The Jesus Seminar was a group of “scholars and specialists” interested in renewing “the quest of the historical Jesus.” The name Jesus Seminar would imply that this group had good credentials and would reveal something important about the real life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. That didn’t happen.
According to The Jesus Seminar –
“Among the findings is that, in the judgment of the Jesus Seminar Fellows, about 18 percent of the sayings and 16 percent of the deeds attributed to Jesus in the gospels are authentic.”
Another way of understanding that statement is that 82 percent of the sayings and 84 percent of the deeds attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are NOT authentic.
Let that sink in for a minute ….
The Jesus Seminar would have us believe that the vast majority of what’s written about the sayings and deeds of Jesus Christ in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) are NOT authentic – not true – never said – never done.
Was The Jesus Seminar right?
[Podcast version available at the end of this post.]
If you’ve read other articles on the FaithandSelfDefense and GraceLife blogs, you know I think The Jesus Seminar was wrong – very wrong. To understand how so-called scholars and specialists reached their conclusions about Jesus and the four Gospels, we need to know a little about how The Jesus Seminar started.
It began in Berkeley, California in 1985 as the brain child of Robert W. Funk. Here’s part of what Funk said in his opening remarks at the launch of The Jesus Seminar –
“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, much as Mt. Everest confronts the team of climbers.”
You can read the full opening statement by Funk here.
The Jesus Seminar started with 30 scholars at the initial meeting and grew to more than 200 specialists, called Fellows, who participated in various phases from 1985 – 1998. The fellows met twice a year to debate papers that had been circulated prior to their meeting. After debating the issues before them, the fellows used colored beads to vote on the “authenticity” of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels.
It’s interesting to note that Funk was most excited about what he read in some of the ancient gnostic writings about Jesus, especially the Gospel of Thomas. That interest eventually led to his publishing The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (HarperOne, 1996), which added the Gospel of Thomas to the traditional Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Five Gospels also included a new Scholars Version (SV) that was supposed to be “free of ecclesiastical and religious control.” What did control the SV was the color-coding of The Jesus Seminar that demonstrated the belief that Jesus did not say most of the words attributed to Him in other versions of the New Testament.
“We have new and tantalizing primary sources with which to work, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocryphon of James, the Dialogue of the Savior, and we stand on the verge of new study instruments, such as the New Gospel Parallels, the new Sayings Parallels, and perhaps even a new and more tolerable translation of other New Testament apocrypha.” Opening Remarks, 1985
Jesus Seminar Presuppositions
While Funk gave the impression in 1985 that The Jesus Seminar would be a scholarly undertaking, he revealed his presuppositions that would drive the group from the beginning. Here’s how he began his “reveal” –
“Since we are Bible scholars, let us begin with the Bible as a whole. The Bible begins, we are wont to say, at the Beginning and concludes with a vision of the heavenly city, the ultimate End. Traditionally, the Bible is taken as a coherent structure: the Apocalypse is thought to bring things around again to their original state; the evil introduced into the garden in the first instance is eradicated in the last. And the beginning and end are viewed as wholly consonant with the real events that occur between them. Thus, the Christian savior figure is interpreted as belonging to the primeval innocence of the garden and yet predicting and precipitating the final outcome.
There are two things to be said about this scheme. First, we are having increasing difficulty these days in accepting the biblical account of the creation and of the apocalyptic conclusion in anything like a literal sense. The difficulty just mentioned is connected with a second feature: we now know that narrative accounts of ourselves, our nation, the Western tradition, and the history of the world, are fictions.
Narrative fictions, aside from recent experiments in “structureless” novels, must have a beginning and an end and be located in space. They must involve a finite number of participants and obviously depict a limited number of events. Moreover, it is required of narratives that there be some fundamental continuity in participants and some connection between and among events that form the narrative chain. It is in this formal sense that the Bible is said to form a narrative and to embrace in its several parts a coherent and continuous structure. And it is also in this same sense that the Bible, along with all our histories, is a fiction.
A fiction is thus a selection—arbitrary in nature—of participants and events arranged in a connected chain and on a chronological line with an arbitrary beginning and ending. In sum, we make up all our “stories”—out of real enough material, of course—in relation to imaginary constructs, within temporal limits.
Our fictions, although deliberately fictive, are nevertheless not subject to proof or falsification. We do not abandon them because they are demonstrably false, but because they lose their “operational effectiveness,” because they fail to account for enough of what we take to be real in the everyday course of events. Fictions of the sciences or of law are discarded when they no longer match our living experience of things. But religious fictions, like those found in the Bible, are more tenacious because they “are harder to free from mythical ‘deposit,’ as Frank Kermode puts it. ‘If we forget that fictions are fictive we regress to myth.’ The Bible has become mostly myth in Kermode’s sense of the term, since the majority in our society do not hold that the fictions of the Bible are indeed fictive.
Our dilemma is becoming acute: just as the beginning of the created world is receding in geological time before our very eyes, so the future no longer presents itself as naive imminence. Many of us believe that the world may be turned into cinder one day soon without an accompanying conviction that Armageddon is upon us. But our crisis goes beyond these terminal points: it affects the middle as well. Those of us who work with that hypothetical middle—Jesus of Nazareth—are hard pressed to concoct any form of coherence that will unite beginning, middle, and end in some grand new fiction that will meet all the requirements of narrative. To put the matter bluntly, we are having as much trouble with the middle—the messiah—as we are with the terminal points. What we need is a new fiction that takes as its starting point the central event in the Judeo-Christian drama and reconciles that middle with a new story that reaches beyond old beginnings and endings. In sum, we need a new narrative of Jesus, a new gospel, if you will, that places Jesus differently in the grand scheme, the epic story.” Jesus Seminar Opening Remarks, 1985
So there you have it. From the very beginning, Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar revealed itself as nothing more than another attempt to “rewrite” the life of Jesus – something straight out of the ancient “gnostics” playbook. These so-called “scholars and specialists” were not then and are not now part of any real attempt to determine what is true about the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. They are simply part of a scheme to write “another” gospel.
Why We Should Care
The Jesus Seminar ended its work in 1998, so why should we care about it 20 years later? At least two answers come to mind:
First, many of the “scholars” and “specialists” who participated in The Jesus Seminar have written books and articles, have been widely interviewed by the national media, and are still talking publicly about the issues raised in the Seminar. They also appear in video interviews and debates and are heralded and quoted by many atheists online and in social media discussions, posts, etc. The atheists use the supposed scholarship of The Jesus Seminar to bolster their own views as they attempt to destroy the faith of Christians through such devices as “street epistemology.” Some of the better-known members of The Jesus Seminar include John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Robert Price, Harold Attridge, Karen Leigh King, James M. Robinson, Burton L. Mack, Barbara Thiering, Lloyd Geering and Stephen Harris.
Second, the impact of the Jesus Seminar did not end with its final report. It gave birth to other “seminars,” some that are still active.
- Paul Seminar, Completed (1993 – 2010)
- Christian Origins, Completed (2006 – 2009)
- Acts of the Apostles, Completed (2001 – 2011)
- Seminar on God and the Human Future, Active (2013 – current)
- Christianity Seminar, Active (2013 – current)
Here’s how the Seminar on God and the Human Future explains the impact of The Jesus Seminar on its work –
“The academic Seminar on God and the Human Future began its work in 2013. Inspired by the pioneering research and public notice of the Jesus Seminar, it has sought to attract a new generation of scholars to the mission and ongoing work of the Westar Institute. In a short time it has attracted over thirty participating Research Fellows who together are exploring new ways and new images for thinking about God in a post-theistic context.
Unlike past Westar seminars, the God Seminar consists primarily of philosophers of religion, critical theorists, and radical theologians rather than biblical scholars and historians. At the same time, as was confirmed in one of the seminar’s earliest votes, the work of the God Seminar acknowledges its debt, is engaged in conversation with, and is deeply informed by the historical critical work in biblical scholarship for which Westar has been known.” WestarInstitute.org
Do any of the two active seminars have an interest in real scholarship? See for yourself –
“Begun in 2013, the Christianity Seminar aims to rewrite the history of early Christianity. The scholars of the seminar have broken through to new understandings of many disparate movements in the first four centuries of the Common Era. As the Seminar enters the second half of its first decade, these historians of religion are poised to write their first major book for the public on the first two centuries.
The Seminar has already undone the pretentious “master narrative” of how Christianity emerged. In place of the myth of an orderly apostolic Church fighting heretics, this fresh scholarship has shown how under the thumb of the violent Roman empire a diversity of struggling groups were re-imagining how to belong. The first two centuries did not produce the Church victorious, but rather a plethora of ways for different ethnic groups to re-invent themselves in overlapping units that resisted Roman domination.” WestarInstitute.org
Don’t hold your breath waiting for any “real” scholarship to come from the presuppositions of Westar Institute. They have a history of “rewriting” Christian history. That’s their stated purpose and goal, so we have their “reveal.”
In the next part of our reporting about The Jesus Seminar, we’ll learn more about Robert Funk and “the mission and ongoing work of the Westar Institute.”