The Rebuttal Evidence

Is the Jesus of History the Same As the Jesus of Faith?

It happens all the time on Perry Mason reruns and in paperback novels, but it's extremely rare in real-life legal dramas. So when an eyewitness in a murder trial refused to point out the defendant as the slayer and instead confessed that he was the killer, the entire courtroom was stunned—and I had an amazing story for the Chicago Tribune.

Richard Moss was accused of shooting a nineteen-year-old Chicagoan to death outside a northwest-side tavern. Moss's lifelong friend, Ed Passeri, was called to the witness stand to describe the altercation that led to the slaying. Passeri painted the scene that occurred outside the Rusty Nail Pub, and then the defense attorney asked him what happened to the victim. Without blinking, Passeri replied that after the victim stabbed him with a pair of scissors, "I shot him." The court transcribers jaw dropped open. Prosecutors threw up their hands. The judge immediately halted the proceedings to advise Passeri of his constitutional right against self-incrimination. And then the defendant got on the stand to say yes, that's right-—-it was Passeri who committed the crime.

"What Passeri did [by confessing] was an act of raw courage,'' crowed the defense attorney. But prosecutors were unconvinced. "What courage?" asked one of them. "Passeri knows he's not running the risk of prosecution, because the only evidence the state has points to Richard Moss!"

Still overwhelmingly persuaded of Moss's guilt, prosecutors knew they had to present strong testimony to controvert Passeri's claim. In legal terminology, what they needed was "rebuttal evidence," defined as any proof that's offered to "explain, counteract, or disprove" a witness's account. The next day, prosecutors questioned three other eyewitnesses who said there was no doubt that it was Moss who had committed the slaying. Sure enough, based on this and other evidence, the jurors found Moss guilty.

Prosecutors did the right thing. When the overpowering strength of the evidence clearly pointed toward the guilt of the defendant, they were wise to be skeptical of an essentially unsupported assertion made by someone with a vested interest in helping his friend.

Can the Jesus Seminar Be Refuted?

How does this legal concept of rebuttal evidence fit into my investigation of Jesus?

Now that I had heard powerfully convincing and well-reasoned evidence from the scholars I questioned for this book, I needed to turn my attention to the decidedly contrary opinions of a small group of academics who have been the subject of a whirlwind of news coverage.

I'm sure you've seen the articles. In recent years the news media have been saturated with uncritical reports about the Jesus Seminar, a self-selected group that represents a minuscule percentage of New Testament scholars but that generates coverage vastly out of proportion to the group's influence.

The Seminar's publicity-sawy participants attracted the press by voting with colored beads on whether they thought Jesus said what the gospels quote him as saying. A red bead meant Jesus undoubtedly said this or something like it; a pink bead meant he probably said it; a gray bead meant he didn't say it but the ideas are similar to his own; and a black bead meant he didn't utter these words at all. In the end they concluded Jesus did not say 82 percent of what the gospels attribute to him. Most of the remaining 18 percent was considered somewhat doubtful, with only 2 percent of Jesus' sayings confidently determined to be authentic. Craving controversy and lacking the expertise to scrutinize the Seminars methodology, journalists devoted fountains of ink to the story. Then the Seminar published The Five Gospels, containing the four traditional gospels plus the questionable Gospel of Thomas, with Jesus' words color-coded to match the groups findings. Flip through it and you find expanses of black type but precious little in red. For example, the only words in the Lord's Prayer that the Seminar is convinced Jesus said are "Our Father."

But I wanted to go beyond the headlines and to unearth, as commentator Paul Harvey likes to say, "the rest of the story." I needed to know if there was any credible rebuttal evidence to refute these troubling and widely publicized opinions. Were the Jesus Seminar's findings solidly based on unbiased scholarly research, or were they like Passeri's ill-fated testimony: well meaning but ultimately unsupported? 

For answers, I made the six-hour drive to St. Paul, Minnesota, to confer with Dr. Gregory Boyd, the Ivy League—educated theology professor whose books and articles have challenged the Jesus Seminar head-on.


Boyd first clashed with the Jesus Seminar in 1996, when he wrote a devastating critique of liberal perspectives of Jesus, called Cynic Sage or Son of God? Recovering the Real Jesus in an Age of Revisionist Replies. The heavily footnoted, 416-page tome was honored by readers of Christianity Today as one of their favorite books of the year. His popular paperback Jesus under Siege continues the same themes on a more introductory level.

Boyd's other books include the award-winning Letters from a Skeptic, in which he and his then-doubting father wrestle through tough issues involving Christianity (culminating in his father becoming a committed Christian), and God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict. In addition, he was a contributing scholar to The Quest Study Bible, which was designed for people who are asking intellectual questions about the Christian faith.

After receiving a bachelors degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota, Boyd earned a master of divinity degree (cum laude) from Yale University Divinity School and a doctorate (magna cum1 laude) from Princeton Theological Seminary.

He is not, however, a stereotypical ivory tower intellectual. With wavy black hair, a wiry frame, and a wry smile, Boyd looks like the academic counterpart of comedian Howie Mandell. And like Mandell, he is pure kinetic energy. Words gush from him like water from a ruptured pipe. He spins out sophisticated ideas and theological concepts at a dizzying rate. He fidgets, he gestures, he squirms in his chair. There's no time to tuck in his shirt all the way, to file the flurry of papers strewn about his office, or to shelve the books that sit in untidy stacks on his floor. He's too busy thinking, debating, questioning, wondering, dreaming, contemplating, inventing—and tackling one project after another.

In fact, one career can't contain him. In addition to his position as professor of theology at Bethel College, he's also a pastor at Woodland Hills Church, where his passionate preaching has helped attendance grow from forty-two in 1992 to twenty-five hundred today. This real-world environment helps anchor him in the reality of everyday life.

For fun, he debates atheists. He grappled with the late Gordon Stein on the topic "Does God Exist?" He and pastor-turned-skeptic Dan Barker sparred over "Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?" And in a program sponsored by the Islamic Center of Minnesota, he challenged a Muslim on the issue "Is God a Trinity?" Boyd's agile mind, quick wit, empathy with people, and deep reservoir of biblical and philosophical knowledge make him a formidable foe.

What's more, he blends popular culture and serious scholarship as well as anyone I know. He knows football as well as footnotes. He can start a sentence with an offhand observation about a new movie and end it with a stratospheric reference to a profound philosophical conundrum. He's as comfortable reading Dilbert or watching Seinfeld as he is writing his impressive book Trinity and Process; A Critical Evaluation and Reconstruction of Hartshorne's Di-Polar Theism towards a Trinitarian Metaphysics.

His casual and colloquial style (what other biblical scholar gets away with words like "funky" and "wacko"?) quickly made me feel at home as we squeezed into his second-floor office. It was soon clear that Boyd was wound up and ready to go.


Writings from the Radical Fringe

I decided to start from the perspective of the average consumer of news. "People pick up a magazine or newspaper, read the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, and assume that this represents the mainstream of New Testament scholarship," I said. "But is that really the case?"

"No," he said, looking as if he had just bitten into something sour. "No, no, that's not the case. But you're right-—-people get that impression."

He rocked in his chair until he got comfortable enough to tell a story. "When Time came out with its first major article on the Jesus Seminar," he said, "I happened to be in the process of talking about Christianity with a guy whom I was building a relationship with. He was very skeptical by nature and quite inebriated with New Age ideas. We had a mutual friend who was hospitalized, and when I went to visit him, this other guy was already there, reading Time. As I walked into the room, he said to me, 'Well, Greg, it looks like the scholars disagree with you,' and he threw the magazine at me!"

Boyd shook his head in both sadness and disbelief. "You see, that article gave him the reason to stop taking me seriously. Even though he knew I was a scholar, he interpreted this article as saying that the majority of scholars-—-at least, those who aren't wacko fundamentalists —hold these views."

I could empathize with Boyd's story, having heard too many people equate the Jesus Seminar with all scholars. "Do you think that impression is an accident?" I asked.

"Well, the Jesus Seminar certainly portrays itself that way," Boyd replied. "In fact, this is one of its most irritating facets, not just to evangelicals but to other scholars as well. If you look at their book The Five Gospels, they give seven pillars of scholarly wisdom, as if you must follow their methodology if you're going to be a true scholar. But a lot of scholars, from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, would have serious reservations about one or even most of these pillars. And the Jesus Seminar calls its translation of the Bible 'The Scholars Version'—well, what does that imply? That other versions aren't scholarly?"

He paused for a moment, then cut to the core of the issue. "Here's the truth," he said. "The Jesus Seminar represents an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking. It does not represent mainstream scholarship. And ironically, they have their own brand of fundamentalism. They say they have the right way of doing things, period." He smiled. "In-the name of diversity," he added with a chuckle, "they can actually be quite narrow."

Discovering the "Real" Jesus

"At least," I said, "the participants in the Jesus Seminar have been very up-front about their goals, haven't they?"

"Yes, that's right. They're explicit in saying they want to rescue the Bible from fundamentalism and to free Americans from the naive belief that the Jesus of the Bible is the 'real' Jesus. They say they want a Jesus who's relevant for today. One of them said that the traditional Jesus did not speak to the needs of the ecological crisis, the nuclear crisis, the feminist crisis, so we need a new picture of Jesus. As another one said, we need 'a new fiction.' One of the twists is that they're going directly to the masses instead of to other scholars. They want to take their findings out of the ivory tower and bring them into the marketplace to influence popular opinion. And what they have in mind is a totally new form of Christianity."


The idea of a new Jesus, a new faith, a new Christianity, was intriguing. "So tell me about this Jesus that people from the Jesus Seminar have  discovered," I said. "What's he like?"

"Basically, they've discovered what they set out to find. Some think he was a political revolutionary, some a religious fanatic, some a wonder worker, some a feminist, some an egalitarian, some a subversive —there's a lot of diversity," he said.

Then he zeroed in on the key issue. "But there is one picture that they all agree with: Jesus first of all must be a naturalistic Jesus. In other words, whatever else is said about him, Jesus was a man like you or me. Maybe he was an extraordinary man, maybe he tapped into our inherent potential as nobody else ever has, but he was not supernatural. So they say Jesus and his early followers didn't see him as God or the Messiah, and they didn't see his death as having any special significance. His crucifixion was unfortunate and untimely, and stories about his resurrection came later as a way of trying to deal with that sad reality."

Giving Evidence a Fair Hearing

I stood and strolled over to his bookshelf as I formulated my next question. "OK, but you personally have faith that Jesus was resurrected, and maybe your faith taints your viewpoint too much," I said. "The Jesus Seminar paints itself as being on an unbiased quest for truth, as compared with religiously committed people-—-people like you-—-who have a theological agenda."

Boyd turned in his seat to face me. "Ah, but that's not what's really going on," he insisted. "The participants of the Jesus Seminar are at least as biased as evangelicals—and I would say more so. They bring a whole set of assumptions to their scholarship, which of course we all do to some degree. Their major assumption—which, incidentally, is not the product of unbiased scholarly research-—-is that the gospels are not even generally reliable. They conclude this at the outset because the gospels include things that seem historically unlikely, like miracles—walking on water, raising the dead. These things, they say, just don't happen. That's naturalism, which says that for every effect in the natural or physical world, there is a natural cause."

"Yeah, but isn't that the way people typically live their lives?" I asked. "Are you saying we should be looking for supernatural explanations behind everything that takes place?"

"Everyone would agree that you don't appeal to supernatural causes if you don't have to," Boyd said. "But these scholars go beyond that and say you don't ever have to. They operate under the assumption that everything in history has happened according to their own experiences, and since they've never seen the supernatural, they assume miracles have never occurred in history. Here's what they do: they rule out the possibility of the supernatural from the beginning, and then they say, 'Now bring on the evidence about Jesus.' No wonder they get the results they do!"

I wanted to turn the tables a bit. "All right, then how would you proceed?" I asked.

"I would grant that you shouldn't appeal to the supernatural until you have to. Yes, first look for a natural explanation. I do that in my own life. A tree falls-—OK, maybe there were termites. Now, could an angel have pushed it over? Well, I wouldn't go to that conclusion until there was definite evidence for it. So I grant that. But what I can't grant is the tremendous presumption that we know enough about the universe to say that God—if there is a God— can never break into our world in a supernatural way. That's a very presumptuous assumption. That's not a presumption based on history; now you're doing metaphysics. I think there should be a certain amount of humility in the historical investigation to say, 'You know what? It is just possible that Jesus Christ did rise from the dead. It's just possible that his disciples actually saw what the gospels say they saw.' And if there's no other way of accounting adequately for the evidence, let's investigate that possibility. That, I think, is the only way to give the evidence a fair hearing."

Critiquing the Criteria

"To come up with their conclusion that Jesus never spoke most of the words in the gospels, members of the Jesus Seminar used their own set of assumptions and criteria. But are these standards reasonable and appropriate? Or were they loaded from the outset, like dice that are weighted so they yield the result that was desired all along? There are multiple problems with their assumptions and criteria," Boyd began in analyzing the groups approach. "For instance, they assume that the later church put these sayings into the mouth of Jesus, unless they have good evidence to think otherwise. That assumption is rooted in their suspicion of the gospels, and that comes from their assumption that the supernatural can't occur.

Historians usually operate with the burden of proof on the historian to prove falsity or unreliability, since people are generally not compulsive liars. Without that assumption we'd know very little about ancient history. The Jesus Seminar turns this on its head and says you've got to affirmatively prove that a saying came from Jesus. Then they come up with questionable criteria to do that. Now, it's OK for scholars to use appropriate criteria in considering whether Jesus said something. But I'm against the idea that if Jesus doesn't meet these criteria, he must not have said it. That kind of negative conclusion can be a problem."

Dealing in this theoretical realm was starting to bring more murkiness than clarity for me. I needed some concrete examples so I could follow Boyd's point. "Talk about some of the specific criteria they used," I said.

"One is called double dissimilarity," he replied. "This means they can believe Jesus said something if it doesn't look like something a rabbi or the later church would say. Otherwise they assume it got into the gospels from a Jewish or Christian source. The obvious problem is that Jesus was Jewish and he founded the Christian church, so it shouldn't be surprising if he sounds Jewish and Christian! Yet they've applied this criterion to reach the negative conclusion that Jesus didn't say a whole lot. Then there's the criterion of 'multiple attestation,' which means we can only be sure Jesus said something if it's found in more than one source. Now, this can be a helpful test in confirming a saying. However, why argue in the other direction—-if it's only found in one source, it's not valid? In fact, most of ancient history is based on single sources. Generally, if a source is considered reliable—and I would argue that there are plenty of reasons to believe that the gospels are reliable—it should be considered credible, even if it can't be confirmed by other sources. Even when Jesus' sayings are found in two or three gospels, they don't consider this as passing the multiple attestation criterion. If a saying is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they consider that only one source, because they assume that Matthew and Luke used Mark in writing their gospels. They're failing to recognize that an increasing number of scholars are expressing serious reservations about the theory that Matthew and Luke used Mark. With this line of thinking, you can see why it's extremely difficult to prove multiple attestation."

Boyd started to go on, but I told him he had already made his point: loaded criteria, like weighted dice, inevitably bring the results that were desired from the beginning.

Jesus the Wonder Worker

One approach taken by naturalistic scholars has been to look for parallels between Jesus and others from ancient history as a way of demonstrating that his claims and deeds were not completely unique. Their goal is to explain away the view that Jesus was one of a kind.

"How do you respond to this?" I asked Boyd. "For example, there were ancient rabbis who did exorcisms or prayed for rain and it came, so some scholars have said Jesus was merely another example of a Jewish wonder worker. Do those parallels hold up?"

I was about to see Boyd the debater in action as he responded point by point to a complex issue without the benefit of notes. I was glad I was taping our conversation; my note taking would never have kept up with his rapid-fire delivery.    

"Actually, the parallels break down quickly when you look more closely," he began, picking up speed as he went. "For one thing, the sheer centrality of the supernatural in the life of Jesus has no parallel whatsoever in Jewish history. Second, the radical nature of his miracles distinguishes him. It didn't just rain when he prayed for it; we're talking about blindness, deafness, leprosy, and scoliosis being healed, storms being stopped, bread and fish being multiplied, sons and daughters being raised from the dead. This is beyond any parallels. Third, Jesus' biggest distinctive is how he did miracles on his own authority. He is the one who says, 'If I, by the finger of God, cast out demons, then the kingdom of God is among you' —he's referring to himself. He says, 'I have been anointed to set the captives free.' He does give God the Father credit for what he does, but you never find him asking God the Father to do it—he does it in the power of God the Father. And for that there is just no parallel. This goes right along with the different way Jesus talked about himself—'all authority has been given to me,' 'honor me even as you honor the Father,' 'heaven and earth shall pass away but my word will not pass away.' You don't find rabbis talking like this anywhere."

Having been on the receiving end of that quick burst of arguments, I said with a chuckle, "So what's your point?" Boyd laughed. "Any parallels with wonder-working rabbis," he said, "are going to be very, very stretched."

Jesus and the Amazing Apollonius

I wasn't going to let Boyd's debating skills intimidate me. I decided to raise a more difficult issue:….the seemingly stronger parallels between Jesus and a historical figure named Apollonius of Tyana.

"You know the evidence as well as I do," I said to Boyd. "Here's someone from the first century who was said to have healed people and to have exorcised demons; who may have raised a young girl from the dead; and who appeared to some of his followers after he died. People point to that and say, Aha! If you're going to admit that the Apollonius story is legendary, why not say the same thing about the Jesus story?'"

Boyd was nodding to indicate he was tracking with me. "I'll admit that initially this sounds impressive," he said. "When I first heard about Apollonius as a college student, I was really taken aback. But if you do the historical work calmly and objectively, you find that the alleged parallels just don't stand up."

I needed specifics, not generalities. "Go ahead," I said. "Do your best to shoot it down."

"OK. Well, first, his biographer, Philostratus, was writing a century and a half after Apollonius lived, whereas the gospels were written within a generation of Jesus. The closer the proximity to the event, the less chance there is for legendary development, for error, or for memories to get confused. Another thing is that we have four gospels, corroborated with Paul, that can be cross-checked to some degree with nonbiblical authors, like Josephus and others. With Apollonius where're dealing with one source. Plus the gospels pass the standard tests used to assess historical reliability, but we can't say that about the stories of Apollonius. On top of that, Philostratus was commissioned by an empress to write a biography in order to dedicate a temple to Apollonius. She was a follower of Apollonius, so Philostratus would have had a financial motive to embellish the story and give the empress what she wanted. On the other hand, the writers of the gospel-had nothing to gain—and much to lose-—-by writing Jesus' story, and they didn't have ulterior motives such as financial gain. Also, the way Philostratus writes is very different than the gospels. The gospels have a very confident eyewitness perspective, as if they had a camera there. But Philostratus includes a lot of tentative statements, like 'It is reported that...' or 'Some say this young girl had died; others say she was just ill.' To his credit, he backs off and treats stories like stories. And here's a biggie: Philostratus was writing in the early third century in Cappadocia, where Christianity had already been present for quite a while. So any borrowing would have been done by him, not by Christians. You can imagine the followers of Apollonius seeing Christianity as competition and saying, 'Oh, yeah? Well, Apollonius did the same things Jesus did!' Sort of like, 'My dad can beat up your dad!' One final point. I'm willing to admit that Apollonius may have done some amazing things or at least tricked people into thinking he did. But that doesn't in any way compromise the evidence for Jesus. Even if you grant the evidence for Apollonius, you're still left with having to deal with the evidence for Christ."

Jesus and the "Mystery Religions"

OK, I thought to myself, let's give this one more try. A lot of college students are taught that many of the themes seen in the life of Jesus are merely echoes of ancient "mystery religions," in which there are stories about gods dying and rising, and rituals of baptism and communion. "What about those parallels?" I asked.

"That was a very popular argument at the beginning of the century, but it generally died off because it was so discredited. For one thing, given the timing involved, if you're going to argue for borrowing, it should be from the direction of Christianity to the mystery religions, not vice versa. Also, the mystery religions were do-your-own-thing religions that freely borrowed ideas from various places. However, the Jews carefully guarded their beliefs from outside influences. They saw themselves as a separate people and strongly resisted pagan ideas and rituals."


To me, the most interesting potential parallels were the mythological tales of gods dying and rising. "Aren't those stories similar to Christian beliefs?" I asked.

"While it's true that some mystery religions had stories, of gods dying and rising, these stories always revolved around the natural life cycle of death and rebirth," Boyd said. "Crops die in the fall and come to life in the spring. People express the wonder of this ongoing phenomenon through mythological stories about gods dying and rising. These stories were always cast in a legendary form. They depicted events that happened 'once upon a time.' Contrast that with the depiction of Jesus Christ in the gospels. They talk about someone who actually lived several decades earlier, and they name names—crucified under Pontius Pilate, when Caiaphas was the high priest, and the father of Alexander and Rufus carried his cross, for example. That's concrete historical stuff. It has nothing in common with stories about what supposedly happened 'once upon a time.' And Christianity has nothing to do with life cycles or the harvest. It has to do with a very Jewish belief-—-which is absent from the mystery religions-—about the resurrection of the dead and about life eternal and reconciliation with God.


"As for the suggestion that the New Testament doctrines of baptism or communion come from mystery religions, that's just nonsense. For one thing, the evidence for these supposed parallels comes after the second century, so any borrowing would have come from Christianity, not the other way around.

And when you look carefully, the similarities vanish. For instance, to get to a higher level in the Mithra cult, followers had to stand under a bull while it was slain, so they could be bathed in its blood and guts. Then they'd join the others in eating the bull. Now, to suggest that Jews would find anything attractive about this and want to model baptism and communion after this barbaric practice is extremely implausible, which is why most scholars don't go for it."


Secret Gospels and Talking Crosses

As disorderly and disorganized as his office was, Boyd's mind was sharp and systematized. His analysis of these much touted parallels left little room for doubt. So I decided to advance to another area that the media often write about: the "new discoveries" that ate often the subject of books by Jesus Seminar participants.

"There has been a lot written in the popular press about the Gospel of Thomas, Secret Mark, the Cross Gospel, and Q," I said. "Have there really been any new discoveries that change the way we should think about Jesus?"

Boyd sighed in exasperation."No, there are no new discoveries that tell us anything new about Jesus, The Gospel of Thomas was discovered long ago, but it's only now being used to create an alternative Jesus. Some theories about the Gospel of Thomas may be new, but the gospel itself is not. As for Q, it's not a discovery but a theory that has been around for one and a half centuries, which tries to account for the material that Luke and Matthew have in common. What's new is the highly questionable way that left-wing scholars are using their presuppositions to slice this hypothetical Q into various layers of legendary development to back up their preconceived theories. I knew that John Dominic Crossan, perhaps the most influential scholar in the Jesus Seminar, has made some strong claims about a gospel called Secret Mark. In fact, he asserts that Secret Mark may actually be an uncensored version of the gospel of Mark, containing confidential matters for spiritual insiders. Some have used it to claim that Jesus was actually a magician or that a number of early Christians practiced homosexuality. This conspiratorial scenario has captured the media's imagination.

"What proof is there for this?" I asked Boyd.

His answer came quickly. "None," he said.

Though he apparently didn't see the need to elaborate, I asked him to explain what he meant.

"You see, we don't have Secret Mark," he said. "What we have is one scholar who found a quote from Clement of Alexandria, from late in the second century, that supposedly comes from this gospel. And now, mysteriously, even that is gone, disappeared. We don't have it, we don't have a quote from it, and even if we did have a quote from it, we don't have any reason to think that it has given us any valid information about the historical Jesus or what early Christians thought about him. On top of that, we already know that Clement had a track record of being very gullible in accepting spurious writings. So Secret Mark is a nonexistent work cited by a now nonexistent text by a late second-century writer who's known for being naive about these things. The vast majority of scholars don't give this any credibility. Unfortunately, those who do get a lot of press, because the media love the sensational."

Crossan also gives credence to what he calls the Cross Gospel. "Does that fare any better?" I asked.

"No, most scholars don't give it credibility, because it includes such oudandishly legendary material. For instance, Jesus comes out of his tomb and he's huge—he goes up beyond the sky—-and the cross comes out of the tomb and actually talks! Obviously, the much more sober gospels are more reliable than anything found in this account. It fits better with later apocryphal writings. In fact, it's dependent on biblical material, so it should be dated later."

Unlike the overwhelming majority of biblical experts, the Jesus Seminar has accorded extremely high status to the Gospel of Thomas, elevating it to a place alongside the four traditional gospels. In chapter 3 Dr. Bruce Metzger strongly criticized that position as being unwarranted.

I asked Boyd for his opinion. "Why shouldn't Thomas be given that kind of honor?"

"Everyone concedes that this gospel has been significantly influenced by Gnosticism, which was a religious movement in the second, third, and fourth centuries that supposedly had secret insights, knowledge, or revelations that would allow people to know the key to the universe. Salvation was by what you knew—gnosis is Greek for 'know,'" he said. "So most scholars date the Gospel of Thomas to the mid-second century, in which it fits well into the cultural milieu. Let me give you an example: Jesus is quoted as saying, 'Every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.' That contradicts the attitude that we know Jesus had toward women, but it fits well with the Gnostic mind-set. However, the Jesus Seminar has arbitrarily latched onto certain passages of the Gospel of Thomas and has argued that these passages represent an early strand of tradition about Jesus, even earlier than the canonical gospels. Because none of these passages include Jesus making exalted claims for himself or doing supernatural feats, they argue that the earliest view of Jesus was that he was only a great teacher. But the whole line of reasoning is circular. The only reason for thinking these passages in Thomas are early in the first place is because they contain a view of Jesus that these scholars already believed was the original Jesus. In truth there is no good reason for preferring the second-century Gospel of Thomas over the first-century gospels of the New Testament."   

History Versus Faith

The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith: the Jesus Seminar believes there's a big gulf between the two. In its view the historical Jesus was a bright, witty, countercultural man who never claimed to be the Son of God, while the Jesus of faith is a cluster of feel-good ideas that help people live right but are ultimately based on wishful thinking.

"There's not just a gulf between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith," Boyd said as I brought up this subject. "If you discredit everything that says Jesus is divine and reconciles people with God, there's an outright contradiction between the two. Generally speaking, they define the Jesus of faith this way: there are religious symbols that are quite meaningful to people-—-the symbol of Jesus being divine, of the cross, of self-sacrificial love, of the Resurrection. Even though people don't really believe that those things actually happened, they nevertheless can inspire people to live a good life, to overcome existential angst, to realize new potentialities, to resurrect hope in the midst of despair—-blah, blah, blah."

He shrugged his shoulders. "Sorry," he said, "I've heard this stuff so much, it comes out my ears! So these liberals say historical research can't possibly discover the Jesus of faith, because the Jesus of faith is not rooted in history. He's merely a symbol," Boyd continued. "But listen: Jesus is not a symbol of anything unless he's rooted in history. The Nicene Creed doesn't say 'We wish these things were true.' It says, 'Jesus Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and the third day he rose again from the dead,' and it goes on from there. The theological truth is based on historical truth. That's the way the New Testament talks. Look at the sermon of Peter in the second chapter of Acts. He stands up and says, 'You guys are a witness of these things; they weren't done in secret. David's tomb is still with us, but God has raised Jesus from the dead. Therefore we proclaim him to be the Son of God.' Take away miracles and you take away the Resurrection, and then you've got nothing to proclaim. Paul said that if Jesus wasn't raised from the dead, our faith is futile, it's useless, it's empty."

Boyd stopped for a moment. His voice dropped a notch, from preaching mode to an intense expression of personal conviction.

"I don't want to base my life on a symbol," he said resolutely. "I want reality, and the Christian faith has always been rooted in reality. What's not rooted in reality is the faith of liberal scholars. They're the ones who are following a pipe dream, but Christianity is not a pipe dream."

Combining History and Faith

We had spent a lot of time talking about the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar —a symbolic Jesus, but one who's impotent to offer the world anything except the illusion of hope. But before we left; I wanted to hear about the Jesus of Gregory Boyd. I needed to know whether the Jesus he researches and writes scholarly books about as a theology professor is the same Jesus he preaches about in his church on Sunday mornings.

"Let me get this straight," I said. "Your Jesus-—the Jesus you relate to—is both a Jesus of history and a Jesus of faith."

Boyd clenched his fist for emphasis, as if I'd just scored a touchdown. "Yes, that's it exactly, Lee!" he exclaimed. Moving to the very edge of his chair, he spelled out precisely what his scholarship—and his heart—have brought him to believe. It's like this: if you love a person, your love goes beyond the facts of that person, but it's rooted in the facts about that person. For example, you love your wife because she's gorgeous, she's nice, she's sweet, she's kind. All these things are facts about your wife, and therefore you love her. But your love goes beyond that. You can know all these things about your wife and not be in love with her and put your trust in her, but you do. So the decision goes beyond the evidence, yet it is there also on the basis of the evidence. So it is with falling in love with Jesus. To have a relationship with Jesus Christ goes beyond just knowing the historical facts about him, yet it's rooted in the historical facts about him. I believe in Jesus on the basis of the historical evidence, but my relationship with Jesus goes way beyond the evidence. I have to put my trust in him and walk with him on a daily basis."

I interrupted to say, "Yes, but will you acknowledge that Christianity makes some claims about Jesus that are just plain hard to believe?"

"Yes, of course I do," he replied. "That's why I'm glad we have such incredibly strong evidence to show us they're true.

"For me," he added, "it comes down to this: there's no competition. The evidence for Jesus being who the disciples said he was—-for having done the miracles that he did, for rising from the dead, for making the claims that he did—-is just light-years beyond my reasons for thinking that the left-wing scholarship of the Jesus Seminar is correct. What do these scholars have? Well, there's a brief allusion to a lost 'secret' gospel in a late-second-century letter that has unfortunately only been seen by one person and has now itself been lost. There's a third-century account of the Crucifixion and Resurrection that stars a talking cross and that less than a handful of scholars think predates the gospels. There's a second-century Gnostic document, parts of which some scholars now want to date early to back up their own preconceptions. And there is a hypothetical document built on shaky assumptions that is being sliced thinner and thinner by using circular reasoning."

Boyd flopped back in his chair. "No, I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head. "I don't buy it. It's far more reasonable to put my trust in the gospels—which pass the tests of historical scrutiny with flying colors —than to put my hope in what the Jesus Seminar is saying."

A Chorus of Criticism

Back at my motel, I mentally played back my interview with Boyd. I felt the same way he did: If the Jesus of faith is not also the Jesus of history, he's powerless and he's meaningless. Unless he's rooted in reality, unless he established his divinity by rising from the dead, he's just a feel-good symbol who's as irrelevant as Santa Claus.

But there's good evidence that he's more than that, I had already heard well-supported eyewitness, documentary, corroborating, and scientific evidence supporting the New Testament claim that he is God incarnate, and I was getting ready to hit the road again to dig out even more historical material about his character and resurrection.

Meanwhile Greg Boyd isn't a lone voice crying out against the Jesus Seminar. He's part of a growing crescendo of criticism coming not just from prominent conservative evangelicals but also from other well-respected scholars representing a wide variety of theological backgrounds.

An example was as close as my motel's nightstand, where I reached over to pick up a book called The Real Jesus, which I had recently purchased. Its author is Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, the highly regarded professor of New Testament and Christian origins at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University. Johnson is a Roman Catholic who was a Benedictine monk before becoming a biblical scholar and writing a number of influential books.

Johnson systematically skewers the Jesus Seminar, saying it "by no means represents the cream of New Testament scholarship," it follows a process that is "biased against the authenticity of the gospel traditions," and its results were "already determined ahead of time." He concludes, "This is not responsible, or even critical, scholarship. It is a self-indulgent charade."

He goes on to quote other distinguished scholars with similar opinions, including Dr. Howard Clark Kee, who called the Seminar "an academic disgrace," and Richard Hayes of Duke University, whose review of The Five Gospels asserted that "the case argued by this book would not stand up in any court."

I closed the book and turned off the light. Tomorrow I'd resume my hunt for evidence that would stand up.


Questions for Reflection or Group Study

Have you read news accounts of the Jesus Seminars opinions? What was your response to what was reported? Did the articles give you the impression that the Seminars findings represent the opinions of the majority of scholars? What dangers do you see in relying on the news media in reporting on issues of this kind?

As you conduct your own investigation of Jesus, should you rule out any possibility of the supernatural at the outset, or should you allow yourself to consider all the evidence of history, even if it points toward the miraculous as having occurred? Why?

Boyd said, "I don't want to base my life on a symbol. I want reality. ..." Why do you agree or disagree? Is it enough that Jesus is a symbol of hope, or is it important for you to be confident that his life, teachings, and resurrection are rooted in history? Why?

For Further Evidence

More Resources on This Topic

Boyd, Gregory A. Cynic Sage or Son of God? Recovering the Real Jesus in an Age of Revisionist Replies, "Wheaton, BridgePoint, 1995.

Jesus under Siege. Wheaton, Victor, 1995.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Real Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

Wilkins, Michael J., and J. P. Moreland, eds. Jesus under Fire. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.






Keith Hunt (July  2014)