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The Search for the Real Words of Jesus

Some scholars think the Gospels attribute sayings to Jesus he never made.
The Gospel writers denied that they put their own ideas on Jesus’ lips. Who is right?

using a pen on a scroll In the 1990s, a group of scholars called the Jesus Seminar created headline news, especially in the United States. To put it simply, they questioned whether the Bible is the inspired word of God.

The seminar was composed of specialists in the New Testament Gospels. They taught at leading universities and seminaries in North America and represented every major Christian denomination and tradition. The Jesus Seminar staked out a heady goal for itself. It hoped to recover the actual words Jesus spoke, uncover what he really thought and discover which deeds recorded in the Bible he accomplished.

At its spring 1991 meeting, the Jesus Seminar concluded its first phase—six years of debating and voting on the words of Jesus. In that autumn, the seminar began its second phase, analyzing the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and deeds.

During their quest to discover the true voice of Jesus, the seminar rejected about 80 percent of his words, calling them later creations. The discarded words of Jesus included statements:

  • About his death. Most seminar members are convinced Jesus did not predict his death as the Gospel accounts describe. Nine in 10 think “Jesus had no special foreknowledge of his death,” says Robert W. Funk, the Jesus Seminar’s founder.
  • On the cross. The Gospels attribute some well-known statements to Jesus as he was dying. Among them is: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46, New King James throughout). Such sayings were all dismissed by the seminar as the later “work of the individual evangelists.”
  • During a Jewish trial. All four Gospels describe a Jewish trial and condemnation of Jesus before his crucifixion (see, for example, Mark 14:53-65). An overwhelming majority of the Jesus Seminar (97 percent) do not think any such trial occurred. “The Jewish role in these events is a figment of Christian imagination,” wrote Dr. Funk in The Fourth R, a publication of the seminar’s Westar Institute.
  • After the resurrection. All four Gospels end with Jesus talking with and teaching the disciples after his resurrection. The Jesus Seminar does not accept any after-death words of Jesus. It says Gospel “statements attributed to the risen Jesus are not admissible as evidence for the historical Jesus.”
  • Not overheard by others. On several occasions the Gospel writers report Jesus’ conversations when neither they nor other humans were present. These conversations include Jesus’ words during his time in the wilderness and his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his arrest. The seminar dismisses these verbal portraits. “Words attributed to Jesus in the absence of an auditor,” said the seminar, “are assumed to be the fiction of the storyteller.” They “cannot be used to determine what Jesus said.”
  • About founding a church. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus reportedly said, “I will build My church.” The seminar disagrees that Jesus could make such a statement. “Jesus had no intention of starting a new religion,” Dr. Funk says, stating the seminar’s majority position. “He had no idea that a new religion would transpire or that he would become a cult figure in it.” In Dr. Funk’s view, Jesus “would have been appalled by it.”
  • In exalted titles. In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to himself in exalted “I am” statements. He says “I am the bread of life,” “the light of the world,” “the resurrection and the life” (John 6:48; 8:12; 11:25). Throughout John, Jesus stresses his preexistence and preeminence. “Before Abraham was, I AM,” he says (John 8:58). ”I and My Father are one” (John 10:30). The Jesus Seminar does not think Jesus viewed himself this way, says Marcus Borg, a critical scholar and seminar member. “In the judgment of the seminar (and of most mainstream scholarship since the last century),” he writes, “Jesus did not speak that way.” Dr. Funk says the seminar scholars almost unanimously feel that Jesus “didn’t think of himself as divine.”
  • About the Second Coming. The Gospels record Jesus’ insistence that he would return to set up the kingdom of God on earth (Matthew 24:29-31; Luke 21:25-27). Most seminar participants do not think Jesus expected to return. “The Jesus Seminar thinks he didn’t speak of the coming of the Son of Man at all,” said Dr. Borg. Almost all the Fellows (97 percent) believe Jesus did not expect to return or usher in a new age “either now or in the distant future,” says Dr. Funk.
  • Referring to fulfilled Scriptures. The Gospel writers have Jesus apply several Hebrew scriptures to his life and ministry (Luke 4:16-21; John 5:39-46). The Jesus Seminar rejects these as words put on the lips of Jesus. Dr. Funk says, “The Christian community culled the Hebrew Scriptures for proof that Jesus was truly the Messiah.” The Gospel writers, especially Matthew, made “the event fit the prophecy.”

Were Jesus’ teachings changed?

The seminar believes most of Jesus’ statements and teachings as reported in the Gospels are inaccurate. The Gospels are called “gilded portraits” of Jesus. This premise, the seminar points out in its Gospel of Mark, is “shared by all critical scholars of whatever theological persuasion.”

Did the Gospel writers create their own fake Jesus narratives and statements, or did they faithfully preserve his teaching? The question is of more than casual academic interest. If the Gospel writers perpetrated a theological hoax, their Gospels would not be “gospel truth.” How could they be the word of a God who does not lie? (Titus 1:2).

Suppose, as the seminar maintains, the Gospel writers created Jesus’ sayings. Let us say for argument’s sake the seminar has discovered the almost inaudible voice of the true “historical Jesus” amidst the cacophony of purported faked conversations and bogus narratives in the Gospels.

What are the consequences to us of a Jesus who had no concept of dying for humanity’s sins; did not found his church; did not think of himself as divine? On what basis can the Christian hope of the resurrection and salvation be established?

Consider the implication of just one seminar claim—that Jesus did not announce his return to set up the kingdom of God on earth. If this claim were true, it would put the Christian hope in serious jeopardy. The Bible links the resurrection of the dead and salvation with Jesus’ return (see Matthew 24:29-31; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).

We need to know whether the Gospels are the true word of God or the fraudulent words of men. The Jesus Seminar, of course, does not think the biblical Gospels are the word of God. Dr. Borg writes in The Fourth R, ”The gospels are human documents, not ‘divine’ documents.” Like other Christian writings and creeds, the Gospels are “human products” and should not be “accorded divine status.”

“There is a price one pays” for considering the Gospels as purely human products, admits Dr. Borg. The consequence is that “there are no divinely guaranteed formulations of truth.” According to Dr. Borg, “The Gospels are seen as the developing tradition of the early Christian community” and “reflect the viewpoints of their authors” and “the Christian communities for which they spoke.”

The Gospel writers, however, repudiate these notions. They claim to have accurately portrayed Jesus’ life and teaching.

John a trustworthy witness

The writer of the Gospel of John claims he was an eyewitness of all the teachings and circumstances of Jesus’ life that he writes about. He maintains his Gospel is a true account of Jesus’ thoughts and words.

John said of himself and his Gospel: “He who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth” (John 19:35). A second time he says: “This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24).

John was there when Jesus spoke and worked; he knew Jesus personally. In a letter to the church, John wrote of this Jesus “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled” (1 John 1:1).

John, in this same epistle, when speaking of Jesus, insists that he and the others “have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (verse 2). John maintained that he wrote a true testimony of Jesus’ words and works: “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you” (verse 3).

Mark knew eyewitnesses

As a teenager, Mark may even have seen and heard Jesus. The Gospel of Mark refers to “a certain young man” who followed the arrested Christ and then fled (Mark 14:51-52). Many scholars think that this story, which plays no role in the Gospel and is not found in any other Gospel, is a cryptic reference to the author.

Mark clearly had access to Jesus’ teachings through these important eyewitnesses when writing his Gospel. For this reason, we can have confidence in what Mark reported of Jesus’ words, teachings and life.

The Gospel of Mark was written by an individual who may have been only a partial witness to Jesus’ life and teachings. Should this invalidate his Gospel account? Mark was intimately associated with the apostles and eyewitnesses. He was the cousin of Barnabas, a co-worker with Paul (Colossians 4:10) and is further identified as John Mark in Acts 12:12.

Robert H. Stein, professor of New Testament at Bethel Theological Seminary, points out that Mark “lived in Jerusalem and his home was a center of the early church.” Because of this, “He was no doubt privy to much eyewitness testimony,” writes Dr. Stein.

The Bible tells us Mark was closely associated with the apostle Paul in preaching the gospel message (Acts 12:25; 13:5; 15:36-39). Mark is called a fellow laborer with Paul (Philemon 24). At the end of his life, Paul instructs Timothy: “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). As well, a close relationship existed between the apostle Peter and Mark, evidenced by Peter’s reference to him as “my son” (1 Peter 5:13).

The Gospels and us

The witnesses to Jesus’ life and their associates affirm
that they correctly passed on Jesus’ teachings to us.
Can we believe their testimony?
Where do we stand if we disbelieve?

Jesus did not write any of the Bible. Neither does the risen Christ speak directly to all the church today. We live about 2,000 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry ended. We don’t have tape recordings of what Jesus said. We may even lack the exact wording of his teaching.

Of course, the issue is not over exact words or whether the Gospels contain Jesus’ precise statements. The issue is whether the Gospels give us God the Father’s word as taught by Jesus and as faithfully described and applied by his authorized representatives, the apostles and their co-workers.

We cannot run and hide from our dependence on those who wrote the New testament Gospels. They are unique individuals in the history of the church. These writers saw Jesus’ mighty works and heard his words, or they worked closely with people who had. Only these individuals were in a position to pass on to us the correct Jesus traditions.

Those who had been with Jesus in the flesh, such as the original apostles, said they witnessed his words and teaching. Because they saw and heard Jesus, they believed (John 20:24-29). But what about those living after the apostolic age—perhaps in our day? On what basis can we believe? Jesus said of us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (verse 29).

We have not personally heard Jesus teach what is written in the Gospels. We did not experience his miracles. We did not observe his crucifixion and resurrection. Nor can we prove in a scientific sense that they occurred. We are called on to believe without having seen what we must believe in.

What are we to do? We must see Jesus Christ through the writings of the eyewitnesses and their associates. We have the choice of either believing or rejecting what the witnesses and their co-workers said of Jesus. If we spurn their testimony, we have no foundation or authority for what we believe as Christians. It is that simple.

Critical scholars do not accept the claims of the witnesses or Gospel writers. They want corroborating, scientific proof. Robert W. Funk, the Jesus Seminar’s founder, says the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions about Jesus’ words are not determined “by prior religious convictions, but by the evidence.” Seminar member Marcus Borg writes, “One cannot settle historical questions by ‘belief.’“

However, there is no escaping belief. All attempts at a ‘scientific,’ critical-historical analysis of Jesus’ teachings must ultimately fail. Everyone begins with certain beliefs about what could or could not happen.

By what test can we determine whether Jesus arose from the dead? Or that the disciples talked with the risen Jesus? Or that Jesus’ miracles occurred? Or that statements in the Hebrew Scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus’ life? No scientific, historical or critical analysis can discover to everyone’s satisfaction the yea or nay of such things.

Judging the Bible through human logic forces critical scholars into circular reasoning. They must first decide what they think Jesus taught or how he spoke. For example, would he talk about a climactic end of the age? Or would he predict his own death? Then the seminar analyzes the Gospels to see if they fit the portrait of Jesus it has constructed.

The Gospel writers do not ask us to enter into this spiral of intellectual uncertainty. They simply say to individuals through the ages: Put your confidence in what we have said about Jesus.

John said he knew he was telling the truth about Jesus (John 19:35). Luke said his account was an accurate one (Luke 1:1-3). Matthew and Mark also present their Gospels as faithful reflections of the teachings and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Do we have the spiritual ears to believe what they wrote—to believe God directed their witness? (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21).

Luke used eyewitness testimony

The author of the Gospel of Luke probably was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ life and teachings. Luke, however, puts forth strong reasons why we should consider his Gospel trustworthy. He said his Gospel is solidly based on the teachings of “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2). Luke also claimed to have had “perfect understanding of all things from the very first” (verse 3). Because of this, Luke felt qualified to write “an orderly account” of the teachings “most surely believed” among members of the church (verses 3 and 1).

In Acts, Luke commented further on his purpose for writing his Gospel: to deal with “all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up” to heaven (Acts 1:1-2, emphasis ours).

Luke was the equivalent of our modern investigative reporter. According to Acts 21:15 through 27:2, Luke spent considerable time in Judea. He had ample time and opportunity to investigate what he wrote about Jesus. Luke could have referred to various written documents and oral reports detailing the teachings and circumstances of Jesus’ life. As well, he no doubt consulted witnesses and church leaders at the church in Jerusalem.

Luke traveled with Paul and would have known what Paul taught. (Notice the references to “we” and “us” in Acts 16:11-15 and 20:6-16, for example.) He was Paul’s “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) and a fellow laborer (Philemon 24). Luke stood by Paul to the end during his final persecution at Rome, even though others fled (2 Timothy 4:11).

We should consider that Luke’s Gospel was researched and written more than 1,900 years closer to Jesus’ life than were the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar. Whose testimony has the advantage of proximity to apostolic times? The reader can have confidence that Luke based his Gospel on the true apostolic witness to Jesus’ teachings.

Early church teachings

Clearly, the Gospel writers did not create spurious “Jesus sayings.” Nevertheless some critical biblical scholars, such as the Jesus Seminar members, argue that the early church created Jesus’ sayings to justify its teachings.

If this argument were valid, “We would expect to find those needs reflected and dealt with in the Gospels,” writes New Testament scholar Robert Stein in The Synoptic Problem. This need for justification would be, he says, especially true regarding “the most important religious issues that the early church faced.”

The most volatile issue would have concerned the physical circumcision of gentile converts. “If the early church was creating gospel traditions to meet its religious needs,” wrote Dr. Stein, “one would expect to find something on this subject.”

However, no “circumcision materials” exist in the Gospels. The four Gospels contain only a single reference to circumcision, and it doesn’t deal with the controversy in the church (John 7:22-23). The lack of circumcision material in the Gospels is evidence “in favor of the view that the church tended to transmit the Jesus traditions faithfully,” Dr. Stein points out.

On the other hand, the book of Acts deals with the circumcision controversy in detail. The apostles and elders even meet to decide this question (Acts 15:1-29). However, no “Jesus sayings” are cited to justify their decision that gentiles did not need to be circumcised.

A careful reading of Acts shows the church’s teaching on circumcision does not rely on the sayings of Jesus. No “Jesus proof texts” are cited. The church acts in Jesus’ name and by his authority, but does not invent any sayings to prove their point.

Bible scholar Thorlief Boman has observed that there are 24 speeches in the book of Acts. These account for about 300 of Acts’ 1,007 verses. In these speeches, there is only a single saying of Jesus (Acts 20:35). This lack of Jesus’ sayings and stories demonstrates, says Dr. Boman, “that the church did not create sayings of Jesus and read them back upon the lips of Jesus.”

In the words of British biblical scholar, George B. Caird, there is “not one shred of evidence that the early church ever concocted sayings of Jesus in order to settle any of its problems.”

For further reading:

  • Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth(InterVarsity, 1995).
  • Darrell Bock, “The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?” in Jesus Under Fire (edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland; Zondervan, 1995).
  • Richard B. Hays, “The Corrected Jesus, ”First Things 43 (May 1994): 43-48.

Paul Kroll, 1992

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