A radical Paul in a new translation of his authentic letters; the resurrection phenomenon (physical or metaphorical?); and a lively conversation over breakfast with two PU‘57 classmates. These topics and the classmates’ shared meal were highlights of four days recently spent in Santa Rose, CA in attendance at the recent 25th anniversary meeting of the Jesus Seminar. In addition to my few scribbled notes, I have relied on guidance from my attendee companions, my wife Ruth, and Bart Reitz ‘57, and a scan through several books of the principal seminar presenters.
Beside the sessions looking backwards and forward from a quarter century of Westar’s Jesus Seminar (www.westarinstitute.org), the main interests for me were the release and discussion of the scholar’s version of the authentic letters of Paul. This new understanding of Paul, the first writer in the New Testament to report on his encounter with the ‘risen Jesus,’ enables a fresh look at the history and development of the concept of resurrection in Judaism and Christianity.
The Jesus Seminar – First, it’s essential that you know something about this special semiannual Westar Institute seminar. The Westar Institute is a member-supported, non-profit research and educational institute founded by Bob Funk, in 1985 and dedicated to the advancement of religious literacy. (http://www.westarininstitute.org) In some conservative Christian circles Westar is seen as a sacrilegious group of liberal academics, although the great majority are historians and theologians teaching at mainline seminaries and independent universities.
On October 13, 2010 about three dozen ‘Fellows’, as the scholars of the Institute are called, gathered for four days with some 250 interested lay people, many active and retired clergy, a few California Spiritualists and one or two "kooks.” The occasion was the public unveiling and discussion of the Jesus Seminar’s new translation: The Authentic Letters of Paul– A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. The authors’ historical-critical deconstructive and reconstructive methodology was illustrated in its application to the popular Christian understanding of ‘Resurrection.’ This new understanding of Paul, the first writer in the New Testament to report on his encounter with the ‘risen Jesus,’ enables a fresh look at the history and development of the concept of resurrection in Judaism and Christianity.
Looking Back & Thinking Ahead – Since one aspect of this 25th anniversary conference was to look backwards and forward at the work of the seminar, one session featured three journalists recounting the sometimes bizarre, always interesting reaction of editors and the public that put the Jesus Seminar on the map, so to speak.
Gustav Niebuhr, grand-nephew of the 20th century activist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a writer for the New York Times, and Professor in the Religion Dept.at Syracuse, told the story of attending an early Westar 1980's meeting and informing his editor that the Seminar’s Fellows had concluded that Jesus probably never spoke the prayer most of us learned in childhood and now repeat most often in unison. The editor exclaimed, "Holy . . . . !” Niebuhr then said with a smile, ‘I forgot the second word.’ Soon news stories followed in quantity and detail that established the Seminar’s important "brand.’ This was the public recognition that Bob Funk was looking for.
Niebuhr also commented on the actual ‘improvement’ of the American public’s religious knowledge over the past decade or so, despite recent poll results that showed how shockingly ignorant we are. It was significantly worse in 2000.
Other journalists who took part in the session were John Dart, news editor for the bi-weekly Christian Century, and Russell Shorto, contributing writer at the New York Times, and author of Descartes’ Bones.
The future of the Westar Institute is and was under discussion. Its next project, the "God Seminar,” will be launched in 2011.
A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning
It is generally recognized in mainline scholarship that only seven of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament were actually written by him – mostly: (Thessalonians, Galatians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians and Romans – given in chronological order). Not so well known is that our current canonical versions have redactions and insertions or interpolations made by later church authors that tend to change our image of the radical Paul and his meaning. Examples of some interpolations are: 1Corinthians 11:2-16 "man is the head of every woman” (11:3) 1 Corinthians 14:33 ". . . the women should keep silent during the meetings.” (14:34).
Many reasons were given for the determination that these passages are later insertions (probably in the 2nd century) in Paul’s letters. Chief among them is their contradiction of the authentic Paul’s affirmation of the equal status of women and men in Galatians 3:26-28. Insertions like these are still preserved in the new translation, but separated from the surrounding ‘authentic’ text and placed at the end of the book, with explanatory comments. The result of all this editing is a Paul that is more consistent and socially radical when contrasted with the normalcy of the Roman Imperial world in which he and his first followers lived.
During the pointed discussions and dialog between the Fellows there was an underlying collaborative understanding that has characterized the Jesus Seminar projects since its founding. It is in contrast to most scholarly debate in other venues, wherein authors strive for individual ‘ownership’ of particular interpretations and findings.
This collaborative approach inspires insightful, honest, and often humorous, discussion of the difficulties of the translation task. A noteworthy example heard at this Seminar was the following comment in response to someone’s recalling of a wise person’s respected observation that, "every translation is a failure.” The response of co-author Arthur Dewey, el al was, "Indeed. every translation is a failure – but our translation is a ‘glorious’ failure.”
In addition, the question of the validity of any translation was raised and illustrated. As an example, the way a simple Greek word is rendered in English may have important consequences. The differences over the years in various translations of Romans 3:22 or Galatians 2:16 reveals the problem. It all focuses on the phrase that refers to either the faith of Jesus or faith in Jesus. Beginning with Tyndale’s translation in 1525 until the ASV in 1901, the phrase "by the faith of Jesus Christ” was used. Thereafter, the phrase was "by the faith in Jesus Christ ,” until 1997 when the phrase was given as "by the faith of Jesus Christ” again in the NIV.
Perhaps an extended comparison of the Romans passage in just three translations would be instructive, since it also provides some insight into the style of the Westar Fellows’ translation as well. I won’t attempt to get into Greek and the arguments over the subjective (of) and objective (in) genitive because, frankly, I’m too ignorant.
The old King James Version of Romans 3:21-23 is: "(21) But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; (22) Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe; for there is no difference; (23) For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” The New Standard Revised Versionof Romans 3:21-23 is: " (21) But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, (22) the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, (23) since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;” [A footnote gives the alternative of instead of for in verse 22.)
The Authentic Letters of Paul translation is: "(21) Only now has God’s reliability been made clear, independent of the tradition from the law, although the whole of scripture offers evidence of it. ‘(22) God’s reliability has been made clear through the unconditional confidence in God of Jesus, God’s Anointed, for the benefit of all who come to have such confidence – no exceptions! ‘(23) After all, every one has messed up and failed to reflect the image of God.” [I especially like the "messed up” part.]
It should be noted that the scholars do not consider their translation to be a paraphrase, and it is obviously not a "pony.” (A word-for-word translation of a foreign language text, especially one used secretly by students as an aid in studying or test-taking.) The proper act of translation requires first of all an understanding of context, and then a true rendering of this meaning in our commonly understood language. This new translation of Paul is important for understanding many Christian concepts, in this case ‘ resurrection.’
Resurrection of, or with, Jesus?
Unlike its neighboring nations, Israel denied the resurrection of the dead or afterlife. However, beginning with the prophet Isaiah and continuing through the non-canonical writing in 1 and 2 Maccabees in the 2nd century B.C.E., the idea of the righteous martyr and his or her restoration and vindication evolved. The subjection of the Jews to torture and killing by Antiochus Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire of Syria, led to apocalyptic thought in an attempt to reconcile the apparent non- intervention by God, with an eventual restoration of the just and punishment of the unjust in the end time. Out of this and the understanding of sacrifice came the belief in afterlife. Jesus was seen by his early Jewish followers as a martyr who was also raised with the just.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, written in 50 CE, is the first New Testament witness of Jesus and resurrection – not the gospels. The Gospel of John, which tends to dominate current popular thinking and images, was probably written as late as the early 2nd century. In addition to the importance of reading Paul’s letters in their actual chronological order, it is important to know the history of the development of the concept of resurrection in Jewish writing. Also recognized is the tendency of prior interpreters and institutions to read early history through the lens of the subsequent development of religious understandings and creeds. This is most important in the case of resurrection wherein the resurrection of Jesus in popular understanding today reflects the distorting effect of reading the resurrection from Constantine back through Luke-Acts to Paul, instead of starting with the first vision of the living Jesus by Paul.
The common interpretation today of references to Paul’s conversion is taken from Acts 9:3-12; 22:6-21; 16:12-18) instead of Paul’s own writing in 50 CE (Galatians 1:12) where he describes it as an insight or revelation, after which he left for Arabia and afterward returned to Damascus (Galatians 1:11-16). Paul’s own writing is superseded in the imagination of most readers today by the "On the road to Damascus” story in Acts, from early 2nd century, as well as public art –
the painting of Paul falling from a horse and blinded by light rays.
Brandon Scott repeated a story from former high school teacher Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, that illustrates how background cultural assumptions, or the intervening development of images and doctrine, can influence the interpretation of an original story. Here is that excerpt from Scott’s book, The Trouble with Resurrection. "Frank McCourt tells a story about Humpty Dumpty that illustrates our situation.
And for a whole class period there’s a heated discussion of "Humpty Dumpty.”
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; All the king’s horses And all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
So, I ask, what’s going on in this nursery rythme? The hands are up. Well, like, this egg falls off the wall and if you study biology or physics you know you can never put an egg back together again. I mean, like, it’s common sense. Who says it’s an egg? I ask Of course it’s an egg. Everyone knows that. Where does it say it’s an egg?
They’re thinking. They’re searching the text for egg, any mention, any hint of egg. They won’t give in.
There are more hands and indignant assertions of egg. All their lives they knew this rhyme and there was never a doubt that Humpty Dumpty was an egg. They’re comfortable with the idea of egg and why do teachers have to come along and destroy everything with all this analysis.
I’m not destroying. I just want to know where you got the idea that Humpty Dumpty is an egg.
Because, Mr. McCourt, it’s in all the pictures and whoever drew the first picture musta known the guy who wrote the poem or he’d never have made it an egg.
All right. If you’re content with the idea of egg we’ll let it be but I know the future lawyers in this class will never accept egg where there is no evidence of egg.
(Frank McCourt, ‘Tis. New York Scribner, 1999. pp.353-54)”
How words are interpreted can make a difference, of course. Columnist Clarence Page’s commentary on the fight over the interpretation of the Constitution’s First Amendment ("Voters: Use your head, not your heart” in Chicago Tribune, October 27, 2010) bears on this point. Here is his closing paragraph:
"It is left for us, the living, to figure out how to reconcile our national conflicts over faith, religious freedoms and religious diversity. Campaign time may be the worst time for us to find points of agreement, but it does offer us a chance to see how vastly different our interpretations can be, even when we read the same words.”
The changes in early Christian interpretations or developments over time and place of the understanding of the resurrection of Jesus are important to current understandings. The earliest ‘witness’ of resurrection is Paul, in mid 1st century. But this is in contrast to subsequent church writers in the West and today. John Dominic Crossan spoke to, and illustrated, this during his presentation at the conference.
Professor Emeritus at DePaul U., John Dominic Crossan, showed slides of the images he and his wife had taken recently in Turkey, and the Eastern region of early Christianity with Constantinople as its center. In particular Crossan’s images concentrated on how the resurrection of Jesus was portrayed in the early centuries of the church. Almost without exception, Jesus was shown leading others out of the grave. This is consistent with the earliest understanding of the followers of Jesus. Paul, for example envisioned the resurrection metaphorically as Jesus rising from the tomb leading others. This is also consistent, for instance, with the earliest New Testament reference to the resurrection from 1 Thessalonians: "Because if we believe ‘Jesus died and arose,’ so also God will bring with Jesus those belonging to him and who have fallen asleep.” The resurrection is primarily a corporate concept, not an individual one, consistent with early first century Jewish thought.
Peter Laarman, Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting states it well: "Crossan had people chuckling over images from Western art (Titian, especially) showing Jesus bounding out of the tomb with a buff West Hollywood gym body. Crossan maintains that a heroic solo victory over death and defeat is not what Jesus achieves at the end—and is certainly not how he would want to be remembered. The earliest images of anastasis (resurrection) preserved in Eastern Church shrines show Jesus taking Adam by the hand and leading him and others into a different future; the resurrection is rendered as a collective exodus from the grip of imperial death, not an individual triumph over the grave.”
Conclusion - In his discussion of resurrection Willamette professor, Stephen Patterson, answered his own title question (Was the Resurrection Christianity’s Big Bang?) with: "There was no Big Bang. Instead, there was a shared experience of tragedy, a process of social formation in its wake, and an interpretive effort to make positive sense of what had happened by drawing on the traditions that were available to them from their culture.”
Perhaps a statement by Brandon Scott would best serve as a closing for this discussion of resurrection. His response to the popular understanding that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is required to be a Christian, was: "If Jesus wasn’t a Christian, and Paul wasn’t a Christian, why should I be a Christian?”
Breakfast with a Classmate
Our visit to Santa Rosa for the Jesus Seminar enabled something of a Mini-Reunion – call it a mini-mini Reunion as Bart Reitz does. Although John Futhey ‘57 did not attend the conference, Bart and Jerry were able to meet John for an extended breakfast. It was the best hour and a half of our Santa Rosa visit.
From left: Jerry Moyar, Bart Reitz and John Futhey
In addition to catching up on mutual lives and aging ills, we discussed a number of topics with surprising lucidity, considering the early hour and our aging brains. Are the topics of atheism, secular humanism, and quantum mechanics something old classmates like us usually discuss? Quantum mechanics came up when John, a Princeton physics major, who still consults professionally in optics, admitted that he couldn’t "get his head around quantum mechanics.” Of course, Jerry was clueless, while Bart pressed on for the "atom within the atom.” Jerry did remember that our old physics professor John Wheeler’s famous student, Richard Feynman, was quoted as saying, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t.” Our discussion touched on what a good topic for a mini reunion might be in keeping with the sort of one we held in 2006 in Woodstock, IL on Science and Religion. Bart thought one on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be timely and important. Jerry thought Russell Short’s book, Descartes’ Bones (Opposing camps, p. 246), might provide a theme: "What is the dilemma of modernity and is there a solution?” This might be a natural follow on to one held in 2006. No decision was made, of course. Any other ideas? (John Futhey has what must have be the best street address in our class: "Princeton Place.” The street number is not 57, however, so some classmate might be able to top him – but that has a very low probability. For instance, Jerry once lived on 57th street, but that was as close as he could come.)
Publications from Presenters at the Seminar
1. Dewey, Arthur; Hoover, Roy; McGaughy, Lane; Schmidt, Daryl: The Authentic Letters of Paul – A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning , Polebridge Press, 2010
2. Scott, Bernard Brandon: The Trouble with Resurrection – From Paul to the Fourth Gospel, Polebridge Press, 2010
3. Patterson, Stephen J., Beyond the Passion – Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus,Fortress Press, 2–4
4. Patterson, Stephen J., Was the Resurrection Christianity’s Big Bang? A Westar Institute preprint presented of October 16, 2010 (probably an upcoming article in Westar’s magazine, "The Fourth R.”
5. Shorto, Russell: Descartes’ Bones – A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, Vintage Books, 2008