What is the Jesus Seminar?
According to philosopher and exegete William Lane Craig “the Jesus Seminar represents the radical left-wing fringe of contemporary New Testament scholars” (1). The Seminar is the work of Robert Funk, the founder behind the Jesus Seminar back in 1985. Their purpose was to uncover the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth through the use of scientific and biblical criticism. According to Funk the person of Jesus had been impugned by Christian legend and myth, and thus the real Jesus was not the one Christians believe in and worship (2). We will review more of the details as we go along in our analysis.
The Seminar’s Agenda:
The Seminar wishes to liberate the people of the church from the “dark ages of theological tyranny” by liberating Jesus. As Robert Funk, cofounder of the Jesus Seminar states, “We want to liberate Jesus. The only Jesus most people know is the mythic one. They don’t want the real Jesus, they want the one they can worship. The cultic Jesus” (3).
Scholar Johnson writes that “The Seminar’s declared enemies are not simply fundamentalists or the Southern Baptist Convention, but all those who subscribe to any traditional understanding of Jesus as Risen Lord and Son of God” (4).
Evidently academic research and investigation is not the sole focus of this group of scholars, rather it is the disinvesting of the beliefs that many Christians hold of a saviour Jesus, or any kind of supernatural Jesus.
Route to Becoming Famous:
Perhaps the most famous of the Seminar’s work is that of The Five Gospels. This has in turn generated much fame for the Seminar because of what the work stands for, for example, they colour code the words of Jesus in the gospels according to its authenticity, as they perceive it to be. If the words are coloured in red that means they almost certainly go back to Jesus himself, however, less than 20% of Jesus’ words in our gospels appear in red (5). Within the entire Gospel of Mark only one sentence is colour coded in red: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). Only 15 sayings are coloured in red when we combine all the gospels together and they are mostly aphorisms or parables. Scholar Dan Wallace informs us that:
“Ever since the publication of the Gospel of Thomas, the scholarly dialogue and debate over this work have been enormous. Literally hundreds of books and articles have been published on this Coptic document. And in the last few years, some scholars have implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) argued that Thomas deserves a place in the canon alongside Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as seen in the not-so-subtle titles The Fifth Gospel (Winterhalter 1988; Patterson, Robinson, and Bethge 1998) and The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar 1993). In The Five Gospels, the authors consider the Gospel of Thomas to have more authentic sayings of Jesus than are found in Matthew, Mark, or John” (6).
However, several strong arguments show why most critical scholars do not accept the Seminar’s position regarding the Gospel of Thomas. Furthermore, a more in-depth analysis and critique of the Seminar’s methodology and analysis of Jesus’ words will follow on from this article. It shall suffice for now that this Coptic work shows little resemblance to the Jesus of the New Testament (7).
The Seminar’s Exaggerated claims:
On several occasions the Seminar has claimed to be on the side of scholarly consensus, however, this is patently false. According to New Testament Professor Craig Blomberg “For the most part, the Jesus Seminar does not reflect either responsible scholarship or critical consensus, and it is a pity that many in the media have allowed themselves to be deceived by its claims to the contrary” (8).
For example, the numbers are a telling sign of this exaggeration. According to Bloomberg: “Although this work repeatedly claims to reflect a consensus of modern scholars, this claim is simply false, even if one leaves all evangelical scholars to one side. Of the seventy-four “Fellows” of the Seminar, as they are called, (9) about fourteen of them are among the leading names in the field of historical Jesus scholarship today (e.g., John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University and Marcus Borg of Oregon State University). Roughly another twenty names are recognizable to New Testament scholars who keep abreast of their field, even if they are not as widely published. These, too, include several who have written important recent works on the ancient traditions about Jesus, particularly in various noncanonical gospels (e.g., Marvin Meyer of Chapman University and Karen King of Occidental College)” (10).
However, this has rightly aggravated many scholars and even to the extent that Howard Kee calls the Seminar “an academic disgrace” and says that its conclusions are “prejudicial” and “peripheral” (11). Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson calls their claim to represent the scholarly consensus into question: “The numbers alone suggest that any claim to represent ‘scholarship’ or the ‘academy’ is ludicrous” (12).
Exegete William Craig summarizes the alleged members of the Seminar: “Their claim to have 200 scholars in the Seminar is grossly inflated… The real number of regular participants is only about 40. And what about the scholarly credentials of the members? Of the 74 listed in their publication The Five Gospels, only 14 would be leading figures in the field of New Testament studies. More than half are basically unknowns, who have published only two or three articles. Eighteen of the fellows have published nothing at all in New Testament studies! Most have relatively undistinguished academic positions, for example, teaching at a community college” (13).
Further, in a Q&A period Craig provides some perspective on the numbers when we compare it to the larger academy: “They claim to have about 200 members. Now, that in itself would be small because the annual attendance at say the Society of Biblical Literature Convention each year is around eight to ten-thousand… even those 200 members, when you look at it more closely, includes anybody that in anyway has a connection with the Seminar such as even being on a mailing list” (14).
So, the true reality is far from what the Seminar claims it to be. Rather than representing a majority consensus among scholars the Seminar is in fact a fringe group of scholars. This would suggest that they are either ignorant of the amount of scholars within their field that they find themselves within, or they are deliberately trying to be disingenuous to achieve a desired outcome. It is surely the latter.
Three Major Presuppositions:
Furthermore, there are three primary presuppositions that the Seminar espouses, namely scientific naturalism, the primacy of the apocryphal gospels, and the necessity of a politically correct Jesus. Each we will see are unjustified and sketch a distorted portrait of the historical Jesus. “The members of the Jesus Seminar are committed to a strict philosophical naturalism. Modern science and experience demonstrate that supernatural phenomena do not exist. Therefore, any record of supernatural events in the Gospels must be rejected as inauthentic” (15). However, the Seminar is well open to letting people know of their naturalistic disposition, they write:
“The contemporary religious controversy turns on whether the world view reflected in the Bible can be carried forward into this scientific age and retained as an article of faith . . . . the Christ of creed and dogma . . . can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope” (16).
However, this appears problematic. For example, to use contemporary science as a defeater of the supernatural is clearly groundless even if we just look at the great number of scientists who believe in God, a god, or the supernatural. For science to rightfully close the gaps in many peoples’ superstitious beliefs (beliefs that were mistaken and had nothing in common with the supernatural, for example, some ancient people thought that drilling a hole in the skull of a mentally ill person would release the demonic forces possessing him or her) is no defeater of the supernatural in totality. In fact, many sound scientific, philosophical and historical arguments support God’s existence, as philosopher of science John Lennox quips: “Far from science having buried God, not only do the results of science point towards his existence, but the scientific enterprise is validated by his existence” (17). Although skeptics and believers alike can make arguments via science to support their positions, according to the National Academy of Science, “Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral” (18). So, science itself cannot rule out the supernatural precisely because it doesn’t event attempt to answer such questions.
Nonetheless, the Seminar’s position on the supernatural deeds of Jesus is that no matter how well attested they are they simply must be rejected a priori. In other words, multiple & early attestation of Jesus’ supernatural deeds, such as his exorcisms, healings and resurrection, are simply made up constructs of the early church, or they can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations (no matter how implausible). If Jesus is alleged to have made a prediction that was later fulfilled then that is automatically judged to have been attributed to him after the event he allegedly predicted had occurred, for example the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD (19). Of course, rejecting the supernatural a priori is unjustified, as scholar Brown well articulates: “historicity, however, should be determined not by what we think possible or likely, but by the antiquity and reliability of the evidence. As we shall see, as far back as we can trace, Jesus was known and remembered as one who had extraordinary powers” (20).
Furthermore, I am yet to find the skeptic’s argument against a supernatural reality persuasive, however, personal testimony (see notes: 21), well documented and evidenced miracle cases (22), and the magnificent documentary series by Darren Wilson (23) have well convinced me that a supernatural reality exists. To that end I find the a priori rejection of the supernatural in our New Testament an unjustified position. To the Seminar “Anything that is supernatural is by definition not historical. There’s no argument given; it’s just defined that way” (24).
Secondly, we ought to note the primacy of Gnostic texts, particularly the Gospel of Thomas. This gospel is a writing which was discovered in Egypt just after World War II alongside some other Gnostic documents. The Gospel of Thomas is full of Gnostic philosophy that has absolutely no correlation with our earlier New Testament sources. It is also dated to the first quarter and upwards of the 2nd century, and “Thus, the vast majority of scholars today regard the Gospel of Thomas as a derivative source from the second century after Christ which reflects the view of Christian gnosticism” (26).
It is also worth noting that there is no scholarly consensus on the dating of this text, especially when all we have to go on are 114 alleged sayings of Jesus that bear little detail on clues to dating, as scholar Wallace informs us: “Indeed, the predominant view is that Thomas was written in the first half of the second century, probably between AD 120 and 140. But this is hardly a consensus; some suggest an earlier date while others argue for a later one.” Wallace goes on to say that:
“One of the reasons that the date of the Gospel of Thomas is so elusive is that this book has no narrative. A collection of seemingly random sayings could have been written at one time or could have been a “rolling” production, akin to a snowball picking up foreign elements as it rolls downhill” (26).
For several reasons the acceptance of Gnostic texts as authoritative alongside, or even above, our gospels is simply a fringe position embraced by the Jesus Seminar. Such a position is “eccentric and implausible” (27), and thus one reason why “The writings of the New Testament remain our best historical witnesses” to the life of Jesus” (28).
Finally, the Seminar’s last presupposition is that of politically correct religion. Exegete Craig writes that “In our day of religious relativism and pluralism it is politically incorrect to claim that one religion is absolutely true. All religions have to be equally valid ways to God. But if you insist on being politically correct, then somehow you’ve got to get Jesus out of the way. For his radical, personal claims to be the unique Son of God, the absolute revelation of God the Father, the sole mediator between God and man, are frankly embarrassing and offensive to the politically correct mindset. The Jesus of the gospels is not politically correct!” (29)
However, politically correct or not, this is clearly not an attempt at impartiality or at least an attempt at objectivity. This inevitably skews any historical investigation, and thus we will in all likelihood end up with a created Jesus rather than the real Jesus (30). So, much like their a priori rejection of the supernatural side of Jesus’ ministry, the Seminar likewise rejects anything that they deem to be politically incorrect.
Although my analysis of the Seminar is by no means complete (I plan to take into consideration their colour coded lists of Jesus’ sayings) I think we can still draw several conclusions for now. Firstly, we saw that the Seminar has three major controversial presuppositions. They are particularly open about their anti-supernatural bias when approaching any historical investigation of Jesus. This is simply baseless and they provide no argument as to why we should reject the supernatural and miraculous even though such is well documented academically and commonly experienced by millions of people around the planet (31). Rather we should at least let the evidence speak for itself and follow it where it leads us. To impose our presuppositions on any text is undoubtedly abusive and destructive to any good historical investigation. We also saw that the Seminar holds to a minority position by giving Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, equal if not superior validity and authority than our primary gospels. This is implausible for several reasons. Lastly we saw that their historical investigation of Jesus is warped as a result of being politically correct. Any exclusive claims alleged to have been uttered by Jesus must be rejected a priori, and thus this would silence Jesus & not let him speak for himself. Rather, the Seminar is overtly imposing their agenda on Jesus, and as established by Craig, Blomberg & Johnson the Jesus Seminar represents anything but the majority consensus of New Testament and critical scholars. William Craig concludes:
“In summary, the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are based, not so much on evidence, as on the presuppositions of naturalism, the primacy of the apocryphal gospels, and politically correct religion. There is no justification for any of these presuppositions. Reject them and their whole reconstructed Jesus collapses in ruin” (32).
1. Craig, W. 2010. How Seriously Do Scholars Take The Jesus Seminar? (video). Available.
2. Craig, W. Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar. Available.
3. Metcalf, R. 2008. Colliding with Christ. p. 11.
4. Johnson, L. 1997. The Real Jesus. p. 6.
5. Moreland, J. & Wilkins, M. 1995. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. p. 31 – 32.
6. Wallace, D. & Bock, D. 2010. Dethroning Jesus Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ.
7. Meyer, M. The Gospel of Thomas: The hidden Sayings of Jesus. p. 10.
8. Moreland, J. & Wilkins, M. 1995. Ibid. p. 37 – 38.
9. The Five Gospels. p. 533 – 537.
10. Moreland, J. & Wilkins, M. 1995. Ibid. p.39 – 40.
11. Kee, H. 1991. Controversial Jesus Seminar. p. 28.
12. Johnson, L. 1997. Ibid. p. 45.
13. Craig, W. Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar. Available.
14. Craig, W. How Seriously Do Scholars Take The Jesus Seminar? (Video). Available.
15. Moreland, J. & Wilkins, M. 1995. Ibid. p. 17.
16. Funk, et al. 1993. The Five Gospels. p. 2.
17. Lennox, J. 2007. God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? p. 210.
18. National Academy of Sciences. 1998.
19. Funk, et al. 1993. ibid. p. 25.
20. Brown, R. 1994. An Introduction to New Testament Christology. p. 25.
21. On a personal level I have had an authenticating experience of the supernatural. Several friends and acquaintances have filled me in on their testimonies and experiences with the supernatural. Several of these testimonies describe demonic forces, and their testimonies are unanimous on certain eyewitness details concerning this. Unanimous agreement of aspects involving demonic forces lends credibility to their accounts. Several other testimonies, including that of my lecturer, involve miraculous healings from cancers etc. Other unusual eyewitness testimonies claim things like gold dust appearing on pastors while they are in the process of preaching (this eyewitness testimony is surprisingly affirmed in Darren Wilson’s documentary series).
22. Craig Keener’s two volume investigation of miracles from around the world documents miraculous occurrences. See. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.
23. Darren Wilson’s documentary series Father of Lights, Finger of God, Furious Love & Holy Ghost are particularly encouraging.
24. Craig, W. Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar. Available.
25. Wallace, D. & Bock, D. 2010. Ibid.
26. Wallace, D. & Bock, D. 2010. Ibid.
27. Meyer, B. 1993. Critical notice of The Historical Jesus, by John Dominic Crossan, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 55. p. 575.
28. Johnson, L. 1997. Ibid. p. 89.
29. Craig, W. Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar. Available.
30. Kee, H. A Century of Quests for the Culturally Compatible Jesus. p. 26.
31. Craig Keener quoted in Interview on Miracles: Transcript: “… a survey done in 2006 by Pew Forum, and they surveyed Pentecostals and Charismatics in 10 countries, and if you take the number of—well, the projected number, based on the survey—of those who claim to have witnessed or experienced divine healing, the number comes out in those 10 countries alone, and among Pentecostals and Charismatics alone, to about 200 million.”
32. Craig, W. Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar. Available.