THE JESUS SEMINAR AND RADICAL HIGHER CRITICISM
Apologetics Seminar, June 22-24, 2007
The Jesus Seminar was founded in 1985 by Robert W. Funk “under the auspices” and as one of the projects of Funk’s Westar Institute in Sonoma, California. The agenda of the Seminar was “to discover and report a scholarly consensus on the historical authenticity of the sayings and events attributed to Jesus in the gospel”. The Seminar set itself up as a venue to educate the public (through the media) to help the “modern inquirer learn the difference between the imagined world and the ‘real world’ of human experience”. The Seminar states:
To know the truth about Jesus, the real Jesus, one had to find the Jesus of history. The refuge offered by the cloistered precincts of faith gradually became a battered and beleaguered position. In the wake of the Enlightenment, biblical scholars rose to the challenge and launched a tumultuous search for the Jesus behind the Christian façade of the Christ.
The Seminar’s findings on the authentic sayings and events of the real Jesus are found in two publications. The authentic sayings of Jesus are found in Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus and the authentic acts of the real Jesus are found in Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus.
The scholars (called “fellows” by the Seminar) involved in the Seminar number about 200 (of these, those who actually wrote papers, met regularly, and voted on decisions numbered “closer to forty”). They obtained their doctorates mostly from liberal graduate schools that practice “the sort of methodological and ideological stances reflected in the Jesus Seminar.” As such the “fellows by no means represent the cream of New Testament scholarship in this country” or in the world. As such, it cannot be said that they represent the general stance of critical New Testament scholarship today.
The Jesus Seminar reached the conclusion that “eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him”. Hence, only eighteen percent of the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament are authentic. How were these conclusions reached? How valid are they? To answer these questions, I will focus on and analyze the Seminar’s methodology, assumptions, and conclusions reached specifically with regard to the authentic words of Jesus. I will attempt to (1) establish the major assumptions and worldview of the Seminar, (2) show that the Seminar’s conclusions are based on questionable and dubious presuppositions (assumptions which predetermine its own conclusions), (3) that Gospel of Thomas should not be used as an independent source in search for the historical Jesus, (4) that the Jesus Seminar as a child of the Enlightenment is wrapped in some postmodern garb (possibly for the purpose of its acceptance by the public) and, as such, the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar do not merit being embraced.
II. Jesus Seminar Procedure.
After applying its methodology for studying the authentic words of Jesus (which will be discussed later in this paper) the participating Jesus Seminar Fellows voted on the authenticity of each word the NT Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas ascribe to Jesus. Each Fellow would vote on the word’s authenticity with a colored bead. The four colors were red, pink, gray, and black. The representative colors were chosen from the following options:
Red: Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.
Pink: Jesus probably said something like this.
Gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.
Black: Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or
Red: I would include this item unequivocally in the database for determining who
Pink: I would include this item with reservations (or modifications) in the
Gray: I would not include this item in the database, but I might make use of
some of the content in determining who Jesus was.
Black: I would not include this item in the primary database.
Or unofficially the following
Red: That’s Jesus!
Pink: Sure sounds like Jesus.
Gray: Well, maybe.
Black: There’s been some mistake.
The final ranking was determined by a “weighted average”. Red was given 3 points, pink 2 points, gray 1 point, and black 0 points. The points were added up from all the votes and then divided by the number votes and converted to a percentage vote based on a 1 point scale. The following scale resulted:
Red: .7501 and up.
III. Jesus Seminar Historical and Worldview Roots.
A. The Three Quests for the Historical Jesus and the Jesus Seminar
Historically, the Jesus Seminar is one of many quests scholars and others
have launched for the historical Jesus since the Enlightenment. The First Quest
began with Hermann Samuel Reimarus’ (1694-1798) posthumously published
Fragments by an Anonymous Writer (1778) spurred on with D. F. Strauss’
Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835). Coming out of the Enlightenment period
and its Deistic worldview these scholars created a dichotomy between the Christ
of Faith (i.e., the supernatural Jesus) and the historical (non-supernatural) Jesus of
Nazareth. Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906) along
with William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret in Mark (1901) mark the end point of
the First Quest. Schweitzer saw a thoroughly eschatological Jesus in the gospels
depicting a Jesus who proclaimed the kingdom of God but died disappointedly
when that eschatological kingdom did not come. Hence Jesus was a Jewish
apocalyptic prophet. Wrede, on the other hand, was a thorough-going skeptic
claiming that we can know very little at all about the historical Jesus. To him
Jesus was only a “Galilean teacher or prophet who did some striking things and
was eventually executed”.
Between the First and Second Quest there was a period of “no quest”. Scholars such as Bultmann and Barth during this period focused on the Christ of Faith and did little in the area of looking for an historical Jesus. They were content to allow this gulf created by Strauss and Reimarus to remain in place. Questing for the historical Jesus was unimportant and this Jesus was not necessary to faith.
Not all scholars agreed with Bultmann and Barth and felt that finding the historical Jesus was important. As a result, the Second Quest began with Bultmann’s pupil Ernst Kasemann in 1953. He proposed a “new quest” for the historical Jesus. He felt that Bultmann had gone too far in claiming that history and the historical Jesus had nothing to do with faith. However, this quest added very little more to the historical Jesus as it continued in the tradition of the first quest and did not “escape from the constraining shackles of form- and tradition-criticism,” which was “mainly designed to discover the early church, not Jesus himself”.
The Third Quest, which began around 1980 and continues today, “advanced plausible arguments for accepting the historical reliability of substantial portions of Matthew, Mark and Luke”. Though the Third Quest attempts to “do history seriously” by placing “Jesus squarely within the matrix of first-century Judaism and by a relatively positive approach to the historicity of the gospels”, it still falls short of the historical reliability held by evangelicals and orthodox theologians as it does not affirm Jesus as “wholly man and wholly God, at least not on the basis of historical research”.
It is in the post-Bultmannain tradition and the New Quest milieu (with some First Quest elements) that the Jesus’ Seminar finds its bearings as it continues the “generally negative historical judgments that typified both the first and second ‘quest’”. While some have classified the Jesus Seminar as a radical element of the “left-running tributary of historical Jesus research” of the Third Quest, it seems, in my judgment, with Wright, to be more a “revived” New or Second Quest.
These three quests have created seemingly as many different Jesuses as there are Jesus scholars. With respect to the New or Second Quest, there are three dominant views of Jesus. These are “Jesus the Social Revolutionary,” “Jesus the Religious Genius,” and “Jesus the Sage.” This last view of Jesus as merely a religious sage is the view of the Jesus Seminar. He is one who merely told parables, offered memorable one-liner pithy statements, spoke wise countercultural sayings, and taught about God not about himself, his death or his resurrection.
B. The Jesus Seminar Worldview Roots.
The Jesus Seminar traces its worldview roots back to that of the
Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar
Historical knowledge became an indispensable part of the modern
world’s basic “reality toolkit.” Apart from this instrument, the modern
inquirer could not learn the difference between an imagined world and
“the real world” of human experience. To know the truth about Jesus, the
real Jesus, one had to find the Jesus of history. The refuge offered by the
cloistered precincts of faith gradually became a battered and beleaguered
position. In the wake of the Enlightenment, the dawn of the Age of
Reason, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, biblical scholars rose
to the challenge and launched a tumultuous search for the Jesus behind the
Christian façade of the Christ. (Emphases mine).
Basically the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason espoused a Deistic
worldview. This worldview posits a clockwork universe which God initially
created as the First Cause and then left it to run on its own under natural law
without ever any supernatural transcendent intervention on his part. In essence
the world is a closed system of uniformity of cause and effect. Hence, no
miracles or supernatural events or actions or predictive words are possible. The
terms “real” and “history” (as emphasized above) take on a meaning which
excludes the supernatural. Out of these roots, the Jesus Seminar progresses and operates from a naturalistic worldview perspective toward its goal of freeing society and critical biblical scholarship from the “encrustations of Christian doctrine”, domination by the church, and the “worldview reflected in the Bible”. Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar unequivocally state,
The Christ of creed and dogma, who had been firmly in place in the
Middle Ages, can no longer command the assent of those who have seen
the heavens through Galileo’s telescope. The old deities and demons were
swept from the skies by that remarkable glass. Copernicus, Kepler, and
Galileo have dismantled the mythological abodes of the gods and Satan,
and bequeathed us secular heavens (emphasis mine).
As a result, the supernatural (i.e., the Biblical God, or any other god for that
matter) is locked out of the picture by this a priori stance of the Seminar and all
knowledge and truth is confined to “the test of close and repeated observation”.
Everything therefore that Jesus said and did must of necessity pass through this
presuppositional scientific naturalistic sieve. Events such as Jesus walking on the
water, his transfiguration, the miraculous catches of fish in the Gospels, his
resurrection and resurrection appearances are, and could only be, non-historical.
They are all “fiction” and “myths.” Jesus’ sayings are also scrutinized by this
worldview. Funk and Hoover state, for example,
Whenever scholars detect detailed knowledge of postmortem events in sayings and parables attributed to Jesus, they are inclined to the view that the formulation of such sayings took place after the fact.
Hence, no supernatural event or predictive words can be historical or authentic in
the embracing of this naturalistic worldview.
IV. Major Jesus’ Seminar Presuppositions and Methodology and My Critique.
A. Naturalistic Worldview
As a result of the Seminar’s anti-supernatural worldview, (as noted above)
many of its conclusions are predetermined from the start of the enterprise. The
terms “historical” and “real” in the Jesus Seminar’s quest for the historical Jesus
have been loaded with philosophical presuppositions which exclude the
supernatural as a viable part of “reality” and real “history”. Hence, if the real
Jesus was supernatural and was incarnational, the Seminar would be unable to
find Him, the one who would then be the actual “real” Jesus. Since there are well
documented contemporary works on the validity of having an openness to the
supernatural, this narrow Jesus’ Seminar worldview mindset and procedure and
thus the validity of its conclusions must be seriously questioned.
B. The Fracture of the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History.
In the milieu of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, Reimarus and
Strauss initiated and secured the separation of the Christ of Faith from the Jesus
of history in the modern liberal biblical mindset. The Historical non-supernatural
Jesus of the first century is said to have been clothed with supernatural character
by the early church. Hence, the Seminar can say that “the authors of traditional
Christian faith are Peter and Paul”. Basically the disciples and the early church
wanted to see Jesus as supernatural and so created him as such. Funk and Hoover
The church appears to smother the historical Jesus by superimposing this
heavenly figure on him in the creed: Jesus is displaced by the Christ, as
the so-called Apostle’s Creed makes evident.
Sayings attributed to Jesus by gospel writers are questioned as well as
supernatural events in the life of Jesus. With respect to this, for instance, the Jesus
Seminar scholars voted to color Jesus’ words in Mark 13:9-20 black because they
felt these words concerning the destruction of Jerusalem were “inspired by the
Roman event” and that Jesus’ sayings in verses 9-13
. . . all reflect detailed knowledge of events that took place—or ideas that
were current—after Jesus’ death; trials and persecutions of Jesus’
followers, the call to preach the gospel to all nations, advice to offer
spontaneous testimony, and the prediction that families would turn against
one another are features of later Christian existence, not of events in
Galilee or Jerusalem during Jesus’ lifetime . . . Fellows were almost
unanimous in their judgment that none of these sayings was based on
anything Jesus himself said.
Hence, to create a supernatural Jesus, words of prophecy were assumed to have
been placed on his lips after they occurred in history.
This presupposition is propelled by the naturalistic worldview of the
Seminar which of necessity demands a non-supernatural explanation of the
supernatural events recorded in the gospels. The record of the supernatural Christ
came from somewhere and for the Jesus Seminar this Christ of faith came from
early Christians. Funk and Hoover state,
. . . the gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of
Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church’s faith in
him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story
for the first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle
workers firsthand (emphasis mine).
This assumption of the church creating the Christ of Faith permeates the
work of the Jesus Seminar and is one of their main pillars of scholarly wisdom
guiding its results. Without it, many of the Jesus Seminar rules for determining the authentic sayings of Jesus fall by the wayside. These could include the following:
1. Evangelists frequently group sayings and parables in clusters and
complexes that did not originate with Jesus.
2. The evangelists frequently relocate sayings and parables or invent new
narrative contexts for them.
3. The evangelists frequently expand sayings or parables, or provide them
with an interpretive overlay or comment.
4. The evangelists often revise or edit sayings to make them conform to
their own individual language, style, or viewpoint.
5. The evangelists frequently attribute their own statements to Jesus
6. Hard sayings are frequently softened in the process of transmission to
adapt them to the conditions of daily living.
7. Variations in difficult sayings often betray the struggle of the early
Christian community to interpret or adapt sayings to its own
8. Words borrowed from the fund of common lore or Greek scriptures are
often put on the lips of Jesus.
9. Sayings and parables expressed in “Christian” language are the creation
of the evangelists or their Christian predecessors.
11. The Christian community develops apologetic statements to defend its
claims and sometimes attributes such statements to Jesus.
12. Sayings and narratives that reflect knowledge of events that took place
after Jesus’ death are the creation of the evangelists or the oral
tradition before them.
As one might imagine, the application of these rules based on the
assumption that the early church created the Christ of faith of the gospels, would
indeed negate an enormous amount of the words attributed to him in the gospels.
This is exactly what happens in the process of the Jesus Seminar analysis of
Jesus’ authentic words.
This creation of the Christ of faith by the church is only an assumption by
modern scholars. It has no historically documentable basis. It is a construct they
have developed about the gospels and the gospels’ presentation of Jesus.
The gospels themselves, however, to the contrary, do document Jesus’
miracles including his resurrection. The miracles and especially the resurrection
of Jesus, when seen as an historical event, become the necessary and sufficient
cause for the birth and expansion of the church. A powerful experience and
conviction of Jesus’ resurrection by individuals, for example, would satisfy the
condition for the birth of Christianity. A real physical resurrection of Jesus would
be the necessary and sufficient cause. Luke Timothy Johnson makes a good
argument that a real physical resurrection of Jesus would provide
. . . some sort of powerful, transformative experience . . . to generate
the sort of movement earliest Christianity was, and to necessitate the sort
of literature the New Testament is.
On the other hand, the creation of a resurrected, glorified, and deified
Christ of faith by the early church seems implausible not only because it would
not afford that power or cause for the event of the birth and expansion of the
church, but also for other significant reasons. These other reasons include the
1. The early oral tradition testimony of Paul concerning the physical
appearances of Jesus after his death in I Cor. 15:3-5.
2. There was not enough time for embellishment of a Christ of faith in
the early church through oral tradition which is supposed to have
occurred in the gospels. The synoptic gospels were written within 25
to 30 years of Jesus. As such,
too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail
over the hard historic core of oral tradition.
3. Living eye-witnesses would have functioned as a strong control against
the development of a Christ of Faith in contrast to a mere human
Jesus of Nazareth.
4. Belief of the Jews concerning resurrection was (1) always a resurrection
at the end of the world “not a resurrection in the middle of history”
and (2) Jewish resurrection belief was always about a “general”
resurrection of people, “not the resurrection of an isolated
individual.” As such, a proclamation to Jewish people about
Jesus’ resurrection would have fallen on deaf ears and would not
have been plausible itself without some incredibly necessary and
sufficient cause. Only an actual resurrection of Jesus would seem
to be a plausible force to overcome this.
5. There is no evidence that I am aware of that the Apostles or any of the
other followers of Jesus had tendencies toward believing in, let
alone creating, Jesus’ resurrection or his divinity. Rather, the
gospels depict their amazement at what he did during his lifetime
and dumbfoundedness at his post-resurrection appearances.
6. There is no evidence that I am aware of in apostolic church fathers’
writings that give us reason to believe that the early church created
a Christ of Faith.
Hence, it would seem more believable (if one allowed for the existence of
the supernatural) that a divine Jesus and His supernatural resurrection created the
church than that the church created a divine Jesus and his resurrection. The Jesus
Seminar, shackling itself in its anti-supernatural garb, would then seem to have created a situation which is the reverse of what happened, a situation which would make their assumption and its resultant conclusions extremely implausible and unbelievable. The tables would then be turned in that it would be the Jesus Seminar who is guilty of creating its own Jesus while the church and the New
Testament testifies to the real historical Jesus. Ironically, then the Jesus Seminar
does what it cautions against when it says, “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely
congenial to you” and to “create Jesus in our own image”.
C. Jesus as a Laconic Sage
Once the above two assumptions have been used as a grid in the search for the authentic words (as well as authentic actions) of Jesus and he has been stripped of the supernatural elements that the gospels give him, the question remains, “Who is the real Jesus’ and what are his real words?” In the wake of these presuppositions, many different Jesuses have been put forth. The view that the Jesus Seminar has chosen is that Jesus is a laconic sage. This perspective of Jesus is used to form rules around which the Jesus’ Seminar determines his authentic words. Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar state that scholars “no longer labored under the tyranny of either neo-orthodoxy or an eschatological Jesus” and that there now has been a “liberation of the non-eschatological Jesus of the aphorisms and parables from Schweitzer’s eschatological Jesus”. They say that
The Jesus of the gospels is an imaginative theological construct, into
which has been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth—
traces that cry out for recognition and liberation from the firm grip of
those whose faith overpowered their memories. The search for the
authentic words of Jesus is a search for the forgotten Jesus.
Hence, the search for the authentic words of Jesus is a search for the
elements of Jesus the sage, which is presupposed to be the real Jesus. This sage is
modeled off of the “sage of the ancient Near East,” a sage that is “slow to speech,
a person of few words” one who “does not provoke encounters,” a miracle worker
who “does not hang out a shingle and advertise services”. “As a rule, the sage is
self-effacing, modest, unostentatious”. In addition, the only words of this sage
that would have survived the process of oral tradition would have been those
which were short, pithy and memorable. From these presuppositions the Jesus
Seminar set up rules to determine the true words of Jesus. The rules established
were as follows:
1. Jesus does not as a rule initiate dialogue or debate, nor does he offer to
2. Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about himself in the first
3. Jesus makes no claim to be the Anointed Messiah.
Basically, then, all the words attributed to Jesus by the gospels which
violate these rules are considered non-authentic. For example, all the “I am”
statements in John and the words of Mark 12:35-36 where Jesus initiates a
dialogue are not authentic. However, if one does not presuppose that Jesus was
merely a laconic sage, then these rules do not hold and these limitations would not be sustained.
Many scholars would dispute this assumption that Jesus was merely a
laconic sage. The most damaging argument against Jesus as a mere laconic sage
is Scot McKnight’s statement,
. . . such a Jesus would never have been crucified, would never have
drawn the fire that he did, would never have commanded the following
that he did, and would never have created a movement that still shakes the
A Jesus who was just a sage would not have been threatening to the Jewish, or for
that matter, the Roman authorities. There would seem to be no reason for him to
have been flogged and crucified (two events that the Seminar Fellows do believe
to be historical).
D. Oral Transmission of Jesus’ Words
Rules of oral tradition and transmission of Jesus’ words, as the Jesus
Seminar understands it, also feed into the criteria for Jesus’ (as laconic sage)
authentic words. The Jesus Seminar sets up the following rules of oral evidence:
1. The oral memory best retains sayings and anecdotes that
are short, provocative, memorable—and oft-repeated.
2. The most frequently recorded words of Jesus in the surviving gospels
take the form of aphorisms and parables.
3. The earliest layer of the gospel tradition is made up of single aphorisms
and parables that circulated by word of mouth prior to written
gospels (i.e. the short sayings were circulated without a context).
If the words attributed to Jesus by the gospels do not fit into these categories they
were considered inauthentic. For example, the Jesus Seminar concluded that the
words attributed to Jesus in Mark 14:48-49 are not authentic. Those words are:
Have you come out to take me with swords and clubs as though you were
apprehending a rebel? I was with you in the temple area day after day
teaching and you didn’t lift a hand against me. But the scriptures must
The reasons the Seminar stated that they rejected these words as authentic included the following:
. . . there is nothing aphoristic, or memorable, about the words attributed
to Jesus, Rather, while the words are realistic, and may accurately report
that Jesus taught openly and regularly in Jerusalem, there is no reason the
disciples would have remembered precisely these words.
Concerning oral transmission, it must be stated that what we have in the
gospels would probably not be the “precise” words of Jesus in any case since they
are probably a translation of what he spoke in Aramaic. This does not mean
however that the sayings of Jesus in the gospels are inaccurate or untrue or were
fluid and transmitted with a “story teller’s license” as asserted by The Five
Gospels. Note the Seminar’s statement:
We know that the evangelists not infrequently ascribed Christian words to
Jesus—they made him talk like a Christian, when, in fact he was only the
precursor of the movement that was to take him as its cultic hero . . . Story
tellers in every age freely invent words for characters in their stories. This
is the storyteller’s license . . . The evangelists functioned no differently
than other storytellers . . .
To the contrary! There is good evidence to believe that the Jewish culture
did function differently from other cultures and fostered a desire and techniques
to pass on oral teachings in a controlled and accurate manner. They were not
inclined in that culture to “create” sayings as asserted by the Seminar. Carson and
. . . the importance of memorization in first-century Jewish society is
undeniable, and we are justified in thinking that this provides a sufficient
basis for the careful and accurate oral transmission of gospel material.
Jewish institutions of the home, synagogue and elementary schools and
the command of scriptures such as Deut. 6:4-9 helped insure accurate remembrance of words that were considered important. Indeed, as Bock and
Reisner argue, the Jewish culture seems to be very much a “culture of memory”.
In addition, the abundance of living eyewitnesses of the time as well as Jesus’
appointing the Twelve Apostles who would have formed an authoritative circle
would have functioned as a control preserving the accuracy of Jesus’ words.
This, and the very short time element available for changes in that tradition before
the gospels were written down, would seem to forbid the evolution and creativity
assumed by the Jesus Seminar.
As a result of their positions thus far examined, Funk, Hoover, and the
Jesus Seminar, engaging the “Jesus the sage” presupposition, the oral evidence and transmission presuppositions, and the presupposition of the church creating
the Christ of Faith, can put forth statements such as the following in connection
with discounting the non-sage words of Jesus:
The Christian inclination to put its own affirmations on the lips of Jesus
. . . overrides the distant memory that Jesus did not make such claims on his own behalf . . .
. . . the early Christian community allowed its own triumphant faith to explode in confessions that were retrospectively attributed to Jesus, its authority figure. The climax of that trajectory came with the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus does little other than make claims for himself.
For that reason alone, scholars regard the Fourth Gospel as alien to the real
Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth.
Hardly any words in John’s gospel can then be from the lips of
Jesus since it presents Jesus as one who speaks about himself and attributes to
him several self-affirming “I am” statements. The synoptic Gospels also do not
escape the “sage knife,” the “oral transmission knife,” or the “Christ of Faith
church creation knife” of the Jesus Seminar either. For instance, consider the
words of Jesus in Mark 12: 35-37:
While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, "How is it that
the teachers of the law say that the Christ is the son of David? David
himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: "`The Lord said to my
Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet."
“David himself calls him `Lord.' How then can he be his son?"
Here the words of Jesus are colored black by the Seminar specifically because
Jesus is doing something a sage would not, the words do not all fit the
predetermined oral transmission rules, and the assumed Christ of faith church
creation activity is operative. The Seminar states:
When Jesus initiates a dialogue or debate, we have a good indication that
we are dealing with a secondary composition. The reason for this is
twofold: (1) In the healing stories, he does not offer to heal people; he
waits until they approach him. His approach to argument and debate were
comparable: he probably did not seek to engage his opponents, but waited
until they questioned or criticized him . . . This mode of behavior is
consonant with the view that Jesus made no claims for himself, not as a
messiah, not as a healer . . . (2) The incipient church would have been
inclined, subsequently, to represent Jesus as making pronouncements on a
variety of topics. The direct way to this end would have been to have
Jesus raise the issue himself . . . The words of Jesus in Mark 12:35-37 and
parallels are integral to the story and, because they are not short, pithy, and
memorable, they would not have circulated at one time by word of mouth
. . . The scripture text cited in his pericope is Ps. 110:1, a favorite in early
Christian christological speculation . . . Further it is difficult to think of a
plausible context for this piece of sophistry—a clever manipulation of the
data and logic for the sake of the point—during Jesus’ life.
Hence, here, Jesus words are deemed non-authentic because they
do not reflect the character of a presumed sage, they are not all short, pithy
and memorable as required by imposed oral transmission rules, and because the
Christ of faith creative church, it is assumed, probably put these words (including
the Greek Old Testament quotation) into Jesus’ mouth stemming from its desire to
give authority to its emerging Christology that it was beginning to place upon
Jesus the sage. If these three assumptions are not held however, there is very little
that reason to refuse to accept the words here written in Mark as authentic words
of Jesus. Here again, the Jesus Seminar is found to be shackled by its own presuppositions and their dissecting knife cuts out the majority of Jesus words attributed to him in the gospels.
E. Criteria of Dissimilarity.
Although not expressly stated as such, the Jesus Seminar uses the criteria
of dissimilarity to further help determine his authentic words. They state that in
order to pick out Jesus’ “distinctive voice in Galilean crowd” and “to isolate the
words of Jesus from the other voices in the gospels” the following assumptions
and rules (which might be termed “criteria of dissimilarity”) were formulated:
1. Jesus’ characteristic talk was distinctive—it can usually be
distinguished from common lore. Otherwise it is futile to search
for the authentic words of Jesus.
2. Jesus’ sayings and parables cut against the social and religious grain.
3. Jesus’ sayings and parables surprise and shock: they characteristically
call for a reversal of roles or frustrate ordinary, everyday
4. Jesus’ sayings and parables are often characterized by
exaggeration, humor, and paradox.
5. Jesus’ images are concrete and vivid, his sayings and
parables customarily metaphorical and without explicit
Once again, as with the rules previously enumerated, those gospel sayings
that do not exhibit these characteristics become suspect with regards to their
authenticity. The problem with these criteria is that, when joined with the
church’s Christ of Faith exclusionary criteria noted above which basically says
Jesus is dissimilar from the early church, Jesus becomes
a decidedly odd figure, totally detached from his cultural heritage and
ideologically estranged from the movement he is responsible for founding
. . . He becomes an eccentric if only that which makes him different is
regarded as authentic. The criterion may help us understand where Jesus’
teaching is exceptional, but it can never give us the essential Jesus.
F. The Burden of Proof Reversal for Historical Authenticity.
The Seminar has embraced a reversal of the normal historical approach
to the concept of the burden of proof. Instead of accepting the canonical gospels’
words of Jesus as true unless they can be shown to be inauthentic, the Seminar
assumes they are inauthentic up front. I.e., Jesus’ words are not true unless they
can be proven to be so through the Seminar’s own criteria. Of their procedure
being the reversal of the normal approach to history, the Seminar states:
The current assumption is more nearly the opposite and indicates how far
scholarship has come since Strauss: the gospels are now assumed to be
narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church’s faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracles first hand. Supposedly historical elements in these narratives therefore must be demonstrated to be so. The Jesus Seminar has accordingly assumed the burden of proof: the Seminar is investigating in minute detail the data preserved by the gospels and is also identifying those that have some claim to historical veracity.
The problem with this reversal is well stated by Bock, “If we were to apply such standards to other documents, whole shelves of ancient history would
have to be excluded.” The Seminar has implemented an assumed “guilty before innocent” stance, a procedure that is “against the grain” of contemporary historical and Biblical scholarship. This is all based on the Seminar’s questionable assumption that the early church created the Christ of Faith. Again dubious assumptions, approaches, and methodologies are built on dubious assumptions.
In applying all of these rules, assumptions, and criteria one can understand why Craig Evans writes an entire chapter in his book Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels entitled “Cramped Starting Points and Overly Strict Critical Methods” critiquing contemporary skeptical scholars’ study of Jesus. Starting with these (most of them highly debatable) assumptions the vision of Jesus supposedly sought by the Seminar was already predetermined. What other type of Jesus could one find but what they found? Hence the Seminar found the Jesus they wanted to find and violated their own final general rule: “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you”. As such the Seminar’s conclusions do not merit endorsement as they are skewed from the beginning.
G. The Legitimacy of the Gospel of Thomas as a Sayings Source for the
Another assumption of the Jesus Seminar is that there should be no canonical boundaries on the search for the authentic words of Jesus but that all surviving gospels should be included as sources to be considered with a cut off date of 325AD when the “orthodox party solidified its hold on the Christian tradition and other wings of the Christian movement were choked off”. The Seminar states, “Canonical boundaries are irrelevant in critical assessments of the various sources of information about Jesus.” The Seminar however only considers for evaluation the words of Jesus in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas in addition to the four traditional gospels (hence the title The Five Gospels). It does mention the Egerton Gospel, the hypothetical Q source, the hypothetical Gospel of Signs, and the Secret Gospel of Mark but does not seem pay attention to the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, or any of the several other documents that are classified as gospels. Why does the Seminar focus on just one of these, i.e., the Gospel of Thomas? The Seminar (at least in The Five Gospels) does not tell us except to say that “Present knowledge of what Jesus said rests mostly on the evidence provided by the . . . five independent sources” (meaning hypothetical Q, hypothetical L, hypothetical M, Mark and the Thomas). Funk, Hoover, and the Seminar attempt to date a “first Thomas Edition” in the first century thus making it on a par with hypothetical Q which is also largely a “sayings” Gospel void of the passion narrative. Dating Thomas early (50-60 AD) would give a second witness (with Q) to the early sayings of Jesus. There are numerous problems, however, with dating Thomas this early, something that the vast majority of scholars refuse to do. Evans outlines four of those problems arguing that these show that the Gospel of Thomas “really should not be considered an ancient source for the historical Jesus:”
1. “Thomas knows many New Testament Writings”. He quotes or alludes
to more than half the writings of the New Testament including
Mark, Luke, Matthew, John, Paul and John’s other writings
including Revelation and should be dated well into the second
century. Thomas seems to be dependant on the New Testament and
thus not to predate it.
2. “Thomas contains late Gospel material”. That is, Thomas seems to
contain material distinctive to Matthew and Luke and John and
thus parallel what some scholars consider “later traditions” not
earlier ones as would be suspected if Thomas were as early as Q.
This would mean that Thomas would seem to have been
“influenced by the New Testament Gospels, not early Jesus
tradition.” Hence Thomas would thus be composed later than the
New Testament Gospels.
3. “Thomas reflects later editing in the Gospels.” Editorial features in
Matthew and Luke are found in the Gospel of Thomas. Hence this
would suggest that Thomas drew upon these two gospels and is
later, not earlier, than them.
4. “Thomas shows familiarity with late traditions distinctive to Eastern,
Syrian Christianity.” These characteristics come from the late
second century Syrian tradition not the first century.
In addition, what seems to be telling concerning this early date is the fact that even the Seminar’s own evaluation of the Gospel of Thomas only colored three sections “red” (Thomas 54; 20:2-4; 100:2). While there were 36 (out of 114) sections colored pink (at least in part), this is a far cry from what might have expected of an early sayings gospel dated to within 20 years of Jesus life! In all probability, contrary to the Jesus Seminar, the Gospel of Thomas should not be used as an independent source in search for the historical Jesus.
V. The Jesus Seminar and Postmodernism.
The Jesus Seminar seems to be a curious combination of modernism and
and non-supernatural presuppositions. While being a child of the Enlightenment
it also wraps itself in some of the garb of postmodernism.
A. Postmodernism’s Major Characteristics and Themes
According to Daniel J. Adams post-modernism from a theological
perspective has four major characteristics and four major themes. Its four
major characteristics are:
1. Western values, culture, and assumptions of superiority are no longer to
be considered certain or desirable. Its way of understanding history
is now to be questioned, challenged, and rewritten.
2. Authoritative metanarratives (e.g., the Bible) of the past are now called
into question and a “legitimization crisis” has ensued. Good and
evil, right and wrong values of the past are now to be dethroned
and a plurality of values installed. No one particular value system
is to be allowed to be or can be “universally legitimized and
accepted.” Fragmentation of society “into special interest groups”
results. Any one attempting to impose or suggest universal truth,
such as conservative Christianity, is not to be tolerated as it is bias
3. Cultural and religious knowledge and values are no longer to be
controlled by the “intellectual and political elite”. This basically
means that (especially with the explosion of information
technologies) those who “underwent years of specialized
education and training and had to pass an examination of their
peers before they were allowed to become practitioners of their
particular specialty” no longer have control or censorship with
respect to knowledge and practice in their particular field. Hence there is created an “intellectual—and spiritual—market place”. Knowledge, authority, and values are so to speak “up for grabs”. Parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other traditional “authorities” are to be placed on the same authority level as everyone else.
4. Intentional deconstruction of traditional standards and thus traditional
understandings of authority is the call of intervention of
postmodernism. Standard texts (e.g., the Bible) are to be taken
apart and individual bits of information “extracted and separated
from each other”. Every text “at any given period of time is
conditioned by a network or web of relations that in turn affects the
meaning of that text.” Hence, as Ze’ev Levy states,
“deconstruction categorically asserts the absolute impossibility of
attributing to any text one single ultimate meaning”. Thus, the
Bible has no single ultimate meaning or authority. Rather the
“network or web of relations outside the text . . . determine the
meaning of the text and the nature of its authority”. The Bible
now can be made to mean anything one’s sociocultural situation
determines it to be.
These four characteristics result in a legitimization of unlimited pluralism of
cultures, traditions, ideas, and authority. There can be no ultimate authority, only
gods among gods.
Postmodernism’s four major themes are:
1. Classical metaphysical thought is rejected. This means that “the nature
of reality is not found in objective truth but in the
phenomenological linguistic event”. That is, “metaphysical
objectivity is replaced by sociological subjectivity.” Reality is
in the mind of the beholder which is conditioned by his own
2. The second major theme is “the rejection of human autonomy”. Each
person is considered part of a larger “sociological matrix” that
includes “history, culture, economics, religion, politics, and
philosophical worldview”. With respect to theology, it does not
come from any god in heaven but is “constructed” by the “complex
socio-cultural matrix” of each person’s life situation. Each
person along with and within its own society creates truth.
The result of these first two themes is that theology is disassociated from its traditionally objective foundation of “Scripture, creeds and confessions, and ecclesiastical tradition.” Theology now is to come from the needs of the community in its “ever changing contexts of culture and history”. Hence theology comes from perceived needs and desires instead of determining what those needs and desires should be.
3. The third theme is “praxis”. Postmodern advocates are “harsh critics”
standing up for those who feel they have been exploited and
oppressed. Basically no one should be “marginalized”.
4. The fourth major theme is “a strong anti-Enlightenment stance”. Some
postmodernists reject what they call the West’s “universal
B. The Postmodern Garb of the Jesus’ Seminar.
While the Jesus Seminar makes no claim to being influenced or to
wrapping itself in postmodern garb, and while not following postmodernism in all
its themes, it does seem to partake of that philosophy at several points. Note
1. The Jesus’ Seminar, as shown above, comes to the gospels with a
predetermined concept of who the Jesus of history must have been.
This comes out of its own radical wing of liberal theological
presuppositions formed by its own socioculturally determined
theological milieu. Nearly all the Seminar Fellows come from this
radical wing of scholarship. As a result their own Sitz Im Leben
determines their presuppositions with respect to searching
for the historical Jesus. This seems to be consistent with theme 2
above in which one’s environment creates truth.
2. The Jesus’ Seminar seems to feel justified in their own minds for using
the “grid” or set of presuppositions discussed above to find what
they call the authentic words of Jesus. This grid may stem from a
“need” of theirs to justify their own belief system and sell
it to the public. Statements such as the Fellow’s having “decided to
update and then make the legacy of two hundred years of research
and debate a matter of public record,” their intolerance of
“fundamentalists,” as well as their appeal to Galileo,
Copernicus, Kepler, Thomas Jefferson, Reimarus, and D. F. Struss
for their position, seems to make The Five Gospels an apologetic
treatise and a crying out for acceptance of their position. They have
been suppressed and marginalized too long! Truth is no longer to
be controlled by the fundamentalists or the orthodox church which
smothered the historical Jesus by “superimposing” on him the
heavenly figure of Christ. It is time for them to be given their
freedom! This is consistent with the postmodern themes 1, 2,
and 3, and characteristics 1, 2, and 3 above.
3. The Jesus Seminar sees the Christ of the Gospels as an “imaginative
theological construct” of the early church. The Seminar believes
that creation of the Christ of Faith by the early church stems from
the first century church’s desire (need) to justify Jesus’ divinity
and deal with his death. The early church therefore rewrote history
according to their own “theological construct”. Here we see the
imposition by the Jesus Seminar upon the early church of the
postmodern concepts of the rewriting history, the creation of
mental “constructs,” and theology being created out of the needs of the community. Though the Seminar is critical of the church for creating this theological construct, they somehow are blind to the fact that they have partaken of the same postmodern principles they accuse the church of using by creating their own “theological construct” of Jesus as being a mere laconic sage. This follows themes 1 and 2 above.
4. Deconstruction of the text. The Seminar’s presuppositions and
procedures deconstruct the Gospel texts which allows the Seminar
to create the Jesus they desire to find. It also undermines the
authority of the canonical gospels as the Jesus presented by those
gospels is not the real Jesus. A non-supernatural Jesus ensues, one
which would not engender a person’s submission to his lordship.
Although this deconstruction of the text and its subsequent
dethroning of Jesus as Lord, is the result of the seminar’s work
(characteristic 4 above), it must be stated that they do not
expressly admit that they embrace postmodern linguistic theory.
However, they do here support de facto, many of its principles.
5. The Seminar calls into question the metanarrative of the Bible
by questioning the historical restrictiveness of the biblical canon
by inclusion of extrabiblical texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas as
authoritative sources for the authentic words of Jesus. This follows
characteristic 2 above.
6. The fairness or non-marginalizing principle (note theme 3 above). The
Seminar chose a voting and scoring system in which each Fellow’s
vote would “count”. Note their statement:
This system seemed superior to a system that relied on
majorities or pluralities of one type or another. In a system
that made the dividing line between pink and gray a simple majority, nearly half of the Fellows would lose their vote. There would only be winners and losers. Under weighted averages, all votes would count in the averages. Black votes in particular could readily pull an average down . . . Yet this shortcoming seemed consonant with the methodological skepticism that was a working principle of the Seminar: when in sufficient doubt, leave it out.
Here we see that Fellow’s votes being left out was more important
than majority opinion and that the principle of “fairness” is used to
determine truth. This is a prevalent postmodern principle of praxis
(theme 3 above). Interestingly, this procedure worked in reverse in
some instances to invalidate the opinions of the majority of the
Fellows. For instance in Matt. 6:6a 58% of the Fellows voted that
the words “When you pray, go into a room by your self and shut
the door behind you” should be attributed to Jesus, i.e., they
voted either red or pink, but 27% did not think these words were
attributed to Jesus at all, i.e. they voted black. The result was that it
was determined that Jesus did not say this, i.e. it was determined to
be gray. Hence, even though the majority felt these words were of
Jesus, the words were not attributed to him. Truth is at the mercy
of the rule to make each Fellow’s votes count and the created
system of “graded averages!”
Luke Johnson quotes John Dominic Crossan (co-chair of the Jesus
Seminar) showing the Seminar’s postmodern garb and its “precise agenda.”
It is not (in a postmodern world) that we find once and for all who the
historical Jesus was way back then. It is that each generation and century
must redo that historical work and establish its best reconstruction, a reconstruction that will be and must be in some creative tension with its own particular needs, visions, and programs . . . it is that Jesus reconstructed in the dialogues, debates, controversies, and conclusions of contemporary scholarship that challenges faith to see and say how that is for now the Christ, the Lord, the Son of God.
According to this philosophy, each generation’s Jesus (including the one
of the Jesus Seminar) is and should be created in its own image according to its
“own particular needs, visions and programs.” Indeed it would seem that while
the Seminar embraces Enlightenment principles at its foundation, it dresses and
modifies it in postmodern garb seemingly in the hope of the public acceptance of
its view of the historical Jesus. Hence, the Seminar’s agenda seems not to
be the search for the historical Jesus (it has already a priori concluded that
through its assumptions and methodology!) as much as the search for the public’s
acceptance of the Jesus that the Seminar has already created.
The Jesus Seminar’s conclusions concerning the authentic words of Jesus are preconditioned by their own, in most cases, dubious presuppositional posture. I have shown the questionable nature of the Seminar’s naturalistic worldview, the dubious assumption that the early church created the Christ of faith in its short oral tradition period, the insufficiency of a laconic sage Jesus spawning the incredible and powerful Christian movement, the problems with the criteria of dissimilarity, the problem with the presumed untrustworthiness of the documents in the Seminar’s reversal of the burden of proof, the illegitimacy of the Gospel of Thomas as a sayings source for the historical Jesus, and the Seminar’s donning of postmodern garb in what seems to be its search for acceptance of its stance on the historical Jesus. All these presuppositions ensure the discovery of an historical Jesus created in the predetermined image of the Jesus Seminar.
For these reasons I do not believe the Seminar’s conclusions merit being embraced.
VI. Epilogue and Advance: Eristics and the Restoration of Biblical Christianity:
Finding and Experiencing the Real Jesus
Up to this point I have been engaging in apologetics, a defense of the faith. Apologetics basically defends orthodox faith against challenges by showing the weaknesses of those other challenging beliefs and philosophies. I do believe however that the Bible calls us to go beyond a defense and take the offense. The Greek word that seems to embrace this is eristics. This is an advancement of the faith not just a defense.
We have in this paper identified that Jesus is most probably not the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar as the Seminar has failed to establish its laconic sage Jesus as the real Jesus of history mainly because of its own limiting a priori presuppositions. How then do we find the real Jesus? Eristically, I would advance the following:.
A. To find the real Jesus we must reunite the Christ of Faith with the Jesus of
History. The following are good reasons for doing this:
1. Eyewitness testimony and investigation of the Gospels speak to the
Jesus of history being the Christ of faith. The author of
Luke, who supports the Christ of faith being the historical Jesus
reports his method and contact with eyewitnesses. He states
(Lk. 1:1-4, NIV):
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of
the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they
were handed down to us by those who from the first were
eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since
I myself have carefully investigated everything from the
beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly
account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that
you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke says he checked out the things “handed down” from
eyewitnesses. In addition, he “carefully investigated everything
from the beginning.” Hence, using this as an example, we can say
that early Christians were interested in “preserving reliable
history.” Not only were Christians interested in preserving this
reliable history, they also had the means to do so through oral
transmission techniques (see my discussion above on oral
tradition, pages 14-19). Luke in his gospel based on eyewitness
accounts gives us good reason to accept the testimony that the
Jesus of history is the Christ of Faith.
2. The eyewitness testimony and the historical corroboration of the oral
tradition found in the New Testament letters also unite the Christ
of Faith with the Jesus of history. This is especially true of Paul’s writings where he quotes Jesus’ words and deeds and bears witness to the trustworthiness of the oral tradition. Paul states concerning the historicity of the physical resurrection of Jesus (I Cor. 15:3-8):
For what I received I passed on to you as of first
importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the
Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the
third day according to the Scriptures, and that he
appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he
appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the
same time, most of whom are still living, though some have
fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the
apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one
John also makes an appeal for eyewitness testimony to be accepted
in I John 1:1-5 where he states:
That which was from the beginning, which we have
heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have
looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim
concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have
seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the
eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to
us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard,
so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our
fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
We write this to make our joy complete. This is the
message we have heard from him and declare to you
B. Finding Jesus the Christ.
Jesus is found not through a postmodern or Enlightenment
deconstruction of the texts of the Bible or personal constructs made by the
early church or by us today but through personal experience and
relationship with him as a living being, as Jesus the Christ (i.e., the Jesus
of history as the now living Christ). When one includes in his worldview a
supernatural view of history, Jesus’ history is allowed to continue and his
death does not lock him out of continuing history. His history did not end
with his death. It continues. The testimony of the New Testament is that
he is alive. Heb. states, “because Jesus lives forever, he has a
permanent priesthood”. The whole point of the gospels is that Jesus is no
longer dead, that he arose! The witness as to how to come to him and
experience him is that one “must believe that he exists and that he rewards
those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
This “finding” of Jesus must begin with the acceptance of the
supernatural which includes Jesus’ resurrection. If one does not accept
this, he will never come to know Jesus Christ as a living being. Even
intellectually accepting and experiencing Jesus and some of his blessings
here on earth does not indicate that one has come to know him in the
Biblical sense. The Bible teaches that there are two sides to this
relationship. One cannot just know God without God reciprocally knowing
that person. Knowing God intellectually or even physically experiencing
his blessings is not enough. God must experience that person also for that
relationship to be complete.
These two sides of the relationship are established by Gal 4:9
where Paul states, “But now that you know God--or rather are known by
God . . .” as well as Jesus’ statement in Matt. to the people who
called him “Lord, Lord,” and did many miracles in his name that he never
knew them. This knowledge of God is thus two sided. We must come to know or experience God but He must also know and experience our heart for him to know us (Deut. 8:2). The substance of this experiential knowledge of us by God is indicated in I Cor. 8:1b-3 which states,
We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but
love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does
not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God
is known by God (emphasis mine).
God knows us by us loving him. I John 5:3 expands on this love for God
by stating, “This is love for God: to obey his commands.”
A relationship with God, with the Jesus Christ of history,
necessitates the joining of the two sides of this experiential relationship.
We need to experience God and he us. We need to experience his love for
us and he needs to experience our love for him. Without both there is no
reciprocal relationship and Jesus may well say “I never knew you.”
Those of the Jesus seminar persuasion who have found only Jesus
the sage who died and then was re-created as the Christ of Faith by the
early church have not found (known) the true Jesus nor has he known
them as he is not experiencing their love for him. Rather they through their
seminar and its work destroy him by deconstructing him. Let us pray for
them and eristically urge them to experience (know) the unified person of Jesus Christ and allow that same historical Jesus Christ to experience (know) them. Then, and only then, will Jesus truly be their Lord and they his people. Let us proclaim the Jesus Christ found in the eyewitness testimony of the Apostle John who said,
Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the
flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus
is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist which you have
heard is coming and even now is already in the world. . . This is
the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ . . . He who
has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does
not have life (I Jn. 4:2b-3; 5:6a, 12, emphasis mine).
The Hebrew term yada’ in the OT (and transferred into the NT through its Septuigintal translation by ginosko) has the connotation of “experiential knowledge”. On this see my paper, “Most frequently Used Hebrew Words for Teaching and Learning and their Contribution to the Biblical Theology of Christian Education “ (2004, 31-39) under “Hebrew Words” and my article “One of the Unique Elements of True Christianity” (2004) both at http://www.denverchurchofchrist.org/?page_id=13