Confronting the Jesus Seminar

An Assignment for NT 5000: Introduction to New Testament

History, especially the lost pieces in the history are always very attractive to modern people. Due to the increasing audience of online media and Social Network, it’s becoming easier nowadays for scholars and even normal people to publish and announce their challenges or new findings against traditional history. I used to laugh at the Moon Landing Conspiracy Theories which claims that some or all elements of the Apollo program and the associated Moon landings were hoaxes staged by NASA. But when I got opportunity to look into their arguments, I found that they established a very logical expound based on questionable assumptions. [1] It’s also true in the field of theology. A group 150 critical scholars and laymen founded the Jesus Seminar in 1985. The seminar uses votes with colored beads to decide their collective view of the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus. They mainly published their findings in three reports: The Five Gospels (1993), The Acts of Jesus (1998), and The Gospel of Jesus (1999).

The research approach used by Jesus Seminar is very different from traditional Christian faith. They deny the supernatural events described in the Scripture, and they leverage higher criticism to decide what parts of narratives in the Scripture are true and what parts are doubtful. They use four colors to mark all the words attributed to Jesus gospels, indicating the probability of whether they are truly from Jesus or not. According to this approach, only fifteen sayings are colored red (meaning “Jesus undoubtedly said this”) in all of the Gospels put together.[2] The Jesus Seminar is not solely doing the historical research; they are opening the door of challenging the canonization of the Scripture.

According to Jesus Under Fire, following are the major beliefs of the Jesus Seminar.

1. The first findings of the Jesus Seminar were published in 1993 as The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. In this book, the scholars treat the gospels as fallible historical artifacts, containing both authentic and inauthentic material. They don’t believe that all of the Gospel’s data are historically accurate, but one is far more skeptical than the other. According to this assumption, they used a voting process to determine whether the words in the Gospels are truly attributed to Jesus. According to this process, they believe that only fifteen sayings are colored red (which implies “Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.”) in the Gospel of Mark.

2. They emphasize the loose oral roots behind the communication of Jesus’ teaching and the Evangelists’ need to adapt that teaching for their preaching. According to them, the Gospel writers had and took the opportunity to create sayings. Their view of Jesus as sage and teller of parables of wisdom is far different from the portrait of Jesus as a savior and Lord that we believe. By this approach, the authority of the Bible is being challenged. Dr. Bock think that this approach views the Gospels as containing significant portions of “jive” when it comes to history and the “historical Jesus.” (p75). Moreover, the loose orality view of the Seminar takes the position that all sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels are doubted unless proved authentic.

3. The Jesus Seminar not only examined the canonical Gospels of Matthew, mark, Luke and John, but also the Gospels of Thomas and Peter. Their first book is titled The Five Gospels, indicating that they treat the Gospel of Thomas equally with other Gospels or as of equal importance to the tradition as the canonical texts. Richard Hays called this position “an extraordinarily early dating,” “a highly controversial claim,” and “a shaky element in their methodological foundation.” (p90).

4. Jesus Seminar also expressed doubts about the deeds of Jesus. In published book A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian origins, the author Mack believes that the linkage of Jesus’ public teachings to the story of his death as presented in the Gospel of Mark is no more than a narrative fiction. The Jesus Seminar also makes a number of comments against the occurrence of supernatural events. They believe a principle that NO single Gospel teaching from the resurrection narratives is a genuine Jesus saying. Because “by definition, words ascribed to Jesus after his death are not subject to historical verification.”

5. In the book entitled Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, the Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg presents a sketch of the “pre-Easter Jesus” that he thinks can be reconstructed from the available historical data. He believes that the Jesus who is preached by Christian churches to day is not the real historical Jesus. They all hold the opinion that the Christianizing influence of several layers of tradition sometime after Jesus died has transformed the historical Jesus to a “Christian” Jesus. According to this view, we must not imagine that the Christ that Christians believe is the same figure as Jesus of Nazareth.

The Jesus Seminar makes a lot of noise in the academic world of religious study. They publish books and their fellows have been frequently interviewed by mass media. But we should be aware of the weaknesses and wrong assumptions in their research while confronting with their publications and opinions. Here are the major weaknesses of their research.

1. The Jesus Seminar uses Gospel of Thomas as one of their sources in the research, and they treat Gospel of Thomas equally with other gospels. The Gospel of Thomas was discovered just after WWII among a collection of Gnostic writings. The document may have first been written as early as about A.D. 150 butno actual evidence permits us to push that date a century earlier as the Jesus Seminar does. Many scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas was substantially later than and dependent on four canonical gospels. It reflects the Gnostic worldview. It can be used as a historical source to study Gnosticism, but not Christianity.

2. The standard they use in the voting process to determine whether the word is truly from Jesus is questionable. They establish far too restrictive principles for the forms of speech and topics of speech that permit Jesus to address. For example, if an utterance is neither a parable nor an aphorism, they claim that Jesus did not speak it (p.20). They have many assertions that are groundless and rejected by majority of scholars. The loose orality view of the Seminar takes the position that all sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels are doubted unless proved authentic. However we argue that the burden of proof should be the reverse since the Greco-Roman historiography and the Jewish culture of memory attempted to be careful in presenting the thrust of the material.

3. The seminar’s view of the words of Jesus in the Gospel is not correct. The Greek standard of reporting speeches required a concern for accuracy in reporting the gist of what had been said, even if the exact words were not remembered or recorded. The author has the right to summarize and bring out the contemporary force of a speaker’s remarks. The role of oral tradition was also very important to Jewish culture. We know from the discoveries at Qumran that the Old Testament text was faithfully copied with great care. The New Testament shares this approach to the importance of what Jesus taught and how it was transferred. Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:1 that “I preached to you [the gospel] which you received” and “I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you” (11:23). The terms “received” and “passed on” are used for hearing and passing on tradition. Thus we can say that unlike what the Seminar believes, the oral culture of that society did not mean the “Jive” view. Though the Evangelists might not quote the material as “Memorex” tape does, their goal was to get the gist of the teaching and to reproduce it faithfully.

4. The view of denying supernatural events or miracles is arbitrary and a priori. Moreover, seldom do the Jesus Seminar fellows provide reasons for their priori or vindicate their worldview. However, miracles were integral to the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. The issue of whether the miracles and deeds are historical cannot be settled by simply asserting one’s views or rejecting another’s position a priori. Denying and accepting both need factual data.

5. Borg’s strategy of recasting the “historical Jesus” and in the same time form the “Christian Jesus” as a “typology of religious figures” based on human experience ignores the fact that we bring conceptual frameworks to our experience of the numinous, and that we come to understand the specific significance of that religious experience in terms of our conceptual frameworks. (p187). Thus, the naturalist like the Seminar Fellows will repudiate any feature of the biblical account of Jesus that requires a supernatural explanation. Borg limited himself to the evidence of private religious experience and patterns of religious experience discernible across religious traditions. It’s inadequate because it results in a theology that is almost conceptually empty. Moreover, he ignores the supernatural phenomena of our experienced world. Though Marcus Borg asserts that there is a discrepancy between the message attributed to Jesus in the Gospels and Jesus’ real message, anyone who believes that the bible is the reliable source of religious knowledge naturally concludes that belief in Jesus Christ is the fundamental requirement for approval before God.

[1] I mainly read the Wikipedia item of “Moon landing conspiracy theories” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_landing_conspiracy_theories) to understand their arguments, then I learned from astronomer Philip Cary Plait and his book Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax" on the poor assumptions of the conspiracy theory.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus” in Jesus Under Fire, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 18.

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