What Did Jesus Really Say and Do?
Like us, you might have been presented with a Bible as a child. Within those
gilded pages, many of us quickly discovered two kinds of words—red ones and black ones. While both kinds were certainly important, the red words, we soon learned, were the especially important ones because they were the very words of Jesus. It was a treat to turn to a particular page and find red words—the things Jesus actually said!
It never occurred to us growing up that there would be a Bible with pink, red, gray, and black words. After all, we grew up believing that what the Gospels reported Jesus did and said, he did and said. End of story. There is now, however, an influential scholarly movement that claims many of the red words are highly suspect.
In this chapter, we will sort out the confusion as we answer questions including: Who decided on this change? Are they right? Does it really matter whether Jesus said each word and performed each action that has been traditionally attributed to him?
If the followers of the Jesus Seminar are indeed correct, we have been deluded: The red words may have faded to pink, gray, or even black before our very eyes.
What is the Jesus Seminar anyway and who are the people involved in it? The term “Jesus Seminar” sounds like a nationwide conference where people from all denominations and walks of life go to learn more about Jesus—in essence, a spiritual-growth retreat for those who are spiritually hungry to increase the depth of their knowledge and experience of Jesus. Is this what the Jesus Seminar is really about?
To answer this and other questions, we will tell the story of the Jesus Seminar, discuss its biases, and offer a critique of the methods that the members use to arrive at their conclusions.
“The Fellows.” That is the self-assigned name of some eighty biblical scholars who convened twice yearly from 1985 to 1996.1 How does one get to be a Fellow? The group is not sponsored by or affiliated with any university, nor is it composed of theologians representing diverse backgrounds or beliefs. The Fellows are a group of North American theologians whose views about the Gospels are far to the left, in line with those of the founding father, Robert Funk.
What was the purpose for which these self-appointed Jesus scholars convened? It was to offer a new translation and commentary on the four New Testament Gospels, along with the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter.
You may wonder, “Where are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter in my Bible? Those don’t sound familiar!” If so, you are in good company. They are not in the Bible and date no earlier than the second century AD, almost a hundred years after the New Testament was completed. This fact, however, has not deterred the Jesus Seminar from according to these two supposed gospels a place with the four canonical (inspired) Gospels. We’ll discuss these two extra gospels later in this chapter.
The Fellows’ ten years of research have produced two controversial books: The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus2 and The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus.3
Hearing these titles for the first time, most Christians are apt to respond, “Why search for Jesus when he was never lost?” But the Fellows of the Seminar beg to differ, for in their opinion the New Testament Gospels as we know them are not faithful, inspired accounts of the words and works of the historical Jesus but rather sayings and actions the church later invented about him.
Who are the heroes of the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, those whom the Seminar in general identifies as mentors? And why do these heroes have this status? One has to look no further than the dedication in their Five Gospels translation to answer these questions:
This report is dedicated to
who altered our view of the heavens forever
who took scissors and paste to the gospels
DAVID FRIEDRICH STRAUSS
who pioneered the quest of the historical Jesus
Let’s take a brief look at these three individuals. Galileo, however reverent he may have been, published findings on astronomy that forever pitted the Scriptures against science. He has been the poster boy ever since for those who want to replace the Bible with science. President Jefferson cut out anything in the Gospels that smacked of supernaturalism;4 while Strauss was a prominent eighteenth-century radical German theologian who doubted the historical reliability of the portrait of Jesus painted in the four Gospels.5
It helps to know where the Fellows are coming from, doesn’t it? Not surprisingly, most mainstream biblical scholars today characterize Jefferson and Strauss as radicals, and the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar as, indeed, their theological descendants.6 If that weren’t alarming enough, these Fellows of the Seminar are convinced that their research cannot be denied, as we will take up later in our discussion of the “seven pillars of scholarly wisdom” to which they adhere.
Getting a Bead on Jesus: The Jesus Seminar at Work
The Fellows arrived at their color-coded translation via the American way: they voted on whether or not the five hundred references comprising Jesus’s words and works in the four canonical Gospels were authentic, meaning actually spoken and performed by Jesus. The vote on each saying and act went basically like this:
A red bead to indicate “Jesus surely said or did this”;
A pink bead for “Jesus probably said or did this”;
A gray bead for “he probably didn’t say or do that”;
A black bead for “it’s very unlikely that Jesus said or did that.”7
It does not take much to imagine the following Saturday Night Live–style spoof based on this voting system.
A group of theologians are sitting around talking about the translation of the Gospels they wish to create.
“Okay,” says Fellow A. “We vote on each of the verses. Either yes, Jesus said it, or no, he didn’t. Simple. Straightforward.”
“No!” states Fellow B. “What if he might have said it? Then what?”
They argue back and forth, with others joining in: “He might not have said it!” counter Fellows C and D.
“That’s the same thing. Might have, might not have!” replies Fellow A, exasperated.
“It’s not!” respond Fellows C and D.
Finally, the peacemaker of the group chimes in: “How about probably said it and probably didn’t say it?”
After much debate the group decides on four categories—Jesus either surely, probably, probably didn’t, or very unlikely said and did a particular thing.
“If we’re having all those categories, it’s going to take us forever to vote,” Fellow A grumbles.
They think about this for some time, until the bright idea of beads is brought up. “We could have different color beads, one for each category!” Fellow E volunteers.
This is a fine idea, so they debate the colors. The suggestions are numerous. White, purple, blue, orange, red, pink, gray, and black are all discussed.
“Pink!” Fellow F says with disgust. “I would feel just plain silly voting with a pink bead.”
“What about me? I’m color blind!” one of the Fellows utters with -exasperation.
After many hours of debate, they finally settle on red, pink, gray, and black beads.
What were the Fellows’ final results? Only 18 percent of Jesus’s sayings and acts in the Gospels were deemed authentic and colored red!
While this voting technique at first glance appears to be reasonable, the reported results hide the true nature of the tally in two ways. First, the eighty or so scholars participating in the Jesus Seminar represent only a fraction of New Testament scholars in the world. The vast majority of biblical scholars have registered their own vote—against the Jesus Seminar’s radical perspective.8 Second, not even the majority of the Fellows in the Jesus Seminar are in agreement with the vote results as to choice of color in the translation.
Let’s look at one example. The vote on Matthew 25:29 (“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” [NRSV]) was as follows: 25 percent of the Fellows thought it should be colored red because Jesus said it and another 11 percent gave it a pink rating, affirming that Jesus probably said it. Thus, 36 percent of the Fellows voted that the saying possessed some degree of authenticity.
The rest of the Fellows voted for colors gray and black. The verse was colored black in the Jesus Seminar version of the Gospels. However, as Ben Witherington III points out, when one looks at the percentage of votes for the black bead only, it represents the minority because the other three colors outnumbered the black. Thus, even though there could have been substantial votes for all four color beads, the gray or black category was assigned rather than red (authentic) or pink (probably authentic).9
What are the implications of this approach? Does it really matter whether Jesus said and did the things traditionally attributed to him?
Take the case of a young adult, a student, who is studying the translation of the Gospels according to the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar. Following the color-coded guidelines, the college student sees that very little is attributed to Jesus. Much of what the Christian tradition has taught now becomes suspect. Of the five major doctrines in the Bible regarding Jesus—his virgin birth, virtuous life, vicarious death for our sins, victorious resurrection, and visible return—only Jesus’s virtuous life remains in red print in this translation as being really true. The rest is relegated to stories or myths that the church created. The student concludes the following: Jesus was simply a good person, deluded about his mission in life but well-intentioned. Thus the student rejects the Christian faith. After all, why commit one’s life to a bunch of myths?
This example reveals the great importance of whether or not the words and actions of Jesus are deemed authentic, for why would a person make a commitment to one who was a good man but essentially not very different from any number of noble people throughout history?
What criteria did the Fellows use to determine what Jesus genuinely said and did? Two assumptions—technical sounding, but really very simple—guided them in their decision-making: the criterion of dissimilarity and the criterion of multiple attestation. Let’s begin by defining them:
The criterion of dissimilarity states that a Jesus saying or deed which stands out both from his Jewish heritage and from his later followers (the church) truly goes back to Jesus. In other words, the saying or deed has to be unique, thus dissimilar, from Jesus’s Jewish culture or what his followers would say or do. The saying or deed only “counts” if it is in opposition to both groups.
The criterion of multiple attestation assumes there are four separate sources that make up the Gospels: Mark, “Q” (sayings of Jesus not in Mark but in Matthew and Luke), “M” (material only in Matthew), and “L” (material only in Luke). (They omit John from the discussion; see below.)
If a saying or deed attributed to Jesus occurs in two or more of these sources it is thought to be authentic. If it only occurs in one source, it is not thought to be attested to, and therefore is not considered authentic.
When all is said and done, what is left of the Gospels? Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland leave us in no doubt:
In the entire Gospel of Mark, there is only one red-letter verse: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). Only fifteen sayings (not counting parallels) are colored red in all of the Gospels put together, and they are all short, pithy “aphorisms” (unconventional proverb-like sayings) or parables (particularly the more “subversive” ones). Examples of the former include Jesus’s commands to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29) and love your enemies (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27), and his blessing on the poor (Luke 6:20; Thos. 54). Examples of the latter include the parables of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–35), the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1–8a), and the vineyard laborers (Matt. 20:1–15). Seventy-five different sayings are colored pink, while at the other end of the color spectrum, several hundred appear in black, including virtually the entire Gospel of John and all of Jesus’s claims about himself (e.g., “I am the way and the truth and the life”—John 14:6; “I and the Father are one”—10:30; and so on).10
So what portrait of Jesus emerges? When the preceding two criteria, especially the principle of dissimilarity, are applied to Jesus, he ends up with no connection to his Jewish heritage and no ties to the church he founded. In other words, the Jesus Seminar portrays Jesus as a “talking head” with no body.11
So this “talking head” Jesus appears to be nothing more than a Greek-style philosopher who utters mere moral maxims about how to treat each other, but who makes no claim to be the Messiah; announces no kingdom of God; makes no proclamation against sin; and subverts no religious establishment. One wonders in all of this, however, why was this Jesus ever crucified? The Jesus of the seminar might have ruffled some feathers among his fellow Jews but he would not have undermined their core beliefs.
By now you will probably be aware that the Fellows’ translation of the sayings and acts of Jesus is driven by their agenda to reinvent Jesus for the modern world. Two biases are driving this agenda: historical skepticism and political correctness.
The Jesus Seminar makes no bones about being skeptical of the reliability of the Bible in general and of the Gospels in particular. They express such suspicion in the “Seven Pillars of Scholarly Wisdom,” which form the introduction to their two books.
What are these “seven pillars”?
1. The Jesus of history (the real Jesus who walked this earth) is not the Christ of faith (the Jesus of the four Gospels and the church).
2. The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is not the same as the Jesus of the Gospel of John.
3. The Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel to be written (about AD 64–68) while Luke (AD 80) and Matthew (AD 90) relied on Mark in their portrait of Jesus.
4. The “Q” document (Quelle—German for source) refers to some 235 purported statements by Jesus; it was also used by Luke and Matthew.
5. Jesus was not a Jewish fiery preacher of the inbreaking kingdom of God (so said by Albert Schweitzer) but rather a Greek philosopher-type who went around Palestine uttering proverbial niceties about the need for people to treat each other with equality.12
6. The written Gospels of the New Testament were pieced together from oral tradition that had circulated in the churches a generation earlier, which attracted legends and myths after each retelling (that is, elements of the supernatural).
7. The burden of proof that the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith now rests squarely on conservative Christians. It is they who are under the gun to demonstrate the historical reliability of the Gospels.13
Are the Fellows’ “scientific findings” and “assured results” (as they would refer to them) indeed foolproof? The following examination will demonstrate otherwise.
First, is the Jesus of history different from the Christ of faith? The heart of this issue is the question of the reliability of the Gospels. Millions of Christians and thousands of theologians for the past two thousand years have said yes to the dependability of the Gospels. Consider these facts:
1. The New Testament Gospel authors were either eyewitnesses to the historical Jesus or close associates of those who were. Thus Mark relied upon the apostle Peter to write his Gospel; Matthew was one of the twelve disciples; John was the “beloved” disciple; and Luke wrote under the direction of Paul, who encountered the risen Jesus several times.
2. The four canonical Gospels report the same basic story line: Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist; he claimed to be the Messiah; declared the kingdom of God had come in his person; began his ministry in Galilee; confronted Jewish and Roman authorities; was tried and crucified by the same, but arose on the third day after his death, after which he was seen by those very ones who would later write the four Gospels.
3. The above basic storyline is confirmed by Jewish and Roman writers outside the New Testament who lived in or shortly after the first century AD. Even though their remarks about Jesus and the early church are polemical in nature, they inadvertently confirm the storyline found in the canonical Gospels.14
Second, are the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the Jesus of the Gospel of John contradictory? No, for as the first point above noted, the four Gospels follow the same basic storyline. Furthermore, it is now recognized by many biblical scholars that the Gospel of John adds supplemental material to the Synoptics’ presentation of Jesus; for example, the seven sign miracles, the seven “I am’s,” the upper room discourse. In addition, the passion narrative in John is close to Luke’s presentation.15
Third and fourth, many conservative biblical scholars do accept that Mark was the first Gospel written, with Matthew and Luke using Mark and a different source for sayings of Jesus (Q) to compose their Gospels. But this need not suggest that the Gospels are unreliable, especially if Mark wrote his Gospel under the auspices of Peter, and Matthew was the author of Q. What we have in that case is one writer building on an apostle’s testimony—Mark using Peter, Luke using Matthew.16
Fifth, if there is any assured scholarly result (what the Fellows were seeking) today in Gospel studies, it is that Jesus was indeed an apocalyptic preacher who believed that the kingdom of God was breaking into history through his Messianic ministry (see Matt. 6:9–13; Mark 1:15; 4; 9:1; Luke 11:1–4; 17:20–21). Albert Schweitzer demonstrated this in the early twentieth century; it has now become a near consensus among New Testament experts.17 Little wonder, then, that the first instance Jesus mentions the presence of the kingdom of God, Mark 1:15—“The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (NIV)—is colored in black, and thereafter, in The Five Gospels.18 To admit this to be an authentic saying of Jesus would undermine the whole enterprise of the Jesus Seminar! They refuse to admit that Jesus is the heavenly Son of Man who calls for an end to this world as we know it.
Sixth, did the story of Jesus as passed on by word of mouth by the first Christians look much different by the time the second generation of Christians wrote it down? That is, were myths and legends added with each retelling of the story of Jesus? No, for a number of reasons.
1. The Jesus Seminar Fellows, like some liberal German theologians before them, assumed that the sayings and deeds of Jesus were passed along in oral form in the same way the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales were handed down—over hundreds of years, with each new telling embellishing the account with more dramatic flair. They thought of it like the kids’ game “Telephone,” where one child whispers a secret to the next, who whispers it to the next child until the oft-told secret reaches the last person, who reveals a secret that bears little resemblance to the original. But more recent biblical scholars recognize that this approach foists a Western mindset upon the Gospels, which were, after all, ancient Jewish Christian writings. That is to say, Jewish culture was adept at passing along accurate information in oral form, even as large blocks of African cultures do today.19
2. The disciples, who were eyewitnesses to the historical Jesus, lived into the second generation of Christians. They were the gatekeepers of the “Jesus tradition” to ensure it was faithfully passed on. The only way the early church could have been free to tamper with the words and deeds of Jesus was if the apostles had died and gone to heaven with Jesus, assuming the early church wanted to do so in the first place.
3. Jesus himself promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to remind the disciples of what Jesus said and did precisely to make sure they got his story right (John 14:25–26). This last point won’t convince the skeptic of the reliability of the Gospels, but for the believer today, Jesus’s promise that his apostles would be inspired by the Spirit as they passed along the memoirs of their Messiah is a reassuring word.
4. Thirty or so years between the time of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels is not much time for myths and legends to have been added to the Gospels. Not only that, but Paul’s story of Jesus, which jibes with the story of Jesus as found in the Gospels, was written less than fifteen years after Jesus’s resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15:3–11; Gal. 3:1).20
Seventh, Christians have no problem accepting the burden of proof when it comes to substantiating the reliability of the Gospels. Bring it on! More than one skeptic who started out to disprove the Gospels has become a follower of Jesus. There’s Frank Morrison, Josh McDowell, and Lee Strobel, to name a few. Ironically, even Germany, home of much biblical skepticism in the past, in part has done an about face on the subject, as the writings of Ernst Käsemann and Martin Hengel demonstrate. These scholars cannot be accused of being conservatives, yet their research again and again has confirmed the Gospels’ reliability.21
The second bias of the Jesus Seminar we wish to expose is their desire to offer us a politically correct Jesus. Not that being politically correct is wrong. But it is incorrect to read a North American mentality back into the first-century Gospels. This becomes clear when one realizes that the Jesus Seminar places the Gospel of Thomas alongside the canonical Gospels, even according it priority over them.22 The Gospel of Thomas is a second-century AD Gnostic reinterpretation of Jesus. The Gnostics were a group of Christians who were considered heretical by the mainstream church; akin to the Greek philosopher Plato, they taught that the human body is evil and only the soul is good. According to them, in the beginning, there was one cosmic spirit-being and no matter. But an evil creator god turned from the one true God and created the world.
Gnostics believed that they were not of this world, but descendants of the one true God. They thought of themselves as sparks of divine light entrapped by the evil creator god in the material world of his creation. Their goal—their salvation—was to escape this world and re-ascend to the heavenly realm of their origin.
In Christian gnosticism, the redeemer figure was identified with Christ. He comes, as in other Gnostic systems, to remind Gnostics of their true nature, to awaken them from forgetfulness, and tell them of their heavenly home. This Christ shares with them secret knowledge—gnosis—which is the means by which they can escape the world of evil and return to God.
The Gospel of Thomas reflects the outlook of the Gnostic movement in significant aspects. Jesus, for example, speaks as the redeemer come from God. He reminds his followers of humanity’s forgetfulness and tells how it is in need of enlightenment (Thomas 28). He deprecates the world (Thomas 21:6; 27:1; 56:1–2; 80:1–2; 110; 111:3). He reminds people of their origin (Thomas 49) and tells them of their needed return to the heavenly home (Thomas 50). He also speaks of his own return to the place from which he has come (Thomas 38).23
In addition, the Gospel of Thomas is individualistic—each person follows his or her own innate intuition, because that intuition is divine. That’s how they follow Jesus. Thus saying 49 reads, “Blessed are the solitary and the elect, for you will find the kingdom. For you came forth from it, and you will return to it.” In other words, Thomistic “Christians” individually possess the true knowledge of their origin. Related to this, saying 70 reads, “Jesus said: If you gained this [truth] within you, what you have will save you. If you do have this in you, what you do not have in you will kill you.” So Thomistic “Christians” understand that the truth is within them, namely, their origin is heaven, not earth, and it is this knowledge that will save them. It is also pantheistic—God is in the material universe, the spark of divine in humans. Saying 77 makes this clear: “Jesus said: I am the light that is above them all. I am the all; the all came forth from me, and the all attained to me. Cleave a [piece of] wood, I am there. Raise up a stone, and you will find me there.”
Furthermore, the Gospel of Thomas consists of 114 purported sayings of Jesus—with no passion narrative: Jesus does not die for sin and his body is not resurrected. In other words, this apocryphal work is moralistic in orientation. One is saved by following the light within, not by revelation from God from without.
The Jesus Seminar appeals to the Gospel of Thomas to prove that early Christianity was pluralistic. That is, they say that some Christians followed the four New Testament Gospels and others followed the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. The Fellows are pleased to find that early Christianity was tolerant of alternative types of Christian faith. They see the Council of Nicea in Asia Minor (Turkey) in AD 325 as the turning point, when the orthodox view won out over the Gnostic approach, wrongly branding the latter heretical.
The Jesus Seminar makes quite an opening statement in its two books, “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”24 The ironic thing about this comment is that the Jesus Seminar has found in the five “gospels” precisely the picture of Jesus they wanted to find—an individualistic, pantheistic, moralistic, pluralistic, North American Jesus.
Robert Funk is the guru of the Jesus Seminar. His forceful presence and drive formed a publishing group that in turn was responsible for producing The Five Gospels and the Acts of Jesus. Funk, like Rudolph Bultmann,25 ardently believes that there are two criteria for determining whether or not purported words and acts of Jesus are genuine: the criteria of dissimilarity and multiple attestation, mentioned earlier in the chapter. What about these two criteria? Do they have merit?
Remember that this guideline says that for something to be authentically attributed to Jesus, it has to be different from both ancient Judaism and the practices of the early church. But there are at least two problems with this procedure. First, it is logically absurd. Darrell L. Bock expresses this criticism well:
If both sides of the dissimilarity are affirmed, so that Jesus differs from both Judaism and the early church, then Jesus becomes a decidedly odd figure, totally detached from his cultural heritage and ideologically estranged from the movement he is responsible for founding. One wonders how he ever came to be taken seriously. He becomes an eccentric if only that which makes him different is regarded as authentic. The criterion may help us understand where Jesus’s teaching is exceptional, but it can never give us the essential Jesus.26
Second, the Jesus Seminar is inconsistent in applying the criterion. On the one hand, the Fellows use the criterion when it works to their advantage. They believe John the Baptist did indeed baptize Jesus, because (1) John the Baptist performed the baptism of Jesus himself whereas other Jewish groups, like the Dead Sea Scrolls Community, had the candidates baptize themselves, and (2) the later church was embarrassed by John’s baptism of Jesus because it made the latter subservient to the former.27
But, other times, when the results of the application of the criterion of dissimilarity confirm evangelical convictions about Jesus, the Fellows reject the conclusions. Luke 5:33–35 says that Jesus did not fast. The Seminar argues that although Jesus’s action is different from Judaism and early Christianity, both of which practiced fasting, the remark is nevertheless not genuine. Second, while most Gospel scholars accept the title “Son of Man” as coming from Jesus, many of them because (1) it was not a title for the Messiah in the Judaism of Jesus’s day and (2) the early church did not use the name “Son of Man” for Jesus, nevertheless the Jesus Seminar rejects it as authentic.28 It becomes clear in all of this that the Fellows want to have their cake and eat it too. As long as the criterion of dissimilarity supports their liberal bias, it is okay. If it doesn’t, they disregard the guideline’s application.
Truthfully, the criterion of dissimilarity itself can strike the reader as ludicrous because we recognize in ourselves that our words and deeds reflect in some way our culture. How can one possibly arrive at true portraits of individuals by stripping them of their heritage and considering only those acts and deeds as genuine which appear to be entirely dissimilar from their culture? While Jesus certainly was not merely a collection of words and actions reflecting the ethos of his day, and he surely opposed the religious system of the time, he nevertheless lived in the midst and partook of his native Jewish environment.
Multiple attestation occurs when a purported saying or act of Jesus occurs in multiple sources: Mark, “Q” (the 235 sayings Jesus, Luke, and Matthew share in common), “M” (Matthew’s special material), “L” (Luke’s special material). Here, again, the Fellows used the guideline inconsistently. On the one hand, they believe Jesus’s praise of John the Baptist in Matthew 11:7–8 is probably genuine, because it is found in “Q” and in the Gospel of Thomas. But, on the other hand, though Mark 10:45 (“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”[NIV]) is similar to Matthew 26:24, Luke 22:19–20, and 1 Corinthians 11:24–25, the Jesus Seminar declares it to be probably inauthentic.29 This conclusion is all the more lamentable since “Son of Man,” as we saw before, meets the criterion of dissimilarity.
But even if this criterion is applied perfectly, it simply fails to convince. Just because it is recorded in only one Gospel, why would that make the saying or action inauthentic? Why does it have to be corroborated in order to be authentic? Certainly the Gospels are not meant to be simply identical copies of one another.
When one learns where the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar are coming from—their heroes, “seven pillars of scholarly wisdom,” and agenda—it is not difficult to see why they arrived at the color-coded translation of the Gospels that they did. This is not a group of biblical scholars who represent the gamut of theological beliefs, but rather a group of people who fit the Gospels into their own left-wing theological perspective, thus going against their own premise that one must not create a portrait of a “Jesus who is congenial to you.”
Their methodology is flawed, including the two criteria they use to determine the authentic words and deeds of Jesus and the high status they give to the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter. From their perspective, only Jesus’s virtuous life remains as being historically accurate. The rest—Jesus’s virgin birth, his vicarious death, victorious resurrection, and visible return—is judged to be mere stories or myths perpetuated by the church.
This matter has enormous implications. We do not commit our lives simply to a good, well-intentioned, but deluded man. Rather, as Christians, we commit our lives to the risen Christ, to one who is all he claimed to be, and one who will one day return to fully establish his kingdom.
1. In the Jesus Seminar’s two books, what do the following colors represent? Red? Pink? Gray? Black?
2. Was the Jesus Seminar’s voting technique regarding the words and works of Jesus objective?
3. What were the two major criteria employed by the Jesus Seminar to arrive at what Jesus “really” said and did?
4. What are the two biases driving the Jesus Seminar agenda?
5. How would you counter the skeptical attitude of the Jesus Seminar to the four Gospels?