Saturday, March 31, 2012

Red Letter Sayings of Jesus

If we want to know who Jesus was, and what he wanted (WWJD), we need to think about what he taught. The Fellows of The Jesus Seminar analyzed the sayings of Jesus from 1986 to 1993.  Their work  was published in The Five Gospels (Polebridge Press and Scribner). 76 scholars participated PUBLICLY in proposing, discussing, and voting, red, pink, gray, or black to indicate that a saying was definitely by Jesus, probably, possibly, or not said by Jesus. Bob Funk, who led this effort, said that he had always been fascinated by "red letter editions" of the New Testament, so he created his own.
Many criteria were used, building on what scholars like Bultmann and Norman Perrin (Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus, 1967) had been doing for decades. (Bob always dreamed of updating Bultmann's great work shown here. Perrin shown right.) The scholars who did this work all would like to see it done again, by many more scholars. (All Biblical scholars, except the most extreme literalists, have their own opinions on what Jesus said and didn’t say. Most of them are too cowardly to give their opinions in public. Perrin avoided this problem by identifying themes such as "Kingdom of God" and then analyzing particular texts related to the theme.)

All of the sayings of Jesus voted “red” are given here -- the top 15 aphorisms and parables most likely to have been said by him:

Turn the other cheek                              Matthew 5:39
Give your coat and shirt                        Matthew 5:40
Congratulations to the poor                   Luke 6:20
Go a second mile                                Matthew 6:20
Love your enemies                                Luke 6:27b
Leaven                                                Luke 13:20-21
Emperor and God                                 Thomas 100:2b
Give to beggars                                     Matthew 5:42a
The Samaritan                                     Luke 10:30-35
Congratulations to those who hunger  Luke 6:21a
Congratulations to those who are sad  Luke 6:21b
The shrewd manager                             Luke 16:1-8a
The vineyard laborers                           Matthew 20:1-15
“Abba,” father                                      Luke ll:2b or Matthew 6:9b
The mustard seed                              Thomas 20:2-4

Sometimes the version in one gospel can be shown to be older than the saying in the others. The text of Thomas, not in our usual Bibles, is found on line. To understand the parables, one needs to strip them of the often moral or pious conclusions added later by others.

The original teachings were simple, and the references would be easily understood by first century Palestinian peasants. Turning the other cheek put a Roman soldier in a position to break a rule. Giving your shirt as well as your coat would leave you naked. Roman soldiers could not command anyone to carry something more than one mile. Leaven was disgusting and impure according to Jewish ritual law. The world obviously does not bless the poor, the hungry, or the sad. These teachings tend to turn upside down conventional thinking.

So what is a Christian? How would we recognize one? Are there any? Are there any churches worthy of his name? Next: What is missing from these teachings, and why?

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