The Jesus Seminar Again

By Tim Mize

I see that “the Jesus Seminar” has made the news again. As you may know, this seminar is actually a group of 78 biblical scholars (read: “professors of religion at various liberal seminaries and secular universities”) who have set out to uncover the true Jesus, especially the things that the true Jesus said. This they thought to do by first pulling up every saying of Jesus that they could find, and throwing them all into a big mix. Then they could meet to pull out each piece one at a time and argue about whether it is something that Jesus actually said.

According to the news, they have finally finished. As it turns out, the purpose of all this labor was the publication of a book, now available for your purchase, called The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? Now all we modern, progressive people out here in the public have something to buy that will give us the very trendiest education on the subject.

Lucky for us, we are now let in on the truth about Jesus. They alone were able to attain to these things, up there in their ivory towers, but they have looked down on us with compassion. As they tell it, things had gotten so bad, with all those “fundamentalists” and “literalists” and “televangelists” about to take control of our religious life, as to require them to sell us this volume. We all know what a genuine threat that is, especially among the sort of people who would be buying it.

A Fifth Gospel

They call it The Five Gospels. They speak of five Gospels because, falling in with the latest scholarly fad, they have put a work called “The Gospel of Thomas” alongside (actually, above) the four Gospels of the Bible. It would be better, though, to entitle it The Fifth Gospel, for a fifth Gospel is exactly what they are trying to create. They have found fault with our four biblical Gospels and have taken upon themselves, at this late date, to construct a better one. This fifth, supplanting Gospel they like to refer to as “the historical Jesus.”

This sort of thing is nothing new. An element of religious intellectuals has been trying to do this on and off for two centuries now, with widely varying results. Just lately, we’ve been subjected to a spate of these “historical Jesus” books (I saw a cartoon the other day of a preacher getting an offer to join “the Historical Jesus of the Month Club”).

A prominent member of the Jesus Seminar named John Dominic Crossan has written the most recent thorough-going one. It is called The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. The cover bills it as “the first comprehensive determination of who Jesus was, what he did, what he said.” They could have billed it better as “the latest of a 200-year long string of books that try to rescue the real Jesus from the Bible.”

Now don’t mistake me. There is much to be gained by viewing Jesus or the Bible through the historian’s eye. The truth has nothing to fear from any honest investigation.

In fact, I have read Prof. Crossan’s book. He has some very helpful information about the socio-economic, political and religious setting in which the story of Christ was played out. But I find myself unimpressed when somebody sets out to explain Jesus entirely from this “background” information  laboriously dug out, as it happens, in some professor’s office at such-and-such university  while casting aside the Lord’s disciples’ own testimony to him. And I find myself a bit suspicious when after it’s all sweated out and written down Jesus comes out looking a little too much like a twentieth century egalitarian activist liberal.

Unreasonable Skepticism

Whenever you hear about the Jesus Seminar or see books like Crossan’s, understand where these people are coming from and what they are up to. Their work is ruled by several tired old assumptions that have circulated for years within the liberal academic community.

The main one is this: “The Gospels are not `historical reports’ about Jesus; they are the professions of early Christians of what they believed about Jesus.” Now, there is some truth to that statement, but it goes on from there to this: “Therefore, nothing they reported about Jesus can be trusted just as it stands.” If it is found in the Bible, it is just “faith” and not “history.” Such skepticism is excessive and uncalled for.

Their notion is that the early church could have invented and probably did invent a great part of what is written about Jesus. Never mind the short time between the life of Christ and the composition of the Gospels; never mind the scandalous offensiveness of what they believed and pro-claimed; never mind that the people who preached and believed these things gave their all and even their lives for them  most any bit of it could have been and probably was the product of somebody’s pious creative imagination. The bottom line is, that if you are going to say that anything told in the Gospels actually happened, then you’re going to have to prove it.

This “proving” was what the Jesus Seminar and Crossan in his book were up to. It was demanded of each story or saying of Jesus that it be proved that it actually happened. We’ll not go into what they thought of as “proof,” but this was the approach: If a lot of proof could be found, then it most likely happened. If only some proof could be found, then maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t. If there is no proof available, then it never happened.

At the roots of all this lie an outright rejection of the apostolic testimony to Jesus  that he was the Christ, the incarnate Son, who arose from the dead and truly lives on. If you are open to that, then there is nothing implausible in the Gospels. If you rule that out from the start, though, then every other thing in the Gospels will be baffling or incredible to you.

Surely it is unreasonable to rule out what the Gospels are trying to show you before you even go through them. But this is what they’ve done. Nothing else explains their excessive skepticism.

Finding Jesus or Dodging Jesus?

In all fairness, these scholars do believe that they are helping the faith. They see themselves as offering a purified Christianity to a modern, secular culture that can no longer accept Christ as the Bible gives him. The enlightened, less credulous intellect of today cannot believe what those premodern evangelists wrote about Jesus, nor should they be expected to. Fortunately, we can see now that those early Christians presented Jesus creatively, in order to make a case for him that would be persuasive within their particular cultural setting. That case, as it turns out, is no longer persuasive in our cultural setting, but not to fear  we can do as they did, and once again present a Jesus that is persuasive and relevant to our times.

What they actually do, however, is provide our ever more secularized, humanistic world just what it is looking for  an educated alternative to the scandalous Christ of orthodox, biblical faith (with a clever put down of those embarrassing “literalists” and “fundamentalists” who faith-fully expose its sins thrown in besides). Jesus cannot be ignored, but he can be reduced to something more manage-able to the mind, more edifying to the self-esteem, less disruptive to the lifestyle. This reduced Jesus is just what they’ve been handed, and by the “liberal Christian community” at that. It is no surprise that those who have drunk most deeply of the spirit of our age so quickly welcome and recommend books such as these.

It is wrong to assume that the Christ of the Gospels was any less offensive to his premodern, original audience than he is to our contemporary, modern one. Christ has always been offensive just as he stands. The fact of his crucifixion demonstrates that beyond words. The original Christians were at peace with this offensiveness. After all, they went all over the world preaching an accursed Messiah and a crucified God-incarnate. In the face of that, there was little that they could do to “doctor up” Jesus to make him easier to swallow, and we can be sure that they were not inclined to do so. We cannot say the same, however, of our modern enlightened “Jesus scholars.”

Truly, it is arrogant and perverse to stand ourselves and our culture over the Bible and think that we must bring it up to our level. It is for us to stand ourselves and our world under the Bible so as to be challenged by it, and to be all of us brought up to it. We will never truly understand the Bible, and that includes the Jesus whom it preaches, unless we are willing to stand under it.

It all comes down to an elaborate dodging of the offensiveness of Christ, and getting around confronting him just as the apostles and the early church preached him. The Bible doesn’t ask you to “check your brains in at the door” and hear it like a gullible fool, but it does ask you to face its message squarely as it stands. One way that people deflect the challenge that is put to them by the text  especially the challenge as to who Christ is  is to turn the tables and make the text be challenged instead. It’s as if one would say to it, “I will challenge you first; I will make you prove yourself.” I like what Thomas Oden said in his book The Word of Life:

One can sit comfortably in an easy chair and ask historical questions without any commitment or moral response. With the historian’s hat on, one can play at the puzzle of trying to understand the sequence of events by which Jesus came to be called Christ, the Son of God. It is possible to raise fine and intriguing historical questions without ever being required to make any personal decision about them.

The irony is that when we meet the Jesus of the text, he is constantly calling us to a decision about him (p. 206).

Mr. Oden, by the way, is a former liberal who knows just what it means to play at the arm chair historicism of which he speaks.

Back to the Bible

We don’t need somebody in some ivory tower to mediate Jesus, the Bible, or Christianity to us. We are able to understand the Bible without them, if we are willing to stand under it and hear it openly, letting its challenge be continually met and humbly answered. Nor do we need to mediate the Lord to the world by passing him through the filter of cultural standards and beliefs. Let them meet him just as he stands.

The Five Gospels now takes its place alongside all the other “historical Jesus” books that have come down the pike. Like the others, it will wind up a museum piece, exemplifying the secular age it tried to impress. But the word of God, “quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword,” will endure forever (Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:24-25).

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 15, p. 6-7
August 4, 1994