A Credible Jesus: Fragments of a Vision

Jesus saw the extraordinary in the ordinary. His extraordinary vision comes to us in bits and pieces, in random stunning insights, embedded in the everyday language of his parables, aphorisms, and dialogues. In A Credible Jesus, Robert Funk sorts and assembles these fragments and examines ways in which the vision they preserve can serve twenty-first century people searching for meaning in a very different world than the one Jesus inhabited. The resuslts and both unsettling and reassuring.

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  1. Review

    The purpose of the author, founder of the Jesus Seminar, is to identify the words and acts of the historical Jesus which, separately and together, provides fragments of a vision he called the Kingdom of God. The book consists of seventeen short essays, using an extensive database, exploring the aphorisms, parables, dialogues, and deeds of Jesus.

    Funk begins by defining terms. He distinguishes between a proverb, which expresses conventional wisdom, like "haste makes waste" and an aphorism which "subverts or contradicts conventional proverbial wisdom," like "let the dead bury the dead." A parable is fictional story about people and events in the everyday world, using "metaphor, hyperbole, caricature, reversals, ambiguity, paradox and parody." It is told for the purpose of dismantling the everyday world and reconstructing it as a vision of an "order of reality that lies beyond, but just barely beyond the everyday, the humdrum, the habituated." Dialogues are exchanges Jesus may have had with other people. And finally, there are the acts of Jesus.

    In his introduction, the author provides a "general map to guide the reader in her or his journey." The first three chapters, which he considers foundational for the other chapters, present "glimpses of the primary aspects of Jesus’ vision." The essential message of Jesus concerned the Kingdom of God. In place of the symbol Kingdom of God, Funk prefers "domain of God" because it "pits the sovereignty of God" against any existing political power. He then explores two sets of aphorisms. The first set points to the domain of God as an invisible realm, "everywhere present but not demonstrable" particularly to those "bound by traditional notions of power and authority." The second set points to the domain of God as populated with the poor, the destitute, the tearful, and the hungry. Since God’s domain is invisible, it is "to be embraced by trust," (or faith) meaning "to act as though something is true even when the evidence is ambiguous or marginal."

    The next four chapters delineate some of the dimensions of God’s domain. The first century Jewish social world was structured by a purity system, which designated as outsiders and outcasts, women, children, lepers, tax collectors, and others. In stark contrast, the invisible domain of God is populated with these people. Funk then points out that close to the heart of the vision of Jesus is the radical admonition, "love your enemies," which points to the domain of God as a realm transcending ethnic identity or tribalism and focusing on what human beings have in common. Another admonition is to "hate your family" which points to the domain of God as a realm transcending blood and family relationships. The final chapter in this section "Flora and Fauna" stresses that the domain of God encompasses not only the human world, but also the world of plants and animals.

    Chapters eight through fourteen illuminate how the vision of Jesus subverts the everyday world. Funk uses the parable of the leaven (Luke 13:20-21) the parable of the mustard seed (Matt 13:31-32//Luke 13:18-19) and the parable of the empty jar in the Gospel of Thomas (97:1-4) to illustrate how Jesus parodies and subverts old symbols to create new ones. He also uses a group of aphorisms to show that Jesus intended to "undermine the social, political, and economic way of doing things." Again, in contrast to the expectation of people who expected rewards for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior, Jesus maintained that rewards and punishments "are intrinsic to the acts and thoughts to which they are related." Finally, Jesus is portrayed, as making it clear that individuals have "immediate, direct access to God." There is, therefore, no need of "brokers" or mediators who serve as links to God.

    Three final chapters focus on "a read across the aphorism, parables, and anecdotes." Funk points out they "subvert" the meaning of the Kingdom of God associated with the kingdom of David and Solomon. For Jesus God’s domain is a "mythic" destination, like the Promised Land. He writes, "It is the journey and not the arrival that constitutes our salvation. This is the ultimate vision of Jesus." Finally, the cross is a symbol of the integrity of Jesus who was unwilling to compromise his vision.

    A concluding chapter draws the fragments and glimpses together, revealing that the domain of God is "an alternative reality" which comes through human action. The admonitions, injunctions, pronouncements, and parables of Jesus point to the ways human beings can effect its arrival. But we are reminded that the door opening on to the domain of God is difficult to find because it is subversive of the domain of everyday. Moreover, the way to the domain of God is "narrow" because the prospect of leaving the old, but familiar world for a new but unfamiliar world is "bewildering and hence frightening to the faint-hearted." But the author reminds us that "the cross is an appropriate symbol for the Christian mode of existence, if by the cross we understand that we are all pilgrims embarked on an exodus that is undergirded by nothing other than trust." In this book, Funk, reminds us once again that a credible Jesus is an iconoclast, not an icon.

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