The Jesus Seminar – Part 2
As noted in our previous installment, the so-called Jesus Seminar has proposed a restructuring of Christian history—principally in three areas:
First, this panel of liberal theologians has presented to contemporary society a new Jesus, whom they claim is the real Jesus. Their “Jesus” is not the virgin-born, raised-from-the-dead Son of God whom Christians serve; rather, this new Jesus was simply a first-century revolutionary preacher who significantly impacted his culture.
Second, this conclave of radicals has declared that eighty-two percent of Christ’s sayings were inventions of the early church, which Jesus actually never uttered.
Finally, this body of skeptical “scholars” intends to redefine the canonical books of the New Testament record. The first two allegations were addressed in our previous discussion. Attention is now directed to the matter of the New Testament canon.
The Jesus Seminar has begun a dramatic alteration of the documents which compose the New Testament. In an incredibly arrogant assertion, Robert Funk, head of the seminar’s Westar Institute in Sonoma, California charges that the Christian movement “hasn’t seriously examined the question of canon since the 15th century” (Sheler 1993, 75). And so, ignoring nineteen hundred years of Christian history, and pretending that conservative scholarship does not even exist, these modernists will bequeath to society a revised New Testament.
The word “canon” derives from the Greek word
kanon, which originally was a measuring reed. The term then was used to signify any sort of “rule” (cf. Galatians 6:16). Eventually, it was applied to that standard a document would be expected to meet in order to be considered inspired of God, and thus authoritative. And so, ultimately, it came to denote that collection of writings venerated as Holy Scripture in contrast to a variety of apocryphal or spurious works. Origen (ca. 185-253) spoke of the “canonized Scriptures.”
It is sometimes asserted by uninformed people that the Catholic Church, near the end of the fourth century
A.D., decided which books would constitute the New Testament. Nothing could be further from the truth. There was a recognition of the inspiration of the New Testament books as they were being produced in the first century.
For example, Paul quoted from Luke’s Gospel and acknowledged it as “scripture” (1 Timothy 5:18); similarly, Peter recognized Paul’s writings as “scripture” (2 Peter 3:15-16), even though he and his fellow-apostle had clashed over the matter of Gentile fellowship (cf. Galatians 2:11).
While it is true that in the post-apostolic age there were some disputes over the genuineness of certain New Testament documents, the pristine character of the books, undergirded by solid evidence, finally led to their universal acceptance. And so, as Thiessen notes:
[I]t is a remarkable fact that no early Church Council selected the books that should constitute the New Testament Canon. The books that we now have crushed out all rivals, not by any adventitious authority, but by their own weight and worth (1955, 25).
But what are the criteria by which the inspiration of a book is determined? In brief, these areas are involved:
The primary factor in identifying the nature of a divine book is the information that is contained within the book itself. Here are some of the elements which may, in part or in whole, be involved.
Does the book claim, or disclaim, inspiration? (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:37). Some of the apocryphal books actually disclaim inspiration (cf. the Prologue of Ecclesiasticus; see also Price 1989, 42).
Did the original recipients acknowledge that it came from an inspired person? (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13). Does it speak authoritatively? (2 Thessalonians 3:6). Is it characterized by an exalted theme? Is it honest in its dealings with both its friends and foes? Is it factually accurate in terms of history, geography, science, etc.? Does it reflect a lofty sense of morality? Is it internally consistent? Does it harmonize with other inspired writings?
By secondary evidence we mean evidence which corroborates the principles outlined above. This sort of evidence is not conclusive in and of itself, but it lends its support to the primary material.
For example, Biblical revelation is designed to transform lives (Romans 12:1-2). Does the narrative possess that kind of power? After it has been tested, debated, etc., has it won the approval of honest and reasonable people? Has it survived the test of opposition?
It has been said, “Homer must be handled with care.” The biblical documents glow brighter the more they are attacked, and the more vicious the persecution becomes (as in the present case of the Jesus Seminar assault).
As observed earlier, the Jesus Seminar wants to overturn almost two thousand years of history and revise the catalog of books contained in the New Testament. Let us consider two examples of their work in this area.
It is claimed that the book of Revelation should be removed from the canon. Does the final book of the Bible pass the test that would be expected of an inspired narrative? Yes, it does. For example:
(1) It was written by John (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8), and the early church writers (e.g., Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc.) identify this John as the Lord’s apostle. Additionally, vocabulary studies reveal similar word patterns in the book of Revelation and John’s other writings. For example the term “Word” (
logos) is used in a personal sense only in John 1:1, 14; 1 John 1:1, and in Revelation 19:13.
(2) The Book of Revelation has a very exalted theme; it proclaims the victory of God’s people over their persecutors by means of the lamb who was slain and who is now reigning (cf. 5:9-10; 6:12-17; 11:15; 12:11-12).
(3) The document speaks with authority. The author is placed in the category of a prophet (1:3, 11; 22:9), and the book is characterized by prophetic injunctions which must be obeyed (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18-19).
(4) The record is doctrinally consistent with information presented elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., the divine nature of Christ and the concept of the atoning blood of Jesus).
Too, the fact that Revelation so wonderfully complements the book of Daniel, which Jesus Christ endorsed as scripture (Matthew 24:15), also argues for its divine inspiration (cf. Daniel 7; Revelation 13).
There is thus no valid reason for the Jesus Seminar to remove the book of Revelation from the sacred canon. Their biased inclination against the possibility of prophecy is at the base of this reckless action. We must remind ourselves that there is a curse pronounced upon those who tamper with the words of this book (22:18-19).
Not only does the Jesus Seminar propose to “take away” from the words of the Bible by the removal of the book of Revelation, these renegades intend to “add to” the word of God by the inclusion of spurious works, such as the so-called Gospel of Thomas, which they have characterized as “a fifth Gospel.”
In 1945, an archaeological excavation at Nag Hammadi in central Egypt yielded a collection of thirteen papyrus codices (books) totaling over eleven hundred pages. One of these documents contains the Gospel of Thomas in the Coptic language. In this form it dates from ca.
A.D. 350. However, the original work is apparently much older since three Greek papyri from the Oxyrhynchus collection (ca.
A.D. 150) contain fragments of the narrative. It is thus believed that the original Gospel of Thomas was compiled ca.
A.D. 140, probably in Edessa, Syria.
It consists entirely of a collection of 114 “sayings of Jesus,” which are supposed to be a secret revelation which the Lord gave to the apostle Thomas. (That “secret” business ought to be a red flag within itself.) Some of these sayings repeat the words of Christ from the canonical gospel accounts. About forty of them are entirely new. Most scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas is highly tainted with the heretical philosophy known as Gnosticism (Cameron 1992, 539).
Occasionally, some very absurd language is put into the Lord’s mouth. Here is an example:
Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary (Magdalene) go out from among us, because women are not worthy of the Life.” Jesus said: “See I shall lead her, so that I will make her male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar 1993, 532; see also Yamauchi 1979, 186).
Does that even remotely resemble the dignified status that women are afforded in the New Testament?
R. K. Harrison has well noted that this apocryphal work “cannot in any sense be called a ‘fifth gospel’” (Blaiklock and Harrison 1983, 450). It is quite apparent that the so-called Gospel of Thomas has no place in the inspired canon, and history has been correct in rejecting it—the Jesus Seminar to the contrary notwithstanding.
The Jesus Seminar is not a reflection of serious and devout scholarship. How can one legitimately be called a scholar when every syllable of instruction that he or she issues is erroneous? Is a man a mechanic if he doesn’t know the first thing about an automobile engine?
This panel represents the meanderings of a group of confused theologians who have lost their faith, but who, for reasons known perhaps only to them and God, desire to cling to some remnant of religiosity. Pity their blighted souls.
For more information regarding The Jesus Seminar, see our previous article.
- Blaiklock, E. M. and R. H. Harrison. 1983. The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Cameron, Ron. 1992. Gospel of Thomas. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. David Noel Freedman, ed. New York, NY: Doubleday.
- Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. 1993. The Five Gospels – What Did Jesus Really Say? New York, NY: Macmillan.
- Price, Ira M. 1989. Apocrypha. Hastings Dictionary of the Bible. James Hastings, ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Sheler, Jeffery L. 1993. Cutting loose the holy canon. U. S. News & World Report, November 8.
- Thiessen, H. C. 1955. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Yamauchi, E. M. 1979. Apocryphal Gospels. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia – Revised. Vol. 1. G. W. Bromiley, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
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.