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Counterpoint Evangelical Christian Scholars Respond To Jesus Seminar Claims With Their Own Book

Sat., April 22, 1995

Evangelical Christian scholars are mad as heck, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Up in arms over the liberal pronouncements from the Jesus Seminar, several conservative professors of theology are firing back with “Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus” (Zondervan Publishing House).

Since 1985, the Jesus Seminar, a group composed primarily of liberal scholars, has been pecking away at the supernatural content of the gospels in what it calls a “quest for the historical Jesus.”

The seminar has persuaded many people that it represents a consensus of New Testament scholars, according to “Jesus Under Fire” co-editor Michael J. Wilkins.

“However,” he said, “there is a wide spectrum of views of Jesus among New Testament scholars, and the Jesus Seminar simply presents one … (which is) a minority view.”

Wilkins said “Jesus Under Fire” presents another side - “a compelling argument for the biblical, orthodox view of Jesus.”

The book, compiled and edited by Wilkins and another Talbot School of Theology professor, J.P. Moreland, is devoted mainly to refuting “The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus,” in which the fellows of the Jesus Seminar contended that Jesus actually said only 18 percent of the things attributed to him.

But “Jesus Under Fire” also takes aim at the overall scholarship of the Jesus Seminar. They take particular exception to the seminar’s most recent conclusions:

Jesus’ corpse probably rotted in some unknown grave.

The empty tomb story was a legend that developed 30 or 40 years after Jesus’ death.

Joseph of Arimathea, whom the Bible says provided the tomb in which Jesus was buried, was a fictional character.

Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearances to his disciples were hallucinations or fabrications.

“As Professor Marcus Borg (Oregon State University) put it, a video camera present at one of Jesus’ appearances would not have recorded anything on tape,” said a news release from the Jesus Seminar.

To soften the impact of their most recent pronouncements, the seminar allowed that the Resurrection has religious significance even if it is not based in historical fact.

“We wanted to make an affirmative statement to all those who think we only care about tearing down Christian faith,” said Jesus Seminar co-founder Robert W. Funk.

Conservatives, though, see nothing affirmative in anything the seminar had to say.

“With a mixture of chagrin, disbelief and lament, we note that the Jesus Seminar has again challenged one of the core beliefs - in fact, THE core belief of the Christian faith,” said an editorial in The United Methodist Review.

“This time, the seminar’s scholars voted that God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead. In short, the Resurrection - the Easter event itself - never happened.”

The editorial’s reference to voting has to do with the Jesus Seminar’s method of examining the New Testament passage-by-passage and then voting on each segment’s historical worth by dropping colored beads in a box. Red signifies that the passage is true, pink that it is probably true, gray that it is probably not true and black that it is not true.

Daryl Schmidt, professor of religion at Texas Christian University and one of the Jesus Seminar’s Greek translators for “The Five Gospels,” said fundamentalists’ insistence on the literal wording of the New Testament is a “modern problem” that didn’t concern early Christians.

From the Jesus Seminar’s point of view, he said, theological truth is not dependent on whether the Gospels are factually or historically accurate from today’s vantage point. Schmidt said the New Testament is not “all in historical language. A lot of it is in theological language.”

“It’s we moderns who do not take the Bible seriously enough, who insist that all of its language has to be read the same way,” Schmidt said. “They had a much higher poetic sense than we do.”

The Jesus Seminar claims a total enrollment of about 200 and an active membership of 77. Funk said 45 members participated in last month’s spring conference - the seminar meets in the fall and spring each year - but “Jesus Under Fire” editor Wilkins said he counted between 38 and 41 voting in the sessions he attended.

Moreland and Wilkins said they believe active membership in the seminar is dwindling - it started with 200 - because even though Funk has invited scholars of various persuasions, all the conservatives have dropped out.

Evangelicals bristle not only at the theology but at the timing of the seminar’s twice-yearly findings, usually released just before Christmas and Easter. Last October, for instance, the group voted unanimously that “Mary did not conceive Jesus without the assistance of a human male” and that the father may or may not have been Joseph.

Until now, virtually the only responses to Jesus Seminar scholarship have come in the form of pamphlets and magazine articles published in magazines such as Christian Research Journal. “Jesus Under Fire” provides about 240 pages of scholarly responses to key Jesus Seminar findings.

Asked if the authors of “Jesus Under Fire” could be accused of being ideologically biased, just as they say the scholars of the Jesus Seminar are biased, Moreland acknowledged that they could.

“What we find the Jesus Seminar advocates doing is claiming that they have a monopoly on the people that are ‘in the know’ on this question,” he said. “And what we’ve done is gather a team of people together to respond to their claims.”

Moreland said the Jesus Seminar’s ideology is the more biased of the two because it operates from an “unfalsifiable presupposition” based on naturalism. Thus, he said, any supernatural event recorded in the Bible is dismissed as being non-historical. The Jesus Seminar has deemed the Gospels to be fairly unreliable historically, a point addressed in “Jesus Under Fire.”

“The New Testament is a very good historical document,” said Darrell Bock, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who contributed a chapter on to “Jesus Under Fire.”

“If we assessed most classical history the way the seminar assesses biblical documents,” he added, “we would be able to say very little about ancient history at all.”

But Schmidt said the seminar has not taken an across-the-board stance against apparently supernatural events in Jesus’ ministry. Healings and exorcisms did take place, Schmidt said, although the nature of those “miracles” - actually “mighty acts” in the original Greek, according to Schmidt - is open to interpretation.

At the heart of the debate is whether belief in the supernatural nature of Jesus and the historical accuracy of the New Testament are essential to faith.

Funk has repeatedly said he believes the seminar’s examinations of scripture do not detract from the faith but allow a Christian to “become the freest person of all, in Christ.”

And Schmidt said he sees himself as “saving the Bible from the fundamentalists” by freeing it from literal interpretations where “the only things that are true are things that are factually accurate.”

“Theological truth is often bigger than historical fact,” he said. That the Jesus Seminar voted against Jesus’ bodily resurrection as history doesn’t rule out making a “statement of faith” that Jesus is divine.

“Resurrection doesn’t have to do with resuscitating dead bodies,” he said. “I want to rescue the Resurrection from turning it into magic.”

Conservative theologians such as Darrell Bock say it isn’t possible to have faith in Christ without believing in the supernatural aspects of his life, death and resurrection.

“If you take the Resurrection out of Christianity, you’ve taken the heart out of the Christian story,” said Bock. “It’s like telling your kid you’ll support him at college but you provide him with no money. It’s an empty promise.”

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