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"The Five Gospels:
The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus"
A New Translation and Commentary by
Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover,

Book Review by
Rich Elliott, Simon Greenleaf University

Professor Craig S. Hawkins, President
P.O. Box 10375
Santa Ana, CA 92711-0375
(909) 393-6109

"I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6 NKJV) What if Jesus never really said this? What if Jesus did not really say about 80% of what we read in the Gospels? This is what the Jesus Seminar with Robert Funk and Roy Hoover set out to answer in their book The Five Gospels: The Search for The Authentic Words of Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar, headed up by Robert Funk, (partly to counteract fundamentalist claims of an inerrant Bible) is a California-based group of seventy-four scholars from secular universities and mainline-to-liberal seminaries. This group of scholars, claiming to represent a "consensus" of the modern critical perspective on the historical Jesus, has deliberately gone out of its way to distribute the results of its deliberations to a wide audience. In 1985, the group started examining hundreds of versions of the 503 sayings attributed to Jesus, trying to peel away the theology of the New Testament and get at its historical core. The scholars reached their conclusions by studying, among other things, (besides evidence) patterns of speech characteristic of Jesus. They concluded that His style was terse, striking. He spoke in brief aphorisms and parables, not in long, organized speeches like the Sermon on the Mount.


With the blitz of media attention that the Seminar has sought and received, we must ask the question: should we take these "scholars" and their "scholarship" at face value? Craig Blomberg, of Denver Seminary states in the recently released book Jesus Under Fire:

Because The Five Gospels is the most widely publicized of recent discussions about the historical Jesus, and because work on a similar book on the deeds of Christ is also in progress, we must begin with the Jesus Seminar. Although this work repeatedly claims to reflect a consensus of modern scholars, this claim is simply false, even if one leaves all evangelical scholars to one side. Of the seventy-four "Fellows" of the Seminar, as they are called, about fourteen of them are among the leading names in the field of historical Jesus scholarship today. Roughly another twenty names are recognizable to New Testament scholars who keep abreast of their field, even if they are not as widely published. These, too, include several who have written important recent works on the ancient traditions about Jesus, particularly in various noncanonical gospels. The remaining forty, or more than half of the entire Seminar, are relative unknowns. Most have published at best two or three journal articles, while several are recent Ph. D's whose dissertations were on some theme of the gospels. For a full eighteen of the Fellows, a computer search of two comprehensive data-bases of published books and articles1 turned up no entries relevant to the New testament at all! Thirty-six of the group, almost half, have a degree from, or currently teach at one of three schools-Harvard, Claremont, and Vanderbilt, universities with some of the most liberal departments of New Testament studies anywhere. Almost all are American; European scholarship is barely represented. In short, the Jesus Seminar does not come anywhere close to reflecting an adequate cross-section of contemporary New Testament Scholars.2 These remarks are not to be taken in an ad hominem fashion, nor are they offered as a substitute for a detailed analysis and critique of the points they raise. Rather, they are meant as a response to the false but widespread perception that the ideas propagated by the Jesus Seminar represent the views of the majority of experts who are in a privileged position to know and disseminate the real facts to the public.3

The Gospels in Living Color?

The book is a collective color-coded report that attempts to answer the question: What did Jesus really say? But does it? Critics charge that the Seminar is overly fond of publicity, and some members admit to massaging their message. "There was a deliberate decision to play to the media," admits John Dominic Crossan, a professor of Biblical studies at DePaul University in Chicago and cochair of the group. "We thought the colors would be more photogenic."4 As the Seminar considered each saying, they would each vote secretly by placing a color-coded bead into a box. A red bead (after the red-letter editions of the New Testament) meant that "Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it." (p. 36). A pink bead (a weak form of red) meant "Jesus probably said something like this." A gray bead for "Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own," and finally, a black bead "Jesus did not say this." And accordingly, the scriptures in the book are color coded as such, red, pink, gray, and black. So, just how many "red letter sayings" are in the Gospel of John, for example? NONE! The entire gospel is black except for four verses: 4:43 is pink, 12:24-25, and 13:20 are gray, (pp. 412,441, and 445). Since the Gospel of John is a proclamation of the deity of Jesus Christ, it is truly sad to see a group of Bible scholars devoting so much time and energy to something they believe is only partly true. Only fifteen sayings (not counting parallels) are colored red in all of the Gospels put together. The Seminar settles for simplistic classification by majority vote, and the result is a triumph for publicity, but a tragedy for intellectual responsibility. And since when is truth established by majority vote? Rabbi Jacob Neusner, the "Rabbi who defends the Gospels," is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, the author of about 500 works (which is more than the entire collective works of the JS), and is considered one of the leading experts of Jewish history of the first centuries of the Christian era recently stated:

I think that the Jesus Seminar is a scholarly hoax in which people are pretending to know things that we cannot possibly know and no scholarly issue is settled by having scholars vote. At first I thought it was a joke, but it isn’t a joke. They really take themselves very seriously and they pretend to have informed opinions about issues that are very hard to settle. They also pretend to settle these by voting. I think that is absurd. If this isn’t a hoax then it signifies that the New Testament studies as we know them become intellectually bankrupt because they have used up all of the capital of rationality, logic and rigorous argument that sustains scholarship. You cannot give up on all of the rules and still be a going concern.5

Evidence or Theory?

In their discussion of "Rules of Written Evidence" (p. 16), they say "The evidence provided by the written gospels is hearsay evidence...none of them [gospel writers] was an ear or eyewitness of the words and events he records...because the evidence offered by the gospels is hearsay evidence, scholars must be extremely cautious in taking the data at face value." Yet when I read my Bible, I see Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:14, Luke 5:1-11, 27-28, and 6:12-16 listing Matthew, John, and Peter as followers of Jesus (see also: Luke 1:1-4, 2Peter 1:16, & 1John 1:3). John insisted on the validity of his report, he expressed assurance that he was telling the truth because he saw with his own eyes what he wrote about (John 19:35).6 This view of the Seminar "presupposes that there was no personal contact between the evangelists and Christ, and runs in the face of the external tradition of the church, that in fact, two of the four evangelists were disciples, or apostles of Christ. The greatest objection to this would be the external evidence provided for us by the earliest church fathers under the authoritative teachings of the early church; and if you are willing to jettison the external evidence then I suppose you could come to this conclusion," says Dr. David Alan Black, adjunct professor of Greek and New Testament studies at Simon Greenleaf University and Talbot School of Theology. Furthermore, the external evidence provided to us by these early church fathers, concludes that the apostle Peter was in fact the author of the "Gospel according to Mark" where Mark was simply Peters secretary.7

A Doubtful Thomas!

The work is entitled The Five Gospels. Why five and not four? It seems that the Seminar has decided to include the Gospel of Thomas - a Gnostic text, yet they offer no evidence why Thomas should be added. Written in Coptic and dating to no earlier than A.D. 400, this Gospel contains parallels to Greek fragments of an unknown document of late second-century vintage that were discovered about a hundred years ago. In other words, the document may have first been written as early as about A.D. 150, but no actual evidence permits us to push that date a century earlier as the Seminar does.8 Why the Gospel of Thomas? Why not the Gospel of Truth or the Gospel of Philip? These too are Gnostic texts and yet they were not included. In fact, the Gospel of Truth was hailed by the popular press with exorbitant claims that it was the "fifth gospel."9 This deals with the canon of the New Testament, which some Seminar members argued was not an appropriate task for them to deal with. "We are neither qualified nor commissioned to make these kinds of decisions," declared Stephen Patterson, professor of New Testament at the Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. "What constitutes scripture is a question for communities of faith to decide."10 Is this to say that the Jesus Seminar is without faith? Yet, they themselves have decided what is scripture, against all rules of evidence and logic.

Another change one will notice is the placement of the Gospel according to Mark. It is placed first in the list of gospels, followed by Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas, according to the Oxford Hypothesis, or the hypothesis of Marcan priority. Basically, this hypothesis states that Mark was one of four possible sources from which Matthew and Luke derived their Gospels. "Scholars have long speculated that Matthew and Luke made use of a similar collection of sayings in creating their gospels; that hypothetical collection has come to be known as Q." p. 474 (for the German Quelle-meaning source). The major problem with Q is that there is no evidence to support it, only conjecture and presupposition. Q simply does not exist. It is a hypothetical document existing only in the minds of men; even though numerous books (and even commentaries) are available concerning the imaginary text of Q. Funk states, "If we examine the surviving gospel records...and the hypothetical document Q...It is clear that the long monologues found in the Gospel of John were not verbatim reports of Jesus’ speeches and include reflections of the evangelist."11 (this statement is peculiar, since it clearly contradicts their earlier claim that the writers were not eye or ear witnesses). So, even though Q does not exist, it is truly amazing to see on page 15 that Q has 40 parallels to Thomas. As one scholar has most aptly stated "Q is what you make of it." William F. Albright, this century’s foremost biblical archeologist, rightly observed the implausibility of supposing the assorted pre-Gospel traditions to have been edited into a homogeneous document such as the fictitious "Q" source frequently cited by the JS."12 For a better understanding of the Oxford Hypothesis and Q see Scot McKnight’s chapter on "Source Criticism" in New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, edited by D.A. Black & D.S. Dockery, Zondervan 1991.13

Foundations of Fallacy

In reviewing this book I have found three major flaws of reasoning (among others) on which it is founded: The first is that of the a priori presuppositions ( i.e. deductive logic that draws its conclusions before, or prior to, examination), or subjective speculations that the Seminar used to derive their conclusions. They used a process of elimination that assumed that gospel writers and editors built on Jesus’ quotations, putting words in His mouth to reflect their own beliefs about Him.14 Yet the result of the book is just the opposite. They remove words from Jesus’ mouth based upon their own subjective beliefs, i.e., "The Jesus I believe in would not condemn anyone to hell, therefore Jesus never said anything about hell." Accordingly, one will not find any sayings about hell that are red-letter. Instead, all references to hell (and all other controversial sayings) are all marked in black. They offer absolutely no objective evidence (manuscripts, quotations from church fathers, or archaeology) to support their conjecture.

Secondly, the Seminar attempts to justify their lack of evidence by an inappropriate appeal to authority viz. (argumentum ad verecundiam) i.e., "Accept this because some authority said it." But, as we all know, ‘authorities’ can be wrong, and often are. Furthermore, there are conflicting authorities. Which one should we accept?15 On pages' 538-540 are a list of "Suggestions for Further Study," of the 24 books listed, 10 are from Polebridge Press where Funk is president. Another four are by Seminar Fellows. Where is an opposing view? In a publicity newsletter from Macmillan, a Fellow of the Seminar is quoted as saying "The Five Gospels is a red-letter (more like a gray and black, pardon the pun) day for the ethics of scholarship, for the moral demands that scholars of the Bible state clearly, openly, and honestly what are their sources..."16 One must then ask the question after reading this book, what are their sources? The sheer lack of evidence or any other references seems to suggest that the sources are themselves, the Seminar.

Thirdly is the informal fallacy of Faulty Analogy. This fallacy deals with the misuse of analogies in logical argument, these analogies are good only when there are strong similarities and only nonessential differences between the things being compared.17 Yet there are strong dissimilarities and essential differences in the comparison of Thomas to the Gospels, and also the methods employed by the Seminar which goes against all honest investigations and research. It appears that they use this faulty reasoning to support their addition of the Gospel of Thomas as the fifth gospel. Page 501 states, "Thomas is rooted in the Jewish wisdom tradition..." this statement is simply not true. It is a type of wisdom literature only in a sense of it’s genre,18 it would be like saying, ‘The book of Mormon is a religious book and the Bible is a religious book, therefore they should both be accepted equally as religious works.’ Even a cursory comparison of Thomas to the Gospels will bear out this fallacy. Consider Thomas 114:1-3 for example; Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven." p. 532.


The Five Gospels is a commentary, and as such is the opinion of the author(s) and nothing more. Does it contain truths that have been suppressed by a "fundamentalist mentality...that made honest scholarly judgments dangerous?" p. 1, I think not. Does it contain any truth based on the available evidence. No! Was the Seminar’s "venture in faith" nothing more than a publicity stunt? Jacob Neusner stated: "It’s a success in a public relations venture. It isn’t success in a quest of truth. I don’t think this is intellectual success but you can raise a lot of money this way. However, publicity is not the same thing as truth."19 Personally I find most irritating the repeated assertions that the Seminar represents what critical scholarship concludes. At best, however, the seminar represents the views of some, but by no means all, critical scholars.20 The content of this book rings true to the relativistic society in which we live, e.g. the one who yells the loudest (with the help of the media) is somehow able to make their opinion become fact.

This book does to Jesus and His sayings what David Hume did to the miracles of the Bible21,22- it defines them out of existence without any evidence to back up their presuppositional assumptions. On page ix they state, It [the Five Gospels] answers the question "What did Jesus really say?" But does it? Again, I think not! But, decide for yourself, if you can ignore the a priori presuppositions, faulty logic, contradictions, and absolute lack of evidence that the Seminar uses to come to their conclusions, one might be swayed by their views. I wish I had as much faith in Christ as they do in themselves. In closing, I restate their sentence from page 16; ‘Because the significant lack of evidence offered by this book is fallacious hearsay assumptions, readers must be extremely cautious in taking this book at face value.’

Beware! The emperor has no clothes!

What does this mean to you as a Christian? It should drive you back to "search the scriptures daily to see whether those things are so" (Acts 17:11). Be a Berean! But don’t take my word for it, do your own homework, and "study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15). You must ask yourself the question: am I going to believe a group of "scholars" that have been around since 1985, and have basically revived and re-packaged the old dead works of David Friedrich Strauss23, or the Bible, which has withstood every attempt (including this one) to undermine and destroy it for nearly 2000 years? "The grass withers, the flower fades: but the Word of God shall stand forever" (Isa. 40:8). Remember, Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words shall not pass away"(Matt. 24:35, Mark 13:31)

What does this mean to you if you are not a Christian? It should encourage you to consider the claims of Christ and Christianity; which is the only belief that utilizes intelligence as well as faith, and not a blind faith, but a reasonable and logical faith, a faith founded on fact! It is the only belief that has the evidence to support it’s reasonable claims. Jesus Christ is the only religious figure in world history that claimed to be God and proved it! This is not meant to sound elitist, but there can only be one truth; the rest are lies. Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

Bibliography and Notes

1. Blomberg, Craig L. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, Edited by J.P. Moreland and M.J. Wilkins. Zondervan, 1995, p. 45, endnote no. 5. Specifically, the January 1993 CD-ROM of the American Theological Library Association, which indexes all articles in journals or multiauthor works listed in Religion Indexes One and Two, two standard indexes of articles in the field; and the April 1994 edition of the On-Line Computer Library Center, the comprehensive database of books available for interlibrary loan in North America, including all major theological libraries.

2. Blomberg, Jesus Under Fire. p. 45, endnote no. 6. Far more representative is the new anthology of essays: Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans, eds., Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research (Leiden: Brill, 1994).

3. Blomberg, Jesus Under Fire, Ch. 1 "Where do we Start Studying Jesus?", pp. 19-20.

4. Woodward, Kenneth L The Death of Jesus, Newsweek 4/4/94

5. Neusner, Jacob, The Rabbi Who Defends the Gospels, 30 DAYS No.1 - 1994 pp.45-49.

6. Thomas, Robert, Did the Jesus Seminar Draw from Faulty Assumptions? The Los Angeles Times, Saturday, April 13, 1991 p. F18.

7. For a list of these early patristic quotations, please see attached list following this bibliography, provided by Dr. D.A. Black.

8. Helmbold, Andrew K. The Nag Hammadi Gnostic Texts and the Bible, Baker Book House, 1967, p. 38.

9. Sheler, Jeffery L. Cutting Loose the Holy Canon, U.S. News & World Report 11/8/93.

10. Funk, Robert W. Commentary: How Should the Jesus Seminar’s Conclusions Be Viewed? Los Angeles Times 4/6/91 p. F18.

11. Thomas, Robert. op cit.

12. Black, D.A., &. Dockery, D.S. New Testament Criticism & Interpretation, Zondervan, 1991, pp. 137-172.

13. Crumm, David. Bible isn’t Jesus’ gospel truth, scholars say, The Orange County Register, Sunday, Dec. 12, 1993.

14. Geisler, N.L. & Brooks, R.M. Come Let Us Reason- An Introduction to Logical Thinking, Baker, 1990, p. 98.

15. Crossan, John Dominic News from Macmillan, publication newsletter, Macmillan, 1993.

16. Geisler & Brooks, Come Let Us reason, Baker, p. 109.

17. Hawkins, Craig. Live radio broadcast, KBRT Radio, 3/7/94.

18. Neusner, J. op cit.

19. Black, D.A. & Dockery, D.S. op. cit. from Ch. 3 The New Testament, History, and the Historical-Critical Method, by D. A. Hagner, p. 94.

20. Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975; reprinted 1777 edition.

21, 22. Beckwith, Francis J. David Hume’s Argument Against Miracles A Critical Analysis, University Press of America, 1990. This is the book I would recommend as the best logical refutation of David Hume's views on miracles.

23. Strauss, David Friedrich The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Edited with an Introduction by P.C. Hodgson. London SCM Press, 1970; reprinted 1835 edition. A work of rare but misguided genius. Strauss’s extreme views have all been refuted. This work is of value primarily for the sources Strauss cites. His opinions reflect his radical theology.

Revision Date: 6/8/00
Copyright ©2000 Craig S. Hawkins. All Rights Reserved.

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