Historical Jesus, Blog 1, Let us vote on what Jesus really said

The Jesus Scholars voted on each saying on Jesus, a red bead for the real Jesus sayings, a pink bead for maybe Jesus said it, gray or black beads for sayings Jesus could not have said.

Let us vote on each of the sayings on Jesus, a red bead for each truly authentic saying of Jesus, a pink bead when the saying sure sounds like Jesus, gray, maybe, a black bead for a saying Jesus could not have said, although centuries of biblical scholars thought and taught otherwise.

Using this voting method, the self-appointed members of the Jesus Seminar in 1985 pronounced that only fifteen sayings were truly said by Jesus, while another seventy-five sayings were probably words of Jesus.  There were a few eminent scholars in the group, most were middling academics, none were from the most eminent theological universities.[1]  But it was great television, great headlines, great press, controversial conspiracies, grabbing ten minutes of fame for this or that ignorant expert.

How did we arrive at such at state of affairs?  How does so much of this pseudo-scholarship get on TV?  How do we answer when a friend questions us of this or that TV expose “exposes” some pseudo-scholarly TV program claims that Jesus really did not say the red-letter words in the New Testament?

How should we interpret the puzzling passages in Scripture?  How do sift the weeds from the wheat in Biblical commentary?  Many modern historical biblical scholars are hopelessly biased, and worse, they are hopelessly unaware of their bias.  have an axe to grind, and are very critical of faith-based interpretation Scripture, so we in turn need to be wary and critical in our approach.  Not all modern scholars are goats, there are a few sheep.  How should we prepare?

  • We need to review the history of biblical interpretation to understand how modernity can spawn something like the Historical Jesus movement.
  • We should review the Scriptures and the Church Fathers to formulate how the Scriptures should be read.
  • We need to be aware of common ways Scripture has been abused by the historical Jesus and other modern scholars using the various historical-critical methods.

The original attendees of the Jesus Seminar have mostly been forgotten, with only a spare mention by Dr Wikipedia, but unfortunately the historical Jesus baton was passed to Bart Ehrman, one of the foremost textual critics of the New Testament, which means his specialty is examining the ancient Greek manuscript texts for variants.  Dr Timothy Johnson wrote a book disputing the claims of the historical Jesus, The Real Jesus, which will be our main source.  This book first looks back to the history of the church since the Reformation, and in the United States since World War II and the GI Bill, to understand how such beliefs can become widespread.


Nobody was more surprised than Luther when the 95 Theses he tacked onto the church door of Wittenberg were quickly translated from Latin to German and re-printed by the thousands to circulate all over Germany.  But when summoned to the Diet of Worms he was not allowed to discuss church reform as he wished but was simply asked if he would recant.  The next day came his famous reply, “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”

What Luther was preaching was something new, he did not believe the Pope himself was corrupt, Luther did not believe the Church could be reformed, Luther thought the institution of the Papacy was corrupt, and that colored his theology.[2]  In most of his writings Luther would constantly interrupt what sounded like brilliant theology by stopping to curse the pope, often using vulgarities.  Lutheranism never formally rejected the authority of the Church Fathers[3], but Luther himself in his informal Table Talks derided the wisdom of the Church Fathers.  Luther’s Catholic opponents often abused Tradition by making the Church Fathers say anything they wanted them to say.  Luther was eager that his followers understood Scriptures properly, and his Scriptural commentaries are vast, but the common understanding of his slogan Sola Scriptura meant that the Scriptures would no longer be interpreted according to the Tradition of the Church Fathers, now each Christian can interpret Scripture individually.  Luther himself interpreted Scripture using his method of content criticism, not on the basis of their acceptance by the Church or Tradition, but on his judgment of their theological worth.[4]  As the practice of Confession was not abolished but rather forgotten and neglected in the Lutheran tradition, so too were the Church Fathers forgotten and neglected, both in Protestantism and Catholicism.

The principle of individual interpretation evolved into new scholarly approaches using the historical-critical method used by German Lutheran scholars of the nineteenth centuries.  Multiple source theories were proposed.  For the New Testament Friedrich Schleiermacher proposed the still undiscovered Q sayings was a source for the Synoptic Gospels, in addition to a common and individual Mathew-Luke sources.  For the Torah Julius Wellhausen found textual evidence for the multiple JEPD sources compiled quite late in Jewish history.

Another interpretation of the JEPD theory is offered by Gary Rendsburg, a Jewish Scholar who recorded the excellent course on Genesis for the Teaching Company.  Rendsburg argues that the Lutheran Wellhausen was influenced by the anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism of his time.  The J and E sources could be dated early, as they contained the basic stories, but it was important theologically to date the legal material in the P and D sources in a much later time because as a Protestant he wanted these sources to be less credible.  Rendsburg has various technical reasons to dispute this, but his best reason is linguistic analysis shows no Persian loan words in any of the Torah, which you would expect to find if you date the P and D sources as late as Wellhausen suggests.  All of the Torah was composed in classical Hebrew rather than late Biblical Hebrew, meaning all of the Torah is older than 550 BC.[5]

These theories often tell us more about the theologians than they tell us about Scripture.  In the words of Johnson:

“What has fundamentally eroded was the framework of canon, creed, and church by which Christianity had defined itself in debate since the late second century.  The creed was under attack, the canon was challenged, and the church’s tradition was regarded as the problem.”[6]

Biblical interpretation evolved with the rise of the independent University system in the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and the Reformation.  The early church had church Fathers who had a classical Platonic Greek education but in the centuries following Constantine the church was involved in education, and in the foundation of the early University system.  Over the centuries the universities became more independent, more secular, valuing science more, valuing theology less, trends that were greatly accelerated after the French Revolution.  Modern scholars tend to ignore the Church Fathers altogether.

Biblical interpretation is continuing to evolve with the expansion of the University system in the US after World War II.  With the GI Bill came a vast expansion of the community college and university system, with a demand for thousands of PhD’s in all fields, biblical studies included.  Many colleges today are independent of the church, and indeed often these biblical studies are often non-denominational.  The sixties saw ever more radical interpretations under the guise of liberation theology and feminist studies.  Publish or perish, in academia there is no salvation in preserving tradition.  When writing papers to publish, innovation is preferred over orthodoxy.[7]

Concurrent with these trends is the effect of television on all aspects of our culture, distrust of authority from the Sixties, and the growing competition between the growing influence of a fundamentalist mindset in our religious communities and a totally agnostic and hedonistic mindset in our culture in general.

Historical Jesus blog 2 http://www.seekingvirtueandwisdom.com/historical-jesus-blog-2-modern-search-for-historical-jesus/

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (New York, HarperCollins Publishing: 1997), 5-14.

[2] Phillip Cary, The History of Christian Theology, Lecture Nineteen, Luther and Protestant Theology, The Teaching Company, 2008.

[3] The Book of Concord, The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, translated and edited by Theodore G Tappert (and Jaroslav Pelikan) (Fortress Press, Philadelphia: 1959).  If you study the Book of Concord, containing the Augsburg Confession and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession penned by Philip Melancthon, there is no mention of the invalidity of the patristic teachings.  Indeed, often references to the Church Fathers are used to support various Lutheran positions.

[4] Johnson, The Real Jesus, 69.

[5] Gary Rendsburg, The Book of Genesis, Transcript Book, Lecture Six, The JEPD Theory and Alternative Approaches, The Teaching Company, 2006, 85-92.

[6] Johnson, The Real Jesus, 71.

[7] Johnson, The Real Jesus, 70-74.

About Bruce Strom 167 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.