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Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus

Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus

by Robert W. Funk (Joint Author), Roy W. Hoover (Joint Author)

* Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah?
* Did he promise to return and usher in a new age?
* How did Jesus envision the kingdom of God?
* Did he commission his disciples to convert the world and establish a church?

The Five Gospels answers these questions in a bold, dynamic work that will startle traditional readers of the Bible and rekindle


* Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah?
* Did he promise to return and usher in a new age?
* How did Jesus envision the kingdom of God?
* Did he commission his disciples to convert the world and establish a church?

The Five Gospels answers these questions in a bold, dynamic work that will startle traditional readers of the Bible and rekindle interest in it among secular skeptics. In 1985 the Jesus Seminar, a distinguished group of biblical scholars led by Robert W. Funk and John Dominic Crossan (co-chairs), embarked on a new assessment of the gospels, including the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas. In pursuit of the historical Jesus, they used their collective expertise to determine the authenticity of the more than 1,500 sayings attributed to him. Their remarkable findings appear in this book.

Each saying attributed to Jesus is color-coded and presented in a completely new translation of the Greek and Coptic texts. In the judgment of the Jesus Seminar:

* only those sayings that appear in red type are considered by the Seminar to be close to what Jesus actually said;

* the words in pink less certainly originated with Jesus;

* the words in gray are not his, though they contain ideas that are close to his own;

* the sayings that appear in black have been embellished or created by his followers, or borrowed from common lore.

According to the Seminar, no more than 20 percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus were uttered by him.

This book contains illuminating commentary and notes on the text of the gospels and rigorously explores the historical and literary factors behind the Seminar's findings. The enlightening introduction by Robert W. Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, sums up two hundred years of gospel scholarship and provides a rare insight into the workings of the Seminar. The Five Gospels is a major work of biblical scholarship that gives new dimensions to the historical Jesus.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who have attempted to locate the authentic words of Jesus, made headlines two years ago by reporting that, of the entire Lord's Prayer as found in Matthew, the only words that could conclusively be attributed to Jesus are ``Our Father.'' In this book they have published their results. This new translation of the four gospels, augmented by the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, presents Jesus' words printed in colored code: red for words Jesus almost certainly spoke, pink for his probable locutions, gray for the less than likely, and black for the implausible. The translation itself is far more colloquial than most. More germane, though, is that the four levels of authenticity were determined by the casting of ballots, which the editors admit is problematic and represents the fundamental weakness of the book. Whether Jesus actually spoke certain words matters little in the long view of Christianity, making this book a theological curiosity and religiously superfluous.-- W. Alan Froggatt, Bridgewater, Ct.
Ilene Cooper
Based on the work of the Jesus Seminar, which brought together a group of biblical scholars, this new translation of and commentary on the five Gospels offers an answer to the perennial question, What did Jesus really say? The group not only surveyed all the surviving ancient texts for words attributed to Jesus, but also examined the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Then, juxtaposing the Synoptic Gospels against John and Thomas, the seminar scholars began a long and arduous process to see if they could discover which sayings are close to what Jesus said, which might have originated with Jesus, those that are not his (though the ideas may be), and those that were created by his followers or borrowed from folklore. The story of how the scholars put together this translation is fascinating in its own right, but even more so is the color-coded New Testament itself, bolstered by enlightening commentary that explains why and how category decisions were made. A strong addition to religion collections.

Product Details

Polebridge Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.78(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.28(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Gospel of Mark

1 The good news of Jesus the Anointed begins with something Isaiah the prophet wrote:

Here is my messenger,
whom I send on ahead of you
to prepare your way!
A voice of someone shouting in the wilderness:
"Make ready the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight."

So, John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness calling for baptism and a change of heart that lead to forgiveness of sins. And everyone from the Judean countryside and all the residents of Jerusalem streamed out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan river, admitting their sins. And John was dressed in camel hair [and wore a leather belt around his waist] and lived on locusts and raw honey. And he began his proclamation by saying:

"Someone more powerful than I will succeed me, whose sandal straps I am not fit to bend down and untie. I have been baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with holy spirit.

During that same period Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And just as he got up out of the water, he saw the skies torn open and the spirit coming down toward him like a dove. There was also a voice from the skies: "You are my favored son -- I fully approve of you."

And right away the spirit drives him out into the wilderness, where he remained for forty days, being put to the test by Satan. While he was living there among the wild animals, the heavenly messengers looked after him.

After John was locked up, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming God's good news. His message went:

"The time is up: God's imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways, and put your trust in the good news!"

God's imperial rule. Jesus' disciples remembered his public discourse as consisting primarily of aphorisms, parables, or a challenge followed by a verbal retort. Since Mark 1: 15 does not fall into any of these categories, it drew mostly gray and black votes from the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar. The form of the saying was not, however, the only factor considered by the Fellows; they also examined the content of the words and phrases.

In exploring the ideas expressed in this saying, the Fellows concluded that some but not all of the ideas are Mark's own. Except for the phrase "God's imperial rule," which Jesus probably used, the words and phrases employed in this summary of Jesus' message are characteristic of Mark's language.

The three principal questions considered by the Seminar were:

1. Did Jesus speak of God's imperial rule or God's domain (in traditional language, the kingdom of God)?
2. Did Jesus proclaim that "the time is up"? Did this mean: the end of the age is near?
3. Did Jesus call on people to change their ways (in other words, to repent)?

The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar are convinced that Jesus did speak of God's imperial rule since that language appears in a wide array of sayings and parables in different levels and stages of the tradition. On the other hand, the majority of the Fellows do not believe that Jesus proclaimed that the end of the age was near.

The evidence of his parables and aphorisms shows that Jesus did not understand the rule of God to be the beginning of a new age, at the end of history, following a cosmic catastrophe. And he certainly did not speak of God's domain in the nationalistic sense as a revival of David's kingdom. Rather, in the judgment of the Seminar, Jesus spoke most characteristically of God's rule as close or already present but unrecognized, and thus in a way that challenged both apocalyptic and nationalistic expectations.

The popular idea that God was about to bring the age to a close, so characteristic of more radical movements of the time, was undoubtedly espoused by John the Baptist, by the apostle Paul, and by other segments of the emerging Christian movement. But some sayings and many parables attributed to Jesus do not reflect this common point of view. The best way to account for the survival of sayings representing a different view is to attribute them to Jesus, since such sayings and parables contradict the tendencies of the unfolding tradition. Oral communities tend to remember and repeat only items that suit their changing circumstances, except for memorable words spoken by a powerful voice that are carried forward as oral "debris." In other words, the transmitters of the tradition passed on numerous miscellaneous sayings and parables for which they did not have some practical application in mind.

The question of whether Jesus spoke of God's domain as something present or future is considered in greater detail in the cameo essay "God's Imperial Rule," pp. 136-37.

In the gospels, Jesus is rarely represented as calling on people to repent. Such an admonition is characteristic of the message of John the Baptist (Matt 3: 7-12; Luke 3: 7-14). Like the apocalyptic view of history, the call to repentance may well have been derived from John and then attributed to Jesus.

The Fellows concluded that the phrases that make up this saying, except for "God's imperial rule," are the language of Mark or his community. Mark has summarized in his own words what he believes Jesus said.

1 As he was walking along by the Sea of Galilee, he spotted Simon and Andrew, Simon's brother, casting (their nets) into the sea -- since they were fishermen -- and Jesus said to them: "Become my followers and I'll have you fishing for people!"

And right then and there they abandoned their nets and followed him.

When he had gone a little farther, he caught sight of James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John mending their nets in the boat. Right then and there he called out to them as well, and they left their father Zebedee behind in the boat with the hired hands and accompanied him.

Fishing for people. Jesus certainly had followers, both men and women, but scholars dispute whether he actively recruited them. The reasons for such skepticism are: (1) Many Fellows doubt that Jesus deliberately set out to organize a movement by recruiting disciples; they think he was probably an itinerant sage without institutional goals (he certainly did not have it in mind to found a church like the one that eventually came into being). (2) The tendency of the early disciples was to justify their own claims by attributing statements and stories to Jesus. The practice of attributing sayings to illustrious figures was exceedingly common in oral cultures in the ancient world, and even occurs in print cultures like those of modern Western societies. For example, Abraham Lincoln is frequently credited with saying, "I apologize for writing a long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one." The saying actually originated with Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher. Lincoln has also received credit for formulating the saying "A house divided against itself cannot stand." In fact, he learned this adage from a remark attributed to Jesus (Mark 3: 25).

The metaphor of fishing for people may go back to Jesus. The saying in its present form, however, is not the sort of aphorism to have been repeated during the oral period. "Become my followers and I'll have you fishing for people" is suitable only for the story in which it is now embedded, since only a few of his followers were originally fishermen. Further, as scholars have long noted, the story of the call of the first disciples is expressed in vocabulary typical of Mark, which suggests that Mark created both the story and the saying.

1 Then they come to Capernaum, and on the sabbath day he went right to the synagogue and started teaching. 22They were astonished at his teaching, since he would teach them on his own authority, unlike the scholars.

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