What is the Jesus Seminar?QUESTION: What is the Jesus Seminar?ANSWER:
The Jesus Seminar was started by a gentleman called Robert Funk who is a New Testament scholar and Greek grammarian. He worked many years as a professor at the University of Montana. Desiring to write a book on the historical Jesus in the 1970's, he decided to incorporate reflections that represented a consensus, so he came up with the idea of assembling a team of scholars that would vote on each saying of Jesus to create a new kind of red-letter edition of the Gospels. The group first came together in 1985 when thirty scholars took up the challenge under the support of the Westar Institute. They meet twice a year to debate technical papers that have been prepared and circulated in advance. At the close of each debate of each agenda item, the Fellows (advanced scholars in biblical studies, religion, or related fields) of the Seminar vote using colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of Jesus' words or deeds with red being the all conclusive vote.
The voting is a very unique procedure. The Seminar concluded that voting should consist of not only red beads, but also to include a pink vote for those who wanted to hedge: a pink vote represented reservations either about the degree of certainty or about modifications the saying or parable from Jesus had suffered in the course of its transmission and recording. For those who wanted to avoid a flat negative vote, a gray vote is allowed (gray being the weaker form of black). The Seminar employed colored beads dropped into voting boxes in order to permit all members to vote in secret. Beads and boxes turned out to be a fortunate choice for both the Fellows and any of the public who were interested.
There have been as many as 200 scholars participating in the Jesus Seminar over the years, but the final group is now 74. There have been many reasons for people dropping out; some of them relating discomfort with how the most radical fringes of New Testament scholarship were disproportionately represented on the Jesus Seminar as well as disagreement with Funk's methods which they thought undermined Christian credibility.
The final Fellows fall roughly into three categories. Fourteen of them are among the leading names in the field including a few who have published major works on the historical Jesus in recent years. Two of these 14 are sympathetic to many evangelical concerns. About 20 names are recognizable to New Testament scholars who keep abreast of their field even if they are not as widely published. Several of these, too, have written important recent works on the Jesus-tradition. The remaining 40 are relative unknowns; most have published two or three journal articles while several are recent Ph.D's whose dissertations were on some theme of the Gospels.
As far as denominations are concerned, the group is comprised of Protestants, Catholics and atheists, professors at universities and seminaries, one pastor, three members of the Westar Institute in California sponsoring the project, one filmmaker, and three others whose current occupations are unidentified. Within the 74, there are three women and two Jews. Almost half have a degree from or currently teach at one of three schools -- Harvard, Claremont, or Vanderbilt. Only small handfuls come from outside of North America. European scholarship is almost entirely unrepresented.