Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Major Annoucement, Part VI.

Testing the Authenticity of Jesus’s “I Am” Sayings in John

As mentioned in Ben Witherington III’s The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth[1], the Jesus Seminar inventoried and evaluated all of the claimed words of Jesus, including the ‘I am” sayings from the Gospel of John.[2]

Organized by the newly deceased Robert Funk, the Jesus Seminar reported on its search for the authentic words of Jesus in The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus.[3] Their work assessed 18 percent of the sayings of Jesus to be at least probably authentic.[4] Jesus’ claims to deity, including the “I am” sayings, were rejected. They generally dispensed with such claims of divinity essentially because they were viewed as constructs or creations by Jesus’ followers.

To test the sayings of Jesus, the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar employed three dominant criteria: (a) coherence, (b) dissimilarity and (c) multiple attestation.[5] Under this approach, the sayings are more likely to be authentic to the extent they cohere in form and content with other acts and sayings of Jesus.[6] Otherwise, if Jesus were not reasonably consistent, his identity would be elusive.[7] Further, the Jesus Seminar evaluated whether the sayings were dissimilar with those in both Jewish and Christian lore.[8] The Jesus Seminar contended that a sorting process would have softened the difficult sayings of Jesus process, so words that might embarrass the Christian community would not have been likely to have been invented by them.[9] Finally, the Jesus Seminar valued sayings as authentic that could be found in multiple sources or in multiple forms, such as in a parable, which would necessarily exclude the “I am” sayings.[10]

Funk overtly cloaks these criteria with the language of law, astonishingly calling them “rules of evidence”.[11] However, these criteria do not equate to the rules of evidence actually employed in courts of law. Moreover, these criteria incorporate a “burden of proof” that does not exist in the law. These two deficiencies in the Jesus Seminar will be explored in light of well-settled principles of evidentiary law. At least one commentator has concluded that the Jesus Seminar's case “would not stand up in any court”.[12] Professor Witherington similarly stated: “I will leave the reader to decide whether it is a truly scholarly and unbiased approach to reject the majority of one’s evidence and stress a minority of it. In a court of law, where there is plenty of critical scrutiny, point and counterpoint, this sort of approach would never stand up.”[13]

A. The Jesus Seminar's Criteria of Authenticity Unfairly Eliminate Admissible Evidence

If the Jesus Seminar had employed the actual rules of evidence, the “I am” sayings found in John that it found inauthentic would rather have been admissible (as reliable) under the widely accepted rules of evidence. In 1874, Harvard Professor of Law, Simon Greenleaf posited this general approach in his landmark work, The Testimony of the Evangelists. More recently, lawyer Pamela Binnings Ewen has updated this method in Faith on Trial. Both argue that the Gospel accounts should be tested according to the same tests to which other evidence is subjected in courts.[14] By contrast, the Jesus Seminar's highly restrictive criteria excluded otherwise admissible statements.[15]

Under the rules of evidence for “out of court statements”, which is generally known as “hearsay”, there are numerous exceptions allowing for their admissibility on the theory that the underlying circumstances carry the necessary indicia of trustworthiness to make the declarant's statement sufficiently reliable as substantive proof.[16]

In the case of Jesus' sayings as recorded in the Gospels we are potentially dealing with what is known as “hearsay on hearsay” or “double hearsay”. This is so because Jesus' statements could be considered one layer of hearsay, and its recordation by others in the written Gospels could be deemed another layer of hearsay. However, this does not by itself make the evidence inadmissible.[17]

There are numerous exceptions to the hearsay rule which would allow for the admissibility of “statements” bearing the mark of trustworthiness. One such exception is declarations against interest--pecuniary, penal or proprietary.[18] The rationale for this exception is that a reasonable person in similar circumstances would not make a disserving statement unless he or she believed it to be true.[19] This concept is actually much broader than the Jesus Seminar criterion of “dissimilarity”.

For example, Jesus’s “I am” statements might—and in fact were--deemed blasphemous by the religious authorities of His time, and hence, were against his (and John’s) penal interest. As noted above, right after Jesus said “’Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am’” (John 8:58; NASB), those in the Temple who heard this claim “picked up stones to throw at Him….” (John 8:59; NASB.)…

Not only did this claim of equality with God expose him to jail, it exposed him to death (and it ultimately did). Then turning to the documents recording such a statement, the Gospel of John, the law specifically excepts from the hearsay rule ancient texts, where they are 20 (California Rule) or 30 (Federal Rule) years old, and the statements therein have been generally acted upon as true by persons having an interest in the matter.[20] Similarly, recording the ‘I am” sayings, especially in the context of “the Word was God” (John 1:1; NASB), could be deemed declarations against John’s interests, given the persecution of the times. Accordingly, there are exceptions for each layer of potential hearsay, and such testimony would be deemed admissible evidence.

Another exception to the hearsay rule is prior consistent statements.[21] This exception parallels the “coherence” criterion of the Jesus Seminar, but, again, it is broader than that employed by the Jesus Seminar. It does not require a volume of prior statements, or a balancing of all statements to form a consensus, but simply rather that the prior statement is consistent with a statement that is being attacked. The reasoning underpinning this exception is that “it is not realistic to expect a jury [or fact-finder] to understand that it cannot believe (the) witness was telling the truth on a former occasion even those it believes that the same story given” at a later time is true.[22]

More than one “I am” saying appears in John, although it may be argued that some are more ambiguous than others. However, as argued by Ball, when viewed in the context of the parallels in Isaiah, they have fairly be read to cohere with each other.[23]

B. The Jesus Seminar's Criteria of Authenticity Incorporate an Improper Burden of Proof

Darrell L. Bock frames the “burden of proof” issue well, “Should the benefit of the doubt go to a saying unless it can be shown to be inauthentic, or should it be doubted unless proved authentic? The loose orality view of the Jesus Seminar takes the position: Prove it to be true! On this approach, single testimony is almost automatically excluded as being of any value; one witness is not enough to establish a saying as tied to Jesus.”[24]

Indeed, the Jesus Seminar explicitly posited that "only sayings that can be traced back to the oral period, 30-50 C.E., can possibly have originated with Jesus.”[25] Such a statement presupposes that the early church could not possibly have remembered them.[26]

In addition to overcoming the hearsay exclusionary rule, noted above, ancient texts enjoy another presumption that the Jesus Seminar overlooks. Ancient documents, which come from a proper repository or custody, and bear no evident marks of forgery, are presumed as genuine and are permitted to be read into evidence, unless the opposing party is able to impeach them.[27] The burden of showing them to be false is on the objecting party.[28] The fact that the originals are lost is of no moment.[29]

Professor Greenleaf turns the burden of proof employed by the Jesus Seminar on its head: “In trials of fact, by oral testimony, the proper inquiry is not whether it is possible that the testimony may be false, but whether there is sufficient probability that it is true.”[30]
Unless there are circumstances generating genuine suspicion concerning the witness' veracity, every witness is to be presumed credible.[31] Again, the burden of impeaching or undermining his credibility rests with the party objecting to the testimony.[32] The Jesus Seminar overlooks this burden.

Contrary to the Jesus Seminar's approach dispatching testimony of one witness as unreliable per se,[33] single witness testimony may be relied upon unless impeached by the objector.

Further, in this case there are instances of "multiple attestation" in the biblical and extrabiblical accounts.[34] Greenleaf argues that some discrepancy in the biblical accounts does not undermine their credibility.[35] To the contrary, if they were in strict verbal conformity, one could call into question the writers' credibility.[36]

The “burden of proof” employed in the Jesus Seminar's criteria seems to reveal a bias in their approach.[37] Luke Timothy Johnson argues that these are not objective criteria, but rather assumptions that are attached to a predetermined vision of the Jesus that is purportedly being sought.[38] Darrell L. Bock argues that there seems to be a hidden criterion in the Jesus Seminar's evaluation of sayings, namely that if the saying elevates Jesus to being more than a sage, it is deemed inauthentic.[39] Further calling into question the propriety of the Jesus' Seminar's skewed “burden of proof” is the apparent inconsistent application of their own criteria.

Works Cited

Ball, David Mark, I Am in John’s Gospel: Literary Function, Background & Theological Implications. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
Borg, Marcus. "The Jesus Seminar and the Church," in Jesus in Contemporary Society. Valley Forge, PA.: Trinity Press, 1994.
Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994.
Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1991.
Ewen, Pamela Binnings. Faith on Trial. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999.
Funk, Robert W. Honest to Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus. The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.
Funk, Robert, W., Roy Hoover and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels; What Did Jesus Really Say? New York: Macmillan, 1993.
Ginger, Roy. Six Days or Forever? London: Oxford U. Press, 1958.
Greenleaf, Simon. The Testimony of the Evangelists. Ann Arbor: Baker Book House Company, 1965 (Reprinted from 1874 Edition printed in New York by James Cockcroft & Company).
Hays, Richard. "The Corrected Jesus." First Things, May 1994, pp. 43-48.
Rourke, Mary. "Cross Examination." Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1994, E1, E5.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Real Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Wilkins, Michael J. and J.P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995.
Witherington III, Ben. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Second Ed.). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
Wright, N. T., The Challenge of Jesus. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

[1] Witherington, pp. 42-57.
[2] Funk, p. 8. See Borg, p. 162.
[3] Funk, p. 13.
[4] Funk and the Jesus Seminar, p. 1; Witherington, pp. 42-43, 57.
[5] See Funk, pp. 136-39; Wilkins and Moreland, pp. 90-94; and see also Witherington, pp. 46-47. An exploration of Funk's eight functions of historical inquiry reported in his later work, Honest to Jesus, engenders understanding of his methodology. He asserts that the first function of historical inquiry is to isolate and establish the particular. (Funk, p. 60) He notes that particulars are established through confirmation by independent sources or by comparative evidence. (Ibid.) According to Funk, the second function is to group the particulars into constellations or arrays, that is, placing things together that belong together. (Ibid. at 61.) The third function is to assemble comparative evidence. (Ibid.) In this case, this would mean to compare what one finds written about Jesus with that written about other teachers and charismatic figures of the time. (Ibid.) The fourth function, according to Funk, is to arrange arrays of information into strata, leading towards the chronological ordering of sources. (Ibid.) The fifth task of the historian is to study the literary vehicles. (Ibid.) The sixth function is to bring a broader perspective by analyzing the trends of the time. (Ibid.) The seventh function is to analyze how the observer affects the observed. (Ibid., at p. 62.) The eighth function is to note how the prior interests of scholars influence the kind and range of data selected and how that selection affects the historical reconstruction. (Ibid.)
[6] Funk, p. 138.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., at p. 145. See Funk and Jesus Seminar, p. 533.
[9] Funk, p. 138.
[10] Wilkins and Moreland, p. 92. See Johnson, Luke Timothy, p. 24.
[11] Funk, p. 138.
[12] Hays, pp. 43-38.
[13] Witherington, p. 57.
[14] Greenleaf, pp. 2-3.
[15] Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, pp. 62 and 461.
[16] People v. Cudjo, 6 Cal.4th 585, 608, 25 Cal.Rptr.2d 390, 404 (1993).
[17] Cal.Ev.Code §1201, F.R.E. 805. See People v. Collup (1946) 27 C.2d 829, 834, 167 P.2d 714; People v. Lew, 68 C.2d 774, 778, 69 C.R. 102, 441 P.2d 942 (1968); In re George G., 68 C.A.3d 146, 155, 137 C.R. 201 (1977); People v. Perez, 83 C.A.3d 718, 727, 730, 148 C.R. 90 (1978).
[18] Cal.Ev.Code Section 1230; F.R.E. 804(b)(3).
[19] People v. Frierson, 53 Cal.3d 730, 745, 280 Cal.Rptr. 440, 448 (1991), cert. denied, 112 S.Ct. 944 (1992)
[20] Cal.Ev.Code Sections 1331 and 1341, F.R.E. 803(16). See discussion below regarding ancient documents and the burden of proof.
[21] Cal.Ev.Code Section 1236, F.R.E. 801(d)(1)(B).
[22] Cal.Ev.Code Section 1236, Comment.
[23] Ball, passim.
[24] Wilkins and Moreland, p. 90.
[25] Funk, Hoover and Jesus Seminar, p. 25.
[26] Wilkins and Moreland, p. 20.
[27] Greenleaf, p. 7.
[28] Ibid., at pp. 7-8.
[29] Ibid., at p. 9.
[30] Ibid., at p. 23.
[31] Ibid., at p. 25.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Wilkins and Moreland, p. 90.
[34] Greenleaf, pp. 51-54, and Wilkins and Moreland, pp. 208-221.
[35] Greenleaf, p. 33.
[36] Ibid.
[37] One may be taken aback by the telling admission of Jesus Seminar's cofounder Robert Funk: “We want to liberate Jesus. The only Jesus most people know is the mythic one. They don't want the real Jesus, they want the one they can worship. The cultic Jesus.” Rourke, pp. E1, E5. Funk's view of Christology is not difficult to divine from this quote. Similarly, another Jesus Seminar luminary, John Dominic Crossan, pontificates that Jesus's death and resurrection did not happen but were products of wishful thinking. See Crossan, 1994, ch. 6. Indeed, Crossan makes no pretensions concerning his objectivity. He remarkably concedes: “[M]y methodology does not claim a spurious objectivity, because almost every step demands a scholarly judgment and an informed decision. I am concerned, not with an unattainable objectivity, but with an attainable honesty." Crossan, 1991, p. xxxiv.
[38] Johnson, Luke Timothy, p. 25.
[39] Wilkins and Moreland, p. 91.