Reprinted by permission from The Fourth R, vol. 8, no. 3-4, May/August 1995.
In my office at Texas Christian University hangs a framed aerial-view photograph of the dairy farm I grew up on in South Dakota. When students ask what it is, I tell them it's a reminder of why I became a professor.
Whenever I start thinking that teaching is work, I remind myself about those winter mornings more than thirty years ago. At 4:30 A.M. my father awoke me on his way to rouse the dairy cows. Twenty minutes later I was trudging through snowdrifts toward the dairy barn, stopping to read the large thermometer hanging outside the barn door -- 32° below zero. Three hours after finishing morning chores, I drove with my younger sister and brother the five miles over snow-covered roads to school. As soon as school was out, I was expected back at the farm for the evening chores which took even longer than in the morning.
Milking the cows in the winter was not nearly as much work as feeding them -- and cleaning up behind them. The corn silage they ate was frozen for a solid foot along the sides of the concrete silo. It had to be picked loose, tossed down the chute, then carried out in bushel baskets to the feed trough. These chores had to be repeated every morning and evening. There were no true shortcuts, and I did not yet appreciate that repetition taught discipline and routine brought efficiency.
It was years later in college that I first learned to think about the Protestant work ethic of my childhood, and its impact on my generation of Mennonites. Throughout their four-hundred-year history, the Mennonites had remained primarily farmers. My ancestors had been part of the migration of German Mennonites who lived for a century in Russia before settling in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s. With their Russian winter wheat they helped cultivate the "Bread Basket" of America. My father and brother, and the rest of my Schmidt uncles and cousins, have preserved that legacy. My destiny led me away from the farm, but not because I was not a good farmer. In fact, I had been a dutiful older son and had become skilled at learning by observing. My father was not inclined to give lengthy instructions -- nor to repeat them. I rather preferred to anticipate what job was next.
Though I had little time for homework, I was always a good student. Our small high school of fewer than a hundred students offered few academic choices; for example, no foreign language was offered. I had not even picked up any of the peculiar German dialect my father grew up speaking. It was not used by my parents, since my father had "intermarried" into a different dialect of Mennonite German. My intellectual pursuits were mostly math and science. I enjoyed reading about sports, but was never much of an athlete, and farm chores allowed little time to pursue hobbies.
I trace my scholarly inclinations back to Mrs. Harens, my English teacher through most of high school, and the careful procedures she required on our research papers. We had to develop a system of note cards and turn them in along with the assignments. (Somewhere I think I still have that paper on Mendel's experiments with plant heredity.) She also taught English grammar, including sentence diagraming, and English literature. My father, like those of my classmates, had not attended high school. Yet, many in my graduation class understood that "hard work" could mean more than physical labor. Of 25 students, four eventually earned doctorates.
My decision about going to college was really never whether, only where. I had been active in our small rural Mennonite church in a variety of ways and had a vague sense that one day I might be interested in "church work." That became a crucial factor in turning down a full scholarship from the University of South Dakota, earned through a regional math competition, and choosing to attend our denominational school, Bethel College -- even though it was in Kansas, four hundred miles away. I had never traveled that far in my life.
The liberal arts curriculum of a small church-related college provided just the right environment for me. I started out in math and physics, because of the proficiency I had demonstrated in high school. But I never figured out what to do with a physics major. Being an engineer, for example, was not part of my world. The matter was decided when I nearly failed a physics exam in my sophomore year -- the day after President Kennedy was shot.
About that time I took my first history course, from a new professor fresh out of graduate school. I responded to his enthusiasm and organized lectures and soon became a history major. Ancient Greece and Rome fascinated me, but I also had my first exposure to church history and the Radical Reformation. I discovered my religious roots in the sixteenth-century Anabaptists and realized that their migratory history had been a search for political tolerance of their pacifism -- a belief and a way of life I had simply inherited. The desire to affirm that heritage and to understand its biblical foundations influenced both my academic and extracurricular pursuits.
In my junior year I was part of a group that ventured to Nashville and boarded a Freedom Bus for the finale of the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March in 1965. For a farm kid who had never personally known anyone from another racial background, it was truly unimaginable to be part of such a multi-racial crowd and listen to Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his spellbinding oratory.
Two years later I went to Atlanta as a seminary exchange student, the only caucasian at the Interdenominational Theological Center, a federation of predominantly African-American seminaries. That year I also worked with a welfare rights organization at the inner-city settlement house where I lived, along with the director, an Episcopal priest, and two Roman Catholic nuns. The four of us marched together in Atlanta's first Peace Parade against the Vietnam War. They wore clerical or religious garb and I wore a T-shirt with the motto: "God is NOT on our side." That weekend a photo of us appeared in newspapers throughout the South with the caption: "Unbeliever Marches with Clergy."
The next spring King's funeral procession made its way through the Atlanta neighborhoods near the seminaries. Thankfully, Atlanta remained relatively quiet the following week, in contrast to other inner cities exploding in flames. Atlanta became my definition of a city. It also introduced me to jazz.
After two years in Atlanta, I returned to Elkhart, Indiana, to complete my theological education at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries. I had gone there directly from college, in part because I was unable to finalize arrangements for an alternative service assignment with the Mennonites as a pacifist substitute for military Selective Service. But I had also developed quite an interest in theology by the time I left college. In a Modern Europe history class at Bethel, I wrote about Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus as a text of its times. My first full Jesus course was a conventional, harmonistic look at Jesus' "life and work." My senior electives, however, included an eye-opening course the last quarter on contemporary theological issues, with readings on "Death of God," secular theology, and demythologizing. I'm sure this inoculated me for a career of exposure to radical ideas without necessarily being infected by them. At least it freed me from the inherently conservative instincts of my environment.
My first academic experience at seminary was an intensive Greek class. I had survived a year of college German to satisfy the language requirement, but clearly did not have a linguist's ear for language learning. Nonetheless, Gertrude Roten's pedagogy made the experience contagious. My analytical mind quickly grasped the logical structure of Greek. I found having direct access to ancient biblical texts a most empowering learning experience. When you know the original language, you no longer need to rely on translations that may be informed by presuppositions that obscure challenging biblical teachings, such as pacifism.
The intellectual climate at Elkhart was mostly defined by the theology of Karl Barth and the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I missed out on them at Atlanta, where I studied Rudolf Bultmann and the German school of interpretation called "The New Hermeneutic." The most worn-out dust jacket of any book in my library is on a volume of essays by that title. It is also where I first encountered Robert Funk, whose essay in this volume built the first bridge between hermeneutics and biblical historical criticism.
I was especially attracted to the implications for theology of the notion borrowed from the philosophy of Martin Heidegger that language is "the house of being." It made good sense to me that how we talked about God played a crucial role in what we believed about God. Theo-logy, "Godtalk," is not to be confused with "God." I realized I was inherently more interested in thinking about how God was talked about than I was in speculating about what kind of reality "God" actually referred to. And the Anabaptist in me was more interested in how God was talked about in the Bible than in classical theology, whether it was Augustine or Aquinas, Luther or Calvin, Barth or Tillich, or even our own founding theological voice from the sixteenth-century, Menno Simons. They represented important options from the past, but they were all secondary to engaging the biblical text itself.
My last year back at the seminary in Elkhart, I explored implications of this perspective, especially for biblical interpretation. One of my research projects explored in great detail the classic nonresistance text:
You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let them have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to those who beg from you, and do not refuse those who would borrow from you. (Matt. 5:38-42)
The history of interpretation exposed the extraordinary lengths to which the majority of Christians throughout the ages had gone to avoid taking seriously what it meant to say, "Turn the other cheek; give the shirt off your back; go the second mile."
As a sign of the times, I called my paper, "Dare We Protest?" On Saturdays a handful of students would go to a shopping center near the seminary to display our placards about Vietnam: "No More War!" We thought we were "daring" the local Mennonites to overcome their passive stereotype of pacifism and speak up.
My last semester I took a "Jesus Seminar" class (prophetically, that was the actual name of the course). We explored major interpretive works about Jesus, ranging from classical "lives" to the writer Sholem Asch and a few modern scholars. For my project I revisited the "New Hermeneutic" and tried to describe what kind of Jesus is portrayed by one of its major thinkers, Gerhard Ebeling. Other scholarly endeavors that year included exegesis of Mark's passion story, reading from the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), and courses with John Howard Yoder, the best-known Mennonite scholar in America. His collection of essays, The Politics of Jesus, is an indication of the central role Jesus plays in the way Mennonites think about ethics.
Though I completed my seminary studies, I was never ordained. My classroom pursuits were becoming ever more stimulating intellectually, so that I soon realized that those Sunday evenings with Methodist youth groups were more suited for a summer camp activities director than a budding Greek scholar. That realization finalized my calling to graduate school and a teaching career.
The Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley seemed like the right place to continue my studies. Its cultural climate reminded me of Atlanta (including the jazz) and the cafeteria-style curriculum of nine different seminaries let me choose from a diverse menu of courses. I was given a teaching fellowship in Greek at the Episcopal seminary, which slowly made an Anglican out of me, or at least a high-church Anabaptist. My work with Greek grammar eventually led to a doctoral dissertation using the linguistic theory of Noam Chomsky. (I'm sure my college German professor would have been quite astonished.)
My doctoral advisor, Edward Hobbs, taught both New Testament and "theology and hermeneutics," and was co-director of the Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture. His seminars (each with a wine-tasting component) collectively shaped the world of ideas I still find stimulating: synoptic gospels, Paul's letter to the Romans, orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity, linguistics and theology, linguistics and Greek grammar, hermeneutics (interpretation theory), and textual criticism.
He was especially gifted at distilling the essence of significant ideas. The most compelling for me has remained: "Theology is the languaging of faith." It captures the essential role of language in the dialectic between theology and faith. When taken seriously, it acknowledges that all theological expression is inherently provisional. Such a model of theological discourse is fundamentally pluralistic. There is always more than one way to transform a religious conviction into a set of words, as long as the words are not confused with the conviction itself. This insight allows us to see how different words can be used to express the same belief. The challenge then is to discern a common faith, without prescribing identical words. This is captured in the motto, "Unity without Uniformity." I see this impulse in the very fabric of the New Testament.
The earliest Christian writer, Paul, attacked the divisiveness among the Corinthians by insisting that, just as there is "one God," for Christians there is "one Lord, Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 8:6). At the same time, Paul claimed, "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it for the sake of the gospel" (1 Cor 9:22-23). By this he meant:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. (9:20-21)
Paul argued that for the very "sake of the gospel," one must find multiple ways of presenting what is essentially the same message. He apparently had used the slogan, "All things are lawful for me" (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23), which some of the Corinthians used against him to defend practices Paul thought were deviant. Paul later concluded some people were preaching "a different Jesus" and "another gospel" (2 Cor 11:4). Clearly, it is equally the case that not all similar sounding language says the same thing. This negative judgment confirms the basic point: getting the words right is not enough. Theology is indeed a linguistic enterprise.
Another valuable Berkeley experience was participating in the colloquies of the Hermeneutical Center. Several times each year a colloquy featured a special guest, often a visiting scholar, such as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, engaged in conversation with professors from the Graduate Theological Union, local universities, and invited doctoral students. I attended most of the colloquies during my Berkeley years and several times was invited to prepare one of the responses.
For a young doctoral student, these occasions became a valuable acculturation into the professional world of theological scholarship. With some regularity a visiting scholar from England would stay at the Episcopal seminary for a month or longer. I had occasion to enjoy conversations with New Testament scholars such as George Kilpatrick, Denis Nineham, and John Drury. Their sense of approaching the Bible with literary integrity left a lasting impression, as did Kilpatrick's eclectic approach to textual criticism.
Being at the GTU also allowed me to enroll in the Classics Department at the University of California, Berkeley, which added important depth to the intellectual world that I was making my home. My first exposure to Classical Greek came in a class on "Plato's Republic." I was kept from drowning in a sea of classics majors by the Irish graces of John Dillon, now a professor at Trinity College, Dublin. He was the only member of the Classics faculty interested in reading Hellenistic Greek texts. His study of Neoplatonism had led him to the work of the first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo, whose biblical interpretations were based on the Septuagint. Since Professor Dillon was not familiar with its underlying Hebrew text, which I had studied in seminary, we agreed to a reading course on the Septuagint. One of my fondest memories of Berkeley academic life is the way Professor Dillon would wince at the grammatical oddities in that literal translation and mutter, "But you can't say that in Greek." I had the pleasure then of attempting to explain the features of Hebrew grammar that could cause such illocution. I was at least convincing enough that Dillon agreed to serve on my doctoral committee, both for comprehensive exams and the dissertation.
Teaching opportunities at the GTU stretched my stay in Berkeley to eight years, long enough to finish a dissertation before leaving in 1979 to become a Texan. I was attracted to the Department of Religion at Texas Christian University in large part by its two-year Greek curriculum. Though I also teach a course on "Jesus and the Gospels" each semester, Greek has remained my primary scholarly focus. In fact, that linguistic preoccupation contributed to my initial lack of interest in the Jesus Seminar; it was only when Robert Funk started the Greek Grammar Seminar in 1988 that I first ventured to the Westar Institute in Sonoma, just north of Berkeley.
Berkeley was then the natural choice for my first sabbatical in the fall of 1989. My research was directed toward plans for a major new Greek grammar project. Since Sonoma was only an hour away, I also became more acquainted with other programs of Westar Institute. It was the gospels translation project that finally hooked me.
As my contribution, I agreed to explore fresh language for the Beatitudes. "Blessed" surely failed to convey anymore, if it ever did, the oxymoronic quality of these pronouncements uttered about the poor and the hungry. Recent attempts to render them as "happy" or "fortunate" do not capture the strong sense of reversal implied. "Congratulations!" seemed like the best analogy in English (The Fourth R, March 1990). (1) Wrestling with a number of such translation problems taught us the lesson learned by all accomplished translators: "You don't really understand a text until you attempt to translate it."
I arranged a leave of absence to return to Berkeley as Visiting Professor at Pacific School of Religion (PSR) in 1991. By that time I was completing the draft of Scholars Bible: Mark. It was an ideal project, allowing me to combine a number of interests and skills. It involved polishing the Scholars Version translation, editing the Greek text it was based on, presenting them both in matching formats, selecting manuscript readings, preparing notes, and drafting a full introduction. None of this was meant to imitate a conventional commentary.
My return to Berkeley meant I was the Jesus Seminar Fellow in closest proximity to Sonoma. On a number of occasions Bob Funk invited me to join one of the Thursday evening sessions of the weekly classes he teaches at Westar for the Associate members -- "the Church Alumni Association," as some enjoy calling themselves. Several times I led sessions when Bob was away. Westar's faithful "Church Alums" are clearly representative of an important segment of the intended Polebridge audience, especially for The Fourth R. Their honesty and loyal support, including their growing presence at the semi-annual meetings of the Jesus Seminar, are all vital to Westar's mission. The many engaging conversations I enjoyed with the Associates while I was in Berkeley provided further confirmation about the need for open inquiry regarding Jesus in the current cultural climate. More important for me personally, I developed many insights about the kinds of questions Jesus scholars need to be addressing in any teaching context, whether formal lecture, informal church education setting, or conventional classroom.
My teaching experience at Pacific School of Religion had a lasting effect on my scholarly interests. In a career of primarily undergraduate teaching, it was very stimulating to return to the graduate environment of the GTU. Today's seminarians include many second-career students of diverse backgrounds, some with doctorates in other disciplines. In addition to the natural diversity of the Bay Area, there is a significant international presence, bringing perspectives I would not likely experience in Texas. For example, during my last year there I directed two masters theses. One was written by a Samoan, comparing the significance of the footwashing ritual in John's gospel with customs practiced by native Samoan village chiefs. The other was written by a Zulu woman, exploring how the Pharisees were attempting to preserve aspects of their religious heritage within a dominant outside culture. Such cross-cultural insights suggest that cultural values are another kind of language that shapes how we see our social world and how we talk about it.
My teaching responsibilities included an introduction to the New Testament, which required me to bone up on Paul. I was especially attracted to recent Jewish scholarship, such as that by Daniel Boyarin, treating Paul as a Jewish cultural critic who offered a new solution to a dilemma inherent in the theology of the covenant: How does the One Universal God provide universal salvation through one particular chosen people? For Paul, a diaspora Jew, the experience of Jesus resurrected as the Messiah provides the answer. This explanation seems more plausible to me than the traditional Protestant reading that Paul rejected the "legalism" of his Jewish upbringing and converted to Christianity. It also lets Paul retain his Jewish roots.
While in Berkeley I was part of a task force exploring the role of Jewish studies in the GTU curriculum, which led to some cooperative activities with the Center for Jewish Studies. In addition to gaining appreciation for the rabbinic context in which early Christianity emerged, I pursued my concern about anti-Judaism in the gospels by offering a seminar on "Matthew and Judaism." Although no comprehensive answers emerged, I am convinced that recent scholarly language about "the rejection of Judaism" in Matthew goes well beyond what the narrative itself suggests. Despite its harsh rhetoric, Matthew seems to have firm Jewish roots. This is a research interest I have continued in Texas as I work on the Matthew volume for New Gospel Parallels: Original Language Version for Polebridge Press.
I could not assess the impact of Berkeley on my life without adding a personal note. When I arrived at PSR in 1991, one of the first persons with whom I became acquainted was the Director of Communications, Judy Dodd, who happened to be a fellow Episcopalian. Our friendship developed with visits to Grace Cathedral and numerous cups of caffè latte. As I was making plans to return to Texas, Judy rekindled interest in her Texas roots (her father was born here and grew up in Oklahoma) and she decided she was ready to try becoming a Texan. After a June wedding in Berkeley and a visit with her mother in Phoenix, we made our way to Texas -- in the middle of August. An unscheduled night deep in the heart of West Texas with car trouble was not exactly how we envisioned getting started! But with Judy's sense of humor, and a newly-opened Borders bookstore and espresso café, Fort Worth has become home. Getting back to Berkeley each summer, however, adds to our appreciation of Texas.
The two years I spent in Berkeley also coincided with the completion of The Complete Gospels, which included finishing the translation of all the gospels. Then the focus became the preparation of The Five Gospels, the first full report of the Jesus Seminar to the general public. The many Sonoma conversations around editing and proofreading, along with back issues of Forum, (2) gave me a level of familiarity with the Jesus Seminar to fill in for the first three years I had missed. A major piece of that for me was exposure to the material outside the New Testament. For instance, I had not yet taken a close look at the Gospel of Thomas, and it clearly had a major impact within the Jesus Seminar. The defining issue had been over eschatology. Was Jesus fundamentally an "end-time" prophet, or not? The decisive argument seems to have been the significance attached to parabolic language. Is this the way an apocalyptic prophet talks? The strong "No" vote was a clear signal that the old era of scholarship had finally passed. My Mennonite mode of interpretation had never trusted the popularity of Alfred Schweitzer's apocalyptic Jesus. Putting Jesus in that framework allows the interpreter to dismiss the real impact of Jesus' teachings. As a Mennonite, I always knew "turn the other cheek" belonged at the top of the list, even before it got the top red vote of the Jesus Seminar.
When The Complete Gospels first appeared, I had several occasions to take boxes of them to church groups, pass them around, and start looking at texts together. Before any other level of historical awareness can happen, there must be some genuine appreciation of the theological significance of the church endorsing a fourfold gospel: "The Gospel according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John." There are four distinctly different stories, nonetheless presented as the same "gospel." That underlying theme has become a basic premise in my teaching: all theological expression must be seen as fundamentally pluralistic. Once that insight has been established, then the historical importance of the Gospel of Thomas becomes more apparent. Reading the parable of the mustard seed, for example, first in Thomas and then in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, would quickly draw approving nods -- Thomas does seem the least embellished. Viewed historically, the gospels outside the New Testament can shed important light on how we look at the New Testament gospels.
Since my return to Texas in 1993, the publicity about the Jesus Seminar has generated numerous invitations from curious church groups (as well as some complaints to the TCU Development Office, which I often don't hear about). That's one thing to be said about teaching in the Bible Belt compared to Berkeley: you don't have to convince your audience to take the Bible seriously. The problem, however, is those who claim to take it literally. A retired clergyman recently told me that he had learned early in his career, "You can either take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously."
That slogan could well serve as a motto for my approach to teaching "Jesus and the Gospels," which I now bill as "Jesus and (All) the Gospels." The course should really be called, "Many Gospels, One Jesus." That underlying premise to the study of biblical texts is expressly denied by the basic tenets of most of the quasi-church groups that are rapidly growing on college campuses today. Their adherents often enroll in "Jesus and the Gospels," fully expecting to have an easy time, since they already know the Bible so well. By the end of the semester the conversion rate is high, but never 100 percent. The remaining few holdouts manage to read through The Complete Gospels while clinging tightly to their Johannine Jesus, the Jesus who "is what he says he is," who makes exclusive claims about himself. When they get to Crossan's Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (3) at the end of the semester, they often come out fighting. I have learned to wear my verbal flak jacket for the last few sessions. The compensation comes in the numerous students who express gratitude for such an eye-opening experience. I take that to be what a liberal arts education is all about.
The Complete Gospels, now in its third edition, remains the most valuable resource produced by the Jesus Seminar. It really is the basic tool kit for the apprentice historian looking for Jesus. That theme, "Looking for Jesus," has become a standard way for me to introduce the Jesus Seminar in local churches. After The Five Gospels came out, I was quoted in the local newspaper as saying that we were convinced there were many Christians hungry for "an honest intellectual discussion of the Bible." I immediately got a letter inviting me to come do several sessions at a local Methodist church, and have had such requests almost every month since. The goals of Westar and Polebridge, of The Complete Gospels and of The Fourth R, are endorsed by many faithful Christians here in the Bible Belt. They are looking for a believable Jesus; that is, one both trustworthy and credible.
As a biblical scholar and historian, I see my task as participating in the search for a historically credible Jesus and offering assistance to others engaged in their own search. The picture that has emerged for me bears a striking resemblance to the Jesus I learned to trust in my Mennonite upbringing. For that I am grateful, both to my Anabaptist ancestors and to the Jesus Seminar.
1. The Fourth R is the Westar Institute's popular magazine on scholarship in religion.
2. Forum is the academic journal of the Westar Institute.
3. John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994).
Copyright © Bethel College
Contact Mennonite Life