A group of ‘scholars’ known as The Jesus Seminar came up with a “brilliant” plan for how to determine which of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels could be considered authentic. Jesus Seminar founder Robert W. Funk said this at the launch of the Jesus Seminar in Berkeley, California, in March 1985:

We are about to embark on a momentous enterprise. We are going to inquire simply, rigorously after the voice of Jesus, after what he really said. The Jesus Seminar

A Flawed Process

Funk realized that the process these scholars were about to undertake “may prove hazardous” and might “provoke hostility.” He even admitted they would be “asking a question that borders the sacred, that even abuts blasphemy.” As it turned out, Funk was right – the findings of The Jesus Seminar were blasphemous.

According to The Jesus Seminar – “Among the findings is that, in the judgment of the Jesus Seminar Fellows, about 18 percent of the sayings and 16 percent of the deeds attributed to Jesus in the gospels are authentic.” Another way of understanding that statement is that 82 percent of the sayings and 84 percent of the deeds attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are NOT authentic.

While liberal and progressive ‘Christians’ and even some evangelical Christians would probably agree with those findings, the findings don’t bear out the facts.

The Jesus Seminar’s process was deeply flawed. They strongly approved of including the writings that the early Church had long ago concluded were not apostolic – works like the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocryphon of James, and the Dialogue of the Savior. Funk viewed the Gospel of Thomas as more accurate than the Four Gospels in Scripture and called Thomas the Fifth Gospel. You can read more about that in our eBook titled The Fifth Gospel – Better Than The Rest?.

Another flaw in the Jesus Seminar process was how the ‘scholars’ determined whether something Jesus said or did was authentic. They inventoried and classified all the words attributed to Jesus “in the first three centuries of the Common Era.” That was their first mistake. Jesus spoke during the early part of the first century AD. His words were heard by both His followers and detractors. Those followers (disciples) lived during the 1st century, but not one of them lived into the 2nd century. No one who heard personally heard Jesus would have been alive in the 2nd and 3rd centuries to write what He said.

The ‘scholars’ collected more than 1500 versions of about 500 items from the first three centuries of Christianity (1st mistake) and sorted them into four categories:

  1. Parables
  2. Aphorisms
  3. Dialogues
  4. Stories containing words attributed to Jesus

Members of the seminar debated each agenda item, then used colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of Jesus’ words. They assigned a number rating for the purpose of quantifying the votes “with a weighted average.” They used the following colored beads:

  • Red (likely authentic)
  • Pink (somewhat likely)
  • Gray (somewhat unlikely)
  • Black (unlikely)

That was their second mistake. It demonstrates how ‘unscholarly’ they were that they would use such a ridiculous process for determining whether Jesus said what He said. I spent decades managing journalists and journalistic projects and never once thought of having a team of journalists debate the coverage of a story, then using colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of that story. A story was either true or false based on the facts discovered in the journalistic process.

You may find some of these articles helpful in looking at the flawed process of the ‘scholars’ involved in the Jesus Seminar:

It is our position that the Jesus Seminar got it wrong for all the reasons mentioned above. Their ‘scholars’ came up with the following list of the “authentic” sayings of Jesus. You won’t be surprised by what they found.

The sayings the Fellows voted as most likely to be authentic were:

  1. Other cheek (Q) Matt 5:39, Luke 6:29a
  2. Coat & shirt (Q) Matt 5:40, Luke 6:29b
  3. Congratulations, poor! (Q, Thomas) Luke 6:20, Thomas 54
  4. Matt 5:3
  5. Second mile (Q) Matt 5:41
  6. Love of enemies (Q) Luke 6:27b, Matt 5:44b, Luke 6:32, 35a
  7. Leaven (Q, Thomas) Luke 13:20-21, Matt 13:33, Thom 96:1-2
  8. Emperor & God (Thomas, Mark) Thom 100:2b, Mark 12:17b, Luke 20:25b, Matt 22:21c
  9. Give to beggars (Q) Matt 5:42a, Luke 6:30a
  10. The Samaritan (L) Luke 10:30-35
  11. Congratulations, hungry! (Q, Thomas) Luke 6:21a, Matt 5:6, Thom 69:2

This is so typical of liberal scholars. They like what Jesus said when it agrees with their worldview. They don’t like anything Jesus said that disagrees with their beliefs. Do you see anything in their list where Jesus commanded repentance, said anything about taking up the cross to follow Him? Do you find anything about His miracles proving His claims to be one with the Father? Anything about the reality of hell? No, you will never find any agreement with those verses because it doesn’t fit the liberal narrative and agenda.

How convenient that the ‘scholars’ of the Jesus Seminar agreed that Jesus did not actually say 82% of the words ascribed to Him in the Gospels. Since they can pick and choose what Jesus said, they can pick and choose how to live.

Jesus Seminar Fellows also came to consensus on the following:

  • Jesus of Nazareth did not refer to himself as the Messiah, nor did he claim to be a divine being who descended to earth from heaven in order to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. These are claims that some people in the early church made about Jesus, not claims he made about himself.
  • At the heart of Jesus’ teaching and actions was a vision of a life under the reign of God (or, in the empire of God) in which God’s generosity and goodness is regarded as the model and measure of human life; everyone is accepted as a child of God and thus liberated both from the ethnocentric confines of traditional Judaism and from the secularizing servitude and meagerness of their lives under the rule of the empire of Rome.
  • Jesus did not hold an apocalyptic view of the reign (or kingdom) of God—that by direct intervention God was about to bring history to an end and bring a new, perfect order of life into being. Rather, in Jesus’ teaching the reign of God is a vision of what life in this world could be, not a vision of life in a future world that would soon be brought into being by a miraculous act of god.

These statements alone are enough to nail the coffin of apostasy shut on their supposed scholarship. These are truly “doctrines of demons.” It all goes back to which Jesus you want to believe. You can choose to believe the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar – just a man from 1st century Palestine – a man who said very little of significance – a man who accomplished little of importance.

In the course of the modern critical study of the Bible, which was inspired by the Reformation (begun formally, 1517 C.E.) but originated with the Enlightenment (about 1690 C.E.), biblical scholars and theologians alike have learned to distinguish the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. It has been a painful lesson for both the church and scholarship. The distinction between the two figures is the difference between a historical person who lived in a particular time and place and was subject to the limitations of a finite existence, and a figure who has been assigned a mythical role, in which he descends from heaven to rescue humankind and, of course, eventually returns there. A Christian wrinkle in this scheme has the same heavenly figure returning to earth at the end of history to inaugurate a new age. Robert Funk, The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus

The Quest Continues

The Jesus Seminar concluded its work in 1998 with Profiles of Jesus. What’s happened since? Well, the quest continues. My friend Dr. Mike Licona of Houston Baptist University says that skeptical scholars today are rejecting “the criteria of authenticity altogether” as part of a postmodern approach to history by some New Testament scholars. I found his book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010) very helpful in understanding several aspects of the postmodernist historical method. I recommend The Resurrection of Jesus to anyone interested in learning about evidences for the Resurrection and you will also find it helpful in understanding what liberal scholars are pushing today.

Dr. Licona pointed me to Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne (T&T Clark, 2012) as the book that began to move this anti-authenticity movement forward. In addition to Keith and Le Donne, contributing authors included Scot McKnight, Dale Allison Jr., Mark Goodacre, Dagmar Winter, Jens Schröter, and Loren Stuckenbruck. Morna Hooker’s Foreward to the book sounds familiar:

If we concentrate on the whole rather than the details, however, we shall know quite a lot about Jesus, even though we may not be able to reconstruct with certainty any of his sayings or actions.

In just one sentence, Hooker was able to summarize the findings of The Jesus Seminar. There’s no way we can know with any certainty what Jesus said or did. That perspective on the Gospels removes any responsibility for obedience or worship on the part of postmodern scholars and their followers. How convenient.

Dr. Licona wrote a critical review of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity in 2014. Here is an overview statement from his critique that you may find helpful as you consider the ongoing quest for the Historical Jesus.

For years, historians of Jesus have employed the criteria for authenticity in their work and a few scholars have occasionally called the value of the criteria into question. Fairly recently, however, a team of scholars, many of whom are highly esteemed, contributed critiques in a volume in which they expressed doubts pertaining to the value of the criteria. Several of the contributors even called for their abandonment. But the extent of their pessimism is ill-founded and based on a postmodernist approach to history that, while gaining momentum within biblical scholarship, has already been debated for decades among historians practicing outside the world of religious studies and has largely been found wanting. Is the Sky Falling in the World of Historical Jesus Research?, Michael Licona, Houston Baptist University, Bulletin for Biblical Research, 2014

Dr. Licona recommended Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History: Criteria and Context in the Study of Christian Origins (Zondervan Academic, 2019), co-edited by Darrell Block and Ed Komoszewski as a comprehensive response to those criticizing the criteria. Dr. Licona is one of the contributing writers.

The attacks against Jesus of Nazareth will continue until He returns from Heaven, so we should not be surprised by the continuing movement to overthrow what the New Testament tells us about the Lord’s identity, what He said and what He did. We can trust the authenticity of Scripture, knowing that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

In the words of an eyewitness to what Jesus said and did:

For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. 2 Peter 1:16-18


Next Time

Does the New Testament contain all of the words of Jesus or are we missing some? If so, what would that mean for Christianity? We will answer that question in the next part of our series, And Jesus Said

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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