The Jesus Seminar – Part 1

By Wayne Jackson

Recently (June 26, 2000), ABC News presented a special two-hour television program titled, In Search of Jesus, with popular broadcaster Peter Jennings as host. While the program touted itself as an objective investigation into the nature of the Jesus of history, it was really little more than a propaganda piece for the radical assertions of the self-proclaimed Jesus Seminar.

In June and July of 1994, we addressed the modernistic claims of this irresponsible group in our print journal, Christian Courier. Due to the timeliness of this theme, we are happy to reproduce that material here.

Since 1985, a panel of liberal theologians has been meeting periodically in an attempt to determine the historicity of the New Testament. This conclave alleges that the real Jesus was not divine, that Christ spoke only a fraction of the words attributed to him in the Gospels, and that today’s New Testament does not represent the original version.

Thus, the Jesus Seminar proposes a radical reassessment of Christ and his teaching, and a redefinition of the New Testament canon (that collection of twenty-seven books that has been recognized for some nineteen centuries as the body of divinely inspired documents from the apostolic age).

This committee lusts for national prominence. John D. Crossan, co-chairman of the group, confesses that the Jesus Seminar made a “deliberate decision to play to the media.” Newsweek magazine stated that these theologians “revel in the outrage their views provoke and bask in the limelight created by their own publicity machine” (Watson 1994, 54).

Is there anyone more contemptible than he who despises the Son of God, and yet who hopes to achieve some sense of historical prominence by attacking him?

There are three aspects of the project that we will address:

First, there is the identity of Christ. Divorced from the alleged myths that the early church supposedly imposed upon him, who was the real Jesus?

Second, the Jesus Seminar proposes, with its literary surgery, to expunge from the Gospel accounts all of those sayings of the Lord which are not authentic. By what authority do they assume this role?

Third, these modernistic “scholars” will reevaluate which books really belong in the New Testament. They will remove some material and add additional writings. They will give the world a new New Testament. What justification is there for such a high-handed procedure?

The Historical Jesus

Who was Jesus Christ? The only way this question can be answered responsibly is by giving consideration to the Gospel records of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and related biblical data.

But these radicals do not accept the Gospel accounts as valid history, nor do they believe that the documents were authored by the men whose names they bear. The narratives are characterized as “pious fictions” (Funk, Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar 1993, 16). The Gospels are reputed to be a “theological proclamation.”

Supposedly, the writers of the accounts (whoever they were) searched through the “oral traditions” of the past. They then compiled these traditions to illustrate the on-going theological influence of Jesus Christ. It is the kind of thing that a modern liberal, like Paula Fredriksen, professor of ancient Christianity at Boston University, calls “excellent theology . . . terrible history” (Sheler 1993, 66).

That descriptive is a senseless contradiction. Since Christianity is a religion built on history, if its history is terrible, its theology must be equally deplorable.

According to the Jesus Seminar, Christ was an illiterate Jewish peasant who became a spellbinding preacher. They do not believe he was virgin-born; he performed no miracles (though he did have a “healing” influence in the lives of folks); he was not divine, and he did not rise from the dead following his crucifixion (though he lived on in the hearts of people). He likely was buried in a shallow grave, and his corpse may have been eaten by dogs (Watson, 53).

This surely is a new Jesus, but it is a Jesus of fanatical fantasy, not historical fact. If the Jesus of the first century had been the type of “Jesus” portrayed by these skeptics, the Jesus Seminar would never have been conceived; their Jesus would have remained as obscure as that Theudas mentioned in Acts 5:35-36. But let us analyze the reckless charges of the anti-Jesus seminar.

First, both Matthew and Luke testify to the fact of the virgin birth of Christ (foretold in Isaiah 7:14). There may even be corroboration for the narrative from a hostile source. The Jewish Talmud charges that Christ was born out of wedlock, Mary having been seduced by a man named Pandera. Dr. Bruce Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary contends:

The defamatory account of his birth seems to reflect a knowledge of the Christian tradition that Jesus was the son of the virgin Mary, the Greek word for virgin, parthenos, being distorted into the name Pandera [or Panthera] (1965, 76).

The Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner has conceded this point as well (1925, 23-24).

Moreover, Luke’s testimony ought to be particularly compelling since he was a physician (Colossians 4:14); he would be very unlikely to argue for a virgin birth without the strongest sort of evidence that such an event actually occurred.

Second, Jesus was not illiterate. His contemporaries were amazed at his brilliant instruction (cf. Matthew 7:28-29). After the Lord had taught in Jerusalem, some six months before his death, the Jews marveled, saying, “How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?” (John 7:15).

B. F. Westcott has shown that the meaning of this passage is this: though Christ had “never studied in one of the great schools” of that age, he demonstrated that he was “familiar with the literary methods of the time, which were supposed to be confined to the scholars of the popular teachers” (1981, 118).

Does it not seem strange that the teaching of this “illiterate” peasant has profoundly influenced some of the most brilliant people in the world for twenty centuries?

Third, there is unequivocal testimony in the New Testament that Jesus performed miracles (nearly forty specific signs are catalogued). In Mark’s Gospel, out of a total of 661 verses, 209 passages (32%) deal with miracles. Even Christ’s enemies perceived that he was performing signs that needed some sort of explanation (cf. Matthew 12:24; 27:42; John 11:47).

Additionally, there is evidence of Christ’s supernatural works from opposition sources. The Jewish Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a) charged that Jesus “practiced magic,” an accusation which Celsus, a noted enemy of Christianity, later repeated (Origen, Contra Celsum i.38). The Jewish historian Josephus stated that Christ “was a doer of marvelous deeds” (Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3).

The miracles of Christ are not rejected by modernists due to a lack of credible evidence; rather, the repudiation results from a rationalistic prejudice against the possibility of supernatural phenomena. In sentiment, it is atheistic.

Fourth, it is a blasphemous falsehood which asserts that Jesus Christ was “no more the child of God than anyone else.” The only evidence that one has upon which to make a judgment regarding the nature of Christ is the biblical record. If that testimony is not accepted, then no opinion at all can be ventured.

The fact is, the Old Testament prophets foretold his divine nature (Isaiah 9:6; 40:3; Micah 5:2); God himself testified concerning the identity of his beloved Son (Matthew 3:17; 17:5); Jesus personally declared that he was the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One (Mark 14:61-62); those who were companions of the Lord acknowledged his deity (Matthew 16:16; John 20:28), and even some of his most bitter enemies ultimately confessed the truth of the Savior’s divine status (Matthew 27:4, 54). There is even ancient pagan testimony to the fact that the primitive Christians worshipped “Christ as a god” (Epistle of Pliny to Trajan X, xcvi). Who are these modem detractors, twenty centuries removed from the actual circumstances, who dispute with those who shed blood in defense of their knowledge of the character of Jesus Christ?

Fifth, Christianity would never have survived the ravages of first-century hostilities had not the bodily resurrection of Jesus been an undeniable fact.

Simon Greenleaf, professor of law at Harvard University and a world-renowned scholar on the rules of legal evidence, declared that it was “impossible that they [the apostles] could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact” (1965, 28-30).

Thomas Arnold, professor of modern history at Oxford, contended that there is “no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort” than the fact that “Christ died and rose from the dead” (Smith 1945, 426).

There is even some archaeological evidence which hints of the resurrection of Christ. A stone slab, believed to have been set up in Nazareth ca. A.D. 50 (hence known as the Nazareth Decree), was brought to Paris in 1878. The Greek text it contains prohibits, under the penalty of death, the unauthorized removal of bodies from their tombs.

Presumably, the injunction was commissioned by Claudius Caesar, who was attempting to inoculate against the commencement of other religions that might claim that their founder was raised from the dead, when in reality the body had been removed from the tomb (cf. Matthew 28:13). One scholar suggests that this is likely “the first secular comment on the Easter story, and legal testimony to its central fact” (Blaiklock 1975, 392).

The evidence for Christ’s resurrection is overwhelming. And the baseless theory that his corpse was consumed by dogs is but another admission that the body is missing!

The Words of Christ

The participants of the Jesus Seminar charge that eighty-two percent of the teaching attributed to Christ in the four Gospel accounts is not genuine (Funk, Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, 5). In their sessions, therefore, these ladies and gentlemen have determined to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, and so present to society the actual words of the Lord.

In this procedure they employ a color-coded system, as they vote on what Christ truly may, or may not, have said. If a saying is perceived as undoubtedly genuine, the passage is set in red type. If the words are probably those of Jesus, the color pink is used. Gray is employed for sayings that the Lord likely did not utter, though the ideas may have been close to his. Finally, black is used to indicate those things which are foreign to both the thoughts and words of Jesus, as perceived by these exorcists. Their conclusions have been set forth in a book titled, The Five Gospels – The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar.

How has the Jesus Seminar arrived at these conclusions? One thing is certain, these critics have wholly abandoned the established principles of textual identification and have invented a “Jesus” of their own delusion.

Textual criticism is the science of restoring, as nearly as possible, the original text of the Bible. In the case of the New Testament, the evidence is derived principally from three combined sources: ancient Greek manuscripts, early versions (translations from Greek into other languages), and quotations from the “church fathers.”

There are more than five thousand Greek manuscripts (in part or whole) which are used as a basis for determining the New Testament. In addition, there are approximately ten thousand versions (translations) of the New Testament in ancient languages. Finally, the quotations in the writings of the Greek and Latin “fathers” are so extensive “that the N.T. could virtually be reconstructed from this source alone” (Greenlee 1975, 707).

Even a century ago, Westcott and Hort could state that the New Testament text has been so reliably preserved that only about 1/1000th of it is in question, and even this portion deals with matters that are doctrinally insignificant. The disputed portion would amount to about one half of one page of the Greek Testament (Thiessen 1955, 77).

By way of contrast, in each of William Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays (produced less than four centuries ago) there are probably some one hundred readings still in dispute, a large number of which materially affect the sense of the passages (Hastings 1890, 13).

It is reckless abandon of the highest degree to virtually ignore these textual sources and principles, and attempt to fashion a new record of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ out of motives that are strictly rationalistic.

But what are the determining criteria employed by the seminar for judging the genuineness of the Savior’s words? The process described by them is lengthy and tedious, not to mention arbitrary and confusing. We will merely call attention to some of the principles they utilize.

First, there is a repudiation of the concept of the miraculous. Anything in the Gospels that is supernatural is not history. The seminar applauds David F. Strauss for pioneering this concept (Funk, Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, 3). This is bigoted rationalism at its worst. Again, it exudes the spirit of atheism.

Second, and similar to the above, predictive prophecy is assumed to be impossible. Accordingly, anything in the Gospel records that portrays Jesus as predicting a future event (e.g., the destruction of Jerusalem; cf. Matthew 23:37-38) is given the blackout treatment (Ibid., 25).

Third, the panel rejects the notion that the New Testament is inspired of God. Here is an example of their reasoning: if the Gospels are inspired, they ask, why are there different views of Christ? (Ibid., 5-6). But surely the inspired writers could emphasize different aspects of the life and teaching of the Lord with no necessary inherent conflict.

Are the Gospel writers responsible for the inaccurate modern assessments of their productions? Such logic! The New Testament, to the Jesus Seminar, is thus simply a collection of ancient literary fragments. “Canonical boundaries are irrelevant,” they assert (Ibid., 35), meaning that non-biblical sources are as valid as biblical sources (from their vantage point) in determining what Jesus actually said.

In fact, they plainly contend that the sayings of the non-inspired Gospel of Thomas represent a “‘control group’ for an analysis of sayings and parables that appear in the other gospels” (Ibid., 15).

Fourth, the Jesus Seminar entertained a preconceived concept of what their “Jesus” ought to be, and whatever does not conform to that is excised from the divine record. For example, it is alleged that Christ was a “laconic [easygoing, slow-speaking] sage” of the first century, and sages of this nature do not “provoke encounters”—“The miracle worker does not hang out a shingle and advertise his services” (Ibid., 32). Since, then, the Christ of the Gospels is portrayed as being antagonistic to the Jewish leaders, and as one who performed miracles before the multitudes, etc., he cannot be the real Jesus.

And so the Lord that Christians have come to love—the miracle-working, confrontational Christ—must be deleted from the biblical narratives. This is sheer subjectivism, runs counter to valid textual evidence, and is less-than-worthless speculation!

Fifth, these theorists divide the sources (both Gospel accounts, imagined sources, and non-canonical works like the Gospel of Thomas) into chronological strata. (For example, Mark is early, Matthew and Luke come later, and John is last of all, etc.) Older sayings and sayings that are found in greater frequency and in different sources are assumed to be more authentic. But:

(1) It is illogical to assume that Matthew’s record is more authentic than John’s just because the former may have been produced thirty-five or forty years before the latter if both Matthew and John were inspired by the Spirit of God. The rationalistic concept is based upon the assumption of non-inspiration.

(2) As Professor N. T. Wright of Oxford University has observed, “[W]hy should a saying or parable be less likely to be authentic if we have only one version of it” (1993, 25).

Besides, if their rule is true, why is the parable of the good Samaritan considered authentic (it is found only in Luke’s Gospel), while the words of Jesus in connection with the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (found in all four Gospel records) are assumed to be those of a later “storyteller.” It is a poor rule that flip-flops at the sight of a miracle!

Sixth, some sayings are omitted because they seem to be out of chronological sequence. For example, half way through the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples they must be willing to “take up their cross” and follow him (8:34). In spite of the fact that this saying, or one similar, is found in three independent sources (cf. Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23)—which should be strong evidence of authenticity (according to the seminar’s rule; see above)—the seminar panelists reject it.

Why? Because it has “strong Christian overtones” (Funk, Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, 79). Christ had not died, the critics argue, thus it does not make sense that the real Jesus would have used the symbol of the cross at this point (Crumm 1993, 11A). So according to these cut-and-paste scholars, it must have been added by later Christian writers. This reflects woefully flawed reasoning.

In response we note:

(1) Crucifixion was a common mode of execution in the first century. It would have been perfectly natural for the Lord to have borrowed imagery from that circumstance to illustrate the persecution that was in store for his followers.

(2) Jesus gave hints of his impending crucifixion all through his ministry; compare the allusion to his death and resurrection at the very commencement thereof (John 2:19; cf. 3:14). There is no chronological awkwardness in Christ’s admonition. This seminar quibble, as with the others, is bereft of merit.

For further study on this theme, see The Jesus Seminar, Part 2.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Blaiklock, E. M. 1975. Nazareth Decree. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Vol. 4. Merrill Tenney, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Crumm, David. 1993. New Book Disputes Sayings of Jesus. Detroit Free Press, December 11.
  • Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar. 1993. The Five Gospels – What Did Jesus Really Say? New York, NY: Macmillan.
  • Greenleaf, Simon. 1965. Testimony of the Evangelists, Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Greenlee, J. H. 1975. Text and Manuscripts of the New Testament. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Vol. 5. Merrill Tenney, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Hastings, H. L. 1890. A Square Talk on the Inspiration of the Bible. Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House.
  • Klausner, Joseph. 1925. Jesus of Nazareth. London, England: Allen & Unwin.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. 1965. The New Testament – Its Background, Growth, and Content. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
  • Sheler, Jeffery L. 1993. Who Was Jesus? U.S. News & World Report, December 20.
  • Smith, Wilbur M. 1945. Therefore Stand. Boston, MA: W. A. Wilde Company.
  • Thiessen, H. C. 1955. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Watson, Russell. 1994. A Lesser Child of God. Newsweek, April 4.
  • Westcott, B. F. 1981. St. John’s Gospel. The Bible Commentary. Vol. 8. F. C. Cook, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Wright, N. T. 1993. The New, Unimproved Jesus. Christianity Today, September 13.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.