Several years ago while we were working in Israel, I became aware of the Jesus Seminar and its negative approach to the words of Jesus. Some of you probably know that the Jesus Seminar is a group of about 76 scholars who began meeting around 1985 to study the words of Jesus. Using a rather unusual method, they voted on the sayings of Jesus--whether or not they thought he actually said them.
Never one to just ignore things that are destructive to my faith, I began to do a study of the methods and teachings of the Seminar. In their meetings they would pass around a container. The scholars (all, by the way, drawn from liberal universities) would use red, pink, gray, or black beads to indicate whether they believed Jesus actually spoke the words recorded in the Gospels--such as, for example, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." If a given scholar believed Jesus actually said those words, he would put a red bead in the container. If he thought Jesus might have said it, he put in a pink bead, a gray one if he thought it not likely, and a black one if he thought there was no way Jesus could have said those words. In this way they eliminated all but about 18% of the sayings of Jesus. They then published a book called The Five Gospels (they included Thomas), in which they printed the sayings of Jesus in those corresponding colors. There is very little red in it.
There was a whole spate of books that came out in the 80's and 90's, both on the Historical Jesus and the Gospels in general. A few of them were conservative, but most were liberal. As a result of my study--not only of the Jesus Seminar, but of other scholars who wrote extensively on the subject--I put together a course that I taught at least once at Israel College of the Bible in Jerusalem. At first the class was very popular, and students were coming in to visit even if they did not belong in that particular class. Later on the students began to realize the true implications of the teachings of these scholars, and I, as teacher, felt that I was not giving them enough ammunition to refute what were basically anti-Christian teachings. At that time the class began to lose some of its popularity, and at the end of fifteen weeks I felt that we finished on a less-than-triumphant note.
Of all the books I acquired and read, there was one, by Catholic scholar Luke Johnson, that went somewhat against the drift of scholarly works on the Historical Jesus. Most of them, even conservative ones, seemed to proceed on the assumption that yes, we should find out as much as we can about the actual historical Jesus who trod the dusty paths of Judea so long ago, for after all, our faith depends on it. The book by Johnson, however, was entitled The Real Jesus, and the subtitle was The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels. I remember thinking at the time that this author had an interesting approach, and it might even be that he was right.
In retrospect, I definitely think he was right, and I now wish I had never taught that course. It is my nature to be interested in scholarly things, though I have never considered myself a true scholar (I have an M.A. degree from Jerusalem University College). I was keenly interested in the methods and books of the scholars, even though I vehemently disagreed with them. I only pray that I didn't damage the faith of any student as we went over some of those teachings in class.
Here is the bottom line. If the cross was the end of the life of Jesus, then we would need to find out every little bit of information we could about this man who was nothing more than a historical personage. Yes, since, on that view, he's dead and gone, we would need to study all of the gospels, even the apocryphal and Gnostic ones, including Thomas, Mary, Philip, and so forth, and we should also study the few "agrapha" in existence (these are words Jesus may have spoken but did not get into the four Gospels, such as "it is more blessed to give than to receive" which we find in Acts 20:35). Yes, we would want every bit of information, no matter how small, we could get.
But then, if he's dead and gone, what would be the point of all this study? And what does it gain Jesus Seminar scholars, who do not believe he is the Son of God or that he has the power to be any kind of savior? (Robert Funk, in his book Honest to Jesus, said this Jesus was not "qualified" to be his savior!)
Here is why the study of the Historical Jesus may not only be futile (because we already have most of the reliable knowledge in the Four Gospels), but misguided and unnecessary, as Luke Johnson points out. Briefly, Jesus is alive. He continues to live, and he wants to embrace, save, and fellowship with each one of us today. He is not in history. He once was, but he is not now. Today, he lives on as the risen Savior, and to look for him in history is to look in the wrong place.
Why do you seek the living among the dead? (Luke 24:5). Oh, how good it would have been to ask this question of Robert Funk, who was the founder of the Jesus Seminar, before he died. Maybe someone did. Hopefully someone did. How appropriate it would be to ask this question of John Dominic Crossan, another of the leaders of the Jesus Semianr, who as far as I know is still around. Marcus Borg is another scholar who writes on the historical Jesus. Ironically, these men can't leave him alone. They are irresistibly drawn to him, and yet they do not, according to their own words, believe that he lives today and can save them if they turn to him in faith. So they continue to sift the dust of history, looking for...what?
Where do we find Jesus? In the Gospels we can read a record of his days on earth. But that is not where we really find him. We find him today anywhere we are, if we really want to know him and fellowship with him. He's looking for us. After all, it's our door he's knocking on, asking to come in. Of course we can't see him with our physical eyes. But we know that reality is not limited to what can be seen.
Today he is just as real as he was then. Once in a while a person is granted a marvelous supernatural vision of him (sometimes in a near-death experience). Though I don't discredit this type of thing (nor do I accept all of them), nothing depends on them. If they are true, and I believe some of them are, they are merely icing on the cake. They are corroborations of what we already know and believe to be true, due to the reliable testimony of the first-hand witnesses in the New Testament.
We know, then, that he is real. We find him here, today, among us. He waits for us to truly believe it, and to open the door to fellowshp with him--Who was, Who is, and Who is to come.