Jesus Seminar

Someone wrote to me:

For their presuppositions to be valid, the Jesus Seminar must prove them and support them with scholarly sources. They have nothing to support their presuppositions. A true scholar does not base his or her work on speculation. A true scholar bases his or her work on source material. That is why I cannot consider the work of the Jesus Seminar serious historical scholarship. Actually, the more I read of New Testament criticism the more I wonder how anyone can take it seriously. Much of their arguments is based on the theory that a document they call Q existed. Yet, they have found not a single ancient manuscript of the Q (for Quella= German for source) document.

Very disappointing.

First, you persist in calling the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar “presuppositions”, as if they were prejudices pulled out of the hat. While it is true, that The Five Gospels does not go into a great deal of justification for the criteria they used, I am sure that you know of any number of scholarly works which to make the arguments for them. If I were to write a book on Calculus, I wouldn’t go back and provide the proofs for all the Algebra theorems that underlie that subject.

In a previous article, you claimed that none of the members of the Jesus Seminar were historians. I don’t know whether this is actually true or not. However, there are historians who make similar judgements on the authenticity of scripture (including E. P. Sanders who considers a number of sayings of Jesus to be actually those of the Christian community).

Finally, we know from the testimony of Luke himself that he did research and gathered material for his book. He witnessed nothing himself. It is plain to see that Luke borrowed much from Mark. What was the source of his other material? Some of the additional material is shared with Matthew. If Matthew was written when the text critics say it was (late), then Matthew had sources too. It seems reasonable that material common to Matthew and Luke come from a common source which was given the name “Q”. (Luke has additional material as well, beyond Mark and what is in Matthew.)

Since there are no autographs of any New Testament book, and since there was this matter of the destruction of Jerusalem, the absence of this document Q (as well as a Hebrew version of Matthew and any number of other works we know from Eusebius–but are lost) is not so incredible.

In case anyone was mislead by your remark, I mention that “Q” is not an invention of the Jesus Seminar. I don’t who coined “Q”, but Dr. James Moffatt discusses it as if it were fact in the introduction to his translation of the Bible in 1922. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes the “Q” hypothesis as “widely accepted” though “still challenged”.

Now I would like to propose an argument from primary sources that the Gospel writers did put their own words in Jesus’ mouth to meet the needs of their particular situation.

First I mention the background fact that there were followers of John the Baptist who where in competition with Christianity in the early years.

Next, look at this text, which for argument’s sake we will call “authentic” from the earliest Gospel to be written, Mark:

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side. [Mark 8:11-13 NRSV]

I mentioned Mark being the earliest, because we know that the saying is “longer” in the later Gospels (either because the writers added something in the light of their understanding of Jesus after the resurrection, or their sources were more complete). But the addition of the phrase about “the sign of Jonah” is not what I want to discuss here. The contrasting scripture that I want to mention is:

So John [the Baptist] summoned two of his disciples and sent then to talk to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or we are to wait for another?” … And he [Jesus] answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” [Luke 7:20-22 NRSV]

I guess I needn’t belabor the point.


A defense of the Seminar by one of its members, Robert J. Miller, is available on the web.

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