TRA Wordtalks

Who Do You Say I Am?
24/98 2.8.98 Scripture: Mark 8:27-30

THE debate over who scholars say Jesus is has been the hottest issue in the Christian world over recent times.

Over 1.7 billion believers proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ. But who is it that Christians worship? Most scholars say with us that Jesus was the Son of God, the promised Messiah who died on the cross to redeem human sin, only to rise from the grave and reappear to His disciples. But some scholars say He was simply an extraordinary man who was proclaimed to be something more by others who were growing in their faith.

Never before has the quest to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith caught the attention of so many ordinary people. At Easter 1996 the three leading weekly news magazines TIME, NEWSWEEK, US NEWS & WORLD REPORT - all had cover stories documenting the contentious argument over scholarly portraits of the historical Jesus. Fuelling the interest are the dozens of books that theologically liberal scholars and clergy have published in recent years taking a critical look at the life of the Jesus of the Gospels. That has prompted their more conservative academic colleagues to publish a like number of books defending the Jesus of tradition.

During the first half of the year, I looked at a different aspect on this modern quest for Jesus. Much of the current impetus for this public discussion can be traced to a self-appointed group of some 70 religious scholars that calls itself the Jesus Seminar.

These seventy scholars for more than a decade have met twice yearly to pass judgment on the words and deeds of Jesus as stated in the New Testament. With a flair for getting media publicity the Jesus Seminar captured public attention seen in newspaper and magazine reports in this country.

The popular media's fascination with the Jesus Seminar and the quest for the historical Jesus is part of the larger religious debate sweeping the Christian world today. Many people have rejected traditional church in a preference for a scientific understanding of the world. At the same time, many Christians have responded to the secular culture with an intellectual belief in the Gospels and Jesus. The Jesus Scholars are facing strong reaction from evangelical and conservative scholars. My sermons on this issue are being down-loaded each week throughout the world, and in USA many people have been following our evening sermons.

The Jesus Seminar is led by a retired professor Robert W Funk, a former Roman Catholic priest John Dominic Crossan who now teaches in Chicago, and Marcus Borg a professor from Oregon. These are fine scholars and unfortunately they are neither matched by many others in their group of seventy nor by people who refute their viewpoints. Crossan claims Jesus could not have physically risen from the dead because His body was likely thrown to the dogs after being taken down from the cross. Borg says Jesus was a shaman, a religious magician who healed the sick.

We will look at these claims and these aspects of the life of Jesus later.
The Jesus Seminar fellows use coloured beads to vote on whether the Bible's claims about what Jesus said and did were historically accurate. For example, a red bead means Jesus said it; a pink bead means Jesus probably said something like this; down to a black bead which means Jesus did not say this at all but others did. Voting in this manner, the Jesus Seminar concluded only 18% of the words of Jesus in the Gospels can be His. By voting with beads they rejected the virgin birth, claims Jesus proclaimed Himself the Son of God and His resurrection.

In his latest book, `Honest to Jesus', Robert Funk concludes that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, had no father named Joseph; that His arrest, trial, and execution was suggested by prophecies in the Old Testament and `that early Christian storytellers `arranged' to have the prophecies fulfilled as they told and retold the story.' Their Jesus was an itinerant social critic and sage, a rebel against a repressive established social order.

The Jesus Seminar arrived at their conclusions by scrutinising the social, literary, linguistic, political, and religious environment in which Jesus lived, material common to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke called Gospel Q, and a third century Gospel of Thomas. They replace supernatural acts with psychological explanations. So the resurrection was an internal experience of Jesus' disciples that was later misunderstood to be historical truth. `The resurrection happened in the hearts and minds of the first disciples. It was an ecstatic event that did not involve the body.' (Gerd Leudemann) The Jesus Seminar conclusions are simply old German liberal conclusions from last century dressed in coloured beads.

1. People who reject the supernatural can never lead you to faith. They have prejudged the issue. A humanist philosophy can never understand the New Testament Jesus. Belief is necessary to know Jesus. The Seminar scholars believe every naturalistic explanation over the power of God to perform miracles. If you dismiss the power of God before you start, can you then find it present in scripture? Can such people ever then lead you to faith?

2. People who reject the Bible have no other basis for knowing Jesus. The Seminar fellows accept as valid documents the early church did not accept. The so-called Gospel of Thomas was known by the early Church and rejected as inaccurate. The sayings of Jesus are only known from the Gospels themselves. No other such Gospel has ever been found. To dismiss the sayings of Jesus on the basis of the Gospel of Thomas and a Gospel never found as against the four New Testament Gospels is quite incredible. There is no evidence other than from the Bible. To dismiss 82% of the New Testament for what does not exist carries little competence.

3. People who reject the New Testament reject the witness of eyewitnesses. Many eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus still lived when the Gospels were composed in the decades that followed the death of Jesus. These eyewitnesses ensured the accounts of Jesus were accurately retold. Paul said that any details of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus could be checked by asking the eyewitnesses who still lived when the Gospels were being written. His enemies were still alive to refute any false claim.

4. People who reject the claims of Jesus to be the Messiah overlook such claims by others. The Seminar Scholars believe Jesus could not have claimed to be Messiah and Son of God in that era. But the Dead Sea Scrolls written just before and during the life time of Jesus report a Teacher of Righteousness as one through whom God spoke, setting a precedent for Jesus to regard himself in similar tones.

5. People who recreate Jesus as a harmless wandering sage fail to explain His impact. All scholars agree Jesus caused the Jewish establishment and the Romans to kill Him. The Jesus reconstructed by the Jesus Seminar is too innoxious, too meek and mild to ever have brought crucifixion upon Himself. The impact of His life is undeniable. To remove all of His controversial statements is to leave no reason why He should be put to death. To remove the reality of the resurrection is to leave us without an explanation of the continuing impact of the Risen Christ in the lives of believers ever since.

Can you see why the Jesus Seminar has created a huge debate around the world, caused hundreds of books to be written and thousands of newspaper and magazines articles to be published? The seventy or so scholars have come under close scrutiny from their peers. They have been criticised as being too American, from only a few religious schools, as ignoring scholars from England, Europe, Asia and the Pacific, of being a self-selected group from a narrow liberal tradition which excluded evangelicals and conservative scholars, and as people who claimed to represent scholarship. They have deceived the public. The media has given them great promotion, but cooler eyes have seen their shallow approach.

The Jesus Seminar will go the same way as the `God is Dead' phenomenon of the 1960s. Those of us who lived through that era saw the media prophesying the end of Christianity, and a small group of scholars presented their liberal views and secular attitudes. They are all now gone, and nothing is more dead than their scholarship. This is the future for the Jesus Seminar, but not just yet. The scholars have announced they will now study of the life and writings of Paul, and by the end of 1999, rewrite the New Testament. But already the publication bubble has burst. Comments about Paul do not catch the media as those about Jesus.

Two final questions remain: the first concerns the little coloured marbles by which a small group of pre-selected scholars voted on the authenticity of the words of Jesus. Is it ever possible to find truth by voting on truth by a small, unrepresentative group who disregard the scholarship of past ages and by excluding the majority of present scholars? The methodology is fatally flawed even if it attracted wide media attention. Perhaps they were offering only a mirrored image of themselves.

The second issue is: why do scholars travel so wide of the mark in their search for truth? The answer is simple. You do not have to be a believer or even a Christian to hold a place within a university as a scholar. People have become academics who have failed in public ministry or who have suffered from a crisis in personal faith. Personal belief is not a requirement to hold an academic position. Further, their tenure is dependent upon attracting students to their courses and publishing books and the way of controversy is a winner.

For Jesus of Nazareth still attracts people to Himself, both his followers and detractors. Still some would rid the world of Him and others find Him the way to life.
His many-sided character still amazes. We will look at some of the suggested answers given by the Jesus Seminar scholars over the next weeks. We will continue to answer His question first asked of His disciples in Caesarea Philippi: `But who do you say I am?' Their answers may be only fractional and limited, and some will be inadequate, but together they show us the amazing multi-faceted life of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Even then, there were many who wondered about who Jesus of Nazareth really was. So Jesus questioned his disciples near Caesarea Philippi: Mark 8:27-30 `On the way he asked them, `Who do people say I am?' They replied, `Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.' `But what about you?' he asked. `Who do you say I am?' Peter answered, `You are the Christ.' Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.'

So the question comes to us today: `Who do you say I am?' We can do no better than to answer as did Peter long ago: `You are the Christ.' It was this answer that revealed the power of the Risen Christ to change the life of the persecutor Paul, the business woman Lydia, the Philippian gaoler, the philosopher Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell, Charles Colson and a million others today. To know Jesus as Lord and Saviour is to know more than many scholars.

Gordon Moyes 1998

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