Jesus Against the Scribal Elite

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Sea Change in Jesus Studies: Fare Thee Well, Ipsissima Verba! - Le Donne

My introduction to historical Jesus studies was in the mid-Nineties.  For those of you who measure by “Quests”, this was the height of the so-called “Third Quest”. Consider this selection of titles written from 1989 to 1994: Meyer’s Critical Realism and the New Testament, Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Dunn’s Jesus, Paul, and the Law, Crossan’s The Historical Jesus, Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Vol. 1, Dahl’s Jesus the Christ, N.T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God, Evans’ Life of Jesus Research, Horsley’s Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus. And the list goes on.

In 1994, I took my first academic courses in Biblical Studies.  I took a class on the “Old Testament” and I took a class called “Jesus Seminar”.  In the latter, I attended a handful of lectures and voting sessions at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa (the longtime meeting place of the Jesus Seminar fellows). I was too na├»ve at the time to know how celebrated/infamous this group was. It wasn’t like Salmon Rushdie was presenting or anything.

At this stage in Jesus studies (for some), it was still perfectly acceptable to argue that a dominical saying contained the very words of Jesus, or the ipsissima verba Jesu. (I also took my first Latin class in 1994; volo condeco fervens puella… seemed like a good idea at the time.)  In other words, some of the words in red, translated rigidly, conveyed what Jesus said word for word.  As the popular narrative goes, the Jesus Seminar didn’t employ many of those red beads. But it wasn’t like the red beads were untouched. Ipsissima verba was a live possibility in 1994.  

But here in 2013, this is not the case.

In one of my favorite books, Stories with Intent (2008), Snodgrass writes that “as virtually anyone studying the Gospels grants, we do not have the ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus” (p.33ff).  Here Snodgrass (crediting James Dunn) is simply reflecting a contemporary consensus.  Similarly, Dale Allison’s recent successes have heralded the triumph of ipsissima vox.  In other words, we can (in some cases) hear the “voice” of Jesus in those red letters.  The crucial difference is that the vox position points to the red letters and says that Jesus probably taught something like this at some point.  A move toward this position can already been seen in the work of Jeremias, Robinson, et al in the 1950s, but there was no consensus even in the 1990s.  Today, even the maximalists among us are seemingly content to argue for a general “authenticity” of voice rather than exact phraseology.  Finally, the emphasis on "memory" in post-Third Quest Jesus research only reinforces this sea change.

So when did this change?  It seems that ipsissima verba just slipped quietly into the night. But are there any holdouts among professional historical Jesus scholars?

17 comments:

  1. I think it would be problematic that any of the words in the Gospels are the exact ipsissima verba given that they are already one-step removed from the historical Jesus as they are in koine Greek rather than Jesus' spoken language Aramaic. But do you think that a simple aphorism such as the first becoming last could be easy to memorize and come pretty close to the ipsissima verba? I recognize that even aphorisms can change when they are retold and interpreted (e.g., did Jesus originally say Matthew's "Blessed are the poor in spirit" or Luke's "Blessed are the poor" or both or neither?).

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  2. You buried the lede! While I understood from Craig Evans et. al. that the Third Quest is over, we have a name for the now? Instead of a Fourth Quest or a Second No-Quest, we're having a First Post-Third Quest?

    When this was voted on, what color bead did you submit?

    Personally, my vote would have been for Late Third Quest, but I could have gone for High Third Quest, or Bottom of the Third Quest, or Third Quest 2.0, or Third Quest Neat With A Twist.

    As it's too late for me to get in on the ground floor of the First Post-Third Quest, I plan to anticipate the next new thing. My prediction is Variegated First Post-Third Quest. Maybe I should study with D.A. Carson, who must know what "variegated" means.

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    1. I think that Prof. Keith has an opinion on this... interesting to hear what he says. My opinions don't mean much since I don't divide by Quests anymore.

      -anthony

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    2. Anthony, your quest for an unlabeled un-quest is admirable, but I think we need a name for it.

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  3. IMAO, ipsissima verba has always been a red herring, and I think it's always been recognized as a red herring by people who did their work thoughtfully.

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  4. Over on FB, the venerable Rafael Rodriguez (responding to a fellow named Jacob) wrote:

    Rafael Rodriguez: This isn't quite what Anthony was saying, Jake. You wrote,"I'm a little surprised by the assertion that none of what we have in the gospels can be viewed as the way Jesus would have said things," but Anthony's point is only that none of what we have in the gospels can be viewed as the exact words (or wooden translations of the exact words) that Jesus said. So when Matthew reports that Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens," and Luke reports that Jesus said, "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God," we don't have to subject either saying to analysis to determine which one (and only one) Jesus actually said. Instead, we can appreciate that either of these sayings, or both of them, or even neither of them are actually representations of, as you say, "the way Jesus would have said things."

    In other words, Historical Jesus research is coming to grips with the gospels as presentations of the THINGS Jesus said rather than the WORDS Jesus said. Does that help?

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    1. I suppose that I ought to acknowledge that Stanley Porter argues (and has done so for sometime now) that Jesus spoke Greek. While he hasn't convinced many of this, such a position would open up further possibilities for exact wording.

      There, I have muddied my already murky waters.

      -anthony

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  5. I may be wrong, but I'm not sure the Jesus Seminar ever explicitly endorsed the idea of finding the ipsissima verba. My copy of The Five Gospels says that the red vote meant that "Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like (pp.36-37)." I read that as meaning that the precise phrasing was not necessarily being voted on.

    Crossan in his own work shies away from the concept even more-- hence his focus on "complexes" grouped around topics rather than specific wording.

    Who, exactly, at any point in the recent past, endorsed ipsissima verba? I'm curious, because I don't recall seeing it in any writer on the list in your first paragraph, and I've read most of them.

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    1. "Jesus undoubtedly said this" is an i.e. for ipsissima. The "or" part of that sentence is a moderate step away from it.

      -anthony

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    2. Ah. I see.

      It's just interesting to me how several prominent members of the Seminar-- Borg and Crossan come to mind-- actually ended up deviating so far from its conclusions and methodology in their own works.

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  6. I don't know exactly when this shift happened either, but I do tend to think that the simultaneous criticisms of the criteria of authenticity helped it. Both have an atomistic approach to the Jesus tradition that simply cannot cope with postmodern historiography, whether from historical theory or memory theory or linguistics. As to naming current research, I've tended to speak of a "memory approach" or "Jesus-memory approach." In my inaugural lecture at St Mary's this Fall, which I'm writing right now and will be published in due course, I speak of "the new historiography" in Jesus studies. I tend to like this term because it recognizes that not everyone demurs from atomistic approaches based on memory theory but that many people are coming to the same conclusions.

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    1. "New historiography" is fine for you doctors, who are comfortable with 6-syllable words. For those of us with fewer letters following our names, how about the "New Perspective On Jesus"? If memory serves, that title has a fine lineage.

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  7. BTW, I only find "quest" language useful in referring to the first, no, and second/new quests IN GERMANY. I agree with others that the scheme is too simple to reflect Jesus studies as a whole.

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  8. If Dale Allison is right -- and I think he is -- then the whole taxonomy is off. There was never a "no quest" and so the "new quest" was misnamed. The third quest, so called, is far too varied and unfocused to have its own name. So I don't think the third quest is over. There was never any such thing, and so let's just abandon the labels altogether. Here's my short blog argument for abandoning the third quest terminology and with it all such terminology:

    http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2007/04/abandoning-third-quest-of-historical.html

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    1. The first place I encountered the "third quest" moniker was in Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God. What struck me was the arbitrariness of the category as he used it... for example, he grouped John Meier into it even though Meier relies on the same "criteria" approach that Wright had spent many pages excoriating... indicating to me that the practice of dividing scholars into "quests" was really just a way to say who was considered "relevant" according to Wright.

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  9. Interesting post, Anthony. It's worth bearing in mind that the search for ipsissima verba also has a lot to do with one's solution to the synoptic problem. Given the extent to which Q has been a major player in historical Jesus research over the last century or so, there has always been the potential for a special core set of primitive sayings with a special claim to being close to what Jesus said. Of course a lot of recent Q scholarship is more nuanced, but it has undoubtedly been the case that Q has aided in the quest to recover something of Jesus' original words. It's essential, for example, in the Jesus Seminar's work -- just look at how many of their red / pink sayings are double tradition.

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