Robert Miller's "The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics"

I looked forward to this one, because I was told that it direspected my main man Ben Witherington, whose erudition and reading range is such that libraries call him to ask questions and borrow books. What I found in this slim volume was latent hostility, psychologization, and many critical-thinking errors.

Miller is one of the lesser-known members of the Seminar. He peppers his work with summaries of what impressed him about the Seminar: how they debated honestly and respectfully, and how democratic it was that everyone from the best-trained scholar to the non-scholar fim director got a vote.

And therein lies the problem, the one problem Miller avoids, and should, or else doesn't have an inkling about: While he defends the Seminar against a variety of charges of incompetence, the one he misses is that it is utterly misguided to use a voting process in the context it is used by the Jesus Seminar. Two members vote black on a saying -- one may vote this way for scholarly reasons, another may vote that way because of the weather. The most glaring flaw in the Seminar's system is that it acts as though competent critical evaluation has taken place and presents the results of their votes as though it is the product of such -- when what I want to know is why each member voted as they did, so that their methods can be critically evaluated individually and not presented as though a monolithic consensus.

That Miller does not see the need for this is ironic, since he acknowledges that "Biblical scholarship is highly specialized and so a scholar's position on an issue outside his or her area of specialization may not be all that informed." [69] The Seminar members may present papers and have discussions before meetings to help them decide votes, but that is far from enough to guarantee that an informed and critical choice has taken place.

But, Miller is ever ready to defend the Seminar with psychologizations of opponents. The Seminar was attacked, he tells us, because they had "drilled into a nerve by speaking publicly and honestly about the historical Jesus" [3]; his critics, he says, are guilty of rhetorical manipulation [81] and of using "condescending rhetoric" -- this latter, said with reference to Luke Timothy Johnson, who does indeed only dismiss the idea of treating the Q document as though it were a determinable composition; Miller objects that Johnson "does not actually assert that it is wrong to aim for precision about Q, much less does he say why it would be wrong," but instead, "the mild ridicule insinuates that such pursuits are so obviously wrongheaded that one need only describe them to expose their stupidity." [81-2]

To which I say: Exactly! Regardless of the "impressive erudition" of the Q-detailers, it is never more than an exercise in wrongheadedness to offer speculative constructions about a document for which there is absolutely no hard evidence, nor even a relevant literary parallel, especially when other explanations for the data at hand are better. Erudition in the service of contrivance sounds impressive but is ultimately misguided, and acting offended about being told this, as Miller does, isn't an answer to Johnson's charge (and Johnson does rather say more than Miller admits).

Miller's attempts at practical defenses of the Seminar I found little more substantive. He defends the voting procedures by pointing out that the United Bible Society and some translation groups voted in a similar way when deadlocked [12] -- well, even assuming that the methods were precisely or sufficiently the same (we are not given any descriptions by which to make a critical evaluation), does this prove that the Seminar's methods are right, or only that the UBS might be mistaken in the procedures also?

Differences among the Gospel writers, easily attributable to the vagaries of oral tradition and ancient literary practice, are said to show that the Gospel writers "adapted, embellished, updated, edited, and interpreted their material." It proves all that? What we actually have here is a case of Miller "adapting, embellishing," etc. the data to fit a preconceived notion with no basis in fact, and offering a vague generalization for purely rhetorical purposes.

Verses like Matt. 18:20, in which Jesus proclaims himself to have divine knowledge, it is said "makes no sense at all as a saying by the historical, earthly Jesus, because it would put him in the impossible situation of being physically present in more than one place at one time." [33] Not that we are told why this is the case. And there are other standard presumptions: the church saw no difference between earthly and risen Jesus, so attributed sayings of the latter to the former (this has yet to be proven in any sense; only assumed).

Miller patiently explains to us about differences in "burden of proof" by noting that O. J. Simpson was acquitted in his criminal trial, but found guilty in his civil trial [36]. He attributes this to the lesser burden of proof in civil court, but had he read his Bugliosi (Outrage, an excellent book), he would have known that the criminal evidence overwhelmingly indicted Simpson, and the actual problem was that the criminal-trial jury was composed of intellectually-challenged individuals.

In response to criticism that the Seminar falsely claims to speak for a majority of scholars, Miller first admits that in "some places the Seminar expresses positions that it claims are those held by most New Testament scholars." [67] So far, so good. But he tells us that his "understanding" of "what the Seminar actually means by this claim" is that most scholars agree with the general idea that the Gospel writers put things in Jesus' mouth that he didn't literally say.

Indeed? There is a vast continuum within NT scholarship which concerns the degree to which this has happened, as well as the reasons why it happened: Was it sheer invention for a community with a problem, or a terminological switch made so that an intended audience could understand the point from their perspective? This is a case of specious overgeneralization used to support a particular.

I'll reserve my final analysis for Miller's response to Witherington. It starts out with an interesting bit of psychologization: Witherington "brokers the Jesus debate for conservative Christians and delivers the reassurance that evangelical orthodoxy has nothing to fear from the historical Jesus" [109] -- as well as a small footnoted apology to Witherington for an earlier edition of the chapter that appeared in Price's Journal of Higher Criticism in which Miller admits that "Several of my remarks there are mean-spirited and needlessly divert attention from the real issues." [109n] It's interesting to back-check Miller's critiques of Witherington and see what's really happening. Here is an example:

Commenting on the criterion of dissimilarity, [Witherington] argues that it cannot be used as the "sole determinant of what is authentic among [Jesus'] sayings" (p. 46). Witherington gives no examples of the Seminar using it as the "sole determinant."

I have to conclude from this that Miller is a bad reader, because when Witherington makes this comment, his actual criticism is along my lines, that "the Jesus Seminar people do not tell us...what weight was given to the criterion of dissimilarity and by whom." In other words, we need the reasoning behind the results, or else the results are epistemically of no worth. Witherington then goes on to say that this criteria cannot be used by itself, and he goes on to explain others, and then says that "we are not told whether the Jesus Seminar used a broad enough spectrum of criteria to reach their conclusions. In view of the fact that some of the sayings they rule out do meet important historical criteria but not the criterion of dissimilarity, we must conclude that some of their results might be explained by their overreliance on the criterion of dissimilarity." [47]

In other words, Witherington's criticism is far more complex than Miller acknowledges, and what he says does not answer Witherington at all -- and he can't answer it, without providing critical access to the individual decision-processes of the members. Each of Miller's summary responses to Witherington misses salient points like these, either misrepresenting Witherington's critique or else answering the wrong question.

Miller thinks it an insult that Witherington wants peer review on the Seminar's work; "as if the collaborative work of over seventy qualified scholars needs any more scholars to judge whether it is worthy of being published!" Well, Miller has proven just that with his inability to understand what Witherington is saying.

He also proves in other comments that his scholarship is seriously lacking in perspective. In critiquing Witherington's understanding of Jesus as Wisdom (from Jesus Quest, not Jesus the Sage as it ought to be), he asks, "Theologically, how can [the Wisdom idea] be reconciled with the doctrine of the Trinity...?" The answer is, perfectly. Then Miller asks, "If Jesus was Wisdom incarnate, and knew that he was, why did he not say so directly and clearly?" [120] Jesus did say this clearly, to the ears of someone who reads the words in their historical context; but I doubt if anything could be clear enough for Miller, who goes on to assert that early Christians "never" identified Jesus with Wisdom. So what was Paul saying in 1 Cor. when he called Jesus "the wisdom of God"? And that's only the tip of the iceberg, as we have shown elsewhere.

To be fair, I did find some of the explanations of the Seminar's methods helpful, especially his note that a black vote could mean not just "Jesus did not say this," but also, "Jesus may have said this, but others did too, so this tells us nothing unique" (though from Robert Funk's comments, I wonder if this is accurate) And I think Miller's point about the Seminar's actual regard for the Gospel of Thomas bears notation, as I once made in my article about that document: Despite all the attention, the Seminar doesn't treat Thomas better than the Gospels, indeed, recognizing very, very little of it as possibly authentic (but still, oddly, dating it much earlier).

Nevertheless, two things I certainly learned from this book. First, one reason that the Jesus Seminar operates as it does is because they don't want their framework critically evaluated. Instead, they prefer to work through the media and through crafted presentations.

Second, I learned that at least one more member of the Seminar isn't to be taken seriously. Miller spends too little time and argument and far too much on specious generalization and subliminal invective.