by David Sisler

From West Virginia Interstate 77, take the Beckley exit. Turn right on Harper Road, left onto Route 19 and then right onto South Kanawa Street. You will be in the neighborhood of the scene of my greatest personal satisfaction from my years in the pastoral ministry.

It was there, as well, I had the great misfortune to meet Russell, the overseer of the denomination in which I was serving, and the man who saw to it that my tenure in Beckley ended before it could really begin.

Russell's idea of sin was women wearing make-up, women wearing pants, women wearing jewelry, women cutting their hair, women... well, you get the picture. Russell read only the King James Version of the Bible (don't misunderstand -- there is no justified, or justifiable, correlation between the KJV and Russell's definition of sin). He condemned all other versions as spurious or satanic. He grudgingly overlooked the New International Version, using "only his weak eye." He reasoned that since that eye was bad anyway, reading the NIV could not hurt. In the spirit which allowed Russell to excuse the NIV, I bought and read The Five Gospels, described by the authors as "a bold, dynamic work that will startle traditional readers of the Bible and rekindle interest in it among skeptics."

The Five Gospels, was published by The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, a self-delegated affiliation of academics who meet twice a year to study "the Historical Jesus."

Robert W. Funk, the founder and originator of the Jesus Seminar, has claimed 200 scholars as members. That sounds like a significant number, but not one of those 200 are members of the Society of Biblical Literature, an international organization numbering almost 7000. The actual number of Fellows who have published papers is slightly more than three dozen, and only seventy-four Fellows are listed as contributors to The Five Gospels. Institutions of higher learning with recognized new Testament faculties, like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Union, Emory or Chicago have no representatives among the Fellows and some of the credentials listed are not academic positions at all. Those facts do not negate the apparent seriousness of the members of the Jesus Seminar, but when the word "scholar," is repeatedly bandied about, incredible claims are taken at face value -- something the Fellows would never do with the New Testament.

When the Jesus Seminar began to make headlines with their first press releases, their predisposition to the New Testament could easily be seen. For example: "Scholars Say Jesus Was Often Misquoted" (San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 1986); "Jesus Didn't Claim to Be Messiah, Scholars Say" (San Francisco Chronicle, October 18, 1987); "Lord's Prayer Not Jesus's, Scholars Say" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 15, 1988); "Jesus Didn't Promise to Return, Bible Scholars Group Says" (Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1989). Two things are obvious from this small sample -- some important part of the Jesus legacy is torn down, and the demolition "experts" are heralded as "scholars."

The Jesus Seminar would have you believe that the Bible has been held captive by the church and by television evangelists, and that they are the chosen few to liberate it. The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar worked for six years, and published a 500-page translation and commentary which reveals which words -- in their own words -- "were most probably spoken by Jesus in a form close to the one preserved for us." Probably. Close. Even after six years they cannot say with certainty that Jesus said anything which Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas (a recently discovered book included by the Fellows with the four canonical books) say he said. In fact, the Fellows attribute only sixteen sayings directly to Jesus. Probably. Close.

To determine what Jesus actually said, or as the results turned out, what he didn't say, the Fellows devised an elaborate voting system. Then they color-coded the results. Sayings printed in red type "are considered by the Seminar to be close to what Jesus actually said." Words printed in pink "less certainly originated with Jesus." Words in gray "are not his, though they contain ideas that are close to his own." And black, which is most of their New Testament translation, "have been embellished or created by his followers, or borrowed from common lore." By their count, no more than twenty percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus (both red and pink) were said by Jesus. One of my favorite examples is "The Lord's Prayer." Only the words "Our Father" are in red.

Their current project, with an announcement due soon (probably at Easter, the time they usually make their dramatic announcements) will be to tell us what Jesus really did. If out of all the statements attributed to him in the Gospels, the Jesus Seminar could find only sixteen which they believe he probably said, it is my guess that they will find that Jesus actually did none of the mighty works ascribed to him. No water turned to wine. No healings (maybe there will be a condition which they will label as a "psychosomatic illness" allowing a conditional stamp of authenticity). And most definitely, no resurrection. But when they deny the resurrection, they will authenticate, albeit unwillingly, Paul's statement to the Corinthian Church, "If our hope in Christ is for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone else in the world."


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 1/11/97

Copyright 1997 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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