The Gospels: 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.”

Articles about the four Gospels

For articles about specific chapters within the Bible, see

“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).

Author: Paul Kroll, 1992

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