Ever since our Lord ascended to the right hand of the Father there’ve been wolves lurking about in sheep costumes attempting to discredit not only the Gospels but the entire New Testament in general. These smart alecks have come up with all sorts of ways to inform Christians that they’re not savvy enough to read between the verses and separate fact from fiction like they can. Sadly, their arrogant boldness does gain them notoriety for a while. But like a thunderstorm they generate a lot of wet noise and then dissipate while God’s Holy Word continues to stand intact and unscathed long after their brief rendezvous with fame has ended. The world’s all-time best-selling book has been viciously attacked more than any other in literature yet the truth and wisdom contained in its pages is as powerful and life-changing today as ever before. Countless numbers of people will gladly testify that reading the Bible or hearing the Scriptures being preached is what led them to Jesus and that no amount of criticism or ridicule from intellectual snobs can detract from the difference Christ has made in their once-empty lives. And that’s because what and how God’s Word speaks to them takes place on an intensely personal level. It’s a uniquely profound, one-on-one experience a saved individual finds impossible to explain using words or gestures alone. A believer knows in their heart and their mind that the Gospels reveal the truth and nobody has the wherewithal to alter their belief. Alas, that doesn’t stop those who are spiritually blind from trying over and over again to rip the Bible to pieces.
The most notable of recent attempts to revamp God’s Word was the Jesus Seminar. It was a self-selected group of liberal scholars and laymen that got together in 1985 to “clarify matters” concerning our Lord once and for all. They knew hogging the spotlight was crucial to their cause so they grabbed the attention of the media by announcing they’d vote on the validity of what Christ purportedly said using colored beads. A red bead meant a particular quote was pretty much genuine. A pink one indicated He might’ve uttered it while gray meant He most likely didn’t say it and a black bead signified they deemed it a blatant fib. Not surprisingly, they concluded Jesus didn’t say 82% of what the Gospels attribute to Him. Furthermore, while they did concede 2% of His quotes seemed fairly authentic, they openly admitted they had serious doubts about the remaining 18% as a whole. The secular press ate that junk up like it was a box of free Mars bars. In 1993 the Jesus Seminar published The Five Gospels, a book that contained Matthew, Mark, Luke and John plus the dubious Gospel of Thomas with Jesus’ words color-coded according to the seminar’s sovereign decrees. Needless to say, the printer didn’t have to use up much red ink. A representative example of their handiwork is their take on the Lord’s Prayer. The only part of it they’re convinced Jesus actually said is “Our Father…” While my knee-jerk reaction is to call it hogwash and dismiss them outright as a gang of misguided fantasists I must refrain from doing that because there are gullible folks out there who took the bait and swallowed it whole. As Christians we must be ready to defend God’s Word with patience, gently-administered logic and love. Colossians 4:6 reads, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone.” In other words, we need to respond kindly to their accusations, no matter how wild, using common sense and rock-solid truth.
When magazines like Time and Newsweek published their respective articles about the findings of the Jesus Seminar (giving it front page prominence) it gave lots of borderline Christians and agnostics a handy excuse to no longer take evangelists like Billy Graham and even revered writers like C.S. Lewis seriously. The media’s extravagant coverage manufactured the false impression that the seminar’s participants represented the vast majority of modern theologians when the exact opposite was true. The Jesus Seminar was made up of nothing more than a relatively small cadre of radical-fringe scholars out on the extremities of the far left branch of New Testament thinking, nowhere near mainstream scholarship. They’d announced from the get-go their aim was to unbind the Bible from the restraints of fundamentalism and free the American public from the “naïve” belief that the Jesus of their parents and grandparents was the “real” Jesus. They wanted to present an updated profile of Jesus. One that was more “relevant” to the pressing issues of the day aka the ecological crisis, the nuclear problem, equal rights, etc. And, lo and behold, they somehow accomplished what they set out to do! Now, not everyone in the bunch was in complete agreement. Some thought Christ was a political revolutionary, some a religious fanatic, some a con artist in a Superman costume, some a feminist, and some just a subversive troublemaker. What they did collectively concur, though, was that Jesus was a naturalist. That meant He was a male of the human species and nothing more. Extraordinarily talented? Yes. Charismatic? Yes. Really, really smart? Yes. God incarnate? No way. They claimed that neither He nor his followers considered Him the Messiah for a second, that He’s dead as a doornail and the tall tale about His resurrection was just a way for His disciples to deal with their abject grief. Wow.
The Jesus Seminar touted its pristine objectivity and complete lack of bias as being unprecedented in a field they considered filled with arrogant Scripture fanatics who had an overly-conservative, stodgy theological agenda to uphold. Ironically, it turned out they were just as intolerant as the evangelicals they were chastising – if not more. All of them had already decided the Gospels were basically unreliable, flat out ignoring the overwhelming evidence to the contrary (see my last five essays). Why did they do that? Because they firmly believed there has to be a rational cause for every effect in the natural or physical world. Weird stuff like instantaneous healings, walking on water, raising the dead and such simply don’t happen. Therefore they didn’t. Their assumption was that, since nobody in their entourage of geniuses had ever seen or experienced anything supernatural, miracles were but figments of primitive, uneducated imaginations. Nothing closed-minded about adopting that position, is there? Heck, it’s not even scientific because serious research never imposes limits on itself! While a supernatural explanation should be the last resort, it should also never be ruled out completely – especially when one is dealing with God. To assume an omnipotent deity can’t intervene in our world is an illogical contradiction. One either believes there’s a God or that there isn’t a God at all. To accept that there is one and then arbitrarily put constraints on Him is ludicrous. But that, in essence, is what the Jesus Seminar did!
It’s imperative we believe the Gospel writers wrote down precisely what they saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. To exclude the possibility the apostles were being totally honest about what they witnessed belies a debilitating lack of humility on the part of the researcher. Dr. Gregory Boyd opined, “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.” It’s as if the Jesus Seminar folks demanded archaeologists procure for them a certified authentic tape-recording of Christ preaching or they wouldn’t trust He said anything at all. For example, they relied on a criteria they called “double dissimilarity.” That meant they could only believe a Jesus quote was the real McCoy as long as it didn’t sound like something a rabbi or church leader would say. If they deemed that was the case they’d automatically attribute it to being added to the text by a Jewish or Christian source. But Jesus was Jewish. He founded the Christian church. So of course what He said sounded Jewish or Christian! Duh. They also leaned heavily upon criteria known as “multiple attestation.” That means they insisted on having more than a single source before bestowing their seal of approval upon any of the Savior’s quotations. Well, that’s nuts. Most of ancient history is based on single sources! Double duh. And they didn’t stop there. They’d throw out anything Jesus said that’s duplicated in Matthew, Mark or Luke (further hamstringing themselves) because of their unwarranted assumption Matthew and Luke plagiarized Mark. To them that designated Mark a sole source! Triple duh.
Naturalistic scholars also imply Jesus’ miraculous deeds weren’t unique. They point out that, since ancient rabbis reportedly performed exorcisms or made it rain by praying, Christ was just another Jewish wonder worker. That theory falls apart quickly when you consider (A) the sheer centrality of the supernatural in the life of Jesus is absolutely unparalleled in Jewish history. (B) The divine nature of His miracles sets Him apart drastically from all others in that He did unprecedented things like curing blindness, deafness, and leprosy. He calmed raging seas. He fed thousands with a few slices of bread and a couple of trout. He brought Lazarus back to life after four days. There’s no comparison. And (C) He performed His miracles on His own authority. He never failed to give the glory to His Heavenly Father but He also never asked His Heavenly Father to do it for Him. Because Jesus was God He had all the power in the universe at His fingertips. Show me a single instance where any wonder working rabbi ever said “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18) and I’ll eat my Stetson. There’s no one on a par with Jesus. Not even close.
Some may bring up a historical figure named Apollonius of Tyana and insist there’s hardly any difference between him and Jesus. He lived during the 1st century, he reportedly healed people, exorcised evil spirits, brought a girl back to life and even appeared to some of his peeps after he died. A critic will say that if we’re to claim Jesus was God then we must grant the same courtesy to Apollonius. Yet if they’ll take the time to do a little investigating they’ll soon drop the subject altogether. His biographer, Philostratus, wrote about him 150 years after the fact whereas the Gospels were penned within a generation of Christ’s ascension. Plus, as I’ve shown in previous essays, the data in the four Gospels isn’t only corroborated by Paul but by non-Christian historians like Josephus. With Apollonius there’s just one solitary source. The New Testament texts can be verified by employing the tried-and-true technique of cross-checking. Not only that, but Philostratus got paid handsomely for his trouble by a rich empress who was a devotee of Apollonius so any spectacular embellishments he threw into the biography would’ve no doubt been okay with her. Dr. Boyd said, “On the other hand, the writers of the Gospel had nothing to gain – and much to lose – by writing Jesus’ story.” Last but not least, Philostratus did his work in the early 3rd century in Cappadocia, a place where Christianity had been around for decades so any “borrowing” would’ve been done by him, not by Christians. And here’s this: Few have heard of Apollonius but it’s difficult to find anyone who hasn’t heard of Christ and it ain’t because Jesus has a better press agent.
A hard-core cynic will likely wave you off at this juncture and say something akin to “Look, all ancient cultures had some sort of “mystery religion” of their own that included fantastic tales of gods dying and rising. Why can’t you see Christianity comes from the same superstition-sated mindset?” It’s important to keep in mind that all those myths were preserved in the form of legends, depicting events that occurred “once upon a time.” In contrast, the Jesus of the Gospels was a flesh-and-blood man who hadn’t been gone long when His story was told. In addition, the writers included names of folks like Pilate, Caiaphas, Herod and many other notables who were certainly not fictional characters. There’s no hint anything the Gospels describe happened “once upon a time.”
After the Jesus Seminar published its findings many of the participants took advantage of the hoopla and wrote books of their own about the Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Mark, the Cross Gospel, “Q” and other related items. A few weeks ago I blogged and offered proof the Gospel of Thomas has been thoroughly discounted by the overwhelming majority of respected scholars because of its oddness and inconsistencies. As for the Secret Mark, one of the more prominent leaders of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, asserted it’s an uncensored version of Mark’s Gospel that contains “hidden truths” only certain special “insiders” have been anointed to comprehend. It supposedly alleges that Jesus was actually a skilled magician and that he had no problem with homosexuality. The key word is supposedly because there is no Secret Mark. Crossan cites an obscure quote from Clement of Alexandria (who lived in the late 2nd century) that may have come from this lost gospel but, strangely, Clement’s quote can’t be located, either. That’s the kind of hearsay-based “research” we’re dealing with here. The Cross Gospel indicts itself via its own outrageousness. For instance, it claims Jesus came out of the grave a giant that towered above the clouds and the wooden cross He was crucified on then emerged from the tomb and spoke! Right. “Q” exists in theory only as an alternative way to explain the similarities in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Until somebody finds a copy it’ll remain in the realm of unsubstantiated speculation.
None of this is new. Take Gnosticism. It was a religious movement that arose during the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries built around what its adherents believed to be secret insights, knowledge or revelations that would unlock the mysteries of the universe. Since the word gnosis is Greek for “know” they thought salvation came via what you were able to mentally savvy. It’s surmised by scholars that the Gospel of Thomas came about because of this sect’s beliefs, not to fortify the truth in the original four Gospels. But the Jesus Seminar latched onto it like barnacles on a tugboat’s hull and presented it as hard evidence Christ was simply a gifted teacher who never said He was God. However, they were never able to give any compelling reasons why it should be considered more accurate (or even why it belongs in the same league) as the other Gospels. They just labeled it as being uber-important because they wanted it to be uber-important. Boyd said, “In their 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. These liberals say historical research can’t possibly discover the Jesus of faith because the Jesus of faith isn’t rooted in history. He’s merely a symbol.” But they’re so far off-base it ain’t even funny. They don’t get it. If Jesus isn’t rooted in history then He’s not a symbol of anything. The Nicene Creed doesn’t say, “We hope all this is true,” rather it declares unequivocally that Christ lived, was crucified, rose from the dead and now reigns supreme over all creation.
I don’t know for sure but I’m not acquainted with anyone who intentionally bases their spiritual life or their soul’s future on a symbol. Me? I insist on reality and, while I wasted decades looking to other religions and beliefs for reality, none of them sounded or felt as real as what I learned about Christ from God’s Word. Christianity isn’t a futile exercise in chasing a dreamy utopia. It’s rooted in verifiable facts about Jesus, the person who was both God and man. Thus my Lord and Savior is the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. As for the Seminar, when’s the last time you heard anything about it? It broke up in 2006 and no one even noticed it missing. Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University opines that right from the start it was “biased against the authenticity of the gospel traditions” and its findings “already determined ahead of time.” His expert conclusion was “this was not a responsible, or even critical, scholarship. It was a self-indulgent charade.” Dr. Howard Clark Kee called it “an academic disgrace.” As for me, it’s further confirmation that the foolishness of man always fades while God’s truth always endures.