Standing Up For Jesus
If Will Rogers was correct that all we know is what we read in the paper, then there is much to learn about a recent challenge to the New Testament's view of Jesus. Over the last several years, a group calling itself the "Jesus Seminar" has gotten considerable press. In existence since being formed by founder Robert Funk in 1985, the Seminar's work drew increased attention with their 1993 publication of The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, a book which has been supplemented by individual volumes by various Seminar members, and augmented by the 1998 publication of The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus.
The Seminar's claims have not gone unchallenged. Michael P. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland edited a series of essays by conservative scholars which were published in 1995 in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Luke Timothy Johnson's 1996 book, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, also critiques their work. Others have also contributed to the response.
But if the Seminar's claims have not gone unchallenged, neither have they abated. In the metropolitan Atlanta area, where this writer resides, there are a number of popular bookstores, including representatives of the Barnes and Noble, Borders and Media Play chains. For several years now, a casual perusal of their shelves has revealed numerous books by Seminar members and others who espouse similar views. A visit to local popular Christian bookstores, however, leaves one with the distinct impression that the field of play concerning this issue has been surrendered; one finds almost nothing about the subject on their shelves.
Does it matter? Is this a debate which affects the faith of the so-called average Christian? Yes, for whether or not the average believer realizes it, he is part of--and often absorbs ideas from--a culture which has uncritically accepted various views which deny the fundamentals of Christian teaching, including teaching about Jesus.
In addition to wielding this general influence, proponents of such views are evangelistic. In a 1994 article summarizing the claims presented in The Five Gospels, the Star Tribune, Newspaper of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) quoted Arland Jacobs, Seminar member and pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America synod, regarding the Seminar's goal. Said Jacobs, "Since this scholarship is not widely known by the public, we'd like to make it widely known and let people think about it for themselves." He also asserts that their work is "the scholarship that's being taught in seminaries to future ministers. It's not some far-out brand of scholarship that doesn't represent a pretty wide scholarly consensus." (Martha Sawyer Allen, "'Jesus said . . .' or did he?" Star Tribune, Jan. 16, 1994; unless otherwise noted, all newspaper citations in this article are taken from the articles as they appeared in CD NewsBank, © 1994). From the other side of the country, the Arizona Republic quotes "the Rev. Culver 'Bill' Nelson of Phoenix" to the effect that the Seminar hopes to rescue people from a "worship [of] the Bible rather than God" (Kim Sue Lia Perkes, "Scholars Gather in Valley to Give Birth to New Bible - Can Expect Uproar," The Arizona Republic, Oct. 22, 1993). The Washington Post cites Seminar founder Funk's pleasure over the group's success in gaining a hearing. "Funk . . . said he senses a public interest in these documents. 'On these radio talk shows I've been doing, people have asked about [the Gospel of] Thomas'" (Gustav Niebuhr, "Disputed Texts Show More Temporal Jesus . . ." The Washington Post, Feb. 19, 1994).
To think that these claims do not affect the church is naive. The issue is not primarily whether believers will be challenged by such claims, but what such challenges imply for the church's evangelistic work. Many of the people we seek to reach are being influenced by these claims. We will not serve God as we should if we do not prepare ourselves for a capable defense of biblical truth in response. In the balance of this article and one to follow, we will offer an overview of the most significant claims made by the Jesus Seminar, respond to them by looking at the quality of the Seminar's scholarship, and present a course to be followed from the biblical text.
We begin with a review of some of the reports on the Seminar's work, many of which begin like the lead paragraph in Martha Sawyer Allen's article in the Star Tribune: "A group of scholars has decided that almost 80 percent of what Jesus is reported to have said in the gospels is an approximation or outright inaccurate telling of his sayings." Allen does not merely report the publication of The Five Gospels but also the way the Seminar worked and some of its results:
The . . . book lists words that the scholars believe Jesus said in red, words that are close approximations of what he said in pink. Gray is saved for words that may be getting far afield, and black is used for those the seminar can't accept as having been said by Jesus. This can lead to a kind of mishmash: In the Lord's Prayer, the scholars concluded that only the word 'Father' was unquestionably said by Jesus (Jan. 16, 1994).
In an article from December 1993, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that, in addition to the Lord's Prayer, "famous passages" which the Seminar rejected include:
. . . words attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper about taking bread and wine in his memory.... the first words of Psalm 22 as he hung on the cross.... [his prediction of] the end of the world or that he would return to earth in a second coming.... [and] everything in the Gospel of John, including "I am the way, and I am the truth, and I am the life. No one gets to the Father unless it is through me" (John 14:6)" (Ben L. Kaufman, "Scholars: Scripture mostly misquotes Jesus - About 20% of words accurate, study says," The Cincinnati Enquirer, Dec. 26, 1993).
The Arizona Republic reported that:
. . . the disagreement between conservative Christians and the scholars is rooted in a primary theological difference. Conservative Christians believe the canon, or accepted text, of the Bible is historical fact, while the scholars view it as a collection of early Christian books that may not be historically accurate. "Fundamentalists take their vision of the historical Jesus straight out of the canon, and that game has got to be called," said Roman Catholic theologian John Dominic Crossan of Depaul University in Chicago. "If you are operating as a historian, you have to look at all the information." . . . The Gospel of John will get a hard look. In what Funk calls the seminar's 'voice print' of Jesus, he spoke in a completely different style in John than in Matthew, Mark and Luke. "If what we have (Jesus saying) in Matthew, Mark and Luke is true, then Jesus can't be the same voice in John," Funk said" (Oct. 22, 1993).
From these illustrative statements, certain claims emerge. First, it is evident that the Seminar does not believe that the New Testament writings accurately report the events they describe. Second, as the title, The Five Gospels, suggests, members of the Seminar hold the second century gnostic Gospel of Thomas to be equal to the canonical gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Actually, their claim is stronger than that. Many believe that Thomas is "older than the four canonical gospels" (Allen, Star Tribune). As regards the sayings of Jesus, Thomas is considered superior to John, a conclusion not all that surprising in view of the high view of Jesus seen in John's gospel.
Third, the reason for such distrust of the New Testament writings arises from the Seminar's belief that they are neither eyewitness accounts nor even first century writings. Allen comments that "it is generally accepted that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written at least two generations after the death of Jesus." She then cites Seminar member Phillip Sellew, associate professor of classics and Near Eastern studies at the University of Minnesota: "Christians are being forced to rely on the testimony of fellow believers from the early church, and modern Christians need to recognize they are doing that." Allen then comments,
[The Five Gospels] puts it this way: Relying on early church writers to produce the gospels at least two generations after Jesus lived would be the parallel of U.S. constitutional history basing its scholarship on documents that only go back to 1950, with everything else back to 1776 being lost. How accurate would be our understanding of the Constitution if we had no documents from its time? (Star Tribune, Jan. 16, 1994).
"Scholarship" with an Agenda
To borrow the words attributed above to John Dominic Crossan, the "game that has got to be called" is the impression that the Seminar's work is representative scholarship. While admittedly some of the public's impression may be the result of media summaries which have simplified complicated presentations to the point of distortion, the fact remains that the Seminar's success is more attributable to skillful publicity than solid research.
While this writer does not endorse all of his conclusions, Luke Timothy Johnson's criticisms of Seminar scholarship are valid and should be spread as widely as possible. Noting that their work "stands as a far better example of media manipulation than of serious scholarship," Johnson responds to the claim that "the Seminar [is] representing critical New Testament scholarship" by declaring that "it patently does no such thing" (Johnson, 1, 3).
In support of this charge, Johnson shows that the Seminar is guilty of circular reasoning. Their work "is a process biased against the authenticity of the gospels" (Johnson, 5). Responding to the work of Crossan in particular, Johnson points out that his aberrant portrayal of Jesus is based upon a dating of the relevant materials which cannot be supported by the evidence.
Crossan's remarkable early dating for virtually all apocryphal materials, and his correspondingly late dating for virtually all canonical materials, together with his frequent assertion that the extracanonical sources are unaffected by the canonical sources and therefore have independent evidenciary value, rests on little more than his assertions and those of the like-minded colleagues he cites. He never enters into debate with those who do not share such views. The position, in other words, is presumed, not proved" (Johnson, 47).
What Crossan does individually, the Seminar does as a whole.
From the start, then, we see that the agenda of the Seminar is not disinterested scholarship, but a social mission against . . . a theology focused both on the literal truth of the Gospels and the literal return of Jesus . . . It is important to note from the start that Funk does not conceive of the Seminar's work as making a contribution to scholarship but as carrying out a cultural mission (Johnson, 6).
(Note: a reading of the Seminar's own Introduction to The Five Gospels, and particularly their "Seven Pillars of Scholarly Wisdom" on pp. 2-5 of that Introduction, will demonstrate the presuppositions which form the basis for the circular reasoning cited here.)
In light of these observations--as well as what we know about the state of New Testament scholarship (specific examples of which we will present in part 2)--we conclude that "Seminar scholarship" is more an oxymoron than an example of credible research. But merely knowing this fact is not enough. Because of the publicity the Seminar has received--and the skill they have exhibited in getting it--"this sort of ersatz scholarship [is] being taken for the real thing" (Johnson, v). If Christians will fulfill our mission, we must be both ready and active in giving an answer for the things we believe (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). We must stand up for Jesus!
[Dear Reader, you and I are both indebted to brother Anguish for this excellent article regarding the Jesus Seminar and its adverse affect on our society, religion and ultimately on the Lord's church. I can hardly wait to read "Part Two" in the April issue of Gospel Gazette Online. ~ Louis Rushmore, Editor]