The Jesus Seminar and the Reliability of the Gospels
The Jesus Seminar
The primary driving force behind the popular media’s present preoccupation with liberal views of Jesus has been the Jesus Seminar. This Seminar, first convened in 1985 by Robert Funk, is a gathering of 100 or so mostly liberal New Testament scholars who meet on a regular basis.
They have determined, by a process of voting with colored beads, that Jesus did not say 82% of what the Gospels attribute to him. Indeed, in their view, even the majority of the remaining 18% is somewhat doubtful. Only 2% of these sayings can confidently be said to be the actual words of Jesus. Their findings have been published in their work, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. The work includes a new (and sometimes controversial) translation of all the sayings of Jesus which they have decided to call the “Scholar’s Version.”
A Consensus of Scholarly Opinions?
One of the facets of the Jesus Seminar that has most irked scholars outside the Seminar, evangelical and non-evangelical alike, is their tendency to equate their opinions with what “scholars” in general hold to. Thus, for example, they call their new translation of Jesus’ sayings the “Scholar’s Version” of the Bible—as though previous translations were unscholarly! In the Introduction to The Five Gospels, the Seminar spells out what they call the “Seven Pillars of Scholarly Wisdom”—as though anyone who disagreed with these “pillars” was therefore not scholarly! As a matter of fact, however, a great many scholars, from a wide variety of persuasions, disagree with elements of this highly controversial list of “pillars.”
But what is most frustrating is the general way the participants sometimes represent themselves in their writings, and in the media. One sees this, for example, throughout The Five Gospels in which the words “scholar” and “scholarly” are always attached to the opinions of the Seminar, making it appear to the uninformed reader that they are representing what all New Testament scholars think on various issues. So also, in much of the media coverage we read phrases like “critical scholars have concluded,” and “scholars now realize” etc., giving the impression that these liberal scholars are representative of what most people who specialize in the field think.
They aren’t! Indeed, the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar participants, and of others getting the bulk of the media attention today, are usually representative only of the left-most fringe of New Testament scholarship. In the interest of getting the full story, you need to know this. And remember this the next time you read about what “scholars are saying” in your newspaper.
The Burden of Proof
Perhaps the most important of the controversial “Seven Pillars of Scholarly Wisdom” published in The Five Gospels is the assumption that the material in the Gospels is unreliable unless proven to be otherwise. (1) This has been a staple of liberal New Testament scholarship at least since the time of Rudolf Bultmann. It means that “scholarly wisdom” places the burden of proof on anyone who would want to say that Jesus actually said something the Gospels say he said. In other words, the starting assumption is that the Gospels are not historical unless proven otherwise. With such an approach, one is almost surprised to find that the Seminar didn’t conclude that the historical Jesus said absolutely nothing!
Now, a great deal of scholarly literature has been written on the issue of where the “burden of proof” should be placed as historians in general do their work. And, despite the presumptuous claims of the Jesus Seminar, the thrust of most of this literature is to argue that the “burden of proof” should generally lie on the part of the historian who wants to argue that what an ancient document is reporting is not true. (2) A historian, in other words, should generally have to prove that what an ancient document reports is wrong, not that what an ancient document reports is right.
The basic reasons for this is actually quite commonsensical. We generally assume that people are telling the truth unless we have good reasons to think otherwise, and there is simply no reason why this assumption should not be applied to ancient people as well. Indeed, were historians not willing to apply this common courtesy to ancient authors, most of our information about ancient history would have to be disqualified. If, for example, historians assumed that accounts in the writings of ancient historians like Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, or Livy could not be trusted until each account could be individually proven trustworthy, we’d have to conclude that we know next to nothing about ancient times!
There are times, of course, when historians do conclude that an ancient author’s account is mistaken, distorted, legendary, or what not. But when they do so it is because they have found good reasons to think this. They do not start with this assumption. And even when they conclude that accounts are to some degree mistaken, biased, or legendary, they do not therefore throw out the entire account. They assume that an ancient author’s tendency to make certain kinds of mistakes, or to have certain kinds of biases, colors their record of history. But it does not usually entail that the author is not writing about history at all!
The Gospels And History
Why, then, do liberal New Testament scholars not extend this common courtesy to the Gospels? There are two basic reasons.
Are The Gospels Myth?
First, the Gospels contain many supernatural elements, and many of these scholars simply equate the “supernatural” with “myth” and “legend.” So, they assume, the Gospels are primarily “imaginative creations,” and if there is anything historical about them, this has to be proven.
The mistake involved here is that the Gospels simply do not read like mythological and legendary accounts. As C. S. Lewis frequently argued, one has only to compare the Gospel accounts with ancient mythological literature to see this. The Gospels give us every reason to believe that they intend to write history, so if what they report is miraculous, this must be taken seriously.
Are The Gospels Theological Rather Than Historical?
Second, many liberal scholars dismiss the Gospels because they are theological in nature. Their purpose, as John tells us, is to bring people to a faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God (John 20:31). They are written by people who already have a commitment to the cause for which they are writing. And this, for many scholars, means that they are not accurately reporting history.
It is obviously true that the Gospels were written by people who were not just reporting events in a “neutral,” “objective,” fashion. But why should this entail that what they record is not historically accurate? Why should a passionate commitment to the truth of what one is reporting imply that what one is reporting is not true? The survivors of Nazi concentration camps were certainly passionately committed to the truth of what they were reporting, but this did not distort the truth of their reports. If anything, it enhanced it.
So it is with the Gospels. If what the Gospel authors are reporting is true, one would expect them to be passionately committed to it. So the fact that they are committed to their cause can hardly be used against them to disqualify their reports. In fact, if you deny the truth of what they are reporting, their passionate commitment to Christ becomes utterly inexplicable. If they are making this story up, one wonders why they would be willing to put their lives on the line for it!
A second consideration that reveals the error of this liberal line of reasoning is that one cannot find an ancient historian who didn’t write with a strong political and/or theological motivation in some direction or another. All ancient historical accounts—and most modern ones as well!—were written with the motivation of making some point, of teaching some lesson, or of buttressing up some political cause. No one recorded history simply for the purpose of “telling it like it was.”
It is well known, for example, that Josephus’ historical accounts—upon which so much of our knowledge about the first century hangs—was strongly motivated by a desire to get the blame for Jewish misfortune off the back of the Romans and to place it squarely on the backs of Jewish revolutionaries. This certainly influences what Josephus reports. But no one uses this insight to argue that Josephus was not writing history! So why should we treat the Gospels any differently? There is no good reason.
Deciding What’s True and What’s Not
Yet, most liberal scholars do treat the Gospels differently, and so we should not be surprised to learn that most of the sayings of Jesus recorded in these Gospels are doubted by these scholars. Since for these scholars the Gospels are guilty until proven innocent, each saying of Jesus must prove that it was not created by the early Church if it is to be accepted. It must, therefore, pass several tests (usually called “authenticity criterion”) in order to get a “red” vote among Jesus Seminar participants (signifying that it goes back to the real Jesus).
While there is a good bit of disagreement among these scholars about the criteria that each saying must meet, two of the criteria are almost universally employed by these scholars. And in the interest of being fully informed, you should know about these criteria, and know about those scholars who think that the way the Jesus Seminar participants apply them is altogether misguided.
Perhaps the test for authenticity most frequently mentioned in the media today is the criteria of multiple attestation. In this view, a saying (or deed) of Jesus in the Gospels can be believed to actually go back to the historical Jesus if it is found in more than one early church source. This doesn’t, however, mean that it should be judged to be authentic if it is found in more than one Gospel, for almost all of these scholars maintain that Matthew and Luke used Mark. If a saying of Jesus is found in material common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, therefore, this counts as only one source. To be confidently accepted as authentic, therefore, it must also be found elsewhere (e.g. John, “Q,” or the Gospel of Thomas).
Two basic considerations demonstrate the invalidity of applying this criteria in this manner. First, not all scholars agree that Matthew and Luke used Mark when they composed their Gospels. Indeed, an increasing number of scholars, both liberal and conservative, are expressing serious reservations about this hypothesis (called the theory of “Markan priority”). If this hypothesis is rejected, however, the way in which the criteria of multiple attestation is applied by liberal New Testament scholars completely falls apart.
Secondly, the manner in which this criteria is applied in liberal New Testament scholarship completely depends on their skeptical view of where the burden of proof lies. That is, while the appearance of a saying of Jesus in two or three sources can be seen as providing evidence for its authenticity, there is simply no good reason to hold that a saying’s absence in two or more sources is evidence of its inauthenticity.
Given the amount of teaching that Jesus gave in a three year period of time, and given how selective the Gospels are, it should not surprise us that certain sayings of Jesus are only found in Matthew, or in Luke, or in John. And unless we have good reasons for thinking otherwise, these singular sayings of Jesus should be accepted.
Criteria of Dissimilarity
The second important criteria that is almost universally espoused by participants in the Jesus Seminar and by other scholars getting media attention today is the criteria of dissimilarity. This criteria states that a saying of Jesus can be judged as authentic if it could not have been created by the early church and, many scholars add, if it could not have been derived from ancient Judaism. In other words, only those teachings of Jesus that are unique in comparison to what ancient Judaism and the early church taught can be accepted—and then, again, only if they’re found in more than one source! If a reported saying of Jesus sounds too Jewish, or too Christian, it is out!
Three considerations demonstrate the invalidity of this criteria. First, since Jesus was a first century Jew, raised within the orthodox Judaism of his day, should we not find it surprising if he didn’t incorporate significant elements of the Judaism of his day into his teaching? The Gospels, after all, tell us that Jesus came to fulfill, not to destroy, the law. With what justification, therefore, can anyone doubt any reported sayings of Jesus on the basis of their continuity with Judaism?
Second, since the early church was formed around the teachings of Jesus, why should we be inclined to judge any continuity between its teachings and the teachings of Jesus as being their creation? For example, The Five Gospels gives the boot to Jesus’ statement, “Have some, this is my body” (Mark 14:22 “Scholar’s Version”), made at the last supper, because we know that early Christians viewed the last supper in terms of Jesus’ sacrificial death. Jesus’ statement, therefore, sounds too “Christian” and thus is judged to be authentic!
But why shouldn’t we rather suppose that the early church thought this way precisely because Jesus taught this way? Since the early church was foundationally centered on Christ, shouldn’t we expect that their teachings and his teachings would significantly overlap? Shouldn’t it surprise us if this were not the case?
Third, the way that this criteria is applied in the Jesus Seminar and elsewhere again depends on their skeptical view of where the burden of proof lies. While it certainly is true that the presence of unexpected and novel elements in Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels provides further confirmation of the authenticity of this material, there is simply no good reason to argue this point in a negative direction and contend that what is not unexpected and novel in the Gospel record of what Jesus taught is therefore not authentic.
One could, and should, rather argue this in the opposite direction. The fact that the Gospels preserve aspects of Jesus’ teaching and ministry that are unexpected and unique—if not at times outright offensive—demonstrates their general reliability in reporting what Jesus taught and did. For example, Jesus’ relations with women (especially those of ill-repute); his unusual cursing of the fig tree; his demand that allegiance to him come before allegiance to family; his cry of dereliction on the cross—none of these things would have been easy for the later church to accept or understand. Yet, there they are, recorded in the Gospels.
Now if the Gospels were faithful in preserving difficult aspects of Jesus’ teaching and ministry such as these, why think they were less faithful in preserving other less controversial aspects of his ministry? Far from undermining the reliability of the Gospels, then, a proper use of the criteria of dissimilarity is helpful in establishing their general reliability.
Jewish Oral Traditions and the Gospels
The approach of the Jesus Seminar participants and other liberal scholars in the media today presupposes that there was a rather large gulf between the Jesus of history and those within the early church who wrote the Gospels. This gulf, they maintain, was filled in by the “creative imagination” of early Christians. Sayings were supposedly invented as needed, and retroactively put into the mouth of Jesus. Stories about Jesus were supposedly freely embellished with legendary features, or fabricated altogether from scratch. And so, when these sayings and stories were finally put on paper (the Gospels), scarcely more than an echo of the real historical Jesus remained.
Aside from the objections we have already raised against this view in the preceding sections, this view, according to many scholars, simply does not square with the fact that both Jesus and his earliest disciples were Jewish. A great deal of work has been done, especially by Scandinavian New Testament scholars, which argues that in the Jewish culture in which Jesus operated, the large gulf posited by liberal scholars between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of the Gospels could never have occurred! (3)
Among other things, this school of thought argues that the best model for understanding the relationship Jesus had with his disciples is found in the relationship certain Rabbis had with their students. We know that the teaching of renowned Rabbis was held in the highest esteem by their students. Indeed, frequently their teachings were regarded as “sacred tradition” that was to be memorized and passed on in detail with little or no alteration. The early disciples certainly held Jesus in the highest regard (to say the least) and the New Testament displays this typically Jewish concern for faithfully passing on sacred tradition (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:3–8, Gal. 2:1–10; Col. 2:7; 1 Thess. 2:13).
More recent studies in ancient Jewish culture have added to this the further insight that memorization was a standard pedagogical method in most Jewish learning. Many ancient Jews, we are now finding, were capable of incredible feats of memorization. And a number of recent scholars have made a solid case that many of Jesus’ teachings found in the Gospels have a clearly discernible mnemonic form (viz. a form suited for memorization).
All of this adds further plausibility to the view that Jesus’ relationship to his disciples was that of a Rabbi to his students. And it therefore suggests that the view that the Gospels are largely “imaginative creations” of the early church is really an “imaginative creation” in the mind of certain liberal scholars! The last thing Jesus’ Jewish disciples would have done is a) to forget who Jesus really was and what he really taught, and then b) to recreate who Jesus was and what he taught on the basis of their own needs!
At the very least, these studies require us to conclude that, if ever there were ancient documents we should be inclined to approach with the “burden of proof” on our shoulders to demonstrate error, these four ancient documents should be them!
Other Evidence Supporting Reliability
To the thinking of many New Testament scholars—usually those who do not get much media attention—considerations such as these are sufficient to completely undermine the skeptical approach of liberal scholars to the Gospels. But we have not yet scratched the surface of the large mass of historical evidence which supports the view that the Jesus we find in the Gospels is the real historical Jesus. Time does not permit us to enter into the full details of this evidence, but in the interest of being fully informed on the issue, I shall conclude this essay with a brief overview of some of this evidence.
Wolfgang Schadewaldt was one of the 20th century’s most reputable classical philologists. Indeed, on many accounts, he was the greatest Homer scholar ever. If ever there was a man who knew how to judge the value of ancient documents, it was he. In a lecture addressed to the theological faculty of Hamburg, and later to theologians at Tubingen, he says this about the Gospels:
“As a philologist, someone who has acquired some knowledge of ‘literature,’ I am particularly concerned here to note that when we read the Synoptic Gospels, we cannot be other than captivated by the experiential vividness with which we are confronted…I know of no other area of history-writing, biography or poetry where I encounter so great a wealth of material in such a small space.” (4)
In this respect, as Schadewaldt recognizes, the Gospels are quite different than the kind of literature that arises from the “creative imaginations” of people. A wealth of graphic details about such things as people’s emotions, Jesus’ unusual gestures, geographical locations, and about the particular time and place of various events, fill the Gospel narratives.
Liberal scholars, of course, nevertheless attempt to write all this off as “literary invention.” The Gospel authors, they hold, were intentionally trying to make their narrative “look” real. But, beyond attributing to the Gospel authors a most incredible combination of literary ability and deceptive motivation, such a suggestion is completely at odds with the standard way historians generally approach ancient texts. Unless we have good reason to think otherwise, such “experiential vividness” is usually judged to be evidence of an eyewitness influence. And it is nothing more than an arbitrary prejudice against what these documents record that prevents a similar assessment being made here.
One of the things that is most impressive about the wealth of detail in the Gospels is that much of it is completely unnecessary to make the point of the accounts in which it is found. It is, in other words, incidental to the story being told. This is characteristic of eyewitness reports. The details found in John’s account of the empty tomb (John 20:1–10) is an example of this. The manner in which Mark cryptically notes how Jesus would sometimes intently purview those around him before speaking is another (Mark 3:5, 34; 5:32; 10:23; 11:11). This is just the sort of incidental thing eyewitnesses tend to remember, and fabricators tend to leave out.
Even more forceful in terms of strengthening the reliability of the Gospel accounts, however, is the fact that very often the details the Gospels record not only serve no clear purpose, but actually seem to go against the purpose of their accounts. For example, the inclusion of questionable women at the very core of the resurrection narratives could only hinder the resurrection proclamation in first century Jewish culture. The fact that they are included, therefore, testifies to the integrity of those who recorded the event. This isn’t the sort of thing they would make up!
In just the same way, there is absolutely no discernible motive—aside from the motivation of “telling it like it really happened”—for why the Gospels include the unusual detail that Jesus, while dying on the cross, cried out,” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If their driving purpose is to portray Christ as the Messiah (“anointed one”) and as the Son of God, this is the last thing in the world they would ever want to include in their narrative, let alone make up on their own!
So also, if these Gospels are driven by theological agendas at the expense of recording reliable history, one wonders why Mark would include (“creatively imagine”?) a discourse in which Jesus seems to deny that he is even good (Mark 10:18). One also wonders why these narratives would include such potentially embarrassing things as Jesus’ (sometimes inexplicable) anger, Jesus’ radical views against legalism and unusual laxity on fasting and other standard religious behaviors, his baptism, and his scandalous association with prostitutes and tax collectors.
One also wonders why these accounts would include a good deal of material that presents the disciples in embarrassing terms. They are, in all of these accounts, portrayed as unbelieving, cowardly, dull, and even perhaps satanically inspired (Matt. 16:23). And, in fact, the Gospels even admit that Jesus’ own family opposed him—thinking he was crazy—during his ministry (Mark 3:21). This is hardly the kind of thing that the supposed “creative imagination” of the early church would conjure up on its own!
The Presence of Material Irrelevant to the Later Church
If the Jesus of the Gospels was invented by the Church to meet the Church’s own needs, then we should, obviously, expect the Jesus of these works to always give teachings that are relevant to this Church. But we don’t! For example, Jesus’ exclusive attitude toward Israel during his ministry (Matt. 10:5–6) would be wholly irrelevant (and perhaps offensive) to the Church of the 50s and 60s. For the Church had by this time already become multiethnic. So too, Jesus’ various debates with the Pharisees about keeping the Sabbath and about Corban practices would be wholly irrelevant by the 70s when, according to most liberal scholars, the Gospels first began to be written.
Lack of Material Relevant to the Later Church
Not only is much material present that ought not to be there if the early Church largely created the Jesus of the Gospels, but a good deal of material which ought to be there is absent. If the teachings of Jesus are largely the result of the “creative imagination” of the later Church to address its own issues, one would think we’d find Jesus authoritatively answering many, if not most, of the questions that we know the early Church wrestled with. But we don’t!
A host of issues we know plagued the early Church are completely unaddressed in the Gospels. Do gentiles need to be circumcised? What role should charismatic gifts have in the church? How should congregations be organized? How far is the “liberty” of the Gospel to be taken, especially by women in Church? What role can women play in the Church? And what foods can and cannot be eaten by Christians? Yet we find the Jesus of the Gospels altogether silent on issues such as these. Which simply tells us that the Jesus of the Gospels wasn’t manufactured to meet the needs of the early Church!
Aramaisms and the Sayings of Jesus
Whereas Jesus and his earliest disciples spoke in Aramaic, we know that from around 50 A.D. on the church became predominantly Greek speaking. A very compelling case can be made, however, that many (if not all) of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels are translations from an Aramaic original. For example, Jesus’ statement that the Pharisees “strain at a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:24) makes much more sense if it was originally an Aramaic pun, for in Aramaic “gnat” (galma) and “camel” (glama) sound nearly identical.
This provides yet further confirmation of the view that the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels derive from the historical Aramaic speaking person they credit them to, rather than from the creative imagination of the early Church.
Along these same lines, some features of the Gospel accounts point unmistakably back to a Palestinian environment which also helps substantiate the case that the Gospels are conveying information that goes back to the historical Jesus. For example, Jesus’ parable about the farmer sowing seed which falls on rocky, shallow, and good soil, only makes sense in a Palestinian environment where seed was sowed before the ground was plowed (Mark 4:1–8, Luke 8:5–8). Elsewhere throughout the Roman empire the practice was to plow the ground first. Such accuracy suggests that the teachings of Jesus were passed on in their original form, even in contexts in which the form of his teaching wouldn’t have made immediate sense.
Yet another category of evidence that further confirms the reliability of the Gospels concerns archeology. While there are, predictably, always points of tension between the findings of archeologists (or the interpretations certain people give to archeological findings) and the New Testament documents, by and large these findings have confirmed the reliability of the Gospels.
For example, it used to be frequently argued by liberal scholars that a town named Nazareth didn’t exist at the time of Jesus. The fact that it was never mentioned in any ancient listings was enough to prove to them that it was a fabrication. (Why the Gospel authors would simply make up a town and say Jesus came from there was never explained). In the last several decades, however, archeologists have uncovered several references to this small, insignificant town.
Numerous other examples could be given. Mark’s account of people digging a hole in the roof of a house to lower their crippled friend down to see Jesus (Mark 2:1–4) fits exactly with what we’ve learned about housing construction in first century Capernaum. They had thatch, not stone, roofs. John’s long doubted reference to the “pool of Bethesda” (John 5:2f) as well as numerous other geographical details mentioned in the Gospels have similarly been confirmed, as have the Gospels’ portrayals of the temple, the details of Pilate’s court, Jesus’ crown of thorns and mode of execution. And the list could easily go on.
This sort of accuracy is simply not what one would expect were the Gospels “imaginative creations” of Christians who were removed from the time and the locale of Jesus’ ministry and who had little concern for historical truth. It is, however, exactly what one would expect if the Gospels are what they purport to be: records of what Jesus Christ said and did.
The Authority of the Gospels
One final series of considerations increases our confidence in the Gospels still further, and these all surround the authority which these Gospels immediately possessed in the early Church. To put the matter succinctly, if the Gospels we possess were simply created by imaginative anonymous Christians some forty or fifty years after Jesus lived, as liberal scholars contend, one has to explain why these documents were so readily believed, and accepted as authoritative, by the early Church. But this is not easy to do.
From the early second century on we find Church leaders claiming to “pass down” reliable traditions that these Gospels were composed by the people whose names they now bear. Indeed, there are no exceptions in the early Church to these received traditions—a point that is utterly inexplicable if, in fact, these documents were written by anonymous authors. The depth of the early Church’s conviction that these traditions were in fact true, and that the accounts of these Gospels were in fact true, is attested by the fact that these people were willing to lay their lives on the line for this belief.
How is this to be explained on the view that these documents were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? If ever anyone lived who was in a position to discern the accuracy of this information, it was these people who lived within fifty years of their composition and who had leaders (such as Papias) who personally knew some of the apostles. And if ever anyone would be motivated to discern the accuracy of this information, it was these people who were at this time often being put to death for their faith.
So, if someone is going to argue that this unanimous and intense conviction of the early Church was in fact mistaken, they are going to have to provide a good deal of evidence to this effect. They are going to have to explain why and how these supposedly fabricated documents were immediately accepted as authoritative and received the inscriptions they received. But this has never adequately been done.
The Jesus of the gospels is the “real” Jesus
At the very least, this last point is enough to argue that the burden of proof should rest on those who want to argue that the early unanimous Church tradition was wrong in thinking that these Gospels came from the authors whose names they now bear. And, at the very least, all of this above cited evidence is enough to argue that the Gospels deserve the same common courtesy which other ancient documents generally receive: namely, the courtesy of being trusted until they are proven wrong.
This, however, is precisely what the Jesus Seminar participants, and other liberal scholars in the media today, refuse to grant. Because the Gospels contain a radically unique Jesus and supernatural material which these scholars rule out of court at the start, the Gospels are judged to be unreliable unless proven otherwise. And because it’s simply implausible to suggest that the real disciples of Jesus could be responsible for these “imaginative creations,” the traditional authorship of these Gospels is assumed to be incorrect. With such working assumptions, it’s not surprising that these scholars end up concluding that Jesus didn’t say most of what the Gospels record him as saying. They virtually started with just this conclusion!
In reporting such startling conclusions, however, the media rarely if ever exposes the arbitrary presuppositions that lie behind them. And for this reason, the radical opinions of these “experts” (usually just reported as “scholars maintain that…”) can be intimidating, and confusing, to the average reader. When you uncover what’s behind these conclusions, however, and when you learn that there are many other scholars who have many solid reasons for regarding this liberal scholarship as being fundamentally misguided, the force of this initially impressive array of “experts” diminishes considerably.
We have, in fact, every reason to believe that the Jesus of the Gospels is the real Jesus. If one doesn’t rule out this possibility at the start, and simply lets their head follow the evidence in an objective fashion, one readily concludes this at the end. When all is said and done, it is not the Jesus of the Gospels that is the result of “creative imaginations”: it is, rather, the Jesus of certain liberal scholars who is now filling the pages of popular magazines and newspapers.
(1) Funk, et. al., The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, 4–5.
(2) See P. Eddy and G. Boyd, The Jesus Legend (Baker, 2007); G. Boyd and P. Eddy, Lord or Legend (Baker, 2007) ; G. Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God? (Bridgepoint, 1995).
(3) The two most renowned works to appear from this “Scandinavian School” are H. Riesenfeld’s The Gospel Tradition and Its Beginnings: A Study in the Limits of “Formgeschichte” (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1957) and B. Gerhardsson’s Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity (Lund: C. W. K Gleerup, 1961). On the reliability of oral traditions in non-literate cultures, see P. Eddy and G. Boyd The Jesus Legend.
(4) W. Schadewaldt, “The Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition,” in M. Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, trans. J. Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 102.