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A New Vision of Jesus?

An Evangelical Critique of the Jesus Seminar and Its Radical Skepticism

Part Two

By Francis H. Geis, B.B.S., B.A.

This article is continued from:
A New Vision of Jesus? - Part One.

In his discussion of these "quality controls" placed on the NT writers by the evangelistic and didactic tasks of the Apostolic church, James R. Edwards adds a further critique of the liberal notion that the Early Church was unconcerned to recall and reflect on the ministry and teaching of its founder, Jesus of Nazareth:

A second assumption of liberal scholarship is that the early church had little or no interest in transmitting information about Jesus per se, but that it remembered and even invented Jesus material to reflect its needs and experiences. Suffice it to say that there are a number of "quality controls" in the New Testament that argue strongly against such fanciful inventiveness. The Gospel writers did not wildly invent material about Jesus, but they were quite careful with the Jesus tradition. This is show by the following:

1. Many eyewitnesses of Jesus were still alive when the Gospels were written. These witnesses functioned as gatekeepers and custodians of "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3). The wild inventiveness supposed by the radical critics is not found in the New Testament, but rather in certain second-century documents (e.g., the Infancy Narratives of Jesus, the Protoevangelium of James) that were produced later where Jesus traditions circulated in communities separated from the Apostolic church.

2. The rabbinical method of teaching by rote favored accurate and careful transmission of Jesus traditions as opposed to novel interpretation.

3. The presence of embarrassing and even problematic material in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 9:1; 14:71) speaks against the inventiveness of the early church, even when the church might have profited from it.

4. A comparison of the Epistles with the Gospels reveals that neither Paul's words nor those of other New Testament writers have been projected back onto the mouth of Jesus. No Pauline concept, such as the "body of Christ," "righteousness by faith," "under the law," or "flesh" is attributed to Jesus. This is a strong argument against the assertion that the Gospels are the early churches' stories projected onto Jesus: If the early church were avidly and indiscriminately putting words into the mouth of Jesus, we should expect to find at least some of the material from the Epistles in the Gospels or on the lips of Jesus. Since we do not, we ought to conclude that the gospel material is not extrapolated from the early church then and projected onto Jesus....

5. Finally, the supposed inventiveness of the early church meets a final stumbling block in the Gentile question. According to Acts and the Epistles, the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles and their admission into the church was the burning question of the early church. This issue, however, is virtually absent from the Gospels. Had the church actively engaged in framing "Jesus material" according to its needs and interests, surely it would have developed sayings on the Gentile question. The fact that such sayings are virtually absent in the Gospels argues in favor of the historical reliability of the material that is there.1

So the criterion of suspicion, which forms the first step in the Seminar's critical assessment of the NT witness, clearly rests on the unproven assumption that since the earliest Christians were unconcerned to preserve and pass on historically reliable accounts of Jesus' ministry and teaching, therefore no such accounts have been preserved and passed on in the canonical Gospels.

It is an invalid critical principle because: 1) it is based on the circular argument that presupposes its conclusion without giving clear demonstration that the earliest Christians were not concerned to preserve and pass on historically reliable accounts of Jesus' life and ministry, and that in fact they did not preserve and pass on such accounts; and 2) it obviously flies in the face of the evidence we have of how ancient, sectarian religious communities justified and maintained their own distinctive identities. It certainly is incapable of providing a rational explanation as to how early Christianity, as a minor Jewish sect, was able to justify and maintain its own distinctive identity against mainstream Palestinian Judaism.

Moreover, despite this evidence for the Early Church's concern for the historical reliability and veracity of its message regarding Jesus the Messiah, these radical scholars continue to argue that the NT writers utilized and reshaped "apparent primitive Jesus traditions," which were their own creative inventions, designed for their respective evangelistic and pastoral needs. Teachings or sayings were attributed to the historical Jesus which, in fact, they had received through Christian prophets, or had made up themselves.

And they persist in this argument, despite the fact that Craig Blomberg, David Aune, David Hill, and others have shown there is no substantial evidence for the claim that the NT writers confounded the sayings of the historical Jesus.2

This hypothesis [that the words of later Christian prophets are intermingled with the sayings of the historical Jesus on the pages of our Gospels] was built up largely on a comparison with certain Greco-Roman prophecies, which prove to be questionable analogs. The only sayings of early Christian prophets actually recorded in the New Testament explicitly distinguish their teachings from those of the earthly Jesus (Acts 11:28; 21:10-11; Rev. 2-3). And Paul's insistence that churches weigh carefully what prophets declared (1Cor 14:29) suggests that no alleged prophecy would be accepted if it contradicted what Jesus had earlier taught."3

Since the Jesus Seminar cannot explain away the evidence for "quality control" in the production of the NT writings, nor invalidate the evidence that the Early Church recognized and maintained the distinction between authentic sayings of the historical Jesus and the later utterances of Christian prophets, their use of the criterion of suspicion in denying the historicity of the NT witness is again proven to be biased and invalid. But this is not the only serious problem with the critical methodology of the Jesus Seminar.

A second major problem with the critical methodology of the Jesus Seminar is their primary use of the criterion of dissimilarity. Briefly defined, the criterion of dissimilarity states that any saying of Jesus similar to the teachings of early Palestinian Judaism or early Palestinian Christianity cannot be authentic. This criterion assumes that Jesus was such a unique teacher that His teaching had little in common with that of contemporary Jewish rabbis, or with that of his early Christian followers in Jerusalem. But there is a real problem with using this criterion in isolation from other, equally valid criteria:

If one uses this sort of criterion as an ultimate or final litmus test, one is bound to end up with only the distinctive or unique sayings, and with a Jesus who has nothing in common with either his Jewish heritage or his later Christian followers. Of course the idea of Jesus being totally idiosyncratic, without any analogy, is highly improbable. There never has been such a person in all of human history.4

Nevertheless, the Jesus Seminar, in using the criterion of dissimilarity as one of its primary standards, paints this portrait of Jesus of Nazareth: He was a harmless, apolitical, traveling sage and teacher who only spoke in parables. He appealed to the masses by criticizing contemporary Jewish religious and social conventions. But He never engaged in any other forms of rabbinical exposition or instruction current in early Judaism. Nor did He consider Himself a prophet, nor engage in prophesying.

However, their portrait of Jesus fails to square with the various Gospel presentations of Him as a Jewish rabbi who, in addition to teaching in parables, engaged in debate and dialogue with other rabbis over issues of doctrine and ethics (cf. Mark 7:1-23; Luke 20:27-44), and who also, like other Jewish rabbis, expounded the Torah to his disciples (cf. Luke 10:25-37; 18:18-30).

Nor does it comport with the Galilean episode, recorded in both Mark 6 and Luke 4, where Jesus testifies to his ministry being a prophetic ministry. After teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth, and then receiving a negative response to His declaration that His own teaching and healing ministry was a fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1-4, Jesus is recorded to have replied to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country. But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian" (Luke 4:24-27).

According to the NT records, Jesus did consider Himself to be a prophetic teacher and healer similar to Elijah and Elisha who, like Himself, had been rejected by the Galilean Jews. But according to the Jesus Seminar, Jesus never taught any such thing. So either Mark and Luke are misleading us on this matter, or else the Jesus Seminar seriously errs in its analysis of how Jesus viewed his own preaching and teaching ministry. In denying that Jesus had a prophetic consciousness and viewed His ministry as having some continuity with previous OT prophets, one suspects that here, too, a critical tool is being abused by the Jesus Seminar, in order to remake Jesus in their preferred image.

Thirdly, the Jesus Seminar is shown to be rejecting the Jesus of the NT and remaking Him in its own preferred image by its failure 1) to regularly employ the criterion of multiple attestation, and 2) by its insistence on using the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas as a reliable source for authentic teaching by Jesus. Let us consider these points in their turn.

The criterion of multiple attestation states: First, stories and sayings of Jesus must be found in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), confirmed in all the main Jesus traditions underlying them (e.g., L, M, and Q).5

Second, they must be further corroborated by other independent sources, such as the Pauline Epistles or The Didache.6 Only these are to be regarded as authentic and not as the invention of the Gospel writers. But since the Jesus Seminar does not use this and other historical criteria to control and balance their use of the criterion of dissimilarity, their distortion of Jesus and His relationship to both early Judaism and early Christianity comes as no surprise.

As Richard B. Hays comments, "The Jesus who emerges from this procedure [of using the critical principle of dissimilarity in isolation from other criteria] is necessarily a free-floating iconoclast, artificially isolated from his people and their Scripture, and artificially isolated from the movement he founded."7

And the Jesus Seminar's enthusiastic use of the Gospel of Thomas as a source for authentic teaching by Jesus is simply incredible. No other group of reputable NT scholars, conservative or liberal, regards this document as a valid source for early, authentic sayings. There are reasons why this claim of the Jesus Seminar is rejected by most other NT scholars:

1. Careful examination of its text has shown the Gospel of Thomas to be a Gnostic reediting of Jesus' sayings from the canonical Gospels. It is reasonably certain, as appears from the extant manuscripts now available, that it was not written and in circulation any time before 150 A.D.

The Gospel of Thomas was discovered just after World War II at Nag Hammadi in Egypt among a collection of Gnostic writings ... Written in Coptic and dating to no earlier than 400 A.D., the Nag Hammadi version of this Gospel contains parallels to Greek fragments of an unknown document of late second-century vintage that were discovered a hundred years ago. In other words, the document may have first been written as early as 150 A.D., but no actual evidence permits us to push that date a century earlier as the Jesus Seminar does ...

After the Coptic Gospel of Thomas was discovered and scholars had had time to analyze it in detail, a fair consensus emerged that it post-dated the canonical Gospels and relied heavily on them for those passages that were paralleled there.8

2. The Gospel of Thomas has been shown to have clear literary connections with other second century documents originating in Syria, such as The Book of Thomas and The Acts of Thomas, revealing it to be both a very late document and quite unreliable source for the teaching of the historical Jesus.

If one can judge a document by some of the company it keeps, there is little encouragement to see Thomas as providing access to the early Jesus tradition or as giving us many clues about the authentic Jesus tradition. The document, it seems, actually originated in the region of eastern Syria (Edessa?). Other documents connected with Thomas come from this region (the Book of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas), and only in this region was Thomas known as Judas Thomas, as he is identified in the Gospel of Thomas and these other Thomas works.9

3. No Patristic writer refers to the Gospel of Thomas or makes comments on it before 222 A.D. And its teaching is clearly Gnostic in viewpoint. In addition, there is no evidence that the early orthodox Christian communities ever used gospels which completely divorced Jesus' teaching from the context of his life and ministry, such as we find in the Gospel of Thomas.

A judicious and reliable account [of the discovery and careful study of the Gospel of Thomas] was provided at an early stage in the Fontana paper-back entitled The Secret Sayings of Jesus: From the Gospel According to Thomas. The authors of this little book point out that the Thomas Gospel differs from the New Testament Gospels in that it minimizes the historical basis of Christianity. To call it a 'Fifth Gospel' is wide of the mark; properly speaking, it is not a Gospel at all.

No compilation of sayings of Jesus, even if they were all genuine, can properly be called a Gospel. For a Gospel must declare God's good news; it must tell of Christ's redemptive death. And even those sayings of Christ which refer to his death are significantly absent from the "Gospel of Thomas."10

It seems clear then, that the burden of proof lies with the Jesus Seminar to explain why this second century document, so distant from the time and place of the historical Jesus—and so contrary to the Apostolic testimony of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—is to be treated like the canonical Gospels.

The Jesus Seminar vs. New Trends in NT Source Criticism

Indeed, in light of the controversy presently raging among NT source critics regarding the two document hypothesis, which undergirds their own brand of source criticism, the necessity for the Jesus Seminar to prove its case is now more urgent than ever. The two document hypothesis, in its simplest form, states that the authors of Matthew and Luke primarily used Mark's Gospel and Q, a collection of Jesus sayings, to compose their books, which were written from 60-70 A.D., give or take a couple of years. And being such late, secondary accounts, their historical reliability is questionable.

This view of Gospel origins, which was dominant in NT criticism for about a hundred years, is now being assaulted from all sides. Many forceful arguments are now being advanced for an early date for the canonical Gospels and for their being directly based on an eyewitness source—i.e., either an early edition of Matthew's Gospel or on a proto-Matthew, itself an eyewitness source.

J. A. W. Robinson, in his 1976 book Redating the New Testament, initiated this controversy in NT source criticism when he argued, rather convincingly, that there was no real historical evidence that any portion of the NT was written after 70 A.D., nor for the liberal's "fragmentary" theories regarding the original sources and composition of the Gospels. He even gave solid arguments, which liberals have yet to answer, why John's Gospel should be given priority over the Synoptics.

Then John Wenham, in his 1992 book Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, details the external and internal evidence for the priority of Matthew's Gospel, arguing that it was written in 40 A.D. by an eyewitness. And then C.P. Theide, in his 1996 book, Eyewitness To Jesus, cites the manuscript evidence for Mark, Matthew, and Luke not being written any later than 68 A.D.

If any of what these writers propose about the origins and composition of the canonical Gospels is true, then it entirely eliminates the negative view, held by the Jesus Seminar and others, that the Gospels are late works, based on multiple, overly edited, and therefore, unreliable sources for discovering the historical Jesus. Yet the works of Robinson, Whenham, and Theide, and their significance for their own practice of radical source criticism, are totally ignored by the Jesus Seminar. I wonder why?

At this point, it ought to be obvious to the reader that the Jesus Seminar, contrary to its claims, has no solid case for disparaging the historical reliability and veracity of the NT witness to the life and ministry of Jesus the Messiah. It also ought to be obvious that the Jesus Seminar is not the group of "objective and value free" critics and scholars that they often present themselves to be. They have an axe to grind with historic, orthodox Christianity, and they do so rather loudly.

Therefore, we must leave, as it were, the academy and our scholarly discussion of the Jesus Seminar's faulty critical methodology. Laying aside the cloak of a Christian teacher and apologist, we now don the robes of a prosecuting attorney, and proceed to the Court of Truth, where the NT itself, as God's Testimony to Jesus Christ, will serve as Judge. We will now argue the case that the Jesus Seminar fellows are determined enemies of God and His people, bent on nothing less than the destruction of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. Of course, you the reader, must serve as jury and, after considering our presentation, come to your own verdict.

Section III:
The Jesus Seminar On Trial

Now, if the Jesus Seminar fellows cannot disprove the historical reliability and veracity of the NT writings, and yet still persist in their attack against the NT vision of Jesus' life and ministry, what are we to conclude about their claims to be seekers of truth? We must, as those to whom God has entrusted the Apostolic faith, judge their claims to be false. We must also regard them as enemies of God and His people. For, as we shall see below, their own publications reveal they are firmly committed to overthrowing the orthodox view of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Lord of the Church, and the Savior of the world—and to promoting a "new, alternative Christology" in its place.

This assault on orthodox, NT Christology by the Jesus Seminar is not an innocent, scholarly affair. For it strikes at the very heart of orthodox Christian belief and practice. If it is not firmly resisted, it may well have the most disastrous consequences for the life, worship, and mission of the Christian Church.

As Klaas Runia says:
An alternative Christology, as presented in our day, is not an "innocent" affair. Christology is the heart of all theology, and a drastic change in this doctrine will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of our theology. I think first of all of the doctrine of the Trinity. If Jesus is only "true man," there is no place left for the idea that God is triune in his innermost being. At the most one can speak of an "economic" or "revelational" Trinity, but one can no longer speak of an "essential" or "ontological" Trinity.

But, of course, the consequences are not limited to the doctrine of the Trinity. In his review of The Myth of God Incarnate, John MacQuarrie rightly says: "Christian doctrines are so closely interrelated that if you take away one, several others tend to collapse. After incarnation is thrown out, is the doctrine of the Trinity bound to go? What kind of doctrine of the atonement remains possible? Would the Eucharist be reduced simply to a memorial service? What a rewriting of creeds and liturgies, of prayer books and hymn books, even of Holy Scripture, would be demanded!" But even this is not all. If the alternative Christologies are right, we can no longer speak of Jesus as the self-revelation of God, but at the most as a revelation of God. The distinction between Jesus and Moses or the great prophets would no longer be essential, but gradual at the most.

In the doctrine of Christ we are not dealing with just a theoretical problem. The Fathers of the Early Church fought the christological battle, because they believed the Gospel itself was at stake. And I believe they were right. The divinity of Christ is not a dispensable "extra" that has no real significance for our salvation. On the contrary, our salvation depends on it. We can only be saved by God ... If Jesus is no longer the Eternal Son of God, who "for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven...and was made man" (Nicene Creed), if He is only the "true man" who is the Pioneer and Forerunner, then the deepest safeguards against a moralistic transformation of the Gospel are removed.11

This four-part article is continued at:
A New Vision of Jesus? - Part Three.

The links below are direct links to where the book can be purchased from Books-A-Million.

1 James R. Edwards, "Who Do Scholars Say That I Am?," Christianity Today, March 4, 1996, pp. 18-19.
2 See Craig Blomberg, Historical Reliability of the Gospels , pp. 31-33; David Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World, p. 245; David Hill, New Testament Prophecy, pp. 160-185; and J.D.G. Dunn, "Prophetic 'I'-Sayings and the Jesus Tradition: The Importance of Testing Prophetic Utterances within Early Christianity," NTS 24 (1978), pp. 175-198.
3 Craig Blomberg, "Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?," Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents The Historical Jesus , eds. M.J. Wilkins and J.P Moreland, p. 31.
4 Witherington. "Jesus the Talking Head," The Jesus Quest, p. 46.
5 According to most NT source critics, the authors of Matthew and Luke used Q, a collection of Jesus' sayings, and Mark's Gospel as their common source, with M being a collection of sayings and stories peculiar to Matthew, and L being a collection of sayings and stories peculiar to Luke. They also regard Mark, as the first of the canonical Gospels to be written, to have been compiled around 68 AD.
6 The Didache is an early second-century, and apparently Syrian, church manual of doctrine and ethics, containing sayings of Jesus very close to those found in Matthew's Gospel. It can be found in The Apostolic Fathers .
7 Richard B. Hays, "The Corrected Jesus," First Things, 43 [May 1994]: 43-48.
8 Blomberg, "Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?," Jesus Under Fire, p. 23.
9 See Witherington, "Jesus the Talking Head," The Jesus Quest, p. 49.
10 F.F. Bruce, "The New Testament Apocrypha and Other Early Christian Books," The Books and the Parchments. Revised Edition, p. 263.
11 Klaas Runia, "Continental Christologies," Crisis In Christology: Essays In Quest of Resolution, ed. Wm. R. Farmer, pp. 20-21.

The above article was posted on this Web site February 2, 1999.

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