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.) Continue reading

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(Mark 8:12 NRSV) And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.”

The Bible is a subject that seems to lead to extreme positions: either the Bible is perfect, or it is worthless. What I would like to do in this essay is to explore why people take the extreme position and to explain why the doctrine of inerrancy is actually a sign of the lack of faith rather than a sign of strong faith. An inerrant scripture is the sign demanded by those who cannot believe without proof. To call a belief in biblical inerrancy a sign of a lack of faith would seem to be paradoxical at the outset. Nevertheless, much of Christianity is paradoxical (one gains ones life by losing it, love ones enemies, God became human…). The value of paradox is that it cannot be simply understood and filed away, but rather it continues to goad one to thought.

Where does faith come from? Scripture says that faith is created by the Holy Spirit in the believer.

(Phil 2:13 NRSV) for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

When someone tries to create faith all by themselves [for more on this, see my article on Do it Yourself Faith], they are unable to make the real thing, and to compensate they replace faith with reason. If one wishes to trust God through their own efforts, then they must try to find evidence that bolsters that faith. These attempts are rampant in Christianity today, and they largely consist of attempts to give the Bible external authority. Examples are the pseudo-sciences called “Flood Geology” and “Creation Science” which attempt to fabricate evidence of things which support a literal and historical reading of the Old Testament origin stories in Genesis. Another is the misrepresentation of the level of agreement among Greek New Testament manuscripts (and some fables about Erasmus, the editor of the first published Greek New Testament). There are incredibly contrived interpretations of scripture to mask contradictions (e.g. the two accounts of the death of Judas), and even some questionable Bible translations (e.g., the NIV). Now even more esoteric faith crutches have appeared in the guise of statistical fallacies used to suggest that secret messages are somehow found by picking every 4,712th (for example) letter in the Pentateuch.

All of these are attempts to artificially create evidence for God by creating faith in an inerrant book from which God is then a logical conclusion.

(John 20:29 NRSV) Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

In classic Protestant theology, saving faith comes as the activity of the Holy Spirit working in conjunction with the external Word of God (which may be scripture or may be preaching whose foundation is scripture). However, scripture alone has no effect. From this, I would conclude that one who bases his faith in God on his faith in scripture (and that faith in scripture based on some miraculous quality of the text–like inerrancy, fulfilled prophecy, hidden messages, miraculously preserved manuscripts or anything else) is trying to reach God on his own merit rather than relying on the Cross of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

At this point, one usually says: “Yes, but we only know of the Cross of Jesus through the Bible,” and this is true. But we do not “know” that the Bible speaks truly of Jesus except by faith, and this faith is the creation of the Spirit rather than the creation we make by arguing about the external qualities of Scripture itself.

Let me be blunt here: if one bases his faith on God on faith in Scripture, then Scripture is primary and God becomes secondary; that is, Scripture takes the place of God.

Scripture is of immense value, but God must come first.

One mailing list writer put it this way:

Of course God is in control. But I think you’re taking some things for granted that ought not be taken for granted. I think you’re looking for security in the wrong place.

I believe that the Bible is the word of God. But I don’t think it’s a user’s guide and service manual that comes with the creation. It wasn’t handed down from heaven gilt-edged, leather-bound, in the King James Version, as some people seem to believe. It doesn’t give us definitive answers to all our questions or satisfy our curiosity.

The Bible is a remarkable collection of writings the tell us about who we are, and who God is, and what kind of relationship we have. The important things are crystal clear. I believe that God speaks to people through the words of the Bible, and is revealed in these writings. But our trust and confidence must be in God, not in the writings, in the Person, not the Book. We don’t have the kind of security that says, “Now I possess the Truth, now I have all the answers.”

The Bible introduces us to a loving God, and to Jesus Christ our Savior, and invites us to put our trust in this God and in this Savior. If we try to put our trust in our own knowledge or understanding, these things will disappoint us. God does puzzling and inexplicable things, but ultimately does not disappoint us. Rather, God keeps on surprising us with good things of which we never dreamed.

God’s revelation is incarnational. “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” God became incarnate in a human being. God’s infallible truth comes to us incarnate in the Scriptures, that fallible collection from various authors, written over a span of more than a thousand years, that reflects the human limitations of the writers. God’s Good News has come to us in a fallible Church. God uses imperfect people, books, and institutions, and through them accomplishes his loving purpose. God redeems that which is imperfect, just as he redeems sinful human beings and transforms them. As we experience the love and grace of God, we also are set free to be loving and gracious.

It’s that “old Adam” in us that makes us think, “I don’t want to be forgiven, I want to be *right*. I don’t want to be redeemed, I want to *win*!” That’s our pride speaking. It’s very liberating to finally understand that when we think like that, we’re on the wrong track. We’ll never save ourselves. Only God can do it. It is accomplished in Christ. Deo gracias.

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The Letter Kills

(2 Cor 3:6 NASB) …who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

John, chapter 3, describes the visit under cover of darkness by a Jewish leader named Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born again”, but Nicodemus takes Jesus literally and asks how can an adult crawl back into the womb. Jesus expected some flexibility in thinking as he says: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The legacy of Nicodemus is alive and well in Christianity, and this literal mindedness is the single greatest threat to the movement that Jesus started. Continue reading

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How I became a Christian


I became a Christian at age 9. It was a fairly easy choice. I saw what Christians were and I wanted to be one of them. It was a good start. I joined the Southern Baptist Church that my family attended. I participated and was active.


The Baptist Church is often characterized by emotion-charged religious experience, tearful episodes of repentance and the like. I didn’t have those and here self-doubt set in. It seemed that following Jesus just wasn’t enough. You could be “saved” but you also had to “know that you were saved” and you hadn’t arrived unless “Jesus sat on the throne of your heart” (pamphlet and diagram supplied). And if you managed that, you still had to have the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit”. It seemed that there was this endless stream of obligations, experiences, commitments and achievements that were required in order to follow Jesus. The Christian seemed in a state of perpetual shortcoming (the word is “sin”, by the way.)

I kept things under uneasy control for years, but I found myself struggling against what my church was doing. I cringed with fear every time I took the Lord’s supper and heard the story of people who had died for taking it unworthily (1 Cor. 11:29-31). I was emotionally at war with the church, the Bible and God — even though I was working to support them all. Continue reading

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The All-Male Priesthood

I wanted to make some comments about the requirement made by some Christian denominations (notably the Catholic and Orthodox) that their priests (ministers, pastors) be exclusively male.

I suppose that we begin with the historical fact that Jesus, his disciples called “The Twelve”, the other named New Testament writers, bishops and the “church Fathers” were all male.

The question then is whether this fact is the result of selective reporting, cultural bias, or something significant from God. There is certainly ample support for the cultural bias theory, and it would seem to be the most likely candidate. However, can we find any scriptural support for the idea that “maleness” is related to the characteristics needed by a Priest?

The first argument that I would like to discuss goes like this…

“The Priest is an icon for Jesus Christ. Jesus was male. Therefore a Priest must also be male.”

I find this argument unconvincing because it (seemingly arbitrarily) picks one particular detail about Jesus from among many and makes this a criterion for a “good icon”. Jesus was born of a Virgin– should all priests have this characteristic also? He spoke Aramaic, he was born in Palestine, he walked on water, he loved children… Why is his maleness selected as a requirement and not the others? Continue reading

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This a topic about which I have written much both on USENET, mailing lists and IRC. It is a difficult topic to discuss because those with whom I’ve discussed it had strong opinions which were not really open to change. Nevertheless, out of conscience, I want to express my personal views on the subject here on my web site. Just as the racial bigotry I was brought up crumbled when I actually got to know people of other races, so did my views on homosexuality change when a friend came out of the closet.

The Bible and Homosexuality

A common response that I get from most religious people on this topic is, “What is there to discuss? The Bible is quite clear on the issue.” But from my viewpoint, the Bible is only clear for those who have already decided the answer. The reader at this point might bring to mind a number of verses from the Bible, and in particular from Leviticus and Romans. And I will discuss these here in general way.

What about Leviticus? The anti-homosexual texts in Leviticus appear in the same chapters as the dietary laws: no pork or shellfish. Now I would ask why someone would condemn homosexuality based on Leviticus on their way home from a nice shrimp dinner. I cannot think of any objective reason to pick one and discard the other prohibition. So, the Bible is clear only if the matter had already been decided. Continue reading

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I Don’t Know When Jesus is Coming, but Neither Do You

A few years ago I was pedaling my bicycle down a back road when a woman driving an old station wagon full of kids pulled up beside me, matched my speed, rolled down the window and shouted, “Do you know Jesus?” I shouted, “Yes,” at which the wagon began to pick up speed as the woman shouted back, “He’s coming soon!”

Whether God has a particular liking for years ending in “000,” or perhaps certain authors have discovered that there is money to be made writing books about the end times, there has been no shortage of speculation about the eminent end of the age and the second coming of Jesus, the technical term for which is “Parousia”.

The question which comes to me amid all this speculation is why people would venture a prediction in the light of all the failed predictions in the past. Are we so much smarter or so much more in tune with God than our forebears?

I guess the first misapprehensions about the return of Jesus date from the 1st century, some of which are recorded in the New Testament.

(Mat 16:27-28 NASB) “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and WILL THEN RECOMPENSE EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS. {28} “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” Continue reading

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In 1997-98 the Lutheran Church (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), the Reformed Church (RCA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) all approved resolutions aimed at mutual recognition and unity.

When proposals of this importance are made, there are arguments on both sides, and a lively discussion results. Reading these discussions has reminded me of the distinction made in American courts between the standards of proof in civil and in criminal cases. In civil cases one must show a “preponderance of evidence” to prevail; that is, my evidence must be more compelling than yours. In a criminal case there is a higher standard of proof (proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”) because under the criminal law, everyone is presumed innocent.

In the case of church unity, the discussions I have seen seem to be carried out under the rule of “preponderance of evidence”. I have seen unity weighed against things like quality of organizational structure, or doctrinal purity. But I would suggest that the clear command of Christ for unity (reiterated in the rest of the New Testament) is a mandate so strong that it takes the status of presumption. To discard Christ’s own commands in a Christian argument should require an incredibly persuasive argument–an argument which must establish its point “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Continue reading

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I Prefer Roses to Tulips

I’m no expert on Reformed theology, but I do know a couple of things: John Calvin was a smart fellow, and Reformed folks have this T.U.L.I.P thing:

Total Depravity
Total depravity means that human persons are entirely unable to do good works, to respond to God apart from his grace, or to please God.
Unconditional Election
Unconditional election means that God chooses to save whomever he wishes, irrespective of individual merit
Limited Atonement
Limited Atonement means that Jesus satisfied the punishment for all the sins of some people, and for none of the sins of the remainder.
Irresistible Grace
Irresistible grace means that if God elects you, you’re certainly going to respond and convert.
Perseverance of the Saints
Perseverance of the saints means that if God has in fact elected you, you will never fall away from the faith.

As I said, John Calvin was a smart fellow and he can read scripture as well or better than anybody, and Calvin determined that the reason some came to God and others didn’t was because God wanted it that way. A key point for Reformed theology is that God is sovereign. I won’t go through the exercise of deriving TULIP from scripture because it has been done already by those more knowledgeable than I. However, after TULIP has been proved by scripture, there remains a problem because it can also be disproved by scripture! Continue reading

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Animal Sacrifices

The Old Testament speaks over and over again in opposition to the infidelity of the Hebrews when it came to the worship of “foreign gods”. For this reason we know historically that there were influences from the surrounding peoples exerting pressure on the Hebrews. [For a thorough treatment, see The Gospel and its Tributaries by E. F. Scott, for example.] There are small but significant references to polytheism [Deuteronomy 32:7-9] and even to human sacrifice [Jeremiah 19:5]. [An aside: The Valley of Hinnom mentioned in Jeremiah 19:6 was called Gehenna in Jesus’ time and is one of the words translated “hell” in some versions of the Bible.]

In fact, if you read the accounts of primitive religions (for example the classic, The Golden Bough) you will see a pattern– a pattern of ritual practice (either by the people, a priest or a tribal leader) in an attempt to influence the gods for the purpose of gaining favor in the form of good weather, safety, fertility, etc. These attempts frequently involved sacrifices.

The fact that the Hebrews would go to the extreme of burning their children in an attempt to please God (something that God denies he decreed according to Jeremiah) is proof of just how powerful these primitive ideas are. And the fact that attempts to please the gods are pervasive in human culture, and the fact that the Hebrews were influenced by the cultures around them, shows that no “revelation from God” is necessary in order that the Hebrews might have such ideas in their own religion. [I think the important thing in understanding Hebrew religion is to seek out those points which are NOT LIKE the surrounding cultures.] Continue reading

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