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Critics Turn Up the Heat on Jesus Seminar

The Jesus seminar is trying to create a new myth of Christian origins which leaves people free to construct their own postmodern spirituality. That spirituality has Jesus instructing his followers to “do your own thing.” The kind of thinking encouraged by the seminar is illustrated by the story of three worshippers who recently challenged their priest's homily on the multiplication of the loaves. Questioning the historical accuracy of the story, they claimed the real 'miracle' was that Jesus got the people to share their picnic meals with others.

Catholics need to be on guard against the dangers posed to their faith by the skeptical treatment of the Gospels in the Jesus Seminar, according to critics of the seminar.

Members of the Jesus Seminar are academics who are promoting their own views and taking those ideas “directly to the believer in the pew” through the secular media and by influencing clergy and educators, according to Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine which sponsored a conference that examined the impact of the seminar.

Hudson made his comments at a press briefing arranged by Crisis at the start of a Nov. 12-14 conference in New York.

The conference, titled “The Bible and the Catholic Church: Challenging the Findings of the Jesus Seminar,” is the first of a number of session to be held around the country on the same subject.

The Jesus Seminar is a group of scholars who assemble twice a year to vote on the historical accuracy of what is found in the Gospels.

Hudson said he learned of the seminar only recently when a student of his went to a program held by the Jesus Seminar in Washington, D.C., and returned uncertain how to handle the theories presented there.

“The Jesus Seminar is taking their view directly to Christians in the pew, and they're saying, 'The Jesus you know from your childhood is a myth, and you should be liberated from that,'” said Hudson. “What is up for grabs is nothing less than the authority of the Pope, canon law and the distinction between genuine doctrine and heresy.”

Founded in 1985 by Protestant theologian Robert Funk, the Jesus Seminar believes that the authentic voice of Christ has been lost in the Gospels and obscured in the memory of the early Church. The seminar members' search for the “real Jesus” has led them to conclude that only 18% of his reported sayings and 16% of his deeds are probable or definite. The rest are unlikely or false, they claim.

The seminar, which seeks to show that the traditional creeds of the Church were mistaken, releases its “findings” just before Christmas and Easter in order to catch the attention of major media.


“The seminar has never presented itself as a new church or pope,” seminar fellow Arthur Dewey told the Register A professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Dewey said the seminar has “done the work that other scholars do and uses the same criteria.”

“The only difference,” he added, “is that. we've gone through all of Jesus' deeds and words, and we've done it in a more cooperative and thoroughgoing fashion.”

Dewey further maintained that both Pope Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council taught that it is the responsibility of Catholic scholars to look at historical material objectively.

The Crisis conference, however, cited Vatican II as well: “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (Dei Verbum [The World of God], No. 10).


Speakers at the conference agreed that the problems in modern biblical scholarship go well beyond the Jesus Seminar and impact all denominations.

Although the Jesus Seminar does not include many Catholic scholars of importance, its participants' skepticism about the historical reliability of the Gospels has to some degree become part of much of Catholic scholarship and serves to undermine Church authority and doctrine, conference speakers said.

Catholic scholars who eschew public association with the Jesus Seminar but favor approaching the Bible with a similar methodology appear to be moderates because they do not go as far as the Jesus Seminar, the speakers said.

“This is being taught in Catholic seminaries,” said Msgr. Michael Wrenn, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Manhattan and sponsor of the conference.

Father Edward Brienz, a parish priest in Canton, Ohio, wondered if the resulting skepticism about Jesus' miracles hasn't contributed to the current lack of faith in his real presence in the Eucharist.

Three worshippers recently challenged a homily that Father Brienz gave on the multiplication of the loaves as being a precursor to the Eucharist “They told me they took a course at the diocesan adult education institute, where the teacher told them that the `miracle' was that Jesus got the people to share their picnic meals with others,” he told the Register.

Today's society is in just as much danger of reinventing Jesus “to suit our own ideologies,” said Father N.T. Wright an Anglican priest who is considered a leading voice against the Jesus Seminar.

A new “myth of Christian origins” is developing, said Father Wright, which “leaves people free to construct their own postmodern spirituality.” That spirituality, he said, has Jesus instructing his followers to “do your own thing.”

Father Wright, a visiting lecturer at Harvard University, urged a real historical study of Jesus, which includes new knowledge coming from recently discovered Jewish texts.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting extensively from Vatican II, teaches that the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the Gospels are one.

“We can distinguish three stages in the formation of the Gospels,” it states in No. 126.

“I. The life and teaching of Jesus. The Church holds firmly that the four Gospels, 'whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up' [Dei Verbum, No. 19, cf. Acts of the Apostles 1:1-2].

“2. The oral tradition. 'For, after the ascension of the Lord, the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done, but with that fuller understanding which they, instructed by the glorious events of Christ and enlightened by the Spirit of truth, now enjoyed' [Dei Verbum, No. 19].

“3. The written Gospels. 'The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form; others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus' [Dei Verbum, No. 19].”

Msgr. George Kelly, founder of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, said that scholars and theologians have to remember that they work at the service of the Church, and should take the attitude of St. Thomas Aquinas, who once said, “All I ever taught about the Eucharist I learned from the Church.”

“As for the Church's beginnings, it is advisable ... that anyone bold enough to interpret the 'baby records' of the Catholic community ... consult Mother Church, who was there then, and is still very much alive,” Msgr. Kelly said.

(Catholic News Service contributed to this report.)


John Burger, “Critics Turn Up the Heat on Jesus Seminar.” National Catholic Register. (December 4, 1999).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


John Burger writes for the National Catholic Register.

Copyright © 1999 National Catholic Register