The Search for the Authentic Deeds

Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar

For those who believe the Bible to be the word of God a 16% historical accuracy rate may seem ridiculously low. Why did the Seminar end up with so many black (largely or entirely fictive) and gray (possible but unreliable) reports? The results should not be surprising to critical scholars—those whose evaluations are not predetermined by theological considerations. Nevertheless, it is important to both the general reader and the scholars who participated in the Seminar to be as clear as possible about the reasons for this result.

The reason the Fellows colored so many of the events (84%) gray or black lies in the character of the gospels themselves. Although some twenty gospels have survived either in whole or in part from the first three centuries of the Common Era, only four were eventually included in the New Testament. The earliest tiny scraps of papyrus fragments are from a copy of the Gospel of John and the Egerton Gospel (consult the Dictionary of Terms & Sources for a description), and can be dated no earlier than about one hundred years after Jesus' death. The earliest substantial physical evidence for the gospels comes from the end of the second century C.E., about 170 years after Jesus' demise.

In the absence of hard information, scholars theorize that the New Testament gospels were composed during the last quarter of the first century by third-generation authors on the basis of folk memories preserved in stories that had circulated by word of mouth for decades. The oral stories the four evangelists recorded had been shaped, reshaped, augmented, and edited by numerous storytellers for a half century or more before achieving their final written forms.

Scholars also believe that written collections of sayings ascribed to Jesus had appeared perhaps as early as two decades after Jesus' death. One such collection, known as the Sayings Gospel Q, seems to have been incorporated into the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In addition, Matthew and Luke adopted the Gospel of Mark, the first of the narrative gospels, as the basis for their revised works. In revising Mark, they had very little new or more reliable information to assist them, other than the sayings they took from Q. The written gospels were then copied and recopied, modified, corrected, and augmented for the next century or more before reaching the physical state in which modern scholars know them.

As they retrace the trail that leads backward from the earliest surviving papyrus records to the earliest written gospels, to the first storytellers and collectors of Jesus lore, scholars hope to isolate some traces of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. It is a long and faint trail often obscured by myth and legend. The quest for the historical Jesus is a subtle, often frustrating, but not entirely hopeless enterprise that requires an open mind and a reservoir of patience.