The Jesus Seminar, John Meier, and the Reliability of the Gospels

Many people will have heard of “the Jesus Seminar”, a group of about 150 self-appointed experts gathered by their leader Robert Funk in 1985 to pronounce on the authenticity of the various sayings of Jesus. They were famous for using coloured beads to cast their votes regarding the likelihood of various sayings of Jesus being authentic, with a red bead meaning that Jesus probably did utter the saying in question, a pink bead indicating that authenticity was less likely, and the dreaded black bead indicating that Jesus certainly did not utter such a saying, but that it came from the later church. The Jesus Seminar never formally disbanded, even though its founder, Mr. Funk, died in 2005, and is now therefore in a better position to learn the true value of those beads.

The tradition and suppositions of the Jesus Seminar continue in our culture. Recently I have been reading the fascinating two-volume work A Marginal Jew by the Catholic scholar John P. Meier, which runs currently to 484 pages in volume 1 and 1118 pages in volume 2. Fr. Meier represents an old and established tradition of scholarship which gave birth to the Jesus Seminar, and which for over a hundred of years has delighted to deny most of the things taken for granted by traditional Christians. Building upon this liberal tradition, Meier asserts that genuine stories about Jesus can be differentiated from spurious stories about Him by applying several criteria. To his credit, Fr. Meier does not use beads.

The first criterion is what he calls “the criterion of embarrassment”—stories of Jesus which might cause the Church embarrassment are more likely, he says, to be genuine. Next comes “the criterion of discontinuity”—the notion that if a saying of Jesus finds no echo in earlier Judaism or in the later traditions of the Church it is more likely to be genuine. Next comes “the criterion of multiple attestation”—the notion that if a saying is mentioned in more than one source (the sources being determined entirely by liberal scholars) it is more like to be genuine.

Applying these criteria, Meier concludes that: Jesus may or may not have been virginally conceived; that He was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem; that Mary had other children than Jesus. He also concludes that many of the Lord’s miracles are not historically accurate, but are simply creations of the first century church—miracles such as Christ’s healing of the ear of the centurion’s servant cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ’s walking upon the water, His stilling of the storm, and His changing of the water into wine at the wedding at Cana.   More might be said, but you get the idea. Meier’s formidable foot-notes (which compromise about half the book) consist of citations of and debates with other scholars, so that reading his work gives one a deep insight into the state of contemporary liberal scholarship. (In fairness, it should be stressed that Meier is at pains to state that his book does not represent his own personal beliefs, but only what can be learned from the assured results of scholarly investigation.)

That scholarship seems to be the fruit of a hermeneutic of suspicion, one which begins from a place of scepticism. It seems to assume a priori that no statement in the canonical four Gospels should be accepted unless it can prove itself by passing the above-mentioned rigorous criteria. Such radical and deeply-rooted suspicion strikes me as odd. No one, to the best of my knowledge, treats any other historical figure in this way. Certainly historians dismiss some stories told about historical figures as unreliable while they accept other stories, but a predisposition to dump pretty much everything told about Christ in the Gospels unless it can pass a severe liberal grilling by hostile readers seems unusual. One begins to suspect a bias against Christ on the part of those doing the grilling. It is as if Christ is presumed guilty of inauthenticity at the outset, and needs to clear Himself of the charges one by one or stand condemned. This hermeneutic is now thoroughly ingrained (one might say, “enthroned”) in the world of liberal academia, and no one aspiring to stature or university tenure in that world will be accepted unless they conform to this hermeneutical bias.

There is, of course, another kind of scholarship, one which does not share such a jaundiced view of the reliability of the Gospels, one represented by such men as Donald Guthrie, I. Howard Marshall, and N. T. Wright. Meier and his liberal colleagues seem to be fairly dismissive of such “conservative scholarship”, and to assume that such a view of the New Testament must be rooted solely in a kind of ideological fundamentalism, which has little to commend it. In his massive work Meier does little to engage such scholars in their fundamental presuppositions, and never seems to ask if they have any real reason for their confidence in the historical reliability of the New Testament apart from their pathetic ideology. All the more reason for us to do so here. Therefore let us examine the question of why we Orthodox imagine that the four Gospels are historically reliable.

First let us look at the approximate date of those Gospels. Scholars of course debate those dates, like they debate everything else. But the tendency is, I think, to date increasingly early. Not many may agree with John A.T. Robinson in his 1976 book Redating the New Testament that everything must be dated before 70 A.D., but no one can now make a serious case any more that the Gospels were written in the second century as liberal scholars gleefully once did. Even the hyper-sceptical Meier dates Mark to around 70, Matthew and Luke to around 85. I would date them a bit earlier: Eusebius mentions an early tradition that Mark took notes from Peter’s stories about Jesus when in Rome and wrote his Gospel shortly after Peter’s martyrdom. Luke says he consulted eye-witness accounts (Luke 1:1-4), and John claimed to be such an eye-witness (John 19:34-35, 21:20-24), and he fills his Gospel with eye-witness touches, including the hour of the day when certain things occurred.

But even taking the sceptical Fr. Meir’s conclusions as a base means that the Gospel of St. Mark was written about forty years after the events described. That is nothing, historically speaking. I met my wife over forty years ago and was married shortly thereafter and I can remember everything from that time perfectly. Memoirs are usually written after such a lapse of time, and are none the worse for it. This is all the more so since these Gospel memoirs concerned controversial things and were written from within a small embattled community whose enemies would have been delighted to pounce on any major inaccuracy. The hostility of the watching Jewish community (see Acts 28:22) therefore was an incentive for the Gospel writers to keep their accounts accurate and get their facts straight. It kept them honest.

Also, fundamental to Meier’s work and to the work of liberal scholars in general is the presupposition that the early first century church 1) cared little for the question of whether or not a saying or deed of Jesus was historically reliable; and 2) created sayings and deeds which they ascribed to Jesus despite the fact that they more or less knew He never said or did anything of the kind. In other words, the first century church cared little for historical reliability when it came to their Founder, and was intensely creative, grinding out sayings and producing stories out of whole cloth in abundant profusion.

This makes the Christian converts of those first few decades an extraordinarily creative bunch.   The world ever after has applauded the things Jesus supposedly said. If these things were in fact not said by Jesus but invented by His followers, those followers must have been spiritual giants and geniuses. One wonders about that. A quick look at St. Paul’s letters (such as his first letter to the Corinthians) shows that in his own words “not many of you were wise, not many powerful, not many of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). Paul said that one of them was living with his step-mother (1 Cor. 5:1f), others were suing their neighbours (1 Cor. 6:1f), some were drunk at the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:21), and some had no knowledge of God (1 Cor. 15:34). If the early decades of church history were indeed populated by spiritual giants capable of producing Gospel sayings and successfully imitating Jesus, they left remarkably little trace. Odds are those early Christians were no more spiritual than anyone else.

We look next at the liberal presupposition that those Christians of the first few decades cared so little for the actual historicity of Jesus that they would make stuff up and ascribe it all to Him. I suggest that actually the first century church had a high regard for Gospel historicity, and was quite reluctant to ascribe things to Jesus in this way. Consider the following.

  1. St. Paul makes a clear distinction between the actual words of Christ and his own apostolic opinion. In 1 Thessalonians (an epistle even liberal scholars agree that St. Paul wrote) Paul refers to the words of Christ with the introduction, “This we say to you by the word of the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:15)—that is, Paul is not simply giving his own opinion or an opinion common in the early church, but saying that the teaching which follows comes from Christ Himself. Note the distinction: Christ is known in the first century to have said certain things, and Paul emphasizes when a teaching that he gives can be traced back to this dominical saying or not.
  2. We see the same early concern to distinguish between the opinions and words of the apostles and those of the Lord in 1 Corinthians 7:10 and 12 (another epistle that even liberal scholars concede was written by Paul). In 1 Corinthians 7:10, Paul introduces the teaching that two married Christians must not divorce one another by saying, “I give instructions, not I, but the Lord”—that is, Paul is appealing not to his own personal opinion but to an extant teaching of Christ to the effect that His disciples must not divorce one another. Two verses later Paul deals with the question of a mixed marriage between a Christian believer and a pagan unbeliever—a situation for which Christ offered no word—and he prefaces his instructions by saying, “To the rest I say, not the Lord…” That is, Paul cannot transmit or refer to an authoritative saying of Christ on this topic, and so gives his own opinion. In these verses Paul makes a clear distinction between the words of Christ and those of his views/ those of the early church. If the early church was as creative as liberal scholars suppose it to have been, Paul would simply have invented saying of Christ to deal with this topic and put it into His mouth, as the liberal scholars assert that the New Testament writers did countless times.  In these verses we see that the first century church as represented by Paul by no means felt themselves free to invent such sayings and ascribe them to Christ—even if such sayings would have been convenient and helpful to their situations. Rather they felt themselves bound by history to only report Christ as saying something if He actually said it.
  3. We note that the title “the Son of Man” which Christ habitually used to describe Himself in the Gospels cannot be found in any of the New Testament epistles. This discontinuity witnesses to the fundamental distinction between the historical Christ and the later first century church. In the view of the liberal scholars, there was no real dividing wall between historical Jesus and the first century church; people in the early decades made up stories about Jesus more or less at will.   But if this were so we would expect to find the titles Jesus used to describe Himself current in the early church too. This is not the case. Rather, the Sitz im Leben or life setting of Jesus and that of the later church are quite different, and extends even to the titles used for Jesus.
  4. We also note the controversy which all but tore the first century church apart, but which left no traces in the Gospels—that of the question of whether or not the Gentiles should be circumcised when joining the Church. St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians and St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles both testify to how this question divided the early church and required urgent resolution. If that first century church was in the habit of inventing sayings and putting them in the mouth of the Lord, we wonder why no such pronouncement on this question can be found in the Gospels. If there was ever an occasion for which the creative early church should have invented a dominical Gospel saying, it is this one!  The absence of such a controversy in the Gospels shows that the church did not feel itself competent to make things up and project them back onto Christ, as the liberals allege that they constantly did. Rather that church felt itself bound by fidelity to the historical facts transmitted by the apostles.
  5. When we leave the borders of the first century church and look at the “apostolic Fathers” of the early second century and beyond we see the same conservative spirit. That is, all that literature breathes a spirit of historical conservatism, a desire to refer back to the Gospels as historically reliable. If the first century was characterized by a liberal and creative freedom and by a constant production of material about Jesus’ words and deeds which He never actually said or did, one needs to explain the sudden and universal alteration in the church’s attitude as it emerges into greater historical purview in the second century. Bluntly put, we may ask what could have possessed the church to go from feeling itself creatively free of all historical constraint to being obsessed with historical reliability all in the space of a few (undocumented) years? The easiest explanation is that of course the church underwent no such internal radical revolution, but continued its historical conservatism from its earliest years. That is, the church never felt itself free to invent tales about its Founder, but was always concerned to preserve the historical traditions that it first received.

After all, this is the most likely scenario, psychologically-speaking. For think about it: say you are a convert to Christian preaching in the first century. Stories are told you about what Jesus did and said. Why would you not simply believe and treasure them and pass them along to your children? Is it at all likely that such a convert would hear those stories and say, “That seems odd to me. Let me change it. In fact let’s make something up and ascribe it to Jesus because I think it’s a good story”? Is it credible that converts in the first century would think like this?

Take the example of Gandhi, or Mother Teresa, or any other modern religious figure. Their followers pass along certain stories and sayings, and these are justly treasured and preserved by other followers. But do we see these followers simply inventing a multitude of stories and sayings out of whole cloth and ascribing them to Gandhi or Mother Teresa so that their essential historicity is swamped? No; rather such people as Gandhi and Mother Teresa attract a following precisely because of what they have been known to say and do. No one feels a need to invent more stories. History alone suffices. That is why Gandhi and Mother Teresa have followers to begin with.

We may therefore feel confident that the Gospel stories about Jesus are historically reliable. They were written down by Jesus’ followers within a few decades of the time they occurred, and within a community which treasured historical accuracy. By any common-sense figuring, these are trust-worthy accounts.


  1. I note that you did not address the question of the Gnostic gospels. It seems to me that the biggest obstacle to the credibility of the Jesus Seminar was that it naively included the third century forgery, the Gospel of Thomas, on the hypothesis that since it contained only sayings and most of these were also in the Synoptics, it must predate them; the Gnostic and indeed Manichaean theology present in the work was ignored, as was the opinion of the fathers that Mani’s disciple Thomas wrote it and ascribed it to his patron, who had originally evangelized those regions from which Mani hailed, and most absurdly, the Jesus Seminar ultimately decided the Gospel of Thomas was more reliable than that of John.

  2. I wrote a novel in reply to john Meier and Raymond Brown in their attack on the historical reliability of the four Gospels: “The Treasure of Kefer Shimon”. I am also preparing my own massive study of Jesus Christ in History., with 25 chapters, 31 Appendices and 20 indices.

    Father Clifford \Stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska

  3. Father,

    I would point out one thing that you may have overlooked.

    You mentioned that certain scholars seem to impose an especially high level of skepticism to stories about Jesus. I assume that you mean this in contrast to how they would assess stories about someone like Julius Caesar or Plato.

    Building on this point, you speculated that in some cases, this stems from a hostility to Jesus.

    In some cases, that may be true. However, I would suggest two motives that I think motivate some people:

    (1) Jesus’ sayings possess an authority for some people that no other source has. Few people feel obligated to change their opinions or behavior just because Julius Casear or Plato said that people should. When the stakes are higher, people generally exercise a higher level of caution.

    (2) The Gospels are interpreted in different ways by different people. In response, a lot of people would like to have a formal method for getting the precise, definite answer to what they mean. This is especially important for Protestants, for whom it is supposed to be the final authority to which the claims of various churches are subjected. If a person’s apporach to life requires that the Gospels can be used to settle disagreements, then it becomes highly desirable to have a method for interpreting the Gospels that can yield definite, indisputable conclusions.

    I suspect that for some (not all) people this is the motivation behind and intense search for the historical Jesus.

  4. Just how historically reliable are the Gospels and Acts if even prominent conservative Protestant and evangelical Bible scholars believe that fictional accounts may exist in these books? I have put together a list of statements from such scholars and historians as Richard Bauckham, William Lane Craig, Michael Licona, Craig Blomberg, and NT Wright on this issue here:

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