The Jesus Seminar
Jimmy Williams provides analysis of the Jesus Seminar findings in light of five critical
areas: Identify purpose of the Jesus Fellows, Presuppositisms, Canonical Gospels, Chronology and Christological differences.
• “Jesus did not ask us to believe that his death was a blood sacrifice, that he was going to die for our sins.”
• “Jesus did not ask us to believe that he was the messiah. He certainly never suggested that he was the second person of the trinity. In fact, he rarely referred to himself at all.”
• “Jesus did not call upon people to repent, or fast, or observe the sabbath. He did not threaten with hell or promise heaven.”
• “Jesus did not ask us to believe that he would be raised from the dead.”
• “Jesus did not ask us to believe that he was born of a virgin.”
• “Jesus did not regard scripture as infallible or even inspired.”
So says Robert W. Funk, Architect and Founder of the Jesus Seminar, in a Keynote Address to the Jesus Seminar Fellows in the spring of 1994.(1) The Jesus Seminar has been receiving extensive coverage lately in such periodicals as Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, as well as on network television.
The Jesus Seminar Fellows
The Jesus Seminar is a group of New Testament scholars who have been meeting periodically since 1985. The initial two hundred has now dwindled to about seventy-four active members. They initially focused on the sayings of Jesus within the four Gospels to determine the probability of His actually having said the things attributed to Him in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each scholar offered his/her opinion on each “Jesus” statement by voting with different colored beads:
• Red: Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.
• Pink: Jesus probably or might have said something like this.
• Gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas are close to His own.
• Black: Jesus did not say this; it represents a later tradition.
Their voting conclusions: Over 80% of the statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are, by voting consensus, either gray or black. This means that only 20% of Jesus’ statements are likely to have been spoken by Him. The other 80% are most assuredly, they say, unlikely to have ever been uttered by Jesus.
Their conclusions were published in 1993 in a book entitled The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. The primary author of the book, Robert W. Funk, also the Founder and Chair of the Jesus Seminar, crafted the results of their deliberations in a slick, color-coded format with charts, graphics, appendices, and copious footnotes. (The Gospel of Thomas is to be included with the traditional four gospels, they say.)
Who are these scholars, and what are their credentials? Robert W. Funk, former professor of the New Testament at the University of Montana is the most prominent leader. He is joined by two other major contributors, John Dominic Crossan, of DePaul University, Chicago, who has authored several books including The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, The Essential Jesus, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, and Marcus Borg of Oregon State University, also the author of several books including: Jesus: A New Vision and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith.
Of the remaining active participants, only fourteen are well-known scholars in New Testament studies. Another twenty are recognizable within the narrow confines of the discipline, but they are not widely published beyond a few journal articles or dissertations. The remaining forty are virtually unknowns, and most of them are either at Harvard, Vanderbilt, or Claremont College, three universities widely considered among the most liberal in the field.
The public, exposed by the mass of publicity and attention given to the Jesus Seminar by the media has been inclined to assume that the theories of these scholars represent the “cutting edge,” the mainstream of current New Testament thought. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Nearly all of these scholars are American. European scholarship is nearly non-existent and, that being the case, it would be inaccurate, if not deceiving for the Jesus Seminar participants to present themselves, their work, and their conclusions as a broad, representative consensus of worldwide New Testament scholarship.
While the media and the general public may tend to be gullible and naive about the authority and findings of the Jesus Seminar, Christians need not be intimidated.
Why is this movement important? Should Christians be concerned with this? Haven’t the gospel traditions had their skeptics and critics for centuries? What is different about the Jesus Seminar?
Scholars since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century have questioned such things as the miracles, the prophecies, and the extraordinary claims of Christ in the Gospels.
Beginning in Germany, a separation began to occur between the “Jesus of History” and the “Christ of Faith”; that is, it came to be popularly believed that a man named Jesus really lived, but that fantastic myths grew up around Him and about His powers and claims, and thus He became for many the “Christ of Faith” in story, symbol, and worship. Scholars promoting this separation conclude that biblical history is not what is important; but rather, one’s personal experience, one’s search for meaning and timeless truths. Those are of primary importance to an individual.
The Jesus Seminar stands in this tradition. But what is most significant about their work is that it has widened the circle of awareness (i.e., the general public) to New Testament studies and criticism, and a focus upon issues which up until now have been primarily restricted to academic discussions among New Testament scholars.
This group has brought into question the very authenticity and validity of the gospels which lie at the center of Christianity’s credibility. If what the Jesus Seminar espouses is historically accurate, the sooner the naive Christian community can be educated to these facts the better, according to these scholars.
A major presupposition of the Jesus Seminar, therefore, is philosophical naturalistic worldview which categorically denies the supernatural. Therefore they say one must be wary of the following in the Gospels:
• Prophetic statements. Predictions by Jesus of such things as the destruction of the Temple, or of Jerusalem, or His own resurrection are later literary additions or interpolations. How do we know this? Because no one can predict the future. So they MUST have been added later by zealous followers.
• Miracles. Since miracles are not possible, every recorded miracle in the Gospels must be a later elaboration by an admiring disciple or follower, or must be explained on the basis of some physical or natural cause (i.e., the Feeding of the 5,000: Jesus gave the signal, and all those present reached beneath their cloaks, pulled out their own “sack lunches,” and ate together!).
• Claims of Jesus. Christ claimed to be God, Savior, Messiah, Judge, Forgiver of sin, sacrificial Lamb of God, etc. All of these, say the Jesus Fellows, are the later work of His devoted followers. The historical Jesus never claimed these things for Himself, as Funk infers in his above-mentioned statements. Reality isn’t like this. It couldn’t be true.
Therefore the Jesus Fellows assert that the Gospels could not have been written by eyewitnesses in the mid-first century. On the basis of this philosophical presupposition, the Jesus Seminar considers itself personally and collectively free to select or discard any statement of the Gospels which is philosophically repugnant.
There is nothing new about this approach in New Testament scholarship. Thomas Jefferson, a great American patriot and president did the same thing in the late 1700s with almost identical results. He admired Jesus as a moral man, but like the Jesus Fellows, he assumed all supernatural and extraordinary elements in the Gospels were unreliable and could not be true. With scissors and paste, Jefferson cut out of the Gospels any and everything which contravened the laws of nature and his own reason.
When he had finished his project, only 82 columns of the four Gospels out of his King James Bible remained from an original 700. The other nine-tenths lay on the cutting room floor. Jefferson entitled his creation The Life and Morals of Jesus, and his book ended with the words, “There laid they Jesus . . . and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher and departed.”(2)
Jefferson and the Jesus Fellows, like all skeptics, prefer their own reason and biases over the possibility that the Gospels are accurate in what they say about miracles, prophecy, and the claims of Christ. They are like the man who visited the psychiatrist and informed him of a grave problem: “I think I’m dead!” The psychiatrist said, “That is a serious problem. May I ask you a question? Do you believe that dead men bleed?” The man quickly answered, “Of course not. Dead men don’t bleed.” The psychiatrist reached forward, and taking a hat pin, he pricked the man’s finger. The man looked down at his bleeding finger and exclaimed, “Well, what do you know! Dead men bleed after all!”
The Jesus Fellows, on the basis of their naturalistic bias, conclude that at least the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) could not have been written at the time tradition and many New Testament scholars assume they were. The “Priority of Mark” as the earliest gospel written has strong (but not universal) support. And yet Mark 13 records Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple, something that did not actually occur until A.D. 70.
Since the Jesus Fellows do not believe prophecy is possible, they judge Mark, the “earliest” of the Gospels, to have been written after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by the Romans. If Mark was written in the early 70s, still later dates are then required for Matthew and Luke, to say nothing of the Book of Acts which must follow them with an even later date.
Now, this gives the Jesus Scholars a “window” of about 40 years from the time of Jesus’ death (a A.D. 32.) to the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) to look for earlier sources devoid of miracles and extraordinary claims. They think they have found two such primary sources which fit their assumptions. The first of these is the “Q” source, or “Quelle.”
It has long been observed that Matthew, Mark, and Luke must have had some kind of symbiotic relationship, as if they were aware of one another, or used the same sources, or some of the same sources. The prevailing theory is that Mark (the shortest of the three) was written first, and was later substantially incorporated into both Matthew and Luke. There is a high, but not total agreement, in the parallel accounts of Matthew and Luke where the two reflect the book of Mark.
But Matthew and Luke have additional material, some 250 verses (i.e., the Christmas stories, greater elaboration on the resurrection events, etc.). And there are some verses which are common to both Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. Thus many scholars conclude there was some other document or source available to Matthew and Luke which explains why they contain these additional 250 verses along with the corpus of Mark. The scholars have designated this material as “Q,” or “Quelle,” which is the German word for “Source.” Outside of the Synoptic gospels, there is no written documentary evidence to substantiate Quelle.
A number of New Testament scholars thus claim that Quelle must have been an early, written document which preceded the writing of the Synoptic gospels and was incorporated into them. And they claim that in these 250 verses we only find a very “normal, human” Jesus who is more likely to have been the historical man.
The Gospel of Thomas
The second source given high priority and preference by the Jesus Seminar Fellows is the Gospel of Thomas. In fact, they value it so highly they have placed it alongside the four traditional ones, giving it equal, if not superior, value and historical authenticity.
A complete copy of The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in the 1940s at an Egyptian site called Nag Hammadi, where archaeologists found an entire library of ancient texts including the Gospel of Thomas. It was dated around A.D. 400 and written in Coptic, the language of the ancient Egyptian church. This astonishing cache consisted of early Christian and Gnostic texts.
This Gospel of Thomas has now been studied for forty years, and the overwhelming conclusion of scholars worldwide has been that the document carries many of the identifying marks of a Gnostic literary genre, from a sect prominent in Egypt and the Nile Valley during the second, third, and fourth centuries.
It has been almost universally assumed that the parallels in Thomas to the New Testament Gospels and epistles were copied or paraphrased (not the reverse, as the Jesus Fellows claim) to suit Gnostic purposes, teachings which were opposed to all ideas about a supernatural God in the flesh Who could perform miracles, forgive sin, and rise from the dead. The Jesus Seminar Scholars have fit Thomas nicely together with “Q” to frame an historical portrait of Jesus based primarily upon these two sources.
The Jesus Scholars have declared that the Gospel of Thomas and the Q Source were written within the forty years between Jesus’ death and the fall of Jerusalem, pushing forward the writing of the four canonical gospels (a necessity on their part to uphold their theory) to very late in the first century.
Apart from completely ignoring Paul’s epistles which were written between A.D. 45 and his martyrdom at the hands of Nero in A.D. 68, the Jesus Fellows have a critical problem in fitting their theory into first century chronology.
In the last chapter of the Book of Acts (28), Luke leaves us with the impression that Paul is in Rome, and still alive. Tradition tells us he died in A.D. 68. In Acts, Luke shows keen awareness of people, places and contemporary events, both within and without the church. And he records the martyrdoms of both Stephen and James. It is highly unlikely, if the deaths of Paul and Peter and the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) had already occurred when Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles, that he would have failed to record these most important events.
New Testament scholars are in strong agreement that whoever wrote Acts also wrote the Gospel of Luke two volumes by one author, both addressed to a man named “Theophilus.” And since Luke is supposed to have incorporated Mark and the Q Source material into the writing of his own Gospel, and Acts was written after Luke, but before Paul’s death (A.D. 68) and the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), then Mark and Quelle must have been written by the mid 60s. The same difficulty in Luke exists with Mark, who is said to have written his gospel with Peter as his source, Peter having been martyred in Rome about the same time as Paul.
It is highly unlikely that these two obscure sources, Quelle and the Gospel of Thomas, could have been circulating throughout the Christian community and having such impact that they overshadowed what Paul was at the very same time saying about Jesus in all of his epistles.
Real church history is not kind to the Jesus Fellows at this point. The church did not first flourish in the Nile Valley and spread elsewhere. The clear pattern of expansion from both biblical and the earliest patristic writings is from Jerusalem to Antioch, Asia Minor, Greece, and finally Rome. Ironically, the earliest of the Church Fathers, Clement of Rome (ca. A.D. 30 to ca. A.D. 100) writes from Rome at the end of the first century an epistle to the Corinthians (1 Clement) which is considered to be the oldest extant letter after the writings of the Apostles. It had such stature in the early church that it was initially considered by some to be a part of the Canon. All the other early church fathers (2nd century) are scattered around in cities within the areas mentioned above, with the exception of Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150 to c. A.D. 215) who reflects some Gnostic ideas in his teachings.
The more traditional and accepted chronology for the documents under consideration is as follows:
Dating/chronology of First Century Authorship
(All dates are A.D.)
End of First Century: 100
Fall of Jerusalem: 70
Martyrdom of Paul and Peter: 68
Epistles of Paul: 45-68
Some Oral Tradition: 32-70
Crucifixion of Jesus: 32
Clement of Rome: 96
Revelation (John): 96
Epistles of John: 90-94
Gospel of John: 85-90
Acts of Apostles: 66-68
Matthew & Luke: 64-66
Gospel of Mark: 64-65
Gospel of John: 85-90
Acts of Apostles: 80-100
Gospel of Luke: 80-100
Gospel of Matthew: 80-90
Gospel of Mark: 70-80
Gospel of Thomas: 70-100
In comparing the two chronologies, it appears there simply is not enough time for the simple Jesus of history to evolve into the Christ of faith. Myths and legends need time to develop. There is none available in the first century to accommodate the Jesus Seminar’s theory.
On the basis of the Gospel of Thomas and Quelle, the Jesus Fellows believe the historical Jesus was simply a sage, a spinner of one- liners, a teller of parables, an effective preacher. This is what He was historically according to these scholars. The “high Christology” (supernatural phenomena, the messianic claims, the miracles, the substitutionary atonement, the resurrection) all came as a result of a persecuted church community which needed a more powerful God for encouragement and worship. His suffering, ardent followers are responsible for these embellishments which created the “Christ of Faith.” The real Jesus was a winsome, bright, articulate peasant, sort of like Will Rogers.
Various other portraits of Jesus have proliferated among the Jesus Fellows, suggesting that he was a religious genius, a social revolutionary, an eschatological prophet. He was all of these things, we would say, but offer that He was something more.
The Jesus Seminar assumes a “low christology” (Jesus as a peasant sage) preceded the “high christology” created later by the church. Is there anything that would suggest otherwise?
The Epistles of Paul
The Apostle Paul conducted his church-planting ministry between approximately 40 to the time of his death, A.D. 68. It was also during this time that he wrote all of his epistles. While some New Testament scholars question the authenticity of Paul’s authorship of a number of these epistles, virtually all, even the most liberal, will accept Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians as genuinely Pauline.
What kind of “Christology” do we find in these epistles? A high christology. The Jesus Seminar is asking us to believe that at the very same time the Gospel of Thomas and the Q source were alleged to have been written portraying Jesus as a wise, peasant sage, Paul was planting churches across the Mediterranean world and ascribing to Jesus the same high christology found later in the four gospels!
The Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15 clearly indicates that Paul was aware of and connected to Jerusalem and its church leadership (Peter and James). After the Council Paul and Barnabas were given the express task of taking and distributing to the churches a written document of the Council’s instructions about how Gentiles were to be incorporated into the church.
The Jesus Seminar simply chooses to ignore this mass of clear, Pauline evidence almost universally accepted by New Testament scholars. The notion that a high christology (the Gospels and the epistles) evolved from a low christology (the Gospel of Thomas, Quelle) is unsupportable.
Jesus the Sage
If we accept the Jesus Seminar notion that the historical Jesus was a simple peasant later revered and deified, with what are we left? Jesus is so stripped down that He becomes the “Christian dummy” of the first century church! The community is more brilliant than the leader! Even Renan, the French skeptic said, “It would take a Jesus to forge a Jesus.” Further, if Jesus was such a “regular guy,” why was He crucified? Crucifixion by the Romans was used only for deviants, malcontents, and political revolutionaries (like Barabbas). What did this simple peasant do to create such a stir that He would suffer such a death?
The Jesus Seminar portrayal of Jesus simply cannot explain the explosion of Christianity in the first and second centuries. With their view of Christ, they cannot create a cause monumental enough to explain the documented, historical effects that even they must accept.
1. Robert W. Funk, “The Gospel of Jesus and the Jesus of the Gospels,” The Fourth R (November/December, 1993), p. 8.
3. Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Handbook (Chicago: Moody, 1967), Matthew, 470ff (Mt), 493 (Mk), 511 (Lk), 543 (Jn), 567 (Acts).
4. Robert J. Miller, Editor. The Complete Gospels (Harper SanFrancisco, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1994). pp. 10 (Mk), 56 (Mt), 198 (Jn). Note: a date for Luke-Acts is not provided, but on the basis of the book’s date for Mark, we would assume 80 to 100 A.D.
5. James R. Edwards, “Who Do Scholars Say That I Am?” Christianity Today: March 4, 1996, p. 17.
©1996 Probe Ministries.