Historical Jesus, Theology

Historical Jesus, pt 1 – The Demotion of Jesus

This week, I will be posting a series of discussions on the Jesus Seminar. These documents were originally written in 2006 in response to reading the works of the Seminar and several of its prominent members. If you are unaware of the work of the Jesus Seminar, you have only to pick up any of the major news magazines (Time, Newsweek) during the Easter season and you will read their works.

I apologize if this overly academic, but the Jesus Seminar is intentionally academic and it is only fitting to respond to them in the same fashion. Any questions can be posted in the comments, and we will address them as time permits.

Pursuing a Jesus without Faith

“We should give Jesus a demotion. It is no longer credible to think of him as divine…Jesus advocates and practices a trust ethic…he urges his followers to celebrate life.” – Robert Funk1

The Jesus Seminar is by far the most active voice in the entire field of  modern “Jesus scholarship”. One might assume that “Jesus Scholarship” would be a holistic approach to understanding the Gospel record in the light of history, of sifting through additional historic information and checking the facts. If you made that assumption when you first read the phrase “Jesus Scholarship”, then you assumed incorrectly.

First convened in 1985, the Seminar is really a continuation of the works of a number of predecessors. Lane C. McGaughy summarizes it thus:

When Robert W. Funk convened the first meeting of the Jesus Seminar in 1985, he invited respondents to prepare a new history of the traditions about Jesus in early Christianity which, in effect, would update and expand Rudolf Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition, first published in 1921, in light of textual discoveries like the Dead Sea scrolls (1947) and Nag Hammadi codices (1945) and recent methodological advances in the social sciences and literary criticism.2

McGaughy, who is a member of the Jesus Seminar, lays the facts out. The purpose of the Seminar is not to establish who Jesus was, but rather “to prepare a history of the traditions about him in early Christianity.” This history was to be based on the existing scholarship, and not on faith. It was to be entirely historical and not theological.

The reason for this distinction is made obvious by Robert W. Funk, the head of the Jesus Seminar.

“The Jesus of the gospels is an imaginative theological construct, into which have been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth—traces that cry out for recognition and liberation from the firm grip of those whose faith overpowered their memories.”3

Jesus scholarship begins with the assumption that there is a sharp distinction between the Jesus of faith and the historical Jesus. Thus, only those who are freed from the constraints of theological bias can truly see who Jesus was. The faith community, which reveres Jesus, will inevitably read their faith back into the texts, and thus their position on Jesus’ true nature and existence are negated by their subjectivity.

This distinction began with the work of Hermann Samuel Reimarus in the mid 18th century and continues in an unbroken line down to the Jesus Seminar today. It requires the historian/scholar to become a theological tabla rasa and approach Jesus as he would any other historical figure – without any preconceived notions.

The Problem with Being “Objective”

The problem is that no one approaches any subject without carrying some preconceptions. The Jesus Seminar does approach Jesus with a preconceived notion – that Jesus is not the Jesus of faith. Their foundational belief is that he must fit Bultmann’s view, which they are attempting to update and expand. They do not truly approach Jesus, they approach a pre-developed notion of Jesus.

Of course, Jesus scholars criticize the statement above – calling it “the presupposition gambit.” They state that it is the bias of the statement that makes the scholar’s work look subjective – a sort of applied subjectivity that does not really exist. If you think about it, this is a double standard. The Seminar claims to be completely objective and any hint of subjectivity in their work is blamed on those who don’t agree that they are being objective. In other words, the members of the Seminar are the only people who can truly judge objectivity and what everyone thinks is subjective is really just because those people aren’t as objective as the Seminar is. (Mind-blowing!)

But the Seminar speaks to their own bias. Robert Funk lays out his pre-determined notion of Jesus in his introduction to The Acts of Jesus.

“Jesus does not as a rule initiate dialogue or debate, nor does he offer to cure people. Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about himself in the first person. Jesus makes no claim to be the Anointed, the Messiah…Stories in which Jesus is represented as other than a laconic sage are not likely to be historical.”4

Funk asserts that Jesus is exactly what Funk desires him to be without qualification. The context of these statements offers no validation of the position. Funk’s position is grounded in the essence of Jesus scholarship, which he presupposes to be true without question. Throughout the works of the Jesus Seminar, there are blanket statements made about historical positions which do not need, in their opinion, any sort of re-evaluation but in reality rest entirely on their biases.

And what is the result of their studies? Van A. Harvey put it this way in a review of Raymond Martin’s book The Elusive Messiah:

“Their picture of Jesus is disturbing not only because the supernatural elements have been stripped away but because it is utterly unlike that of the Gospels. These scholars claim not just that the early church expressed its response to Jesus by ascribing supernatural status to him, but that the church has preserved an utterly false picture of him.”5

One thing is certain. The modern Jesus scholarship demands a response from those exposed to it. Raymond Martin lays out that there are three possible responses:

  1. Only Faith – the believer dismisses the expert opinion of the historians
  2. Only Reason – the believer becomes totally submissive to the historians
  3. Faith Seeking Understanding – they work out some kind of compromise between the two

There is no doubt that anyone exposed to these theories must respond. The division they create between history and faith requires a response. In a following section, we will deal with the spiritual presupposition their theory has created in many of the Jesus Seminar’s pre-eminent thinkers.

History of the Movement

Before moving to a summary of Bultmann’s teachings which are so foundational to the Jesus Seminar’s positions, it is necessary that we summarize the history of the criticism which has created the Seminar. Since the mid 18th century, a series of axioms have developed that grounded Bultmann and ultimately the Jesus Seminar.

First Quest: Early Development (aka “The Dead German Society”)

c 1750 Hermann Samuel Reimarus became convinced that one could separate what the authors of the Gospels said about Jesus from what he said himself

1835 David Friedrich Strauss publishes The Life of Jesus Christ Critically Examined

“Critical scholarship ‘turned to the historical Jesus as an ally the struggle against the tyranny of dogma’.”6

1838 Christian Gottlob Wilke proposes the theses that Mark was the first gospel in The Original Evangelist

Christian Herman Weisse proposes the existence of an additional source Q (abbr. for German Quelle, “source) in The Gospel History Critically and Philosophically Investigated

1892 Johannes Weiss strips Jesus’ message down to the simplest terms of the “Kingdom of God” in Proclamation of the Kingdom of God

1901 Wilhelm Wrede’s book The Messianic Secret in the Gospels strips Jesus of his role as Messiah

1906 Albert Schweitzer’s tome The Quest of the Historical Jesus; Jesus’ ethical teachings became more important than an accurate record of his life and deeds

Second Quest: The Demythologizing of Jesus (aka “Jesus? He’s Just Made Up Anyway!”)

1919 The Framework of the Gospels by Karl Ludwig Schmidt dismisses the narratives of the Gospels as fictional settings for Jesus’ sayings

1921 Rudolf Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition pioneers the concept of form criticism, the dissection of elements of the narrative to find the “original oral tradition”

This is followed by a series of essays that attempt to “demythologize” the gospels – essentially stripping them of any form whatsoever

1956 Ernest Käseman and Günther Bornkamm attempt to revitalize the quest despite Bultmann’s blanket statement; they call for a unification of the historical Jesus with the teachings of his followers

Third Quest: The Renewed Jesus (aka “Give Me That Old Time Religion”)

1973 In Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospel, Geza Vermes proposes that Jesus was a charismatic holy man/healer common to his era of Jewish thought

A number of writers including E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright and John P. Meier began to seek for Jesus by connecting the gospels with the teachings of Paul.

This group falls somewhere in between those who see Jesus as a myth and those who view him exactly as the gospels show him. Jesus is viewed as someone who truly was supernatural, but not quite divine

Renewed Quest: The Jesus Seminar (aka “It’s all about peace and love, man”)

1964 Amos Wilder’s The Language of the Gospel: Early Christian Rhetoric

1966 Robert W. Funk authors Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God

1973 John Dominic Crossan publishes In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus

1984 Marc Borg published his Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus

1991 The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant by Dominic Crossan becomes the “last word” on Jesus’ life

1993 The Jesus Seminar, led by Robert W. Funk, issues The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus

1998 This is followed by The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus

Overall, the purpose of these scholars became the combination of a century of Jesus scholarship into these final two reports; they dissect the Jesus of the Bible based on the theories of their predecessors.

The Biblical gospels are seen as representatives of the oral traditions of pre-Mark and Q and not as sources of their own.

Robert Funk refers to this quest as “the tragic and heroic story of those who endeavored to break the church’s stranglehold over learning.”7


1 Robert W. Funk, “21 Theses of the Coming Radical Reformation” (The Fourth R, July/August 1998)

2 Lane C. McGaughy, “The Search for the Historical Jesus: Why start with the sayings?” (The Fourth R, September/December 1996)

3 Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997), 7.

4 Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 34.

5 Van A. Harvey, “Jesus and History, The Believer and the Historian” (Christian Century, vol 117 iss 3 1/26/00) p 91, 4p

6 Robert W. Funk, quoting Albert Schweitzer, “Milestones in the Quest for the Historical Jesus” (The Fourth R, July/August 2001)

7 Funk, The Five Gospels, 6.

4 thoughts on “Historical Jesus, pt 1 – The Demotion of Jesus”

  1. Hey Erik,

    Thanks for discussing this issue! It is surely a vital point which needs to be addressed! When I first encountered the opposition of The Jesus Seminar, I was taught about them from a very conservative, fundamentalist perspective – which was not all bad (much of it was good), but many questions remained. Clearly, dogamticism and fundamentalism do not discriminate between conservatives and liberals; all are viable to being infected by this “black plague.” I appreciate and anticipate exlporing this issue from your perspective, as I really enjoy the view from which you see things. Thanks, my brother! 🙂


    1. Hey Ian,

      I think one of the viruses that infects the body of Christ is an unwillingness to hear those we do not agree with. Personally, I enjoy John Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman, even though I disagree with them. They force you to stretch your thinking. I do not see them necessarily as a threat but rather as a catalyst for greater thought.

      Robert Funk and some of the other original JS guys aren’t really all that interesting to read. The Five Gospels was a trudge to read, but I wanted to listen to them and hear what they have to say.

      There is no simple answer to the JS. You really have to take the time to read them, to hear their longing for Jesus. In the end, I don’t agree with their approach to the text. I believe a lot of the things they take as axiomatic are subjective theory. But you still have to hear them before you can answer them. And along the way, I believe that we can learn something from them as well.

  2. Many persons fail to distinguish between the historical first century Ribi Yehoshua ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) [Netzarim have convincing reasons he was the Mashiakh ben Yoseiph] from Nazareth (His teachings were pro-Torah and were later redacted by Hellenists; and the redaction is now found in the “gospel of Matthew”, which is anti-Torah) and the antithesis the Jezus of the “gospels”. The name of Ribi Yehoshua was redacted into the antithesis name Jezus by Hellenists. The website http://www.netzarim.co.il [History Museum (left menu)] proves that the ending of the name Jezus, derives not from a pure transliteration of Yehoshua, but it is synthesized with the name of Z*us.

    An analysis according to a formal logical methodology (found in the above Netzarim-website (including the scientific premises the analysis is based on) (it is the website of the only legitimate Netzarim-group)) (including the logical implications of the research by Ben-Gurion Univ. Prof. of Linguistics Elisha Qimron of Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT) of all extant source documents of “the gospel of Matthew” (which is a redaction of Netzarim Hebrew Matityahu (which was perfectly in harmony with Torah) and anti-Torah) and archeology proves that the historical Ribi Yehosuha ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) (ben Yoseiph) from Nazareth and his talmidim (apprentice-students), called the Netzarim, taught and lived Torah all of their lives; and that Netzarim and Christianity were always antithetical.

    Ribi Yehoshua taught in NHM (later redacted to the “gospel of Matthew”) 23:1-3: ”Then Yehoshua spoke to the qehilot and to his talmidim saying, ”The Sophrim and those of the Rabbinic-Perushim sect of Judaism who advocate that Halakhah [mishpatim; mishpatim are the decisions of a beit-din (Judaic court) of how to apply the mitzwot in Torah. It is ordered in Torah – Devarim [de-Judaized to “Deuteronomy”] 17:8-13)] must be exclusively oral sit upon the bench of Mosheh. So now, keep shomeir and do concering everything – as much as they shall tell you! Just don’t imitate their maaseh (practice, doing, making) because they say but they don’t do.”

    The above Netzarim-website proves the “gospels” contains words a first century Pharisee (Ribi Yehoshua ha-Mashiakh was called a Ribi, which implies he was a Ribi and thus had Rabbinical ordination from Raban Jamlieil, the president of the beit din ha-Jadol (an authority to decide mishpatim (authority given by ha-Sheim [the Creator] in Torah (see for example Devarim (de-Judaized to “Deuteronomy”) 17:8-13 )) impossible could have said.

    Only the Pharisees had Ribis, and thus this implies Ribi Yehoshua was a Ribi.

    The current earliest manuscripts of “the gospel of Matthew” contains words a first century Ribi would never have said, and thus a reconstruction is needed.
    [Even according to the most authoritative Christian scholars, e.g., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, NT contains redactions (see quote from that book in the above website; click on “Glossaries”; click on “NT”)]

    Using the above formal logical methodology Paqid Yirmeyahu (based on the premise that Ribi Yehoshua was a Ribi, and other scientific premises), Paqid Yirmeyahu, ha-Tzadiq, Ben David wrote a reconstruction named Netzarim Reconstruction of Hebrew Matityahu (found in http://www.netzarim.co.il). That is an essential read for those whom want to know what Ribi Yehoshua actually taught and didn’t teach.

    All of this research implies that the term the “historical Jezus” is merely an oxymoron. The historical person was named Ribi Yehoshua.

    Anders Branderud

    1. Hello Anders,

      Thanks for stopping by and providing your input. I am familiar with this type of theory, although I haven’t encountered the theory you’ve presented. While I would agree that Matthew is a very Jewish gospel and probably the first of the gospels and that Jesus is a corruption of the name Yehoshua, I would respectfully disagree with the thesis you present.

      I would maintain that Matthew contains things a Jewish rabbi would not have said because Jesus was the Son of God, the Christ, the Savior of the world, and the culmination of all of history. Yes, Jesus was born a Jew, as were his original followers. The Church was not distinguished from Judaism until well after Jesus’ death. Certain elements of the Church, such as the Ebionites, attempted to maintain that Jewish character but as more and more Gentiles became disciples of Christ, the Jewishness faded in the presence of Christ’s universal message.

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