SBC Life Articles

Exposing Flaws in the Jesus Seminar

A seminary professor's new volume on the composition and the origins of New Testament documents challenges liberal theologians' theories of who wrote the books and when.

Arguing for a "corporate authorship," the use of common traditions and the presence of a common "opposition mission," E. Earle Ellis, author of The Making of the New Testament Documents, concludes that the New Testament was composed by four apostolic missions and, for the most part, between A.D. 50 and 70.

Ellis, research professor of theology emeritus and "scholar in residence" at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, reaches historical conclusions in sharp contrast to those of the Jesus Seminar, which supposes that the gospels were written long after A.D. 70 by unknown authors.

Ellis' work is an important resource in answering the theories of the Jesus Seminar and a similar group focusing on Paul, said Southwestern professor John Newport.

"This is a remarkable book that has tremendous implications for biblical scholarship," Newport added.

Ellis, whose 540-page book is the result of twenty-five years of study, said his conclusions about dates and authorships derive from his analysis of specific units in the New Testament, such as confessions, expositions, hymns, and episodes of Jesus' sayings and work.

These "preformed pieces," as Ellis calls them, were used in church liturgy before they were incorporated into the New Testament books.

The Making of the New Testament Documents, he said, attempts to identify and to trace the origin and usage of these preformed pieces.

Ellis concludes that the New Testament is the product of four cooperating apostolic missions, whose leaders can be identified in Galatians 2. One mission was headed by James, the brother of Jesus, and located in Jerusalem. The apostle John's ministry was based in Palestine until the Jewish War and from that point on in Ephesus.

Peter's mission began in Jerusalem, but Ellis believes that the apostle transferred it to Caesarea following the events of Acts 12. Paul's ministry ranged across the breadth of the Mediterranean world, starting in Antioch, but moving on to Ephesus and later to Rome and Spain.

An example of the cooperation among these missions can be seen in the hymn that is featured in Philippians 2, Ellis said. He believes the Semitic idiom and style of the hymn indicate that it was composed in one of the Palestinian-based missions and was later used by Paul when he wrote his letter.

This cooperation and the use of one apostle's teaching pieces by others has implications for issues of authorship and for the dating of the New Testament, said Ellis.

The author of each document worked with others, he said, such as a secretary who wrote the letter and coworkers who wrote some of the pieces that were employed in the composition.

This "corporate authorship" of letters that went out under the author's imprimatur, Ellis added, leads to the conclusion that one cannot determine the authorship of a gospel or an epistle by internal literary criteria.

"If one recognizes that authorship was a corporate enterprise, involving a number of helpers, … one cannot assume a different authorship from differences of theme, style, or vocabulary," he said.

Each of the four missions produced a gospel, Ellis said, and shared the preformed episodes with each other, and this held true also for the epistles.

An examination of such cooperation argues for dating the books of the New Testament within the same general period, he added.

With the exception of the Johannine Gospel and letters, said Ellis, the works of the New Testament reflect a number of the same theological and ethical issues and problems, and they face the same "opposition mission," in this case, the gnosticizing Judaizers. These issues stand in contrast to those in the church at the end of the first century.

Ellis said that such characteristics have led him to conclude that the bulk of the New Testament, including Revelation, was composed between A.D. 50 and 70.

John's Gospel and letters, on the other hand, reflect a conflict with Docetics, and Ellis places them between A.D. 75 and 100.

    About the Author

  • Cory J. Hailey