The Jesus Seminar Under Fire

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/28/2013

The “Jesus Seminar” is a group of self-described scholars who have determined Jesus probably only said 20% of the quotes attributed to him by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Greg puts their method, which includes voting with colored beads, “under fire.”

Brace yourself. With Easter just around the corner, we’re about to see a flood of articles in the news weeklies and local papers about a very specific kind of missionary group.

These preachers practice evangelism in reverse, for they don’t want you to commit your life to the Christ of the Gospels; they want you to surrender that commitment. And they claim to have history, science and scholarship on their side. They’re called the Jesus Seminar.

These are people with a mission. Robert Funk, the Seminar’s founder, says, “It is time for us [scholars] to quit the library and study and speak up....The Jesus Seminar is a clarion call to enlightenment. It is for those who prefer facts to fancies, history to histrionics, science to superstition.”[1]

This is a strong challenge to evangelicals, depicted here as preferring nice stories to accurate history. Sometimes the best defense is knowing the right questions to ask. Here are the ones you need when the Jesus Seminar hits the newsstands.

Who Are the Scholars?

Journalists frequently refer to the 74 “scholars” of the Jesus Seminar as representing the mainstream of biblical scholarship. Being a bona fide scholar, though, means more than just having a degree. Generally, a scholar is one who demonstrates a mastery of his discipline and who makes an academic contribution to his field.

By this definition, only fourteen members of the Seminar qualify, including scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. Twenty others are recognizable names in the field. One quarter of the group, though, are complete unknowns (one is a movie producer), and half of them come from a cluster of three ultra-liberal schools: Harvard, Claremont, and Vanderbilt.

Clearly, the Jesus Seminar cannot be viewed as a relevant cross-section of academic opinion. This doesn’t mean the their conclusions are false; it means theirs is only one voice of many, viewed even by liberal scholars as suspect and on the extreme fringe.

What Does the Jesus Seminar Believe?

The Jesus Seminar meets twice a year to dissect biblical passages. Their goal: separate historical fact from mythology. So far, they have rejected as myth the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the virgin birth, all Gospel miracles, and a full 82% of the teachings normally attributed to Jesus—all dismissed as legendary accretions with no historical foundation. For example, only two words of the Lord’s Prayer survive as authentic: “Our Father.”

An article in the L.A. Times [2] entitled, “Scholars Cite Lack of Resurrection Evidence,” also carried this subtitle: “Controversial Jesus Seminar evaluates New Testament, but members affirm that event’s religious significance does not hinge on the historical record.”

According to this piece, there are two things the Jesus Seminar has to say about the resurrection of Jesus. First, it never happened. There’s no historical evidence for it. Second, it doesn’t matter. Christians can still celebrate Easter with its symbolic message of hope and new life.

Robert Funk calls Jesus a “secular sage who satirized the pious and championed the poor.” He then adds, “Jesus was perhaps the first stand-up Jewish comic. Starting a new religion would have been the farthest thing from his mind.”

Isn’t that an odd thing to say about Jesus? Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. He didn’t work miracles. He didn’t give us the greatest teaching in the world. Instead, He was a stand-up comic, according to the founder of the Jesus Seminar.

What Are Their Assumptions?

The most important question one can ask of any point of view (a question almost never asked by the press) is this: Why do they believe it? This allows us to determine whether the reasons lead properly to the conclusions.

Everyone has a starting point. The place the Seminar begins is carefully concealed from the public at large, but it’s the most critical issue. Why do they claim there is no evidence for the resurrection? That is the key question .

Their reasoning goes something like this: It’s impossible for the Gospels to be historically accurate, because they record things that simply can’t happen, like dead people coming alive again and food multiplying—miracles, in other words. We live in a closed universe of natural order, with God (if there is a God) locked out of the system. If miracles can’t happen, then the reports in the New Testament must be fabrications. Therefore, the Gospels are not historical.

Further, if miracles can’t happen, then prophecy (a kind of miraculous knowledge) can’t happen. The Gospels report that Jesus prophesied the fall of Jerusalem. Therefore, they could not have been written early, but after the invasion of Titus of Rome in 70 A.D. In addition, they could not have been written by eye-witnesses, as the early church Fathers claimed.

Notice that the Jesus Seminar doesn’t start with historical evidence; it starts with presuppositions, assumptions it makes no attempt to prove. This is not history; it’s philosophy, specifically, the philosophy of naturalism.

Robert Funk admits as much: “The Gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church’s faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first-century listeners...”[3] [emphasis added]

The press reports the following conclusions that the Jesus Seminar says are based on scientific, historical analysis: the resurrection didn’t happen; the miracles are myths; there is no authentic prophecy in the Bible; the Gospels were written long after the events took place; they were not written by eyewitnesses; the testimony of the early church Fathers can’t be trusted.

This is misleading, though, because the Jesus Seminar doesn’t conclude the Gospels are inaccurate. That’s where they begin before they’ve looked at one single shred of actual historical evidence. When you start with your conclusions, you’re cheating. You haven’t proved anything at all.

Does Their Bias Make Them Open-minded or Closed-minded?

Philosopher J.P. Moreland points out that Christian scholars have a point of view, like everyone else. The Christian’s bias, though, doesn’t inform his conclusions the same way biases inform the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar.

Because people like Robert Funk start with the “scientific” view that there can be no miracles, their bias arbitrarily eliminates options before the game even gets started. Funk must conclude the Gospels have been tampered with because his philosophy demands it. He can’t consider any evidence for a resurrection because he’s closed his mind to the possibility of miracles.

A Christian is not so encumbered. He believes in the laws of nature, but is also open to the possibility of God’s intervention. Both are consistent with his world view. This means he can be faithful to the evidence, unhindered by a metaphysical view that automatically eliminates supernatural options before even viewing the evidence.

The bias of the Christian broadens his categories, making him more open-minded . The believer has a greater chance of discovering truth, because he can follow the evidence wherever it leads. The bias of the Jesus Seminar, on the other hand, makes it close-minded and dogmatic.

Newspaper articles cast the issue in the opposite way, though. One mentions a dean of a prominent Baptist seminary who says the Seminar’s work is driving a wedge between faith and history among Christians.

What is unfortunate about this representation is that it pits the “historical” and “scientific” analysis of the Jesus Seminar against those poor sods who rely only on “faith.” And since the facts of history are sabotaging the faith of some, Christians are now upset. It’s as if they were saying, “Please don’t tell me these things and confuse me with the facts. It might weaken my faith.” This casts believers as nincompoops, obscurantists who want to cling to fantasy.

But ladies and gentlemen, that isn’t the way it is at all. The conclusions of the Jesus Seminar don’t represent facts. Rather, their point of view and research methods are deeply flawed because of their prior commitment to a philosophic position that is already hostile to the events described in the text of the Gospels. It isn’t an issue of historical fact versus religious faith. The facts are actually on the side of the resurrection, not on the side of the wishful thinking of the Jesus Seminar.

Is There Any Good Evidence the Gospels are Reliable?

The so-called “search for the historic Jesus” is over one hundred years old. Virtually nothing discovered during that time undermines the Gospel accounts. There is no “new evidence” supporting the idea that the miracle-working Son of God was the result of an evolution of myth over a long period of time. To the contrary, recent discoveries have given more credibility to the content of the Gospels themselves. This is why the trend in the last 20 years has been for liberal scholars to become more conservative in their views on the reliability of the Gospels, not less.

Recent finds in archaeology, for example, show us that funerals were conducted differently in Galilee than in Jerusalem, consistent with the details in the Gospels. A person fabricating a story generations after the fact would not know this because of the devastation in Galilee by the Romans in 70 A.D.

This doesn’t prove that Jesus rose from the dead, but it’s one of a number of things that have been discovered over time that point to the accurate detail of the Gospel accounts. This gives substance to the claim that the writers were eye witnesses at the time of the events.

We know the Apostle Paul died during the Neronian persecution of A.D. 64. Paul was still alive at the close of Acts, so Acts must have been written sometime before A.D. 64. Acts was a continuation of Luke’s Gospel, which must have been written earlier still. The book of Mark predates Luke, even by the Jesus Seminar’s reckoning. This pushes Mark’s Gospel into the 50s, just over twenty years after the crucifixion.

It is undisputed that Paul wrote Romans in the mid-50s, yet he proclaims Jesus as the resurrected Son of God in the opening lines of that epistle. Galatians, another uncontested Pauline epistle of the mid-50s, records Paul’s interaction with the principle disciples (Peter and James) at least 14 years earlier (Gal 1:18, cf. 2:1).

The Jesus Seminar claims that the humble sage of Nazareth was transformed into a wonder-working Son of God in the late first and early second century. The epistles, though, record a high Christology within 10 to 20 years of the crucifixion. That simply is not enough time for myth and legend to take hold, especially when so many were still alive to contradict the alleged errors.

There is no good reason to assume the Gospels were fabricated or seriously distorted in the retelling. Time and again the New Testament writers claim to be eyewitnesses to the facts. They give abundant geographic and cultural details not available to writers of the next century. We also now know that it was the habit of Jewish disciples to memorize entire discourses of their rabbi’s teaching. First century oral tradition was not as flexible or fluid as we might imagine.

But there’s another problem.

Who Would Follow this Man?

Even the members of the Jesus Seminar admit that Jesus was executed on a Roman Cross. But why was He killed? Who would follow this deconstructed Jesus? Who would care if He lived or died?

Leading Jesus scholar John Meier notes that a Jesus who “spent his time spinning parables and Japanese koans...or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field...would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one.”[4]

In Jesus Under Fire, J.P. Moreland sums up what the Jesus Seminar is asking us to believe based on nothing more than the strength of their philosophic assumptions: “It requires the assumption that someone, about a generation removed from the events in question, radically transformed the authentic information about Jesus that was circulating at that time, superimposed a body of material four times as large, fabricated almost entirely out of whole cloth, while the church suffered sufficient collective amnesia to accept the transformation as legitimate.”[5]

Does the Resurrection Matter?

The Jesus Seminar wants us to believe that nothing meaningful is surrendered as a result of their analysis. Even though the resurrection is false, they say, it still has significance because of the story it tells.

The Apostle Paul disagreed. “If Christ has not been raised,” he wrote, “your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”[6]

If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, but instead was buried in a shallow grave and later dug up and eaten by dogs, as Robert Funk asserts, then Christians have nothing to celebrate. Rather, they should be pitied, according to Paul. Pretty stories not grounded in fact save no one. Only a risen Savior can defeat death.

I’m with Paul. I pity the Jesus Seminar who thinks we can hold on to some kind of vain, empty, religious confidence when all the facts of history go against us. If that’s true, then you and I and the Jesus Seminar are all still in our sins. That’s not something to celebrate on Easter.

As for me, I’m going to stand with Paul. I’m going to stand with Jesus. I’m going to stand with the resurrection.

By the way, J.P. Moreland’s and Mike Wilkins’s book, Jesus Under Fire , published by Zondervan, is a powerful academic and scholarly rebuttal of the Jesus Seminar. You must get a copy of this book . The introduction alone is worth the asking price.

[1] Robert Funk, The Gospel of Mark, Red Letter Edition (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1991), pp. xvi- xvii.

[2] Los Angeles Times , March 11, 1995.

[3] Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (New York: Macmillan, 1993), p. 5, quoted in Moreland and Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), p. 4.

[4] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus , vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), p. 177, quoted in Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), p. 21.

[5] Moreland and Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), p. 22.

[6]1 Cor. 15:17-19.