Deliver Us from the Jesus Seminar: Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar

The following is the first article in a nine-part series on defending the truthfulness of the Scriptures from the claims of the Jesus Seminar scholars.

The Church canonized only four Gospels; however, Robert Funk, the leader of the Jesus Seminar, wants to add the Gospel of Thomas and the Sayings Gospel Q to our canon. This poses the question: Why did the Church canonize four Gospels and no more? The answer is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the only Gospels that tell the story of “the flesh and blood martyrdom of the Son of God.”

The Church rejected all Gospels that failed to tell this story. The Gospel of Peter says that while Jesus hung on the cross, He felt no pain. If Jesus felt no pain, His death was not a flesh-and-blood martyrdom. If he did not experience the pain we would have felt, His death could not have been redemptive. Similarly, the Gospel of Thomas is only a collection of Jesus’ sayings. There is no flesh-and-blood martyrdom—no redemptive death of Jesus. The same can be said of the scholarly collection of sayings the Seminar calls “Q.”

Despite all its faults, I find the Church to be essentially trustworthy. Robert Funk and other prominent members of the Jesus Seminar, such as the Catholic scholar Dominic Crossan, not without reason are constrained to draw our attention to the shortcomings of the Church when compared with the vision of Jesus. However, instead of being what they claim to be—historians—Robert Funk and his colleagues in the Jesus Seminar have collectively turned their backs on sound historiography.

Their first major failure has been their inability to properly construe the importance of certain data preserved in the letters of Paul for understanding Jesus and His role in Christian origins. The second major failure is they don’t offer a credible account of Jesus’ relationship to Judaism.

A Crucial Text

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 clearly provides important data on the question of Jesus as a historical figure. It is important to set these verses within the context of Paul’s pastoral concerns. Some at Corinth were confused about the requirements of what Paul refers to as “The Lord’s Supper.” He writes, “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk.” Paul ends this section of his letter with these words: “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if any is hungry, let him eat at home—lest you come together to be condemned” (1 Corinthians 11:33-34). In giving apostolic documentation for the ruling he expects the Corinthians to observe, Paul provides us with certain information of fundamental importance for understanding Jesus and His role in instituting the Church.

After letting the Corinthians know that he is informed about the abuses going on among them, he asks rhetorically, “What? Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” Then before laying down his trump card, Paul prepares his readers by asking, “What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this?” (1 Corinthians 11:22). Paul, in effect, answered with a categorical “No!” He said that he would not commend them for this because what they were doing was not in accord with what he received from the Lord and what he faithfully handed on to them, namely:

On the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which takes your place. Do this in remembrance of me.” He took the cup, too, after supper, in the same way, saying, “This cup is the new covenant ratified by my blood. Whenever you drink it, do it in memory of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

This text is of decisive importance for the historian who wants to understand Jesus. Before analyzing it to determine what can be established concerning what Jesus probably did and said that night, there are two questions that must be answered: (1) From whom did Paul receive this tradition?, and (2) Is this the only example of Paul passing on tradition he received?

In Chapter 15 of the same letter to the Corinthians, there is another example of Paul passing on the tradition that he received. Before citing the authoritative tradition on this matter of the resurrection, Paul introduces it with: “Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved…” Then, using the same technical language as in Chapter 11, language used by Jewish rabbis when passing on received tradition, Paul writes:

For I delivered to you as of first importance, what I also received, namely, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, he was raised on the third day in accordance with scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the Grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preached and so you believed [emphasis added].

This is a stunning autobiographical statement: To whom is Paul referring when he states that he worked harder than any of them? In this context, the antecedent of “them” includes Peter, the twelve, the 500 brethren to whom Jesus appeared at one time, James, and all the apostles. These include those he refers to elsewhere in his letters as “those who were apostles before me” (cf. Galatians 1:17).

Apostles Before St. Paul

But as stunning as this autobiographical statement maybe, it pales in comparison with what Paul tells us about himself and his relationship to those who were apostles before him in his letter to the Galatians. For in this second autobiographical statement, we are provided information that sheds light on the other preliminary question that must be discussed before proceeding with an analysis of the text concerning what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed. In other words, before taking up the tradition concerning what Jesus did that night, we need to know more about where this material came from, namely, from whom did Paul receive the tradition he is handing on?

Beginning with Galatians 1:13, Paul writes:

[Y]ou have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it…. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me in order that I might preach the good news about him to the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, rather I went away into Arabia, and then returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas.

At this point, we pause to explain the importance of the word ιστορησαι that Paul uses to describe the purpose of his going to Jerusalem. The ιστωρ in ancient Greece, among other things, was the person who questioned witnesses in court.

The first Greek historians explored the great rivers and penetrated inland as far as they could safely travel. Then they would interrogate people from further inland, obtaining eyewitness accounts about the vast unknown interiors of the surrounding continents. The reports of these geographers constituted the beginnings of what became known as “history.” Thus, the verb ιστορησαι can mean “to inquire into or about a certain matter” or “to inquire about a person.” Or it can also mean “to examine” or “to observe.” Such a questioner or observer would then become “one who is informed” about something or “one who knows.”

The plain meaning of what Paul writes is that he went to make inquiry of Peter. Paul is not making himself subservient to anyone in his decision to ask questions—his apostolic concern to “get it right” is foundational for Christian life and faith. His use of ιστορησαι in this context conceptually places Peter in the witness box. Paul is the ιστωρ. Peter is the one being questioned. For example, Peter could have been an expert witness in matters of dispute about the “faith” of the church of God (Galatians 1:23 and 1 Corinthians 15:3) or as an eyewitness on matters about traditions handed on in the church of God, especially in the case of tradition involving words and/or actions of Jesus that could have been decisive for the faith of the church of God.

Fifteen Days with St. Peter

The question is from whom did Paul receive the traditions he passed on to the Corinthians? According to the Jesus Seminar, the Church’s Eucharist grows out of Hellenistic cultic practices in Asia Minor or Greece. But the evidence fairly construed clearly supports the Church’s teaching that the Eucharist is historically grounded in the words and actions of Jesus: He took bread, he broke it, and he said, “This is my body.” This is simply the difference between a Church with the Eucharist and a Church without it.

Paul, in going up to Jerusalem to question Peter, was moving up the stream of Church tradition to its very source, that is, to those eyewitnesses involved in the formulation of this tradition. But when and from whom did Paul first receive notice of this tradition? And who took the responsibility of seeing that this tradition was handed on to Paul properly formulated?

We return to Paul’s account in Galatians. Paul has just told the Galatians that three years after his return from Arabia to Damascus, he went up to Jerusalem to make inquiry of Peter, and he adds, “I remained with him fifteen days.” Then he continues his account by saying in effect: At this point in time [i.e., after the 15 days spent with Peter in Jerusalem] I went [northward] to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still not known by face to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. And they glorified God because of me.” In this report, there are historical data that help us to know from whom Paul received the tradition about what Jesus did and said on the night he was betrayed.

Paul has just completed his 15-day stay with Peter. He is about to embark on a journey northward into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and for some reason, he wants the Galatians to know that at that time he was still unknown by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea, that is, the churches in and around Jerusalem. All they knew was what they heard, and what they heard presumably came from churches in the areas in which he had been preaching during the preceding three years. No doubt this included churches in the area of Damascus, but it may also have included churches as far north as Antioch and as far south as northern Galilee— but not in Judea. These churches in Judea only knew what they heard from other churches, ones Paul had once persecuted. And what they heard was simply, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith [emphasis added] he once tried to destroy.” In other words, the “faith” Paul had been preaching and had brought with him when he came to Peter in Jerusalem was a pre-Pauline faith.

The first possibility is that Paul received the tradition from the church of God he had once persecuted (Galatians 1:13). This follows from the fact that after his conversion, he began to preach the faith of that church. And it would have been fitting for him to have received from that same church the tradition that served to undergird that faith. Therefore, those he had once persecuted would have taken responsibility for seeing to it that Paul was equipped with properly formulated tradition serving to undergird that faith and to offer apostolic guidance to those who wished to put it into practice (cf. 1 Corinthians 11-15).

Of course, this reconstruction is a hypothesis, but it is grounded in historical data preserved in our earliest source, the letters of Paul, whereas the suggestion of the Jesus Seminar is a hypothesis that hangs in the air without any historical support or reasoned defense.

 True Source of Paul’s Faith

This hypothesis, however, is not complete, for it is crucial to ask where this Church of God that Paul once persecuted and ravished came from. There is only one credible historical source for this church’s coming into being: the preaching of the faith by those who were apostles before Paul. Whether it was the preaching of Peter, some other apostle, or more than one apostle is not decisive. The point is that the faith Paul began to preach according to this report did not originate with Paul but went back to an earlier time before Paul began his persecuting activity.

The heart of the issue is this: The Jesus Seminar suggests that Paul’s version of the Last Supper sprouted in a soil of pagan Gentile tradition in Asia Minor or Greece. But historical scholarship suggests that the tradition of the Last Supper Paul received and handed on to his churches was handed on to him by the same church he once persecuted and whose faith he had tried to destroy.

Thus, at long last, we can answer the question of from whom did Paul receive the tradition concerning the Lord’s Supper, with “He received it from the church he once persecuted.” The faith Paul preached was closely related to the tradition he received, specifically, the tradition that “Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3), which he handed on to his churches, along with other traditions that were decisive for the Church, including what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed.

In the tradition concerning the Lord’s Supper handed on by Paul, Jesus identified His body with the broken bread, representing His death as a death for others (1 Corinthians 11:24). This offering of one’s life for others is in accord with Isaiah 53, which is included in the Scriptures referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:3: “Christ died for our sins in accordance to the scriptures.” The point is the tradition concerning the Lord’s Supper that Paul handed on is doctrinally bound to the tradition that Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3).

Through the interrelationship of these traditions, Paul, in giving counsel concerning pastoral problems in the Church at Corinth, is drawing on a larger body of authoritative tradition, namely, that formulated by, or under the influence of, Peter, John, and other apostles.

The faith Paul brought with him when he came to Jerusalem and spent 15 days with Peter must have been a faith Paul and Peter shared. However, this is not to say that he received it directly from Peter, certainly not during his 15-day stay, since it was a faith he had already been preaching during the preceding three years.

It is not surprising that this faith was embodied in the tradition Paul passed on to the Corinthians. Paul gives expression to this faith in the words of 1 Corinthians 15:3: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures?’ It is clear that Paul embraced this faith and made it central in his preaching. For example, he addresses the churches of Galatia with these words: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins” (Galatians 1:4).

Jesus and the Jewish ‘Tradition

This leads to the second charge against the members of the Jesus Seminar—namely, their failure as historians to credibly reconstruct the historical Jesus at the point of His relationship to Judaism and especially to the Jewish scriptures. There is a historical disconnection, if not a disruption.

From the perspective of the Seminar’s “Galilean sage,” the scriptural account of Jesus’ words and deeds on the night He was betrayed can be regarded as simply bizarre—totally out of character for a sage. Therefore, it could not have happened. But is that the only alternative? Suppose Jesus was the kind of Jew who was well acquainted with Jewish scriptures, including the books of the prophets.

Prophets were known to engage in bizarre behavior when it was called for or when it was what the prophet believed was in accordance with the will and plan of God. For example, in Isaiah 20, God says to the prophet: “Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put off your sandals from your feet?’ And Isaiah did so, walking naked and barefoot. And the Lord said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years, as a sign and symbol against Egypt and Ethiopia, so will the King of Assyria lead off the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Ethiopia, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt…” (Isaiah 20:2-4).

What Paul and the evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that Jesus did and said on the night he was betrayed comes across as somewhat less bizarre than we might at first think once we see it in the light of his Jewish background, specifically in the light of the witness of the prophet Isaiah. Here is a “servant of the Lord” who once walked the streets of Jerusalem for three years naked and barefoot as a sign from God, carrying a message that had a bearing on the salvation of God’s people.

The Church and most historians do not question that Jesus was a Jew who knew the Jewish scriptures intimately. One way for us to get a better idea of Jesus in relation to Judaism is to make an attempt to place ourselves in the upper room the night Jesus was betrayed. This we can do by focusing imaginatively on what Jesus is reported to have said and done that night in the two versions (that in 1 Corinthians and that in Matthew and Mark) of the Lord’s Supper preserved in the New Testament, making use of wirkungsgeschichte where we take account of later interpretations of texts in making our own credible imaginative reconstructions.

On that night, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks to God over it, broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body broken in your behalf.” In so doing, he took the first step toward preparing his followers to identify his death with that of the redemptive death of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53, who gave his life as a ransom for many. To reinforce this identification, and to imprint it indelibly on the minds of his disciples, after supper Jesus took the traditional cup of blessing and, after blessing it, gave it to his disciples, saying: “Take, drink. This is my blood of the New Covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The use of the expression “poured out” in this context is an allusion to the words of the prophet Isaiah in reference to the redeeming death of the Servant in Isaiah 53:12: “He poured out his life unto death.” The use of the fuller expression “poured out for many” is an even clearer allusion to Isaiah 53:12: “He poured out his life unto death…he bore the sins of many.”

Finally, the full expression “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” is an unmistakable allusion to the fuller text of Isaiah 53:12: “He poured out his life unto death…he bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors.”

Reasonable doubt that Jesus had in his mind this teaching of Isaiah concerning the Servant of the Lord when he spoke and acted as he did is further lessened when we reflect on the verses preceding Isaiah 53:12. Take, for example, verse 5: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed?’

Finally, there are the comforting and redeeming words of Isaiah 53:11 that remind us of the restorative purpose of the Servant’s suffering: “The Lord shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.”

What Jesus did that night functioned as a prophetic, symbolic act in the tradition of Isaiah. It was also a parabolic act in which what Jesus was saying and doing was to be compared to what Isaiah had said that the wounded Servant would accomplish. Only when this connection was made would the full impact of the text of Isaiah grasp the minds of his heretofore disbelieving hearers. At that point, all who had ears to hear would have had their minds turned by what Jesus was communicating to them. For all who had eyes to see and ears to hear, this was an exhilarating moment, calling for a repentance for unbelief that was pregnant with hope: “Because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; He bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors [emphasis added].”

Of course, until Jesus had actually (not just symbolically) freely given himself over into the hands of the transgressors, had been buried, and had been raised up and vindicated, most of Jesus’ disciples would only continue to falter, as we are told Peter did. But the seeds for belief in Jesus’ messianic vindication and exaltation were sown in the hearts of His disciples that night. Thus, after they had sung a hymn and had walked out into the night, there was still a song abiding in their hearts, and they followed Jesus to see what the Lord would do. The incredible words of Isaiah concerning the Servant would, as the word of God, hover over the chaos of God’s new creation as the Spirit had hovered over the chaos of God’s first creation.

What then keeps the Jesus Seminar from recognizing that the Jesus who spoke the parables is the same Jesus who died for the sins of others, a Jesus who freely accepted His death as a voluntary giving of himself for others? The answer is they acknowledge no such connection. They misconstrue the data that make this connection possible and give them short shrift.

The failure of the Jesus Seminar to properly construe the importance of historical data that are decisive for understanding Jesus, preserved in the letters of Paul, is far reaching. The short shrift members of the Jesus Seminar have given to 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and all related data from Paul’s letters is representative of the myopic approach they take to much of the historical data concerning Jesus. Convergence between the second to fourth century Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and the hypothetical Q is a case in point. For them such convergence is given more weight, in general, than they have given to this case of convergence between our earliest historical witness, Paul, and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.


  • William R. Farmer

    William R. Farmer is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Southern Methodist University and research scholar at the University of Dallas.

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