Jesus Seminar Should Go Back to School

by James Akin



The Jesus Seminar is a group of liberal professors who have dissected the gospels and concluded Jesus said almost nothing they record him saying. The Seminar has obtained a lot of press for itself in the last couple of years, but though it presents itself as being on the cutting edge of biblical scholarship, there is actually nothing new about what it says. Its hypercritical approach to the gospels has been around for almost two hundred years.

To claim the gospels were historically inaccurate, 19th century liberals claimed they were written one or two hundred years after the events they record. The gospels could not have been written earlier, the 19th century liberals admitted, because the image of the historical Jesus could not have been distorted so much if they were written earlier. The memories of Jesus’ followers would have been too strong to allow such a rapid distortion.

Unfortunately, archaeology has demolished the late dates of the gospels. New manuscripts have turned up, making it no longer possible to claim they were written a century or two after Jesus. One fragment, the Rylands Papyrus, is a part of John’s gospel and dates around A.D. 130, meaning John (which liberal scholars believe was the last of the four gospels) had to be composed earlier than that, no later than A.D. 90-100.

Today virtually all Bible scholars, liberal and conservative, acknowledge that the four gospels were written within the first 70 years or so of the events they record (Jesus have been crucified around A.D. 30). Matthew, Mark, and Luke were probably written quite early in that period.

Most scholars believe Luke was the third gospel written, and its latest possible date can be fixed quite precisely. The book of Acts mentions Luke’s gospel (Acts 1:1-2), and it closes very suddenly in A.D. 62, while Paul is awaiting trial in Rome. Everyone reading it would be very concerned to know how the trial turned out, and the most logical explanation is that Acts cuts off in A.D. 62 because that is when it was written. There was no result to Paul’s trial because it hadn’t happened yet. Since Acts mentions Luke’s gospel, Luke must have been written some time earlier — at least a year — meaning it was composed within about thirty years of the crucifixion.

Liberal scholars object to this, pointing out that Luke’s gospel — like Matthew’s and Mark’s — records Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, as if a supernatural figure might not be able to do something supernatural like, say, predict the future.

This is an especially ironic objection when the future happened to be an event which any shrewd political observer knowing the depth of Jewish resentment and the might of the Roman army could have predicted. Sooner or later, the Jews would mount a major rebellion and the Romans would be forced to invade, eventually sacking the capitol, Jerusalem. This is similar to how, in our own day, when the Solviet bloc began to fall apart and pundits began to predict ethnic violence in Yugoslavia and the siege of Sarajevo before fighting even started.

If Luke was the third gospel written then Matthew and Mark were earlier still. This is consistent with the archaeological evidence, as it shows they have early dates as well.

Last year a German scholar announced the discovery of several fragments of Matthew’s gospel — known as the Huleatt fragments — and based on the age of the manuscript and the style of writing they contain, the most likely date for them is around A.D. 50.

Fragments of Mark’s gospel have been found among the Dead Sea scrolls, which were sealed away in caves during the Jewish War of A.D. 66-70, ensuring an early date for Mark.

This continual pushing back the dates of the gospels by archaeology creates a problem for modern liberal professors, like those of the Jesus Seminar, since it leaves very little time for the image of the historical Jesus to be distorted.

In an age before the printing press, people trained their memories to a phenomenal level. Jewish scholars in particular were adamant about the necessity of memorization, requiring their disciples to memorize vast quantities of information and to recite it back without error.

Thus it is no surprise to find Paul, the star pupil of the esteemed Rabbi Gamaliel, writing around A.D. 54 and using the technical language of Jewish memorization and recitation : “I delivered over to you . . . what I also received . . . ” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

Paul then tells his audience the basic facts of Jesus, and since this is a just twenty-five years after the crucifixion, it means that to ensure its accurate transmission the story of Jesus the account had become a formal, memorized and recited tradition almost immediately after it happened, well within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses.

To avoid the conclusion that the gospels are what they present themselves as — accurate accounts of the life of Jesus — critics such as those in the Jesus Seminar had to postulate that the New Testament writers weren’t really interested in history at all, but felt free to make stuff up and put it on the lips of Jesus if they found it inspiring, useful, or whatever.

This flies in the face of the New Testament itself, which is adamant that this is real history which really happened. This is, in fact, a regular theme of the New Testament since in the first century becoming a Christian meant taking one’s life in one’s hands as one was likely to face persecution and martyrdom, and so the new Christians needed reassurance that they were basing their faith (and their survival) on real history, not on a pious myth. One does not die for a daydream. Thus the New Testament prepares its readers by making two of the most prominent themes the facts that the story of Jesus is real history and that his followers must expect persecution.

The emphasis on the historicity of Jesus and his life story are indicated Paul’s use of rabbinic memorization language and by the fact that Paul turns around and insists on the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection in the most stark terms, bluntly telling his readers: “If Christ has not been raised then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17), dying in one’s sins being an unimaginable horror for first century (and later!) Jews and Christians.

The gospel writers were equally concerned about history when they told the story of Jesus, as shown ironically by their non-use of Paul’s writings. Apart from Jesus himself, no other figure in the early Church was more important to shaping the community’s theology than Paul. Yet if the gospel writers felt free to put anything on the lips of Jesus if it were inspiring or useful, they would have put some of Paul’s words on Jesus’ lips. But they didn’t. In fact, in reading the New Testament one is struck by the fact that though the gospels and the epistles communicate the same message, there are major differences between the language of Paul and the language of the gospels.

Why then do liberal professors such as those in the Jesus Seminar persist in denying the evidence for the reliability of the gospels?

Part of it is that when you have built a scholarly reputation on a theory, it is hard to admit you were wrong. One is reminded of the line from the Mel Brooks movie: “Gentlemen, we must save our phony jobs!”

Part of it is a desire to portray themselves as daring intellectuals willing to smash whatever cultural icons are necessary in their pursuit of truth. (A corollary of which is the pleasure of smugly looking down their noses at anyone who does not go along with them — a chronic temptation for daring radicals.)

Part of it is a desire to make a name for themselves. Members of the Seminar such as Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan have been very frank about the Seminar conducting its business in a way to grab maximum headlines. This is the reason for some of its members more extravagant claims, such as Crossan’s assertion that the body of Jesus was probably eaten by wild dogs — a claim for which there is absolutely no shred of historical evidence whatsoever.

Part of it is an anti-supernatural bias. Jesus Seminar members admit one of their starting assumptions is that the gospels cannot contain any accounts of genuine supernatural phenomena. This means the Seminar has made the unscientific assumption that reality contains no layers other than the visible one of matter and energy and that there are no other dimensions to the cosmos which might interact with this one, dimensions perhaps inhabited by souls or angels or even God Himself.

Part of it is a desire wrap oneself in a mantle of spirituality without actually having to commit to anything religious. On the Seminar’s thesis, Jesus is a poetic symbol, an inspiring example, a tragically misunderstood figure (something like the radicals themselves, poor things), someone that gives you a warm feeling, and a warm feeling only. They are after what British scholar J. I. Packer aptly dubbed “Hot-Tub Religion” — a Christanity with all of the pleasures and none of the pains — the theological equivalent of Diet Coke.

But the most basic part of the Seminar’s motivation is a desire to produce a Jesus who is less threatening, one who does not claim to be King of King and Lord of Lords, who will not make claims on their personal lives or (worse yet) return one day in fiery judgment.

They re-make the Jesus of the gospels in their own image. This has always been the fate of those who feel free to reject any inconvenient elements of the gospel texts when they write their Lives of Jesus. Existentialists produce an existentialist Jesus. Marxists produce a Marxist Jesus. Politically correct academicians, like those of the Jesus Seminar, produce a politically correct, toothless Jesus. As one scholar put it earlier this century, “By their ‘Lives of Jesus’ you shall know them.”

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