Let’s recap what we’ve learned so far [see below for links to previous posts]: We’ve verified that Jesus was a real, historical person. We’ve seen that the story of Jesus was unique and not copied from existing religions. We’ve discovered the careful criteria the early followers of Jesus used to accept the early, confirmed gospel accounts of Jesus and to reject the later, aberrant gospels. But this still leaves us with questions. The early Christians may have accepted the New Testament gospels, but how much should we trust these gospels today? How reliable are their descriptions of Jesus’ words and life?
Determining historical reliability, not divine inspiration
Let’s clear something up right away. The question of whether or not the Bible is inspired by God is an important and fascinating one. But it’s not the question we’re seeking to answer now. Even if the gospels are merely the work of human authors, they can still be incredibly helpful to us by providing historical information about Jesus.
And we need to remember that a source doesn’t have to be 100% error-free to be considered historically reliable. We routinely utilize ancient sources for information about historical people and events, and none of these other sources are infallible. So the issue of whether the Bible is completely without error and inspired by God isn’t necessary for our current study. All we’re trying to determine is whether the New Testament descriptions of Jesus are generally historically reliable.
The Jesus Seminar
The Jesus Seminar was a group of people who met together during the 1980s and 1990s. They’re most remembered for using colored beads to vote on which biblical sayings of Jesus were genuine. During their heyday, they received media attention that was unprecedented for research concerning the historical Jesus. In fact, the Seminar leaders such as Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan were open about their desire to seek such press for their work. Many other Jesus researchers were troubled by this, seeing this media blitz as hype and unworthy of serious scholarship.
Adding to the unease of the scholarly world was the way the Seminar described its membership. They were usually referenced as a broad consensus of scholars, when almost all of them were from the extreme “left” of Jesus scholarship (not to mention the fact that they were almost exclusively American). Describing them as representing a broad range of scholarly views would be similar to describing either very conservative Republicans or very liberal Democrats as representing (by themselves) a broad range of American political views. Not only was such a description inaccurate and offensive, it seemed intentionally misleading.
There was also a question as to how many Seminar members could be rightly called “scholars.” While the Seminar did include such well-known scholars as Funk and Crossan, most of the members were noticeably lacking in qualifications. Most had written only one or two minor papers, or nothing at all. Few had significant teaching positions, many teaching at community colleges or with no teaching role anywhere. Some even lacked the requisite degrees to be considered part of such a scholarly Seminar, such as filmmaker Paul Verhoeven (director of films such as Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers). To many, it was telling that this “Seminar” wasn’t associated with any reputable scholarly guild, such as the Society of Biblical Literature.
Seminar leader Robert Funk, in particular, made it clear from the beginning that the Seminar had an agenda of correcting and changing the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus. They were seeking to give the world a “new fiction” of Jesus. People with strong views (whether devout Christians or outspoken critics) may approach historical study with a prior agenda, and this doesn’t necessarily call into question their conclusions. But it’s disingenuous to describe such research as the result of a broad overview of mainstream scholars. Even if one was to leave out evangelical and conservative scholars, this Seminar is still not remotely close to being representative of the wide range of Jesus scholars. In fact, many have suggested their results aren’t even representative of the views of all Seminar members, but of only a handful of its leaders such as Robert Funk.
So why am I talking so much about the Jesus Seminar? Because it still presents the most well-known, scholarly critique of the reliability of the New Testament gospels. If their studies were sound, then we must face the results. If not, we need to know why. The Seminar fellows sought to determine the authenticity of the statements of Jesus recorded in the canonical gospels. They used colored beads to cast their votes:
red = Jesus definitely said this
pink = Jesus probably said this or something like it
grey = Jesus probably didn’t say this
black = Jesus definitely didn’t say this
In their resulting work, The Five Gospels, they claim that only 18% of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament gospels were actually spoken by him. But not only are there problems with the makeup and agenda of the Seminar, there are serious problems with their methodology. Let’s take a closer look at some of the criteria they used in making these determinations:
Many, if not most, of the members of the Jesus Seminar dismissed out of hand (a priori) any biblical clams of supernatural events, such as Jesus performing miracles or rising from the dead. Some readers may be sympathetic to such a view. But to claim one is fairly considering the biblical claims regarding Jesus, while dismissing the possibility of anything supernatural before one even begins to look at the evidence, is not intellectually honest. This guarantees an outcome—any outcome—other than the biblical accounts. We all have our presuppositions. But we need to be willing to set to the side our presuppositions and consider other possibilities, to follow the evidence wherever it leads even if it proves us wrong.
Distrust of oral history
Jesus was crucified in the early 30s CE (or AD). The critics generally accept the New Testament gospels as written between the 70s and 90s of the first century. Before these gospel accounts were written down, Jesus’ deeds and words were passed on by word of mouth. Many of the Seminar members doubt whether this oral history could have been conveyed accurately. At the very most, they feel, it could only have preserved the short, pithy sayings of Jesus. But this view flies in the face of a mountain of scholarly research to the contrary. We simply know too much about the reliability of oral history to doubt the gospel material (for this reason).
People of different religions frequently commit to memory huge portions of their religious texts. Muslims have memorized the entire Qur’an, and Jews have memorized all of their Torah. The first century people were accustomed to passing on history orally, and they did so with a high degree of consistency. The historical stories they recounted were very familiar to them, and any deviation would have been quickly criticized. (Try telling your child the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Armadillos” and see how long it takes her to correct you. Better yet, announce in a history class that Thomas Jefferson was the first American president and see how many people can correct your history without needing to consult a written document.)
The Jewish people of the first century were used to remembering and recounting to each other detailed events and extensive teachings. This was everyday life for them. And we don’t have to read very many of the teachings of Jesus before we recognize that he taught in a rhythmic, repetitious manner that would have been easily memorized. It still is. If we were to prompt people—even completely irreligious people—with the beginning words, “Our Father . . . ,” a surprising number of people would be able to finish the rest of the Lord’s Prayer. The early followers of Jesus were dedicated to following him at the risk of their very lives. Certainly they would have been highly motivated to thoroughly know all of the accounts and teachings of Jesus and to be resistant to any substantive change anyone might try to introduce.
And let’s not forget the fact there were still eyewitnesses available when these gospels were written. As Luke noted in the opening of his gospel:
Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.
(Many critics also seem to forget that the gospels aren’t the earliest Christian writings. James and Paul were writing about Jesus in the 40s CE, just a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion. We’ll look at this more closely in a future post.)
Artificial and arbitrary restrictions about what Jesus could have said
According to the Jesus Seminar, Jesus wouldn’t have commented on the events occurring around him, he would never have delivered any longer talks, and he wouldn’t have been a part of any dialogue or conversation. (Even if he actually did any of these things, it’s just not possible for his followers to have correctly remembered Jesus’ statements and the immediate context!) No, we’re told, Jesus only spoke in short, witty sayings.
Even more troubling, the Seminar insists that whatever Jesus said must be completely alien to the very culture in which he grew up and lived. While most scholars are seeking to better understand Jesus in the midst of his Jewish culture, the Jesus Seminar wants to rip him completely out of his historical and cultural Jewish context. Apparently, Jesus of Nazareth couldn’t have said anything remotely Jewish! (It’s noteworthy that none of the scholarship of Jesus Seminar fellows includes extensive study of first century Jewish culture.)
Not only must Jesus be completely non-Jewish in what he said, but they also claim that if there’s any statement by Jesus in the gospels that was later used widely by Christians, that statement could not have been authentically spoken by Jesus! Astoundingly, we’re to accept that the only genuine statements of Jesus were the ones that made so little impact on his hearers that they never repeated them. Any principle that was worthy of being incorporated into the thinking and vocabulary of Jesus’ followers must have been invented by them—it couldn’t possibly reflect the original teachings of Jesus.
This use of a “criterion of dissimilarity” is nonsensical; it’s not used this way in evaluating any other ancient documents. One would never reject a quote of Socrates because it reflected the Greek culture of his day or because it was picked up and reiterated by his followers. By using such criteria the Jesus Seminar is disqualifying everything but a Jesus who has no connection whatsoever with either his culture or his followers, and who spoke only in brief, provocative statements. Not surprisingly, that’s exactly who they claim to have discovered.
A “hermeneutic of suspicion”
By a “hermeneutic of suspicion” what they mean is that the canonical gospels are guilty until proven innocent. Everything in them is automatically doubted and only what can be verified (using the criteria of the Jesus Seminar) is accepted. Again, such a standard isn’t used for any other ancient document or even for any other religious text. This standard is arbitrary and aberrant.
Faulty voting procedure
Even if all of the Jesus Seminar’s criteria were sound, their voting methodology renders the results essentially meaningless. For instance, in their evaluation of the Parable of the Two Sons (found in Matthew 21:28-31), 58% of the Seminar fellows voted red or pink, indicating they thought the parable to be definitely or likely authentic. But the Jesus Seminar printed this passage in grey, meaning it is probably not authentic. Why? “A substantial number of gray and black votes [which I assume totaled 42%] pulled the weighted average into the gray category.”
Let’s give the Seminar the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say the full remaining 42% of the members voted grey. And let’s say both the red votes and the pink votes were each less than 42% (for instance, hypothetically, 30% red and 28% pink). This would make grey the “winner” in a sense, but to mark the passage as grey would be badly misleading. It’s misleading to mark the passage as unlikely because a majority of the Seminar members thought the passage was at least likely (if not certain) to have been spoken by Jesus. Do you see why this voting process is faulty?
The problem is that when people see a particular outcome, they tend to assume it’s the consensus of the Seminar members. (Or even worse they think it’s the consensus of scholars in general.) If a verse is in red, we think the Seminar members agreed that Jesus actually said these words; if the words are in black, then the members must have all decided they’re not genuine. But actually each one of these conclusions was more like a political compromise; they are results that don’t accurately reflect the real views of anyone. For most of these passages there were Seminar members who voted for each color. As it stands, the published results—though colorful!—don’t really tell us anything (except possibly the views of Robert Funk and the other leaders of the Seminar).
(The Seminar also relied, to a shocking extent, on the Gospel of Thomas. This overwhelming reliance concerned many of their colleagues, Christian and non-Christian. I briefly discussed the Gospel of Thomas here.)
The Jesus Seminar is the most well-known, and probably the best, critical challenge of the historical reliability of the New Testament gospels. It has enjoyed an unprecedented amount of media coverage, but has made little or no lasting impact in the world of serious scholarship concerning the historical Jesus. Because they took highly controversial claims and established them as their beginning standards and principles, the resulting, skewed outcomes simply reflect their own circular reasoning and remain unconvincing to most scholars. They stacked the deck by insisting ahead of time on a Jesus divorced from both his culture and the movement he inspired, and then enthusiastically announced that this is the Jesus they had “discovered.” Their process is not unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who went verse by verse through the Bible, simply changing anything that didn’t fit their preconceived ideas to produce their “New World Translation.”
Practically all Jesus scholars still accept the New Testament gospels as generally reliable historical accounts of Jesus’ ministry and teachings (even if many of these scholars don’t believe these gospels to be infallible, inspired Scripture). So what do these gospel accounts reliably tell us about Jesus? We’ll explore this next week.
The historical Jesus series:
The search for Jesus
Did Jesus really exist?
Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?
Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament gospels?
Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?
How reliable are the New Testament gospels? [see above]
What can we know about the historical Jesus?
What good is a dead Messiah?