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A New Vision of Jesus?

An Evangelical Critique of the Jesus Seminar and Its Radical Skepticism

Part Three

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

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

Now that the seriousness of its radical assault upon NT Christology has been made clear before the Court, we present our case against the Jesus Seminar. As witnesses, we will first bring before the court the testimony of Marcus J. Borg, a NT critic and Jesus Seminar fellow, whose major work itself is entitled Jesus: A New Vision.

Next, we will consider testimony of a NT scholar, Ben Witherington III, who, though not a member of the Jesus Seminar himself, is well-acquainted with the group and its anti-Christian agenda.

Lastly, we will examine the testimony of Robert W. Funk, the founder and leading light of the Jesus Seminar, drawn from his recently printed manifesto, Honest To Jesus. After that, we will give our closing argument in the case against the Jesus Seminar.

The Case Against The Jesus Seminar

I am not arguing against a straw man when I say the Jesus Seminar is to be resisted because of its open commitment to discredit and overthrow the orthodox view of Jesus' Messiahship. Their critically revised, alternative view is clear enough from their own writings. Marcus J. Borg is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar. In his book Jesus: A New Vision, he makes the following comments about classic, orthodox Christology, which he euphemistically describes as "the popular image of Jesus":

The popular image is most familiar to Christian and non-Christian alike: the image of Jesus as a divine or semidivine figure, whose purpose was to die for the sins of the world, and whose life and death open up the possibility of eternal life. Its answers to the three questions of identity, purpose, and message are clear. As the divinely begotten Son of God, he was sent into the world for the purpose of dying on the cross as a means of reconciliation between God and humankind, and his message consisted primarily of inviting his hearers to believe that what he said about himself and his role in salvation was true....

The popular image has its roots deep in the past, indeed in the language of the New Testament itself. Among the gospels, its primary source is John, probably the most loved and familiar gospel. There Jesus speaks of his identity in the most exalted terms known in his culture, especially in the magnificent series of "I am" statements: "I am the light of the world," "I am the bread of life," "I am the resurrection and the life," "I am the way, the truth, and the life," "Before Abraham was, I am."

The self-proclamation of his own identity in the "I am" statements is buttressed by other passages in John: "The Father is in me and I am in the Father," "He who has seen me has seen the Father," "I and the Father are one." In a single verse, the fourth gospel sums up Jesus' identity, purpose, message, and the proper response to him: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

The roots of the popular image also lie in the development of Christian theological thought and piety in the centuries following the composition of the New Testament. The creeds of the church express that development. The Apostles' Creed proclaims that Jesus was "God's only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven from which he shall come to judge the living and the dead."1

From these comments, we can see that Borg clearly understands that the classic, orthodox Christology is: 1) rooted in the united teaching of the NT; 2) is taught in all four gospels, although perhaps more explicitly in the fourth gospel than in the synoptic gospels; and, 3) is the view of Jesus the Messiah that has always been held to and confessed by all orthodox Christians, whatever their denominational affiliation, for the greater part of the Christian Church's history. So there is no question that he understands the essence of classic, orthodox Christology.

The question is: Is the classical view Borg's own view of Jesus, which he is attempting to make more understandable and applicable to modern American thought and culture? The simple answer is, no, it is not. After he discusses how his seminary studies in NT criticism led him to see that "the historical Jesus" of Mark was to be preferred over "the theological Lord" of John, he gave up the orthodox view. He now argues that "the Jesus of history" and the risen living Christ of Christian experience" must be kept distinct in our minds. But, like Adolf Harnack's distinction between the "Jesus of history" and the Christ of Faith," it is incompatible with the teaching of the NT itself.

Borg says:
The historical preference for Mark, with the implication that John is not very historical is disturbing to some Christians. Indeed, it was to me when I first encountered it. John's gospel and the image of Jesus which derives from it seemed to be the core of what I as a Christian was supposed to believe ... The notion that Jesus did not proclaim himself as a divine figure was unsettling. Moreover, it seemed to invalidate John's gospel, implying that John was a "false" account of the ministry of Jesus.

In one sense, that is true; for the most part, John cannot be used as a source of information about the historical Jesus. But rather than invalidating John's gospel, that realization enables us to see more clearly what John's gospel is. Instead of it being a picture of the historical Jesus, it is about the risen living Christ of Christian experience. John's gospel comes out of the experience of the Christian community in the decades after Easter. In it, the historical traditions about Jesus are thoroughly transformed by the early Christians' ongoing experience of the risen Christ. John's gospel is the church's memory transfigured....

In short, the image of the historical Jesus as a divine or semi-divine being, who saw himself as the divine savior whose purpose was to die for the sins of the world, and whose message consisted of proclaiming that, is simply not historically true. Rather, it is the product of a blend produced by the early church—a blending of the church's memory of Jesus with the church's beliefs about the risen Christ. The former was seen through the window provided by the latter. They remembered Jesus with the "eye of faith"--that is, in the light of Easter and afterward.

The blend was both natural and legitimate. It is what happens when a religious community looks back on its founder in light of their ongoing experience of him; and it is legitimate in that it speaks of what Christ is in the Christian life. Moreover, the image has nurtured the lives of millions of Christians over the centuries. However, if what is wanted is a reasonably clear image of the historical Jesus, then one must use a historical method which seeks to separate out the church's later beliefs from the traditions about Jesus found in early Christian documents. If one wants historical answers to the questions of Jesus' identity, mission, and message, one must first set aside the answers given by the popular image.2

Having thus dismissed the historical veracity of "the popular image of Jesus," Borg then goes on to criticize what he describes as the current, "dominant scholarly image of Jesus." Borg then follows this criticism with a defense and exposition of his own third alternative image: Jesus was a Spirit-filled prophet and sage, whose mission was to reform Judaism and promote social justice and equality in the society of his day. It is this Spirit-filled Jesus who, Borg argues, is to be the role model for Christians seeking to live lives that please God and have a transforming, lasting impact on modern society and culture.

Whatever else we may say about Borg's new vision of Jesus and how it applies to our modern lives, it certainly offers "another Jesus and another Gospel" that substantially differs from that offered by the New Testament and the historic Christian creeds. It disconnects the historical Jesus from the risen Lord, which the NT never does, and it denies it was necessary for Jesus, as the Incarnate Son of God, to die on the cross and rise from the dead, in order to overthrow the tyrannical rule of the Devil over humanity, free us from the bondage and corruption of sin, and give us new life and hope.

Borg ignores the fact that Mark's "historical" Gospel opens with the statement, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1). Clearly, in saying that his book is about the Messiah, who is the Son of God, Mark intends for us from the beginning to understand Jesus of Nazareth is far more than a Spirit-filled prophet and sage. Borg also fails to acknowledge that the historical Jesus of Mark's Gospel, who said of Himself, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45), confirms the analysis of Jesus' Messianic mission in John 3:13-17.

Nor does he acknowledge that it was the historical Jesus of Luke's Gospel who, while on the way to Jerusalem, told his disciples, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again" (Luke 18:31-33). This is another Synoptic confirmation of the analysis of Jesus' identity and mission given in John 3:13-17!

It's amazing, isn't it, that for all their differences, the Gospel writers had the same basic view of Jesus' Messianic identity and mission? Mr. Borg missed seeing this; I wonder why? Like the other fellows of the Jesus Seminar, Borg reveals that he shares the same radical mindset. He is committed, just as the other fellows are, to discrediting the classic orthodox view of Jesus' identity, mission, and message, and to replacing it with what he regards as a more historically reliable and existentially useful image.

To further prove our case against the Jesus Seminar, there is the added testimony of other NT scholars, who are not members but well-informed critics of the Jesus Seminar. Whether evangelical or not, these are men and women who, in addition to carefully studying and critiquing their writings, have also closely interacted with various fellows of the Jesus Seminar. And they have confirmed that one of the chief aims of this liberal group has been that of discrediting and replacing the NT, creedal image of Jesus.

Ben Witherington III, just one such NT scholar, testifies as follows:
From an examination of the list of Jesus Seminar fellows, it would appear to me that they are indeed a very carefully self-selected group, including none who could be labeled fundamentalist and only three or four who could be labeled conservative or evangelical. But this is not all ... The statement of the steering committee makes clear that the fellows of the Jesus Seminar could not include any fundamentalists, for it contrasts the judgments of critical scholars like those on the Jesus Seminar with those of fundamentalists. It also says that television evangelists inhibit conservative institutions and scholars from participating more fully in the critical debate.

Near the close of this statement we find the remark, "Unless Biblical scholarship wants to lose its credibility—and it has come dangerously close to doing so because of its identification in the popular view with Sunday Schools and TV evangelism—it must adhere to the canons of research and publication that govern the physical sciences, and the humanities generally."

Even on a charitable interpretation of things, one must conclude that the steering committee of the Jesus Seminar had as one of its major agendas the presentation of a "critical" portrait of Jesus that must necessarily be distinguished from the fundamentalist or traditional portraits. The we/ they language is unmistakable, and it calls in question the claim to be taking an unbiased approach. In fact, in personal conversations with some of the members of the Jesus Seminar, I have been told that one of the major intentions of some of the prime movers in this group was to attack and discredit American fundamentalism and the images of Jesus that it offers.3

Lastly, as the conclusion to our case against the Jesus Seminar, we draw attention to the recently published book Honest To Jesus, by Robert W. Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar. If anything can give us real insight to the mindset and aims of the Jesus Seminar, it ought to be the written manifesto of its founder, agreed? Jesus himself said, "But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matt 12:36-37). So what does Funk, in his own manifesto, reveal about himself and the Jesus Seminar?

By his own words, Funk reveals himself and his organization to be aggressive opponents to orthodox Christianity and fierce enemies of God and his people. One does not have to read too far to discover that he firmly rejects the orthodox view of Jesus, and is determined to advance a new vision of Jesus he regards as more suited for the twenty-first century. Indeed, he speaks glowingly of this program, to be championed by the Jesus Seminar, as "the new quest" for the coming millennium.

In the body of his book, and on the basis of the same prejudicial assumptions that have fueled the engine of liberal Biblical criticism since the nineteenth century, Funk argues that:

1) According to the "scant" historical evidence we have, Jesus appears to have been a itinerant Jewish sage and miracle worker who challenged the religious conventions of his day.

2) Peter and Paul, not Jesus himself, were the true founders of orthodox Christianity.

3) The NT is a biased, uneven and unreliable witness to the historical Jesus, presenting instead a mythic religious figure of the Early Church's own making.

4) The many moral and social evils, committed by various advocates of the orthodox position down through the centuries, render that position invalid.

5) The bigoted, narrow-minded, intellectually insecure orthodox Christianity needs to replaced with a more robust form of Christianity that allows greater diversity of opinion and ethical practice within its ranks.

Then in his final section, "Epilogue: Jesus For A New Age" (pp. 297-314), is a Summary review of his arguments against orthodox Christianity, Funk outlines a 21 point agenda the Jesus Seminar needs to follow to successfully advance its new vision of Jesus in America.

Among these are the following:
5. We can no longer rest our faith on the faith of Peter or the faith of Paul. I do not want my faith to be a second-hand faith. I am therefore fundamentally dissatisfied with versions of the faith that trace their origins only so far as the first believers; true faith, fundamental faith, must be related in some way directly to Jesus of Nazareth.

6. Jesus himself is not the proper object of faith. This proposition, I realize, is a radical departure from traditional views. Jesus called his followers to trust the Father, to believe in God's domain or reign. The proper object of faith inspired by Jesus is to trust what Jesus trusted... To call for faith in Jesus is to substitute the agent for the reality, the proclaimer for the proclaimed ....

8. Give Jesus a demotion ... As divine son of God, coeternal with the Father, pending cosmic judgment at God's right hand, he is insulated and isolated from his persona as the humble Galilean sage. In the former there is not much left of the man who loved to laugh and talk at table ... A demoted Jesus then becomes available as the real founder of the Christian movement. With his new status, he will no longer be merely its mythical icon, embedded in the myth of the descending/ ascending, dying/ rising lord of the pagan mystery cults, but of one substance with us all....

17. We will have to abandon the doctrine of the blood atonement. The atonement in popular piety is based on a mythology that is no longer credible—that God is appeased by blood sacrifices. Jesus never expressed the view that God was holding humanity hostage until someone paid the bill. Nor did Amos, Hosea, or other prophets of Israel. In addition, it is the linchpin that holds the divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and a sinless life together in a unified but naive package: God required a perfect sacrifice, so only a divine victim would do....

19. Redeem sex and Mary, Jesus' mother, by restoring to Jesus a biological, if not actual father. Virginity is not necessarily godly, except in an ascetic, pleasure-denying, dualistic world. And Jesus is not necessarily a more effective savior for having been born without a father. Celebrate all aspects of life by giving, Mary her rights as a woman, even if it means acknowledging that Jesus may have been a bastard. A bastard messiah is a more evocative redeemer figure than an unblemished lamb of God....

21. Declare the New Testament a highly uneven, biased record of various early attempts to invent Christianity. Reopen the question of what documents belong among the founding witnesses. In a new New Testament include dissenting points of view. Eliminate the less deserving parts ....4

By his own words, then, Funk condemns himself and the Jesus Seminar as fierce and aggressive enemies of God and his people. And though there is not enough time and space to give a full response to these assertions and counter-charges made against orthodox Christianity by Mr. Funk, I will, as prosecuting attorney, respond as best as I can.

First, he says he doesn't want a faith based on the suspect testimony of Peter and Paul, on what he calls a "second-hand faith." Well, unless he can use a time-machine and go back to first century Palestine to observe and record Jesus' life for himself, what choice does he really have?

The plain fact is that all the people who personally knew Jesus, both friend and foe alike, died a very, very long time ago. So a faith based on "direct knowledge" of Jesus' life and ministry, apart from some sort of contemporary, historically reliable record and interpretation of the same, is simply not possible at this point in time. Funk himself does not have any such witness.

But the NT writings are, contrary to the Jesus Seminar, just such a historically reliable record and interpretation of Jesus' life and ministry. They were written by eyewitnesses like Peter or John; or written by historical investigators like Luke, who had collected such reports and interviewed living eyewitnesses (cf. Lk. 1:1-4).

Since Mr. Funk's faith appears to be based on an inferior witness than that of orthodox Christians, I pity him. He does not have the direct access to Jesus that he himself says is necessary for a robust faith. But Mark, Luke, and John did, and what they knew of Jesus' life and ministry, they passed on to us in the NT text. So if you want a solid basis for faith in Jesus Christ, I recommend you consult their writings, not Mr. Funk's.

Secondly, in his disparagement of the doctrine of atonement (thesis 17), Mr. Funk clearly reveals his rejection of what the Bible, as a whole, teaches about God's holiness, his hatred of sin, and his judgment upon the rebellious and impenitent (cf. Gen 6:5-7; Ps. 5:4-6; Prov 11:20; 12:22; 15:9; 16:4; Jer. 5:1-29; Rev 6:1-9:21), about the necessity of blood atonement for the forgiveness of our sin and for our reconciliation with God, who has been alienated from us because of our sin (cf. Leviticus, Romans, and Hebrews), that to act as high priest and mediator between God and humanity, Jesus had to be both divine and human (cf. 1 Tim. 2:3-7; Heb. 2:5-18), and that to make atonement for our sin, Jesus was sacrificed as, "a lamb without blemish and without spot" (cf. Isaiah 53 with 1Peter 1:19).

But I thank Mr. Funk for recognizing that in the NT, "the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and [His] sinless life, together [with His blood atonement]," are taught as a "unified ... package." Here the reader should note this is a reluctant admission by a liberal of what orthodox Christians have always recognized about the NT writings: Whatever real diversity in their witness, there is a clear unity in their teaching regarding Jesus' Messianic identity and mission. Thank-you, Mr. Funk, for your unexpected confirmation of the NT's diversity and unity!

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

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

Footnotes:
1 Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision , "Introduction," pp.2-3.
2 Ibid., pp.5-8.
3 Witherington. "Jesus the Talking Head," The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth , p. 44.
4 Robert W. Funk, "Epilogue: Jesus For A New Age," Honest To Jesus , pp. 297-314.

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

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