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A New Vision of Jesus?
An Evangelical Critique of the Jesus Seminar and Its Radical Skepticism
By Francis H. Geis, B.B.S., B.A.
"Who was Jesus of Nazareth? What did he actually say and do?" Why are these questions being asked afresh today, both within and without the Christian community? These questions will be addressed in this four-part article.
Why These Questions are Asked
There are several reasons why they are being asked. First, there are claims being made about the discovery of "ancient secret documents" that contradict the New Testament record of Jesus' life and ministry. When one first hears about these various "discoveries" and "secret documents" and what they are supposed to prove, they may sound plausible enough.
But after careful investigation of the reports made concerning these "amazing discoveries," one soon sees that they are without any real historical substance. Indeed, they are often nothing more than a form of propaganda promoting some religious or philosophical view contrary to orthodox Christianity.
As Craig Blomberg, Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, comments:
Over the years, all kinds of stories have been fabricated about secret documents that retell the Gospel story as it really was ... In the second through fifth centuries, apocryphal gospels invented numerous stories about Jesus. In one document he became a child prodigy who breathed life into clay pigeons and withered up annoying playmates (The Infancy Gospel of Thomas).
In later centuries, creative authors filled in the gaps in Jesus' young adulthood by describing his exotic travels to the Orient to learn from various Eastern gurus. In recent years, conspiracy theories have been concocted about newly discovered documents from the sands of the Middle East but hidden from the public at large because they portray a Jesus greatly at odds with the Biblical figure (e.g., Irving Wallace's novel and movie, The Word).
While capturing the public's imagination, there is no solid historical evidence that any of these stories is true. This is a verdict that non-Christian as well as Christian historians readily concede.1
Second, there exists at many of our secular universities and mainline Protestant seminaries an aggressive skepticism about the historical reliability of the NT witness to Jesus. Many New Testament (NT) scholars and teachers of comparative religion hold naturalistic and evolutionary assumptions about the rise and development of the Christian faith, and so use source, form, and redaction criticism to sift the NT text. They attempt to separate the "kernels of truth" about the life and mission of Jesus from the "husk" of later Christian mythic legend and theological abstraction. As they engage in this process of separating "historical fact" from "religious myth," such liberal critics often conclude that the NT writers provide very little reliable information about the life or words of the historical Jesus.
Nothing much remains, they say, about what Jesus actually thought or said about Himself and His relationship with God. It is not surprising, therefore, that these radical critics, who have already assumed the Jesus in the Gospels and Epistles is largely a mythic religious figure created by the Early Church, come to the inevitable conclusion that there is no continuity between the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith." Consequently, they reject the NT vision of Jesus' life and ministry, and out of their rationalistic speculations, attempt to formulate a more "historical" and "scientific" version of the Jesus story.
The Jesus Seminar, in particular, is a group of radical scholars committed to discrediting the NT vision of Jesus, and replacing it with what they regard as a more historical, rational and scientific version of Jesus' story. So they are the major focus of the present critique. Later, we will expose the major flaws in their critical methodology.
But first, we need to do some groundwork and form a foundation for our critique. So we begin with a discussion of the legitimacy of historical-literary criticism, the difference between constructive and destructive Biblical criticism, and the limitations of historical-literary criticism in determining the historicity and veracity of the NT writings. The critique will be divided into three main sections.
Laying the Groundwork for Our Critique
The present writer is not against the scholarly attempt to detect and understand the possible sources used by the NT writers in their portrayal of Jesus the Messiah, which is the task of source criticism. Nor am I against identifying the literary genre, forms, and content of the NT writings, which is the task of form criticism. Nor do I deny that, from all of the historical and biographical material available to them, the NT writers seem to have selected and edited those narratives of Jesus' life, words, and deeds best suited to their particular historical and pastoral concerns. Understanding this phenomenon of the NT text is the task of redaction criticism.
Together, these three forms of textual criticism comprise the historical-literary criticism of the New Testament commonly practiced by both conservative and liberal scholars today. I am not against historical-literary criticism of the NT, per se. As a teacher and expositor of the NT text, I recognize there is a legitimate use of historical-literary criticism, both in understanding the message of the New Testament and in applying it to our own times.
Most scholars would agree that to put the NT into its historical setting is not only legitimate but essential for a right understanding of the text. It is not sufficient to maintain that as the Word of God, the NT is applicable to any age irrespective of the original purpose of its parts. A true application of the NT depends on a right understanding of its original aim. The Corinthian correspondence, for instance, is intelligible only against the first-century situation to which it is addressed; but it has universal application because it enunciates abiding principles in dealing with local needs.
The scholar is dependent to a large extent on inferences from the NT text itself in reconstructing the historical background. This presents no difficulty so long as the NT writers are taken at their face value. But a real problem arises when scholars, like F.C. Baur in the nineteenth century and J. Knox and E. Haenchen in the twentieth century, suggest a writer like Luke has superimposed his own view of early Christian developments on the facts.2
While I believe Baur and company have misused and even abused the tools of historical-criticism, this much is true: due to both the form and content of the NT writings, an expositor of God's Word cannot avoid engaging in a certain amount of Biblical criticism and exegesis, if he is to properly expound and apply the message of the NT for our own age. It is a task the true Biblical expositor cannot avoid.
If the expositor would understand the original author's own purpose and application in the text, and then apply that same text to our own situation, he must engage in critical analysis of the NT text. But we should make use of these analytic tools constructively, rather than destructively. This leads us on to mark out a distinction between destructive and constructive criticism of the New Testament.
Constructive and Destructive NT Criticism Distinguished
What, someone may ask, is the difference between the two types of NT criticism? Answer: It is the difference existing between the presuppositions of their respective methodologies.
Destructive criticism begins with the assumption that nothing is valid until proved true, which a priori rules out the possibility of treating such a basic Christian event as the resurrection of Jesus as historical. Constructive criticism takes the opposite view and regards as valid the claims of the NT until they can be proved false. That this view is more justifiable than the former is evident from its more realistic approach to early traditions regarding the NT.
Destructive criticism has no alternative but to ignore early traditions, since these are regarded as biased toward a non-historical approach. But constructive criticism sifts traditional opinions in order to reject only those that can be proved unreliable. This means that many early Christian comments on the NT text that corroborate the self-claims of the NT text outweigh the speculative opinions of those who begin with a negative approach.3
Therefore the tools of NT historical-literary criticism can be used to defend and confirm the NT vision of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Lord of the Church, and Savior of the worldnot to deconstruct it. Contrary to common opinion, they do not of necessity lead to the negative speculations one finds in the publications of the Jesus Seminar.
Limitations and Value of Historical/ Literary Criticism
First we need to have clear in our minds the inherent limitations of the methods of NT criticism before criticizing its misuse by the Jesus Seminar. Ben Witherington, III, Professor of NT at Asbury Theological Seminary, provides the following useful comments on the limitations and value of historical-literary criticism:
We must recognize from the outset that the most the historical-critical method can accomplish is to establish a good probability as to whether or not a certain saying or action reported of Jesus did actually originate with him, and whether or not a given interpretation of Jesus has some historical basis. This is necessarily a minimalist approach and does not result in the sort of full-orbed picture of Jesus with which an orthodox Christian believer is familiar and fully comfortable.
What this methodology cannot do is prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Jesus did not say or do this or that. All historians dealing with ancient subjects necessarily work in the realm of probabilities and not certainties. New Testament scholars can no more prove Jesus did or did not do or say something than Roman historians can prove that Nero did or did not have some responsibility for the great fire of Rome in the 60s of the first century. They can only hope to show good probability one way or another.
Furthermore, just because one cannot establish the authenticity of some particular saying or event with the historical-critical method does not mean that it absolutely did not happen or was not said. In various cases the fault may lie (1) in the limitations of the methodology itself, (2) in the paucity of the evidence at hand or (3) in the bias or limited skills of the one handling the data.4
As long as we keep these limitations in mind, they will safeguard us against gullible acceptance of the claims being made by radical scholars of the Jesus Seminar about the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth. And if used as a rule of thumb, it will certainly help us to determine whether or not the Jesus Seminar is misusing the historical -critical method by stretching it beyond its legitimate boundaries. Now, on to our critique of the Jesus Seminar and its faulty methodology.
The Jesus Seminar and Its Vision of Jesus
It was Canon Harvey, an Anglican churchman and NT scholar, who said, "If you tear up the only evidence you have, you can say anything you like."5
Truer words were never spoken. Consider the notorious Jesus Seminar and its efforts to discredit the orthodox view of Jesus and his Messianic mission. These neo-liberal scholars have systematically shredded the NT evidence in their meat-grinder of skeptical criticism. Then, after effectively voiding the NT witness, they offer their own alternative, and often conflicting, views of Jesus' life, words, and deeds.
And while cheerfully demolishing the NT, these radical scholars boast that they alone properly and consistently use the historical -critical method. In reality they make a rather limited and negatively-weighed use of its tools of evaluation, without making clear what weight should be given to what tool.
The Jesus Seminar's Methodology Weighed and Found Wanting
First, they use the criterion of suspicion, which states that the records of Jesus' life, words, and deeds, as found in the canonical Gospels and Epistles, are to be regarded as inauthentic unless they can be proven to be authentic. This leads the Jesus Seminar fellows, who clearly believe the Early Church remade Jesus in its own image and then invented sayings attributed to him to substantiate their invention, to reject 82% of all the Gospel sayings.
Behind this attitude [of the Jesus Seminar] lies the basic assumption that the early church recreated Jesus in the image it preferred, inventing many sayings and placing them on Jesus' lips ... Many critical scholars, both Christian-and Jewish, and some of no religious affiliation at all, would simply reject this negative bias as neither historical nor scholarly.
Too often scholars fail to be critical of their own motives and theological biases. Too often they assume they know better than the early Christians who preserved and collected the sayings of Jesus and composed the Gospels, what Jesus was or was not likely to have said. This assumption is founded on hubris.6
One cannot help but wonder at the failure of these so-called NT scholars to take seriously the evidence for the "quality controls" in the Apostolic Church that prevented it from recreating Jesus in its preferred image and attributing sayings to Him which were its own, later creations. The nature of this evidence is twofold.
First of all, the preservation and faithful communication of historically reliable accounts of Jesus' life and ministry were fundamental to the Apostolic Church's task of effectively convincing prospective converts to accept the Gospel faith. For who would seriously consider responding to their message that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and not be curious about the historical facts that validated this message?
In order to answer the inevitable questions that would arise about Jesus' true identity, the content of his teaching, and the purpose of his death and resurrection, those engaged in the task of evangelizing and discipling new converts had to know enough of the "true Jesus story" to answer these questions.
J.G. Dunn comments:
Whatever we think of Jesus, it is hardly open to question that he made a profound impact on his immediate followers. We need not become involved in complex christological questions in order to recognize Jesus as the founder of a new religious movement. In terms of human nature as we know it today, it would have been very unusual indeed if the followers of such a leader had not been concerned to preserve memories of the exploits and utterances which first drew them to him and sustained their loyalty to him....
There were two factors operative in the case of Jesus .... which would go a long way towards quickening the element of "human interest" in Jesus.
The first is the degree to which Jesus himself features as part of the earliest Christian proclamation. Jesus was not remembered merely as one who had provided a system of teaching or a philosophy or a spirituality, which could be preserved or practiced without reference to the original teacher. It is true that the focus of the evangelistic preaching centered very strongly on the end events of his life on earth (death and resurrection). Nevertheless, it would be surprising indeed if the disciples had not looked to Jesus' own earlier ministry and pattern of teaching and lifestyle to provide some kind of guide-lines for their own life of faith.
The second is the fact that Christianity from the beginning was an evangelistic faith. It did not withdraw into the desert as a closed sect where all the members would know the facts of its founding and where there would be no need to record them. From the first it sought to gain converts, and very soon converts from further afield than Palestine, including Gentiles. Human curiosity being what it is, most of these converts would almost certainly have wanted to hear more about the Jesus in whom they had believed.7
Secondly, it was the responsibility of Christian pastor-teachers, who were among the leaders of the newly established Christian communities, to faithfully preserve and pass on these authoritative accounts of Jesus' life and ministry. For it was these accounts of Jesus' life, words, and deeds which formed the basis for the Apostolic Church's unique identity and mission.
Dunn again comments:
It is clear that in the earliest Christian communities an important role was filled by teachers and tradition. Luke characterizes the earliest Jerusalem church from Pentecost onwards as devoting themselves to "the teaching of the apostles" (Acts 2:42). And the importance of teachers is strongly attested elsewhere. In the earliest church at Antioch the two most important ministries were prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1). In 1Corinthians 12:28 Paul takes it for granted that teachers are next in importance in the life of the church to apostles and prophets. And in one of the earliest documents of the New Testament it is already assumed that the teacher must spend so much time on his task that he will have to depend for support on those he teaches (Gal. 6:6).
The task of a teacher, almost by definition, would have been to preserve and instruct in the matters regarded as important by the community. It is in very large measure a conserving function. In the case of Christian congregations, the teaching in question would not simply have been about the Torah. They would be responsible, no doubt, to search the Scriptures for prophecies regarding Jesus.
But instruction about Jesus, about what He said and did, must have played a prominent part in their teaching. In sociological terms, the teacher in a sect plays an absolutely crucial role in consolidating and preserving the sect's identity, by recalling the sect to its distinctive character and to the reasons for its separate identity.
Unless we wish to argue that Jesus' life prior to his death was undistinctive (but then why was he crucified?), we must accept the probability that the earliest Christian teachers were charged with the task of preserving and retelling the distinctive features of Jesus' ministry which first drew disciples to him.
This is confirmed by the prominence given to tradition in the earliest churches. The earliest Christian writer, Paul, speaks on a number of occasions about the traditions he passed on to his churches (1Cor 11:2; 15:3; Col 2:6; 1Thes 4:1; 2Thes. 2:15; 3:6). He clearly saw this as an important task of an apostleto ensure that the congregations he founded were properly informed of the traditions which characterized the Christian churches. These must have included the founding traditions which all Christian communities shared as part of their common heritage and which marked them off from other [Jewish] sects and synagogues.
Paul was adamant that his understanding of the Gospel was received first and foremost from God and not man (Gal 1:11-12). As such, the traditions he refers to cannot simply have been the proclamation of Jesus' death and resurrection itself, but must at least have included stories about the life and teaching of Jesus.
This is further borne out by Paul's own testimony that three years after his conversion he went up to Jerusalem "to visit Peter" (Gal 1:18). The verb used means more, "to get to know, find out about." Since Peter was best known as the most prominent of Jesus' disciples, and as one of the "inner circle" (Peter, James and John) who evidently had been closest to Jesus, getting to know him must have included learning about his time with Jesus. And since "he stayed with Peter for fifteen days," he would certainly have been able to learn a great dealincluding stories of what Jesus said and did when Peter was present. It is scarcely conceivable that such traditions were not included by Paul among the traditions that he passed on to the churches he founded.
It would be odd indeed to imagine Christian congregations meeting throughout the eastern Mediterranean, who in their regular gatherings were concerned only with the study of the (Jewish) Scriptures, with the message of Jesus' death and resurrection, and with waiting on the risen Lordand who were quite unconcerned to recall and reflect on the ministry and teaching of Jesus while on earth. On the contrary, it was precisely these memories and traditions which they were most likely to want to share and celebrate togetherthe founding traditions which gave them their distinctive identity.8
four-part article is continued at:
A New View of Jesus? - Part Two.
All Scripture references throughout this four-part article are from: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.
1 Craig Blomberg. "Who Was Jesus? Modern Myths vs. Biblical Basics," Focal Point, Winter 1996.
2 Donald Guthrie, "The Historical and Literary Criticism of the New Testament," Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 1. p. 443.
3 Ibid., p. 443.
4 Ben Witherington III. "Preface," The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth, p 12.
5 As quoted by Richard N. Ostling in "Who Was Jesus?," Time, August 15, 1988, p. 42.
6 Ben Witherington III. "Jesus the Talking Head: The Jesus of the Jesus Seminar," The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth, p. 40.
7 J.G. Dunn, "The Historicity of the Synoptic Gospels," Crisis In Christology: Essays in Quest of Resolution, ed. Wm. Farmer, pp. 201-202.
8 Ibid., pp. 202-204.
The above article was posted on this website February 2, 1999.
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