The Jesus Seminar:
A Critical Examination of The Five Gospels


15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. [  1 Peter 3:15, NIV ]


An anti-Christian plague of contempt for scripture has infested our seminaries, bookstores, and, now, the air waves with the recent Search for Jesus television show.  This study examines the claims of this so-called "modern scholarship" and provides apologetics to defend against it.  I will be looking at the Jesus Seminar in particular.  It is Robert W. Funk and John Dominic Crossan who led the Jesus Seminar in its quest for determining what sayings in scripture were really spoken by Jesus and which were fraudulently attributed to him by the later church;  it was their school of thought that figured so prominently in the Search for Jesus TV show.  This study examines the premises they begin with as presented in The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, showing where they assume their conclusions a priori, and where their reasoning is faulty even when one assumes their premises.

The Seven Pillars of Scholarly Wisdom

(Page numbers refer to The Five Gospels unless otherwise specified. Highlighted headings are for those sections I plan to hit on in my oral presentation.)

This pillar reveals the primary bias of the Jesus Seminar: specifically, that the belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, is a myth added on later to the historical man Jesus.  This assumption is the justification for dividing the words of Jesus in scripture into those words actually spoken by the historic person (about 18%) and those that are attributed to him by the church, but were never actually spoken by the man (about 82%) [p. 5].

To justify this assumption, the question is asked: "If the spirit dictated gospels that are inerrant, or at least inspired, why is it that those who hold this view are unable to agree on the picture of Jesus found in those same gospels?"  [p. 5] This question has an implicit assumption behind it, namely that Christendom does not agree on the picture of Jesus found in the gospels.  The assumption is, of course, invalid.   While there are plenty of distinctives between various denominations, most of these are in issues not dealt with directly in the gospels, such as free will verses predestination.  All Bible-believing denominations are in agreement with the Christ as stated in the ecumenical creeds.

It is claimed "The two pictures painted by John and the synoptic gospels cannot both be historically accurate. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks in brief, pithy one-liners and couplets, and in parables.... In John, by contrast, Jesus speaks in lengthy discourses or monologues, or in elaborate dialogues prompted by some deed Jesus has performed.... or by an ambiguous statement...." [p. 10].  But does this claim (that the synoptics and John cannot both be historically accurate) really make sense?   Although the general description of the synoptics and John is correct, isn't it rather narrow to assert that Jesus would speak either only in short aphorisms or only in longer speeches?  Now, it is true that some people are more talkative than others, but to confine the mode of speach of Jesus to just short sayings or just long speaches is ridiculous.  The differences between the synoptics and John is one of emphasis, not of the picture of who Jesus is.

The synoptics do make it clear that Jesus spoke extended sermons.  The Olivet Discourse of Mark 13 is a good example.  Verbatim records of extended speeches of course were not made on site, most likely, it is true.  Matthew, though he has five or so extended discourses of Jesus, appears to have composed those discourses by collecting separate related sayings of Jesus together in order to represent what Jesus taught in those situations.  Comparison with the other synoptic gospels shows those very sayings scattered around to other contexts.  Calvin acknowledges his in his Harmony of the Gospels, stating "For the design of both Evangelists was, to collect into one place the leading points of the doctrine of Christ, which related to a devout and holy life. ... Pious and modest readers ought to be satisfied with having a brief summary of the doctrine of Christ placed before their eyes, collected out of his many and various discourses, the first of which was that in which he spoke to his disciples about true happiness." (commenting on Matt 5:1). And "It is uncertain whether this form was once only or twice delivered by Christ to his disciples. Some think that the latter is more probable; because Luke says that he was requested to do it, while Matthew represents him as teaching it of his own accord. But as we have said, that Matthew collects all the leading points of doctrine, in order that the whole amount of them may be more clearly perceived by the readers when they are placed in close succession, it is possible that Matthew may have omitted to mention the occasion which is related by Luke." (commenting on Matt 6:9-13) John on the other hand, being an actual eye-witness, presents longer monologues.

Let's assume a skeptical stance for the sake of argument for a moment.  We may assume that John made up the words he put on Jesus' lips out of whole cloth.  This is certainly what the Jesus Seminar assumes.  However, even with skeptical presupposition, the honest scholar must admit that it is no where near impossible that John would attempt to reproduce the gist of what Jesus said as accurately has his memory allowed.  If this were the case, one might even then argue that John is more historically accurate than the synoptics because it reproduces the basic gist and flow of an actual speech instead of being a patchwork of individual sayings.

Of course the evangelical scholar has the added dogma of inspiration in his study.   Given the assumption that John attempted to reproduce Jesus' words as accurately as his memory allowed and our religious experience of the reality of Jesus, we believe the Holy Spirit enabled John to accurately reproduced what Jesus communicated on those occasions (though given that Jesus probably spoke them in Aramaic, and John is written in rather literary Greek, it is hardly word for word, but a dynamic translation, perhaps idea for idea).

A saying made well known in the recent X-Files movie is that the best way to hide a lie is between two truths.  The conclusion that Mark was written before Matthew and Luke is well accepted in both skeptical and evangelical circles.  As discussed in my study on Mark 13 (Origin), early church testimony holds that Mark wrote his gospel on the basis of teaching he heard from Peter.   Further, the opening verses of Luke-Acts clearly indicate that Luke was not an eyewitness, that there were written accounts in circulation already, and that he wrote his gospel on the basis of careful investigation of the facts.  Acts ends abruptly with Paul spending two years under house arrest in Rome, in 60-62 AD.  I concluded that Luke-Acts was published about 62 AD, and that Mark was one of the sources he used in his careful investigation.  Mark was thus written in the 50's AD.

Some evangelicals (and others, especially Catholics) dispute this conclusion.   Later Catholic tradition has long held that Matthew was written first, and that Mark abbreviated Matthew (Augustine seems to be the first to posit this position).  A minority evangelical opinion has proposed what is called the "two gospel hypothesis", which holds that Mark had both Matthew and Luke and abbreviates the two.   This generally seems to originate from a desire to systematically argue against every conclusion of skeptical scholarship.  However, I believe the devil is skilled at hiding truths among his lies as a trap for those arguing against him: to trick believers into arguing against the truth at points.

In addition to the material they share with Mark, Matthew and Luke also have in common another approximately 170 verses.  These verses are usually referred to as Q, from the German word for "source".  The question is what was this source?   Q consists almost entirely of sayings.  Had Q been multiple traditions that had made it to both Matthew and Luke independently, one would have expected it to be a mix of sayings and stories much like the existing written gospels are.  That its content is so homogenous in form suggests strongly that it was a single written document that collected sayings of Jesus together.  Since Luke specifically states that there are other written gospels available to him, and since it seems clear he made use of Luke in writing his gospel, it would hardly be surprising that he would use Q too, after careful investigation as to its trustworthiness.

Albert Schweitzer believed Jesus taught that the end of the world was in the near future.   This was based on an apocalyptic interpretation of scriptures such as Mark 13.   Since this obviously didn't happen, Schweitzer concluded that nothing Jesus said was relevant to the modern world and left Christianity.  The Jesus Seminar on the other hand rejects all eschatological language in the gospels as not originating with Jesus.  The irony is that while the Jesus Seminar accuses the orthodox of having so many conflicting views of who Jesus was, it is actually the search for Jesus movements, from Thomas Jefferson on forward, that has come up with numerous wildly different pictures of the historic Jesus.

Of course, one of the aspects of an oral culture is memorization, a skill not practiced or developed to a great extent in print cultures (except maybe in the case of certain cult films such as the Rocky Horror Picture Show).  Short or long, we can expect the apostles to have heard Jesus' teachings over and over again over the course of his ministry and to have memorized them quite well.  If the primary sources, such as Mark and Q were written in the 50's, then we aren't even dealing with any significant amount of oral transmission.  The original apostles were around to verify the accuracy of the written documents into the 60's when Luke and Matthew  were written, and John was alive till the end of the century when his gospel was published.  It is only by dating the synoptics to the late 1st century that skeptics are able to bring in claims of oral transmission.  By their own rules of evidence, sayings whose forms can be traced to the so-called oral period (30 - 50 AD) are more likely to have originated with Jesus.

Let me get this straight, the Jesus Seminar claims that the historical Jesus was a more-or-less typical holy man/faith healer teaching in a Jewish milieu and making no claims to divinity, or even messiah-ship.  After his death, converts are made among Gentiles and legends and myths develop around him, making him the son of a god, a la Hercules, and combining that with Jewish messianic expectations.

Now if this were the case, it is inconceivable that his Jewish followers would go along with such blasphemy.  We're talking about a major reformation of belief here.   There can be no doubt that a major rift in his followers would develop, with Gentile Christians resembling modern Christianity on the one hand, and Jewish followers of his teachings on the other.  Further, we would expect early writings of the church to reflect the bitter conflict that would occur between the groups.

And in fact, we do find in the New Testament conflict between Paul and his Gentile Christianity and James and his Jewish Christianity.  In numerous places we find the two factions arguing about....circumcision.  Huh?  They are (allegedly) worlds apart in their christological beliefs about Jesus, his relationship to God, and his role on earth, and the only thing they argue about is the application of Mosaic Law on Gentile believers?   Clearly, these beliefs about Jesus as the Christ in the New Testament must be shared by both the Gentile and Jewish believers, and not only that, but must have been part of the belief of the Jewish community of believers from the beginning.

This isn't one of the pillars, but is present as a postscript to the pillars.  The amusing thing is how the Jesus the Jesus Seminar found sounds more like a 20th century liberal Californian than a 1st century Galilean Jew (as once quipped by a long forgotten participant in a USENET discussion group).

Rules of Evidence

This section of The Five Gospels discusses in details the criteria the Jesus Seminar used to determine what sayings are genuine and which are not.

Clustering and contexting

Any comparison of the synoptic gospels certainly reveals that individual sayings are often placed in different contexts in different gospels.  Matthew especially groups related sayings together into longer discourses.  Jesus himself undoubtedly repeated individual sayings and parables many times over the course of his ministry.  That said, this fact has absolutely no bearing on whether an individual saying originated with Jesus or not.  Both genuine and (if there are any) falsely attributed sayings could be dealt with by the gospel writers in the same way.

The Five Gospels states, "In all probability, Jesus’ first disciples did not remember the particular occasions on which Jesus first uttered a saying. After all, Jesus must have repeated his witticisms many times..... This led them to invent narrative contexts based on their own experience, into which they imported Jesus as the authority figure." [p. 21]  Now, in actuality, the apostles likely remembered multiple occasions when Jesus spoke his sayings and parables  Some occasions were more memorable than others no doubt.  Because of this, and because the writers of the synoptics frequently grouped related sayings together, we do in fact find sayings and parables associated with different narrative contexts in different gospels from time to time.  There is no need to suppose that narrative contexts were invented for them, especially if the synoptics were written when the apostle's living witness was still available.

Revision and commentary

For any saying of Jesus' that includes any explanation of an difficult to understand saying of his, the Jesus Seminar assumes that the explanatory material is the work of the later church.   This of course allows the Seminar to reinterpret what Jesus "actually" said to say pretty much anything they want instead of what the church has always understood.

False Attribution

Moral relativism is behind the attitude behind this rule of evidence.  If there are no moral absolutes, then any moral system is just a made-up idea held by an individual, and if two individuals hold the same or similar ideas, then it is because either one influenced the other or both were influenced by a third party.  However, Christians believe truth is absolute.  It is inevitable that common lore will stumble onto truth from time to time.  There is no reason why Jesus wouldn't make use of such well known common lore to convey the truth.

After giving a couple of examples, The Five Gospels states, "Both of these passages, along with many others, were composed in language typical of the individual evangelists but attributed to Jesus".  Even if one allows that the evangelists did this, is this methodology valid for determining the occasions it happened?   There are numerous problems with it.  First, the gospels are in Greek whereas Jesus probably spoke mostly in Aramaic.  Thus the exact wording and grammatical construction will frequently reflect the style of the translator more than the original speaker.  Second, Luke frequently paraphrases from his sources (as any synoptic comparison will show -- or Luke is frequently paraphrased if you reverse the direction of dependence between Mark and Luke), which will also make stylistic criteria invalid for determining which sayings are genuine and which are not.  Third, no one always says everything in their own typical style and vocabulary.  Everyone uses stock phrases and idioms from time to time that are not typical of their normal language.  Thus this criteria is not very useful for distinguishing between genuine and false sayings of Jesus.  Rather, it can easily become an excuse to pick and choose sayings congenial to the scholar.

Along these lines, Barry Hoberman makes the claim:

The question remains: Who compiled and edited the Gospel of Thomas? Was it the Apostle generally known as Thomas (whatever else one might wish to call him)? I doubt it, and I know that Steve Davies doubts it too. Rather, the venerable (and in this instance, transparent) principle of pseudonymous authorship is at work here. The best way for an author or editor to reach a wide readership in antiquity was not to sign his own name to his work, but to attribute it to some revered figure from the past instead. From our twentieth-century vantage point, this seems a dishonest and oddly self-abasing practice, a bizarre kind of inside-out plagiarism. But in the ancient world, it was evidently a common and perfectly acceptable custom.

However true this may be of the pagan ancient world in general, it is demonstratably not true of the early church.  Witness Tertullian (floruit 197 AD to post 213 AD) who reports that the presbyter who wrote the spurious Acts of Paul and Thecla was removed from office as a result (On Baptism, chapter 17).  Irenaeus (ca. 140 AD to ca. 202 AD, Against Heresies 1.21) compains about the gnostics: "But since they differ so widely among themselves both as respects doctrine and tradition, and since those of them who are recognised as being most modern make it their effort daily to invent some new opinion, and to bring out what no one ever before thought of, it is a difficult matter to describe all their opinions."  And in 1.20 he reports "Besides the above [misrepresentations], they adduce an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings, which they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish men, and of such as are ignorant of the Scriptures of truth."  In contrast, in 3.1, he traces the authority of the canonical gospels to the original apostles.  Historical facts, "preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches" (3.2) were very central to Irenaeus's belief in orthodox Christianity.

Difficult sayings

It is certainly true than in parallel accounts of some sayings in the synoptics, one is sometimes more harsh than the other.  The irony is that in two of the three examples that The Five Gospels gives, it is Mark, the earlier gospel, that has the softer saying.  Matt 20:16, "The last will be first and the first last", while Mark 10:31 has a softer version that includes the word "many", "Many of the first will be last, and of the last many will be first".  The two contexts are entirely different.  Could not such variation originate with Jesus?  It would seem certain that Jesus would repeat sayings on many occasions in his ministry.  The inversion of worldly priorities in the spiritual realm is a theme Jesus spoke on on more than one occasion.  If only one of the versions truly originated with Jesus, then it is impossible to recover which one.

The Seminar gives Mark 3:28-29 as an example.  However to discuss this in full, we must first cover some additional ground.  See details on this passage below in the discussion on Thomas.

Christianizing Jesus

The assumption of the Seminar is that Jesus was not only not the Anointed (Christ in Greek, Messiah in Hebrew), but that he didn't even claim to be a Messiah.  Leaving behind the question whether he actually was the Messiah, would it still be reasonable to a priori assume that he never made such claims?  Certainly many religious leaders had made such claims in the years before (c.f. Acts 5:36-37) and after Jesus.  It would almost seem strange for such a radical teacher as Jesus to not make some such claim of himself, regardless of the factuality of his Messiah-ship.

The Jesus Seminar frequently reinterprets Jesus' sayings and the gospels in such a way to make them contradictory.  It is from such gross distortions of Jesus' teachings that they identify older tradition, but note that they leave themselves an out in case what they find is still not congenial!

Because the Seminar starts with the assumption that Jesus is not messiah, they simply assert that anything that says he is did not originate with him.  However, even the assumption that Jesus is not messiah does not lead to such a conclusion.  Other would-be messiah's never shied from making such claims.

This is an outgrowth of the assumption that Jesus was not the Christ.  He he really was just a man, and nothing more, then this is a reasonable assumption to make.   However, assume for a moment Jesus really is Diety.  Then accurate predictions really are possible.  But how would one using historical methodology determine that that is the case?  You can't prove there is no Christ by demonstrating the evidence is made up by assuming the evidence can't exist.

Rules of Oral Evidence

The Jesus Seminar assumes that Mark was not written until about 70 AD (C.E.=Common Era, which is the same as AD, except that the skeptics can't bare to acknowledge that they are dating things Anno Domoni -- in the year of the Lord), and that Matthew and Luke were written decades after that.  This would date them after most eyewitnesses of Jesus were dead (and by early traditions, nearly all the apostles had died by 70 AD).   During Jesus' ministry, about 26 AD to about 30 AD, the apostles, and other disciples memorized Jesus' sayings and parables.  During the early decades, they would have taught and spread his teaching from memory.  However, I do not believe that the church would have waited until after all the apostles were dead to start writing down this teaching.

In my study on Mark 13, I discussed the evidence of when the gospels were actually written.  Mark and Q must have been written by 60 AD, when Luke probably began writing Luke-Acts.  Matthew likewise was written around the mid-60's.  Both the gospels of Luke and Matthew use these earlier Gospels as a source, and Luke claims to have "investigated carefully" in writing his Gospel.  Thus I would claim for the synoptic gospels that their full content meets the criteria of this rule.

This is basically a generalization of the Q hypothesis.  Material that Matthew and Luke share not in common with Mark is presumed to come from an earlier source, referred to as Q.  This, in and of itself, is probably fairly reasonable, but the Jesus Seminar has extended this to include the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas as an additional "independent source".  Thomas will be discussed in more detail below.

This is essentially a restatement of the earlier claim that Jesus' sayings were added to non-historical narrative contexts.  As noted before, Jesus did speak his sayings on more than one occasion and it would not be unreasonable for the eyewitnesses to remember one or more such occasions.  Thus even if one allows the skepticism of the Jesus Seminar, one cannot know whether such multiple contexts for a saying are legitimate or not.   Removing them en masse from the contexts that shape their meaning serves more to allow a more congenial interpretation than to allow the discovery of the historic Jesus.

The presumption here is that a single saying of Jesus circulated in oral form and evolved into different forms during that period before being frozen in the written gospels.  This ignores that Jesus himself certainly varied the exact form of his teaching over the course his three year ministry.  Thus, even given the skeptical assumptions, such variety could very well have frequently originated with Jesus.

I don't think we can find anything to argue with in this rule.  It's basically saying that any saying may actually be old, i.e., have originated with Jesus, even if it doesn't match other rules above.  In practice, these seems more to be an excuse to pick up any other saying (or portion thereof) congenial to the Seminar.

Orality and memory

There is nothing to argue with here.  Such sayings are easier to memorize.

That the Jesus Seminar is here implying is that the longer speeches of Jesus in the gospels are not authentic.  Most of the content of the synoptic gospels does in fact consist of aphorisms and parables.  Mark has only a single extended speech, the Olivet discourse.  Matthew has several extended speeches; however, comparison against the other synoptics show these likely to be composed of shorter sayings that have been grouped together.  For example, Mark's Olivet discourse predicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is combined with Jesus' prediction of the end of the world.

It is John's gospel that to which this rule is primarily applied.  John has several long speeches by Jesus.  The analysis of the Jesus Seminar is that none of these speeches originated with Jesus.  They are all the creation of the church.   Church tradition holds that the gospel of John was written written by the apostle John late in his life, near the end of the 1st century.  This is confirmed by the postscript in the gospel itself:

20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved [I.e., John] was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?"
22 Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?"
24 This is the disciple [I.e., the disciple who Jesus loved: John] who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. [ John 21 NIV]

Verse 24 appears to be written by John's disciples who are testifying that it was their teacher John who wrote the gospel.  They are publishing it, presumably after their teacher's death.  Now assuming that it was John, who was present to hear most of the speeches, or at least would have heard about them directly from the original hearers in some cases, such as Nicodemus, there are two possibilities.  Either the eyewitness made up the speeches from whole cloth, knowing full well that Jesus never said any such thing, or having been there, he at the very least remembers the general gist of what Jesus said and the general outline of the speeches, and reconstructed them as accurately and faithfully as he could.  Add to that the beliefs that Jesus really was who he so claimed and that the Holy Spirit guided the evangelists in writing the gospels, then we have every reason to believe that the long speeches accurately convey what Jesus taught and communicated in the speeches, even if they aren't verbatim transcripts.

This rule amounts to being a restatement of the assumption that the gospels were written late.  Rather than being written by apostles or people who had direct access to the apostles, the Jesus Seminar believes the gospels were written a generation or more later and that Jesus' teachings were preserved only in spoken form prior to that.  However, consider, for example Paul.  Through the 50's he made use of written letters to communicate with various churches.  The literacy rate, while far from being universal, was not small.  It is inconceivable that during the first four decades after Jesus' death, the church would not make any effort to write down Jesus' teaching.  As discussed in the Mark 13 study, the synoptic gospels were written in the 50's and 60's, and further, Luke's gospel testifies to many written accounts existing when he began writing (about 60 AD).  This presumption that Jesus' teaching went through a lengthy period of oral transmission is bogus.

This rule does not do justice to the conditions under which the teachings of Jesus were memorized, nor the greater importance of memorization in oral cultures.  During the course of following Jesus over a period of three or so years, the apostles heard Jesus repeat his sayings many times.  There can be no doubt that the apostles and many other disciples carried with them word-for-word memory of Jesus' sayings, aphorisms, and parables.

The Storyteller's license (p. 29-30)

This item is one of the most misleading of the Jesus Seminar's practices.  Let's take an example cited in The Five Gospels.

3 Then he went back to the synagogue, and a fellow with a crippled hand was there.  2So they kept an eye on him, to see whether he would heal the fellow on the sabbath day, so they could denounce him.  3And he says to the fellow with the crippled hand, "Get up here in front of everybody.4Then he asks them, "On the sabbath day is it permitted to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?"

But they maintained their silence.  5And looking right at them with anger, exasperated at their obstinacy, he says to the fellow, "Hold out your hand!"

He held it out and his hand was restored.  6Then the Pharisees went right out with the Herodians and hatched a plot against him, to get rid of him. [Mark 3:1-6, The Five Gospels, enboldened text corrected]

As part of the running commentary, the Seminar says:

The words ascribed to Jesus in this story were created as part of the narrative.   Specific injunctions like "Get up here in front of everybody" and "Hold out your hand" would not have been remembered and passed around during the period the Jesus tradition was being shaped and transmitted by word of mouth.  The story suggests, however, that Jesus did engage in controversy regarding sabbath observance.  [p. 50]

Now, for the sake of argument, let us assume that the Seminar's assertion is basically correct, that what was remembered was in effect "he told the fellow to get up in front of everyone" and "he told the fellow to hold out his hand", but not the actual words.  The Seminar consistently classifies such language as "black", which means "Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition" [p. 36].   This is clearly not the case.  If the events such incidental speech occurs in have any historicity at all, then at least "gray" should have  applied: "Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own" [p. 36].  And to really be fair, such language, given their assumptions regarding its being supplied to carry the story, and not as part of Jesus' teaching, should not have been counted at all.  However, it appears to have been counted like it is so as to inflate the percentage of Jesus words they could claim were never spoken by him.  They really delight in repeating that only 18% of Jesus words in the the gospels were ever spoken by him.

If the Jesus Seminar had truely been an impartial, if misguided, judge of Jesus' sayings, then there should have also been a fifth category: "We can't tell if Jesus said this or not".  Instead, they went in expecting to gain a "scholarly" concensus on each individual saying.  This is not objective scholarship, but an exercise in reinforcing preconceived notions.

Distinctive Discourse

I think that the Jesus Seminar has inadvertently hit the nail on the head here.   Given the anti-supernatural premises of the Seminar, the separating out of the authentic words of Jesus is a futile venture.  The rules and criteria the Seminar has devised really serve to create a Jesus that never really did exist, but which is congenial to the participants of the Seminar.

It is certainly true that many of Jesus' sayings can be described by these rules, to limit the authentic sayings to those that match these criteria is to create a distorted, exaggerated view of his teaching.  The historical Jesus becomes more of a caricature than a character.

The laconic sage

The basic gist of these rules is that Jesus was merely human without divinity.  Jesus is assumed to not offer to cure people because he couldn't.  He made no claims to be messiah because he wasn't.  Of course, such quibbles haven't stopped many a false faith healer from making such claims, so even if Jesus was just a fraud, we can't a priori assume he made no such claims.  And if he really is divine, then certainly we can't make such assumptions.

Examples from Mark

The "Able-bodied  & Sick" saying is attributed to Jesus, although the Seminar voters were divided because it sounds a lot like a secular proverbial saying.   There is another form of it in a fragment of an unknown gospel that reads "Those in good health don't need a doctor!", which the Seminar regards as being more original because it is a simpler form.  Can a revised form never be rephrasing in fewer words?  I guess all those Reader's Digests books are the original forms, and all those long novels came later!

The "Religious Folks & Sinners" saying is not regarded as original.   It interprets what Jesus just said, so the Seminar rejects it.  Note that we find a similar saying in Luke 19:10b "Remember, the son of Adam came to seek out and to save what was lost", and the testimony of Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15, "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners".  A statement that occurs in multiple contexts or in multiple sources (in this case both) is older than either according to the Seminar's own rules of evidence.  However, it is rejected more because the idea of Jesus actually coming to call sinners to repent is not congenial to the Seminar, I strongly suspect.

The Seminar was split on these two sayings.  The vote on both was borderline between pink and gray.  The canonical version in Mark (and synoptic parallels) has a clear Christian interpretation where the Jews and their religion is the old and the Christians and their religion is the new.  The gospel of Thomas, found amounst gnostic writings (some older Greek fragments are also known -- more about Thomas below), as a version of these sayings that are not only in the opposite order, but also invert the symbolism.  "Here the old is superior to the new.  As these sayings were developed, the new became superior, since the Christian movement was the new in relation to its parent.  In sum, the saying in Thom 47:3 has not yet been Christianized." [p. 499]  So, we are asked to believe that 2nd-4th century heretics, gnostics no less, who were notorious for wild pseudopigraphic writings, have more accurately preserved Jesus' teaching than the first century canonical gospels.   Further let us note that the gnostics hold that their religion is the old one, writing some of their books in the name of Seth even, and that it is orthodox Christianity who they oppose as being a young fiction.  So, it is actually more likely that the canonical version is more original and Thomas is the one that has evolved the saying along sectarian lines.

The Gospel of Thomas

What Is It?

The Gospel of Thomas figures prominently in the Jesus Seminar's writings.   It is the fifth gospel in their book The Five Gospels, known from a complete copy found at Nag Hammadi in a collection of gnostic writings written in Coptic and dating to around 350 AD or so, from three Greek fragments the earliest dating to about 200 AD, and from references to it in the writings of the church fathers, the earliest being Hyppolytus between 222-235 AD.  Thomas consists of 114 sayings introduced by the words "Jesus said" or "He said", although many of the numbered sayings actually consists of several sayings strung together.   Roughly a half of the sayings have parallels with sayings in the canonical gospels.   In literary form, it is like the hypothetical Q gospel; that is, it is just sayings, without connecting narrative, nor stories about the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Because the sayings lack allegorical interpretation or specific "Christian" application, the Jesus Seminar concludes that they are generally independant of the canonical gospels and represent a more primative form of Jesus' sayings before the church reinterpreted them and modified them to make them more "Christian".    The Seminar dates Thomas' original composition to about the same time a Q:  around 50-60 AD [The Five Gospels, p. 474].

The Parable of the Rich Man

Let's look at a specific example:  Thomas 63 from The Five Gospels:

63 Jesus said,

There was a rich person who had a great deal of money.   2He said, "I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing."  3These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died.  4Anyone here with two ears had better listen!

And compare this with the canonical version in Luke 12:16-21 (NIV):

16 And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

18 "Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I’ll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."’

20 "But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."

The Five Gospels claims "As a single, unelaborated tale the Thomas version retains more of the characteristics of orally transmitted tradition and is probably an earlier form of the parable than Luke's." [p. 508]

Shortened Sayings

Compare the episodes of Jairus' daughter and the woman with the issue of blood in Mark 5:22-43 verses Matthew 9:18-25.  Now nearly everyone agrees that Matthew is using Mark as a source here, yet his version of the events is drastically shorter.  He shortens individual sentences, omits various details, and even the whole "who touched me?" interchange.  In short, just because a passage in Thomas is a simpler form, does not imply that it is an earlier form of the saying.

The heretic Marcion in the second century created a heretical gospel by taking the gospel of Luke and "circumcised the gospel according to Luke and removed everything written about the birth of the Lord, and much of his teaching, in which he is plainly described as ackowledging the Creator of this universe as his Father." (Irenaeus).

When Written

Let's now investigate in more detail when the Gospel of Thomas was written.  The Seminar holds that it is independant of the canonical gospels and that it predates them.  We find parallels with all the canonical gospels, and all their parts: that is, in Mark, Q, Special Luke, Special Matthew, and John.  This could be because Thomas derives those sayings from (directly or indirectly) the canonical gospels, but the Seminar discounts that possibility because Thomas's version is typically simpler without alleged Christian adaptations and because there is no correlation between the order of the sayings in Thomas, and the order they occur in any of the canonical gospels.  More interesting are the parallels with some non-canonical (heretical) gospels.  Saying 2 is a direct quote of Gospel of the Hebrews fragment 6b.  Saying 22 is parallel to a fragment of the Gospel of the Egyptians.   These are significant because the books in question have survived only as a handful of quotations in other works:  either it is a remarkable coincidence that the only parallel that exists in the whole works happens to be among the quoted fragments, or, had we the full works, they would have been many such parallels with Thomas.  Since the Gospel of the Hebrews is from the early second century (less is known about the contents and character of the Gospel of the Egyptians), if Thomas is dependant on it, it too would date to the second century.

Can we demonstrate that Thomas is in fact dependant on the canonical and non-canonical gospels of the first and second century instead of being independant or the source of them?  The prologue and saying 1 provide the clue that let us conclude that Thomas is ultimately dependant on the canonical gospels as well as various non-canonical gospels of the 2nd century AD.  Layton's translation of this says:

These are the obscure [Or, "hidden"] sayings that the living Jesus uttered and which Didymus Jude Thomas wrote down.  And he said, "Whoever finds the meaning [Or "interpretation"] of these sayings will not taste death."

Others translate "secret" instead of "obscure", but the saying makes it clear that the meaning must be sought after.  The intent of the author is to produce a book of sayings that are intentionally difficult to understand.   To that end, they are stripped of any interpretive information and otherwise transformed to make them be obscure Zen-like koans.  Thus their simplicity, like we see in Saying 63 above, does not demonstrate their antiquity.

Gnostic Influence

Another clue to the actual date of the composition of Thomas is its theological bent.  Many interpreters are insistant that there is nothing gnostic about Thomas, that though there is language that can be given gnostic interpretation, the same is just as true for John and the letters of Paul in the New Testament.  Now it is true that there is nothing of the gnostic myth of creation (which holds that the material world is the creation of an evil being that they equated with the Jewish God), just as there is nothing of the orthodox narratives of the birth, death, and resurection, but such topics were not the focus of its author.  The fact is, there are many gnostic ideas contained in Thomas.  Quoting from Harper's Bible Dictionary:

Gnostic Influence: The Gospel of Thomas clearly reflects Gnostic theology. In formal terms, it claims to afford an esoteric gnosis, or knowledge, that guarantees immortality (Saying 1). The contents of this troubling yet marvelous knowledge (Saying 2) involve an understanding of one’s true self, which is superior to any other knowledge (Saying 67). Through this knowledge, one recognizes the origin of the essential self in the world of light (Sayings 49, 50), where the self pre-existed (Saying 19) and to which it is destined to return (Saying 18) to enjoy a state of final rest (Saying 60). Recipients of this knowledge thus realize that they are sons of the Living Father (Sayings 4, 50).

A sharp dichotomy between flesh and spirit and an anticosmic dualism are evident in the Gospel’s description of the human condition. Without the saving gnosis provided by Jesus, the Revealer from the world of light (Sayings 13, 61, 77), people are in a state of drunken blindness (Saying 28), spiritual beings whose true wealth is ensnared in a poverty-ridden body (Saying 29). When one understands the world, it becomes clear that it is a corpse (Saying 56). The soul content with a state of dependence on the body is wretched (Sayings 87, 112). The illuminated disciple is exhorted to reject the world. Such recommendations are sometimes offered in the form of paradoxical metaphors. On the one hand, the disciple is urged to ‘fast’ from the world (Saying 27); on the other, the disciple will ‘consume’ the world, imaged as both carnivorous lion (Saying 70) and sacrificial lamb (Saying 60), before the disciple is consumed as a corpse by the inimical forces of matter.

The disciple who receives the saving knowledge is enabled to overcome the problems of life in this world and to achieve a unitary state (Saying 11), wherein the differentiations of inner and outer or male and female are overcome (Sayings 22, 114). The illumined disciple enters the ‘bridal chamber’ (Saying 75), where duality is dissolved, and becomes a monachos or ‘solitary one’ (Sayings 4, 16, 23, 49). The disciple thus enters into the Kingdom of God, which for this Gospel is not an eschatological manifestation of divine sovereignty, but an inner, spiritual reality (Sayings 3, 49, 113, 114).

This, combined with the fact that the Gospel of Thomas is known in its entirety only from a collection of gnostic writings, allows us to conclude that Thomas was written by gnostics, or at least proto-gnostics, who didn't exist until the 2nd century, and uses sayings of Jesus collected from various heretical gospels and, either directly or indirectly, from the canonical gospels.  The sect that used these sayings probably circulated them in oral form, shortened them to make them obscure for theological purposes, then some writer collected them together (which resulted in several duplicates in the book as the sayings were collected from various teachers) by the end of the second century.  By the middle of the fourth century, they had been translated into Coptic.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

In addition to shortening sayings to make them obscure, other changes were made for theological and polemical purposes.  Take for example saying  107:

107 Jesus said,

The <Father's> imperial rule is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep.  2One of them, the largest, went astray.   He left the ninety-nine and looked for the one until he found it. 3After he had toiled, he said to the sheep, 'I love you more than the ninety-nine.'

Compare this with Mt 12:10-14:

10 "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

12 "What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.

Thomas as changed the Father's love for the little ones into love for the largest one, which may reflect the elitism of the gnostic movement in opposition to the egalitarianism of orthodox Christianity.


Now, let's return to Mark 3:28-29 that we left above: "28 I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. 29 But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin."   [NIV]  The parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke 12:10 include language about the Son of Man: "10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.".  [NIV, Lk 12:10] and  "31 And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." [NIV, Mt. 12:31-32]. Luke seems to be quoting a different version than Mark's, and Matthew, as seems to be his practice, conflates the two.  This variation is supposed to have come up because the communities struggled with the problem of blasphemy.  The Seminar marked this saying in black meaning Jesus did not say it.  Now note the rules of evidence that this saying fulfills (many of these rules are discussed below).  It is found in multiple sources:  Mark, Q, and in Thomas 44:

44 Jesus said, "Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, 2and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, 3but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven, either on earth or in heaven." [p. 497]

It is found in multiple forms.  It is found in multiple contexts.  It involves paradox.  It is distinctive (especially the Thomas version, which forgives blasphemy of the Father!). It is in an easy to memorize form.   All these things normally point to some form of a saying having a very early date.   Few sayings in fact can claim as much evidence by the Seminar's own rules of evidence of being early, yet it is rejected as being said by Jesus purely on prior biases on what Jesus could have said.

Further, note that Thomas's version of this saying is closest to the conflation of Matthew, and further takes on a trinitarian cast and uses the word blasphemy throughout instead of "speaks a word against".  This suggests that Thomas is ultimately dependent on Matthew and that it has modified the earlier form to make a statement about a theological issue that wasn't debated until much later, both of which require a late date for Thomas.


The Gospel of Thomas is the second century production of a heretical cult.  The source of about half the sayings are ultimately derived from the canonical gospels, although numerous others are obtained from the literature of other cults.  The sayings reflect a gnostic, or at least proto-gnostic world view.   Rather than being more primative forms of Jesus' sayings, they are abbreviated and distorted to remove disagreeable doctrines (much like Marcion) did, and to produce "obscure" sayings whose interpretation would have been obtained only through initiation into the cult.  Dating the Gospel of Thomas to the 50's AD is only the wishful thinking of modern day heretics.


The study has examined the assumptions behind the Jesus Seminar's search for the historical Jesus as detailed in their The Five Gospels.  We find first that they assume their conclusion in that they assume that Jesus couldn't possibly have been the Messiah, nor could have worked miracles, nor could have had foreknowledge of the future.  Thus the conclusions are destined to be a distortion of the true Jesus if he in fact is the Messiah.  Second, we also find that  their methodology, even when you grant the first assumption, makes many presumptuous assumptions that are dubious and cannot be proven.   Rather, in spite of their own injunction to "Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you", their assumptions regarding what the historical Jesus could and could not have said and done seem tailor made for finding a Jesus congenial to the Seminar.

We find posited a Jesus with no messianic pretensions, and thus no belief in such would be among original Jewish followers.  The deification of Jesus as Christ is alleged to have come later, a development which would surely have been rejected by most of his Jewish followers had it not been part of his message from the beginning.  Thus we should expect there to have been two communities of followers: a Jewish one and a more gentile Christian one.  We do find this, and they debate bitterly about... circumcision.   There is no debate over who Christ was:

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.  [Phil 2:9-11, NIV]

Instead, when we remove the assumption that Jesus can't be the Christ, we find there is plenty of evidence for an early date for the gospels, and every reason to believe that they faithfully communicate to us the teachings of the historical Jesus and the actual events in real time-space that surround his death and resurrection.


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Cameron, Ron.  "Thomas, Gospel of" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary.  Doubleday 1992.

Clabeaux, John J.  "Marcion" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary.  Doubleday 1992.

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