Last Updated on June 24, 2022 by Jason Harris
Below, I have listed everything the Jesus Seminar believes Jesus actually said (or close to it) and did with over a 75% degree of certainty… This is a very short read compared to the length of the New Testament.
My Faith Transition Journey
As part of my faith transition from Mormonism, after a literal belief in unique LDS scriptures and “prophets” had deconstructed, I decided to do more in depth research about how the Bible and the stories in it originated. I wanted to keep what was good from my prior paradigms without “throwing the Baby out with the bath water.”
During this process I learned there is overwhelming evidence the Old Testament was likely assembled from several (often conflicting) sources, and only a few hundred years before Jesus. I learned the Old Testament is likely a mixture of oral traditions, myths, literature and legends passed down from a variety of sources with some actual historical events intertwined (such as the Diaspora).
Sources on this I found particularly helpful include: Who Wrote the Bible? The Documentary Hypothesis (Regarding the Torah/Five Books of Moses). Patriarchs, Exodus, Conquest: Fact or Fiction? Israel Finkelstein Discusses the aspects of the Bible that are likely myth vs. grounded in concrete reality. Origins of Ancient Israel, Carol Meyers. Which Bible Characters are Historical (vs. Mythological or Legendary) and Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis- Deuteronomy, David Bokovoy, PhD Geared towards an LDS audience.
I also learned there is extensive evidence the New Testament was compiled from manuscripts based upon oral traditions and beliefs that circulated (and evolved) for several decades after Jesus was crucified. Stuff I never learned in “Sunday School.”
Of note, C.S. Lewis said the following, a very common argument in Christian circles:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse… Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
This is an argument I bought into for many years. However, as I’ve come to learn more about how historical scholars believe the New Testament was compiled based on the evidence at hand, I’ve come to believe this argument is fallacious, though I highly doubt intentionally so on Lewis’ part. In fact, Lewis’ argument is based upon attributing many sayings and doings to Jesus that Jesus most likely didn’t say or do based upon all available evidence.
Critical Academic Christian Scholars
As I delved into trying to understand all sides of this issue, I read more academic works such as “The Case Against the Case for Christ” by Robert Price and “How Jesus Became God” by Bart Ehrman.
I read works by progressive Christians such as “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith” by Marcus Borg and Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr. I read and studied other works and articles as well.
The Scholarly Consensus
I learned the overwhelming scholarly consensus based on the evidence is that Jesus lived, was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by Pontius Pilate. These things are not only mentioned in early Christian documents (some of which contributed to the New Testament), but also by extra-biblical sources of roughly that same time period.
For those wanting to quickly get up to speed on some of the evidence for a historical Jesus, Tim O’ Neill, an atheist historian, has an excellent two-part article I would highly recommend reading. He shares why most Biblical scholars, Christian and non-Christian alike, think there was a historical Jesus. He also shares why most Biblical scholars think viewing Jesus as a purely mythical figure is probably not accurate.
The Jesus Seminar
Recently, I wanted to further explore what the scholarly consensus is about other things Jesus really said and did. So I skimmed two books by The Jesus Seminar, a group of over 50 secular Bible scholars who delve deeply into this.
2.“The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?” published 1998.
These books discuss not only what these scholars believe Jesus said and did (and why they believe this) but also give a nice overview of how Biblical scholars believe the New Testament evolved. This is outlined in this chart from “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?”.
The Jesus Seminar translated a “Scholars version” of the Bible and have included much of it in these books. In this they color code red that which as a group they agree with more than a 75% degree of certainty probably happened or was really said by Jesus. They color code in pink that which as a group they agree with a 50-75% degree of certainty probably happened or was said. They use methods of accepted historical and textual criticism in their analyses to arrive at “most likely” historical explanations.
Compilation of Highest Certainty Findings of the Jesus Seminar
Below, I have listed everything the Jesus Seminar believes Jesus actually said (or close to it) and did with over a 75% degree of certainty as shared in these two books. The two books together are around 1,000 pages, but the portions of the Jesus story these scholars believe to be true with a high degree of certainty total only a few pages and are coded in red (and are also indexed in the back of each work). All this to say, this didn’t take me long to put together. This is a very short read compared to the length of the New Testament.
This doesn’t necessarily mean all other things documented about Jesus in the New Testament couldn’t have happened. Just that there is insufficient evidence to provide a high level of certainty that they did (and often a good deal of evidence to suggest they didn’t).
Most of what is shared is verbatim from these books. I have shared nothing they believe not to be above this 75% threshold of certainty unless it is clear from the context and reading shared below such is the case. Anything in brackets [ ] is my own addition for clarification for the reader.
Of note, hardly any of the Gospel of John exceeds the 75% threshold of certainty. In fact, more of the recently discovered “extra-canonical” Gospel of Thomas meets this threshold than the Gospel of John.
The Bible quotes shared below are from the “Scholars version” of the Bible as translated by the Jesus Seminar and found in “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus” and “The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?”
A Verbatim Summary of What the Jesus Seminar Believes (with over 75% Certainty) Jesus Did
Very few of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar doubt that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. (Acts of Jesus p. 54) Jesus practiced prayer in seclusion. Jesus preached in the synagogues of Galilee. (Acts of Jesus p. 61) Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God. Jesus cured some sick people. Jesus drove out what were thought to be demons. Jesus enjoyed a certain amount of popularity in Galilee and surrounding regions. (Acts of Jesus p. 171) Some who saw Jesus thought he was mad. Some who saw Jesus said he was an agent of Beelzebul. (Acts of Jesus p. 50)
Jesus consorted openly with social outcasts… “toll collectors and sinners.” Jesus was criticized for eating with social outcasts. Jesus justified his practice of sharing an open table in aphorism (and parable). (Acts of Jesus p. 66-67)
… the fact of a trial [of Jesus] … lacks historical foundation. (Acts of Jesus p. 152)
There was a person named Jesus, who was executed by the authorities during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate (26-36 C.E.). The assertion that the Romans were innocent of Jesus’ death and the Jews responsible is pure Christian propaganda. (Acts of Jesus p. 133)
The resurrection of Jesus did not involve the resuscitation of a corpse. [Early Christian] belief in Jesus’ resurrection did not depend on what happened to his body. The body of Jesus decayed as do other corpses. The resurrection was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been recorded by a video camera. Since the earlier strata of the New Testament contain no appearance stories, it does not seem necessary for Christian faith to believe the literal veracity of any of the later narratives. (Acts of Jesus p. 461-462)
Mary [of Magdala] was among the early witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. Mary [of Magdala] was considered a leader in the early Jesus movement along with Peter and Paul. (Acts of Jesus p. 479)The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?
John the Baptizer was a “Voice in the Wilderness,” was Considered a Prophet by many of the People of John’s day. John Baptized Jesus and was Later Imprisoned and Beheaded by Herod.
Luke 1: 15. He [John] will drink no wine or beer, and he will be filled with holy spirt from the very day of his birth. 16. And he will cause many of the children of Israel to turn to the Lord their God. 57. The time came for [the mother of John] to give birth and she had a son.
Mark 1: 4. So, John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness calling for baptism and a change of heart that lead to forgiveness of sins. 9. During that same period Jesus came from Nazareth, Galilee, and was baptized in the Jordan by John.
Matt 3: 1. In due course John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness of Judea. 5. Then Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan streamed out to him, 6. and got baptized in the Jordan river by him, admitting their sins. 13. Then Jesus comes from Galilee to John at the Jordan to get baptized by him.
Luke 3: 3. And he [John] went into the whole region around the Jordan, calling for baptism and a change of heart that lead to forgiveness of sins. 18. And so, with many other exhortations he [John] preached to the people. 19. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been denounced by John over the matter or Herodias, 20. topped off all his other crimes by shutting John up in prison. 21. And it so happened, when all the people were baptized, and after Jesus had been baptized
Mark 6: 17. Earlier Herod himself had sent someone to arrest John and put him in chains in a dungeon, on account of Herodias, because he had married her. 18. You see, John had said to Herod, “It is not right for you to have [her].” 27. The king sent for the executioner. And he went away and beheaded <John> in prison.
Mark 11: 32. (You see, everybody considered John a genuine prophet.)
Matt 21: 26 (Remember, everybody considered John a prophet.)
Luke 20: 6. (Remember, <the people> were convinced John was a prophet.)
Matt 14: 3. Herod, remember, had arrested John, put him in chains, and thrown him in prison, on account of Herodias. 4. John, for his part, had said to him, “It is not right for you to have her.” 5. And while <Herod> wanted to kill him, he was afraid of the crowd because they regarded <John> as a prophet. 10. And he sent and had John beheaded in prison.
Luke 9: 9. “John I [Herod] beheaded;”
Very few of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar doubt that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The early Christian movement and the evangelists would have lacked motivation for making up such a story: it makes Jesus subservient to John.The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? p. 54
Herod Antipas had John arrested for having condemned his marriage to Herodias. John was popular with the people. Herod regarded John as a threat to his political control of the people. Herod had John beheaded at this fortress palace of Machaerus located in Perea, east of the Jordan River.The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? p. 204
Jesus’ Parents were Joseph and Mary. Jesus had Brothers and Sisters.
Matt 1: 1. Jesus, who was a descendant of Abraham. 15. Joseph, the husband of Mary, who was the mother of Jesus. 24. He [Joseph] took <Mary as> his wife. 25. Joseph named him Jesus.
Matt 2: 1. Jesus was born.
Luke 2: 5. Mary to whom he [Joseph] was engaged; Mary was pregnant. 7. She [Mary] gave birth to a son. 21. They gave him the name Jesus
Luke 3: 23. He [Jesus] was supposedly the son of Joseph,
Mark 6: 3 “Isn’t he Mary’s son? And who are his brothers, if not James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And who are his sisters, if not our neighbors?”
Matt 13: 55. “Isn’t his mother called Mary? And aren’t his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56. And aren’t all his sisters neighbors of ours? So where did he get all this?”
Jesus was an Itinerant Teacher in Galilee who had Women Followers. He Proclaimed the “Good News,” Healed some Sicknesses and Drove out What Were Thought to Be Demons. Some Claimed He Was Led By Beelzebul. Some Resented Him.
Mark 1: 14. Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming God’s good news. 21. Then they [Jesus and his followers] come to Capernaum,
Matt 4: 12. He [Jesus] headed for Galilee.
Luke 4: 14. Then Jesus returned in the power of the spirit to Galilee. 31. He [Jesus] went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee,
Mark 6: 3 And they were resentful of him. 6. And he [Jesus] used to go around the villages, teaching in a circuit.
Luke 8: 1. And it so happened soon afterward that he traveled through towns and villages, preaching and announcing the good news of God’s imperial rule. 2. and also some women [were with him] whom he had cured of evil spirts and diseases: Mary, the one from Magdala,
Luke 11: 15. But some of them said, “He [Jesus] drives out demons in the name of Beelzebul, the head demon.”
Matt 13: 57. And they were resentful of him.
Jesus Associated With and Dined with Social Outcasts.
Mark 2: 15. Then Jesus happens to recline at table along with many toll collectors and sinners (Remember there were many of these people). 16. “What’s he doing eating with toll collectors and sinners?”
Matt 9: 10. And it so happened while he was dining that many toll collectors and sinners showed up just then and dined with Jesus. 11. “Why does your teacher eat with toll collectors and sinners?”
Jesus’ “Sermons” as traditionally taught from the Sermon on the Mount/Plain
39. [Jesus said] Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. 40. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. 41. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. 42. Give to the one who begs from you;
Luke 6: 20. [Jesus said] Congratulations you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. 21. Congratulations you hungry! You will have a feast. Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh. 27. Love your enemies. 29. When someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well. When someone takes away your coat, don’t prevent that person from taking your shirt along with it. 30. Give to everyone who begs from you.
Thomas 54: [Jesus said] “Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven’s domain.”
Among the things Jesus almost certainly said is the trio of “case parodies” in Matt 5:39-41, with parallels in Luke 6:29…
A parody is an imitation of a style or form of discourse that exaggerates certain traits for comic effect;.. The admonitions in this trio portray an extremely specific situation, one that rarely occurs (only right-cheek cases are covered; nothing is said about blows to the left cheek), combined with an exaggerated admonition (the loss of both coat and shirt would leave a person naked!)… And finally, the cases are stated in such a way that they cannot be taken literally without comic effect (imagine naked people walking about; the reaction of the Roman soldier who was faced with an offer to carry the load a second mile).
Case parodies, while not metaphorical, are nevertheless non-literal… because the commands are extreme, even ridiculous, when taken literally, they produce what may be termed “insight.” They prompt the listeners (or readers) to react differently to acts of aggression. In fact, the proposed response reverses the natural human inclination: when struck, we tend to strike back; when sued, we want to sue in return; when conscripted, our inclination is to resist…
… this trio of case parodies forms and exceedingly tight series, the individual parts of which seem never to have had an independent existence… Like the parable, a series of this type is not easily replicated…The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, p. 145
There is no question about Jesus’ consorting with the poor, the hungry and the persecuted. He announced that God’s domain belonged to the poor, not because they were righteous, but because they were poor. This reverses a common view that God blesses the righteous with riches and curses the immoral with poverty.The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, p. 504
Abba, Father and “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Matt 6: 9 [Jesus said in prayer] Our Father
Luke 11: 2 [Jesus said in prayer] Father,
When we combine the more original versions of the petitions from Matthew and Luke, this is the prayer that probably appeared in Q:
Father, your name be revered. Impose your imperial rule. Provide us with the bread we need for the day. Forgive us our debts to the extent we have forgiven those in debt to us. And please don’t subject us to test after test.
It is unlikely in the judgement of the Fellows, that Jesus taught his disciples the prayer as a whole, even in its reconstructed form. They think it more likely, given the conditions under which oral discourse is transmitted, that he employed the four petitions from time to time but as individual players. He, of course, frequently used “Abba” to address God. Someone in the Q community probably assembled the prayer for the first time; Matthew and Luke then copied the Q version, while editing and revising it at the same time.The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, p. 327
Jesus on the Emperor & God
Mark 12: 17. [Jesus said] Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God!
Thomas 100: 2. [Jesus said] Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, 3. give God what belongs to God,
Matt 22: 21 [Jesus said] Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God!
Luke 20: 25. [Jesus said] Then pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God!
Everything about this anecdote commends its authenticity. Jesus’ retort to the question of taxes is a masterful bit of enigmatic repartee…The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say, p. 102
Jesus on Heaven’s Imperial Rule as a Mustard Seed
Thomas 20: 2. [Jesus said about Heaven’s imperial rule] It’s like a mustard seed. 3. <It’s> the smallest of all seeds, 4. but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.
The mustard seed is an unlikely figure of speech for God’s domain in Jesus’ original parable. His listeners would probably have expected God’s domain to be compared to something great, not something small and insignificant. As the tradition was passed on, it fell under the influence of two figures; that of the mighty cedar of Lebanon as a metaphor for a towering empire (Ezek 17:22-23); and that of the apocalyptic tree of Dan 4:12, 20-22. In Daniel, the crown of the tree reaches to heaven and its branches cover the earth…
In his use of this metaphor, Jesus is understating the image for comic effect: the mighty cedar is now an ordinary garden weed. This is parody…
… the parable betrays an underlying sense of humor on Jesus’ part. It is also anti-social in that it endorses counter movements and ridicules established tradition.
The Fellows judged the version in Thomas to be closest to the original.The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, p. 484-485
Jesus’ Comparison of Heaven’s Imperial Rule With Leaven
Matt 13: 33. [Jesus said] Heaven’s imperial rule is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened.
Luke 13: 20. [Jesus said] What does God’s imperial rule remind me of? 21. It is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened.
Jesus employs the image of the leaven in a highly provocative way. In Passover observance, Judeans regarded leaven as a symbol of corruption, while the lack of leaven stood for what was holy. In a surprising reversal of the customary associations, the leaven here represents not what is corrupt and unholy, but God’s imperial rule- a strategy the Fellows believe to be typical of Jesus.The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, p. 195
Jesus’ Story of The Vineyard Laborers
Matt 20: 1. [Jesus said] For Heaven’s imperial rule is like a proprietor who went out the first thing in the morning to hire workers or his vineyard. 2. After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin a day he sent them into his vineyard. 3. And coming out around 9 A.M. he saw others loitering in the marketplace 4. and he said to them, “You go into the vineyard too, and I’ll pay you whatever is fair.” 5. So they went. Around noon he went out again, and at 3 P.M., and repeated the process. 6. About 5 P.M. he went out and found others loitering about and says to them, “Why did you stand around here idle the whole day?” 7. They reply, “Because no one hired us.” He tells them, “You go into the vineyard as well.” 8. When evening came the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman: “Call the workers and pay them their wages starting with those hired last and ending with those hired first.” 9. Those hired at 5 P.M. came up and received a silver coin each. 10. Those hired first approached thinking they would receive more. But they also got a silver coin apiece. 11. They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor: 12. “These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them equal to use who did most of the work during the heat of the day.” 13. In response he said to one of them, “Look, pal, did I wrong you? You did agree with me for a silver coin, didn’t you? 14. Take your wage and get out! I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you. 15. Is there some law forbidding me to do with my money as I please? Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?”
In this parable, both groups of participants get what they do not expect: the first get less than they expected, in spite of their agreement with the owner (v. 2); the last get more than they expected, since as idlers they could not have expected much. This reversal of expectations comports with Jesus’ proclivity to reverse the expectations of the poor… and the rich…The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, p. 225
Jesus’ Story of The “Good” Samaritan
Luke 10: 30. [Jesus said] There was a man going from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and went off, leaving him half dead. 31. Now by coincidence a priest was going down that road; when he caught sight of him, he went out of his way to avoid him. 32. In the same way, when a Levite came to the place, he took one look at him and crossed the road to avoid him. 33. But this Samaritan who was traveling that way came to where he was and was moved to pity at the sight of him. 34. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring olive oil and wine on them. He hoisted him onto his own animal, brought him to an inn, and looked after him. 35. The next day he took out two silver coins, which he gave to the innkeeper, and said, “Look after him, and on my way back I’ll reimburse you for any extra expense you have had.”
The imagery of the parable itself draws upon longstanding animosity between Judeans and Samaritans… and throws the conventional distinction between “us” and “them” into question… The possibility of another kind of social world has come into view.
As a metaphorical tale that redraws the map of both the social and the sacred world, the Seminar regarded this parable as a classic example of the provocative public speech of Jesus the parabler.The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, p. 324
Jesus’ Story of the Shrewd Manager
Luke 16: 1. [Jesus said] There was this rich man whose manager had been accused of squandering his master’s property. 2. He called him in and said, “What’s this I hear about you? Let’s have an audit of your management, because your job is being terminated.” 3. Then the manager said to himself, “What am I going to do? My master is firing me. I’m not strong enough to dig ditches and I’m ashamed to beg. 4. I’ve got it! I know what I’ll do so doors will open for me when I’m removed from management.” 5. So he called in each of his master’s debtors. He said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6. he said, “Five hundred gallons of olive oil.” And he said to him, “Here is your invoice; sit down right now and make it two hundred and fifty.” 7. Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?” He said, “A thousand bushels of wheat.” He says to him, “Here is your invoice; make it eight hundred.” 8. The master praised the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;
Some of the fellows took the traditional view that v.8a is an appended conclusion, not integral to the parable and not customary in Jesus’ parables. Most of the Fellows, however, regarded v. 8a as part of the story itself. It provides the unexpected and surprising twist that is characteristic of Jesus’ metaphorical stories…
The multiple endings and explanations in these verses, which are appended to the parable (16:1-8a), all attempt to soften the disturbing commendation of the shrewd manager by moralizing the story. They were not part of Jesus’ parable, but are either secondary products of a later tradition that Luke has drawn upon, or were composed by Luke himself.The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, p. 359
The Crucifixion of Jesus
Mark 14: 15. [Pilate] had Jesus flogged, and then turned him over to be crucified.
Mark 15: 24. and the soldiers crucify him.
Luke 23: 33. they crucified him [Jesus].
Matt 27: 26 but [Pilate] had Jesus flogged, and then turned him over to be crucified. 35. After crucifying him,
John 18: 13. (Annas was the father-in-law of that year’s high priest, Caiaphas.)
John 19: 16. And so, in the end, <Pilate> turned him [Jesus] over to them to be crucified. 18. they crucified him,
By solid majority, The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar held to the generally accepted view that Mark created the first written passion story… probably in the decade of the 70’s… four decades or more after Jesus’ death. The lengthy delay and the absence of individual oral anecdotes connected with the final events make it even more likely that scripture and theological imagination contributed to the contours and details of the story.
The skepticism of the Fellows, and scholars generally, does not mean that there are no historical data in the passion story. However, what we have is limited to a few basic points.
It is all but certain, because attested also by Josephus and Tacitus, two ancient historians, that: There was a person names Jesus, who was executed by the authorities during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate (26-36 C.E. ).
The Seminar was also convinced, on the basis of the evidence- the persistent connection of Jesus’ arrest with the temple incident- that some Jewish officials, probably the high priest and his associates, urged Pilate to execute Jesus as a threat to public order. For his part, Pilate needed little convincing…
But of course, the Jesus movement did not die. In the weeks and months following the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers became convinced that Jesus was still with them. As a consequence, they began to organize themselves into a community in order to put into practice what Jesus had taught them about the kingdom of God…
The assertion that the Romans were innocent of Jesus’ death and the Jews responsible is pure Christian propaganda.
The underlying structure of the passion story (Mark 14-15) was suggested by prophetic scriptures taken from the Greek Bible (the Septuagint).The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?, p. 133
Jesus Died, Paul’s list of Resurrection Appearances, Paul Had a Visionary Experience of Jesus
1 Cor 15: 4. Christ died 8. Last of all, like the freak of nature I [Paul] am, he appeared to me as well.
Scholars are generally agreed that Paul mentions the appearance to him in v. 8 to defend his apostolic authority. Paul cites the list in his letter to the Corinthians as a way of affirming his place among the primary recipients of the revelation. The primacy of Peter in the apostolic group similarly depended on the claim that the risen Jesus had appeared to Peter on an early date. There are, however, conflicting reports about the first appearance, or protophany, as it is called: Paul and Luke award first place to Peter; Matthew and John 20 award the initial appearance to Mary of Magdala; the Gospel of the Hebrews gives the nod to James, the brother of Jesus. These competing claims suggest not so much historical reports as a rivalry among leaders in the early Jesus movement.
There seems to be little reason to doubt that Paul had at least one visionary religious experience that he came to regard as an appearance of the risen Jesus. The Fellows accordingly colored that statement red (v. 8). Although the appearance to Peter is nowhere narrated in any of the gospels, the Fellows were inclined to agree that Peter also had a similar visionary experience. Because Peter does not make the claim for himself it is always made on his behalf-they designated that statement pink rather than red (v. 5).
Notable is the absence of Mary of Magdala from Paul’s list. The Fellows agreed that she, like Peter and Paul, had at least one visionary religious experience of Jesus after his death…
…the Fellows were dubious about the inclusion of the appearances of James, the brother of Jesus, to the “twelve” as a group, and to the five hundred believers at the same time, in spite of the fact that they are in Paul’s list (vv. 5-7)…
Generalized lists of appearances are also found in several of the speeches in Acts…
These notices were invented by Luke as a part of his theological program… when Luke wrote Acts some thirty years after Paul’s letters, he did not regard Paul’s Damascus road experience as a bona fide resurrection appearance. Paul would have been surprised at his demotion.The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?, p. 454
Conclusion and My Current Beliefs About Jesus:
After studying all of these varying points of view and the evidence supporting these views (which I haven’t gone into in any depth in this post), I believe Jesus lived, was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by Pilate.
I see in the scholar’s depiction of Jesus a charismatic and very loving man with a great sense of humor (this is usually completely annihilated in “traditional” depictions of Jesus) who had no qualms about bucking the religious authority figures of his day.
I see an individual who had immense compassion for those around him, especially the “downtrodden” or those of lesser social status. He engaged with and regarded women in an egalitarian manner that was extremely unusual for his time.
I believe Jesus engaged in the healing of many illnesses (mostly psychosomatic illnesses and processes) with an antiquated understandings of these diseases common in his day. I don’t believe there was a miraculous force at play in these instances in the traditional meaning of “miraculous.” But given I view all of existence as a miracle, I guess any healings could be viewed as miraculous in that light. I think belief likely DID play a major part in many of these healings. I have seen this in my own practice as a physician, particularly with illnesses that are predominantly psychosomatic in nature.
I believe Jesus preached a message of the “Imperial Rule of Heaven” that both the Romans and the ruling Jewish class found very threatening, especially after his demonstration on Jewish Temple grounds. I believe he was later crucified for this and for his penchant to speak out against social conventions and authority figures.
Jesus shared profoundly moving and wise as well as humorous sayings in parables and stories. He was WAY ahead of his time.
I believe Peter, Paul and Mary (of Magdala, not the band) were (competing) historical figures and early leaders in the Jesus movement. I believe each of them had their own visionary experiences of Jesus (again, not referring to drug fueled trips by the band). I doubt these were literal physical witnesses of a literal resurrected Jesus. I believe these visions were most likely manifestations of processes internal to themselves. I believe how these accounts were recounted probably “grew” and “evolved” over time. Similarly to the way in which Joseph Smith’s several accounts of the”First Vision” over a decade after he claimed it happened also grew over time.
I believe there is not sufficient evidence to support a strong belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus. I also believe there is a tremendous amount of very strong evidence to argue against literal resurrection in general as well as the theological foundations the New Testament gives for a literal resurrection of Jesus. (To restore mankind from death caused by a literal fall of Adam. The evidence overwhelmingly shows death has always existed on earth in conjunction with life, and with timelines FAR beyond what a literal reading of the Bible suggests). But for brevity this post has primarily been about sharing what the historical scholarly consensus is on these things, not delving into why with any great depth.
That said, despite what the evidence suggests, I also can’t say with absolute certainty Jesus wasn’t literally resurrected. I don’t think anyone can. Just like nobody can absolutely prove God doesn’t exist as a literal physical (or spiritual) being in the heavens. One could believe Jesus specifically was literally resurrected (even though we have no scientifically admissible evidence of such with him or in any other case) and one could argue the theological underpinnings of the need for such a resurrection (a literal redemption from a literal fall of Adam) were misunderstood/mistaken by early New Testament authors.
At the end of the day, I think belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus specifically is strictly a matter of faith. If such really did happen, perhaps that is the way it is meant to be.
I think Divinity lived in Jesus irrespective of a literal resurrection or not. I’m personally not concerned if Jesus was literally resurrected or not and am not at all concerned if I will be either. I have emerged in my present state from 13.8 billion years of the development of the Universe. I trust the future Universe processes, wherever that may lead and am comfortable with whatever role the stream of life and existence that is me ends up playing in this much larger picture than myself. I believe in an overall “friendly” Universe.
I believe Jesus showed us what the Love of God can look like. He demonstrated and preached tremendous compassion and grace. I believe Divinity strongly resided within Jesus. And the moral compasses of billons of humans has been shaped and directed as a result.
I see in Jesus an Archetype of Godly love and death with subsequent rebirth/resurrection. The “Hero’s Journey.” A death and rebirth each of us apparently must experience in some manner if we are to fully grow into and embrace the Second halves of our lives. A “Kingdom of God” full of radical grace, acceptance and compassion… valuing people above narratives. I believe I have been experiencing this and am continuing to grow into this with my own faith transition.
I believe Divinity lives in all of us. That there is tremendous potential for growth and goodness within each of us.
I believe God is literally everywhere/throughout everything.
Jason Harris lived as an orthodox Mormon for forty years. He writes about his experiences leaving the Mormon Church and reconstructing a new World-View. He believes all religions and scripture are man-made, potentially helpful and harmful. He believes there is Divinity in all of them and everywhere.