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Christian Scriptures (New Testament)

The "Jesus Seminar:" Liberal
theologians investigating the life of Jesus

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The Jesus Seminar is a group of academic theologians who study Christian writings from the 1st to 3rd century CE, from a religiously liberal perspective. They are composed of members with "Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and independent" backgrounds. 1 Their initial goal was to determine what Jesus really said. Their second goal was to describe what Jesus really did.

In the past, liberal and mainline religious academics have lectured, written articles in specialist journals, attended conferences and debated among themselves. They have taught generations of mainline and liberal divinity students. But their conclusions have rarely filtered down to the public.

"The public is poorly informed of the assured results of critical scholarship, although those results are commonly taught in colleges, universities and seminaries. In this vacuum, drugstore books and slick magazines play on the fears and ignorance of the uniformed." 2, Page 34

The Jesus Seminar attempts to elevate public knowledge of Christianity through its conferences, press releases, books, webpage, 1 etc. The goal is: "to bring the quest of the historical Jesus of Nazareth to the center of a global forum." 1 That is, to extract what the participants have concluded to be the actual words and actions of Jesus from ancient writings, and present these to the public.

Their conclusions differ greatly from what Christian denominations have historically taught. They are also in major conflict with the current beliefs of most present-day conservative Christians. Fellows of the Seminar do not regard Christian Scriptures as inerrant. They do not believe that the authors were uniquely inspired by God. Rather, they view the Bible as a very human document, composed by writers who actively promoted their own theological beliefs (or those of the group to which the writers belonged). The Seminar sees within early Christian writings the evolution of religious thought. The fellows study this over the approximately 28 decades from the time of the execution of Jesus (circa 30 CE) to about 310 CE. They see many passages in conflict with each other and with the historical record.

The techniques used by the Jesus Seminar are often called by the theological term "biblical criticism:" "the study of the sources and literary methods employed by the biblical authors." 3 A better term for biblical criticism might be "biblical analysis." Theologians who use it to study the Bible are not criticizing (in the common sense of that term). They are analyzing the Bible in order to improve their understanding of it.

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Conservative Christian criticism of the Jesus Seminar:

As one would expect, the Jesus Seminar has "drawn fire from the fundamentalist right for not crediting the Gospels with one hundred percent historical reliability." 2 Page 5 One or more fellows have lost their academic positions because of their membership in the Seminar; others have been harassed; still others feel it necessary to keep their membership secret.

The Christian Research Institute (CRI) 4 commented on the Jesus Seminar:
bullet It is "a throwback to nineteenth-century quests for the historical Jesus, and not even representative of mainstream contemporary New Testament scholarship."
bullet Commenting on the Scholars Version of the Gospels, the CRI concludes: "Perhaps the most striking feature of [the book] 'The Five Gospels' is how out of touch it is even with mainline scholarship."
bullet The CRI claims that the Jesus Seminar's stated goal consists "of discrediting orthodox Christianity and going beyond mainstream scholarship."
bullet "...JS reflects the "radical fringe" of critical scholarship..."

John Ankerberg and John Weldon 5 also comment on the Jesus Seminar:
bullet " is the conservative view of Scripture that 'passes the rigorous tests of the rule of evidence' - not their historical distortions."
bullet "The JS distortions are being disseminated everywhere."
bullet "...the JS does not represent a consensus of New Testament (NT) or biblical scholarship..."
bullet "...the biases of members of the JS are clearly present in their writings."
bullet " fails to recognize the serious or fatal philosophical and methodological flaws that undermine its own conclusions."

Robert J. Hutchison commented:

"...the scholarship that undergirds the Jesus Seminar and similar enterprises is based on wild speculation and miniscule evidence." 6

Gregory Kould, of the radio program "Stand to Reason" commented:

"These preachers practice evangelism in reverse, for they don't want you to commit your life to the Christ of the Gospels; they want you to surrender that commitment. And they claim to have history, science, and scholarship on their side." 7

As rebuttal, members of the Jesus Seminar have had a few negative and not particularly subtle comments directed at conservative Christians:
bullet "The Jesus Seminar is a clarion call to enlightenment. It is for those who prefer facts to fancies, history to histrionics, science to superstition." 8
bullet "Latter-day inquisitors among Southern Baptist and Lutheran groups have gone witch-hunting for scholars who did not pass their litmus tests. Public attack on members of the Seminar is commonplace, coming especially from those who lack academic credentials."

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History and procedures of the Jesus Seminar:

The Jesus Seminar was founded by Robert W. Funk in 1985. Initially, it was limited to 30 scholars in order to maximize efficient dialog. This has grown to over 200 fellows and a larger number of lay associates. It is a project of the Westar Institute in Santa Rosa, CA. R.W. Funk warned the original 30 charter fellows in 1985-MAR:

"We are about to embark on a momentous enterprise. We are going to inquire simply, rigorously after the voice of Jesus, after what he really said."

"In this process, we will be asking a question that borders the sacred, that even abuts blasphemy, for many in our society. As a consequence, the course we shall follow may prove hazardous. We may well provoke hostility. But we will set out, in spite of the dangers, because we are professionals and because the issue of Jesus is there to be faced." 9 Page xii

Some interesting features of the Seminar are:
bullet The range of studies goes well beyond the Christian Scriptures to include dozens of gospels, epistles, and other writings that never made it into the New Testament canon. 10 The Seminar has collected more than 1500 versions of approximately 500 Christian writings which were authored prior to 313 CE. That was the date of Emperor Constantine's Edict of Toleration which recognized Christianity as a legitimate religion within the Roman empire.
bullet Members of the Seminar write papers on selected topics; these are circulated and debated at their semi-annual conferences.
bullet "The Seminar's deliberations are conducted as a public forum"1 involving its fellows and lay associates, and including media coverage.
bullet The fellows reach a decision on each topic by democratic means - i.e. by voting:
bullet after each debate, fellows may vote with four colored beads: red, pink, gray and black. One interpretation of the meanings of the colors are:
bullet red: "Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it"
bullet pink: "Jesus probably said something like this."
bullet gray: "Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own."
bullet black: "Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition."
bullet The logo of the Seminar is composed of what might have been Jesus' actual name "Yeshu'a" written, right to left, in what was probably his native tongue, Aramaic. Its background consists of a grid with five starbursts which are symbolic of the five gospel sources to which the Seminar refers: Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas.
bullet The Seminar publishes a bimonthly journal called "The Fourth R." They regard the first three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) as being incomplete without Religion.
bullet The Westar Institute publishes a quarterly scholarly journal, called "The Forum."

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Assumptions by the Jesus Seminar:

Everyone approaches the Bible with a set of assumptions. The Jesus Seminar's fiercest critics, conservative Christians, assume that biblical writings are totally accurate descriptions of historical events; that the writings are inerrant; and that the authors were inspired by God. The Seminar starts with a totally opposite set of fundamental beliefs. Most of its fellows would agree with the following:
bullet Jesus' message was passed by an oral tradition between 30 and 50 CE; only in the 50s were the first books written.
bullet The Christian Scriptures were not uniquely inspired by God; they were composed by men (and perhaps one woman) who promoted their own beliefs, and those of the specific Christian tradition to which they belonged.
bullet Beliefs about Jesus and traditions changed and developed extensively between the time of Jesus' execution and the writing of the first canonical gospel (Mark) circa 70 CE.
bullet The authors of the Gospels were not eye-witnesses to the ministry of Jesus, in spite of claims to the contrary.
bullet In the 4th century CE, the Christian church selected those books for the New Testament canon which:
bullet Expressed ideas supportive of the church's developing theology,
bullet Were widely accepted and used throughout Christendom and/or
bullet The councils believed were written by apostles or by authors who had direct connection with apostles.

Selection was not necessarily based on historical accuracy.

bullet The Jesus Seminar also regards non-canonical writings as worthy of study. They include:
bullet The Gospel of Thomas. This is one of about 40 gospels that were widely accepted among early Christians, but which never made it into the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).
bullet The Didache (a.k.a. "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles"), a very early Christian instructional manual.
bullet Other gospels, epistles, etc.
bullet A tiny, surviving fragment of the Gospel of John has been dated to about 125 CE. But the earliest copies of an entire book from the Christian Scriptures date from about 200 CE. No two are identical. Thus, we can never know precisely what the original autograph copy of any of the books said.
bullet The five most important Gospels that are studied (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Thomas) were written by unknown authors, probably with names different than are traditionally assigned.
bullet R.W. Funk and the other authors of "The Five Gospels" wrote:

"The Gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church's faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand.2, Page 5

bullet Many, if not most, of the miracles described in the Gospels did not actually occur. There was no virgin birth, no walking on water, no feeding of thousands with a few fish and loaves. Jesus did not bring Lazarus back to life. Jesus' bodily resurrection, walking through walls, transfiguration, ascension into heaven, etc. are myths. There are no such entities as indwelling demons. Jesus probably healed mental and physical illnesses in the same way that religious healers work today.

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Policies and Procedures of the Jesus Seminar:

The seminar has adopted "rules of evidence" to help assess early Christian writings Some are:
bullet The authors of the Gospels "frequently expand sayings or parables, or provide them with an interpretive overlay or comment." 2 Page 21
bullet The authors of the Gospels "often revise or edit [preexisting] sayings to make them conform to their own individual language, style, or viewpoint."
bullet The authors of the Gospels often write their own statements, or pick up common sayings of the era, and attribute them to Jesus.
bullet Jesus' apparent prophecy of events which were to occur after his death were either created by the Gospel writers or created during the oral tradition that preceded 50 CE.
bullet "Only sayings and parables that can be traced back to the oral period, 30 - 50 CE can possibly have originated with Jesus.2 Page 25
bullet "Jesus' characteristic talk was distinctive...His sayings and parables cut across the social and religious grain" of the time. They surprise and shock; they reverse roles; they use "exaggeration, humor and paradox.2 Page 31

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Conclusions of the Jesus Seminar:

Most fellows would probably agree with the following conclusions:
bullet The four canonical gospels were written chronologically in the order: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John over the interval from about 70 to 110 CE.
bullet The Gospel of Mark and the sayings gospel of Q were two independent sources which the authors of Matthew and Luke used extensively as the basis of their gospels. Both Matthew and Luke also incorporated material from their own sources.
bullet The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. It was part of a Gnostic Christian library which was apparently buried during a time of persecution of the Gnostics by Pauline Christians. It contains 73 sayings that are duplicates of those found in the canonical Gospels. It also has 65 sayings (or parts of sayings) that are unique.
bullet The Gospel of John represents a religious tradition that is independent from the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). They differ so much that either John or the Synoptic Gospels must be largely abandoned in the quest for an understanding of Jesus' actual sayings and acts. The Seminar has largely rejected John.
bullet Many of Jesus' followers had previously followed John the Baptist.
bullet Jesus rarely spoke of himself in the first person. The many "I am" statements in John originated from the Gospel author, not from Jesus.
bullet Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah.
bullet Jesus did not claim to be God.
bullet Jesus did not believe that his execution was necessary in order for those who trust in him as Lord and Savior would be saved from eternal damnation.
bullet Jesus believed that the Kingdom of God had already arrived in 1st century Palestine and was visible in the way that he and his followers treated each other. On the other hand, John the Baptist and Paul viewed the Kingdom as coming at a time in their future, sometime in the 1st century.  2 Page 137
bullet Jesus probably talked to his followers and preached in Aramaic. The books in the Christian Scriptures are written in Greek. Thus, even those parts of the Gospels that Jesus is believed to have said, are actually translations into Greek of his original words.
bullet About 18% of the sayings of Jesus recorded in the 4 canonical Gospels and Thomas rated a red or pink rating (Jesus definitely or probably said it). The remaining passages attributed to Jesus were actually created by the Gospel writers.
bullet In Mark, only one saying (Mark 12:17) was given a red rating; many are pink.
bullet Matthew contains many sayings of Jesus which have been rated red or pink. But all of the words attributed to Jesus from the description of the last judgment in Chapter 25 until the end of the Gospel, were rated black (definitely not said by Jesus).
bullet Luke also contains many pink and red ratings. But all of the sayings attributed to Jesus from his comment that the earth will pass into oblivion within a generation (Luke 21:32) to the end of the Gospel are all rated black.
bullet The Gospel of John was unique among the canonical Gospels: none of the words attributed to Jesus were rated red. There was only one pink passage. One was gray (Jesus did not say this, but it contains ideas similar to his). The vast majority of sayings were rated black.

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Useful books associated with the Jesus Seminar:

Books attacking the findings of the Jesus Seminar:
bullet J.P. Moreland & Mike Wilkins, "Jesus Under Fire," Zondervan (1995). You can see reviews and/or order this book from
bullet L.T. Johnson, "The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and Truth of the Traditional Gospels," Harper, (Reprinted 1997) Review/order it?

Books produced by the Jesus Seminar:
bullet R.W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, "The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus," HarperCollins, (1998). Review/order it?
bullet R.W. Funk, Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. "The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus," HarperCollins, (1997). Review/order it?
bullet R.W. Miller, ed. The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version." Harper Collins, (Revised 1995). Review/order it?
bullet W.B. Tatum, John the Baptist and Jesus: A report of the Jesus Seminar," Polebridge Press, 1994. Review/order it?

Some books written by fellows of the Jesus Seminar:
bullet Marcus J. Borg, Marcus J. "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith," Harper Collins, (1994). Review/order it?
bullet J. Dominic Crossan, "The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant," Harper Collins, (1992). Review/order it?
bullet J. Dominic Crossan, "Jesus. A Revolutionary Biography." Harper Collins, (1994). Review/order it?
bullet J. Dominic Crossan, "Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus," Harper Collins, (1995). Review/order it?
bullet J. Dominic Crossan, "The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus," Harper Collins, (1998) Review/order it?
bullet R.W. Funk et al., "The Parables of Jesus: Red Letter Edition," Polebridge (1988). Review/order it?
bullet R.W. Funk, "Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium," Harper Collins, (1996). Review/order it?

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  1. The "Jesus Seminar Forum" is their home page. See:
  2. R.W. Funk et al, "The Five Gospels: The search for the authentic words of Jesus.", Macmillan, (1993).
  3. G.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult," Zondervan (1993), P.116.
  4. C.L. Blomberg, "The Seventy Four 'Scholars': Who does the Jesus Seminar Really Speak For?" Christian Research Institute, 1994-FALL, Page 37. Available at:
  5. John Ankerberg and John Weldon, "The Fact on False Views of Jesus: The Truth Behind the Jesus Seminar," Harvest House, (1997)
  6. R.J. Hutchison, "The Jesus Seminar Unmasked," Christianity Today, 1996-APR-29, Pages 28 to 29.
  7. Gregory Kould, "The Jesus Seminar under fire," Stand to Reason radio program. Transcript available at:
  8. R.W. Funk, "The Gospel of Mark, Red Letter Edition," Polebridge Press, (1991), Pages. xvi- xvii.
  9. R.W. Funk et al., "The Parables of Jesus: Red Letter Edition," Polebridge (1988)
  10. R. J. Miller, "The Complete Gospels," Polebridge Press (1992)

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Copyright 1998 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1998-JUL-5
Latest update: 2007-OCT-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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