The Jesus SeminarQUESTION: What is the main doctrine of the Jesus Seminar?ANSWER:
The Jesus Seminar was founded in 1985 by entrepreneur Robert Funk. Funk's keynote address begins with his complaint against the established church: "The religious establishment has not allowed the intelligence of high scholarship to pass through pastors and priests to a hungry laity" (Forum
1/1, 1985, p. 8). Funk finds it intolerable that the church is dominated by a form of evangelical theology that is focused both on the literal truth of the Gospels and the literal return of Jesus Christ. Funk is quoted as stating that the Bible is a "cultural artifact" and that scholars have the "moral responsibility to determine what belongs to the fundamental cultural legacies of Christianity and Judaism" (U.S. News & World Report,
Nov. 8, 1993). The Seminar is a self-selected association of academics who meet twice a year to debate the "historical Jesus." At the close of debate on each agenda item, Fellows of the Seminar vote using colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of Jesus' words or deeds.
Doctrine of the Jesus Seminar: the voting process - Authenticity is determined on a sliding scale by means of color-coded voting beads. The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?
(1993) is the finished publication of the Jesus Seminar, listing the seventy-four "Fellows of the Jesus Seminar" as the scholars who determined the Gospels' authenticity. The Five Gospels
is printed in colored-coded text to signify the results of the voting. Red type indicates passages "close to what Jesus actually said." Pink sayings "less certainly originated with Jesus." Gray passages "are not His, though they contain ideas that are close to His own. "Black portions, which predominate throughout the gospels, "have been embellished or created by His followers, or borrowed from common lore."
Some of the Seminar's considerations for defining Jesus' words as "authentic" include the following:
Doctrine of the Jesus Seminar: the authenticity of the words of Jesus
- Gospel authors must not group sayings or provide context, affecting interpretation (p. 19).
- Jesus' actual parables/sayings are characterized by exaggeration, humor, and paradox (p. 31).
- A thought must run against the social and religious grain of the day (p. 31).
- Jesus made no actual claim to be the Anointed, the Messiah. (p. 32).
- Any miracle is considered as a potential narrative or magical formula (pp. 50, 60).
- Any prophecy (usage of Old Testament references) is immediately deemed invalid (pp. 228, 261).
- The Jesus Seminar attributes fewer than 20% of the sayings as authentic to Jesus. Of the entire Lord's Prayer, they regard the two words "Our Father" as "close to what Jesus said." Only 16 sayings attributed to Jesus in these gospels are affirmed as "close" to authentic. Ultimately, the Seminar was unable "to find a single saying they could trace back to the historical Jesus" in the Gospel of John.Doctrine of the Jesus Seminar: the deeds of Jesus
- The Acts of Jesus: The Search for Authentic Deeds
is an assessment of the reports in the ancient gospels of what Jesus of Nazareth did and what was done to Him. The Fellows examined 387 reports of 176 events in which Jesus was the central figure. Only 10 of the events (6%) were given a red rating of a high level of confidence that the event actually took place. The Fellows determined that only 19 of the events (10%) warranted a pink rating as a "probable occurrence."Doctrine of the Jesus Seminar: the Bible
- Funk is quick to suggest potential mistakes in the Bible. "Even careful copyists make some mistakes . . . So we will never be able to claim certain knowledge of exactly what the original text of any biblical writing was" (The Five Gospels,
p. 6). In a bold challenge, Funk asks, "Why did the spirit not provide for the preservation of original copies of the gospels (p. 6)?"
These verses received a black bead from the Jesus Seminar: "[Jesus] said to them, 'This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.' Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures"