Exploring the Jesus Seminar and Its Critics

Since 1985, a group of scholars has held meetings to debate whether the sayings and deeds of Jesus are historically true.

The Jesus Seminar is a group of New Testament scholars who have studied the four gospels to determine how much of the statements of Jesus in the Bible were actually made by Jesus himself and how much were attributed to Him in later years. According to the group, only 20 percent of Jesus' statements are likely to have been spoken by Him and the other 80 percent are unlikely to have ever been stated by Jesus.

Their conclusions were published in a 1993 book entitled, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, which irked the scholarly community, especially among the scholars who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible.

“We don’t challenge the historical accuracy of every passage, we just think the gospels are a combination of materials, some of which come directly from Jesus and some of which come later on and were attributed to him,” said Robert J. Miller, Professor of Religious Studies at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, and an avid member of the Jesus Seminar since 1986.

Miller, the author of Jesus Seminar and Its Critics, claims that what they discovered about the passages of the gospels is a widely shared belief.

“There’s a variety of ways in which people responded to our work and to our book. Some Christians were delighted to finally discover that ‘not everything in the gospels was literally and historically true’ was the belief that was widely shared by many, many scholars. Some people were happy about that,” said Miller.

However, some critics refuted the Seminar's claim to be the voice of contemporary Christian scholarship.

“[Their claims] are not shared by the scholarly community," said William Lane Craig is one of the most vocal critics of the Jesus Seminar.

Miller, meanwhile, shrugged off such critics as "scholars who pursue their scholarship based on theological beliefs that come out of fundamentalism," and blamed the media for discrediting the Seminar by "overemphasizing some of the controversial aspects."

“You can imagine the secular media is always looking for controversy because that’s what sells magazines and newspaper,” said Miller. “So many of the media ...made us sound like we were some kind of a radical group out to discredit the Christian faith, which is nonsense.”

Craig, however, stood his ground against the group and said the reason for the bad reputation is because the Seminar's views are controversial.

"They like to fancy that the reason they’re getting such bad reaction is they had dared to go to the public with this information whereas if they had just taught this way in an obscured professional journal, one would’ve been excited about it,” said Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, CA.

“That is precisely the buy into their playing that they’re representative of the mainstream scholarship and that’s not the case," Craig said. "The fact is the views that they have about the historical Jesus are not widely shared.”

Overall, Craig said there are three controversial aspects of Jesus Seminar that separates it from traditional beliefs.

The first is a belief that the miracles of Jesus did not happen. According to Craig, these beliefs should be defended by New Testament scholars - not refuted on scientific grounds.

"That is a philosophical presupposition which New Testament scholars are fully equipped to defend and that’s a matter for the philosophers to decide, and yet the Jesus Seminar simply, critically assumes scientific naturalism or anti-supernaturalism," said Craig.

"They don’t really provide any justification with the presupposition. And this is determinative for everything about the historical Jesus because if you assume anti-supernaturalism, of course what you’ll come up with is purely humanistic Jesus."

The second controversy surrounds the Jesus Seminar's emphasis on extra-biblical sources for information.

"[Jesus Seminar advocates] tend to say our primary and most important source of Jesus has not been canonical gospel in the New Testament, but rather extra biblical sources like the Gnostic gospels, the gospels of Thomas, Philip, Peter and so forth," explained Craig.

"This is highly controversial because for the vast majority of scholars these are later derivative sources that cannot replace or take primacy over the earlier primary sources of the four gospels," he said.

The third criticism held against the Jesus Seminar is its "desire for a politically correct Jesus," Craig said.

"They want a Jesus who will be as inclusive as they could who will fit in with modern
sensitivity," Craig explained.

According to Craig, Jesus Seminar advocates accept a Jesus who champions the rights of the women and the poor, but then rejects Jesus' claims to be a Messiah.

The Jesus Seminar is a research think tank founded by a renowned New Testament scholar named Robert Funk in 1985 in Santa Rosa, Calif. whose aim was to discover the authentic Jesus via methods of scientific analysis of the gospels.