Red Letter Christians

“Things fall apart”, and one thing that rapidly seems to be disintegrating is the Evangelical identity as typically understood in the second half of the 20th century. Here I’ve been talking of late about the “radical middle“. On the Parchment and Pen blog, there has been a discussion of what other terms, such as “historic Evangelical”, might allow one to distinguish one’s views from those of others (such as Joel Osteen). At Sojourners the term “red letter Christian” has been proposed, as a way of indicating that their focus is not on everything in the Bible, but first and foremost the teaching of Jesus.

I think I like what the latter group stands for, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find myself bearing that label at some point. My professional work as a New Testament scholars, however, leads me to ask some further questions about the banner under which they are gathering. Those of us familiar with the Jesus Seminar will be aware of their parody of the tradition of having red letter editions of the Bible, offering editions of the Gospels that include the Gospel of Thomas and rate sayings as red, pink, grey or black depending on whether, after a vote of the seminar’s fellows, it was felt that the saying was most likely authentic or inauthentic.

For a well-informed, educated Christian in our time, who wants to take seriously the teaching of Jesus, it will not be enough to focus on the words in red letters in a traditional red-letter edition. I am not persuaded that focusing on the red (or even the red and pink) sayings in the publications of the Westar Institute one has resolved the problem either, since I have found myself in some instances to not only to be persuaded of the authenticity of sayings they rated black, but also have doubted the authenticity of at least one phrase that they ranked as red.

I don’t think that the various scholars, theologians and other leaders connected with the “red letter Christians” movement intended by this to associate themselves with an uncritical approach to the Gospels, and I am not intending to criticize them at all in this respect. I am simply observing what it might mean for someone who is open to historical critical insights and approaches to wear this label, and also wondering whether certain Christians who might like the emphases of the “red letter Christians” might find these historical questions, if they are addressed openly, deeply upsetting.

The key point, however, is one that I endorse without hesitation: if one focuses on the actual teaching of Jesus – whether simply taking the Gospels at face value, or assessing each saying using the tools of historical investigation – one will end up with a set of beliefs and practices that are very much at odds with the values of those who have in recent times labelled themselves as “values voters” or the “moral majority.” When it comes to this point, acceptance or non-acceptance of an academic historical approach matters little, because the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels so consistently and overwhelmingly challenge the outlook and values of the so-called “religious right.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    What are your thoughts on the focus on the teachings of Paul vs those of Jesus. I have always felt that many prefer the teachings of Paul because they were direct, avoiding parables.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I think that those who like a more systematic approach to belief and practice would probably prefer Paul. There have been many strong reactions to Paul, both positive and negative.I hope that, when I teach the course on Paul’s letters next semester, and perhaps sooner, I can take one of Paul’s letters and not only work through it systematically (which I’ve done before and will obviously do again in this class) but blog through it systematically.For now, let me just say that I think Paul’s main focus in many of his letters, the point on which he did not simply say things that most Christians in his time would have said, was the inclusion of the Gentiles in Christianity on an equal footing. This is not something Jesus did explicitly and consistently (the Gospels differ on what interaction Jesus had with Gentiles, if any). But Paul’s inclusiveness in this regard is certainly a natural extension of the inclusive approach Jesus took to the marginalized and outcasts in his society.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04018824090441668781 ntWrong

    Once again, I’m struck by the fact that you and I have arrived at similar conclusions. Your last sentence in the above quote would be highly contested among scholars, but that’s what I think, too. I found James Dunn (Jesus, Paul and the Law) quite persuasive on this point — but I am a huge fan of Dunn.As for my preference for the Gospels — I can’t say that this is a conclusion I came to after careful scholarly consideration. From the time I first started reading the Bible (in my early 20s), the Gospels simply captivated me. Functionally, we all have a “canon within the canon”, and you can reasonably describe me as a red-letter Christian, too.One question: I find that some scholars who emphasize the teachings of Jesus (the hypothetical Q document) like to use it as a wedge, to distance themselves from Mark’s apocalyptic Jesus. I think Mark’s narrative is almost as important as “Q”; for me, Jesus’ apocalyptic orientation is not to be gainsaid. I’m curious what your opinion is.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    If you like Dunn, we’re going to get along just fine… :)I don’t think that one can find a historical Jesus who is not “apocalyptic”. One future quote of the day will probably be from Theissen and Merz’ book on the historical Jesus, in which they say that the non-apocalyptic Jesus of the Jesus Seminar comes across as being “more Californian than Mediterranean”, or something to that effect.I appreciate Borg’s honesty when he says that to him, people who predict the imminent end of the world don’t seem sane; Jesus, on the other hand, seems sane to him; therefore, Jesus was probably not that sort of figure. The problem is in the assumption that an “apocalyptic Jesus” would have been the modern streetcorner sign-bearing sort, or that what seems odd to us would have seemed so to first century Jews.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    I too am a great admirer of Dunn. He’s one of my favorite contemporary commentators.Good discussion, but I’d like to point out that, although, yes, in painting his Jesus, the author of Mark did indeed leave huge apocalyptic brushstrokes all over his canvas (Mark’s J is undeniably apocalyptic, this is true), we risk making an equivocation if we project Mark’s eschatological constructs onto a “historical” Jesus.The same applies to Q.It is difficult to say just how much actually comes from Jesus’ lips to our ears. I tend to think that the selection of the Q sayings, and its compilation into discourses, and even most of the exact wording used, reflects the Q community more than Jesus himself. I’m just riffing here . . . . I guess i just disagree with your statement that no non-apocalyptic historical Jesus is possible.(but then again, I’m almost a mythicist, so I could extend that last to read “no historical Jesus is probable anyway”—winks)peaceÓ

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I certainly overstated things – otherwise the Jesus Seminar would be, strictly speaking, “impossible”. What I meant, and ought to have written, is that the notion of an imminent kingdom about to dawn, in which the high will be brought low and vice versa, expected in the lifetime of Jesus’ hearers, seems to permeate the earliest sayings of Jesus and traditions about him that it is difficult to deny their authenticity altogether, even if some particular piece of evidence or detail can be disputed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04018824090441668781 ntWrong

    Agreed. Immediately before Jesus, we have the apocalyptic John the Baptist. Immediately after Jesus, we have a church that expected his return any day now, so that the legitimacy even of marriage and reproduction were called into question.The appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1Co. 7:29-31)Meanwhile, in the middle, we have Jesus saying things like “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” — one of the indisputably authentic sayings, in my view, and a Q saying to boot.It’s not so hard to trace the trajectory from John the Baptist through Jesus to the primitive Church, and draw the obvious conclusions!Quixie, this is one of the reasons why I think the radical scepticism of certain scholars is unwarranted. Yes, there are many details of the life and work of Jesus that we can’t reconstruct with any certainty. And yes, some very important issues turn on those details. (For example, we would learn something valuable about Jesus’ “messianic consciousness” if we could only figure out what he meant by the elusive, self-referential phrase, “son of man”.)But I think we can reconstruct the broad outlines of Jesus’ life and work with reasonable confidence. The rest becomes a matter of faith. Faith which is not a shot in the dark but an edifice built on a solid foundation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    Stephen “But I think we can reconstruct the broad outlines of Jesus’ life and work with reasonable confidence.”I respectfully disagree.What little we know about John the Baptizer cames from the gospels. And I honestly think that scholars put way too much meaning on “son of man”. It was likely a simple phrase , similar to the rastafarian “I and I” . . . it just means “me” . . . “a guy”, “a man”, even in Daniel.I understand what you are saying completely. I just disagree. Again, the point I tried to make was that it is probably not right to project Mark’s theological constructs (or Q’s) onto a historical Jesus. And I do think that most of it is Mark’s own theological exposition. While I agree that some of it may in fact go back to Jesus’ lips . . . . we have no way of determining how much of it does. You could believe that Mark somehow recorded the gist of Jesus’ words (if he even existed) if you like. I don’t.Which leads me to make a brief comment on the Jesus Seminar. I would be careful with treating the findings of that body as emblematic of the opinion of a single entity. The fact is that there is more disagreement between its members than there is agreement. The final result is merely a kind of average score (hence the colored beads) . . . an overview of collected opinions. Opinions within that group are surprisingly varied.peaceÓ


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