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.

The only remaining alternative is that Jesus is exactly who he said he was--the eternal God made flesh for the purpose of dying on the cross to provide forgiveness for humanity's sins. Further, the four evangelists have given us accurate accounts of the life and works of Jesus the Christ. Not only the passion of Jesus on the cross but also the resurrection from the tomb and the ascension of Christ into heaven are true, and Jesus has the power not only to forgive sin but also to transform life. Everyone has to decide ultimately which of these four scenarios seems most credible.

Now, I have no beef with the rights of the participants in the Jesus Seminar to embrace or even peddle their doubting perspective. As a Baptist, I am strongly committed to absolute religious liberty, which is the freedom not only to believe whatever satisfies the conscience, but also to advocate that view as appropriate for others.

What I would like to say to these contemporary followers of doubting Thomas is that a view that lacks integrity and makes inflated claims is unworthy of the name "scholarship." Your claims draw not from sound scholarship but from ideology. Confess that your views are clearly contested, not only by conservative scholars, but even by many scholars who would not classify themselves as "conservative," let alone "fundamentalist."

And for the sake of the truth, tell the public that none of your findings are factual in any scientific use of the term but are merely conjectures. And tell the public that if the Gospels are unreliable, then we have no sure communication from God about anything. We are left adrift on a sea of human speculation and darkness, negotiating a storm with no light to guide us to safe haven.

To the public, I would urge that you neither be overly impressed with the facade of scholarship in the Jesus Seminar nor caught up with their supposed findings. Insist on evidence of the same variety that you would ask of any other scholars of history. Keep an open mind to the possibility that 2,000 years of prior scholarship leading to the belief in the Jesus of the Gospels just may be true. And, after all, if it is true, only eternity, heaven and hell, are at stake.

In short, I give the Jesus Seminar an "A" for entrepreneurial instincts, a "C" for theater, and "D" for scholarship and integrity. For deception of the public, it merits a "B."

The pity of the whole matter is that these theologians may not be so fortunate as Thomas, who doubted until he saw the risen Lord and said instantly, "My Lord and my God." If they continue in this approach, and the Bible proves right, they may get an "F" for eternity.

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