Robert W. Funk
Robert W. Funk, known to most as Bob, retired from the University of Montana in 1986 to found the Westar Institute. Westar’s first project, the Jesus Seminar, renewed the quest for the historical Jesus begun by David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century and later taken up by Albert Schweitzer at the beginning of the twentieth. At the opening session of the Jesus Seminar in 1985, Bob Funk defined its mission as follows: “We are going to inquire simply, rigorously after the voice of Jesus, after what he really said.”
The Jesus Seminar discovered a Jesus of Nazareth who was a wisdom teacher. Jesus proclaimed the reality of God’s empire in parables and aphorisms. God’s empire contrasted with the Roman empire. Jesus was not, in the judgment of the Seminar, the messiah of the end-times. These and other findings of the Seminar drew widespread attention throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Bob further influenced the course of biblical scholarship by insisting that Scholars of the Jesus Seminar communicate the results of biblical scholarship directly to the public.
A distinguished teacher, writer, translator, and publisher in the field of religious studies, Bob was a Guggenheim Fellow and Senior Fulbright Scholar. He served as Annual Professor of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, as chair of the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University, and as Executive Secretary of the Society of Biblical Literature, the learned society of Bible scholars. His many books include Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God (1966), Jesus as Precursor (1975), Parables and Presence (1982), The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (1988), The Five Gospels (1993) and The Acts of Jesus (1998) - both with the Jesus Seminar - Honest to Jesus (1996), and A Credible Jesus (2002). He also published two Greek grammars.
Bob was born in Evansville, Indiana. He was educated at Butler University (AB 1947) and its affiliated Christian Theological Seminary (BD 1950; MA 1951) and at Vanderbilt University (PhD 1953). He pursued special studies at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland (1947), the University of Tübingen, Germany (1965–1966), and the University of Toronto, Canada (1973–1974). Funk served on the faculties of Texas Christian University (1953–1956), Harvard Divinity School (1956–1957), Emory University (1958–1959), Drew University (1959–1966), Vanderbilt Divinity School (1966–1969), and the University of Montana (1969–1986), where he and colleague Ray Hart founded the Department of Religious Studies. In May 2005, he was honored with a Doctorate in Humane Letters by his alma mater, Butler University.
Bob died in 2005. With the founding of the Jesus Seminar and through the many publications that resulted from its work, he stimulated the renewed quest for the historical Jesus. His far-sighted leadership will endure through the continuing work of the Westar Institute and its seminars.