than words. He is the articulation of personality. Saul becomes Paul on the Damascus Road when he realizes that in the lives he is persecuting is the life of Christ. For Christ does not speak of “them” but of “me” when he speaks of the Church.

In this new realism follow pastoral letters, not syllogisms. And the baptized speak of this reality to palpable people straining to be more real themselves. When Paul speaks without trembling before Gallio, he speaks before the brother of Seneca who, as a Cynic, lived only as half a man by philosophy. But even half a man, if he cannot shed light, can cast a shadow. Not one of these characters is a mere symbol. Recently, when lecturing outside Rome along the Appian Way, all my rambling words were the weakest commentary on what historic Peter and Paul had reconciled themselves to as they walked on those historical stones.


How Confusion Travels

Here is the sacred tradition at work and not nostalgia, eschatology and not ideology. The Gospel, after all, issues in a Book of Acts and not a Book of Ideas. Ideas, however, can usurp acts when the ego mimes reality. Not unlike biblical critics of his day, Nietzsche crowed about a “sixth sense,” which was the “historical sense” only developed by the human race in the nineteenth century. He went mad; but there are those who, after the wreckage of a whole moral slum of a century, still invoke his sixth sense in Jesus Seminars and the like. All this would be delicate academic nonsense were it not for a couple of world wars and the lakes of blood flooded by the post-Kantian fantasy that denied reality. It is our age of revisionist history, and not the apostolic age, that should be on trial. Of all the lines Jesus spoke, which dull minds and heavier hearts would rather think he had not spoken, there is none more awful than the question that sounds in decibels louder than ever: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me?”

On another recent trip, I saw tourists riding past the chateaux of the Loire on their way to see the plaster castle of that cultural Chernobyl: Euro Disney. There Eleanor of Aquitaine abdicates in favor of Cinderella. And as I said Mass in the cathedral of Rheims, I had the impression that there were some visitors there for whom Joan of Arc was Ingrid Bergman and who, if they saw Margaret Mary Alacoque and Catherine Labour in their glass coffins, could not tell them from Sleeping Beauty. The capacity of older cultures for memorization and accurate oral tradition has evaporated.

From our new low vantage point, it is assumed that Christians, and especially Christian saints, have twisted history, even when Christianity gave culture the elements of historical science and the essential reason for wanting to know history, just as it gave the impetus for the inductive methods of physical science. And this we are told by a collapsing culture, 90 percent of those latest bachelors of arts have read no classical history and have no language other than an idiomatic corruption of their own. Yet Bernadette Soubirous was so simple and straightforward that she asked her Lady to write down her name and handed her a pen to do it; a modern Jesus Seminar has too much guile to be that graphic.

The plain Christian veneration for sacred sites, pilgrimages, and relics testifies to its information of places and things. Some still mock this, but a residual sense of place and character perdures. Those who might wink at the archeology of Helena or Etheria make a business of tourism, if not to the City of David, then to the City of Disney. The Pearl of Great Price may be neglected, but there are those who pay six-figure sums at Sotheby’s for a celebrity’s fake pearls.


Words False and True

In this moment we suffer from a logjam of words about the Word. When hope is alive, heart will speak to heart, as St. Francis de Sales prayed it might. That is how the Sacred Heart must surely have spoken to the Immaculate Heart, in some of the most certain unwritten words of Jesus. Some critics may have lost heart for the words of Jesus because of the way Christians speak his words. Translators may understandably be vexed in trying to combine accuracy with vitality, but in the effort, opportunities can be lost.

For example, the profundity of the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, like so many grand documents, was done a disservice by the translation into English, which describes the Garden of Eden as a place of “harmonious inter-personal relationships.” In 1994, priests around the world received the superb Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, but the translation told the toiling shepherds: “Pastoral charity constitutes the internal and dynamic principle capable of uniting the multiple and diverse pastoral activities of the priest and, given the socio-cultural and religious context in which he lives, is an indispensable instrument for drawing men to a life in grace.” If the historical Jesus had spoken that way on the Galilean shore, I doubt that Peter would ever have left the sociocultural and religious context in which he lived and made it to the sociocultural and religious context of Rome.

It is not strange, then, that the sheep are scattered on a thousand hills and that there is some question whether Jesus really did speak of heavenly things. If man would speak of love in lovely arabesques, he must will to love. “He who does not love me does not keep my sayings; and the word which you hear is not mine, but the Father’s who sent me.” It cannot be clearer than that in this world, unless what passes for clarity is the agreeable myopia of some historical critics. Someone remarked when told that David Hume was clear: “Shallows are clear.” Those are the shallows in which people at unlovely Jesus Seminars paddle.

All history is the Emmaus Road. Two men two thousand years ago were conducting their own Jesus Seminar on it, until Jesus himself took over. “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” The next millennium will be shaped by the answer this age gives him. We have less excuse than those first pedestrians for giving a pedestrian reply. God is merciful, but the mercy is twin to justice.

As Arius was judged the day before he intended to force sanction for his contempt of the Word, the twentieth century should expect no less. If reparation is not made, there will come upon churches as well as nations a darkness and sorrow such as the world has not known. In that bleakness, which is already a culture of death, no Californian Christ will appear, but only the terrible beauty of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.


This essay originally appeared in the September 1996 edition of Crisis Magazine.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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