Deliver Us from the Jesus Seminar: The Genesis of 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.

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” Sadly, P.T. Barnum’s famous saying applies not only to the circus but also to academia. It seems that the scholars of the Jesus Seminar bank on gullibility in their efforts to spread a reconstructed Gospel that presents a Jesus to their own liking. The Jesus Seminar, chaired by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, is a self-promoting, pretentious attempt to popularize a historical Jesus, which is more culturally appealing. While claiming to represent the mainstream of critical New Testament scholarship, the Seminar might be likened to a sideshow rather than the center-ring attraction.

In many ways, the analogy of a traveling circus is apt. The members of the Seminar have taken their twice-yearly meetings on the road. They advertise their coming and invite the press to observe their proceedings where they identify those aspects of the Gospels that represent the authentic Jesus—by their account, very little. Boasting of some 74 scholars who are active in its proceedings (contrast this impressive number with that more marginal group, the Society of Biblical Literature, with a mere 6,900 membership), the Jesus Seminar has set out to dissect the Gospels to separate historical fact from mythical baggage.

How It All Began

In 1985, Robert Funk convoked a meeting of 30 scholars in Berkeley, California, to begin this quest for the historical Jesus. They sought to recover the authentic voice of Jesus that lies hidden in the Gospels and which they believe the evangelists and the memory of the early Church have obscured. For six years, they debated interpretations presented in technical papers, prepared and circulated in advance, and then voted to determine the degree of authenticity of Jesus’ words found in the Gospels. Of the sayings of Jesus, 18 percent were accorded the status of probable to definite. The second phase of the Seminar (1991 to 1996) examined the deeds of Jesus and found that of the 176 recorded events in which Jesus was the main actor, only ten are certain; an additional 19 probably occurred—yielding roughly 16 percent of the total. The conclusions of their studies can be found in the books edited by Robert Funk and Roy W. Hoover, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus and The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus.

Over the years, slightly more than 200 Fellows from various traditions (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) have participated in some way in the Seminar. Only an average of 30 to 40 actually attends each meeting. They have adopted a system of voting with colored beads, which indicate the degree of authenticity of the saying or deed of Jesus.

• Red: Jesus undoubtedly said/did this or something very much like it (as they informally state, “That’s Jesus!”).

• Pink: Jesus probably said/did something like this (“Sure sounds like Jesus”).

• Gray: Jesus did not say/do this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own (“Well, maybe”).

• Black: Jesus did not say/do this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition (“There’s been some mistake”).

They base their judgments on what they call the seven pillars of scholarly wisdom:

1. We must separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

2. The Synoptic Gospels are closer to the historical Jesus than the Gospel of John.

3. Mark was written before Matthew and Luke and was the basis for both.

4. The hypothetical source “Q” explained Matthew’s and Luke’s common tradition not found in Mark.

5. The noneschatological Jesus who speaks in aphorisms and parables must be liberated from the eschatological Jesus, whom the Church constructed.

6. The contrast between the oral culture of Jesus and the print culture of later times (Jesus only spoke in short, memorable, oft-repeated phrases, never longer discourse).

7. 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 the first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand.

However, the Seminar demurs that as useful and necessary as these pillars might be, there can be no final guarantee of the results. According to the Seminar, “The last temptation is to create Jesus in our own image, to marshal the facts to support preconceived convictions.” But one might wonder if this is not what the seven pillars of wisdom in fact guarantee, a Jesus in their own image. Though claiming to engage in critical scholarship, the Seminar is uncritical of its own starting point. Operating from a bias against prior ecclesial perspectives of Jesus, it rejects out of hand anything that tokens of a traditional understanding. Anything that might be favorable to a confessional position must automatically be discounted:

The Scholars Version (SV) is authorized by scholars and is free of any ecclesiastical and religious control, unlike other major translations in English…. Since SV is not bound by the dictates of church councils, its contents and organization vary from traditional bibles. The Five Gospels contains the Gospel of Thomas in addition to the four canonical Gospels. Because scholars believe the Gospel of Mark was written first, they have placed it first among the five.

The noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945, is given equal footing with the canonical Gospels. The Seminar refuses to be cowed by the dictates of councils in its re-creation of the historical Jesus:

The Christ of creed and dogma, who had been firmly in place in the Middle Ages, can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope. The old deities and demons were swept from the skies by that remarkable glass…. The church appears to smother the historical Jesus by superimposing this heavenly figure on him in the creed: Jesus is displaced by the Christ as the so-called Apostle’s Creed makes evident.

Though claiming to be on the cutting edge of critical scholarship, the Seminar’s findings are not new. The so-called quest for the historical Jesus began when scholars sought to use the sciences of critical history in the interpretation of the biblical texts. Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) was one of the first champions of the quest. He maintained that the New Testament view of Jesus was not historical but rather a fabrication by His disciples who desired to see the kingdom fulfilled despite the crucifixion of Jesus. To recover a truly “historical” Jesus, it was necessary to expose the false “dogmatic” interpretation of Jesus as the Christ. Influenced by the antireligious sentiment of the early Enlightenment, he denied the historicity of the miracles and resurrection because he believed them to be the creation of the disciples as a means of validating their aspirations to preside over the kingdom intended by Jesus. For Reimarus, Jesus was no more than a moral sage who sought to realize the ideals of the kingdom and who mistakenly believed Himself to be the Messiah.

David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), with his Life of Jesus Critically Examined, followed in the wake of Reimarus. Applying Hegelian dialectic, Strauss sought to recover the authentic Jesus of history by contrasting the traditional interpretation of the Gospels, which smacked of supernaturalism, with the more rationalistic interpretations then coming into favor. For a supernaturalist, the resurrection was a clear example of divine intervention in history, whereas the rationalist would explain it as a bodily resuscitation or as a hallucination. Strauss argued that neither approach was correct. He insisted that the Gospel stories are products of religious imagination, what he called “myth,” though he did allow that there might have been a kernel of historical truth. The criteria? Any account that contradicted the known laws of nature would be considered mythical; anything contradicted by another biblical account also was to be discounted. Strauss’s basic argument concluded that the Gospels do not treat Jesus historically and therefore it would be impossible to write a truly historical account of his life. Liberal Protestants, however, continued the quest.

Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) thought the quest for the historical Jesus illegitimate. He argued that the Gospels only establish the bare fact of Jesus’ existence and His death by crucifixion. The Jesus of history is concealed under layers of kerygma—later proclamations about Jesus as the risen Christ. We cannot get back to the Jesus of history but only to the Christ of the early Church’s faith. In addition to his historical concerns, Bultmann denied the Jesus quest on theological grounds as well. His Lutheran belief in justification by faith alone led him to believe that it is a mistake to base our faith on historical research. The kerygma assumes the fact of the earthly Jesus’ historical existence, but it is only the kerygma that grounds our faith in Christ. Sharing the rationalist prejudices of the earlier seekers, he sought to demythologize the kerygma of the New Testament, arguing that it expressed the categories of a first-century worldview. The interpreter’s task is to remythologize the Gospels by expressing in contemporary terms what had been said in the early kerygma. Thus, contemporary experience becomes the norm by which Scripture is to be interpreted. It is our faith, not the faith of the first-century Christians.

In contrast to Bultmann’s historical skepticism, the Seminar proposes to establish the historical reliability of at least some of the data found in the Gospels. However, when all is said and done, what remains is a severely mutilated portrait of a Jesus who little resembles the Christ presented in the Gospels, for the Seminar seeks only the authentic historical Jesus. Since the majority of the participants reject out of hand a divine Jesus who worked miracles, who spoke of a future judgment in apocalyptic terms, or who was raised from the dead, anything in the Gospels that refers to these had to be the fabrication of persons with an agenda.

The Gospels record the miracles of Jesus, which obviously could not have occurred, such scholars argue; therefore, the Gospels cannot be trusted to be completely historically accurate. We, therefore, must sift through the Gospels and glean only that which is compatible with reason—that is, a reason that lacks faith. The Seminar starts with philosophical presuppositions that determine what counts as historical evidence, presuppositions fundamentally at odds with the message of the Gospels.

A Wolf in the Midst of the Flock

If this were merely a group of crank scholars left to themselves, one could say no harm done. But the Seminar’s claim to represent the mainstream of Christian scholarship is misleading to the uniformed public and disingenuous at best. Aided by secular media that seek to capitalize on controversy, every Christmas and Easter the public is treated to the Seminar’s interpretation of the meaning of these mysteries, as if this is what most scholars believe. The Seminar’s participants try to present a false dichotomy, as if the issue was historical fact versus religious faith. Many scholars recognize the two are not incompatible.

The Seminar’s thinking is illustrated by many examples. In its version of Mark 1:17, we read: “Become my followers and I’ll have you fishing for people!” The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar mark this gray because they doubt whether Jesus actively recruited followers. They are skeptical that Jesus deliberately set out to organize a movement by recruiting disciples; they think he was probably an itinerant sage without institutional goals. To them, he certainly did not have it in mind to found a Church like the one that eventually came into being. The Seminar also claims that it was the early disciples’ tendency to justify their own claims by attributing statements and stories to Jesus.

But how are we to know whether Jesus had any institutional goals? Or that He never intended to found the Church? According to the Seminar, we ought to appeal to the seven pillars of scholarly wisdom, which tell us that Jesus only spoke in aphorisms and parables and was not concerned about the future and that the Church sought to establish a Christ of faith as the means of legitimating her own claims. The Seminar says, “Christian conviction eventually overwhelms Jesus: he is made to confess what Christians had come to believe…. The axiom bears repeating: Jesus was not the first Christian. However, he is often made to talk like a Christian by his devoted followers.”

Recreated in Their Image and Likeness

In their re-creation of Jesus, the itinerant sage, the Fellows state: “Like the cowboy hero of the American West exemplified by Gary Cooper, the sage of the ancient Near East was laconic, slow to speech, a person of few words.” From this compressed characterization, they develop certain generalizations or working principles:

• Jesus as a rule does not initiate dialogue or debate, neither does He offer to cure people.

• Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about Himself in the first person.

• Jesus makes no claims to be the Anointed, the Messiah.

They then offer this caveat: “The fact that some words attributed to Jesus were not likely spoken by him does not necessarily diminish their importance.” Based on their criteria, Jesus probably said in response to a question about taxes, “Pay to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21, red print). In response to the disciple’s request that He teach them to pray, Jesus probably said, “Father, (red print)/ your name be revered. Impose your imperial rule. (pink print)/ Provide us with the bread we need day by day. Forgive us our sins, since we too forgive everyone in debt to us. And please don’t subject us to test after test (gray print)” (Luke 11:2-4 SV).

Occasionally, they do admit that Jesus offered unsolicited advice, as during the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “Congratulations you poor! God’s domain belongs to you” (Luke 6:20, SV, red print) or “Congratulations to the poor in spirit!” (Mt 5:3, SV, pink print).

Matthew’s version is less likely than Luke’s because the reasons for the congratulations are religious rather than socio-economic. Hence, the Seminar believes they are much more likely to have been spiritualized by the later Christian community. The term “blessed,” the Seminar notes, is too archaic for its tastes. However, one might question whether there is a fundamental difference in worldviews expressed by the term “congratulations” as compared with “blessed.” Congratulations may be appropriate if someone wins the lottery, but to say someone is blessed permeates the notion with a recognition of God’s grace and favor, not merely human luck.

The Church Speaks

In contrast to the approach of the Jesus Seminar, the Pontifical Biblical Commission offers a more balanced and—dare I say—less ideological approach to biblical interpretation. In its 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, it notes that Catholic exegesis does not adhere to any one scientific method as its own. It recognizes that the biblical texts are the work of human authors, who used their own capacities for expression according to the time and social context in which they lived. Catholic exegesis is free to make use of those scientific methods that allow a better appreciation of the meaning of the texts in their linguistic, literary, sociocultural, religious, and historical contexts. This exegesis is to be carried out in the living tradition of the Church, recognizing that various methods offer both possibilities and limitations. Though acknowledging a legitimate use of the historical-critical method, it notes that the method in itself cannot imply a priori assumptions that rule out the possibility of God acting in a unique way within history—to do so would be to distort the method.

The Biblical Commission also shares some of the Jesus Seminar’s concerns regarding fundamentalism. It warns against the dangers of a fundamentalist approach to Scripture that, while rightly insisting on the divine inspiration of the Bible and the inerrancy of the Word of God, nevertheless tends toward a naive literalism that fails to take into account the historical origins and development of Scripture, a fundamentalism that bars any scientific or critical method for the interpretation of Scripture. The danger is the tendency towards an “intellectual suicide,” which fails to recognize that the expression of the Word of God is conditioned by human language and culture and that proper interpretation must recognize the various literary forms and the modes of thinking and speaking found in the biblical texts. The fundamentalist tendency is to historicize material the authors never intended to be historical and to rule out the possibility of any symbolic or figurative meaning. As the commission notes, “It accepts the literal reality of an ancient, out-of-date cosmology, simply because it is found expressed in the Bible; this blocks dialogue with a broader way of seeing the relationship between culture and faith.”

Authorship of Inspired Texts

The bishops of the Second Vatican Council in their document on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, recognized a certain development in the Gospel texts from the events of Jesus, through the early kerygma, to the written Gospels. Nonetheless, they also unhesitatingly affirmed the Gospels’ historicity as handing on faithfully what Jesus, the Son of God, did and taught. Unlike the Seminar, the bishops do not believe that the Gospel development is the result of a distorted ecclesial agenda, but the work of the Holy Spirit:

The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form, others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, all the while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus.

The bishops also noted the distinction between God as the “principal author” of Sacred Scripture (that is, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) and the human writers who are the “instrumental authors.” This instrumentality is not passive but active. “To compose the Sacred Scriptures, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.” Since the Holy Spirit is the primary author, Scripture teaches “firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures?’

Since in Scripture God speaks to man in a human way so that man can correctly interpret Scripture, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words. To discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. Furthermore, Scripture must be interpreted in accord with the Spirit who inspired it by being especially attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture, reading the Scripture within the living tradition of the whole Church, and recognizing the analogy of faith. There is a coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.

For the Church, biblical interpretation is an indispensable task. In our attempts to understand the Scriptures, we must acknowledge our limitations as well as our presuppositions. The Christian faith was not meant to rest on the shifting sands of critical scholarship but on the proclamation of the Gospel, which Christ announced and to which the Church must be faithful.


  • John McCormick

    At the time this article was published, John McCormick was teaching Catholic studies at Kansas-Newman University.

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