The Jesus Seminar, Jesus, and Higher Criticism-Part 3

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2000
The Jesus Seminar has been the source for many of the stories secular news magazines print about Jesus, especially around Easter and Christmas. Should they be considered authoritative? Can their scholarship be trusted? Drs. Ankerberg and Weldon look further at some of the problems with the Jesus Seminar in this article.


What Are Some Problems with the Jesus Seminar?

Three of the key errors made by the JS are: 1) its conclusions represent a consensus of modern scholarship; 2) its deliberate skepticism and bias, which are entirely without justification and 3) its fatal methodological flaws that undermine its own conclusions (e.g., they can use their own “criteria of authenticity” standards to show the reliability of the Gos­pels, and even the resurrection of Jesus).[1]

Inevitably, because of their biases, the conclusions of these liberals is predetermined by their sociological, mystical, political and philosophical prejudices. And even the Easter article in Newsweek, hardly a conservative theological think tank, can see through their agenda,

They apply the critical tools of today: text chopping, psychological speculation and colleague-bashing. And then they take leaps of faith, often of their own creation. Of the dozens of recent books denying the resurrection stories, many are written by liberal scholars who think the time has come to replace the “cultic” Jesus of Christian worship with the “real” Jesus unearthed by “academic” research. Theirs is not disinterested historical investigation but scholarship with a frankly missionary purpose: by reconstructing the life of Jesus they hope to show that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a burden to the Christian faith and deflects attention from his role as a social reformer…. In short, modern psychology reduces the Risen Christ to a series of interpsychic experiences that produced in the disciples a renewed sense of missionary zeal and spiritual self-confidence.[2]

Not only is there not much new in the liberals’ approach, (similar conclusions having been presented for the last 150 years by previous critics), their scholarship per se cannot bear its own weight. Christianity Today mentions that in The Real Jesus: The Mistaken Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, Luke Timothy Johnson points out these scholars are naive in how they approach historical sources, in their understanding of what history is and can achieve, and in the nature and limits of historical knowledge. Indeed, “the scholarship that under girds the Jesus Seminar and similar enterprises is based on wild speculation and minuscule evidence.”[3] In fact, the liberals associated with the Jesus Seminar and its conclusions don’t even represent the mainstream of biblical scholarship. As the article in Christianity Today points out:

…while the radical revisionists have claimed the lion’s share of media coverage, their conclusions are by no means representative of the whole spectrum of New Testament scholarship… the claim, repeatedly reinforced by the media, that their peculiar form of scholarly reductionism somehow represents the “consensus view” of “most” New Testament scholars [is false].
In fact… the conclusions reached by the Jesus Seminar represent the views of a tiny minority of mostly second-rate scholars…. Only a few [of Jesus Seminar participants], such as Founder Crossan and Funk, have any sort of prestigious credentials as scholars…. The views of some 40 people cannot reasonably be said to represent the thinking of, say, the more than 6,900 members of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the thousands of others,…[4]


Perhaps the most striking feature of The Five Gospels is how out of touch it is even with mainline scholarship. In fact, a major movement among New Testament critics has generated what has been dubbed “the third quest” for the historical Jesus. This quest has been far more optimistic than its predecessors in claiming that substantial amounts of material about what Jesus said and did can be recovered from the canonical Gospels. Indeed, two of the major contributors to this quest—James Charlesworth of Princeton and E. P. Sanders of Duke—agree that “the dominant view today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.

It is this final clause that the JS virtually ignores. Their Jesus does not make sense in the world of Judaism.[5]

Where Is the Enigmatic “Q”?

To illustrate the “wild speculation and minuscule evidence” referred to by Johnson, consider the non-existent hypothetical collection of Jesus’ sayings termed “Q” (supposedly used by Matthew, Mark and Luke). Liberal scholars such as Burton Mack in Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth (1995) are now speaking of Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4 which, Johnson correctly points out, is preposterous and explains “why so much of contemporary New Testament scholarship is viewed with derision by mainstream historians. The entire edifice is ‘a house of cards’…Pull out one element and the whole construction crumbles.”[6]

John Wenham has had a distinguished academic career as vice principal of Tyndale Hall, Bristol, lecturer in New Testament Greek at Bristol University and warden of Latimer House, Oxford. He is the author of such important works as Christ and the Bible and The Goodness of God. In Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke, where he dates the synoptics at 40, 45 and 54 respectively, he illustrates the quandary of those who employ obviously biased higher critical methods rather than an objective and more fair scholarship that takes all the known factual data into account. Wenham quotes M. D. Goulder who writes, “Not tens but hundreds of thousands of pages have been wasted by authors on this Synoptic Problem [i.e., the likenesses and differences between the first three gospels] not paying attention to errors of method.” Wenham goes on to comment that, “Much of the argumentation is worth very little, because so many of the arguments are reversible: they can be argued either way with approximately equal cogency.”[7] Thus, “The view that Matthew and Luke indepen­dently used Mark and a lost source “Q” is still held as a working hypothesis by most schol­ars, but with decreasing confidence.”[8]

“Q” illustrates the quagmire scholars get themselves into when they are unwilling to take the text at face value even though there is every good reason to do so. “Q” doesn’t even exist; literally hundreds of thousands of hours have been consumed dissecting a purely imaginary text (as in “The international Q Projects” database research which con­tains, e.g., a 90 page single spaced analysis of a single verse that was ultimately deter­mined to be from Matthew, not “Q!”) The kind of scholarly speculation and/or nonsense represented by Q is almost maddening. Why emphasize the study of what we don’t have, when what we do have is authentic and accurate? Yet the Q project intends to publish over 60 volumes of 300 pages each, painstakingly evaluating a text that does not exist. Each 300 page volume with about 100 words from “Q” per volume; that’s three pages of schol­arly discussion for every non-existent word of Q. Wenham says of “Q”:

When we try to put the Q-theory to the test the matter is of course complicated by the fact that we have no text of “Q” to work with… S. Petrie in his Novum Testamentum 3 (1959) article, “‘Q’ is Only What You Make It” has shown this in a colourful way. He speaks of the “exasperating contradictoriness” of scholarly views as to its nature:
“Q” is a single document; it is a composite document, incorporating earlier sources; it is used in different redactions; it is more than one document. The original language of “Q” is Greek; the original language is Aramaic; it is used in different translations. “Q” is the Matthean Logia; it is not the Matthean Logia. “Q” has a definite shape; it is no more than an amorphous collection of fragments. “Q” is a gospel; it is not a gospel. “Q” includes the Crucifixion story; it does not include the Crucifixion story. “Q” consists wholly of sayings and there is no narrative; it includes some narrative. All of “Q” is preserved in Matthew and Luke; not all of it is preserved; it is better preserved in Luke. Matthew’s order is the correct order; Luke’s is the correct order; neither order is correct. “Q” is used by Mark; it is not used by Mark.[9]

Returning to the liberal critics’ view of Jesus, it is obvious the critical scholars have used inventive theories like “Q” only to make Jesus into an image they are comfortable with—whether political revolutionary, proto-feminist, mystic, cynic, etc. Every other image of Jesus is acceptable to them—except the one in the New Testament. Again, no biases here! As Christianity Today pointed out, their answer to who Jesus is seems to “be almost anything but the risen Christ worshipped by believers around the world.”[10] Indeed, for the JS, “This Jesus is more Gnostic—concerned primarily to impart true knowledge—than anything orthodox Christianity has ever accepted. Today we might call it ‘New Age.’ But given the JS’s stated goal of discrediting orthodox Christianity and going beyond main­stream scholarship (despite their repeated claims that they represent a consensus), this conclusion should not be surprising.”[11]

The reason should be obvious: if we accept the real Jesus of history, the Jesus in the New Testament, then He is indeed our Lord, Savior and Judge. He is not someone we may trifle with but one we must bow to as our Sovereign. It is He who will judge us at the Last Day (Jn. 5:27-29). Since the human heart, in its rebellion against God, prefers anything other than this, the almost desperate nature of the offensive “scholarship” to formulate a new Jesus is understandable.


  1. See Wilkins and Moreland, note 38.
  2. Woodward, pp. 62-63.
  3. Robert J. Hutchinson, “The Jesus Seminar Unmasked,” Christianity Today, April 29, 1996, pp. 28-29.
  4. Ibid., p. 29.
  5. Blomberg, p. 37.
  6. Ibid., p. 29.
  7. John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), p. 3.
  8. Ibid., p. 1.
  9. Ibid., p. 42.
  10. Hutchinson, Ibid., p. 28.
  11. Blomberg, p. 37.


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