"The Jesus Seminar"

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken March 10, 1996

The Jesus Seminar began about a decade ago when a group of 30 scholars decided “to renew the quest of the historical Jesus and to report the results of its research to more than a handful of biblical scholars.” Whether they have discovered the historical Jesus or not, they have certainly communicated their findings to more than a handful of Bible scholars. The results of the Jesus Seminar have been widely reported in American newspapers, on National Public Radio, and even on “The Larry King Show.”

The fruits of their labors are now also available in a volume entitled The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus [ed. by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar; New York: Macmillan, 1993]. For those of you who are wondering about the arithmetic for that, the Jesus Seminar includes the unreliable Gospel of Thomas—which omits the death and resurrection of Jesus—among the five gospels of Jesus Christ.

Probably the best thing that can be said about the Five Gospels of the Jesus Seminar is that it's a colorful book. The texts of the gospels are printed in four colors, reflecting four degrees of certainty about the reliability of the text of the Bible. At seminar meetings, scholars were given colored beads to use as they voted on each gospel text. Red represented words definitely spoken by Jesus; pink was for words probably spoken by Jesus; gray was for words probably not spoken by Jesus; and black was for words definitely not spoken by Jesus. The introduction to the book explains the code as follows:

Red: That's Jesus!

Pink: Sure sounds like Jesus.

Gray: Well, maybe.

Black: There's been some mistake.

Indeed, there has been some mistake. The methodology and results of the Jesus Seminar are riddled with so many problems that it is hard to know where to begin a critique. Their work is laughable, from a scholarly standpoint. They deserve our scorn… after all, they've earned it.

To begin with, the Jesus Seminar does not represent a consensus of reputable scholarship. Promotional material for the Jesus Seminar asserts that “the scholarship represented by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar is the kind that has come to prevail in all the great universities of the world.” Hardly. Most of the participants have earned their doctorates, of course, but they are not—as they claim to be—“independent, neutral observers.” What the Jesus Seminar really amounts to is a club of idiosyncratic academics on the lunatic fringe of biblical criticism. Especially when it comes to the Bible, Christians do not need to be intimidated by appeals to scholarly consensus. One always needs to know “Which scholars?” and “From where?” and “Why?”

In this case, the “Why?” question is especially pertinent. One of the primary purposes of the Jesus Seminar is to write a new gospel. Robert W. Funk, the leading figure of the Jesus Seminar, explained their intentions like this: “What we need is a new fiction… a new narrative of Jesus, a new gospel, if you will, that places Jesus differently in the grand scheme, the epic story.” In his view, what has been holding us back from having a new gospel is, of course, the evangelical church. Funk claims that “the religious establishment has not allowed the intelligence of high scholarship to pass through pastors and priests to a hungry laity.” Another member of the seminar likes to say that Christians who actually trust their Bibles are “intellectually frozen at age 12.” This leads me to wonder if our middle-schoolers should challenge some of these scholars to a battle of wits!

Now how does the Jesus Seminar decide which sayings of Jesus belong in their new gospel? One of the basic principles of their work is the “criterion of dissimilarity.” Listen carefully. What the criterion of dissimilarity says is this: The only things that we can prove Jesus actually said are things that don't sound like either the Jewish tradition or the Christian tradition. If what Jesus says sounds like the Old Testament, then it probably wasn't his idea in the first place. If what he says sounds like the Christian church, then later Christians were probably just putting their own ideas into the mouth of Jesus when they wrote the gospels. That's a little bit like some future historian saying that the only things we can be sure Bill Clinton actually said are things that no other Democrat has ever said.

The problem with the “criterion of dissimilarity” is that when you take the Judaism out of Jesus and the Christianity out of Christ, you aren't left with a whole lot of gospel. Almost everything you read in the gospels turns out to be either too Jewish or too Christian to be Jesus. That's why over 80% of The Five Gospels is printed in black ink, the color for things that Jesus definitely did not say.

It hardly seems necessary to warn you about the Jesus Seminar. A Christian ought to be able to smell scholarship this foul from a mile off. Perhaps I should warn you, however, that a movie is in the works. Paul Verhoeven—the director of such edifying movies as “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls”—has been attending the Jesus Seminar of late, with a view to making a Jesus film out of the Jesus Seminar. This is how he describes his plans: “To be honest, I don't have an agenda. I'm just doing what's important to me.”

Doing what's important to oneself is, of course, an agenda. It's just the kind of self-serving agenda that drives secular Bible scholarship like the Jesus Seminar. To do what is important to oneself is often to fail to do what is important to God.

When it comes to the gospels, God himself has an altogether different agenda for us. It's the same agenda he announced when Jesus was transfigured on a high mountain: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” [Matthew 17:5b]. To put it another way, if you're going to vote on the authenticity of the words of Jesus in the gospels, all you need is red beads.

[For helpful reviews of The Five Gospels, see C. Stephen Evans, “Can the New Jesus Save Us?”, Books and Culture, Nov./Dec., 1995, pp. 3-8; Richard B. Hays, “The Corrected Jesus,” First Things, May, 1994, pp. 43-48; Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995]

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