by Earl Doherty
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HONEST TO JESUS
Jesus For a New Millennium
by Robert W. Funk
HarperCollins SanFrancisco (1996)
The members of a struggling sporting team look back to an earlier era. They begin to talk about their past. Not only do they claim that the team was once a collection of star players, but it was led at its formation, so they say, by the greatest superstar of all time, who had taught the rest of his teammates everything they knew, inspired them to feats of athletic prowess, and left his mark on all subsequent training techniques and play strategy. Portraits are commissioned of this heroic figure and writers are hired to tell his story.
But while most of the latter dutifully set down the team's current recollections and traditions, one writer decides to delve deeper. He finds that sporting magazines of that period fail to mention this luminary, even when making occasional reference to the team itself, which they do in scarcely glowing fashion. League statistics of the time show it mired in second-last place. Payroll records of the club itself, though somewhat shoddily kept, show no entries for this superstar. There are different traditions about what his playing number was. And while some say he played the right position, others swear with equal fervor that he played on the left. Surviving members of his family, who might have illuminated his story, have perplexingly disappeared.
Letters surface, written between some of the team players of that era, but they lack any mention of him, or else contain cryptic reference to some important figure who seems to have played a different role, perhaps in management, than the one tradition gives him today. Finally, the writer discovers that the team's playbook, supposedly inspired by the unique innovations of this master competitor of the past, contains many features found in the playing strategies of other teams, and that many of his personal characteristics are shared by other superstars of the sports world, past and present. Our writer submits his findings to the team's public relations office, but is accused of being a secret saboteur for some rival club and booted out along with his torn contract. (Note: No real individual is intended by any of the characters of this parable.)
At the center of Robert Funk's new book, Honest to Jesus, lies the parable, which the author has spent much of his career studying and for which he is justly renowned. My own "parable" above does not quite follow all the classic features of that ancient device, but it bears a general resemblance in that it seeks to provide the unexpected insight, the turning upside-down of established convention. Those who have read other articles on this Web site will know that it refers to my conviction that no historical Jesus stood at the beginnings of Christianity.
Just as the rich, invited guests to the wedding feast in Luke's Parable of the Dinner Party (Lk. 14:16-24) end up being excluded while the poor, undeserving populace are brought in to the banquet, so in the revised picture of Christian origins, the legendary Jesus of Nazareth and his apostolic retinue go missing and fail to be admitted at the table, while a range of more ordinary folk and current ideas found along the streets and byways of the neighborhood end up entering the doors and telling us the story of the movement's humbler and more amorphous inception.
Robert Funk's Jesus is a parable-teller without peer. Indeed, Funk represents him (chapter 8) as a master of every preaching device of his age. The language of Jesus' parables and aphorisms, Funk tells us, reflected every conceivable event and topic on the contemporary scene, from dinner parties to gardening, from officialdom to widows. Jesus employed subtle metaphors and oblique references. He could create tension through antithesis, through interplay between the literal and the non-literal. His critics he undid through logic rich in subtleties. He was the master of the unexpected twist, the caricature of stereotypes which set the listener up for the surprise reversal. His clever paradoxes must have astounded his audience.
On top of all that, Jesus was a "comic savant", a "word wizard" (though "technically illiterate"), and his knowledge was "born of direct insight." He was, says Funk, not a teacher of practical wisdom, but a visionary who "constantly pushed . . . into virgin territory" (page 156).
We might wonder how so many accomplishments of the time became concentrated so thoroughly in a single individual, or that a technically illiterate Jewish preacher should have absorbed so much, especially so much which resembles non-Jewish precedents, such as the Cynic style of preaching and philosophy flourishing in widespread circles of the empire during the first century. Funk declares (p. 162) that "Jesus inhabited the world of his aphorisms and parables." But perhaps the truth of the matter is that this world took up residence in him, in that common device of the human mind which seeks to render indeterminate, broadly-based developments as proceeding from one superior individual, someone who can serve to epitomize and focus the multifarious features and innovations of complex social movements.
To hear Funk (and others) tell it, the reform impulses which pervaded Palestinian society and the Jewish Temple state prior to the War of 66-70 were all concentrated in Jesus. It was Jesus' creative mind which gave voice to the new concept that the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts, the foreigner, should be championed and enfranchised in a new egalitarian society. It was he who advocated softening—or chucking altogether—the rigid, fossilized codes of purity which forbade contact with certain people, certain objects, a whole range of foods. It was he who struck the first blow against the excesses of the Temple, with its wholesale slaughter of animals and its commercial goings-on. In Jesus' mind there were no longer to be sacred places, barred to all but the privileged and the sanctified. The unrealistic and often inhumane restrictions of the Sabbath had to be suspended as well, so too the ancient requirement for circumcision before male gentiles could be welcomed into the fold. Priests, privileged and pompous were to be swept aside, and Jesus' vision, as Funk movingly puts it (p.203), was that "every person had immediate, unbrokered access to God's presence, God's love, God's forgiveness." Considering what Jesus of Nazareth is said to have embodied in his person, his teachings, his vision, it is easy to forgive Robert Funk and others like him from indulging in a good helping of hero-worship and more than a touch of hyperbole in their treatment of this unique figure in the world of first century Palestine.
And yet—where is this paragon in the record of the times? There is not a murmur of him in any pagan and Jewish document for almost a hundred years. The best efforts of scholars have not been able to demonstrate with any conviction that Josephus, the paramount Jewish historian of the period, included a word of description about this amazing preacher in his account of an unsettled Palestine in the early decades of the first century. (See Supplementary Article No. 10: Josephus Unbound, for a full discussion of the Josephan passages about Jesus.)
Even more astonishing, the entire corpus of Christian correspondence spanning the rest of the first century has no word of its own to say about this innovative, seminal preacher, but speaks of some cosmic divinity who created and holds the universe together, who was crucified by the demon spirits as a sacrifice for salvation. Paul is supposed to have been so taken with the teacher of parables that he dropped everything in his own life and betrayed many of his Jewish principles in order to attach himself to the memory of Jesus of Nazareth, then proceeded along with unknown others to elevate him to such a transcendent level that he abandoned all interest in the human man, so that we would not know from his letters that such a person had ever existed.
The more Funk attributes to his preaching hero, the more it baffles that the man was so thoroughly cast aside by all the early Christians who left a record of the new faith. The more it is claimed that Jesus made his name and impact as a teacher of the kingdom, the less it makes sense that he would almost immediately be transmogrified into the sacrificial heavenly High Priest of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the pre-existent spiritual Son who is the source of all being (1 Cor. 8:6), the descending-ascending redeemer of the pre-Pauline hymns (Phil. 2:6-11, etc.), even as his earthly identity and innovative teachings tumbled into a black hole from which they did not emerge for a good half century.
Where, then, does Dr. Funk derive his teaching Jesus? It is not from the early documents themselves, which entirely lack such a figure. Rather, it is from one dimension of the Gospel picture, a picture whose other dimensions Funk is quite willing to reject as artificial creations. Further, this one acceptable dimension is itself almost entirely derived from a buried source. (Perhaps entirely, if we allow for Mark's exposure to limited Q traditions.) Buried not only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but buried within the lost document which has been extracted from those Gospels: namely at the earliest exhumed level of Q. Moreover, Q was a sayings collection which itself had already evolved over the course of half a century, making the identification of the nature of its primitive layers and their antecedents an uncertain business.
I have elsewhere (my Part Three article and the Burton Mack book review) questioned the legitimacy of the assumptions which have been brought to the subterranean layers of this lost document, and examined the elements within it which point in the opposite direction, namely that the absence of any Jesus at the beginnings of Q is a more valid and sensible conclusion to be drawn. If the archaeological dig arrives at a highest layer (Q3) which shows evidence of a reworking of earlier materials, followed by an intermediate layer (Q2) which contains telltale signs that a Jesus was lacking in the community's thinking, finally reaching the lowest level (Q1) where one uncovers artifacts which have an unexpectedly cosmopolitan, non-Jewish character (namely, Greek Cynic), one has to wonder if something is not amiss in the elaborate picture of the "genuine Jesus" Dr. Funk and others have constructed out of their diggings.
Nor does the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas, which modern liberal scholarship has seized upon, provide reliable corroborating evidence for their picture. A good number of its sayings bear some kind of literary relationship to those at the bedrock of Q (showing a common root source or a splitting off of one from the other). But the elements of Thomas which link such sayings to a Jesus are surprisingly flimsy, and can readily be seen as secondary material. Those repetitive little "Jesus said" introductions to each of the sayings (in a handful of cases there is a little more elaborate set-up involving Gospel Apostles) could have been added to the collection at a later stage. This would probably have taken place toward the middle of the second century (the period which our unearthed version seems to go back to) under the influence of the widening development of the historical Jesus idea. Indeed, Thomas' bare sayings, when compared with Q's, can often be used to illuminate the artificial revision which the latter document underwent, when it eventually introduced an historical founder within its own walls.
Q, in fact, gives us an illuminating window onto the many-faceted reform movement which was sweeping not only Jewish Palestine but pagan byways of the empire as well. The first century was an innovative and progressive period of Western history. In Judaism the era of rabbinic enlightenment had begun and many Jewish circles were raising questions about the legitimacy of the temple cult (though the roots of the claim that God no longer wanted the odor of animal sacrifice go back into the prophets). Kingdom preaching, also going back to exilic prophecy, reached a head in first century Palestine, and the suggestion that we should attribute its fount all to one man is surely simplistic.
The Cynics we know as one of many teaching movements in Graeco-Roman society. It talked of its own Kingdom of God, of a divine beneficent Father; it advocated breaking down barriers, overturning convention, reversing the roles of privileged and unprivileged. The best pagan philosophy of the time, as for example in Epictetus, sought to include the poor and the marginalized in a common human family. The idea of Wisdom and the Logos as intermediary revealers of God was in the air, and personal salvation of one form or another was the obsession and buzzword of this broad reform impulse.
The Q community was one, Jewish, expression of the spirit of the times, borrowing from neighbors and precedents, preaching in parables and claiming miracles, advocating reform ideas, condemning the hostile establishment around it. By processes natural to sectarian groups, it eventually formulated in its memory and in its evolving documents an idealized founder figure who epitomized everything the community did and stood for. This figure contributed to the artificial composite creation that became the Gospel Jesus.
One Scholar's Story
Robert Funk's view of the historical Jesus lies at the heart of his book, but upon it he has hung a number of things. One is an apologetic for modern liberal scholarship, in which he and his Jesus Seminar occupy pride of place (and quite deservedly). He begins Honest to Jesus with an extended personal statement. This includes details of his own background, his boyhood beliefs and education, his teaching career culminating in a breakout from the confines of rigid faith and political correctness, and the establishing of his own publishing house and research institute (Polebridge Press and Westar). Out of this came the Jesus Seminar.
He concludes this opening statement with "ten convictions" (p. 10f) about Jesus and early Christianity which the reader will find either perceptive or pretentious, perhaps a mix of both. No. 4, for example, says: "I am inclined to the view that Jesus caught a glimpse of what the world is really like when you look at it with God's eyes." Or No. 8: "I believe in original sin, but I take original sin to mean the innate infinite capacity of human beings to deceive themselves." With the latter I would have to agree, while acknowledging that there are those who would want to apply the ironic overtone to my own views.
Robert Funk clearly regards himself as a savior (though not a divine one), not only of the moribund state of traditional Christian belief, with its still strident and inflexible defence of orthodoxy, but of Jesus himself, whom he regards as needing rescue from the detritus of centuries of faith and theology that have been heaped upon the man of Nazareth. He pledges "devotion to the truth . . . a resolute willingness to confront the facts, and an unblinking determination to tell all" (p.14). The trouble is, he characterizes this in the same breath as being "honest to Jesus," and here he immediately contravenes his stated resolution, for he has started with an a priori assumption which the evidence does not allow us to take for granted: that there was any historical Jesus to be honest to.
The Story of Jesus
Armed with his assumption, Dr. Funk starts (p. 32) by offering us the details about this "shadowy figure" of which we can be "fairly certain." The first observation to be made is that every item in this list of basic data about Jesus' life began its own life in the Gospels. There is no earlier or independent support from any other source. And even among the Gospels, there is a notable lack of agreement and corroboration.
Funk places Jesus' birth during the time of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. But how do we know this? Not from Mark, the earliest Gospel, for Mark has nothing to say about Jesus' birth. Matthew is one of the two evangelists to place the Nativity during Herod's reign, and one suspects that he has done this so that Herod can supply the drama with which he surrounds his story. It is a drama based on a midrashic reworking of Old Testament prototypes in the story of Moses: Herod's attempt to kill the child through his slaughter of the first-born of Bethlehem parallels Pharaoh's attempt to eradicate Moses the promised deliverer of the Hebrews by killing their first-born sons. The flight of the holy family into Egypt to escape Herod, and their return to Palestine, parallels the Hebrew sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus to the Promised Land.
When Luke comes to create his own Nativity story, independent of Matthew, he too places Jesus' birth at the time of Herod, but for reasons that bear no resemblance to Matthew's. He has no Magi, no Star, no slaughter of the innocents or flight into Egypt. (Matthew, in turn, has no census, no shepherds, manger or overbooked inn. The only event they share in common is the birth itself in Bethlehem. This is an idea which each evangelist would have taken independently from a famous prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the future king of Israel would be born there. Note, by the way, that a very primitive Nativity story in a later layer of the Ascension of Isaiah, probably from the beginning of the second century, has no details resembling Matthew's or Luke's beyond Bethlehem itself.)
Instead, Luke ties the time of Jesus' birth to that of John the Baptist, in a set of matching scenes surrounding the conceptions of John and Jesus, involving visitations by angels and ceremonies in the Temple which are again parallel to Old Testament stories and which no liberal scholar today regards as founded on historical reality. Probably it was common knowledge, or assumption, that John had been born in Herod's reign, which for Luke's purposes pulled Jesus into the same time period.
As an indication of how unreliable the evangelists were as historians (or even as researchers of fiction), Luke (2:1-2) then places Jesus' birth at the time of an empire-wide census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. It has long been observed that there is no record of a universal census under Augustus (some historians have thought that such a thing would have been all but impossible), and that Quirinius (who conducted a local taxation enrollment in Judea) governed Syria beginning in 6 CE, 10 years after Herod's death. So much for being "fairly certain" of this piece of data about Jesus' life.
Anything shared between the Gospels as to Jesus' life, ministry and passion can essentially be seen as derived from Mark, the first teller of the Jesus story. This includes the fact that his mother was named Mary, that he had four brothers, that he grew up in Nazareth in Galilee, that his father was a carpenter, that he died in Jerusalem executed by the Romans. All these details Funk labels "surviving records" (p.33). But all can be traced to the pages of Mark and nowhere else (not even Q), certainly not to the many epistles written by early Christians like Paul, who have not a word to say about any such details. These writers do not so much as tell us that Jesus preached, or underwent a trial (by Jews or by Romans), or that he was executed by human authorities, let alone mention any of the events on Calvary's hill or even the name itself. The first appearance of Pilate's name outside the Gospels comes in the letters of Ignatius about 107, and pilgrimages to the site of Jesus' death (or the empty tomb) are not even hinted at in the early correspondence.
Neither Dr. Funk nor anyone else seems to wonder why a movement which exploded across the empire by the middle of the first century produced only one independent account of Jesus' life, which all subsequent accounts slavishly reworked with their own tendentious embellishments. (John's somewhat more extensive recasting of the story, especially the passion, follows his own theological necessities, but is still ultimately dependent on the Synoptics—so one side of a divided scholarly debate has concluded: see p.239 and below, as well as my Supplementary Article No. 2 on the First Epistle of John.)
Jesus According to Paul
Is this being "honest to Jesus"? Why is Dr. Funk not "honest" to the Pauline Jesus? Poor Paul has been accused over the years of adulterating the real man by turning him into a transcendent deity and burying him under the crushing weight of hellenistic philosophy. But Paul has nothing to say about the starting point of his presumed quantum leap, and if we were honest to his Jesus, we would identify him only as a transcendent divinity.
Funk himself recognizes that Paul "identified Jesus as a savior figure of the hellenistic type, a dying/rising god, such as Osiris in the Isis cult," a savior god who was murdered in myth. "It was not the life and teachings of Jesus but the death of Jesus and his appearance to Paul in a vision . . . that became the focal points of Paul's gospel" (p.35).
Considering that Paul never states that he is "identifying" a human man in these terms (Romans 1:3 is a part of verse 2's "gospel of God" found in scripture: see Part Two), considering that he never shows awareness of a "life and teachings", or locates the saving death in any historical setting, would not an honest evaluation of Paul's Jesus place him squarely within that hellenistic class of savior god like Osiris, one who was never on earth in history and who operated in the world of myth? How can Funk admit that Paul knew "only the risen Jesus, the Christ of vision and spirit possession," and then in the very next breath say that "it is perhaps ironic that it was Paul, not Peter, who understood the heart of Jesus' parables and aphorisms" (p.35)? From what I can see, Paul gives us not a whisper of Jesus' parables and aphorisms. Funk, like so many others before him, has forced Paul into the Gospel mold, whether the pieces will fit or not.
Funk identifies Paul's basic gospel of death and resurrection (in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4) as "suggested" by Isaiah 53 and Psalm 16, and by the myth of the dying/rising lord of the mystery cults (p.39). He admits (p.44) that the Pauline cultic Christ, "except for his execution as Jesus of Nazareth, is mythic in character." Yet Paul and the rest of the epistles are lacking all trace of an "execution as Jesus of Nazareth." Instead, this "Lord of glory" is crucified by the demon spirits who rule this world's age (1 Cor. 2:8. See Article No. 3).
Paul's descent-ascent motif, something widespread in the mythology of the ancient world, is related to the "redeemer hymn" of Philippians 2:6-11, about the Savior who descends from heaven to undergo death (Paul adds that it is "death on a cross"), and reascends as an exalted figure (p.39). But this hymn neither identifies the Savior with an historical Jesus nor allots a single piece of Gospel data to him. Why, then, does Funk not consider that being honest to Paul's Jesus would suggest that scripture was the source of Paul's information and gospel, and that mystery cult and other ancient world mythical thinking is the milieu in which Paul's beliefs should be placed? Funk supplies this definition of "mythic": "A myth is the story of the activities of a god" (p.44). Well, that is the only story Paul ever gives us.
Perhaps part of Funk's subconscious acknowledges all this, for he goes on to make a startling statement (p.40):
"It was the disappointing execution of Jesus that kept the new faith anchored in history. . . . Without that link, the Christ might well have originated as a cult figure risen from the dead but with no earthly credentials."
Funk is treading two levels of interpretation here which, as the words appear on the page, do not seem to be compatible. If the movement began out of the death of a human Jesus, how could faith in a cultic Christ have even theoretically originated "with no earthly credentials"? The words seem logically contradictory, but they show how close scholars like himself have come to the edge of the abyss, and yet shrink from looking over. All it would require is a slight adjustment in thinking, the simple introduction of the possibility that the progress of ideas runs from Paul to Mark, from transcendent deity to human teacher and not the other way around, and Western history could finally be rewritten.
The Clash Between Jesus and Christ
Dr. Funk sets up the basic dichotomy of the early Christian record and styles it as a clash between "the Jesus of the Gospels," namely the evangelists' elevation of Jesus to Son of God and Messiah, following Paul's precedent, and "the Gospel of Jesus," which is the message presumably taught by the historical man. These two contrasting sides of the early Christian coin translate into Parts 2 and 3 of the book.
But somewhere along the way, I wish that Funk had asked two questions in relation to this "clash". The first is: Why does the record we do possess of the earliest period focus solely on the mythic side of the coin, while the so-called gospel of Jesus must be excavated from later documents which can only be presumed to preserve earlier realities about an historical figure? Is there not something suspiciously wrong with this picture?
The second is really a complex of questions, and could be asked of Paul and those unnamed others standing behind him, whom Funk (like Burton Mack) relegates vaguely to places like Antioch. The questions are these: How could hellenistic mythological ideas have made such strong and sudden inroads into the thinking of those who followed or responded to this human Jesus? What, in anyone's mind, would a counterculture preacher of the kingdom, executed by the Roman authorities for some kind of perceived subversion, possibly have had to do with mythic, pre-existent savior gods and world redemption? What could have led anyone to cast him so thoroughly in this mold to the elimination of all else?
Funk certainly rules out actual resurrection from the dead. What, then, attracted Paul to this man? Why would he and others (especially at Antioch) take a simple preacher, whom they knew only by report, and turn him into a cosmic deity, no matter what their diet of hellenistic mystery ideas? Were they simply shopping for someone to hang the mythic garment on, and someone offered them Jesus of Nazareth at a good price? No one had ever done this to an historical man. The appeal could not have been in his message and charisma as a teacher, since they immediately stripped off this skin and discarded it.
If Paul had no interest in the teacher and his teachings, of what use was this "genuine Jesus" to him as a candidate for divinity? Funk speaks (p.43) of the Pauline cult's "point of departure (as) the fact of Jesus' noble death," but noble deaths are a dime a dozen in history, including Jewish history, and rarely if ever do they lead to divinization on so exalted a scale. The simple fact of a noble death (any details of which Funk has to declare were not known) would hardly have led an educated, observant Jew like Paul to contravene the most sacred precepts of his heritage and associate this particular man, one he had never met, with God.
Funk subscribes to Acts' "road to Damascus" legend. ( Paul has nothing to say about this in his letters, where he always talks in terms of a call "by God": see my response to Charity. The "seeing" in 1 Corinthians 15:8 is not identified as a conversion experience.) Yet what would have prompted such a dramatic vision, if it had taken place? What possible impact could the report of this preacher have made on Paul to produce a vision of him as the Son of God and redeemer of the world? Funk can't have it both ways. If he reduces Jesus to a humble teacher, removes all information about his "noble death" from Paul's (and everyone else's) mind, and abandons any genuine resurrection, he has siphoned off the fuel that could power Paul's response and raise the human man to the orbit of divinity.
For Paul has not only seized on a teacher of parables and aphorisms as a candidate for Godhead, he goes on (see my Part Two) to make this teacher pre-existent, the source of all being and the sustainer of the universe. Nor does he ever find need or occasion to defend such a mind-boggling piece of blasphemy. Then he pulls the sage out by his human roots, transforms him into a "secret" hidden for generations, revealed by God for the first time to himself and other inspired apostles entirely through the Spirit. He ignores all traditions about Jesus' baptism, his miracles, his apocalyptic predictions, and buries Jesus' recent teaching ministry so deep that it is not even a blip on the landscape. He dismisses Jesus' earthly followers as having no distinction from himself in terms of apostleship, he will accept no gospel from the hands of other men, and styles himself as the medium of God's revelation, God's minister of reconciliation, and the dispenser of God's new covenant.
And in this conspiracy he was joined by every other epistle writer of the New Testament.
If Paul had deliberately set out to eradicate Jesus of Nazareth from human memory, he could not have done a more efficient job. Was he pathological? After all, he could have had his cake and eaten it, too. The cosmic Christ did not have to preclude its human antecedent. How much more powerful would the preaching message have been, how much greater the appeal of this savior god over its rivals if he had been offered as one who had come to earth and taught in parables, performed miracles, exorcised the hated demons, showed forgiveness and compassion in his human person! And who would have let Paul get away with it? Would the Galatians, the Corinthians, willingly have sacrificed Jesus' human identity, the story of his life, the details of his trial and death? What of the Jerusalem Apostles? Did they swallow their demotion by Paul without a murmur, the relegation of Jesus' life to the scrap heap in Paul's carrying of the Christian message to the gentiles?
Dr. Funk asks none of these questions. Indeed, he seems scarcely to be aware of them. In seeking to be honest to his own need and vision of Jesus, he is not being honest with us, the readers, or to the Western world as a whole which desperately needs a picture of Christian origins which finally makes a little sense.
Dying and Rising Myths
In Part 3 of his book, Dr. Funk examines the founding myths of Christianity, the stories of the passion, death and resurrection, and the Nativity legends. These are so crucial to Christian interests, he admits (p.219), that "it becomes increasingly difficult for us to be critical and thus to be honest."
But brutally honest he is. Nothing in the Christian story, he says, is immune from doubt. The "bare facts" can be reduced to the execution of Jesus at Jerusalem under the jurisdiction of Pontius Pilate with the concurrence of higher Judean officials, the dispersal of Jesus' followers and their regrouping some time later to form a movement. He fails to point out that not even these bare facts are attested to in Paul or any other first century epistle writer. (All but some of the more conservative scholars recognize that 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 is an interpolation. See Part Two and Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?)
In offering a few basic "Rules of Evidence", Funk includes an old chestnut I have dealt with in the Reader Feedback section (response to "Johnson"): events and characterizations that would be an embarrassment to Jesus' followers, yet were preserved by them, have some claim to be historical. Yet the very phrasing of this rule is based on preconception. It first of all presumes that the events referred to were preserved by these followers. This is something for which we have no reliable evidence, if only because the actual surviving record of the earliest period, namely the first century epistles, make no mention of any Gospel details and in fact are remarkable for their lack of such things as attribution of teachings to Jesus, or a time and place for his crucifixion.
These things show up first in the Gospels, which are literary creations by second and third generation Christians, with no corroborating evidence that their elements came through oral or any other form of tradition. Thus, Funk's rule needs to be radically recast: Is there any impediment in the writer's mind to introducing these supposed "embarrassing" events into his story? Mark's literary "followers of Jesus" would have had no voice here, nor would their feelings of embarrassment. If, for example, Peter's denial of Jesus at the time of his trial serves the storyteller's purposes, we are hardly justified in evaluating its reliability according to "Peter's" willingness to perpetuate its memory. And the fact that someone like Paul, even when heaping scorn on Peter for going back on his word (Galatians 2), fails to call up such an incident, might suggest (though hardly prove) that the event was born in the mind of Mark, along with so much else.
Funk acknowledges that these literary births almost certainly include the discovery of the empty tomb, the figures of Judas, Joseph of Arimathea, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross, and all the details of the passion which are based on scriptural passages—in short, virtually everything. He readily admits (p.244) that fiction writers will try to make their stories more plausible by inventing characters and details, or by placing everything in settings that are vivid, believable and factually accurate.
As for the origins of the passion narrative, on which he laments that scholars are "hopelessly divided", Funk serves up some pretty telling observations and admissions. Because of its literary structure and intricacy, he discounts any possibility that it was developed or transmitted in oral form. In other words, from its inception it was a written narrative; someone first put it together "on paper." The sequence of events recounted in the four Gospels is unknown anywhere else. Moreover, Matthew and Luke are derived from Mark, and the events of the three stories move in virtual lockstep, with a few extra incidents thrown in by the later Synoptics. John has performed a more creative reworking of the Synoptic passion, including dropping key elements like the Eucharist and Gethsemane, but he offers no episodes that are not in Mark, making a source independent from the Synoptic one highly unlikely. (The insertion of the great discourses are acknowledged to be John's own theological product.) Funk does not commit himself in so many words to a Johannine dependence on Mark, but he readily admits that some scholars maintain such a thing. "There is no consensus on the source or the status of the (passion) story in John" (p.239).
One telling admission he does make (p.238): "If the passion story were well known, it seems likely that others (meaning outside the evangelists) would have referred to it, at least in outline." This points squarely to the question I have repeatedly asked: With hundreds of Christian communities across the empire by the later first century, how can there have been only one story of the trial and death of Jesus, one story on which all the others are based?
Where are the different versions which should have been formulated in many centers? Even if liberal scholarship's reluctant theory is taken into account (and why would such a situation be so, anyway?)—that we must assume no one knew of any specific events surrounding Jesus' death, but knew only the fact that he was executed and thus the details of a story had to be "invented"—why did only one writer or community decide to go through that process? Why was there only one invention? The known "fact" of Jesus' death should have impelled the telling of that death in widely divergent tales in widely separated places.
The only explanation for this startling void outside the community of Mark must be that there was no such known fact, and that one unique person or circle in a singular set of circumstances decided to create a piece of metaphorical midrash to embody a spiritual process, the translation of a mythical event into story form. Once in print, the appeal (and political advantage) of such a thing spread, and was eventually adopted by all and regarded as an account of historical events.
Because no sign of the passion story appears in Paul and other early writings, and because nothing but possibly a "veiled reference", says Funk (p.238), to Jesus' death appears in Q or the Gospel of Thomas (Lk./Q 14:27 and Thomas 55 about following Jesus and carrying one's cross, which Funk admits could simply be a non-literal, proverbial reference to hardship), Funk concludes that no passion story existed before Mark and that the story's similarity to the common tale of the Suffering Righteous One found throughout centuries of Jewish literature (see Part Three) makes it a literary creation from start to finish. "The simplest, most reliable solution remains the view that Mark created the first version of the story and every other version is based on Mark, directly or indirectly" (p.240).
Funk devotes an entire chapter (14) to a survey of the various Gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection and Easter appearances and comes to the conclusion that they are so full of anomalies and contradictions that they cannot be reconciled; all must be assigned to literary invention. He agrees with other scholars in identifying Paul's list of appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 as "revelatory encounters." This, of course, squares with the general Jesus Seminar view that the resurrection was not originally envisioned as the resuscitation of a corpse, and that the "appearances" represented psychological responses to the simple faith conviction that Jesus, after his death, was "still with them."
Funk goes on to examine and compare the Nativity stories, and shows how all the elements in Matthew's and Luke's Bethlehem scenes (including the genealogies of Jesus' descent) correspond to those of hellenistic infancy narratives found in biographies of famous figures of the ancient world. He offers for comparison those of Plato, Alexander the Great and Apollonius of Tyana.
Departures and Destinations
Dr. Funk insists on drawing the line of development from Jesus the teacher in parables to Jesus the divine Son of God, and he sees this as a "Marketing of the Messiah" (chapter 13). Once again, the evidence does not fit this orthodox pattern. Where are Funk's marks of later "assimilation of conventional wisdom" to the original parables and aphorisms? At the first point we see any of these things clearly, they are all jumbled together in Jesus' mouth within the Gospels. If such a process of accumulation had taken place, there should be some inkling of it in the course of the pre-Gospel record.
Instead, the epistles attribute nothing to Jesus, neither the visionary nor the conventional material. And Q does not qualify, because the Q1 sayings cannot be demonstrated as belonging to a Jesus. What we do have is evidence of the Christian evangelists softening and adding to the material they have inherited from Q and perhaps similar, unidentified sources. They have modified it with their own interpretations and assimilation to conventional wisdom, but this can be seen as a "domestication" by the sectarian community of an essentially foreign and more free-spirited product. The Christian community could not in the long run preserve the subtlety and originality of the Greek (Cynic) source.
I also think that Funk has overlooked an anomaly in his analysis here. If, as he says, the tendency after Jesus' death was for Jesus to attract further sayings and deeds which are an enlargement on those he performed during his life, this speaks of a continued fascination with and enhancement of Jesus' ministry. How, then, does this square with the radically different tendency we see in the undeniable part of the surviving record, the epistles? For here we encounter the opposite process. Jesus' words and deeds are discarded as of no interest. No one refers to them, no one appeals to them. His entire ministry sinks from sight like a stone. Does it really make sense to postulate (as Burton Mack fearlessly does) that two entirely different classes of response to Jesus arose and went their own separate ways, to enter alternate universes in which each shows no sign of the other's existence?
Finally, Dr. Funk postulates a four-stage scenario (p.280f), which he calls "Reverse Christology." The followers of Jesus went home after his death, and after a time (while plying their nets once more on the Sea of Galilee?) "came to the conviction" that Jesus had come to life in heaven, where he was now not only Son of God and Messiah, but the Son of Man (derived from a reading of Daniel 7) who would soon return as a cosmic judge. In these new roles, Jesus' teachings and deeds were considered "not essential to his function."
When that return failed to materialize, those followers reconsidered things, reclaimed some of Jesus' teachings and decided that he had been Son of God from the beginning of his ministry—at his baptism by John, first recorded in Mark. A little later, his Sonship was moved back to the beginning of his life, as represented by the Nativity stories. Finally, as in the Prologue to the Gospel of John, Jesus was elevated to the status of Logos, the word and wisdom of God and Greek philosophy, pre-existent with God in heaven and fully equated with the Father. The door to Nicea was open.
But this kind of pattern is faced with a glaring anomaly which is rarely if ever addressed. It requires turning a blind eye to an essential part of the Christian landscape: the earliest surviving record in the form of the early epistles, in passages like Hebrews 1:2-3, Colossians 1:15-20 and other pre-Pauline hymns, and occasionally Paul's own words. Here the Son, unidentified with any human man, is already at his highest elevation, sharing God's image and nature, existent before the world came into being, creating and sustaining the entire universe, conquering the demons, delivering himself up to sacrificial death at the hands of those evil spirits, and rising once more to sit on his own throne at the right hand of God. He inhabits the heavenly landscape in the guise of personified Wisdom and the Logos and a spiritual High Priest, and from here he is Lord of all. If we cast our glance the other way, the evolution this mighty Son of God subsequently undergoes is a progress to earth in the accumulation of a biography, the assimilation of human sayings and deeds from sources all and sundry.
Christian scholarship has been driving the historical cart backwards, and it is time to turn the thing around. Then we can truly be "honest" to history and the Christian record.