The Jesus Seminar is unique among scholarly groups. It has captured the interest of the general public and has brought to the fore ideas about early Christianity that, up to its inception, had only been relegated to fringe members of the academic community. It claims something radical – that the Jesus we all have come to know is not the Jesus that really lived two thousand years ago: His sayings as recorded in the traditional gospels are not always the sayings the real man said. In their magnum opus work The Five Gospels, the Jesus Seminar labels each saying as either historical (in red and pink ink) to unhistorical (black and gray ink).

Why does the Seminar make this claim? As with any scholarly pursuit, a cast of test criteria is involved. The Seminar uses these test functions, called the criteria of authenticity, to gauge whether a gospel saying of Jesus is indeed historical. Their criteria employs the principles of coherence, dissimilarity, and multiple attestation. The honest employment of these rules actually leads to the acceptance of many of the gospels’ sayings of Jesus (Blomberg, 1987, p. 253). However, the fact that the Jesus Seminar rejects more than half of all gospel sayings reveals that the Seminar’s own scholars are unnecessarily limiting themselves with the sayings they officially ascribe to the historical Jesus.

The complete criteria of authenticity includes many tests, including those related to language and cultural milieu (Stein, 1980), but the primary are coherence, dissimilarity, and multiple attestation (Bock, 1995, p. 90). Coherence means that one saying, accepted through the other means of authenticity, can vouch for a debated saying through their reference of the same basic idea. The collection of accepted sayings is where the main conflict here lies, so coherence relies heavily on proper execution of the other criteria. The Jesus Seminar, as will be shown, unduly limits what it accepts, so it naturally has less to use for this criteria.

Using dissimilarity on the sayings of Jesus essentially means checking the given statement against the Judaic culture of the saying’s past and the Christian culture of the saying’s future. If a statement runs counter to both, it is most likely historical, for it could not have been invented from the mindset of either. When applied to Jewish elements, dissimilarity is useful in determining what sets Jesus apart from his culture, for some statements clearly run counter to it: Jews and Christians alike were not too keen about loving one’s enemies (Matt. 5:44) nor of “let[ting] the dead bury their dead” (Matt. 8:22 King James Version), since it appears dishonorable to refrain from burying one’s own. The Seminar, accordingly, marks these statements as historical.

But then the Seminar begins to act inconsistently in its application of dissimilarity, and this is where their undue limitations begin to take root. A good example of this inconsistency is the “Son of man” passages found in a host of gospel passages. Its dissimilarity to culture is definitively established, having been employed in a Messianic sense only twice in the whole Bible – once in the Jewish tradition (Dan. 7:13) and once in the Christian tradition (Acts 7:56) (Blomberg, 1987, p. 249). Both of these references picture a heavenly figure who is clearly divine, so its application to the Jesus who walks the earth like any other human is quite distinct. With no obvious parallel in either traditions, it should be often deemed historical by this criterion. However, the Seminar rejects it, placing such appearances of the phrase in the unhistorical black and gray ink of the The Five Gospels(Funk, Hoover, et al., 1993). By contrast, when “Son of man” (or “son of Adam,” as translated by the Seminar’s Scholar’s Version of the gospels) appears to simply mean an individual or man in general, it is not rejected, despite this usage being paralleled considerably in the Jewish tradition (Job 25:6; Ps. 8:4; Ps. 144:3; Ps. 146:3; Jer. 49:33; Ezek. 2:1; Ezek. 3:1; dozens more in Ezekiel).

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Examples specifically like this are not replete in the Seminar’s works, but its appearance does give warning over the Seminar’s use of this criteria, especially when considering other passages, where the Seminar does the opposite and takes dissimilarity too seriously, leaving a Jesus potentially void of culture and ineffective in influencing what are supposed to be his followers (Bock, 1996, p. 91). So the pendulum goes both ways, and the Seminar does not consistently remain in the balance.

Next comes the criterion of multiple attestation. This rule can be said to rest, ironically enough, in an idea found in Matthew 18:16: “In the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (King James Version). One can safely assume that a saying was actually said if it is found in two historical documents, such as Mark and John, or two genre forms, such as a parable and a miracle story (Bock, 1995, p. 92). The gamut of viable document “witnesses” includes the traditional gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John and their theorized source materials of Q, M, L, and Mark, in addition to other documents such as the apocryphal gospel of Thomas and the early letters of Paul. Using multiple attestation, the Jesus Seminar can label Jesus’ description of John the Baptist in Matthew 11:7-8 as historical, for it appears not only in Matthew, but in Thomas (saying 78). Jesus’ command to give Caesar what is Caesar’s also gets the Seminar’s red ink of approval, for it can clearly be found in Matthew 22:21 and Thomas 100.

But then emerges the Seminar’s inconsistency once again. By the standard of multiple attestation, Jesus’ assertion in Mark 2:17 that he came to save sinners should be accepted. It is paralleled in Matthew 9:13, Luke 5:32, Luke 19:10, and I Timothy 1:15. Admittedly, the Matthew and Luke parallels can be attributed to their having used Mark as a source, thus casting all three as a single witness to the phrase. However, I Timothy is clearly a second, independent witness, one written as early as A.D. 63 (Constable, 2010, p. 2). In I Timothy 1:15, the indication that Jesus came to save sinners is plainly supported, thus providing the second witness of authenticity. However, the Seminar rejects this saying, with no compensating explanation, but rather a candid acknowledgement of the saying’s parallels (Funk, Hoover, et al., 1993. p. 95).

A similar phenomenon occurs in the “I have come” sayings in which Jesus defines and describes his ministry. Sayings following this formula flood the synoptic tradition, especially when also considering the “I am sent” sayings, which are “conceptually similar in form” (Bock, 1995, p. 92) and the “Son of man has come” sayings, which are grammatically identical (especially if “Son of man” is not considered a messianic title). The witnesses to this format are found in Mark, M, L, Q – nearly all of the theorized gospel sources. But when the Seminar analyzes Mark 10:45, where Jesus asserts that “the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many,” the Seminar takes a winding path of logic to nullify its authenticity: Luke’s shorter parallel passage (Luke 22:27), they say, is closer to the original, while Mark expanded and theologized its simple message of service (Funk, Hoover, et al., 1993, pp. 95-96; Bock, 1995, p. 92). However, one of the concepts taken for granted among scholars liberal and conservative alike is that Mark was written earlier than Luke. Thus, the Seminar’s reasoning falls short, leaving the door open to accept at least the historicity of Jesus’ terminology here, since “I am sent” and “Son of man has come” are indisputably common ways Jesus spoke of himself.

But the crowning example of the Seminar’s intentional ignorance of its rules of authenticity comes in the multi-layered tradition of Jesus’ allusions to a close Father/Son relationship. These passages include the “Our Father” passage in the Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew 6:9 and Luke 11:2 and the expressions of paternal closeness found in Matthew 11:25-27, Luke 10:21-22, John 3:35, John 13:3, and even Thomas 61:3. That the Seminar accepts “Our Father,” while rejecting the conceptually similar related passages displays an excessively limiting factor that the Seminar itself finally admits to adhering:

“Our Father” from the Lord’s Prayer fulfills a criteria of dissimilarity from the Jewish tradition against pronouncing an intimate name for God. It also one of the similar words in the two renditions of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew and Luke; thus, the Seminar labels it as part of the original version theoretically found in Q. Therefore, we have as historical a key idea on “Jesus’ self-understanding . . . [in] his unparalleled use of the intimate word for Father, Abba, in his prayers” (Blomberg, 1987, p. 251). From this conclusion, it logically flows that Jesus saw a highly unique relationship between himself and God, namely, one of an intimate father and son. Thus, Jesus’ more evident statements to his unique sonship ought to be considered historical by the criteria of coherence.

Jesus’ sonship sayings occur in Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas, as mentioned above. The first two references are similar and could have been sourced in Q; thus, they form the first witness. John’s reference is independent and so is Thomas’s. Yet the Seminar colors all three witnesses in the black or gray ink of unhistorical formulations of the later church.

Interestingly, the Seminar in their work The Five Gospels does not explain their conclusions on declining three of the five sonship passages. When they do explain themselves, it is with revelatory effect. In their scholar’s notes to Matthew 12:25-27, the Seminar acknowledge this passage as similar to that in John and allusive to that in Thomas. Right after this acknowledgement comes the conclusion that all of these versions be rejected. However, they offer no expanded explanation for the suddenly candid disregard of coherence and multiple attestation. But in the notes to Thomas 61:3, they are finally more definitive: Although, they say,

[t]his version may be compared with similar language in John 3:35; 7:29; 13:3; and the Q saying located at Luke 10:22//Matt 11:27 [, a]ll these versions are Christian language that cannot be traced back to Jesus. (Funk, Hoover, et al., 1993, p. 507)

The Jesus Seminar, thus, restricts themselves with the foundational assumption that all sayings allusive to Christian dogma are unhistorical, no matter how widely attested to in the layers of gospel tradition, nor how closely cohesive they are to already Seminar-approved sayings. This is not a supported argument, for the Seminar gives no evidential reason for judging Christian ideas outright as fictional or as not having originated with Jesus. In fact, such ideas are attested to early in the first century – as early as the mid-30s in Paul’s recorded oral confession1, a fact acknowledged by the Seminar itself. But this early attestation only proves to the Seminar that these ideas were “formulated very early” (Funk, Hoover, et al., 1993, p. 258), rather than the ideas being historical due to their springing forth so soon after Jesus’ life and in the lifetime of corrective eyewitnesses. The Seminar’s note at Matthew 9:13 explains the mystery quite simply: “[T]he interpretative remark is cast in Christian terms, which prompted the Fellows to give it a gray designation” (Funk, Hoover, et al., 1993, p. 164).

Less stark, but equally limiting, factors can be found in the Seminar’s restrictive foundational interpretation of Jesus. New Testament professor Dr. Craig L. Blomberg lists several ways in which the Seminar limits the speech of Jesus: by type, topic, and by how much Jewishness and criminality is allowed in Jesus’ assertions (1996, pp. 20-21). In the former two, the Seminar limits Jesus’ sayings to parables and pithy sayings that are neither explanatory nor sermonic, while his speech’s content can barely, if ever, touch upon such common cultural topics as the Mosaic law, the future, warnings of God’s judgment, and self-made Messianic claims (though this latter one had been done at the time by numerous others [Blomberg, 1995, p. 21]). The Seminar also limits Jesus’ Jewishness by listing as unhistorical statements that have a parallel in Jewish writings. Instead, they seem to limit Jesus to a “Greco-Roman philosopher” or “Cynic sage” of non-Jewish cultures (Blomberg, 1996, p. 21). Finally, the Seminar has molded a Jesus that does not say anything that could be interpreted as criminal in the eyes of his contemporaries, but only as unusual and non-traditional. Jesus, then, is a mere eccentric, not a bold man who claims divinity in the face of a Jewish culture bound by Mosaic law to execute blasphemers. The unanimously-accepted historical event of Jesus’ crucifixion goes unexplained and unmotivated in the restricted world of the Seminar’s Jesus.

The Seminar’s line of thought may have started off well, and if it adhered consistently and reasonably to the criteria that it often cites, it may have concluded more fairly. However, their assumptions about who Jesus was often overrode the evidence of his identity as shown through the criteria of authenticity. Because of this fundamental mindset, they slipped in their consistency of using the criteria, and thus concluded with an often erroneous picture of Jesus. Their undue restrictions and unwarranted foundational ideas prevent them from coming to the same conclusion that, for example, Dr. Ian Marshall comes to in his I Believe in the Historical Jesus, namely, that the scholarly criteria of authenticity can indeed provide a confidence in what is recorded in the gospels.

Footnotes

1. This is the creed recorded in I Corinthians 15:1-11. Paul’s letter dates from within thirty years of Jesus’ death, while the creed reproduced in its pages dates back even earlier (Turner, n.d.)

References

Blomberg, C. L. (1987). The historical reliability of the gospels. Leicester, England & Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity.

Bock, D. L. (1995). The words of Jesus in the gospels: Live, jive, or memorex? In M. J. Wilkins & J. P. Moreland (Eds.), Jesus under fire: Modern scholarship reinvents the historical Jesus (73-99). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Constable, T. L. (2010). Notes on I Timothy. In Dr. Constable’s Expository Notes. Retrieved from http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/1timothy.pdf

Funk, R. W. & Hoover, R. W. (1993). The five gospels: What did Jesus really say? The search for the authentic words of Jesus. New York: HarperCollins.

Marshall, I. H. (1977). I believe in the historical Jesus. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Stein, R. H. (1980). The ‘criteria’ for authenticity. R.T. France & D. Wenham (Eds.), Gospel Perspectives, 1, 225-263. Retrieved from http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gp/gp1_authenticity_stein.pdf

Turner, R. (n.d.). An analysis of the pre-Pauline creed in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. Retrieved from http://carm.org/apologetics/evidence-and-answers/analysis-pre-pauline-creed-1-corinthians-151-11

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