Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man. Thomas Jefferson,
on the teachings of Jesus.
If ever there were a project about the historic Jesus appropriate for a liberal, reason-based blog, the book that's the subject of this diary strikes me as a good candidate. It applies tools of scientific testing to one of the most basic questions of religion that is often said to be untestable, and sheds some interesting light on the fundamentalism which at publication time had not yet grown to challenge the foundations of our political system.
Now, Biblical scholarship is not my specialty, so while I'll be available and happy to answer questions from the book if I can find them, I can't defend the study or its methodology. It's over 30 years old so if there's a consensus that it's been discredited, or that it's totally non-news, I'll delete the diary. With those caveats in mind, join me below the fold for my first and probably only diary effort:
This diary is on the long side at some 4,000 words. I'd have broken it in two, but with yKos coming, and since this is not the kind of subject that demands active debate, I decided to go ahead and put it out in one piece. A good break point is just past halfway, which will get you through most of the case for historicity. You may want to print the diary to read at your leisure, then leave it lying somewhere visible such as the bathroom to annoy visitors.
What the subject study does not involve are grails, secret hidden codes, miracles, plesiosaurs, sacred toast images, Rapture, the Holy Spirit, Sacrements or flying spaghetti monsters. (This diary, incidentally, is not an endorsement of religious beliefs about Jesus, nor an exploration into Jesus' philosophy. I'm actually going to leave aside matters of doctrine to focus on the issue of history.) The study is mainly about a comparison of the words of Jesus with the words of those who wrote about him, and of patterns within each of them.
All we have from Jesus are several Gospels written well after his death, four that are universally accepted in the Christian bible, and several others such as the Gospels of Judas and Thomas recently in the news, that are accepted by only some sects or are of interest mainly to scholars.
The 3 Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke are called the "Synoptic" Gospels because they share many of the same stories and quotations. They use much of Mark's material as well as drawing on a number of recognizable (but unidentified) underlying sources. Those sources, as we often hear, are widely supposed to have been oral histories, but given that Jesus is frequently reported in the company of wealthy and literate people, Baird is among those who point out that the sources could easily have been written down long before their compilation into the Gospels.
A Crack in the Door
Nearly two centuries after Jefferson was inspired by the words of Jesus, a Presbyterian theologian decided to examine them in a detailed way that wasn't previously possible. He used early computer technology in a science-based effort to discover if patterns existed within the Gospel wording, as recorded in the Greek texts, that would most easily be explained by the quoted sayings having originated with a single Jewish speaker who predated the texts. The obvious follow-up question was: if this much were possible, could we learn anything about the philosophy or intentions of the speaker?
The theologian was J. Arthur Baird, then Chair of the Department of Religion at the College of Wooster in Ohio. My family encountered him as a speaker at church summer schools there in the 60's. The book I'm writing about, which is long out of print but can occasionally be found used online or in bookstores, is Audience Criticism and the Historic Jesus, Westminster Press, 1969. Baird authored an earlier book titled The Justice of God in the Teaching of Jesus, Westminster Press, 1963.
Our family got the book new at the time, I read it during the early contemporary "Christian" invasion of campuses and then forgot about it. As discussions here have increasingly examined the beliefs and activity of the Christian right, and the topic of a possible historic Jesus has popped up here and in pop culture, I hunted down the book. I've spent the last few weeks reviewing it much more carefully than I did years ago. The few searches I've done on Baird or his book have turned up nothing, and for some reason, many discussions I casually find on the subject seem not to take into account findings from his study. This suggests to me that the work somehow never really connected in its day either as a success or a failure.
Earlier scholarship identified an interesting feature of the Synoptics:
One fact is inescapable. The Evangelists [Gospel writers] were intensely concerned to identify the audience that surrounded Jesus at any given moment. From the account of Jesus' entrance into Galilee until his ascension, Huck-Lietzmann's Synopsis divides the Synoptics into 422 separate units [footnoted]. In 395, or 94%, of these the audience is clearly identified by the editor.
So the facts that we have multiple accounts of many elements of the same story, and the high rate in all of them of associating specific quotes with specific audiences, give us a framework for searching Jesus' words and the Gospel authors' words for patterns in ways that can't be done with single texts or with sets of texts that have little or no material in common. Naturally, it also suggests that inconsistencies may point to errors, editorial bias or fabrication after the purported fact.
When and why does Baird feel we should we accept the historic validity of any pattern found within the writings?
I would suggest to that end the following principles:
1. The pattern by its very nature must emerge from the testimony of more than one witness.
2. The witnesses must not be dependent on each other.
3. The pattern must be readily observable by all observers, whatever their presuppositions, and must be the result of a minimum of interpretation.
4. The pattern must be repeatable and capable of manipulation and verification by any competent observer.
5. The pattern is most defensible when it cuts across all the available sources of information, especially when they are known to diverge from one another at various points.
6. The pattern is most defensible when it emerges inadvertently as "unconscious data."
7. The pattern is most defensible when it involves ideas or practices too subtle or complex to have been understood and consciously reproduced by the original reporter.
8. The pattern is most defensible when it is discontinuous with the known beliefs of the reporter.
9. The pattern will be most correctly interpreted when the number of viable alternatives are at an absolute minimum.
Baird's description of computer analysis will be quaint to the many of you who are younger than boomers:
After spending one whole summer on such an exhaustive analysis of basielia tou theo, it became painfully apparent that there were not enough years for any man to follow such a method[....] It was only within the last year that this computer technique has been available to me. This has meant that within the last six months I have done more detailed Synoptic research than in the previous seventeen years[....] As a result, patterns of various kinds have become immediately apparent: patterns, I might add, that are the result of such an exhaustive cross section that they would not be observable in any other way.
Differentiating Between Jesus' and the Editors' Words
To begin with, there is a clear discontinuity between the verbiage of the E [Gospel editors] and A [Jesus] material. One of the first studies that alerted me to this phenomenon was that wherein the entire Synoptic text was examined exhaustively for word patterns. This was only possible with the aid of the 7070 computer. [....] It was the introduction of this new category of audience as a correlation factor that opened up this insight. Now the wording of the logia [quotations] could be correlated with the auience, and out of this comparison so many word patterns emerged that the logia were seen to stand off by themselves from the more obviously editorial material with a unique identity and integrity.
Baird lists about 30 pattern words appearing exclusively in the editors' commentary, vs. about 30 appearing exclusively in the quotations attributed to Jesus. Another table lists words that are predominantly used by either Jesus or the editors, but are occasionally used by the other.
One of the most interesting lines of evidence for discontinuity is that of the Aramaic lying behind the Gospels. [....]
The computer has turned up a new phenomon [....] An exhaustive study of every word in the Synoptics in every one of its usages, cross-correlated for the E and A traditions, reveals a very curious fact. Certain verbs show a regular absence of the imperfect and aorist tenses in the logia, but an abundance of these as well as other tenses in the editorial material. There are twenty-three such verbs that have appeared so far, and the patterns are clear enough to reveal some kind of linguistic reality producing this phenomenon. When one remembers that the Hebrew tense system has only completed and incompleted action, and that consequently the Greek aorist and especially the imperfect would find limited usage in translating the Aramaic verb, one is introduced to the unique possibility that the Synoptic tense pattern reveals the Hebrew orientation of the A material and the Greek orientation of the E.
A full page table is given listing the usages of the word laleo by verb form, its presence or absence in Jesus' words, and its presence or absence in editorial material, along with notation the particular audience associated with it, and the identity of the editor where appropriate.
Certainly one can say with a high degree of probability that the A material generally must be distinguished from the E by its Aramaic orientation. The fact of the Aramaic flavor of some of Mark's narrative would mitigate this judgement, but not negate it. The pattern is clear.
Baird points out that we can actually be a little more certain when we're dealing with words of Jesus than when we're dealing with words of individual Gospel authors! I suppose the greater uncertainty about the authors is because they are compiling from sources and may be repeating earlier commentary at times.
So--since we can distinguish the words of the editors from Jesus', might we use that ability to learn something about the editors' agendas or spin?
A surprise for me is that the study finds very little theological content in the commentary of the Evangelists. Many people suspect that Jesus was either fabricated or heavily colored by the Gospel writers and their sources. But the fact that they're not using much theological verbiage themselves shows them allowing Jesus to do the core preaching himself, and limiting their writing mostly to filling in details of the stories around the teachings.
We could expect more, however, if there were a strong "dogmatic" interest on the part of the editor or source. The significance lies in the clear demonstration of the lack of theological discussion, orientation, or even active vocabulary within the characteristic editorial material.... This material stands out in its special interest in words with the kind of rational, liturgical, legalistic, political orientation peculiar to first-century Judaism.... In other words, the E tradition has such a surprisingly non-Christian flavor, especially when placed in contrast to the logia, that we see that the verbal discontinuity is also ideational discontinuity.
Baird sees reasons within the discontinuities to doubt that the editors fully understand the teachings they're relaying to us. Contrast this with our experience with so-called "President" Ronald Reagan, whose editors engaged in extensive commentary using core-content language from the moment he spoke. His editors seemed to know what he was saying better than he did.
One general pattern emerging in this theological comparison is that the cosmology of the E is characterized by a superficial, externalized unsophisticated use of certain theologically loaded terms, while the logia show a depth of spiritual maturity and sophistication that stands in stark contrast.... Heaven is up, and identified with the sky, and so spiritual phenomena come "down" to men, in rather primitive, cosmological fashion (Matt. 3:16; 28:2; Mark 1:10; 6:41; 7:34; 16:19; Luke 22:43; 9:54; etc.). The logia, on the other hand, give a vastly more sophisticated picture. Jesus does use ouranos in the more crudely contemporary and Jewish sense, but the curious thing is that this is almost always to an opponent audience. Most characteristically, and mostly to the disciples, he speaks of ouranos in close connection with the person of God, a presently existing spiritual dimension wherein men are related to God in a very special and intensely personal way....
Baird includes a chapter discussing other established types of criticism (analysis) and argues that unless the sayings originated with a single historic Hebrew-language figure prior to all the writings, those methods would require improbable collaboration on the part of authors and sources to create the breadth of patterns revealed in the audience studies. The fact that the commentary and the community may misunderstand and sometimes even conflict with Jesus' teaching makes fabrication after the fact even less likely.
Other Gospels and the Apocrypha
The analysis does not extend to the Gospel of John or any of the apocryphal gospels, I'm guessing because there isn't enough common material. Or it could be that with the technology of the day, there wasn't time or opportunity for Baird to take it further.
There is one passing mention of the Apocrypha, and a reference to the Gospel of Thomas in a discussion of how stories evolve over time (generally, they become shorter) that is consistent with Thomas having been written later than the Synoptics. Baird says there are 13 Synoptic parables found in Thomas, and while 2 are longer in Thomas, 9 are shorter.
If this is any indication, it would seem that as the teachings of Jesus circulated in the community, both processes were at work, with the tendency to shorten predominant over that to expand. In no case is there any significant change in the message of the parable.
Given the interest of some here in Thomas and gnosticism, and some of the patterns' indications about Jesus' teaching methods and religious ideas I'm not covering here, it might be intriguing to extend this type of study to such works if that were possible and hasn't been attempted.
Holy Roller, Batman--Jesus Didn't Believe in Satan? And what about those miracles? Read on:
"Chart XXL. Pneuma-Satan Compared" A table of Jesus' numerous uses of the word "pneuma" in different sayings is given.
The chart above shows Jesus using pneuma (ruach) about as his contemporaries did, with one startling exception. He seems reluctant to use pneuma as a description for Satan. [.... The few cases when he does, he is repeating others' usage in answering them.] Instead, the logia show Jesus speaking of Satan as a symbol for men in a problem-ridden and sinful condition, a view decidedly discontinuous with his generation, and, it would seem, with the Evangelists.
Now let's move on to the basic audience phenomenon and what the study finds it telling us about Jesus' preaching and philosophy.
By now I've quoted enough to demonstrate that Baird generally presents data and extended discussion to back up most of his conclusions. So in the interest of space and time, from here on I'll mainly summarize.
Baird's study, along with some other scholars, identifies four basic audiences consistently described by the editors in increasing distance from Jesus, and termed in the book:
* the 12 (the familiar Disciples or Apostles)
* the larger disciple crowd
* the opponent crowd of general nonbelievers
* the more formal opponents in religious hierarchy.
The study finds Jesus speaking differently to each group, and these differences are maintained with a high consistency across the 3 Synoptic Gospels as well as across the different underlying sources. Even when two evangelists place the same teaching in different historic occasions or gatherings, the audience identity for that teaching is usually preserved.
The Miracle Stories
Baird charts the percentage of pattern words appearing in different forms of quotations and in different sources underlying the Gospels, in sayings given to 3 of the audience groups. I'm unable to get a table to display sanely, so take my word that the searches reveal no Jesus pattern words within the miracle stories.
The fact that there are too few pattern words in the miracle stories to show up on such a chart may be instructive in assessing their exact, verbal historicity.
Instructive indeed! The lack of typical Jesus language means that this study literally cannot find Jesus the preacher within the miracle stories. If the Gospel authors were wholly or mostly fabricating this character, their inability to place their own creation in the scenes of his greatest accomplishments could make them some of the most incompetent storytellers in western history!
Baird however does not say if the miracle collection includes the biggest miracle story of all--the resurrection--and whether the shortage of Jesus patterns in the other tales applies to his reported post-crucifixion sayings. It's probably a question that can be answered, although the range of possible answers wouldn't be able to verify or disprove the miracle itself.
How Jesus Preaches to the Different Audiences
The 12 received Jesus' most balanced and complete message. He spoke most often to them about both God's love and wrath, and expressed to them relatively little interest in classic Jewish concerns and legalism. He explained his parables mostly to the 12 and rarely to others. Another interesting point is that these explanations are somewhat more definitively Jesus' words than the parables themselves, since they contain a higher percentage of his pattern words.
...It is with the Twelve that Jesus is pictured being the most...radically contrary to current and established ideas.... Again, this makes a certain common sense: if one is to be radical, new, and creative, let him be so in the inner circle where he is most likely to be understood....
But Jesus also is almost always critical of the disciples. In my personal experience in apprenticeship settings as diverse as music, craftsmanship and sailing, this resembles my experience. I suppose there is the possibility of a selection bias on the part of the Gospel writers if in their circles at their later time there was an interest in downplaying the authority of the 12 and the original community, as the Christian movement evolved beyond its home base. This may be supported by an anti-pattern among the Gospels that Baird notes in Jesus' somewhat contradictory teaching about what the 12's religious authority was or should be. Baird doesn't say, but I'm thinking this could reflect Gospel-era politics of editors attempting to color Jesus' intentions on this point.
The larger disciple crowd is given a little more Jewish content and much less criticism than the 12. Baird reports a strain of Jewish legalism which comes mostly from the M source, Matthew's special source. This audience hears a great deal of emphasis on the inner Kingdom and relation to God, none of Jesus' demands for loyalty to himself personally and fairly little discussion of his mission.
The figure that I personally would call "Liberal Jesus," the Jesus of social justice, is the persona presented to the disciple crowd, for example in the Sermon on the Mount. They also receive almost none of the harsh criticism Jesus directs to the 12. Interestingly for liberals, the study finds this material confined to this audience, with Jesus more consistently behaving towards all audiences as a genuinely religious figure, one who preaches much more about the Kingdom and the inner relationship with God than about social ethics per se.
In last-minute proofreading, I feel some doubt about Baird's analysis of social ethic teachings. I've noticed that the logia identified in the text with this strain do not include Matthew's quotations about reconciliation to the larger disciple crowd, nor the final judgement speech given in private to the 12 in which the basis for judgement is the treatment of the least among us. To me these would seem to be logical and important components of practical social justice in which this latter private teaching to the 12 might carry more weight.
The opponent crowd seems to be the least well defined and receives only two dozen sayings. Jesus is more critical of them and in less positive ways than he is of the 12, and there are no miracle stories involving this group.
The fourth audience is the opponents specifically, Jewish officials such as the Pharisees. Jesus is often harshly critical of them but Baird finds an interesting pattern: even though pattern words of Jesus are strong, the pattern words of audience identity are more in doubt with the opponents than with any of the others. Baird finds patterns that are at times more appropriate to the 12 disciples.
To my own thinking, this could easily be explained by after-the-fact exaggeration of Jesus' boldness toward his opposition. It's perfectly normal to be very direct about our opposition within our own private circles. It's easy to imagine supporters, especially later generations, relocating some private statements into public settings where they would portray a bolder historic figure.
Jesus is shown both on offense and defense with his opponents, and usually does not explain parables to them. His discussion of Jewish matters increases steadily moving from the 12 towards his opponents, and is highest with the opponents, as he criticizes them for excessive legalism and working against the purpose of the law by adding to peoples' burdens.
Does Historic Jesus Relate to Liberal Politics?
We-e-e-e-ell.... What I have consistently passed over throughout the diary is the evidence that this teacher was a religious figure overwhelmingly concerned with his religious message about the Kingdom of God. Those of you with interests in such beliefs might find some interesting perspectives in the parts of the study I'm passing over. I can tell you that I simultaneously recognize all and yet no modern Christian faiths within the mind that arises from the study.
It was a little unnerving to find myself coming closer to a plausibly human mind whose teaching was impressive enough to worm its way out of colonial boondocks into an empire superpower, cascading through tumultuous human events to end up in my childhood's precious but barely-related fairy tales. And frankly it's more than a little interesting to spend a month or more studying patterns of the thinking of historic Jesus and his earliest chroniclers without encountering any of the core magical aspects of Christian religions that are so off-putting to rational Christians, athiests and subscribers of different faiths. I have to think Jefferson would have been absolutely intrigued by this approach.
To my thinking as an American liberal, all that is beyond the realm of appropriate civic and political interest. Unfortunately for our body politick, American traditions no longer inform us about what is appropriate about much of anything.
The fundamentalist right is as much a conundrum for this topic as it is for us in public life. Geometrically--in terms of God's judgement and rewards--they position themselves not merely as the new Chosen People, but as a collective new 12 Disciples. They accept the commitment Jesus demands only of his 12 and they feel they're in on the true meaning of his mission that Jesus preaches only to the 12. Their Rapture fixation--not a subject of Jesus' message--reinforces the small size of those who will ultimately be chosen from among their numbers.
But it's equally clear, as numerous Kossacks have observed, that they preach and behave less like Synoptic Jesus than like the opponent crowd Jesus regularly criticizes for some of the same major reasons we liberals criticize them. They gravitate to miracle stories which lack Jesus' intellectual fingerprints, and resonate with the Gospels' editorial minds that Baird argues are too religiously conservative or simplistic to grasp the subtle and forward-looking nature of Jesus' theology that fortunately to some extent seems to have been unconsciously preserved for posterity.
Ultimately though I doubt liberals can do anything politically useful with this information--except possibly to take a warning from what happened to Jesus after he collided with a mix of simplistic ideology and great political & military power.
We've also got the problem that, in throwing the "Liberal Jesus" back in the face of the right, as usual we're really working at cross purposes to them. Liberal Jesus is the persona he presented to his wider sympathetic audiences, which resonates with American liberals' social justice goals for a society at large which in polling consistently supports many liberal ideals. By contrast, one genuine aspect of "Fundamentalist Jesus" the religious right does identify with is the master who demands total dedication to his mission and loyalty to himself personally on the part of his a small inner circle of follower-missionaries who have the ears to hear. Neither viewpoint (as far as it goes) seems to be wrong about Synoptic Jesus--but they seem to make for very incompatible partners within democratic governance of a pluralistic society.
And of course, whatever any scholarship finds within scripture, fundamentalists by definition are not looking for input or corrections to their beliefs.
To conclude, I'll say that this book is not a casual read, at least for those who like me are unfamiliar with Biblical study. It uses many theological terms and Greek words, and mentions scholars and methods of analysis, often with little or no explanation.
Still, if it hasn't been discredited or left far behind by now, it might have some appeal for those with theological education. There are dozens of tables of pattern words with correlations by source and audience throughout the book that illustrate particular points. Complete lists are given of the identification codes used for the evangelists, sources, audiences, and different methods of analysis. Appendices include all the identified pattern words and every logion listed by its Gospel address(es). Between the tables and appendices, and original reference material presumably at the College of Wooster, it might be possible to repeat or elaborate on the study (perhaps extending it into the Apocrypha) if this hasn't been done long ago. I doubt the pattern searches would inconvenience a modern desktop computer very seriously.
Personally I'm satisfied that a historic figure taught and started the movement that became Christianity. I also think that that historic human is a top contender for the most consistently misrepresented and misunderstood figure in religious history.
But I didn't need a computer analysis for that. I saw it on TV.