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Spring Books

Gospel according to Funk, pure and simple

By Robert W. Funk
Harper Collins, 342 pages, cloth, $24


In Honest To Jesus, the founder of the Jesus Seminar, Robert Funk, combines considerable erudition with the same scolding tone one hears in curial admonitions. The content is opposite, but the righteousness is similar.

Funk's elaborated conviction is that he -- the careful unbiased scholar, with rules and tools of scholarship and ethics of spun gold, beholden to no creed, denomination or fashion -- is honest. Those who disagree with him are not only wrong but morally reprehensible for their ignorance. The populace is smug and ignorant. The clergy are blinded by dogma and fear of authority. Other scholars (like Raymond Brown or John Meier) are protecting orthodoxy. Academia is hidebound and petty. But the Jesus Seminar has it right. They are pure and they can prove it.

According to Funk, Jesus is "a social deviant, a charismatic teacher who attracted a considerable following. He was apparently a nonconformist, like many of the prophets of Israel. He seems to have criticized the temple cult and subverted some purity codes. He was a troublemaker."

Is that all? Yes, that's all, and every attempt to embellish, extrapolate, interpret or codify any further content is met with learned hostility.

In Funk's gospel, Jesus is not divine. He is not a messiah. There is no heaven or hell. The Apostles Creed is an artifice for cutting off discussion. Mary is not virgin. The resurrection appearances are fiction. The gospels are not inspired. And the whole passion narrative is fiction by Mark, later embellished by Matthew and Luke. But Jesus was an interesting poet.

Funk may be serenely objective in his handling of data, but his language isn't. He does not describe Paul as an "apostle," the usual nomenclature. He says he is a "promoter and administrator." I am accustomed to see (St.) Irenaeus called a theologian or apologete, but Funk describes him as a "heresy hunter." This is sort of like calling the bishop's miter and crosier his hat and cane. The edge of an ax being ground seems to peek through these word choices.

To tell the truth and nothing but the whole, unvarnished, uninterpreted, historically validated truth, Funk marshals an imposing array of literary and historical data. Most of his scholarly data can be found in the Jerome Biblical Commentary and individual scholarly works. I was surprised, however, to see him disparage the fruitful social sciences approach of scholars like John Pilch, Carolyn Osiek and Bruce Malina.

But he should be heard. The literary analyses of the parables are worth the price of admission. The parables are a form of speech we don't use, and Jesus used them extensively. (Funk says less than 20 percent of the sayings are really from Jesus.) The parables are literary forms of reversal -- layered, ambiguous and deliberately provocative. They are all we have left of Jesus' teaching. The parables are also the fulcrum by which the Jesus Seminar scholars began to overturn all the hoary accretions to the sage of Galilee.

It is clear that Funk intends to take on all of established Christianity, along with its poetry, archaic formulations, institutional narrowness and symbol system and replace it with objective scholarship. Funk wants the vision that Jesus had of God and expressed in the parables to prevail. He scolds everyone within earshot for ignoring the vision of Jesus and making Jesus the object of our worship and, from that false starting point, creating an entire religion. He wants to dismantle religion and get back to the vision of Jesus, though he admits Jesus talks in poetry.

The gospel of Jesus, according to Funk, is really quite simple. Perhaps I can paraphrase it this way: "Jesus," the Sufis say, "stands by the Jordan and sells river water." Which means that Jesus says God is ordinary and everywhere. Everywhere is sacred. Everybody is sacred. Everything is pure. God is immediate and intimate. If we would open our eyes, we could all see that. There is only the ordinary.

I wonder if this is Funk's last book. After he consigns inspiration, dogma, creeds, religious authority, church, messiah, Mary, religious tradition and more than 80 percent of the words spoken by Jesus to fiction, and then decides Jesus was just a nonconformist poet who violated purity codes, why should he (or anyone) bother to study that slight bit of uninspired poetry?

Clarence Thompson is the author of Parables and the Enneagram.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997