(image courtesy ChristArt)
By Spencer D Gear
I have two stories to tell. The first is factually, really true, true! It happened. At the end of this article, hopefully you will understand why I emphasised that this story is factually, true truth. Here’s the true story.
Recently I was talking with a fellow Christian who was devastated by a TV program that he had seen. This show featured some scholars who claimed that the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were myth and could not be trusted as historical documents. My friend was deeply troubled and in a trembling voice said, “I am shocked. My faith has been shaken to the core. I am numb in disbelief. These were scholars speaking and I knew nothing about this. As a Christian, have I been living a fantasy all this time? Is this Christian stuff all a game? Should I eat, drink and be merry? Drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll here I come.”
The second story is fantasy; it’s a myth, but true, nonetheless. Hopefully, you’ll realise the significance of that statement at the end of the article. It goes like this:
This fantasy is the vision that comes from scholar, Burton Mack, with similar views to those of the Jesus Seminar Fellows. His vision is the challenge that faces Christians who believe the Bible to be the Word of God, inspired by God, and a revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our Saviour.
[See Appendix B for an outline summary of this section]
2. My presuppositions
- I believe the personal God exists;
- He is the God who created this world, including human beings;
- He is the God who speaks through general revelation (nature) and special revelation;
- I approach the Bible as I read any other document of history that is not fiction: I listen to what it says and subject it to the normal rules of understanding any historical document.
Are the criteria of authenticity worthwhile as guides for determining historicity? 
D. A. Carson objects: “The criteria that have been established to distinguish between redaction and tradition are for the most part so imprecise as to be not much more than silly” [11a]. I agree, but here they are:
Multiple attestation or forms: This is “information or teaching that appears in more than one of the gospel sources”
- of Palestinian environment or language. The Greek text of a portion of the gospels seems to reflect a fairly literal translation of a Semitic original or it describes events/concepts distinctive of first century Palestine.
- of dissimilarity: “Where the gospels’ portrait of Jesus differs from the typical perspectives both of ancient Jewish belief and of early Christianity, then one may be sure of having authentic Jesus tradition. Because Jesus seemed to stand out so much from his contemporaries and because his first followers so easily deviated from his very demanding requirements, this criterion has appealed to many as most helpful.”
D. A. Carson objects strongly to the criterion of dissimilarity, calling it “the worst of these [criteria]” because
- An authentic teaching of Jesus (it is argued) is one that can be paralleled neither in the early church nor in surrounding Judaism. This criterion has been ruthlessly shredded in several essays. But it is still defended in some circles. At best it might produce what is idiosyncratic about jesus’ teaching but it cannot possibly produce what is characteristic about it. Is any method more than silly that requires that a historical person say something like what is said around him, and that, granted he is the most influential person of all time, so little influence his followers that no thought of theirs may legitimately be traced to him – even when those same followers deliberately make the connection . . ?
- The criterion is hopelessly inadequate for the task assigned it. Worse, there is an irresistible temptation to reconstruct the teaching of Jesus on the basis of this select material, and the result cannot possibly be other than a massive distortion.
- The criterion of dissimilarity is doubly ridiculous when placed alongside the criterion of coherence. Unbounded subjectivity  must be the result. Moreover, the other criteria for distinguishing redaction from tradition do not fare much better.[14a]
- of coherence: “Whatever fits well with material authenticated by one of the other three criteria may also be accepted.”
It is, therefore, questionable whether these criteria are of any value since they are created by scholars, many of whom are resistant to the canonical Gospels, and are not developed by deductive reasoning from the biblical text. I am reluctant to use them because they seem to come with too many trappings linked to the negatives of redaction criticism. Therefore, this paper does not employ them.
3. The Publicity Machine
There is a new breed of Bible bashers in the world today. These scholars have been in the closets of academic institutions. But no more. They are taking their message to the world through the popular mass media — newspapers, magazines, television, radio, writing their own books at a popular level. They have their message of tearing into the Bible in
Time, Newsweek and Life magazines, U.S. News and World Report and newspapers around the world. This version of Jesus was on the front pages of Time and Newsweek magazines, and U.S. News & World Report at Easter time 1996.
The publicity in Australia has been a trickle, but in the U.S., it has become a deluge. It may get that way in Australia, following the SBS TV series during 1999, “From Jesus to Christ.” Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar spoke at the United College (of the Uniting Church), North Parramatta [Sydney, Australia], September 1998.
There was a public forum at St Francis (Anglican) Theological College, Milton, Brisbane, on December 9, 1998, involving Dr Greg Jenks of the Jesus Seminar (of the Drayton Anglican parish, Toowoomba, Qld., Australia), and Dr Paul Barnett, Anglican bishop of North Sydney, defending the orthodox view. The Seminar was titled, “Behind and Beyond the Jesus Seminar: Implications for Christian Discipleship.” Dr Paul Barnett [18a] is author of the recently revised, Is the New Testament History? As of 2012, Dr. Jenks was on the faculty of St Francis Theological College, Brisbane.
This is a new kind of missionary group that has become very active. These preachers and academics are Bible-bashers of a different kind. As one Christian writer and defender of the faith said, they practice evangelism in reverse… they don’t want you to commit your life to the Christ of the Gospels; they want you to surrender that commitment. And they claim to have history, science and scholarship on their side. They promote themselves under the banner of The Jesus Seminar.
Luke Timothy Johnson has some strong things to say against the Seminar. He is not known as an evangelical (but a Roman Catholic, former Benedictine monk and priest before becoming a biblical scholar), Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA., a school not known for its conservative, evangelical views. He says that he wrote his book, The Real Jesus, “to blow the whistle on a form of scholarship I consider misguided and misleading.” Johnson admits, however, that “those whose work I have challenged have not faltered for a moment in their pursuits.” Part of this is related to the mass media frenzy that they have created.
These are some of the newspaper headlines these scholars have grabbed:
- “Scholars Say Jesus Was Often Misquoted.”
- “Jesus Didn’t Claim to Be Messiah, Scholars Say.”
- “Lord’s Prayer Not Jesus’s, Scholars Say.”
- “Jesus Never Predicted His Return, Scholars Say.”
- “Jesus Didn’t Promise to Return, Bible Scholars Group Says.”
These samples could be repeated many times over, especially in the USA.
These kinds of headlines do two things: First, they are negatively referring to the traditional Jesus of the Gospels; Second, scholars do this debunking.
When I ask, “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?” I am challenging the presuppositions and conclusions of Jesus Seminar Fellows and people of like mind. These are Bible Bashers of a different kind: these are people, mostly scholars, who do not want to take the Bible at face value. When the Bible speaks of supernatural things, it can’t possibly be dealing with historical things. Burton Mack, not of the Jesus Seminar, but with views that are similar, says that the Gospels in our New Testament “are also products of mythic imagination” and one of the “interesting question[s]” for him is “why the gospels are so hard for moderns to recognize as myth.”
Robert Funk, as cofounder of the Jesus Seminar, tells us of one aim: “We want to liberate Jesus. The only Jesus most people know is the mythic one. They don’t want the real Jesus, they want the one they can worship. The cultic Jesus.”
There is not a word in the Bible, Old or New Testament, to say that what they contain is myth. These scholars are distorting the Bible’s message; in my opinion, they have become Bible bashers of a new kind.
They claim the Gospels are myth, but that doesn’t matter. You can accept the Jesus of faith in this story, so Christ’s not rising literally from the dead is no bother. He can live in your spirit without that historical stuff back there 2,000 years ago.
There was a public forum at St Francis (Anglican) Theological College, Brisbane, on December 9, 1998, involving Dr Greg Jenks of the Jesus Seminar (of the Drayton Anglican parish, Toowoomba), and Dr Paul Barnett, Anglican bishop of North Sydney, defending the orthodox view. The Seminar was titled, “Behind and Beyond the Jesus Seminar: Implications for Christian Discipleship.” In a letter to the editor in the Anglican newspaper from the Brisbane Diocese, Focus, which promoted this forum, Greg Jenks lets us into the methodology he adopts. He disparaged those who make “the mistake of taking the Bible literally.”
What does the Jesus Seminar think of its critics? According to The Five Gospels, they come from the “skeptical left wing” and the “fundamentalist right.” Yet, evangelical scholar, Dr. Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Chicago (Deerfield, IL.) describes the Seminar in terms of “left wing ideology” that is anti supernatural and engages in circular reasoning. An extremely strong response against the Seminar has come from Howard Clark Kee, “a critical scholar with an international reputation.” He declared that the Seminar was “an academic disgrace.”
What I found very interesting was the scholars’ response to a request to have a discussion on TV in the USA with two evangelicals. Ravi Zacharias, one of the foremost defenders of the faith in the world, “was approached by a major news network [in the USA] to respond to these writings” [of the Jesus Seminar scholars]. Ravi
If you don’t understand your Bible; if you are not convinced that the Bible consists of solid, historical, reliable documents, you will be hit for a sixer by these theologically liberal scholars who want to “educate the masses” about the REAL Jesus, who we will find, is ANOTHER Jesus. He’s not the Jesus I have come to believe from the Bible and from my personal relationship with him.
Time magazine says, “The scholars are coming out of the closet.” Dr. Julian Hill, a Jesus Seminar participant, says that the Seminar was intended to deal with
4. The Jesus Seminar Approach
“The Seminar employed colored beads dropped into voting boxes in order to permit all members to vote in secret. Beads and boxes turned out to be a fortunate choice for both Fellows and an interested public.”They colour-coded the words of Jesus. About 150 scholars voted on Jesus’ words as red, pink, grey, or black:
This is what they decided. There were two options given:
“red: I would include this item unequivocally in the database for determining who Jesus was.
“pink: I would include this item with reservations (or modifications) in the database.
“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.
“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.
One member [of the Seminar] suggested this unofficial but helpful interpretation of the colors:”red: That’s Jesus!
“pink: Sure sounds like Jesus.
“gray: Well, maybe.
“black: There’s been some mistake.”
The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar explained their process:
The only words in the gospel of Mark that are supposed to be authentic are Mark 12 v.17, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” None of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. chapters 5-7) was accepted. Only two words of the Lord’s Prayer were accepted, “Our Father.” Nothing in the gospel of John was approved. But the scholars gave credibility to an “apocryphal book of sayings credited to someone named Thomas and used it to confirm or deny Jesus’ words.”
What is even more startling is that the thesis of Funk and Hoover’s book, The Five Gospels, is based on comparing a book, The Gospel of Thomas, that is not credible as a source, with the Bible. It would be like judging the content of the Bible by a Christian novel or some heretical Christian writing.
One of the world’s leading defenders of the Christian faith, Ravi Zacharias describes the Gospel of Thomas as:
Courtesy Gospel of Thomas Collection
Don Carson’s view is that “they want their own canon [of Scripture].” When you put the false canon beside the genuine canon, the false is hard to defend. But it’s the false canon that is gaining the media attention.
God’s authentic, reliable Word determines both history and faith. When the Jesus Seminar has invented fiction to suit themselves, they have made truth appear stranger than fiction.
5. Presuppositions of the Jesus Seminar:
The Jesus Seminar laid its foundation on what the Fellows called “the Seven Pillars of Scholarly Wisdom.” They wanted to view the historical Jesus “through the new lens of historical reason and research rather than through the perspective of theology and traditional creedal formulations.”
These are the seven pillars:
- First, a “distinction between the historical Jesus, to be uncovered by historical excavation, and the Christ of faith encapsulated in the first creeds [of the early church].”
- Second, “recognizing the synoptic gospels [Matthew, Mark & Luke] as much closer to the historical Jesus than the Fourth Gospel [of John].”
- Third, “The recognition of the Gospel of Mark as prior to Matthew and Luke, and the basis for them both.”
- Fourth, “The identification of the hypothetical source Q [from the German Quelle, meaning ‘source’] as the recognition of the ‘double tradition’ — the material Matthew and Luke have in common beyond their dependence on Mark.”
- Fifth, “The liberation of the non-eschatological Jesus of the aphorisms and parables from Schweitzer’s eschatological Jesus.”
- Sixth, “Recognition of the fundamental contrast between the oral culture (in which Jesus was at home) and a print culture (like our own).” Which means: the Real Jesus “will be found in those fragments of tradition that bear the imprint or orality: short, provocative, memorable, oft-repeated phrases, sentences and stories.” So, forget about the supernatural.
The Seminar starts with a totally opposite set of fundamental beliefs. Most of its fellows would agree with these statements:
- Jesus’ message was passed by an oral tradition between 30 and 50 CE; only in the 50s were the first writings made.
- God did not uniquely inspire the Christian Scriptures; they were composed by men (and perhaps one woman) who promoted their own beliefs, and those of the specific Christian tradition that they belonged to.
- Beliefs about Jesus and traditions changed and developed extensively between the time of Jesus’ execution and the writing of the first canonical gospel (Mark) circa 70 CE.
- The authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus, in spite of claims to the contrary.
- In the 4th century CE, the Christian church selected those books for the New Testament canon which:
- Expressed ideas supportive of the church’s developing theology, and/or
- were widely accepted and used throughout Christendom.
- Selection was not necessarily based on historical accuracy.
- The Jesus Seminar also regards noncanonical writings as worthy of study. These include:
- The Gospel of Thomas (a gnostic document of 2nd cent.).
- The Didache (a.k.a. “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles“), a very early Christian instructional manual.
- Other supposed gospels, other epistles, etc.
- A tiny, surviving fragment of the Gospel of John has been dated to about 125 CE. But the earliest copies of an entire book from the Christian Scriptures date from about 200 CE. No two are identical. Thus, we can never know precisely what the original copy of any of the books said.
- The five most important Gospels that are studied (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Thomas) were written by unknown authors, probably with names different than are traditionally assigned.
- R. W. Funk and the other authors of the book, The Five Gospels wrote: “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 miracle workers firsthand.“
- Many, if not most, of the miracles described in the Gospels did not actually occur. There was no virgin birth no walking on water, no feeding of thousands with a few fish and loaves. Jesus did not bring Lazarus back to life. Jesus’ bodily resurrection, walking through walls, transfiguration, ascension into heaven, etc. are myths. There are no such entities as indwelling demons. Jesus probably healed mental and physical illnesses in the same way that religious healers work today.
Marcus Borg of the Jesus Seminar makes it very clear what he means by myth and he wants us to see that it is different from a fairy tale in his understanding. He says:
The stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection contain a mixture of historical memory and mythical narration. The stories of Jesus’ execution are closer to history than the birth stories; he really was crucified under Pontius Pilate around the year 30. . .
But as the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection are told, the authors of the New Testament make use of a number of symbolic motifs to suggest its religious significance [a motif is a main element, idea, feature, etc.(68)].”
So what are these symbolic ideas that myths represent? Borg says that the death and resurrection of Jesus represent “the defeat of the principalities and powers, all those forces of bondage that enslave us.” They can also be “understood as a symbol and embodiment of the path of return to God: we die to an old way of being in order to be born into a new way of being.”
“What happens when the story of Jesus a whole is framed by the stories of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. The story as whole – the completed Christian story – becomes a story about God and us, a myth about God and us… This does not mean, of course, that the historical Jesus was God… The canonical Jesus [the Jesus in the Bible canon of Scripture] discloses what Jesus became in the experience and life of early Christian communities.
“We do not need to choose between [the historical Jesus or the canonical Jesus]… Both disclose what God is like.”
Do you hear what he is saying?
- The actual birth and resurrection of Jesus are symbols. They didn’t actually happen in history;
- But that doesn’t matter as they represent our relationship with God.
- What you read in the Bible (especially the Gospels) about Jesus, is what they early Christian communities wrote back into the Bible. It has noting to do with historical fact. The Gospels are the creation of the Christian church, not that of eyewitnesses who saw and heard Jesus.
- This is an assertion by these people, not demonstrated from the Gospels or the writings of the early church leaders. This is modern fiction by critical scholars.
6. Questioning their Assumptions?
One of the most important questions you can ask of any point of view (a question almost never asked by the media) is this: Why do they believe it? This allows us to determine whether the reasons lead properly to the conclusions.
Everyone has a starting point. The place the Jesus Seminar begins is carefully concealed from the public at large, but it’s the most critical issue. Why do they claim there is no evidence, say, for the bodily resurrection of Jesus? That is a key question.
Their reasoning goes something like this: It’s impossible for the Gospels to be historically accurate, because they record things that simply can’t happen, like dead people coming alive again and food multiplying — miracles don’t happen. We live in a closed universe of natural order, with God (if there is a God) locked out of the system. If miracles can’t happen, then the reports in the New Testament must be fabrications. Therefore, the Gospels are not reliable historical documents.
Further, if miracles can’t happen, then prophecy (a kind of miraculous knowledge) can’t happen. The Gospels report that Jesus prophesied the fall of Jerusalem. Therefore, they could not have been written early, but after the invasion of Titus of Rome in 70 A.D. In addition, eyewitnesses could not have written them, as the early church Fathers claimed.
Notice that the Jesus Seminar doesn’t start with historical evidence; it starts with presuppositions, assumptions that it makes no attempt to prove. This is not history; it’s philosophy, specifically, the philosophy of naturalism.
Robert Funk and the Seminar admit as much: “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. . .”
The mass media report that the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are based on scientific, historical analysis: the resurrection didn’t happen; the miracles are myths; there is no authentic prophecy in the Bible; the Gospels were written long after the events took place; they were not written by eyewitnesses; the testimony of the early church Fathers can’t be trusted.
This is misleading because the Jesus Seminar doesn’t conclude that the Gospels are inaccurate. That’s where they begin before they’ve looked at one single shred of actual historical evidence. When you start with your conclusions, you’re cheating. You haven’t proved anything at all.
These are people with a mission. Robert Funk, the Seminar’s founder, says, “It is time for us [scholars] to quit the library and study and speak up. . . The Jesus Seminar is a clarion call to enlightenment. It is for those who prefer facts to fancies, history to histrionics, science to superstition.”
This is a strong challenge to evangelicals, depicted here as preferring nice stories to accurate history. Sometimes the best defence is knowing the right questions to ask. These are the ones you need to ask when the Jesus Seminar hits the newsstands.
- Why are their conclusions their assumptions? That’s cheating!
- Why don’t they treat the Gospels like any other historical document, or even the Bundaberg News-Mail (my local newspaper) or The Courier-Mail (Brisbane), and leave the burden of proof with the document: Innocent until proven guilty?
7. Who Are the Scholars?
‘Convened in 1985 by Robert W. Funk the Jesus Seminar has become a lightning rod for international debate about the “historical Jesus” – that is, the real facts about the person to whom various Christian gospels refer. The Seminar’s on-going project has been to evaluate the historical significance of every shred of evidence about Jesus from antiquity (about 30-200 CE). Over the past fifteen years more than 100 scholars from North America & beyond have participated in its semi-annual meetings.”Journalists frequently refer to the 74 “scholars” of the Jesus Seminaras representing the mainstream of biblical scholarship. Being a bona fide scholar, though, means more than just having a higher degree. Generally, a scholar is one who demonstrates a mastery of his discipline and who makes an academic contribution to his field’.
John Dominic Crossan (Courtesy Wikipedia)
By this definition, only fourteen members of the Seminar qualify, including scholars like John Dominic Crossan (pictured at left) and Marcus Borg. Twenty others are recognizable names in the field. One quarter of the group, though, comprises complete unknowns (one is a movie producer), and half of them come from a cluster of three ultra-liberal theological schools: Harvard, Claremont, and Vanderbilt.
Clearly, the Jesus Seminar cannot be viewed as a relevant cross section of academic opinion. This doesn’t mean that their conclusions are false; it means theirs is only one voice of many, viewed even by liberal scholars as suspect and on the extreme fringe. Dr. Gregory Boyd has written a substantial refutation of the Jesus Seminar’s view of Jesus. His view is that “the Jesus Seminar represents an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking. It does not represent mainstream scholarship.”
Luke Johnson says that it is “a small, self-selected association of academics.” “This is not responsible, or even critical, scholarship. It is a self-indulgent charade.”
Professor Richard Hays of Duke University (North Carolina) reviewed the book, The Five Gospels, and said that “the case argued by this book would not stand up in any court… Nor does it represent a fair picture of the current state of research on this problem.”
8. What Does the Jesus Seminar Believe?
The Jesus Seminar meets twice a year to dissect biblical passages. Their goal: separate historical fact from mythology. So far, they have rejected as myth the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the virgin birth, all Gospel miracles, and a full 82% of the teachings normally attributed to Jesus — all dismissed as legendary additions with no historical foundation.
An article in the L.A. Times entitled, “Scholars Cite Lack of Resurrection Evidence,” also carried this subtitle: “Controversial Jesus Seminar evaluates New Testament, but members affirm that event’s religious significance does not hinge on the historical record.”
According to this piece, there are two things the Jesus Seminar has to say about the resurrection of Jesus.
First, it never happened. There’s no historical evidence for it.
Second, it doesn’t matter. Christians can still celebrate Easter with its symbolic message of hope and new life.
Robert Funk calls Jesus a “secular sage who satirized the pious and championed the poor.” He then adds, “Jesus was perhaps the first stand-up Jewish comic. Starting a new religion would have been the farthest thing from his mind.”
Isn’t that an odd thing to say about Jesus? Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. He didn’t work miracles. He didn’t give us the greatest teaching in the world. Instead, He was a stand-up comic, according to the founder of the Jesus Seminar.
9. Does Their Bias Make Them Open-minded or Closed-minded?
I agree with philosopher J.P. Moreland that Christian scholars have a point of view, like everyone else. The Christian’s bias should not inform his or her conclusions the same way biases inform the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar.
Because people like Robert Funk start with what he calls the “scientific” view that there can be no miracles, their bias arbitrarily eliminates options before the game even gets started. Funk must conclude the Gospels have been tampered with because his philosophy demands it. He can’t consider any evidence for a resurrection because he’s closed his mind to the possibility of miracles.
A Christian is not hindered in this way. The Christian believes in the laws of nature, but is also open to the possibility of God’s intervention. Both are consistent with his worldview. This means he can be faithful to the evidence, unhindered by a metaphysical view that automatically eliminates supernatural options before even viewing the evidence.
The bias of true Christians broadens their categories, making them more open-minded . The believer has a greater chance of discovering truth, because he/she can follow the evidence wherever it leads. The bias of the Jesus Seminar, on the other hand, makes it close-minded and dogmatic. It must also be noted that some evangelicals can also be close-minded as well.
Newspaper articles cast the issue in the opposite way, though. One mentions a dean of a prominent Baptist seminary who says the Seminar’s work is driving a wedge between faith and history among Christians.
What is unfortunate about this representation is that it pits the “historical” and “scientific” analysis of the Jesus Seminar against those poor sods who rely only on “faith.” And since the facts of history are sabotaging the faith of some, Christians are now upset. It’s as if they were saying, “Please don’t tell me these things and confuse me with the facts. It might weaken my faith.” This casts believers as nincompoops, obscurantists who want to cling to fantasy.
But that isn’t the way it is at all. The conclusions of the Jesus Seminar don’t represent facts. Rather, their point of view and research methods are deeply flawed because of their prior commitment to a philosophic position that is already hostile to the events described in the text of the Gospels. It isn’t an issue of historical fact versus religious faith. The facts are actually on the side of the resurrection, not on the side of the wishful thinking of the Jesus Seminar.
10. Are the Gospels reliable history or are they mythic?
The so-called “search for the historic Jesus” is over one hundred years old. Virtually nothing discovered during that time undermines the Gospel accounts. There is no “new evidence” supporting the idea that the miracle-working Son of God was the result of a myth inserted in the Gospel records over a long period of time. To the contrary, recent discoveries have given more credibility to the content of the Gospels themselves. This is why the trend in the last 20 years has been for liberal scholars to become more conservative in their views on the reliability of the Gospels, not less.
Recent finds in archaeology, for example, show us that funerals were conducted differently in Galilee than in Jerusalem, consistent with the details in the Gospels. A person fabricating a story generations after the fact would not know this because of the devastation in Galilee by the Romans in 70 A.D.
This doesn’t prove that Jesus rose from the dead, but it’s one of a number of things that have been discovered over time that point to the accurate detail of the Gospel accounts. This gives substance to the claim that the writers were eyewitnesses at the time of the events, OR associates of eyewitnesses.
We know the Apostle Paul died during the Neronian persecution of A.D. 64. Paul was still alive at the close of Acts, so Acts must have been written sometime before A.D. 64. Acts was a continuation of Luke’s Gospel, which must have been written earlier still. The book of Mark predates Luke, even by the Jesus Seminar’s reckoning. This pushes Mark’s Gospel into the 50s, just over twenty years after the crucifixion.
It is undisputed that Paul wrote Romans in the mid-50s, yet he proclaims Jesus as the resurrected Son of God in the opening lines of that epistle. Galatians, another uncontested Pauline epistle of the mid-50s, records Paul’s interaction with the principal disciples (Peter and James) at least 14 years earlier (Gal 1:18, cf. 2:1).
The Jesus Seminar claims that the humble sage of Nazareth was transformed into a wonder-working Son of God in the late first and early second century. The epistles, though, record a high Christology within 10 to 20 years of the crucifixion. That simply is not enough time for myth and legend to take hold, especially when so many were still alive to contradict the alleged errors.
There is no good reason to assume the Gospels were fabricated or seriously distorted in the retelling. Time and again the New Testament writers claim to be eyewitnesses to the facts. They give abundant geographic and cultural details not available to writers of the next century. We also now know that it was the habit of Jewish disciples to memorise entire discourses of their rabbi’s teaching.
There’s so much misinformation abroad about accuracy and trustworthiness of the Bible. But there’s another problem.
11. Would you follow a mythical Jesus who engaged in symbolic ways of how God and people should relate? Would you follow a Jesus who said he would rise again in three days, did just that, but then you discovered it was only a mythical way of showing darkness vs. light?
Even the members of the Jesus Seminar admit that Jesus was executed on a Roman Cross. But why was He killed? Who would follow this deconstructed Jesus? Who would care if He lived or died?
Leading Jesus scholar John Meier notes that a Jesus who “spent his time spinning parables and Japanese koans . . . or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field . . . would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one.”
In Jesus Under Fire , J.P. Moreland sums up what the Jesus Seminar is asking us to believe based on nothing more than the strength of their philosophical assumptions:
12. What about the resurrection factor? Does it matter?
The Jesus Seminar wants us to believe that nothing meaningful is surrendered as a result of their analysis. Even though the resurrection is false, they say, it still has significance because of the story it tells.
The Apostle Paul disagreed. “If Christ has not been raised,” he wrote, “your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, but instead was buried in a shallow grave and later dug up and eaten by dogs, as Robert Funk asserts, then Christians have nothing to celebrate. Rather, they should be pitied, according to Paul. Pretty stories not grounded in fact save no one. Only a risen Saviour can defeat death.
I’m with Paul. I pity the Jesus Seminar Fellows who think that we can hold on to some kind of vain, empty, religious confidence when all the facts of history go against us. If that’s true, then you and the Jesus Seminar and I are all still in our sins. That’s not something to celebrate on Easter.
As for me, I’m going to stand with Paul. I’m going to stand with Jesus. I’m going to stand with the resurrection.
13. An Approach to Refuting the Jesus Seminar
A. You must become a reader
You must develop an understanding of the content of the debate. Read several books on the subject (enemies and friends).
B. Response to: “You Can’t Trust the Gospels. They’re Unreliable” 
- “Without assuming that the Gospels are ‘holy books’ or ‘inerrant,’ they can be shown to be reliable for historical purposes” [see Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ].
- “Ask the person who rejects the Gospels’ historical reliability, ‘On what basis do you reject their general accuracy?’ If someone favors an unorthodox ‘Gospel’ of Jesus (such as Thomas) over the canonical Gospels, ask why.
- “If the New Testament is textually flawed, then so is every other work of antiquity. To the contrary, these manuscripts are quite reliable.
- “Typically, we assume historical documents are reliable unless we have good reason to doubt them. Why should this procedure be reversed — making biblical texts false until proven true?”
- See my 4 articles, ‘Can you trust the Bible?‘
C. Refuting, “Jesus’ Followers Invented the Stories and Sayings of Jesus” 
- Because one writes with an evangelistic, theological or apologetic purpose does not mean the writing is unreliable, e.g.. Read the passion and zeal of writings of Holocaust survivors;
- “Early Christians didn’t read back into Jesus’ teachings their own issues:
1. Many of the controversial issues in the epistles are not even mentioned in the Gospels (e.g.. circumcision, tongues, eating meat offered to idols, women in ministry);
2. Matthew, Mark and Luke offer a portrait of Jesus within one generation of his death.
3. The Book of Acts was possibly written before Paul’s death about A.D. 64, so the book of Luke was written even earlier;
4. First century Jews were concerned about accurately preserving tradition;
5. The Gospels’ simplicity does not reflect a fabrication, .e.g. the women witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection despite their lower status in society, Jesus’ baptism by John, Christ’s ignorance of the time of his second coming, his not doing miracles in some places;
6. Why invent so many miracles stories, when most Jews expected a political deliverer as Messiah, not a wonder-worker?
A. Refuting the Jesus Seminar:
Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History? (rev.) (Aquila Press, Sydney South, Australia, 2003).
Paul W. Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History (Apollos/Inter-Varsity Press U.K., 1997).
Paul Barnett, Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity (InterVarsity Press, USA, 1999).
Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (After Jesus, vol 1) (Eerdmans, USA, 2005).
Paul Barnett, Paul: Missionary of Jesus (After Jesus, vol 2) (Eerdmans, USA, 2008).
Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ (After Jesus, vol 3) (Eerdmans, USA, 2009).
John Blanchard, Will the real JESUS please stand up? (Durham, England, Evangelical Press, 1989).
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Inter-Varsity Press, UK, 1987).
Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A guide to Sources and Methods (Baker Academic, 2002).
—————-, Jesus According to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2002 — for students.
Gregory A. Boyd, Jesus Under Siege (Victor Books, 1995) — for laity.
——————, Cynic, Sage or Son of God. (Victor Books, 1995).
F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Inter-Varsity Press, UK, 1960).
Paul Copan, “True For You, But Not For Me”: Deflating the Slogans That Leave Christians Speechless (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1998).
Paul Copan (ed.) Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? (debate between William Lane Craig, Christian defender of the faith, and John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar) [Baker Books, 1998].
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996).
Gregory Koukl, “The Jesus Seminar Under Fire” (based on his radio show, “Stand to Reason,”) at: http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5380 (retrieved 13 August 2006).
Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998).
————, The Case for Faith (Zondervan, 2000).
Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, Jesus Under Fire (Zondervan, 1995).
Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest (InterVarsity, USA, 1997.
Ravi Zacharias 1994, “They Want Their Own Canon,” from the web site, “Just thinking” (Winter 1994), available at: http://www.gospelcom.net/rzim/noindex/jtprint1.php3?jtcode=JT94WRZ (retrieved 29 March 2004).
B. Promoting the Jesus Seminar’s Agenda:
Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus AGAIN for the First Time (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).
—————, The God We Never Knew (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).
John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
———————–, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).
———————–, The Essential Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).
———————–, Who Killed Jesus? (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).
———————–, The Birth of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998).
———————–, A Long Way from Tipperary: A Memoir (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.
Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels. (Macmillan, 1993).
Lloyd Geering [from New Zealand], “How Did Jesus Become God — and Why?” Available at:
http://www.westarinstitute.org/Periodicals/4R_Articles/Jesus_to_God/jesus_to_god.html (retrieved on 29 March 2005).
Jesus Seminar Forum: http://virtualreligion.net/forum/ (retrieved 29 March 2005).
Jesus Seminar Website: http://www.westarinstitute.org/Jesus_Seminar/jesus_seminar.html (retrieved on 13 May 2000)
Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993)
—————-, Who Wrote the New Testament? (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).
B. A. Robinson, “The ‘Jesus Seminar'”, http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jsem.htm (retrieved 13 May 2000).
Conclusions of the Jesus Seminar
Most Fellows of the Jesus Seminar would probably agree with the following conclusions:
- The 4 canonical gospels were written chronologically in the order: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John over the interval from about 70 to 110 CE.
- The Gospel of Mark and there were two independent sources which the authors used as the basis of their gospels. Both Matthew and Luke also incorporated material from their own sources.
- The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. It was part of a Gnostic Christian library which was apparently buried during a time of persecution of the Gnostics by Pauline Christians. It contains 73 sayings that are duplicates of those found in the canonical Gospels. It also has 65 sayings (or parts of sayings) that are unique. However, some of these scholars could see GThom as a writing independent of the Gospels.
- The Gospel of John represents a religious tradition that is independent from the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). They differ so much that either John or the Synoptic Gospels must be largely abandoned in the quest for an understanding of Jesus’ actual sayings and acts. The Jesus Seminar has largely rejected John.
- Many of Jesus’ followers had previously followed John the Baptist.
- Jesus rarely spoke of himself in the first person. The many “I am” statements in John originated from the Gospel author, not from Jesus.
- Jesus did not claim to be Messiah.
- Jesus is not claim to be God.
- Jesus did not believe that his execution was necessary in order for those who trust in him as Lord and Saviour would be saved from eternal damnation.
- Jesus believed that the Kingdom of God had already arrived in 1st century Palestine and was visible in the way that he and his followers treated each other. On the other hand, John the Baptist and Paul viewed the Kingdom as coming at a time in their future, sometime in the 1st century.
- Jesus probably talked to his followers and preached in Aramaic. The books in the Christian Scriptures are written in Greek. Thus, even those parts of the Gospels that Jesus is believed to have said, are actually translations into Greek of his original words.
- About 18% of the sayings of Jesus recorded in the 4 canonical Gospels and Thomas rated a red or pink rating (Jesus definitely or probably said it). The remaining passages attributed to Jesus were actually created by the Gospel writers.
- In Mark, only one saying (Mark 12:14) was given a red rating; many are pink.
Matthew contains many sayings of Jesus which have been rated red or pink. But all of the words attributed to Jesus from the description of the last judgement in Chapter 25 until the end of the Gospel, were rated black (i.e. definitely not said by Jesus).
Luke also contains many pink and red ratings. But all of the sayings attributed to Jesus from his comment that the earth will pass into oblivion within a generation (Luke 21:32) to the end of the Gospel are all rated black.
The Gospel of John was unique among the canonical Gospels: none of the words attributed to Jesus were rated red. There was only one pink passage. One was gray (Jesus did not say this, but it contains ideas similar to his). The vast majority of sayings were rated black.
FOR Power Point use
“We want to liberate Jesus. The only Jesus most people know is the mythic one. They don’t want the real Jesus; they want the one they can worship. The cultic Jesus.”
“The narrative gospels are also products of mythic imagination. Jesus is now confronted… with the more interesting question of the reasons why the gospels are so hard for moderns to recognize as myth.
“Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him.”
“The authors [from the Jesus Seminar] seem to have looked into the well of history searching for Jesus and seen their own reflection.”
“What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged from watching how later Christian accounts slowly but steadily increased the reverential dignity of their burial accounts. His body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting.”
1. This article was written with considerable assistance from Gregory Koukl, “The Jesus Seminar Under Fire” (based on his radio show, “Stand to Reason,”), at: http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5380 retrieved 13 August, 2006, “Stand to Reason” at P.O. Box 6568, San Pedro, CA 90734, Email: [email protected], retrieved from www.str.org (Accessed 13 August 2006).
2. In 2011, I retired as a family and general counsellor and counselling manager, after working the last 17 years full-time in the counselling field in Australia. I am ordained with the Christian & Missionary Alliance denomination, Australia and completed my research PhD in New Testament (University of Pretoria, South Africa) in 2015, with a focus on a dimension of historical Jesus studies.
3. The original said, “Los Angeles County.”
4. Burton L. Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, 310, emphasis added. Although Mack is not a member of the Jesus Seminar, his theological views are harmonious with that of the Seminar.
5. Interview of Robert Funk, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, with Mary Rourke, “Cross Examination,” Los Angeles Times, 24 February 1994, E1, E5, in Wilkins and Moreland, 2.
6. Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 250.
7. Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company (A Polebridge Press Book), 1993, 5.
8. Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest (new expanded edition). Downers Grove, Ill. InterVarsity Press, 1997, 9. This was referring to Albert Schweitzer’s comment that he had come to the conclusion that most of these fresh attempts to say what we could really know about the historical Jesus actually told us more about their authors than about the person they sought to describe. The authors seem to have looked into the well of history searching for Jesus and seen their own reflection” (Witherington, 9).
9. John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, 154.
10. Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987, 247.
11a. D. A. Carson, “Redaction criticism: On the legitimacy and illegitimacy of a literary tool,” in D. A. Carson. and J. D. Woodbridge (eds). Scripture and Truth. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1992, 125.
12. Blomberg, p. 247.
13. Ibid., emphasis added.
14. Ibid., 248.
14a Carson, “Redaction criticism,” 125.
15. e.g.. Richard N. Ostling, “Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple,” Time, 10 January 1994, 38, in Gregory A. Boyd, Jesus Under Siege. Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1985, 137.
16. Boyd, ibid., 12.
17. According to Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, vii.
18. Gregory Koukl of the organisation, “Stand to Reason” and the transcript, “The Jesus Seminar Under Fire,” 1995, 1, emphasis added [29 March 2005].
18a. Paul Barnett 2003, Is the New Testament History? (rev.), Aquila Press, Sydney South, Australia.
19. Luke Timothy Johnson, rear cover.
20. According to the university’s web page, the school was started by the Methodist Church.
21. Johnson, vii.
23. The following newspaper headlines are from Johnson, 20.
24. San Francisco Chronicle, 9 March 1987.
25. San Francisco Chronicle, 18 October, 1987.
26. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 15 October 1988.
27. Atlanta Constitution, 5 March 1989.
28. Los Angeles Times, 5 March 1989.
29. See Johnson, 20.
30. Based on ibid.
31. Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 250.
32. Interview with Mary Rourke, “Cross Examination,” Los Angeles Times, 24 February 1994, E1, E5, in Wilkins and Moreland, 2.
33. “Biblical tyranny?” letter by Fr Greg Jenks, St Matthew’s, Drayton, in “Opinion,” Focus [the Anglican newspaper distributed in Queensland], December 1998, p. 4.
34. Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company (A Polebridge Press Book), 1993, 5. I was alerted to this in Johnson, 22.
35. U.S. News & World Report, 1 July 1991, in Johnson, 18.
36. Johnson, 18. I am an Australian family relationships’ counselling manager, doctoral student in biblical studies, an active Christian apologist, and may be contacted at: PO Box 3107, Hervey Bay 4655, Australia.
37. In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, 30 March, 1991; see also U.S. News & World Report, 1 July, 1991, in Johnson 18.
38. Ravi Zacharias, “They Want Their Own Canon,” from the web site, “Just thinking,” Available from: http://www.rzim.org/publications/jttran.php?seqid=17 (Accessed 3 April 2003), emphasis added.
39. Ostling, 38.
40. A. Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, “Seminar Examines Jesus’ Words,” Milwaukee Sentinel, 11 December 1993, 8A, in Boyd, Jesus Under Siege, 15.
41. According to the Jesus Seminar, it is 18%. Available at: http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jsem.htm, (Accessed 13 May 2000); Copyright 1998, 1999, originally written: 1998, July 5; Latest update: 1999, Dec. 8; Author: B.A. Robinson
43. Funk, et al., 36.
47. Ibid., 36-37.
48. Ibid., 34.
49. Donald A. Wells, Ph.D., “The Many Quests for the Historical Jesus,” in the website column, “From the Pulpit,” www.mind.net/rvuuf/pages/quests.htm. This essay was originally developed and delivered as a Sunday Service presentation for the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Ashland, Oregon, on June 23, 1996, 2.
50. Ibid., 3.
51. The above information from ibid., 3-4.
52. Ravi Zacharias, “They Want Their Own Canon,” from the web site, “Just thinking,” Available from: http://www.rzim.org/publications/jttran.php?seqid=17 (Accessed 3 April 2003), emphasis added.
53. Ibid. emphasis added.
54. Unless otherwise stated, these assumptions are taken from http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jsem.htm, (Accessed 13 May 2000). Copyright 1998, 1999; Originally written: 1998, July 5; Latest update: 1999, Dec. 8; Author: B.A. Robinson. The author is a supporter of these assumptions.
55. Funk, et al., 2.
57. Ibid., 3.
61. Ibid., 4.
64. Ibid., 4-5.
65. Ibid., 5.
66. Funk et al.
67. Ibid., 4-5.
68. Noah Webster, Webster’s new Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language (unabridged). Collins World, 1978, p. 1173.
69. Marcus J. Borg, The God I Never Knew. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, 102.
71. Ibid., 102-104.
72. This is based on Gregory Koukl.
73. Papias, about A.D. 125 said that “Mark had carefully and accurately recorded Peter’s eyewitness observations.” Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180 said that:
“Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue. . . Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter… Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his Gospel while he was living in Ephesus in Asia” [Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4, in Lee Strobel,The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House 1998, p. 24).
74. Funk, et al., 5, emphasis added.
75. Robert Funk & Mahlon H. Smith, The Gospel of Mark, Red Letter Edition. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1991, pp. xvi- xvii.
76. Jesus Seminar Forum: http://virtualreligion.net/forum/ (Accessed 13 May 2000).
77. A partial list of scholars who have participated or are presently involved with the Jesus Seminar can be found at: http://westarinstitute.org/Fellows/fellows.html (Accessed 13 May 2000).
78. Gregory A. Boyd, Cynic, Sage or Son of God. Wheaton, Illinois: A Bridgepoint Book (Victor Books), 1995.
79. Interview with Gregory Boyd in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998, 114.
80. Johnson, 1.
81. Ibid., 26.
82. “The Corrected Jesus,” First Things, May 1994, 43-48, in Johnson, 26.
83. Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1995, in Koukl.
84. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus , vol. 1 New York: Doubleday, 1991, 177, quoted in Wilkins & Moreland, 21.
85. Wilkins and Moreland, 22.
86. 1 Corinthians 15:17-19.
87. From Paul Copan, “True for You, But Not for Me.” Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1998, 99.
88. See a more detailed explanation in ibid., ch. 15.
89. Ibid., 105-106.
90. See a more detailed explanation in ibid., ch. 16.
91. http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jsem.htm, retrieved 13 May 2000; Copyright 1998, 1999, originally written: 1998, July 5; Latest update: 1999, Dec. 8; Author: B.A. Robinson.
Copyright (c) 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at 7 October 2015.