Elsewhere, we have dealt with the so-called Jesus Seminar (see part one). The seminar is a panel of liberal theologians who have commissioned themselves for a cut-and-paste job on the text of the New Testament. With an arrogance that is exceeded only by their ignorance (or vice versa), they purport to present a “new Jesus” to the world of contemporary religion.
Since their genesis in 1985, the seminar has been largely ignored (after an initial flury of publicity). Now, they are accelerating plans to take their message of skepticism to the “lay” stratum of the community of “Christendom.” The Westar Institute, at which the Jesus Seminar is headquartered, announced recently (in a brochure distributed in northern California) an upcoming lecture series, during which the apostle Paul will come in for his share of their historical “plastic surgery.”
For example, James A. Veitch, a professor at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, will contend: “The historical Paul is largely a Christian fiction. . . Paul was not a Pharisee and not a Jew. He wrote very little and probably made only one journey.”
Another featured speaker is to be L. Michael White, director of religious studies at the University of Texas in Austin. White will seek to show that the book of Acts is not a reliable source of historical information regarding early Christian origins. He alleges: “Acts is a document with its own agenda, presenting an idealized picture of the early church” (emphasis added).
In other words, it’s a bogus document, merely parading as factual history. It is this absurd statement that I wish to dispute in this brief article.
The truth is, Luke’s inspired narrative in the book of Acts is very objective about the problems that plagued the infant Christian community. It is amazing that these undisguised incidents should have evaded Professor White’s attention:
- The case of Ananias and Sapphira was a church scandal at the very commencement of the Christian movement. For their lying to the Spirit of God, they were struck dead—right in a church meeting—by an act of God, and the report of the episode became widely known (5:1-11).
- The Jerusalem church was further embarrassed when it was noised about that certain Grecian widows, i.e., widows of non-Palestinean-born Jews, had been neglected in the care of their needs. Both the neglect, and the “murmuring” that characterized this lapse in benevolence, were far from ideal (6:1).
- The inspired record is honest in portraying the fact that when “a great persecution” hit the Jerusalem congregation, the disciples (with the exception of the apostles) scattered throughout the region, fleeing the wrath of the Jews (8:1). Eventually, of course, the church in the holy city was enlarged again.
- The racial bias of the brethren in Jerusalem is revealed by the fact that when Peter came to the city, following the conversion of Cornelius at Caesarea (chapter ten), leading Jews “contended with him” (11:2), accusing him of fraternizing with the heathen Gentiles.
- Luke candidly mentions the fact that even after God had put his stamp of approval upon the inclusion of Gentiles into the church, some of the Jews still offered the gospel only to their lost kinsmen (11:19).
- When Peter was imprisoned in Jerusalem, and under the threat of death (following the martyrdom of James), and the church gathered to offer prayers on his behalf, Luke details their surprise (suggesting a lack of confidence in their own prayers) when the apostle appeared at Mary’s house where the group was convened (12:14-16).
- At the commencement of Acts 15, Luke details the fact that certain members of the Jerusalem church were binding circumcision as a means of salvation (v. 1), a heresy which had the implication of suggesting that the work of Jesus was profitless (Galatians 5:2).
- When the church in Antioch of Syria was troubled by these Judaizers, they sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders about this controversy—which reveals that they discounted the work that these brothers had done among the Gentiles (not requiring circumcision), and that they did not grant full weight to Paul’s apostleship (15:3).
- Acts records the heated controversy between Paul and Barnabas over whether John Mark should accompany them on the second missionary journey. So volatile was the dispute that the two great leaders separated, and, so far as the record goes, never worked together again (15:36ff). Some blunder for an historian attempting to paint an “idealized picture” by which to enhance his portrayal of Christianity!
- When Paul returned to Jerusalem at the conclusion of his third missionary journey, the Jerusalem elders, yielding to pressure from unbelieving Jews who were hostile to the Christian way, petitioned Paul to “purify” himself in the temple to placate those who were concerned about the apostle’s reputation (21:23ff). Luke subsequently describes how the plan failed anyway, resulting in Paul almost being killed, ultimately serving four years imprisonment for his efforts (cf. 24:27; 28:30).
This is what you call textual “evidence”! It is a record of the early church—“warts” and all. It is not the theological fantasy upon which the Jesus Seminar thrives.
Nothing is clearer than the fact that the devotees of the Jesus Seminar have an infidelic agenda to pursue, and historical evidence means nothing to them. Their theory of Scripture is, in the words of England’s most celebrated playwright, “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”