By Knofel Staton
This year I met a student at Crossroads College (formerly Minnesota Bible College) who had transferred there from a major state university. There she had taken a “Jesus in History” course, whose required textbook was The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. This is a translation and commentary of the four Gospels plus the Gospel According to Thomas, a second-century Gnostic writing that “scholars” have given equal status with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The translators (or scholars) labeled this book “The Scholars Version” (SV) and said, “The Scholars Version is authorized by scholars” (xviii). That is, they “authorized” it themselves.
The “Scholars” and The Jesus Seminar
Seventy-four scholars, who hold doctorates from prestigious universities and seminaries in six different countries and are “The Fellows” in the Jesus Seminar, will eventually select the writings to be included in the completed Scholars Version of the Bible. In the meantime, one of the seminar’s goals is to “report the results to a broad public not familiar with the history of critical scholarship over the past two centuries or more” (p. 35). It meets that goal by getting the findings from the biblical scholars published in major newspapers and newsmagazines such as Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. Some conclusions have appeared on the front covers of these magazines. The seminar usually releases findings close to major Christian holidays and events.
Dr. Robert W. Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar and co-selector of the other 73 persons, stated in U.S. News & World Report that the Jesus Seminar “intends to begin a New Reformation to free Christianity from primitive church beliefs. . . . Christianity, as we have known it, is anemic and wasting away. . . . It is time to reinvent Christianity complete with new symbols, new stories and new understandings of Jesus” (8 April 1996). The works of the seminar have effectively infiltrated secular higher education. In courses about Christianity and Jesus, major state and private universities and colleges are using this SV Gospel as the textbook along with the seminar’s conclusions about Jesus.
These scholars determined which of Jesus’ sayings were authentic and explained their rationale for each saying included in The Five Gospels.
How did these 74 people come to their conclusions? They first identified four categories of Jesus’ statements: (1) That’s Jesus; (2) Sure sounds like Jesus; (3) Well, maybe; (4) There’s been some mistake. However, there are only two concluding options: either Jesus definitely said it or he did not (p. 36). The SV printed the authentic sayings of Jesus in red. All others are in black—definitely not Jesus.
The scholars analyzed each saying and then voted on each by using colored beads designated to correspond with the four categories. A number was assigned to each bead: a red bead got 3 points—Jesus definitely said it; 2 points for pink—Jesus may have said it; gray was assigned 1 point—Jesus probably did not say it; 0 points for black—Jesus definitely did not say it. The points were then added and divided by the number of beads submitted for each saying giving it a percentage score. The seminar concluded that only five statements attributed to Jesus in Matthew are definitely his; only one in Mark; seven in Luke; and not one in John is an authentic statement from Jesus.
In addition to rejecting most of Jesus’ sayings, the seminar communicated to the mass media the following conclusions: Jesus was not divine, was not the son of God, did not do miracles, never intended to be a religious leader, never saw himself in a messianic way, offered no help in dealing with issues of the world, was not crucified, was an unimpressive person, and was buried in a pauper’s shallow grave. The scholars also reported scavenger dogs dug up Jesus’ body and ate it, and in the words of Funk, Jesus was probably mankind’s first “stand-up Jewish comic.”
A professor at a California state college, who taught a class on Jesus using the Scholars Version, invited me to provide an evangelical response to the Jesus Seminar. I met the class, gave answers, and distributed a 17-page response that included historical precedents to the Jesus Seminar, philosophical precedents that fed the seminar’s methodology, a description and my evaluation of various critical methodologies, presuppositions of the seminar, my answers to their evaluative criteria, and why their conclusions were historically too weak to be valid and valued. Below is an abbreviated summary of my answers:
A Critique of Jesus Seminar Voting Criteria
• The text must have a natural cause and topic to be authentic. If a Jesus saying dealt with supernatural events, sayings, or predictions, a “no” vote was assigned to that statement, meaning it could not have been authentically spoken by Jesus.
Response: To do this is to prejudge reality using a purely empirical scientific method. But not all reality can be so evaluated. Hope, love, or “mind over matter” cannot be proven in a laboratory, even though they’re very real. Today, science affirms reality whose source cannot be proven.
• The sayings of Jesus were passed on orally. Thus, they cannot be trusted because they would have been changed when repeated.
Response: We must not evaluate the validity of oral transmission by our culture’s standards. We do not develop, honor, and protect memory and verbal communications as people did in Jesus’ day.
He lived in a “culture of memorization” during which memory was fine-tuned. Some rabbis memorized the entire Old Testament. Jewish boys were educated to memorize large portions of material and to repeat them verbatim.
Because Jesus’ sayings were simple with picturesque language and illustrations, people in a “culture of memorization” could easily memorize long passages such as the Sermon on the Mount. However, both then and now, what a person said never had to be repeated verbatim in order to accurately preserve the meaning. Just review the statements of past leaders, such as Winston Churchill or General Douglas MacArthur.
• A saying was authentically by Jesus if it opposed or was contrary to anything Jewish or taught by the early church. If it sounded Jewish or “early church,” then it was not authentic.
Response: A competent historian will not dislodge a person from his/her cultural heritage and beliefs. To do that would claim a political leader did not say anything that sounded like his political party. Such a criterion would take Jesus (and the political leader) out of his culture and make him a nonhistorical person.
• A statement was discarded if it was discovered in another source, for then it would have been borrowed and put into Jesus’ mouth by those who wish he had said it.
Response: Such a criterion suggests that something written or spoken must not exist elsewhere to be authentic. Ideas can be commonly held without being directly borrowed.
• A saying was not authentic if it was within a group of his sayings, for then the Gospel writers were inventing those sayings.
Response: It was common to band together a person’s statements when sharing them. That is still done today by news commentators and interviewers, such as Tim Russert.
• A saying was not authentic if it was repeated in a different location or time of Jesus’ life.
Response: Popular speakers usually repeat concepts in different settings without their authenticity being questioned because of it.
• Terminology was not authentically from Jesus if it was common in the literature or lore of that time, for then it would have been borrowed from those sources and put on his lips.
Response: Influential speakers typically use well-known terminology and phrases of their era in order to better connect with an audience, and would change the wording for a different audience. However, we do not discredit the authenticity of such statements, for that is one characteristic of effective speaking.
• Sayings that reflected “Christian” language were put into his mouth by Christians.
Response: The language of early Christians came from Jesus’ words, and not vice versa. Followers often use the same language of their leaders without doubting the genuineness of their words.
• Sayings that appeared in two different forms, such as in a parable and in a non-parabolic statement, were not Jesus’.
Response: Changing forms was a popular approach for speakers then, as well as now.
• Short and often-repeated sayings were not from Jesus.
Response: Effective speakers often repeat short sayings. For instance: “December 7th, the day of infamy.” “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” “I have a dream.”
• A saying that shocked people or reversed their everyday expectations was not from Jesus.
Response: Influential speakers do that, which is partly why their speeches are repeated and recorded.
To deny the authenticity of Jesus’ words by any of the above is to deny the authenticity of most communicators before, during, and after Jesus’ time.
What Does the Jesus Seminar Conclude About Jesus and the Four Gospels?
The Introduction to the Scholars Version includes the following statement:
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. . . . 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 (pp. 4, 5).
According to the seminar, the Gospels are fiction, Jesus in the Gospels is not authentically historical, but invented by the church to justify her beliefs and practices.
What’s Next from the Jesus Seminar?
The scholars are reviewing the deeds and events surrounding Jesus in the Gospels to determine which are fiction and nonfiction. They also are selecting writings to include in the completed SV Bible in order to reinvent Christianity, which they believe has held members captive to a primitive worldview that believed in demons, miracles, and a supernatural god who could incarnate himself in a person named Jesus.
Already they have decided to include the Gospel of Thomas and some writings from Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucius, and other pagan sources. They believe the result will be the Bible people can trust, and it will no doubt be the Bible used in many secular colleges and universities.
Warnings for Today
Peter’s words have never been more contemporary or relevant, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). Nor have Jude’s, “Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (verse 3). Nor have Jesus’, “Who do people say the Son of Man is? But what about you? Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:13, 15, italics mine). How well are we preparing our children and grandchildren who will no doubt be exposed to the Scholars Version of the Bible?
Knofel Staton is professor of biblical studies at Hope International University, Fullerton, California.