Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Robert Funk & The Jesus Seminar


By William R. Farmer

The Church canonized only four Gospels; however, Robert Funk, the leader of the Jesus Seminar, wants to add the Gospel of Thomas and the Sayings Gospel Q to our canon. This poses the question: Why did the Church canonize four Gospels and no more? The answer is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only Gospels that tell the story of "the flesh and blood martyrdom of the Son of God."

The Church rejected all Gospels that failed to tell this story. The Gospel of Peter says that while Jesus hung on the cross, He felt no pain. If Jesus felt no pain, His death was not a flesh-and-blood martyrdom. If he did not experience the pain we would have felt, His death could not have been redemptive. Similarly, the Gospel of Thomas is only a collection of Jesus’ sayings. There is no flesh-and-blood martyrdom—no redemptive death of Jesus. The same can be said of the scholarly collection of sayings the Seminar calls “Q.”

Despite all its faults, I find the Church to be essentially trustworthy. Robert Funk (pictured right) and other prominent members of the Jesus Seminar, such as the Catholic scholar Dominic Crossan (pictured left), not without reason are constrained to draw our attention to the shortcomings of the Church when compared with the vision of Jesus. However, instead of being what they claim to be—historians—Robert Funk and his colleagues in the Jesus Seminar have collectively turned their backs on sound historiography.

Their first major failure has been their inability to properly construe the importance of certain data preserved in the letters of Paul for understanding Jesus and His role in Christian origins. The second major failure is they don’t offer a credible account of Jesus’ relationship to Judaism.

A Crucial Text

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 clearly provides important data on the question of Jesus as a historical figure. It is important to set these verses within the context of Paul’s pastoral concerns. Some at Corinth were confused about the requirements of what Paul refers to as “The Lord’s Supper.” He writes, “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk.” Paul ends this section of his letter with these words: “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if any is hungry, let him eat at home—lest you come together to be condemned” (1 Corinthians 11:33-34). In giving apostolic documentation for the ruling he expects the Corinthians to observe, Paul provides us with certain information of fundamental importance for understanding Jesus and His role in instituting the Church.

After letting the Corinthians know that he is informed about the abuses going on among them, he asks rhetorically, “What? Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” Then before laying down his trump card, Paul prepares his readers by asking, “What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this?” (1 Corinthians 11:22). Paul, in effect, answered with a categorical “No!” He said that he would not commend them for this because what they were doing was not in accord with what he received from the Lord and what he faithfully handed on to them, namely:
On the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which takes your place. Do this in remembrance of me.” He took the cup, too, after supper, in the same way, saying, “This cup is the new covenant ratified by my blood. Whenever you drink it, do it in memory of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
This text is of decisive importance for the historian who wants to understand Jesus. Before analyzing it to determine what can be established concerning what Jesus probably did and said that night, there are two questions that must be answered: (1) From whom did Paul receive this tradition?, and (2) Is this the only example of Paul passing on tradition he received?

In Chapter 15 of the same letter to the Corinthians, there is another example of Paul passing on the tradition that he received. Before citing the authoritative tradition on this matter of the resurrection, Paul introduces it with: “Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved...” Then, using the same technical language as in Chapter 11, language used by Jewish rabbis when passing on received tradition, Paul writes:
For I delivered to you as of first importance, what I also received, namely, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, he was raised on the third day in accordance with scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the Grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preached and so you believed [emphasis added].
This is a stunning autobiographical statement: To whom is Paul referring when he states that he worked harder than any of them? In this context, the antecedent of “them” includes Peter, the twelve, the 500 brethren to whom Jesus appeared at one time, James, and all the apostles. These include those he refers to elsewhere in his letters as “those who were apostles before me” (cf. Galatians 1:17).

Apostle Before St. Paul

But as stunning as this autobiographical statement may be, it pales in comparison with what Paul tells us about himself and his relationship to those who were apostles before him in his letter to the Galatians. For in this second autobiographical statement, we are provided information that sheds light on the other preliminary question that must be discussed before proceeding with an analysis of the text concerning what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed. In other words, before taking up the tradition concerning what Jesus did that night, we need to know more about where this material came from, namely, from whom did Paul receive the tradition he is handing on?

Beginning with Galatians 1:13, Paul writes:
[Y]ou have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.... But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me in order that I might preach the good news about him to the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, rather I went away into Arabia, and then returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas.
At this point, we pause to explain the importance of the word historesai that Paul uses to describe the purpose of his going to Jerusalem. The histor in ancient Greece, among other things, was the person who questioned witnesses in court.

The first Greek historians explored the great rivers and penetrated inland as far as they could safely travel. Then they would interrogate people from further inland, obtaining eyewitness accounts about the vast unknown interiors of the surrounding continents. The reports of these geographers constituted the beginnings of what became known as “history.” Thus, the verb historesai can mean “to inquire into or about a certain matter” or “to inquire about a person.” Or it can also mean “to examine” or “to observe.” Such a questioner or observer would then become “one who is informed” about something or “one who knows.”

The plain meaning of what Paul writes is that he went to make inquiry of Peter. Paul is not making himself subservient to anyone in his decision to ask questions—his apostolic concern to “get it right” is foundational for Christian life and faith. His use of historesai in this context conceptually places Peter in the witness box. Paul is the histor. Peter is the one being questioned. For example, Peter could have been an expert witness in matters of dispute about the “faith” of the church of God (Galatians 1:23 and 1 Corinthians 15:3) or as an eyewitness on matters about traditions handed on in the church of God, especially in the case of tradition involving words and/or actions of Jesus that could have been decisive for the faith of the church of God.

Fifteen Days with St. Peter

The question is from whom did Paul receive the traditions he passed on to the Corinthians? According to the Jesus Seminar, the Church’s Eucharist grows out of Hellenistic cultic practices in Asia Minor or Greece. But the evidence fairly construed clearly supports the Church’s teaching that the Eucharist is historically grounded in the words and actions of Jesus: He took bread, he broke it, and he said, “This is my body.” This is simply the difference between a Church with the Eucharist and a Church without it.

Paul, in going up to Jerusalem to question Peter, was moving up the stream of Church tradition to its very source, that is, to those eyewitnesses involved in the formulation of this tradition. But when and from whom did Paul first receive notice of this tradition? And who took the responsibility of seeing that this tradition was handed on to Paul properly formulated?

We return to Paul’s account in Galatians. Paul has just told the Galatians that three years after his return from Arabia to Damascus, he went up to Jerusalem to make inquiry of Peter, and he adds, “I remained with him fifteen days.” Then he continues his account by saying in effect: “At this point in time [i.e., after the 15 days spent with Peter in Jerusalem] I went [northward] to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still not known by face to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, ‘He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy’. And they glorified God because of me.” In this report, there are historical data that help us to know from whom Paul received the tradition about what Jesus did and said on the night he was betrayed.

Paul has just completed his 15-day stay with Peter. He is about to embark on a journey northward into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and for some reason, he wants the Galatians to know that at that time he was still unknown by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea, that is, the churches in and around Jerusalem. All they knew was what they heard, and what they heard presumably came from churches in the areas in which he had been preaching during the preceding three years. No doubt this included churches in the area of Damascus, but it may also have included churches as far north as Antioch and as far south as northern Galilee—but not in Judea. These churches in Judea only knew what they heard from other churches, ones Paul had once persecuted. And what they heard was simply, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith [emphasis added] he once tried to destroy.” In other words, the “faith” Paul had been preaching and had brought with him when he came to Peter in Jerusalem was a pre-Pauline faith.

The first possibility is that Paul received the tradition from the church of God he had once persecuted (Galatians 1:13). This follows from the fact that after his conversion, he began to preach the faith of that church. And it would have been fitting for him to have received from that same church the tradition that served to undergird that faith. Therefore, those he had once persecuted would have taken responsibility for seeing to it that Paul was equipped with properly formulated tradition serving to undergird that faith and to offer apostolic guidance to those who wished to put it into practice (cf. 1 Corinthians 11-15).

Of course, this reconstruction is a hypothesis, but it is grounded in historical data preserved in our earliest source, the letters of Paul, whereas the suggestion of the Jesus Seminar is a hypothesis that hangs in the air without any historical support or reasoned defense.

True Source of Paul’s Faith

This hypothesis, however, is not complete, for it is crucial to ask where this Church of God that Paul once persecuted and ravished came from. There is only one credible historical source for this church’s coming into being: the preaching of the faith by those who were apostles before Paul. Whether it was the preaching of Peter, some other apostle, or more than one apostle is not decisive. The point is that the faith Paul began to preach according to this report did not originate with Paul but went back to an earlier time before Paul began his persecuting activity.

The heart of the issue is this: The Jesus Seminar suggests that Paul’s version of the Last Supper sprouted in a soil of pagan Gentile tradition in Asia Minor or Greece. But historical scholarship suggests that the tradition of the Last Supper Paul received and handed on to his churches was handed on to him by the same church he once persecuted and whose faith he had tried to destroy.

Thus, at long last, we can answer the question of from whom did Paul receive the tradition concerning the Lord’s Supper, with “He received it from the church he once persecuted.” The faith Paul preached was closely related to the tradition he received, specifically, the tradition that “Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3), which he handed on to his churches, along with other traditions that were decisive for the Church, including what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed.

In the tradition concerning the Lord’s Supper handed on by Paul, Jesus identified His body with the broken bread, representing His death as a death for others (1 Corinthians 11:24). This offering of one’s life for others is in accord with Isaiah 53, which is included in the Scriptures referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:3: “Christ died for our sins in accordance to the scriptures.” The point is the tradition concerning the Lord’s Supper that Paul handed on is doctrinally bound to the tradition that Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3).

Through the interrelationship of these traditions, Paul, in giving counsel concerning pastoral problems in the Church at Corinth, is drawing on a larger body of authoritative tradition, namely, that formulated by, or under the influence of, Peter, John, and other apostles.

The faith Paul brought with him when he came to Jerusalem and spent 15 days with Peter must have been a faith Paul and Peter shared. However, this is not to say that he received it directly from Peter, certainly not during his 15-day stay, since it was a faith he had already been preaching during the preceding three years.

It is not surprising that this faith was embodied in the tradition Paul passed on to the Corinthians. Paul gives expression to this faith in the words of 1 Corinthians 15:3: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” It is clear that Paul embraced this faith and made it central in his preaching. For example, he addresses the churches of Galatia with these words: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins” (Galatians 1:4).

Jesus and the Jewish Tradition

This leads to the second charge against the members of the Jesus Seminar—namely, their failure as historians to credibly reconstruct the historical Jesus at the point of His relationship to Judaism and especially to the Jewish scriptures. There is a historical disconnection, if not a disruption.

From the perspective of the Seminar’s “Galilean sage,” the scriptural account of Jesus’ words and deeds on the night He was betrayed can be regarded as simply bizarre—totally out of character for a sage. Therefore, it could not have happened. But is that the only alternative? Suppose Jesus was the kind of Jew who was well acquainted with Jewish scriptures, including the books of the prophets.

Prophets were known to engage in bizarre behavior when it was called for or when it was what the prophet believed was in accordance with the will and plan of God. For example, in Isaiah 20, God says to the prophet: “Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put off your sandals from your feet.” And Isaiah did so, walking naked and barefoot. And the Lord said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years, as a sign and symbol against Egypt and Ethiopia, so will the King of Assyria lead off the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Ethiopia, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt...” (Isaiah 20:2-4).

What Paul and the evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that Jesus did and said on the night he was betrayed comes across as somewhat less bizarre than we might at first think once we see it in the light of his Jewish background, specifically in the light of the witness of the prophet Isaiah. Here is a “servant of the Lord” who once walked the streets of Jerusalem for three years naked and barefoot as a sign from God, carrying a message that had a bearing on the salvation of God’s people.

The Church and most historians do not question that Jesus was a Jew who knew the Jewish scriptures intimately. One way for us to get a better idea of Jesus in relation to Judaism is to make an attempt to place ourselves in the upper room the night Jesus was betrayed. This we can do by focusing imaginatively on what Jesus is reported to have said and done that night in the two versions of the Lord’s Supper preserved in the New Testament, making use of wirkungsgeschichte where we take account of later interpretations of texts in making our own credible imaginative reconstructions.

On that night, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks to God over it, broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body broken in your behalf.” In so doing, he took the first step toward preparing his followers to identify his death with that of the redemptive death of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53, who gave his life as a ransom for many. To reinforce this identification, and to imprint it indelibly on the minds of his disciples, after supper Jesus took the traditional cup of blessing and, after blessing it, gave it to his disciples, saying: “Take, drink. This is my blood of the New Covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The use of the expression “poured out” in this context is an allusion to the words of the prophet Isaiah in reference to the redeeming death of the Servant in Isaiah 53:12: “He poured out his life unto death.” The use of the fuller expression “poured out for many” is an even clearer allusion to Isaiah 53:12: “He poured out his life unto death...he bore the sins of many.”

Finally, the full expression “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” is an unmistakable allusion to the fuller text of Isaiah 53:12: “He poured out his life unto death...he bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors.”

Reasonable doubt that Jesus had in his mind this teaching of Isaiah concerning the Servant of the Lord when he spoke and acted as he did is further lessened when we reflect on the verses preceding Isaiah 53:12. Take, for example, verse 5: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.”

Finally, there are the comforting and redeeming words of Isaiah 53:11 that remind us of the restorative purpose of the Servant’s suffering: “The Lord shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.”

What Jesus did that night functioned as a prophetic, symbolic act in the tradition of Isaiah. It was also a parabolic act in which what Jesus was saying and doing was to be compared to what Isaiah had said that the wounded Servant would accomplish. Only when this connection was made would the full impact of the text of Isaiah grasp the minds of his heretofore disbelieving hearers. At that point, all who had ears to hear would have had their minds turned by what Jesus was communicating to them. For all who had eyes to see and ears to hear, this was an exhilarating moment, calling for a repentance for unbelief that was pregnant with hope: “Because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; He bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors [emphasis added].”

Of course, until Jesus had actually (not just symbolically) freely given himself over into the hands of the transgressors, had been buried, and had been raised up and vindicated, most of Jesus’ disciples would only continue to falter, as we are told Peter did. But the seeds for belief in Jesus’ messianic vindication and exaltation were sown in the hearts of His disciples that night. Thus, after they had sung a hymn and had walked out into the night, there was still a song abiding in their hearts, and they followed Jesus to see what the Lord would do. The incredible words of Isaiah concerning the Servant would, as the word of God, hover over the chaos of God’s new creation as the Spirit had hovered over the chaos of God’s first creation.

What then keeps the Jesus Seminar from recognizing that the Jesus who spoke the parables is the same Jesus who died for the sins of others, a Jesus who freely accepted His death as a voluntary giving of himself for others? The answer is they acknowledge no such connection. They misconstrue the data that make this connection possible and give them short shrift.

The failure of the Jesus Seminar to properly construe the importance of historical data that are decisive for understanding Jesus, preserved in the letters of Paul, is far reaching. The short shrift members of the Jesus Seminar have given to 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and all related data from Paul’s letters is representative of the myopic approach they take to much of the historical data concerning Jesus. Convergence between the second to fourth century Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and the hypothetical Q is a case in point. For them such convergence is given more weight, in general, than they have given to this case of convergence between our earliest historical witness, Paul, and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

[William R. Farmer is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Southern Methodist University and research scholar at the University of Dallas. His recent publications include, The Gospel of Jesus: The Pastoral Relevance of the Synoptic Problem (1994), Anti-Judaism and the Gospels (1999), and The Last Twelve Verses of Mark (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series) (2005). His article, "Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar," was originally published in Crisis magazine (March 2000), 20-25, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Crisis magazine, Morley Publishing Group, Inc., 1814 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036.]

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Genesis of the Jesus Seminar


By Prof. John McCormick

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” Sadly, P.T. Barnum’s famous saying applies not only to the circus but also to academia. It seems that the scholars of the Jesus Seminar bank on gullibility in their efforts to spread a reconstructed Gospel that presents a Jesus to their own liking. The Jesus Seminar, chaired by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, is a self-promoting, pretentious attempt to popularize a historical Jesus, which is more culturally appealing. While claiming to represent the mainstream of critical New Testament scholarship, the Seminar might be likened to a sideshow rather than the center-ring attraction.

In many ways, the analogy of a traveling circus is apt. The members of the Seminar have taken their twice-yearly meetings on the road. They advertise their coming and invite the press to observe their proceedings where they identify those aspects of the Gospels that represent the authentic Jesus—by their account, very little. Boasting of some 74 scholars who are active in its proceedings (contrast this impressive number with that more marginal group, the Society of Biblical Literature, with a mere 6,900 membership), the Jesus Seminar has set out to dissect the Gospels to separate historical fact from mythical baggage.


In 1985, Robert Funk (d. 2005, pictured left) convoked a meeting of 30 scholars in Berkeley, California, to begin this quest for the historical Jesus. They sought to recover the authentic voice of Jesus that lies hidden in the Gospels and which they believe the evangelists and the memory of the early Church have obscured. For six years, they debated interpretations presented in technical papers, prepared and circulated in advance, and then voted to determine the degree of authenticity of Jesus’ words found in the Gospels. Of the sayings of Jesus, 18 percent were accorded the status of probable to definite. The second phase of the Seminar (1991 to 1996) examined the deeds of Jesus and found that of the 176 recorded events in which Jesus was the main actor, only ten are certain; an additional 19 probably occurred—yielding roughly 16 percent of the total. The conclusions of their studies can be found in the books edited by Robert Funk and Roy W. Hoover, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the AUTHENTIC Words of Jesus and The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus.

Over the years, slightly more than 200 Fellows from various traditions (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) have participated in some way in the Seminar. Only an average of 30 to 40 actually attends each meeting. They have adopted a system of voting with colored beads, which indicate the degree of authenticity of the saying or deed of Jesus.
  • Red: Jesus undoubtedly said/did this or something very much like it (as they informally state, “That’s Jesus!”).
  • Pink: Jesus probably said/did something like this (“Sure sounds like Jesus”).
  • Gray: Jesus did not say/do this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own (“Well, maybe”).
  • Black: Jesus did not say/do this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition (“There’s been some mistake”).
They base their judgments on what they call the seven pillars of scholarly wisdom:
  1. We must separate the Jesus of history from the Christ
    of faith.
  2. The Synoptic Gospels are closer to the historical Jesus than the Gospel of John.
  3. Mark was written before Matthew and Luke and was the basis for both.
  4. The hypothetical source “Q” explained Matthew’s and Luke’s common tradition not found in Mark.
  5. The noneschatological Jesus who speaks in aphorisms and parables must be liberated from the eschatological Jesus, whom the Church constructed.
  6. The contrast between the oral culture of Jesus and the print culture of later times (Jesus only spoke in short, memorable, oft-repeated phrases, never longer discourse).
  7. 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.
However, the Seminar demurs that as useful and necessary as these pillars might be, there can be no final guarantee of the results. According to the Seminar, “The last temptation is to create Jesus in our own image, to marshal the facts to support preconceived convictions.” But one might wonder if this is not what the seven pillars of wisdom in fact guarantee, a Jesus in their own image. Though claiming to engage in critical scholarship, the Seminar is uncritical of its own starting point. Operating from a bias against prior ecclesial perspectives of Jesus, it rejects out of hand anything that tokens of a traditional understanding. Anything that might be favorable to a confessional position must automatically be discounted:
The Scholars Version (SV) is authorized by scholars and is free of any ecclesiastical and religious control, unlike other major translations in English…. Since SV is not bound by the dictates of church councils, its contents and organization vary from traditional bibles. The Five Gospels contains the Gospel of Thomas in addition to the four canonical Gospels. Because scholars believe the Gospel of Mark was written first, they have placed it first among the five.
The noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945, is given equal footing with the canonical Gospels. The Seminar refuses to be cowed by the dictates of councils in its re-creation of the historical Jesus:
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.... 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.
Though claiming to be on the cutting edge of critical scholarship, the Seminar’s findings are not new. The so-called quest for the historical Jesus began when scholars sought to use the sciences of critical history in the interpretation of the biblical texts. Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) was one of the first champions of the quest. He maintained that the New Testament view of Jesus was not historical but rather a fabrication by His disciples who desired to see the kingdom fulfilled despite the crucifixion of Jesus. To recover a truly “historical” Jesus, it was necessary to expose the false “dogmatic” interpretation of Jesus as the Christ. Influenced by the antireligious sentiment of the early Enlightenment, he denied the historicity of the miracles and resurrection because he believed them to be the creation of the disciples as a means of validating their aspirations to preside over the kingdom intended by Jesus. For Reimarus, Jesus was no more than a moral sage who sought to realize the ideals of the kingdom and who mistakenly believed Himself to be the Messiah.

David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) (pictured right), with his Life of Jesus Critically Examined, followed in the wake of Reimarus. Applying Hegelian dialectic, Strauss sought to recover the authentic Jesus of history by contrasting the traditional interpretation of the Gospels, which smacked of supernaturalism, with the more rationalistic interpretations then coming into favor. For a supernaturalist, the resurrection was a clear example of divine intervention in history, whereas the rationalist would explain it as a bodily resuscitation or as a hallucination. Strauss argued that neither approach was correct. He insisted that the Gospel stories are products of religious imagination, what he called “myth,” though he did allow that there might have been a kernel of historical truth. The criteria? Any account that contradicted the known laws of nature would be considered mythical; anything contradicted by another biblical account also was to be discounted. Strauss’s basic argument concluded that the Gospels do not treat Jesus historically and therefore it would be impossible to write a truly historical account of his life. Liberal Protestants, however, continued the quest.

Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) (pictured right) thought the quest for the historical Jesus illegitimate. He argued that the Gospels only establish the bare fact of Jesus’ existence and His death by crucifixion. The Jesus of history is concealed under layers of kerygma—later proclamations about Jesus as the risen Christ. We cannot get back to the Jesus of history but only to the Christ of the early Church’s faith. In addition to his historical concerns, Bultmann denied the Jesus quest on theological grounds as well. His Lutheran belief in justification by faith alone led him to believe that it is a mistake to base our faith on historical research. The kerygma assumes the fact of the earthly Jesus’ historical existence, but it is only the kerygma that grounds our faith in Christ. Sharing the rationalist prejudices of the earlier seekers, he sought to demythologize the kerygma of the New Testament, arguing that it expressed the categories of a first-century worldview. The interpreter’s task is to remythologize the Gospels by expressing in contemporary terms what had been said in the early kerygma. Thus, contemporary experience becomes the norm by which Scripture is to be interpreted. It is our faith, not the faith of the first-century Christians.

In contrast to Bultmann’s historical skepticism, the Seminar proposes to establish the historical reliability of at least some of the data found in the Gospels. However, when all is said and done, what remains is a severely mutilated portrait of a Jesus who little resembles the Christ presented in the Gospels, for the Seminar seeks only the authentic historical Jesus. Since the majority of the participants reject out of hand a divine Jesus who worked miracles, who spoke of a future judgment in apocalyptic terms, or who was raised from the dead, anything in the Gospels that refers to these had to be the fabrication of persons with an agenda.

The Gospels record the miracles of Jesus, which obviously could not have occurred, such scholars argue; therefore, the Gospels cannot be trusted to be completely historically accurate. We, therefore, must sift through the Gospels and glean only that which is compatible with reason—that is, a reason that lacks faith. The Seminar starts with philosophical presuppositions that determine what counts as historical evidence, presuppositions fundamentally at odds with the message of the Gospels.

A Wolf in the Midst of the Flock

If this were merely a group of crank scholars left to themselves, one could say no harm done. But the Seminar’s claim to represent the mainstream of Christian scholarship is misleading to the uniformed public and disingenuous at best. Aided by secular media that seek to capitalize on controversy, every Christmas and Easter the public is treated to the Seminar’s interpretation of the meaning of these mysteries, as if this is what most scholars believe. The Seminar’s participants try to present a false dichotomy, as if the issue was historical fact versus religious faith. Many scholars recognize the two are not incompatible.

The Seminar’s thinking is illustrated by many examples. In its version of Mark 1:17, we read: “Become my followers and I’ll have you fishing for people!” The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar mark this gray because they doubt whether Jesus actively recruited followers. They are skeptical that Jesus deliberately set out to organize a movement by recruiting disciples; they think he was probably an itinerant sage without institutional goals. To them, he certainly did not have it in mind to found a Church like the one that eventually came into being. The Seminar also claims that it was the early disciples’ tendency to justify their own claims by attributing statements and stories to Jesus.

But how are we to know whether Jesus had any institutional goals? Or that He never intended to found the Church? According to the Seminar, we ought to appeal to the seven pillars of scholarly wisdom, which tell us that Jesus only spoke in aphorisms and parables and was not concerned about the future and that the Church sought to establish a Christ of faith as the means of legitimating her own claims. The Seminar says, “Christian conviction eventually overwhelms Jesus: he is made to confess what Christians had come to believe.... The axiom bears repeating: Jesus was not the first Christian. However, he is often made to talk like a Christian by his devoted followers.”

Recreated in Their Image and Likeness

In their re-creation of Jesus, the itinerant sage, the Fellows state: “Like the cowboy hero of the American West exemplified by Gary Cooper, the sage of the ancient Near East was laconic, slow to speech, a person of few words.” From this compressed characterization, they develop certain generalizations or working principles:
  • Jesus as a rule does not initiate dialogue or debate, neither does He offer to cure people.
  • Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about Himself in the first person.
  • Jesus makes no claims to be the Anointed, the Messiah.
They then offer this caveat: “The fact that some words attributed to Jesus were not likely spoken by him does not necessarily diminish their importance.”

Based on their criteria, Jesus probably said in response to a question about taxes, “Pay to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21, red print). In response to the disciple’s request that He teach them to pray, Jesus probably said, “Father, (red print)/your name be revered. Impose your imperial rule. (pink print)/Provide us with the bread we need day by day. Forgive us our sins, since we too forgive everyone in debt to us. And please don’t subject us to test after test (gray print)” (Luke 11:2-4 SV).

Occasionally, they do admit that Jesus offered unsolicited advice, as during the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “Congratulations you poor! God’s domain belongs to you” (Luke 6:20, SV, red print) or “Congratulations to the poor in spirit!” (Mt 5:3, SV, pink print).

Matthew’s version is less likely than Luke’s because the reasons for the congratulations are religious rather than socio-economic. Hence, the Seminar believes they are much more likely to have been spiritualized by the later Christian community. The term “blessed,” the Seminar notes, is too archaic for its tastes. However, one might question whether there is a fundamental difference in worldviews expressed by the term “congratulations” as compared with “blessed.” Congratulations may be appropriate if someone wins the lottery, but to say someone is blessed permeates the notion with a recognition of God’s grace and favor, not merely human luck.

The Church Speaks

In contrast to the approach of the Jesus Seminar, the Pontifical Biblical Commission offers a more balanced and—dare I say—less ideological approach to biblical interpretation. In its 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, it notes that Catholic exegesis does not adhere to any one scientific method as its own. It recognizes that the biblical texts are the work of human authors, who used their own capacities for expression according to the time and social context in which they lived. Catholic exegesis is free to make use of those scientific methods that allow a better appreciation of the meaning of the texts in their linguistic, literary, sociocultural, religious, and historical contexts. This exegesis is to be carried out in the living tradition of the Church, recognizing that various methods offer both possibilities and limitations. Though acknowledging a legitimate use of the historical-critical method, it notes that the method in itself cannot imply a priori assumptions that rule out the possibility of God acting in a unique way within history—to do so would be to distort the method.

The Biblical Commission also shares some of the Jesus Seminar’s concerns regarding fundamentalism. It warns against the dangers of a fundamentalist approach to Scripture that, while rightly insisting on the divine inspiration of the Bible and the inerrancy of the Word of God, nevertheless tends toward a naive literalism that fails to take into account the historical origins and development of Scripture, a fundamentalism that bars any scientific or critical method for the interpretation of Scripture. The danger is the tendency towards an “intellectual suicide,” which fails to recognize that the expression of the Word of God is conditioned by human language and culture and that proper interpretation must recognize the various literary forms and the modes of thinking and speaking found in the biblical texts. The fundamentalist tendency is to historicize material the authors never intended to be historical and to rule out the possibility of any symbolic or figurative meaning. As the commission notes, “It accepts the literal reality of an ancient, out-of-date cosmology, simply because it is found expressed in the Bible; this blocks dialogue with a broader way of seeing the relationship between culture and faith.”

Authorship of Inspired Texts

The bishops of the Second Vatican Council in their document on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, recognized a certain development in the Gospel texts from the events of Jesus, through the early kerygma, to the written Gospels. Nonetheless, they also unhesitatingly affirmed the Gospels’ historicity as handing on faithfully what Jesus, the Son of God, did and taught. Unlike the Seminar, the bishops do not believe that the Gospel development is the result of a distorted ecclesial agenda, but the work of the Holy Spirit:
The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form, others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, all the while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus.
The bishops also noted the distinction between God as the “principal author” of Sacred Scripture (that is, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) and the human writers who are the “instrumental authors.” This instrumentality is not passive but active. “To compose the Sacred Scriptures, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.” Since the Holy Spirit is the primary author, Scripture teaches “firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”

Since in Scripture God speaks to man in a human way so that man can correctly interpret Scripture, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words. To discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. Furthermore, Scripture must be interpreted in accord with the Spirit who inspired it by being especially attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture, reading the Scripture within the living tradition of the whole Church, and recognizing the analogy of faith. There is a coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.

For the Church, biblical interpretation is an indispensable task. In our attempts to understand the Scriptures, we must acknowledge our limitations as well as our presuppositions. The Christian faith was not meant to rest on the shifting sands of critical scholarship but on the proclamation of the Gospel, which Christ announced and to which the Church must be faithful.

[John McCormick is assistant professor of theology at Newman University in Witchita, Kansas. His article, "The Genesis of the Jesus Seminar," was originally published in Crisis magazine (March 2000), 16-19, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Crisis magazine, Morley Publishing Group, Inc., 1814 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036.]

Introduction by Rev. Rodger Hunter Hall, STL

Why should Catholics be concerned about the Jesus Seminar, a small group of scholars who gather twice yearly in Sonoma Valley, California, to sip wine and vote on what they decide Jesus really said and did? Because, if these scholars succeed, Christianity would be completely disfigured. If that seems overstated, consider the following facts:
  • Fewer than 20 percent of the words of Jesus as contained in the Bible are deemed authentic.
  • Of the Lord’s Prayer, only the words “Our Father” are close to what Jesus said.
  • The Gospel of John does not contain a single saying that could be traced back to the historical Jesus.
  • The Jesus that emerges from the Seminar was not the Son of God. He was neither the Messiah nor considered Himself such. He was not born of a virgin, never performed miracles, and did not rise from the dead.
Only 30 to 40 scholars attend the sessions, and yet twice each year the media call on them for their latest findings, at those times when thoughts turn to Jesus—Christmas and Easter. Their findings are presented as possessing great authority, when in fact they are strongly criticized by mainstream scholarship, including the late Fr. Raymond Brown.

Now, a new missionary outreach program is under way, taking the Jesus Seminar “on the road,” visiting cities throughout the country and abroad. Those who attend these conferences often leave with their faith deeply shaken.

As if this was not a sufficient cause for concern, the Jesus Seminar is only the first installment in an ongoing revision of Christian thought and history. Promised sequels include:

The Paul Seminar. The authenticity and integrity of the Pauline letters will be examined according to the Jesus Seminar methodology. Will the Paul Seminar leave us with even 20 percent of the words of the apostle whose writings substantially contribute to the foundation of Christian thought?

The Canon Seminar. Its aim is to reconsider the New Testament. The scholars intend a clean sweep, overturning the work of the early Church councils. They will themselves decide which works should constitute a “New New Testament.” Considering they have already taken up the Gospel of Thomas as “the fifth Gospel,” their theological assumptions can only be deemed untrustworthy.

The Acts Seminar. The historical authenticity of the Acts of the Apostles will be evaluated, again using the same methodology. Since the Gospels have been declared historically unreliable, should we be surprised by what the findings of this seminar will be?

With this issue, Crisis begins to present some of the foremost minds in biblical scholarship to expose the Jesus Seminar and the fallacies it presents as scholarly truth. These articles result from Crisis Magazine’s “Response to The Jesus Seminar,” a well-received lecture series held in New York City at the end of 1999. The series was sponsored by Msgr. Michael Wrenn (pictured right), a prominent pastor in the Archdiocese of New York, a noted New Testament scholar, and a valiant defender of the integrity of the Gospels.

The Seminar’s attack on the faith the Church has handed down across the centuries presents Catholics with the opportunity, at the dawn of the third Christian millennium, to arrive at a deeper authentic understanding of the Person, words, and deeds of Jesus Christ by reacquainting ourselves with the writings of His first followers in the company of scholars whose thoughts are tuned to the mind of the Church and are in keeping with the immemorial faith of the apostles, the fathers of the Church, and the saints through the centuries.

[Acknowledgements: Rev. Rodger Hunter Hall's "Introduction" was first published in Crisis magazine (March 2000), 15, and is reproduced by kind permission of Crisis magazine, Morley Publishing Group, Inc., 1814 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036.]

Deliver Us from the Jesus Seminar

In March 2000 Crisis magazine published the first two articles in a nine-part series on defending the truthfulness of the Scriptures from the claims of the Jesus Seminar scholars. Most of these are (or were) available online either from the Crisis website archives or elsewhere; but we thought it expedient to make these available to our readers in one convenient place here on this blog. Accordingly, these articles follow (in subsequent posts) in the order in which they were originally published.

[Acknowledgements: articles in the series, "Deliver Us from the Jesus Seminar," are reproduced by kind permission of Crisis magazine, Morley Publishing Group, Inc., 1814 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036.]

Introducing this blog

For some time I have thought that the Jesus Seminar represents a significant, if scholastically dubious and slightly goofy, avant garde of the movement of historical-critical biblical scholarship, which, whatever its earlier antecedents, acquired its important historical momentum in Germany during and following the Enlightenment period. In one way, it might be characterized as the historical-critical movement gone to seed. In any case, over the past decade I have taught several courses in hermeneutics and epistemology, and at least one course explicitly dealing with the philosophical background of the historical-critical interpretation of the Bible; and these classes have reinforced my belief in the importance of addressing the issues at the popular avant garde level. Perhaps it is unfortunate that in this case "avant garde" does not mean the most scholarly sophisticated level. Yet when one looks at where the influence of these studies are found in the present culture, it is not in the world of academe, but rather in the world of popular culture. I include in that culture not only phenomena such as the Jesus Seminar, but spin-offs such as Dan Brown's insanely (and I used the word advisedly) popular book and film Da Vinci Code, which parasitically cull from the 'scholarship' as well as underlying presuppositions of the Jesus Seminar 'scholarship' (I say "insanely popular" because Brown disengenuously passes numerous historical fabrications about Jesus, Mary Magdeline, and the Catholic Church off as 'facts' under the pretext that he is merely writing a 'novel' -- and the vast majority of his readers who appear to be utterly taken in by this deception must must be utterly insane if they are not utterly innocent of history).

Hence, the purpose of this blog: to post articles -- by no means entirely by myself -- on the subject of the Jesus Seminar and closely related treatment of Jesus and the Bible in popular media, in order to expose the underlying agenda and assumptions, as well as disingenuous arguments and conclusions mounted by their adherents.