Last year when our congregation hosted the School of Christian Growth, one class struggled with issues that had been raised by the Jesus Seminar. I don’t even think that most people know what the Jesus Seminar is, much less what has come out of the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar was started in 1985 with thirty Biblical scholars and has grown to over 200 experts in biblical studies. It started under the auspices of the Westar Institute. The seminar meets twice a year to debate technical papers that have been prepared and circulated in advance. The goal was plain and simple, “Fined out and determine what Jesus really said.” This goes beyond just the literal words to include the substance and style of his utterances.
It is far to easy for us to say, what more needs to be looked at, for it is in the Bible and all is said and done. Those who joined the quest of the Jesus Seminar knew that their process would border on the sacred and even abut blasphemy to many in the Christian world. But the benefits of knowing the historical Jesus outweighed the risk. They knew that the fundamentalist would generate a climate of inquisition and distrust. That scholars would have difficulty being honest with their judgements. That many would cry heresy!
To get at the historical Jesus, three things would have to be done. The divine (God side) of Jesus has to be put to the side and cannot be considered. Please understand, that doesn’t mean that they don’t believe that Jesus is God, it simply means they are not going to try to prove it or disprove it. Faith will not be a consideration. One cannot prove or disprove faith. Rom 10:17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. Faith becomes a part of our belief system with issues we cannot prove but believe. Thirdly, they could not limit themselves to only the Bible. If they were to get at the truth they could not rely on the assumption that the Bible was the inspired word and contained all of the information. Again, that didn’t mean that they didn’t believe that the Bible was the inspired word, what it meant was that they would have to find the facts without relying upon believing that it was inspired.
I will never forget my first Bible class in college. Dr. Coker was a real scholar who challenged his students to think. Above all THINK! He asked me, how did we get the Bible? “God dictated and man wrote.” He didn’t like my answer, because it was all based on faith and little reality.
Isaiah wrote, “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD (Isa 1:18). It is a challenge from the word of God to think. God has never been afraid of humanity obtaining knowledge. Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, not to keep knowledge from them but sin. In the Tower of Babel knowledge was not the problem, arrogance was. Paul writes to the young Timothy (2 Timothy 2:15) and challenges him to “study to show himself approved.” For some reason we see education and faith in conflict with each other. That somehow knowledge destroys our belief in God. John 8:32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
I think there are two reasons for this discomfort of challenging the Bible. One, we put our faith in the Bible rather than the God of the Bible. The sole purpose of the Bible is to teach us the stories of God. Without even realizing it some of us make the Bible our God rather than allowing it to simple point us toward God. John 5:39 Jesus said You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. The second reason is that somehow if we find out differently, it will force us to change what we believe. If what we believe is wrong, we need to change it. However, with all the education that I have received I have only found that it reenforces what I know to be true.
What have we learned from the Jesus Seminar? Of the 176 events recorded in the Gospels, the Seminar concluded that 16% without a doubt actually took place by Jesus. Now at first hearing that you will think that 16% sounds awfully low! Think about it, over 200 scholars, some of the most critical and picky professionals, are in agreement on 16% of the Gospel stories. That validates the existence of Jesus.
We have known for some time that there was a 5th Gospel that we called “Q”. This “Quelle” source becomes evident when we parallel the four gospels. Mark the oldest of the gospel clearly had a source that he was copying from. Matthew and Luke, clearly used both Q and Mark when they wrote their respective gospels. We have never known what happened to that writing or who wrote it. None of our original Christian documents dates back more than a 1,000 years. We have copies of copies. Best thought had the writing of Q connected to Peter. The research of the Jesus Seminar is leaning toward the theory that Jesus himself left some written record in Greek, maybe Q.
For years, non-Christian sources have challenged the belief of the resurrection of Christ. The theory was that the body of the man named Jesus was simply stolen from the grave by some Christians. In what they call the “Post-Easter Jesus” the Seminar concludes that what happened to the body in the grave is moot when there is verification of Jesus being alive following the entombment. The Bible is emphatic on the empty tomb and that was more to point out that He was alive (even though they did not understand how).
Open dialog has never hurt anyone. The year is 1887. The scene is a small neighborhood grocery store. A middle-aged gentleman is in the store buying some turnip greens. He gives the clerk a $20 bill and she starts to put the $20 bill in the cash drawer to give him his change. Then the clerk looks down at her fingers and she notices some of the ink from the $20 bill is coming off on her fingers which are wet because she’s been wrapping those turnip greens. And she looked up at Mr. Nenger. Here’s a man she’s known for years.
She looks down at the $20 bill. She’s shocked. She wonders to herself, “Is this man giving me a counterfeit $20 bill?” And then she discounts it almost immediately because Emanuel Nenger is an old and trusted friend. So she says, “No, he wouldn’t do that.” So she gives him his change and he goes on his way. But $20 is an awful lot of money in 1887 and so she decides to contact the police. They get a search warrant; they look through Emanuel Nenger’s home. Up in his attic they find the facilities for reproducing $20 bills. The facilities are rather simple. It’s an artist’s easel, paint brushes and paints Emanuel Nenger is laboriously, stroke by stroke, hand-painting those $20 bills. You see, he was in fact, a master artist. And while they were up there they found three portraits that Emanuel Nenger had painted. They sold those portraits at public auction for a little over $16,000. That’s over $5,000 per portrait. But here’s the irony — it took him almost the same length of time to paint a $20 bill that it took him to paint a $5,000 portrait. Yes, Emanuel Nenger was quite a thief, wasn’t he? He was a thief who was stealing from himself. Anytime we try to take the short-cuts; anytime we try to break the law, we end up stealing from ourselves.
A faith worth having is a faith worth testing. A God of truth can not and will not be proven wrong. If God is God, God can defend Himself, and doesn’t need any assistance.