Jesus Seminar

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Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar is a group of New Testament scholars organized in California by Robert Funk in 1985. The initial purpose of the seminar was to apply critical methods to determine what Jesus "really said," as against what is attributed to him in the Christian gospels. The biennial meetings focused on particular sayings attributed to Jesus in ancient gospels, canonical and noncanonical. Votes were taken on the sayings' authenticity, using colored beads dropped into a box: red, indicating that Jesus undoubtedly said this; pink, indicating that Jesus probably said something like this; gray, indicating that Jesus did not say this, though the idea or ideas contained in the saying may reflect something of Jesus' own; and black, indicating that Jesus did not saying anything like it. Each color was assigned a rating (red = 3; pink = 2; gray = 1; black = 0), and the results were tabulated to achieve a "weighted average."

Results of the seminar's work were published in 1993 as The Five Gospels, containing an introduction, a new translation of, and commentary on the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas (the only noncanonical gospel that is fully extant, in a Coptic version). The sayings attributed to Jesus are printed in the respective colors, and reasons are given in the commentary why the sayings are so colored. Only 18 percent of the recorded sayings of Jesus are regarded as authentic, rated either red or pink.

The seminar's methodology reflects results of critical New Testament scholarship developed over the past two hundred years, which the seminar wishes to make available to the public. The following "pillars of scholarly wisdom" guide the approach taken: (1) the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith; (2) preference for the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) over John as sources for the historical Jesus; (3) the chronological priority of the Gospel of Mark; (4) the hypothetical source "Q" used independently by Matthew and Luke; (5) the "liberation of the noneschatological Jesus" from previous scholarship; (6) the contrast between an oral culture and a print culture; and (7) the "burden of proof" on those who argue for authenticity. Pillar 5 is not widely accepted by other scholars. The seminar's rejection of the general consensus that Jesus' message was dominated by eschatology (end-time expectation) results in a picture of Jesus as a "secular sage." Jesus as a Jewish prophet proclaiming the imminent "Kingdom of God" is a feature of the 82 percent of the Jesus tradition that is rejected by the seminar as inauthentic.

The next item on the seminar's agenda was to determine what Jesus of Nazareth really did and what was done to him. The approach taken was the same as for the earlier work. The results were published in 1998 as The Acts of Jesus. The combined number of red and pink events (authentic deeds) constitute 16 percent of the total events studied.

Thus the Jesus Seminar regards most of what is reported about Jesus in ancient sources as fiction. As might be expected, the pronouncements of the Jesus Seminar have been widely attacked, especially by Fundamentalist Protestants.

See alsoBible; Eschatology; Religious Studies.


Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the AuthenticWords of Jesus. 1993.

Funk, Robert W., and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts ofJesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. 1998.

Pearson, Birger A. "The Gospel According to the 'Jesus Seminar': On Some Recent Trends in Gospel Research." In The Emergence of the Christian Religion, edited by Birger A. Pearson. 1997.

Birger A. Pearson