Biblical scholars who have concertedly examined the sayings of
Jesus for eight years believe they have finally heard him speak.
He never gave a straight answer, they say, and he loved to
shock. He neither predicted the end of the world nor claimed to be
And according to the scholars, he probably made only about 20
percent of the statements attributed to him in the New Testament
gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and another early
collection of sayings called the Gospel of Thomas, which the
The scholars are members of the Jesus Seminar, an organization
formed in 1985 to seek the historical Jesus through scholarly
means. They examined the Gospel sayings and then voted on their
The debates and findings are presented in "The Five Gospels:
What Did Jesus Really Say?" (MacMillan Publishing Co.), a book
published in December and promising to be controversial. Some
clergy have accused the scholars of trying to undermine church
But area scholars among the 74 seminary professors, college
teachers and theologians in the Jesus Seminar say they have never
intended to disparage Christianity. In fact, they say, the
historical research has deepened their own Christian faith and
probably will do the same for others.
"If I had not found Jesus through critical scholarship, I
probably wouldn't even be associated with the church today," said
Prof. Charles W. Hedrick of Springfield, Mo., an instructor at
Southwest Missouri State University and a Southern Baptist
minister. "Jesus is much more real to me in ways now than he ever
In rejecting or accepting sayings, Hedrick and others
considered such factors as the theologies of the Gospel writers and
their need to reach a particular audience, the motives of the early
church in perpetuating a certain image of Jesus and the Christian
community, and the conventional beliefs in Jesus' time about the
way God worked.
The Gospels all were written decades after Jesus' death, but
the scholars believe the early evangelists passed on the gist of
Jesus' parables and aphorisms - although they missed the point in
most of them.
The Seminar rejected almost all the sayings in John. Many of
those statements, the scholars said, were couched in the language
of the writer, not of the Jesus who spoke in parables and aphorisms.
The Seminar eliminated sayings that portrayed Jesus as claiming
divinity or messianic stature.
"Jesus taught that the last will be first and the first will be
last," writes Robert W. Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, in the
book's introduction. "He admonished his followers to be servants of
everyone. He urged humility as the cardinal virtue by both word and
example. Given these terms, it is difficult to imagine Jesus making
claims for himself - I am the son of God, I am the expected One,
the Anointed - unless he thought that nothing he said applied to
People in Jesus' time commonly claimed divinity for their
heroes, and many scholars believe the Christians probably were just
following suit, says Stephen J. Patterson, professor of New
Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves.
"There was a whole cult around Caesar, and Christians were
interested in making an alternative claim," said Patterson, a Jesus
Seminar member. …