Published December 1, 1999
Deal W. Hudson
Normally the average Catholic need not worry about a group of academicians who meet every year to discuss the “historicity” of the Gospels. These debates have been going on inside ivy walls for over a century. But with the recent national road-show of the Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 and led by Protestant scholar Robert W. Funk, we are witnessing more than innocuous speculation for the initiated few—we are witnessing a well-funded, public assault on the Jesus Christ held in faith by the Church.
For the past 15 years, the members of the Jesus Seminar, composed of a who’s who of colleges, universities, and seminaries, have met annually to vote on the words and deeds of Jesus they consider to be historically accurate. They have come to the conclusion that more than 82 percent of what he said in the four Gospels is not historically accurate. Of the deeds of Jesus in the Gospels, 176 in number, only ten are historical. Thus, Jesus was not resurrected from the dead and did not pray the Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus, as taught by the Jesus Seminar, is a not a Savior whose redemptive death is the way of our salvation but rather an ancient cynic philosopher with some interesting things to say about the importance of love and relationships. This message is something the “Jesus Seminar on the Road” is taking to the Christian layperson across the country. Its two-day seminars have or will be offered in California, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, British Columbia, Rhode Island, and Ohio. I became concerned about them when some Catholic friends of mine attended a seminar at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and came back very confused.
Everyone knows that our Protestant brethren are more savvy when it comes to matters of biblical authority and interpretation than average Catholics in the pew. Catholics, it seems to me, have a strong but vague reverence for the words of Scripture. They lack exposure to the direct attacks on the authority of Scripture, while being more familiar with the dissenters’ attacks on the authority of the Magisterium. What Catholics need to realize is that Catholic dissenters, having failed in their attack on the Magisterium, have now begun using the avenue of the scriptural controversies raised by the Jesus Seminar. The literature of dissent is becoming more and more steeped in the appeals to Scripture understood historically apart from the faith of the Church.
This strategy is most clever. At the heart of the scholarly debate is a blatant challenge to the centuries-old faith of the Church, and indeed the entire Christian community. These attacks, under the guise of scholarly pursuits, threaten to undermine the living and apostolic faith in the Per-son, Divinity, and mission of Christ; the Church He founded; and the authority of the pope.
If the consensus of the Jesus Seminar prevails, the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John will be dismissed as mythical elaborations of the real Jesus found in Mark and a hypothetical document known as “Q,” itself a controversial and much-debated document whose existence remains speculative.
At the heart of the debate is the question of whether Matthew and Luke rely on the Gospel of Mark and Q (the “Two-Source” theory). If Mark is the earliest Gospel and the source for the others, then something has to account for the presence in Matthew and Luke of what is not found in Mark, thus the necessity of Q.
The place given to Q as a source of Jesus’s sayings has led some scholars to accept the importance of the Gospel of Thomas, an apocryphal Gospel discovered in 1945 but written in the late-second to fourth century. Thomas, like Q, contains nothing about Jesus’s redemptive death and resurrection but rather absurd sayings, such as:
Simon Peter said to Him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
If the Jesus Seminar vision of Christianity were to prevail, we would be left with a very strange Jesus indeed. And in the name of scholarship and enlightenment, these scholars would leave us less in our Church and in our Faith than what they have left us of Jesus’s words and deeds.