Bible Scholars Vote : What Did Jesus Say or Not Say?

Times Religion Writer

Thirty Bible scholars passed a ballot box around the table, dropping in colored pegs or beads--red for yes, pink for maybe, gray for probably not and black for no.

They were voting on which sayings in the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount probably go back to Jesus himself and which were put into his mouth by gospel writers or church tradition.

The scholars were to base their votes on what the weight of biblical critical scholarship says and on their own research on the historical Jesus. The group, which includes some of the top American specialists on the New Testament, eventually will consider all of the roughly 500 sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament and non-biblical sources, some of which have been discovered and translated in relatively recent years.


‘Ignorance of the Uninformed’

If the idea of voting on Jesus’ sayings sounds provocative, that is precisely the intent of organizers of the so-called Jesus Seminar, a five- to six-year project just under way. New Testament scholar Robert W. Funk, the principal organizer, said he wants to seize the initiative from television evangelists who, in his view, deal in pious platitudes. He also wants to counteract apocalyptic writers who purport to describe a coming Armageddon--writers, he said, who “have too long played on the fears and ignorance of the uninformed.”

Funk wants to acquaint the public with mainstream biblical scholarship and their findings about the most likely teachings of Jesus, even though the results may disturb many Christians.

The balloting, conducted at the Roman Catholic Saint Meinrad Archabbey and Seminary here in southern Indiana recently, amounted to bad news for the beatitudes and other sayings:

- Blackballed with virtually no discussion was one of Christendom’s favorite beatitudes, or statements of happiness: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Similarly, “the meek who shall inherit the earth” got only six pink-red votes out of 30 cast.

- Only three of a dozen “blessings” and “woes” in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were deemed to have derived from Jesus, and a fourth (“blessed are you when men hate you. . .”) produced an even split after some debate.

Three Beatitudes Pass

Winning favor were the first three beatitudes as found in the Gospel of Luke, “Blessed are you poor . . . you that hunger . . . you that weep.”


Also, scholars felt the historical Jesus probably did advise followers to “turn the other cheek” and to give money without promise of its return. The advice on giving was said to be best represented in the Gospel of Thomas, an apocryphal text discovered 40 years ago.

Funk said it is understandable that the findings and working assumptions in biblical critical studies sound so strange to the average Christian. And he is trying to convince New Testament scholars that they “have not fulfilled their obligations to report their work to a broader public.”

They “have limited their pronouncements to the classroom or buried their considered judgments in scientific journals and technical jargon,” he said. “They have hesitated to broadcast the assured results of historical-critical scholarship out of fear of public controversy and political reprisal.”

That hesitation also comes from fear of being accused by their academic peers of “popularizing or sensationalizing,” according to Marvin Meyer of Chapman College in Orange, one of the additional 40 seminar members who keep in touch by mail. “As a result, much of our research is kept within the guild, in discussions among ourselves.”

All four New Testament Gospels--Mark, Matthew, Luke and John--were written in the last third of the 1st Century, about 40 years or more after Jesus’ Crucifixion. Though church tradition says the apostles Matthew and John wrote those Gospels, mainstream biblical specialists doubt that any gospel writer knew Jesus during his lifetime.

Differences in Passage

The gospel writers, they say, were dependent on written and oral accounts that had already undergone theological changes reflecting the needs or expectations of believers. Attempts to peel back those layers have continued, off and on, for 100 years, but rarely do advances in the field receive wide notice in churches.


To be sure, many churchgoers know that Matthew and Luke differ on the contents of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Some also know that most biblical commentators say that those two gospel authors based their accounts on a common source of Jesus’ sayings, a collection that scholars label “Q.”

But how many church members are also told that, according to scholarly consensus, the author of Luke added four “woes” (to the rich, the satiated, and so forth) as counterpoints to his four “blesseds?” Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, not a member of the Jesus Seminar, agrees with this view, citing “the heavy incidence of Lukan vocabulary in these verses” in his Anchor Bible Commentary on Luke.

In addition, liberal scholarship has maintained for decades that gospel writers had Jesus say and do things that hark back to Old Testament language and deeds. Matthew’s beatitude about the meek inheriting the earth echoes Psalms 37:11 and the “blessed pure in heart who shall see God” may have been inspired by Psalms 24:3-4.

Many scholars say Matthew’s unique beatitudes are betrayed as his creations by the author’s tendency to give sayings a spiritual cast (as in, “blessed are the poor in spirit. . .”).

An evangelical Protestant scholar, Robert H. Gundry of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, maintained in a commentary on Matthew a few years ago that Jesus was not the source for all of the beatitudes in Matthew. Gundry’s book, which said Matthew’s “creativeness” was similar to Jewish commentary techniques of that era, eventually got him kicked out of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Evangelical’s Reactions

The Gundry affair has sent up warning flags among evangelical Protestants, however. The Oct. 18 issue of Christianity Today quotes a panel of evangelical scholars who backed a limited use of biblical criticism to account for different descriptions of similar events. But the panel stopped short of saying that Bible writers invented events that did not occur.


Editor Kenneth Kantzer seconded the panel, declaring that the biblical authors always tell the truth. “If they say Jesus said something, he really did say it, whether or not we have the exact words he used,” Kantzer wrote.

However, in the same issue, New Testament Prof. Robert Thomas of Talbot Theological Seminary in La Mirada disapproved even of the cautious approval of analytical techniques given by the panel. Thomas said historical criticism endangers the premise that the Bible is errorless. “When the critical, subjective element intervenes, doubt about the historical accuracy of Matthew is inevitable,” Thomas wrote.

The Jesus Seminar has at least two evangelicals in its ranks--R. Alan Culpepper of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and John Lown of the Nazarene-related Point Loma College in San Diego.

The implications for faith and theology were rarely discussed in the weekend sessions here; biblical studies normally leave those matters to pastors and theologians. Nevertheless, the scholars who met here usually became interested in pursuing the historical Jesus because of their links with the church.

‘Origins With Jesus’

“I am seeking an understanding of the Jesus tradition, of what must have been done and said to generate such immediate diversity of interpretation,” said DePaul University’s John Dominic Crossan, an influential voice in the Jesus Seminar. “But I do not really know how to comprehend the tradition without asking also about its origins with Jesus.”

Similarly, Karen King of Occidental College, the lone female charter member of the seminar, said she is less interested in the historical Jesus than in how the traditions developed. King said some Jesus Seminar members believe it is impossible to get a full, or even adequate, picture of Jesus.


“Our motives are not to be destructive of faith, nor does anyone think we could be,” she cautioned. “But scholars do not want to sacrifice intellectual integrity for a naive approach to the texts.”

Yet, if the seminar catches the ear of the church, confidence about what Jesus probably taught could be shaken.

Sayings in which Jesus depicts himself as the suffering Son of Man destined to return in the future are likely to be voted down by the Jesus Seminar. Many of those apocalyptic sayings are increasingly regarded in biblical critical circles as additions to the earliest layers of tradition about Jesus.

Other sayings unlikely to pass muster, based on past scholarship, include the “seven last words” attributed to the dying Jesus on the cross and the calls by Jesus to preach the gospel to all nations. “Jesus did not anticipate a mission to the Gentiles,” Funk said.

Likely to Be Blackballed

Even a favorite Jesus verse of ecumenical church leaders--Jesus’ prayer that all believers “may all be one”--is likely to be blackballed, Funk said. It occurs in the Gospel of John (17:21), which scholars consider the most theologically creative of the four New Testament Gospels.

Funk admits that scholars, often unaccustomed to defending their conclusions and methods to lay audiences, “are going to look bad when people say we don’t believe in the Bible.”


But not all people will react negatively, contended seminar member Hal Taussig, pastor of a United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. He said he sees “a new segment that really needs good, objective information about Jesus” and “feels threatened by religious fundamentalism.”

Moreover, simple integrity calls for seminary-trained pastors to pass along the findings of biblical critical scholarship to church members, said Taussig, who teaches New Testament in the summer at the School of Theology at Claremont.

Taussig said, however, that denominational leaders “don’t see that as a good strategy,” and he conceded that churches that do adopt that approach might lose more than they gain in membership and contributions.

For many clergy, disputes over the historical Jesus are fruitless exercises, whereas efforts to apply the tradition about Jesus to people’s lives is seen as meaningful.

‘Passed the Test of Time’

The Rev. Robert Schuller recently preached at his Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove on the “Be Happy Attitudes,” also the title of his latest book. The upbeat advice from Schuller is based on the Sermon on the Mount, which the television minister says is composed of classic sentences that have “passed the test of time” by transforming depression into positive attitudes.

Nonetheless, the field of biblical studies, like other research disciplines, has undergone a “knowledge explosion” triggered by manuscript discoveries and new methods of critical analysis.


A relatively new source for Jesus’ sayings is the narrativeless Gospel of Thomas, part of the Nag Hammadi Library discovered in Egypt in 1945 and translated widely in the 1960s. A straw vote taken here showed that participants unanimously believe that its versions of parables, proverbs and other sayings are independent of and not rewritten from the New Testament Gospels--a major swing from previously divided opinions on Thomas.

The Jesus Seminar hopes to publish a Jesus Bible with the “authentic” sayings printed in red ink, the “inauthentic” in black, and perhaps the gradations of probability in pink and gray ink.

Will anything be left to put into red? Scholars usually favor those teachings that are attested by more than one source and sayings that are different from the commonplace observations or admonitions in 1st Century Judaism, Greco-Roman culture and the fledgling Christian churches.

A solid consensus exists that Jesus taught about the “kingdom” that his disciples were to enter; thus, many parables told about the nature of the kingdom, and the requirements of discipleship are good candidates, scholars say without hazarding guesses at the percentage likely to be published in red.

The seminar plans to take about five years to consider the nearly 500 items--33 parables, 290 aphorisms, 81 dialogues and 90 stories.