By Craig Branch –
Peter Jennings recently hosted a much-publicized 2-hour special, shown on ABC’s national network during prime time. The Special reportedly attracted 16.6 million viewers. ABC’s website had 1.12 million hits, which put it up to number two in all time activity.
He introduced this debacle with a moderating tone, saying that this search for the historical Jesus was intended to be “respectful” of others’ beliefs.
He went on to say that they suspected that “reliable” sources would be “hard to come by,” and they turned out to be right. This was our first indication that the four Gospel accounts, which are the prima facia historical sources of the Person and Work of Christ, are not reliable.
The program went steadily downhill from there. While Jennings said several times that they had consulted scholars, historians and others in trying to uncover the true historical Jesus, in fact, the sources chosen reflected a clear bias and agenda which was to undermine the authority of the Bible and, thus, the historic Christian faith.
The majority of featured “scholars” were leaders of the oft-disputed radical liberal fringe group called the Jesus Seminar. Note the updated article below, which I wrote originally for the Watchman Expositor.
The Local Birmingham ABC affiliate asked me to come on the air following the Jennings’ special and respond. One of the questions asked was, in essence, “what could be the negative effect of such a program?” I answered that the average person has not training in this area and the image of a “scholarly” documentary could lead people to believe that there is actually no objective basis to believe the message of the Christian revelation and faith. Spirituality, therefore, becomes purely relative and subjective.
In other words, the conclusions of the program’s source scholars and the message of the special are that the Christianity that has evolved is a man-made spiritual placebo. Like a medicine that is actually an innocuous substance, it works because of the naïve, misinformed, and optimistic beliefs of the patient.
The question of whether one can know objective truth is one of the most important questions in apologetics. Subjectivism is both a tragic cause and a symptom of decay in our culture today. It is one of the most popular defenses against Christianity as it serves to undercut all arguments and reason in the apologetic enterprise.
Any relativizing of Scripture, not only undermines “the faith once and for all delivered,” but will inevitably, if not corrected, lead to blatant heresy. This is true regardless of one’s religious background. Those who lose faith in the Bible ultimately and naturally lose their other Christian beliefs as well. Having lost the rudder of a trustworthy Bible, they usually drift toward the ruinous reefs of relativism, agnosticism, new age spirituality, or cultic doctrine. This is most tragic in the case of individuals and churches that were once committed to an orthodox course.
Satan’s subtle attack on the authority of God’s word began with the first Adam in the garden as he questioned, “Yea, hath God said” Genesis 3:1. Having succeeded, he tried the same tactic against the second Adam, Jesus Christ, in the wilderness. This time he tried to twist Scripture to tempt Jesus. Yet Jesus answered every time with the authoritative Word of God Luke 4:10-12.
Significantly the Bible indicates that many false teachers will actually have their beginning in orthodoxy, but will depart from the faith, twist the Scripture, produce false arguments, introduce fatal heresies, and end up presenting a different Jesus and a different gospel [Acts 20:28-31]; [2 Peter 2:1-5]; [3:16]; [2 Corinthians 11:3-5; 13-15].
Jesus warned against those who call themselves Christian but are false teachers, describing them as wolves in sheep’s clothing ([Matthew 7:15]). Or did He? Today there are a growing number who call themselves Christian teachers (or “scholars”) who challenge that Jesus ever made such a statement. Recently the media began promoting this new brand of “Christian scholars” who claim Jesus never warned of “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Further, they insist that Jesus never said at least 82% of the other sayings the New Testament attributes to Him. These “scholars” maintain that the New Testament was a product of later men humanly developing doctrine as they attempted to construct a new religion (Christianity Today, 25 April 1994, p. 30).
Who are these false teachers?
It is a group of academicians calling themselves the Jesus Seminar. These scholars represent the latest incarnation of liberalism, modernism, and neo-orthodoxy, in many cases hatched in the churches and seminaries of mainline Christian denominations. The Jesus Seminar is not really novel. It is little more that warmed over nineteenth century German rationalism.
What is new is the amount of press coverage these notions are receiving. In effect the media’s coverage of The Jesus Seminar has taken these liberal ideas out of the seminary and university classrooms and placed them into America’s shopping malls and living rooms. Folks who have never heard of Rudolph Bultmann or Friedrich Schleirmacher are inviting them into their homes in the guise of the latest Christian scholarship. Most recently the findings of these scholars were featured on a 2-hour ABC Peter Jennings special, The Search for Jesus, aired during prime time (6/26/2000).
“Thus Saith the Lord” or “Hath God Said?”
The gradual shift from the inerrancy, infallibility, and authority of Scripture to the current state has been a complex historical process. The results of this digression has been a measurable degeneration and apostasy in many mainline Christian churches. Membership in these churches has significantly declined and American culture has shifted from a Judeo-Christian base to a humanistic, New Age, relativistic one, with increasing moral decline.
The growth of heterodoxy (heresy) grows best under certain conditions which enhance the mutations. The foundational departure creating a toxic dump for the growth of the weeds of this apostasy began over a hundred and fifty years ago in the early nineteenth century.
Social Darwinism’s influence spread into many academic areas, including many seminaries. The rationalism of the Enlightenment began to dominate New Testament scholarship, especially in Germany. Evolution and scientism naturally challenged Biblical accounts of creation, miracles, and the supernatural (Christianity Through the Centuries, Cairns, p. 426).
German scholastics Wellhausen and Graf posited a theory that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses but evolved and was compiled from four different sources or traditions. This theory was surmised because of apparent stylistic and content differences present in the text.
This theory plus the philosophical ideas of Immanuel Kant greatly influenced the direction of liberalism and the science of textual criticism (Ibid., pp. 410-412). The area of textual criticism that has become mainstream in liberalism and neo-orthodoxy is called the historical-critical method.
The historical-critical method uses several approaches. Literary (source) criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism are the most popular (see extended definitions in the Glossary of Liberal Theological Terms).
A primary example of this approach can be seen in what the “scholars” term “the Synoptic Problem.” Some theologians see a problem in the fact that the Matthew, Mark, and Luke texts in the gospels have a number of very similar and some different accounts in them.
The assumption is that they either copied each other or from an unnamed, undiscovered text (i.e., the mysterious, phantom “Q” document), or that some editors (redactors) compiled oral stories much later and attributed them to the disciples (Is There a Synoptic Problem?, p. 10). These “scholars,” who began with an anti-supernatural bias, speculated that books of the Bible were written much later than claimed, or that there were many mythological events recorded in the Bible. Most of these liberal pronouncements were demonstrated to be specious with the multitude of archeological discoveries verifying the historicity, as well as many thousands of manuscript discoveries dating very close to the original autographs of the New Testament.
In summary, the basic principles of the liberal historical-critical theory is the presupposition or a priori assumption that supernatural revelation from God as objective propositional truths is inconceivable to the critical intellect. God is excluded from consideration from the start. Biblical accounts are assumed to contain only man’s evolving thoughts about God. Therefore God’s word cannot be understood apart from careful use of hypothetical constructs of “scientific” critical approaches (Historical Criticism of the Bible, pp. 84-85).
The Jesus Seminar
For the past seven years, the popular press has been feeding the minds of the world sensationalistic progress reports of the “Jesus Seminar.” The Jesus Seminar is the product of Robert Funk and the Westar Institute in California. Co-chaired by the liberal Catholic scholar John Crossan, the Jesus Seminar has had between 30-74 participating “scholars” who, according to Funk, represent “a unique collaborative effort by scholars from a wide array of fields and academic institutions. This includes experts in New Testament, archaeology, Greek language, ancient culture, who came to a consensus, free of ecclesiastical constraints and religious control concerning the search for the authentic words of Jesus” (The Lutheran Witness, April 1994, p. 3).
Amidst much fanfare, their efforts have culminated in the production of a book called The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. Pretentious and self-promoted as the “Scholar’s Version,” it purports to provide readers with the words that Jesus did say, written in red, the words He possibly said in pink, the doubtful in gray; and the black for certainly unauthentic (Birmingham Post-Herald, 26 February 1994, p. C4).
This alleged consensus indicates that out of 503 sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, only 31 were authentic, 200 were possibly authentic, and the rest were doubtful (30%) or completely unauthentic (24%) (Birmingham News, 18 March 1991, p. 28). Incredibly, they claim that no verse in John is authentic, with the sole exception of [John 4:44], which rates pink.
The admitted publicity-seeking showmen have been aided and abetted by the press with headlines all across American papers like, “Most of Jesus’ words ghostwritten,” “Jesus probably didn’t recite Lord’s Prayer, Scholars say,” “Some Scholars say Christianity should expand settled texts,” “Gospels not Jesus’ words,” “Group rules out 80% of Jesus’ words,” “Scholars hammering out new Bible, more debate.” Unfortunately, The Five Gospels was heralded by a feature story on National Public Radio and John Crossan appeared on The Larry King Show (First Things, May 1994, p. 43).
The introduction of the book depicts its authors as objective, neutral, and intellectually disciplined seekers of truth who dare to challenge the church establishment, which is ignorant, dogmatic, and anti-intellectual.
Richard Hays is a respected New Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School, which is hardly conservative. Hayes responds on point to the Jesus Seminar, “In fact, let it be said clearly, most professional biblical scholars are profoundly skeptical of the methods and conclusions of this academic splinter group…their attempt to present these views as ‘the assured results of critical scholarship,’ is, one must say it, reprehensible deception.”
The “fifth” gospel the Jesus Seminar is promoting is the Gospel of Thomas, although they also state that the hypothetical “Q” source should be included (Washington Post, 19 February 1994, p. A1). The participants in the Jesus Seminar followed the historical-critical (theological) approach to voting on the sayings of Jesus which begins on the faulty presuppositions of literary, form and redaction theories.
The claim of this “scholarship” is that “whether Jesus actually said something or not does not touch the question of faith claims about Jesus as being true or not.” So says Lutheran (ELCA) seminar participant, Dr. Arland Jacobson (Vine and Branches, Spring 1994, p. 1).
This is an amazingly naïve statement, but consistent with a liberal existentialist view. More realistic (although equally incorrect) are co-chair John Crossan’s views as he concludes that Jesus never claimed deity and the later followers’ deification of Him was “akin to the worship of Augustus Caesar.” Also, this historical-critical approach concludes that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, His burial and resurrection were “pure fiction” and “wishful thinking.” Crossan believes that the body of Jesus was probably just consumed by dogs (Ibid.). Seminar member Dr. Marcus Borg of Oregon State University stated of Jesus, “We’re making him a Buddha-like figure, not just another philosopher but a really big one” (Ibid.).
The 7 Cracked Pillars of the Jesus Seminar
In The Five Gospels, the Jesus Seminar cast presents “seven pillars of scholarly wisdom” which are the basic assumptions, which lead them to their erroneous conclusions. Dr. Doug Groothuis has spelled these out in his book, Searching for the Real Jesus In and Age of Controversy. They are:
1. That there must be a distinction made between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith.
2. That Matthew, Mark, and Luke are much closer to the historical Jesus than the spiritualized Gospel of John.
3. That Mark was written prior to the other 3 Gospels. Note: Most evangelical scholars do not dispute this, but if mark is historically reliable, it certainly has nothing to do with the radical conclusions of the Jesus Seminar.
4. That Luke & Matthew both depended on a hypothetical source of Jesus’ sayings called the Q document or source. Again even if a number of evangelical scholars happen to accept the possibility of this Q document, it still does not negate the inspiration or infallibility or historical accuracy of Luke and Matthew.
5. That scholarship has concluded a priori that Jesus never spoke of a final judgement or apocalypse. Also Jesus was a witty reformer, not theological, and was a cynic sage. This beginning assumption automatically censors any quotes or references relating to the above. Not legitimate scholarship.
6. That the oral culture of Jesus’ day must be separated from the current written culture because there is again an a priori assumption that the oral tradition must have been short memorable phrases. Therefore any elaborate stories and details must have been added later.
7. That the Gospel material must be assumed guilty of embellishment, fabrications, and false accretions until proven innocent.
The fact that the media continues to rush and utilize this provocative fringe group demonstrates both their own drive to promote their liberal agenda, and their priority to achieve commercial gains rather than balanced journalism.
Gregory Boyd astutely observes, “Historical theories should be built upon the foundation of what is present in concrete evidence that is available; not in what is absent in hypothetical evidence that is altogether unavailable.”
The methodology and conclusions of the iconoclastic minority composing the Jesus Seminar are not entirely new. They are, in fact, a somewhat disparate layer of a movement called the “3rd Quest” for the “historical Jesus.”
Dr. Gregory Boyd, notwithstanding his aberrant Openness of God doctrinal anomaly, has written a well-respected scholarly book covering the history and errors of the liberal Jesus quests, Cynic Sage or Son of God: Recovering the Real Jesus in an Age of Revisionist Replies (1995). In it he chronicles the historical lineage of those from whom the liberal fringe of the Jesus Seminar draws.
He notes that the “uncontested master chronicler” of the first 125 years of the “quest” was Albert Schweitzer in his controversial book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906). In 1778 Gotthold Lessing published some fragments of a German deist professor, Samuel Reimarus, who argued “for a sharp dichotomy between the Jesus of history and the portrait of Christ found within the four gospels.”
Reimarus noted that Jesus wrote nothing and that what his disciples wrote were their own concoctions. Reimarus believed that Jesus saw himself as a political messiah whose intention was to deliver His people out of bondage. When Jesus failed and was crucified, His disciples schemed to steal the body and later invent stories of a resurrection, an imminent return, and a spiritual suffering savior, “because the first hopes had failed.”
Sound familiar? The recent Peter Jennings’ ABC Special appeared to present modern scholarly views. In fact, it resurrected the spoiled crop of unsubstantiated drivel.
The early rationalistic and naturalistic approaches become more pronounced through men like H.E.G. Paulus (1828) whose book attempted to explain away the Biblical accounts of miracles. For example, Paulus speculated Jesus was walking in shallow water rather than on it; or that following Jesus’ lead, rich people shared their food to feed the 5,000; and that Jesus had unusual abilities to utilize folk medicine on people’s illnesses.
David Fredrick Strauss went even further with this rationalism in his 1835 book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Strauss, instead of seeing the Gospel accounts as misunderstood or exaggerated historical accounts, dismissed historical reliability altogether, and concluded that they were actually myths.
Boyd writes that this “first quest” was followed by a “no quest” period. This period ranged from the writings of Albert Schweitzer to Rudolph Bultmann to Ernst Kasemann. The “no quest” period was characterized by a skepticism of the perceived conflicts in the methods and conclusions of the “old quest”. Using the new historical-critical methodology of this full-blown Enlightenment application, the conclusion reached was that it was impossible to conclude anything meaningful about the life of an historical Jesus.
Especially important in this period was the rise of form criticism. Form criticism seeks to understand the true original action behind the oral and literary developmental stages. The faulty presuppositions behind this method are (1) prejudged conception of a tainted process of oral transmission (e.g., exaggeration, political agendas, etc.); and (2) a naturalistic worldview that precludes the possibility of the miraculous.
While this period was (and in some quarters, still is) characterized by a radical skepticism, in 1953, a student of Bultmann, Ernst Kasemann launched a movement which was to become the “new quest” or second quest for the historical Jesus.
Kasemann realized that the devastating conclusions of the radical skeptics produced a purely mystical, wholly other, docetic Christology, divesting Jesus of any real humanity, and inevitably leading to existentialism.
The new quest sought to recover redaction-critical methodology in order to recover earlier sources and save some strands of an accurate account of the historical Jesus. Yet in the past 20 years more recent scholars, again, have challenged the methodological approaches and inadequate conclusions of those scholars and have begun what is called the “third quest.”
This new movement is characterized by a wide variety and broad spectrum of disciples and theological perspectives. There is a tendency among these questers to be open to the supernatural, have no controlling presupposition, an emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus, a wider range of authenticity criteria, and new approaches to oral tradition.
These new criteria are consistent in a pluralistic, relativistic postmodern culture. Yet some evangelical scholars like N.T. Wright, Craig Evans, and Ben Witherington are involved in this movement, giving necessary balance and input.
The third quest is not dominating the current scholarly field but it is growing. The second quest is still very strong as well. The fringe Jesus Seminar proponents tend to have on foot in each of the second and third quest camps.
Four of the major leaders in the Jesus Seminar dominated the “scholarly” sources of the recent ABC Peter Jennings’ Special – Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, John Crossan and Marvin Meyer.
Responding to Scholars
After criticism by the evangelical community began, seminar members defended their approach, “But it is the scholarship that is being taught in seminaries to future ministers. It is not some far-out brand of scholarship that doesn’t represent a pretty wide scholarly consensus” (Ibid.). The answer to this is that they are only telling a half-truth. Yes, most liberal arts college religion departments and many mainline seminaries are victims of the liberal and neo-orthodox movements. But to say that this means that it isn’t “far-out,” or that the seminar represents a “wide scholarly consensus” is badly misleading.
Dr. Richard Hays, New Testament professor at Duke Divinity School (certainly not the bastion of conservatism) has written a very strong critical analysis of the Jesus Seminar and its product, The Five Gospels. He writes that the seminar was “sponsored by not one of the major scholarly societies such as the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, or the Society of Biblical Literature.” Also, he observes that “This self-selected group, though it includes several fine scholars, does not represent a balanced cross section of scholarly opinion. Furthermore, the criteria for judgment that are employed are highly questionable” (First Things, May 1994, p. 44).
Dr. D.A. Carson, New Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, notes that “one of the most striking features of the press releases of (Funk’s) Westar Institute” is that “the words ‘scholars’ and ‘scholarly’ are almost always attached to the opinions of the Jesus Seminar and detached from (the opinions of) all others” (Christianity Today, 25 April 1994, p. 30). Carson writes that the “doctrinal redaction criticism” approach is “repeatedly criticized.”
Carson states that to say Jesus, a first century Jewish man must not sound like his disciples or contemporaries, that his sayings must by nature be idiosyncratic; or to say that Jesus’ sayings must not sound like the older churches views, “is to assume that the most influential man in history never said anything that the church believed, cherished and passed on is blatantly reductionistic” (Ibid., p. 32).
Carson, whose Ph.D. is from Cambridge University and who is a member of every prestigious, scholarly society including the Evangelical Theological Society concludes, “for all its scholarly pretension, the Jesus Seminar is not addressing scholars. It is open grab for the popular mind, for the mass media” (Ibid., p. 33).
Joel Belz, editor of World magazine, observes that a review of the sayings attributed to Jesus and the ones which are not reveal how “loaded the project was” with “social engineers” with a doctrinal, not theological social agenda (World, 25 December 1993, p. 3).
Dr. Jacob Neusner, professor of religion studies at the University of South Florida “refers to the Jesus Seminar as ‘the greatest scholarly hoax since the Piltdown Man’” (The Lutheran Witness, April 1994, p. 5). The great Oxford University scholar N.T. Wright deems the seminar’s findings a ‘freshman mistake” and notes that recent books denying the Biblical accounts of Christ as well as the Jesus Seminar have no credible explanation as to the willingness of obviously sane, reasonable, and extremely ethical disciples and followers of Christ to be willing to die for the cause based on the resurrection of Jesus (Christianity Today, 13 September 1993, pp. 22-26).
Bruce Schuchard, Ph.D., in New Testament studies from Union Theological Seminary, writes that “The Jesus Seminar ‘findings’ are nothing new. What is new is all the attention they’ve gotten. For one thing, not all scholars entertain such pessimistic views of the historical reliability of the Scriptures.” He concludes answering a rhetorical question; can we believe in what Jesus said in [John 2:19] and the Scriptures’ reporting of the event of the historical resurrection? “Absolutely! And so we too, shall rise from the dead and live eternally in paradise, just as He was raised and lives and reigns in glory for ever and ever!” (Op. cit., The Lutheran Witness).
Is the Jesus Seminar satisfied and done? No, Westar’s Funk has now called for a Canon Council to meet jointly with the Jesus Seminar over several years to “discuss whether the Book of Revelation should be retained as part of the New Testament, in view of the recent tragic events in Waco, Texas, and the rising abuse of the last book of the New Testament” (Christianity Today, 25 April 1994, p. 33).
*”Ever learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 3:7).*
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One clear example of how this pluralistic and relativistic philosophy works out in the field of religious truth is reflected in the liberal Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, Who Needs God. He rhetorically asks, “Why are there so many separate religions, each claiming to be truer and more valid than the next?”
In his answer, he promotes the radically individualistic postmodern mantra; “To say that Christianity is the only way to God is like saying that your wife is the only woman in the world.” In other words, “truth” is only a matter of subjective preference. Kushner goes on, “religious claims are statements of loyalty rather than historical fact, that two or more religions can be true even if they see the world differently.”
Then, to his credit, Kushner brings to the discussion, the correct point, “If religious claims to truth were statements of fact, then when they differed, at most only one of them could be true. It would be like a mathematical problem to which there is only one right answer, but many wrong ones. Either God became flesh in the person of Jesus or He didn’t, and there is no middle ground. If your religion is true then mine must be false.”
As Christians, we say, “Amen” to such reasoning and it is the point we want to press. However, Kushner then exposes his classic postmodern mind, “Religious claims can be true the way a great novel is true …even though the characters in the novel never really existed and the events never took place.” Sound familiar? It is as if Harold Kushner wrote the script for Peter Jennings’ ABC Special.
What Kushner attempts to promote is the idea that if one’s religion moves one to be “a better person” (whoever determines what is this “better” standard), that is what makes it a “true belief.” Kushner then goes that next expected step in pontificating that if a person claims to have exclusive truth, then that person is “narrow-minded and self-righteous.”
Is Kushner claiming to have an absolute standard to condemn those making exclusive truth claims false? Is Kushner then being narrow-minded and intolerant of Christians?
Recent Assaults on the Bible’s Authority
The following is a survey (not exhaustive) of some significant attempts to undermine the credibility of the New Testament and the historic Christian faith. The attempts purport to be the legitimate scholarly findings and thus reveal the actual evolution of current Christianity.
One problem is that the stories or books rarely, if ever, present the wealth of conservative or mainstream scholarship which indirectly or directly refutes this ultra liberal drivel. A second problem is that the population’s (including average church members) lack of education on these issues, compared with the media barrage of what appears to be the prevailing “scholarly” and informed view, convinces too many people.
For anyone to doubt these “scholars” would be to risk being considered out of touch, ignorant, or worse – a fundamentalist!
The Lost Books of the Bible
Published in 1929, this volume is said to contain “all the gospels, epistles, and other pieces now extinct attributed in the first four centuries to Jesus Christ, his apostles, and their companions.” They are characterized as being “suppressed by the early Church Fathers.”
A Course in Miracles
Purported to be a Jesus-channeled corrected message of the traditional Gospels to Dr. Helen Schucman, published in 1976. The Course redefines the historic Biblical message into New Age, pluralistic categories, concluding that all paths of spirituality “lead to God in the end.”
This book was made very poplar by best-selling authors and Hollywood guru Marianne Williamson through the heavy promotion of her commentary on the Course, A Return to Love, on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
U.S. News and World Report
A major article in the December 10, 1990, issue, “Who Wrote the Bible?” in speaking of the New Testament begins, “while some of the writings bear the names of those who walked with Him [Jesus]…centuries of scholarship turned up little convincing evidence that His 12 closest disciples did any writing either.”
Again, the rhetorical question is raised, “who then wrote the 27 books that make up the traditional New Testament canon? Are they close to their original form? Or were they revised by early church leaders to reflect changing views of who Jesus was, to address the problems of a growing church or even advance political agendas?”
The article does mention that “some conservative scholars,” interpreting the recent studies, “have become even more convinced that the traditional identification of the authors is correct.” But later that is negated by the preposterous claim that, “yet today, there are few Biblical scholars, from liberal to conservative evangelicals, who believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually wrote the Gospels…. Once written [by the compilation of a variety of oral and written stories written long after the crucifixion], many experts believe the Gospels were redacted or edited, repeatedly.”
The article makes a conclusion that scholars are increasingly “coming to believe that while all the traditions of Biblical authorship have not held up under scrutiny, the ancient texts remain an important chronicle of humanity’s search for the divine.”
Again, the ABC special is a rehash of this propagandistic article.
The Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide,
by Stephen Mitchell.
A Buddhist, Stephen Mitchell, who follows the path of both the Jesus Seminar and Gnostic mystics, wrote this 1991 book. In fact, the founder of the Jesus Seminar and guest scholar of the Peter Jennings’ Special, Robert Funk, endorses Mitchell’s book in saying, “Jesus the liberator is being liberated at long last by a simplified version of the gospel, by astute commentary and comparison with the Buddha, Lao-Tzu, and other sages…. Scholars and lay readers alike will love the refreshing breezes that blow across ancient portraits of Jesus, long since encrusted with excessive piety and pedantry.”
Mitchell writes, “The scholarship of the past seventy-five years is an indispensable help in distinguishing the authentic Jesus from the inauthentic. No good scholar, for example, would call the Christmas stories anything but legends, or the accounts of Jesus’ trial anything but polemical fiction.”
Mitchell proceeds to use the same old arguments demonstrating the “contradictions” in the Bible such as the different genealogies of Jesus in Mathew and Luke and the alleged “contradictor,” versions of the events following the resurrection.
Ironically, Mitchell closely follows some of the prejudiced presuppositions of the Jesus Seminar to eliminate many teachings of Jesus in the Gospel accounts. He frequently evokes the term “scholarly” research, but then turns to his own pronouncements on the “authentic Jesus,” relying on correspondence with other mystical New Age teachers, as well as his own “internal evidence,” which results in a New Age Jesus of his and others’ creation. How scholarly!
Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
Written by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong in 1991, this work brought with it much media coverage. Taking a cue from the Jesus Seminar strategy, Spong writes, “few volumes take seriously the current levels of biblical scholarship and make that scholarship available in an understandable way to the average lay person.”
Again, what Spong refers to as serious biblical scholarship is not found in these pages. Throughout this book Spong arrogantly caricatures and ridicules Biblical inerrantists with comments like, “I regret that [making evangelicals angry]. I have no desire to make uncomfortable anyone’s fragile life.”
Where does the slippery slope lead Spong? It leads to the place where Spong sets himself up as God in that he censors or affirms whatever he determines is true in Scripture based on his own finite views. Spong concludes, “I do not believe in a God who willed Jesus to suffer for my sins…in a God whose inner need for justice is satisfied when his son is nailed to a cross. I regard the substitutionary atonement as a barbaric on both the truth [there’s that word again] of God and the meaning of human life.”
Spong exhorts Bible readers to go “beneath the literal words of the biblical text” to meet the “living Word.” However, he does not establish any objective or meaningful criteria for interpretation or arriving at any truth categories–hence, it is pure individualistic subjectivism.
Spong rejects the virgin birth, the Trinity, and a literal resurrection of Christ. Everything is symbolized without objective criteria even for his own mythmaking. The very important question is, why isn’t Spong excommunicated from the Episcopal Church?
Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1992) by Barbara Thiering is based on the Gnostic (New Age) accounts of the Essene community’s library known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. This other Jesus was married twice, one of whom was Mary Magdalene, divorced, and fathered three children.
Particularly disturbing, and again revealing of the agenda of those mainstream media producers was that a “documentary” based on Thiering’s “scholarship” was aired on The Discovery Channel.
Further Along the Road less Traveled (1993) was written by M. Scott Peck, the author of the “book of the decade,” The Road less Traveled. Peck, another darling of the media supposedly converted from his Sufi and Buddhist mysticism to Christianity some time after his success with The Road less Traveled.
I say supposedly because an informed reading of his later works reveal that he didn’t travel very far, as he is now into the Process Theology of panentheism. His conversion was not to the historical Jesus Christ and Christianity. Yet most people are not so informed on these topics, and therefore people disarmingly read his new books, believing him to be credible.
Peck writes, “What’s the Bible? Is it literal truth? Is it a collection of myths? Is it merely some outdated rules?” Yep, you guessed it. Peck attempts to embrace his Buddhist paradox in answering. “It is a mixture of legend, some of which is true, and some of which is not true. It is a mixture of very accurate history, and not so accurate history.”
He then asks rhetorically the next logical question, “How are we to interpret the Bible?” After he berates the “fundamentalists” (they love to use this term pejoratively) for holding to an inerrant Scripture, Peck concludes that this “only impoverishes the Bible,” and that it “is not always meant to be interpreted literally. A great deal of it is metaphor and myth.” One example he uses of myth is the Garden of Eden account.
I suppose then that Jesus was unaware of this since He confirmed the Garden account in His teaching. Oh, I forgot, that must have been therefore written by someone else and attributed to Jesus.
“Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple” was a feature story in Time magazine (10 January 1994) which continued the escalating trend on the assault on the authenticity of the Scripture and, thus, the objective basis of the Christian faith.
The article highlights the release of three “scholarly books” put forward as a startlingly “revisionist reply” to Matthew’s account of Peter’s answer to Jesus when asked, “Who do you say I am?”
The books were Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan (a major source for the ABC Peter Jennings’ special and co-chair of the Jesus Seminar), The Lost Gospel by Burton Mack, and the Jesus Seminar’s The Five Gospels (by co-chair Robert Funk, another major source for the Jennings’ special).
The Time article introduced this “revisionist reply” by positing that Jesus “did not preach salvation from sin,” He didn’t utter any of the Beatitudes, no Sermon on the Mount, no healings, no miracles, no raising Lazarus, and no resurrection. In fact, as Crossan promotes, wild dogs ate Jesus’ body.
The article does allow a one page column containing three conservative scholars’ responses, including Oxford scholar N.T. Wright. Wright characterized these liberals’ approaches and suppositions as “a freshman mistake.” Still the overall proportion of space was 4 to 1 in the article against the conservative perspective.
The impact of these publicity driven scholars and their “journalist” assistants was reflected in another one-sided television series on The Learning Channel, called “The Life and Times of Jesus,” based on this research.
Gospel Fictions was written in 1994 by Randel Helms, published by the atheist publisher Prometheus Books, and advertised in Time magazine. The ad depicts Helms as “a noted biblical scholar,” but professionally he is an English professor at Arizona State University. He claims that the New Testament books are “fictional, idealistic writings produced to serve a theological vision,” again specifically pointing to Christ’s birth, death and resurrection.
An Ominous Infamy
Christians and other thinking people should have taken heed to what happened on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1996. All three major newsmagazines–Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report–came out with cover stories featuring a direct assault on the historicity of the gospels, Jesus’ message and work, and the heart of the Christian faith.
The fact that these media icons had the audacity to attack the Christian faith on probably the holiest of Christian celebrations should make it clear how far our culture has drifted from a Christian ethos and consensus! They would never have dared to take such a risk five years before. Why would they take that kind of commercial risk now, unless they determined the risk wasn’t that significant?
U.S. News’ cover story was like the recent ABC special, “In Search of Jesus–New Appraisals of his life and its meaning.” Whose views did it predominately feature? You guessed right again–Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, John Crossan, and added to the three amigos is a Catholic priest and professor at Catholic University, John Meier, who states, “The historical Jesus is not the real Jesus, but only a fragmentary hypothetical reconstruction of him.”
Again to portray “balance,” the story gives one page out of six to a more traditional scholarly perspective, featuring mainly Dr. Luke Johnson of Emory’s Candler School of Theology–hardly a conservative school. Johnson takes on the methodology and “flimsy scholarship” of these fringe scholars in his book, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels.
Also mentioned in one paragraph are the more conservative scholars N.T. Wright, and James D.G. Dunn.
The Time cover story too reads, “The Search for Jesus: Some Scholars are Debunking the Gospels.” This Time article was by far the most balanced of the major trio of newsmagazines. Even though the articles’ subheadings featured several of the Jesus Seminar’s denials such as Judas’ betrayal, the resurrection, and featured statements like, “Luke’s verses are so laden with ‘Christianizing’ propaganda as to be ‘beyond recovery.’” It did at long last devote about one and one-half pages of the seven-page article to the responses of more conservative scholars, N.T. Wright, Craig Blomberg and especially Luke Timothy Johnson.
Johnson, like the Jesus Seminar’s Crossan, is an ex-priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, unlike Crossan, Johnson characterized the Jesus Seminar as “a 10 year exercise in academic self-promotion, a self-indulgent charade,” accusing their founder, Robert Funk of “grandiosity and hucksterism.”
Johnson presented an excellent summary of the issues: “Americans generally have an abysmal level of knowledge of the Bible. In this world of mass ignorance, to have headlines proclaim this or that fact about [Jesus] has been declared untrue by supposedly scientific inquiry, has the effect of gospel. There is not basis on which most people can counter the authoritative-sounding statements.”
Unfortunately this is true, which demonstrates even more the need for a revival of apologetics in the life of the Church. So how might the average church member (70% of the population) respond?
My observation from an informal poll is that most conservative Christians either cut the Peter Jennings’ special off in disgust, or watched it with disdain. But, they had no solid understanding of why it was wrong. It was just a faith thing.
Well, the ABC Special and other articles attempted to stigmatize that segment in order to perhaps shame them into compliance. In the ABC program, they depicted the conservative “believers” as ‘local yokels’, as simple-minded people displaying blind faith.
The Time article put it this way, “if believers insist on believing anyway, then whose example should they follow? Every new book, every new theory seems to wear away some long-cherished relic in this battle between faith an knowledge” (emphasis mine). You see, a false dichotomy is created–one between “faith and knowledge,” as if our faith has no objective, historical and, therefore, intellectual basis. The message–only the naïve or simple-minded remain to believe this myth.
But even with some rebuttal comments from a few conservative scholars, the Time article’s main message is “all four Gospels, whose actual writing most scholars have come to acknowledge was done not by the Apostles, but by their anonymous followers (or their follower’s followers)…which parts of the New Testament were likely to be straight reportage rather than pious mythmaking. Depressingly few, the so-called higher critics found.” This last question and answer could be applied actually to those on the “Search for Jesus.”
The Newsweek (8 April 1996) article begins by noting that over the past five years, more than twenty-four books and scores of articles have been published, focusing on the “fierce debate” over whether the resurrection and other Biblical accounts of Jesus are actual history.
The article states, “various Biblical scholars argue that the Gospel stories of the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are fictions devised long after his death to justify claims of his divinity.” Why believe that “the Resurrection is an embarrassment to the modern mind.”
The article makes hyperbolic statements like, “But very few Christians are literalists on this point” [that Jesus returned physically from the dead]. Another similar bizarre statement, “For one thing there were no witnesses to the Resurrection…the post-resurrection stories contain a variety of factual discrepancies!”
And then again just this year Newsweek (27 March 2000) treats us to another cover story titled, “Visions of Jesus: How Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists view Him.” The story centered around Pope John Paul’s pilgrimage where Jesus walked and characterized it as “an exercise in religious reconciliation.” How fitting for a postmodern, pluralistic, multicultural, one-world agenda.
The article describes the way the various major religions view Jesus, with both similarities and differences. However, it could not seem to resist parading out and stating as fact the same old ultra-liberal speculations about the historicity of Jesus.
For example, it states, “Indeed that lack of extra-Biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus has led more that one critic [how many–2, 3?] to conclude that he is a Christian fiction created by the early church” [created in order that they could be horribly persecuted and ridiculed?].
When the article moves to Buddhism, it features the Dalai Lama saying, “In the Buddhist tradition, you would aspire to Buddahood. In the Christian context, you can say that you aspire to attain the full perfection of the divine nature, union with God.” This is an example of what happens when you deconstruct Jesus, that you can then construct anything you want.
The Hindu section repeats the same nonsense, “Jesus proclaims that ‘the Father and I are one’. This confirms the basic Hindu belief…a state of samadhi, a consciousness in which the divine is all that really exists. For that kind of spiritual experience, appeal to any god will do, Christ-consciousness, God-consciousness, Buddha-consciousness–it’s all the same thing.”
Christian Scholar’s Response–the Other Side of the Story
As it has been since the first century, heresies and controversies surrounding Christianity cause Christians to focus on the issues, clarify and give a reasoned response or defense (apologia). It happened with Marcion (140 A.D.) when he devised a faulty list of the canon of Scripture. It happened with Arius and the Council of Nicea when he fostered a fundamentally faulty view of the nature of Christ.
Today, Christian Scholars have more than adequately responded to those of the Jesus Seminar ilk. The popular media has determined not to air the conservative responses, much less, even the majority and prevailing view, all of which dispute the Jesus Seminar fringe.
I encourage the reader to review the responses to this 3rd Quest for the historical Jesus. I commend the following works:
1. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, ed. Michael Welkins and J.P. Moreland, Zondervan, 1995. In this volume, 10 evangelical scholars respond to the various aspects of the “critical/liberal” investigation and debate, notably that of the Jesus Seminars.
2. Who was Jesus?, by N.T. Wright, Eerdmans, 1992. Respected Oxford scholar, N.T. Wright dismantles the specious liberal assumptions and approaches to “discover” the real Jesus, notably those of Barbara Thiering, A.N. Wilson, and John Spong and others in the “3rd Quest”.
3. The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, by Luke Timothy Johnson, Harper Collins, 1996. Dr. Johnson is a New Testament scholar at the liberal Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He challenges and refutes the motives, integrity and methodology of the Jesus Seminar.
4. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth, by Ben Witherington III, IVP, 1995. Witherington is a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary who has written two additional books on the 3rd Quest: The Christology of Jesus and Jesus the Sage. Witherington analyzes the work of the Jesus Seminar in general, as well as specifically the problems with Crossan and Borg.
5. Cynic, Sage or Son of God? Recovering the Real Jesus in An Age of Revisionist Replies, by Gregory Boyd, Victor Books, 1995. Dr. Boyd, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, is Professor of Theology at Bethel College. Boyd gives an historical overview of the 3 Quests for the historical Jesus, a systematic refutation of Crossan, and the methodology of the Jesus Seminar.
6. Searching for the Real Jesus in an Age of Controversy, by Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., Harvest House, 1996. Dr. Groothuis, a New Testament and apologetics scholar at Denver Seminary, has written a very helpful book responding to the various attacks on the historical Jesus with concise, yet, very adequate chapters ranging from the Jesus Seminar to the New Age Jesuses. He also includes a good chapter on the New Testament witness to Jesus. (This book may be out of print, but we have copies available for \$11 + \$3 s/h. [Contact us](../contact.htm).)
7. The Apologetics Index Website: [https://www.gospelcom.net/apologeticsindex/j12.html](https://www.gospelcom.net/apologeticsindex/j12.html). Anton Hein manages this website which is an index of apologetics subjects. If the above link doesn’t work, try the homepage at [https://www.gospelcom.net/apologeticsindex/index.html](https://www.gospelcom.net/apologeticsindex/index.html). From the A-Z index, look under “J” to find the “Jesus Seminar” category and you will find many good articles written by Christian scholars responding to the liberal “scholars” of the Jesus Seminar.
The Jesus Seminar: The Slippery Slope to Heresy
By [Craig Branch](../branch.htm)
(Reprinted by permission of Watchman Fellowship. See their website at [www.watchman.org](https://www.watchman.org))