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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Robert W. Funk

In A History of the Society of Biblical Literature, 1880-1980, Ernest Saunders called Robert Funk:

[A] latter day Moses who perceived a promised land and laid claim to it....He is a controversial figure, but no one would challenge his seminal influence in reshaping biblical studies in America in general or the guild of Biblical scholars in particular.

Like Moses, Bob Funk had a revolutionary vision that drove him, but it was a vision that others, even those who followed him, could not always see clearly. And like Moses, he could be inflexible and unmovable, convinced almost beyond argument of the rightness of his direction.

But most of all, he saw a promised land of religious literacy where religion scholarship moved out of the academy and into the bigger world, where important research would be debated in public and made understandable and usable for ordinary people in their faith and practice.

By 1985, Bob Funk was almost sixty years old and had distinguished himself as an eminent teacher, writer, scholar and a leader of scholars. He had written two Greek grammars and a number of groundbreaking books, including Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God and Jesus as Precursor. He had been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Senior Fulbright Scholar. He had served on the faculties of Texas Christian University, Harvard Divinity School, Emory University, Drew University, and Vanderbilt Divinity School. With colleague Ray Hart, he had founded the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Montana. And at the Society of Biblical Literature, he had served as Executive Secretary, helping to spark the Society's expansion and growth into the organization it is today.

Then in 1985, Bob Funk convened the first meeting of the Jesus Seminar. It was to become a major focus of his career for the next twenty years, and it was to make him the focus of admiration and appreciation from some quarters, controversy and even enmity from others. Bob Funk did not of course originate the quest for the historical Jesus; that was an ongoing process that ran from David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century through Albert Schweitzer at the beginning of the twentieth. That investigation had continued in journals and in universities and seminaries. But for the most part, the quest had failed to reach millions of people in the pews and millions more who had abandoned the pews in uncertainty and frustration.

And so Bob Funk set out, with a handful of scholars that eventually grew to over two hundred, to review all that Jesus was reported to have said or done and to determine as a group the historical likelihood of those sayings and deeds. (To provide a foundation for this research, he also set out to create completely new translations of all the known gospels and gospel fragments. See The Complete Gospels, edited by Robert J. Miller.)

The debates and decisions of the Jesus Seminar were to be made in public sessions, and the results were to be publicly reported, ultimately in book form (See The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus). Votes on each saying or deed were taken according to four color-coded levels of historical probability, and for some years the votes were taken using colored beads placed in a box. The beads lent an air of both antiquity and spectacle to the proceedings.

By the 1990s, the results began appearing in the media. And as the work began cutting closer to the heart of Christian faith, such as the findings on the miracles, the reaction grew more virulent. The charges flew, both from the academy and the churches, that the scholarship was shoddy, that things like the colored beads were gimmicks, that this was an exercise in publicity, and that it was ultimately the work of a faithless anti-Christian.

The roster of those scholars who at one time or another took part in the Jesus Seminar proceedings is the best answer to those who question the overall quality of those who chose to join Bob Funk in this enterprise.

As to the gimmickry of the colored beads and the like, this points to something fundamental about Bob Funk: he understood that while scholarship is about ideas, it is at its heart a human exercise — the good, the bad, and the ugly. So while sessions of dozens of scholars around the big table could sometimes be tedious, frustrating, or acrimonious, these sessions could also be enlightening and great fun: fun to participate in, fun to watch. Scholars, he believed, not only deserved to have fun, but did some of their best work when they did.

Of course the Jesus Seminar was an exercise in publicity. Bob Funk wanted public religion scholarship, the more public the better. And it worked. The historical Jesus thrived in the media. Books by scholars and journalists and church leaders on the topic became best sellers. And at one point, the historical Jesus appeared on the cover of the three weekly news magazines simultaneously.

Was Bob Funk solely responsible for this? Of course not. Would it have happened, just this way, without his vision and his decades of work? We cannot know for sure, but I don't think so.

Finally, there is the charge that Bob Funk, one of the most gifted American biblical scholars of his generation, was leading an anti-Christian crusade.

Bob Funk wanted to see religion and Christianity develop in light of the best that scholars and scholarship could offer. He was in the lineage of the Enlightenment, and he followed what he believed to be the imperatives of that lineage. Good minds and good hearts can disagree on what those imperatives are and what they demand of us. But as for Bob Funk, his good faith, in every sense, cannot be questioned.

Bob Funk was a man of immense heart and immense mind. He was a generous man, sharing both freely. He could be difficult, impatient with those who couldn't see his vision or help his mission. But that was because he knew early on that he had only one life to do so much work.

Bob Schwartz, Literary Creative Management, bobschwartz@att.net

Citation: Bob Schwartz, " Robert W. Funk," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=441

 
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