21st Century Alchemy?

A conservative theologian cautions if the Gospels are unreliable, then we have no sure communication from God

The Jesus Seminar is 21st-century alchemy, producing bullion for its theatrical perpetrators, who make their magic from the decaying remnants of a long-unfruitful search for the historical Jesus.

Grown men with impressive academic degrees sit at a table sharing their opinions. No evidence of the sort you would expect in a physics experiment or, for that matter, even in an investigation of Shakespeare is brought to the table--just opinions, mere hypotheses with the barest support.

Oh, yes, and then there are the colored marbles with which the Seminar members vote. To roll out a red marble, according to their rules, means that the voting member thinks Jesus actually said what the Gospels purported he said; a gray one means the saying is doubtful. One can almost be forgiven the suspicion that most of the "marbles" in the room are on the table. Any other body of scholars who voted this way about history would be ridiculed.

The search for the historical Jesus has a checkered past. In the 18th century, some scholars determined that the Jesus of the Gospels could not possibly be the real Jesus. They figured that the four evangelists--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--had fabricated a fabulous Jesus. But, they surmised with a clever examination of the Gospels, together with careful analysis of the literary sources of the period, one could perhaps reconstruct the actual Jesus of history.

This initial quest for the historical Jesus came to an abrupt halt with the publication of Albert Schweitzer's monograph "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" in 1906. While Schweitzer fell victim to the approaches he criticized, he nevertheless properly concluded that all such quests were at best inaccurate and at worst totally erroneous, producing a Jesus in the image of the scholars. C. S. Lewis, John Warwick Montgomery, and others have provided the parameters for the discussions about Jesus, though their approaches varied. There are only four possibilities.


Perhaps Jesus was an imposter, the world's foremost liar, who, claimed to be God in human flesh. Or maybe he was insane, relatively benign but nonetheless deluded, actually believing himself to be God. Contemporary psychotherapists would doubtless suggest that he was driven to this neurosis as a result of questions about the legitimacy of his birth.

Enlightenment investigators were aware of the improbability of those assessments and opted for a third--namely, that Jesus was an authentic figure from the first century. He was a relatively unlettered and unofficial rabbi who, possessed of remarkable charisma, developed a following that, after his unfortunate demise, created a legend that grew to mythic proportions until the early-second-century church deified him, enshrouded him in miraculous trappings, and enthroned him as the God-man. In other words, Jesus was neither a liar or a lunatic but just a human legend.

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