Who were the Jesus Seminar? Should anyone have taken them seriously?

Was having a conversation Sunday evening with the woman I am mentoring and she brought up the Jesus Seminar – a small group of naturalistic, pluralistic academics. Apparently, someone’s child went to college, heard about them, and lost their faith because of their writings. I wanted to find a good article for her on this, and since Dr. William Lane Craig has debated most of the leading scholars in the Jesus seminar, (e.g. – John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Roy Hoover, Gerd Ludemann, Robert Price, John Shelby Spong, etc.), I chose an article by Dr. Craig. I also link to two debates that Dr. Craig did with Jesus Seminar people below.

First a short video (4 minutes):

If you can’t watch anything long, then watch that.

Here is the article, on the Reasonable Faith web site.


In 1985 a prominent New Testament scholar named Robert Funk founded a think tank in Southern California which he called the Jesus Seminar. The ostensible purpose of the Seminar was to uncover the historical person Jesus of Nazareth using the best methods of scientific, biblical criticism. In Funk’s view the historical Jesus has been overlaid by Christian legend, myth, and metaphysics and thus scarcely resembled the Christ figure presented in the gospels and worshipped by the Church today. The goal of the Seminar is to strip away these layers and to recover the authentic Jesus who really lived and taught.


The number one presupposition of the Seminar is antisupernaturalism or more simply, naturalism.Naturalism is the view that every event in the world has a natural cause. There are no events with supernatural causes. In other words, miracles cannot happen.

Now this presupposition constitutes an absolute watershed for the study of the gospels. If you presuppose naturalism, then things like the incarnation, the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ miracles, and his resurrection go out the window before you even sit down at the table to look at the evidence. As supernatural events, they cannot be historical. But if you are at least open to supernaturalism, then these events can’t be ruled out in advance. You have to be open to looking honestly at the evidence that they occurred.

[…][T]he second presupposition which I wanted to discuss, namely, sceptical critics presuppose that our most primary sources for the life of Jesus are not the Gospels, but rather writings outside the New Testament, specifically the socalled apocryphal gospels. These are gospels forged under the apostles’ names, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Philip, and so forth. These extrabiblical writings are said to be the key to correctly reconstructing the historical Jesus.

In addition to that, there seems to be a third presupposition – radical religious pluralism.

John Dominic Crossan closed his opening speech in his debate with Dr. Craig with this:

When I look a Buddhist friend in the face, I cannot say with integrity, “Our story about Jesus’ virginal birth is true and factual. Your story that when the Buddha came out of his mother’s womb, he was walking, talking, teaching and preaching (which I must admit is even better than our story)—that’s a myth. We have the truth; you have a lie.” I don’t think that can be said any longer, for our insistence that our faith is a fact and that others’ faith is a lie is, I think, a cancer that eats at the heart of Christianity.

But of course, he thinks that all miracle claims are lies, because of his supernaturalism. What he is really trying to do here is redefine these claims so they are not truth claims at all, but personal preference claims.

But the main point is that the co-chair of the Jesus Seminar pre-supposes that nothing that Christianity claims that offends people in other religions can be true. Before he sits down to look at the evidence. I’m not saying that these guys can’t do history, I’m saying that the real debate with these guys should not be about history. The real debate should be about their presuppositions. We should work to defeat their pre-supposition naturalism with good scientific arguments like the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitability-discoverability argument, etc. And we should work to defeat their pre-supposition of pluralism by just asking them to defend it, and maybe point out that a person’s being offended by some claim about reality being true does not make that claim false. Logic requires that people who make claims that are made false by reality are wrong and no amount of crying and sobbing can change that.

The second article in the series that Dr. Craig mentioned in the article I linked above is a generic article on the evidence for the historical Jesus. If you have not read a case for the resurrection of Jesus, then read it, too. Or you can check out this lecture by Dr. Craig on the Jesus Seminar and the historical Jesus:

If you want to see a good debate between Dr. Craig and Marcus Borg, here it is:

Dr. Borg is one of the more respected Jesus Seminar people, and a really nice guy. But also, a really wrong guy.

The key thing to know about them is that they presuppose naturalism (miracles never happen) and radical pluralism (no exclusivist religion can be correct, because that would make people in the other religions feel bad). The presuppositions are key to understanding the “historical work” of the Jesus Seminar.




2 thoughts on “Who were the Jesus Seminar? Should anyone have taken them seriously?”

  1. Let me recommend my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can’t find Jesus, but Grandma Marshall Could, to those interested in learning more. I describe 12 presuppositions of the Jesus Seminar, and show why the Gospels are not only believable, but immediately credible for reasons that do not require a PhD to ascertain — though I have one in related fields. The book also describes 50 characteristics that make the gospels unique in ancient literature, comparing them to their closest competitors.


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