The Jesus Seminar has undermined the historicity of Jesus and the truth of the gospel. This article gives an overview of this organization.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 1998. 3 pages.

Funk Junk The Jesus Seminar Methods are Closer to Horse Racing than History

There are some things in life that I wish I could close my eyes and they would just go away. The Jesus Seminar is one of them. But sadly it won’t.

I was recently in a local bookshop and came upon the religion section. I was quite disturbed, for the only book on sale that in my opinion was worth reading was the Bible itself. The rest were fanciful recre­ations of the Jesus story, written to be con­troversial.

So when Robert Funk, the co-founder of the Jesus Seminar visited the United Theological College in Sydney earlier this year, I decided that I needed to hear him for myself. Sadly, what I heard correlated with what I had previously read: an attempt to recast Jesus into a 20th century scientific mindset that upsets the faith of believers and robs our Lord of the glory due to his name.

What is the Jesus Seminar? It is a rela­tively small group of academics who meet twice a year in a quest to find the historical Jesus. It is made up of liberal Christians, Jews and has recently admitted a few Muslims.

Although co-chaired by both Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, it is Funk who is the most visible presence. Funk is a scholar of impressive credentials, and is the former executive secretary of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), proba­bly the most important learned society for Biblical studies in the world.

However, the success of the Jesus Seminar has depended more on Funk’s entrepreneurial spirit than academic cre­dentials. Indeed, the majority of New Testament scholars have decisively rejected the findings of the Jesus Seminar.

The problem is that the seminar uses methodologically flawed criteria to reach its conclusions.

The Jesus Seminar is a self-selected group who have come to a prior agreement about their goals and methods for studying the Gospels. It begins with the premise that the Gospel narratives are not accurate his­tories, but created out of traditional mater­ial and shaped to fulfil a theological agenda. From this starting point it tries to deter­mine the historical parts of the text.

An example of the self-selecting compo­sition of the seminar can be seen in its approach to the supernatural. No one on the seminar believes in the presence of evil spirits. This is not surprising when the peo­ple selected nearly all come from a North American skeptical mindset! Where are the scholars from non-Western backgrounds? Where are the scholars who believe in demons?

As in all areas, carefully selecting the members of an organisation can guarantee the desired results.

The Jesus Seminar is not only a self-selected group, but it uses self-selected material. The members of the seminar pre­fer the sayings of Jesus to His actions, in particular His miracles. They have there­fore begun with looking at the sayings of Jesus in the five gospels: the four canonical gospels and the Gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel of Thomas was part of a large collection of works discovered at Nag Hammadi (Egypt) in 1945. It is different from the four canonical gospels in that it lacks the narrative or biography of the life of Jesus. Most significantly, it does not include the resurrection. It is basically a col­lection of sayings, as can be seen from its prologue which states “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke”.

Obviously the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas was very significant for understanding the world of the New Testament and the early church. Members of the sem­inar, however, give this document a priority over the canonical Gospels. Although most scholars date it as a mid-second century document (c.150AD), John Dominic Crossan argues that some of this material goes back to the earliest stage of Christianity (30-60 AD). He therefore gives the Gospel of Thomas historical pri­ority over the four canonical Gospels. (Most New Testament Scholars believe Mark to be the first canonical Gospel, and that it is dated in the mid-60s).

The seminar’s acceptance of the Gospel of Thomas raises many questions: If the Gospel of Thomas is so early, why was it not included in the canon of Scripture by the early church? If this Gospel of Thomas dates from the first century, why is there no Passion narrative? How do we prove whether the Gospel of Thomas contains original sayings of Jesus?

The Jesus Seminar is not only self-selecting in its material with the Gospel of Thomas, it is also self-selecting in its approach to the canonical gospels. Many of the seminar’s conclusions are based on the hypothesis that behind the pages of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke existed an earlier document known as Q.

The Jesus Seminar did not invent Q. New Testament scholars have long talked about such a document, or collection of documents. Built on the assumption that Mark was the first Gospel written, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark when writing their Gospels, scholars have looked at material that is common to both Matthew and Luke and yet not found in Mark, and identified a body of material of about 235 verses. They have therefore pre­sumed the existence of a document called Q (named after the German word Quelle meaning source), which both Matthew and Luke used to write their Gospels. If such a document(s) existed, it would obviously be earlier than Matthew or Luke’s Gospel.

The existence of a document such as Q is significant for the Jesus Seminar. For if such a document existed, it would contain primarily the sayings of Jesus and would have no reference to the resurrection story. Therefore, again the Jesus Seminar thinks that it can find the historical Jesus through a (hypothetical) document that looks primarily at the sayings of Jesus.

Whether Q existed is not the issue! The issue is that the Jesus Seminar bases its conclusions on the speculative theory that Q did exist. This is building assumption on assumption.

The existence of Q is not the only possibility for explaining the material that Matthew and Luke have in common. Did Luke use Matthew as one of the sources he refers to in Luke 1:1-4? If a document Q existed, perhaps it did have a passion narra­tive, but Luke did not refer to it as he used Mark’s Gospel at this point? I don’t know the answer to these questions and nor do Funk or Crossan. But I do know that good history is built on actual primary documents, not hypothetical non-existent documents. So again the methodology is flawed.

The success of the Jesus Seminar has more to do with marketing than with sub­stance. At each meeting of the seminar, members vote with coloured beads to determine a particular saying’s authenticity.

The coloured beads have the following meaning: Red: That’s Jesus! Pink: Sure sounds like Jesus. Grey: Well, maybe. Black: There’s been some mistake.

Can you determine historical accuracy by weighted averages? Such a process has more to do with horse racing than history!

The members of the seminar vote in public, understanding the power of the media. They meet at different venues each time — taking the show “on the road”. No wonder their books make it into secular bookshops! The press, starved for something of interest to put in its religion columns, now has something controversial. A culture that is more interested in different coloured balls in the weekly lotto draw now has something to which it can relate. Doing serious history isn’t nearly as appealing.

It isn’t surprising that Funk doesn’t believe in life after death or that he sees Jesus as simply a sage like Plato or Socrates. He ends up with an impotent religion. The Jesus of the seminar would never have started a movement that would have been so potent that people would give up all to follow “the faith”. Such a Jesus would have remained like Socrates, an ancient sage.

The Jesus Seminar is so historically mis­guided and theologically inept that I wish I could close my eyes and it would all go away. But I can’t. Sadly, it is out there. And as people go to their bookshops this Christmas and look for a religious book to give to their relatives they may find one that will talk of a Jesus who is powerless to save and stripped of the essence of Emmanuel –– God with us.

And although I am confident that the results of the seminar will be about as enduring as the froth and bubble of Christmas beer or champagne, yet I am still concerned about what the seminar is doing to this generation.

The real Jesus is not the reconstruction of a self-appointed, self-promoting com­mittee of scholars (as opposed to a scholar­ly committee) meeting 1900 years after the event. The real Jesus is not found in the Gospel of Thomas or in a hypothetical document called Q. The real Jesus is found in the New Testament, a resurrected Jesus who has power to forgive sins, change lives, and judge creation. What must He think about the seminar named after Him that judges Him by coloured beads?

At least when you go into your local bookshop this Christmas you should find a Bible. This is a much more reliable purchase if you want to find out about the Jesus of history.

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