Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Jesus SeM&Minar

Today in my historical Jesus class we conducted our very own Jesus SeM&Minar.  Now I must admit, I got this brilliant idea from James McGrath of Exploring our Matrix fame as I used his syllabus as the template for my own course this year as I was teaching it for the first time.  I thoroughly modified his syllabus to my own needs, but I had to keep the Jesus SeM&Minar.  

The idea is to, Jesus Seminar style, vote on various sayings and/or deeds of Jesus as to their historical probability, but instead of using colored stones, one uses M&Ms.  More fun, and hey, you get to eat your vote after you are finished. 

Here is how I set up the voting for our class.

Red M&M = He said/did such a thing
Orange M&M = He said/did something like this, but not exactly as the text(s) present it
Green M&M = He probably did not say/do such a thing
Brown M&M = He almost certainly said/did no such thing

These colors more or less correspond to the Jesus Seminar's Red, Pink, Gray, and Black.  

I was a little nervous going into the class because my student makeup is to a great extent on the conservative evangelical end of the spectrum and I was afraid of vote after vote of all red M&Ms, because for many conservatives, if it is in the Bible, it has to be historically factual.  

I chose 6 sayings/deeds that we were to vote on.  They are: 

1.     The Beelzebul Controversy (Mark 3:20-22, Matt 12:24, Luke 11:15)
2.     The cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-16, Matt 21:12, Luke 19:45, John 2:13-16)
3.     Jesus walking on water (Mark 6:47-52, Matt 14:24-33, John 6:16-21)
4.     The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32, Matthew 13:31-32, Luke 13:18-19, Gos Thomas 20)
5.     Let the dead bury their own dead (Luke 9:59-60, Matthew 8:21-22)
6.     Church Discipline (Matthew 18:15-20)

After voting, I had the students defend their positions based on various Jesus criteria (multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, coherence, historical plausibility, etc.).

I stacked the deck in my selection of deeds/sayings, choosing some that Jesus scholars clearly think are historical and others that are clearly on the non-historical side. Out of 15 students, plus my vote, here are the results.

Beelzebul: 8 Red, 7 Orange, 1 Green, 0 Brown
Temple Cleansing: 9 Red, 7 Orange, 0 Green, 0 Brown
Water Walking: 6 Red, 2 Orange, 8 Green, 0 Brown
Mustard Seed: 10 Red, 6 Orange, 0 Green, 0 Brown
Dead bury own dead: 9 Red, 5 Orange, 1 Green, 1 Brown
Church Discipline: 4 Red, 6 Orange, 4 Green, 1 Brown

Looking at these vote counts, it was not as I feared.  Obviously there was some conservative tilt with a lot of red and orange.  The biggest red light issue for me was the walking on water with 8 votes going toward historical authenticity, or at least close to authentic.  But, miracles are a touchy issue and I understand the vote, even though I tried to get the students to disengage their belief and try to act under the confines of historical research only. 

The other shock for me was perhaps #6, Matthew's exposition on church discipline.  This is a largely anachronistic use of the ekklesia, portraying Matthew's Sitz im Leben, not that of Jesus.  Yet, this vote was actually the most interesting, because the verses that I had included in the vote really can be broken down into two sections: vv. 15-18 which is talking about church discipline proper, and vv. 19-20, which talk about binding and loosing and where two or more are gathered.  I called a re-vote, this time just on vv. 15-18 and the results were fascinating. 1 Red, 2 Orange, 5 Green, and 8 Brown.  Wow, 13 people in my class were skeptical or outright dismissive that these words belonged to the historical Jesus. I believe I have succeeded in communicating that the gospels do indeed often represent not just the brute facts of history, but also the concerns of the evangelists themselves.

It has been a really fun class this semester.  I have learned a lot, I think my students have learned a lot, and this Jesus SeM&Minar was a great way to bring many themes from throughout the semester into one discussion here at the end of the semester.  Thanks again to McGrath for the idea.



  1. I'm so glad you had a good experience with this class activity!

  2. Hey James,
    Thanks again for the great idea. My students seemed to love the activity. It was such a great way to incorporate everything we had learned all semester.

    Great to see you at the SBL. To next year. Cheers.

  3. Keith and James - I've considered doing something similar in my classes. I'm assuming that students are voting anonymously to avoid possible influences of peer pressure, given a particular institutional environment. Is that so?

    1. Yes, I used a box that students could drop their votes into anonymously. The only drawback is that not everyone is interested in eating those M&Ms later, since no one knows who handled which ones! :-)

  4. Tim,
    I did not have the students vote anonymously for several reasons. First, I was not so concerned with the "integrity" of the vote, as if it were the results of the vote that were important for me. I am not really concerned with what the results of a vote of college undergrads is when they have only had one semester on the historical Jesus. Much more important for me was the reasoning behind a vote and I wanted all of the students to defend their vote using critical thinking and historical criteria. Therefore, I told the students that they would have to defend and argue the reasons for their vote. Was there some peer pressure? Perhaps, but the students did have to secretly place their vote in front of them in their hands and not change it (honors system), but merely reveal it.

    As to your concern about institutional environment and anonymity, this concern was not raised in my mind very seriously. First of all, I am certainly not making a public posting of the votes, in fact, I did not keep track of who voted what color. Further, if there were a fear of a hostile institutional environment, I doubt that there would even be allowed such a class on the historical Jesus at all.

    All that said, I do have several students from the conservative evangelical world for whom this class was a challenge. Yet, I always tried to distinguish between what we can say as historians and what we can say as Christians. I tried to get them to see that while a historian might not be able to argue for the historical probability of a given miracle, say the resurrection, that does not preclude the historian affirming the resurrection as a matter of faith and as a Christian. Therefore, in many ways I tried to get the students to function as historians, while making the class non-threatening to faith. I think in this I succeeded for the most part. Being at a religious institution, I was able to ease this tension between history and faith by sharing pieces of my own faith journey.

    But of course, the best reason not for voting anonymously, is so that you can eat your votes without the fear of getting cooties.

    1. I will say that I think having the voting be anonymous was helpful, since the voting on occasions reflected a skepticism that I had not really heard articulated vocally by students during the semester. I think that some may vote according to what is expected of them if others can see how they vote.

    2. James, I can see that. Although I doubt there was much silencing of skeptics in my class, because that if just not the makeup of my class, there could have been more skeptical votes on the part of some of my students just because they thought it was what I wanted to hear. Maybe next time I do this activity I will try anonymous and see how the results compare.

  5. Thanks, James and Keith, for sharing those different perspectives.

  6. That's Awesome! What an interesting study.

    It reminds me of this video I recently came across-- it's a cute little song about how Jesus and his followers actually Occupy Jerusalem.

    Anyways, here it is: http://youtu.be/a6akkb_afqs

    Which, it has a point.

  7. Oh great...another false teacher leading vulnerable students away from the truth instead of guiding them from their skepticism back to the truth.

    What you all do not realize is that if even one part of the Bible is false or of pure human origin then there is no Bible, no biblical studies, no salvation and no heaven.

    You do not get the reality of what you do and basically put yourselves on the unemployment line as there is nothing to discuss or study if you are correct.

    You teach that God is wrong and has His ways over-ruled by humans and all you are doing is destroying evangelism, bible study and hope. for you have no God to bring the unsaved to and no plan of salvation to offer as a reward for believing in Jesus.

    You cannot say God or the Bible are wrong in areas you do not like what they say then correct in those areas you do like. That is simple cherry picking and dishonest. God is not the author of dishonesty

    1. Wow, look at the above from a real false teacher! Who would accuse someone else of cherry picking while surely not accepting the Biblical doctrine of the dome, so important it is right there in the Bible's first chapter? Who else but a false teacher would repeat the lie of atheists that, if a book or person is wrong about something, it must be wrong about everything? That would not only lead to people tossing out the Bible, but their own fallible parents, and the fallible but honest Christians who want to share their faith with them?

      The above comment is from an enemy of Christ, make no mistake!