Are “The Jesus Seminar” criticisms of the gospels and Jesus Christ valid?

Among those who work outside of the normal canons of historical research is “The Jesus Seminar,”[1] a gathering of the skeptical-minded whose conclusions are published in The Five Gospels.[2] Instead of demonstrating historical objectivity, their enterprise is a stacked deck of hostile presuppositions.

  1. They presume the Gospels to be error-ridden and implicitly inferior to all other sources contemporary to them[3]. For example, they effectively give the Apocryphal Gospel of Thomas greater weight than the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).[4]

  2. They reject miracle stories out-of-hand as fiction on the allegation that miracles aren't possible.

  3. They presume the faith-motivated first Christians weren't interested in history, and willingly put words into Jesus' mouth to fulfill their own needs.[5] Under their brand of “criteria of dissimilarity”[6] the only words they accept as authentic to Jesus and thus not borrowed, are those which differ from both the concerns of the early church and from the surrounding Judaistic culture.

In rebuttal, this saddling of the burden of proof onto the Gospels instead of onto the critics, violates the entire tradition of historical research. Wayne Booth argues rightly that "Abstract commands to 'doubt pending proof' [ought to be replaced] with [what is] the ancient and natural command to 'assent pending disproof.'"[7]

Second, the above opposition to miracles is based on an outmoded, 19th century view of science and commits the logical fallacy of begging the question (assuming what they seek to prove).

Principles behind their third presumption were rejected by secular historians decades ago as author Edgar Krentz admits.[8]

The Jesus Seminar absurdly ends up with a Jew who is stripped of his Jewishness, and with the founder of a Church whose followers rarely bothered to actually quote him. And their “Jesus” fails to account for the strong reactions of his contemporaries. The few words they judge authentic reduce Jesus to an insipid eccentric who would have been powerless to create the strong reactions either against him that resulted in his death, or for him in the movement that turned their world upside-down.

The notion that the first Christians weren't interested in Jesus' pre-crucifixion words is so improbable as to require direct and substantial evidence of a kind not remotely produced. And who is supposed to have created those world-changing words critics allege were put into his mouth? Not communities, which at most shape, but never create, profound discourse.[9]

Likewise, the often touted notion that individual “anonymous Christian prophets” created Jesus' words is shown to be without legitimate analogy. See Ben Witherington, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 200.

Writes John Bright, “It is far easier to credit such… insight to Jesus Himself—who, on the very lowest count, was one of the great creative minds in history—than to his early disciples, who were, for the most part, humble and very ordinary men.”[10]

It is significant that contemporaneous Christians, Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp described the Gospels as the words of Jesus.[11]

Author: Rev. Gary W. Jensen, M.Div. Editor: Edited and expanded by Paul S. Taylor, Christian Answers. Used by permission.

[For more information, read What is “The Jesus Seminar” and who does it really speak for?]

RECOMMENDED READING in response to the Jesus Seminar

References and Footnotes

  1. For first-hand reading of Seminar writers see:
    • Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995), 160 pp.
    • John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995), 224 pp. [up]
  2. Robert Funk, editor, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Polebridge, 1993). [up]

  3. Ibid., Funk, p. 4. [up]

  4. Ibid., pp. 15f, 26.; The Apocryphal “Gospel of Thomas” was heavily influenced by gnosticism, and almost certainly is to be dated in the middle next century after the close of the New Testament. See John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. I (New York: Doubleday, 1991), pp. 124-166. [up]

  5. Ibid., pp. 22f, 29f. [up]

  6. Ibid., p. 30f. [up]

  7. Wayne Booth, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 101. [up]

  8. Edgar Krentz, The Historical Critical Method (Fortress, 1975), p. 78f. [up]

  9. See Vincent Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (New York: Macmillan, 1935), p. 107f. [up]

  10. John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Abingdon Press, 1953), p. 209. [up]

  11. See Gary Habermas, The Verdict of History (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988), p. 176f. [up]

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