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The Jesus Seminar and the Public

Despite the unprecedented intellectual freedom enjoyed by those who study religion today, few biblical scholars admit publicly that they believe that parts of the gospels are unhistorical, and even fewer identify specific passages as such.

By Robert J. Miller
Juniata College
Department of Religion
July 2003

Since 1986, I have been a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of about seventy biblical scholars with two major objectives: 1) to find out what critical historiography can say about the historical Jesus, and 2) to communicate responsibly the results of our scholarly work to the public. The Seminar's commitment to full public disclosure drew the attention of the media and generated a storm of controversy. The present essay briefly describes the motivations, procedures, and some general findings of the Jesus Seminar and reflects on the need for critical biblical scholars to get involved in public discourse about religion.

Those interested in a fuller treatment of the Jesus Seminar and the controversy surrounding it should see my book, The Jesus Seminar and its Critics (Polebridge Press, 1999). That book discusses the historical problems involved in searching for the historical Jesus and describes how the Seminar went about its investigations. It also responds to numerous criticisms of the Seminar and its work, with special attention to the methodological issues and theological stakes in the debates over the historical Jesus

The Origin of the Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar began its work in 1985 under the leadership of Robert Funk. The primary motivation for establishing the Seminar was to remedy two glaring deficiencies in Jesus scholarship. The first was scholarly silence on what may be called the "data base" for the historical Jesus. Prior to the Jesus Seminar, no study of the historical Jesus included a comprehensive list of which specific sayings and deeds of Jesus in the gospels the author considered historical and which unhistorical. Scholars discuss the key passages on which they base their major theses, but the bulk of the material in the gospels is passed over in silence. It can be difficult to evaluate the validity of a historical reconstruction of Jesus without a full disclosure of the data on which it is based. That is one reason why many works on the historical Jesus seem highly subjective and leave the impression that historical judgments about Jesus are often based on religious beliefs or personal preferences.

No doubt some of this silence reflects scholarly cowardice. Despite the unprecedented intellectual freedom enjoyed by those who study religion today, few biblical scholars admit publicly that they believe that parts of the gospels are unhistorical, and even fewer identify specific passages as such. However, a more mundane obstacle to scholars laying all their historical cards on the table is the sheer magnitude of the task. To study every verse in the gospels and make a responsible historical judgment about each one would be the work of a lifetime for an individual. But a group of scholars working in collaboration might accomplish this task in about decade. The results of a project like this would have the additional advantage of transcending the inevitable idiosyncrasies of works produced by individuals. These considerations laid the foundation for Funk's idea of the Jesus Seminar.

The second deficiency that led to the Jesus Seminar is the failure of biblical scholars to educate the public about the historical Jesus. The historical-critical approach to the Bible is taught in all mainline Christian seminaries and in all colleges and universities that teach about religion, except for schools controlled by fundamentalist or some evangelical churches. Scholars using the historical-critical approach know that not every deed and word in the gospels comes from the historical Jesus. However, the vast majority of Christians seem surprised, even shocked, when a scholar or clergyperson explains that the gospels are part fact and part fiction. The Jesus Seminar aims to bridge the gap between scholars and the public by communicating the results of its historical study clearly, honestly, and in terms understandable to a lay audience.

The Seminar's Procedures

The primary goal of the Jesus Seminar was to assess the historicity of everything attributed to Jesus in all Christian sources from the first three centuries. This goal was pursued in two phases: first the words of Jesus, then his deeds. The first phase began in 1985 and was more or less complete by 1991. The results were published in 1993 in The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. The second phase was completed in 1997, and its results were published the following year in The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus.

At the outset of its work, the Seminar faced two decisions: how to reach historical conclusions and how to communicate them to the public. On the first issue, the Seminar decided that it would arrive at conclusions by voting. While voting obviously cannot decide the truth of things, it is a simple and easily understood means of reaching a conclusion when there is not unanimity. It is also a traditional method in biblical studies for achieving results in group projects. The United Bible Society's critical edition of the Greek New Testament is produced by experts who vote on various manuscript readings of the Greek text. Similarly, the ecumenical translation committees responsible for the Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version voted when deadlocked over how to best translate certain passages.

As for how to publish its findings, the Seminar took its inspiration from red letter editions of the New Testament, in which the words attributed to Jesus are printed in red. The idea was to produce an edition of the gospels in which only the words that Jesus "really" said would be in red. The original proposal by Robert Funk was for members to vote either red (Jesus said it) or black (Jesus didn't say it) on individual sayings. But members balked at such a stark choice and sought the means to make somewhat finer distinctions. Eventually, a four-color scheme emerged that enabled the Seminar to convey important nuances.

Red: Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.
Pink: Jesus probably said something like this.
Gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.
Black: Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.

The voting results are expressed in percentages (calculated as weighted averages), which are matched to colors (black 0-.25, .26-.50 gray, .51-.75 pink, .76-1.0 red).

Canonical Distinctions

The agenda of the Seminar was to evaluate the historicity of every saying and deed attributed to Jesus in all Christian sources prior to the Council of Nicea in 325. The ambitious scope of this project put a number of non-canonical texts on the Seminar's plate. (Strangely, some have criticized the Seminar for even considering texts outside the canon.) In principle, a document's canonical status has no intrinsic relation to its historical reliability. As it turned out, the Seminar voted virtually every item in all the non-canonical gospels black. The only exception was the Gospel of Thomas. Of its 114 sayings, the Seminar voted 34 red or pink. The title of the Seminar's publication, The Five Gospels, signals how important the Seminar believes this gospel to be for understanding the historical Jesus.

Many critics have faulted the Seminar for its alleged over reliance on Thomas. Most of that criticism is aimed at the Seminar's consensus that Thomas is not dependent on the canonical gospels, though nearly all specialists in Thomas and most of the Seminar's critics agree that Thomas contains sayings that are early and independent.

The Seminar's actual findings on Thomas are surprisingly conservative. Of the 34 items judged red or pink, all but two have parallels in the synoptic gospels. The two items unique to Thomas are the intriguing parables of the Empty Jar and the Assassin, Thomas 97 and 98, both voted pink by narrow margins. If the Seminar is right that Thomas is an independent source, then Thomas provides multiple independent attestations for a considerable number of otherwise singly-attested canonical sayings. An unexpected result of the Seminar's assessment of Thomas, therefore, is that it increases our confidence in the historicity of a fair amount of canonical material.

Voting, Consensus, and Public Responsibility

The practice of biblical scholars voting to settle issues of translation and textual criticism is uncontroversial. Why then have critics taken such a dim view of the Seminar's practice of voting on the authenticity of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus. One prominent critic, Luke Johnson, revealed that he had no objection to translation committees voting because "these votes are carried out privately."[1] Apparently, what some critics find objectionable about the Jesus Seminar is that it does its voting in public. Numerous snide comments about the Seminar being hungry for publicity show that other critics also resent the public face of the Seminar.

In an attempt to estimate the depth of this resentment, let me pose a hypothetical scenario. What if the same people in the Jesus Seminar had carried out the same project and had come up with the same results, but had done so in a Society of Biblical Literature seminar and published the results in Semeia, the Society's journal for experimental scholarship? Certainly the public would not have paid any attention, but my question is how much attention would this project have received from scholars? I suspect that the quantity of the critical response would be much less and its quality much better. What do you think?

There seems to be a widespread assumption that academics who speak publicly about religion should keep their views to themselves if they might be unsettling to the beliefs of mainstream Christians. For whatever reason, as a guild we biblical scholars have shirked our responsibility to participate in our culture as public intellectuals. That is why most Americans seem to regard the likes of Jerry Falwell as spokesmen for "the biblical perspective" on issues of public interest. As individuals, most scholars may well be content with being irrelevant to the larger culture, but the resulting impoverishment of public discourse on religion has real consequences. One example is that it is now a viable possibility that the teaching of evolution will disappear or be trivialized as "just a theory" in the public school curricula in certain places. Why have biblical scholars stayed out of this fight and left it up to scientists alone to battle creationism in the public forum? Shame on us.

Many of the Seminar's critics strongly object to the notion that the Seminar's views reflect a consensus among New Testament scholars. Here are two examples. Richard Hays wrote that the Seminar's "attempt to present their views as 'the assured results of critical scholarship' is—one must say it---reprehensible deception."[2] Similarly, Howard Kee stated, "The Seminar's claim to speak for the majority of scholars is grossly inaccurate."[3]

This particular criticism is forceful but misguided: the Seminar has not claimed to speak for most scholars in the sweeping way the above quotations imply. Such a claim is simply not present in anything published in the Seminar's name. (The critics quoted above were unable to produce specific examples when I wrote them asking where they had found the claims to which they objected.)

What the Seminar has done (and what every scholar who communicates with the public has the responsibility to do) is to inform its audience that certain of its positions are shared by most biblical scholars. While the Seminar does not claim that most scholars agree with its specific presuppositions or conclusions, not even members of the Seminar agree on those, its fundamental understanding that some of the words attributed to Jesus were not actually spoken by him and that the gospels are a complex blend of fact and fiction does represent the consensus of critical scholarship.

While this is not news to scholars, it is news to the American public. A huge number of Americans believe that inerrancy is the only legitimate approach to the Bible and that to take the Bible seriously is to take it literally. Critics are right to protest that many scholars disagree with the Seminar's results, but they do a disservice if they perpetuate the impression that doubts about the historical accuracy of significant portions of the gospels are confined to some radical "faction" with "idiosyncratic opinions." To help us think concretely about this problem, let's move beyond general views about the gospels and consider some specific conclusions about their historicity. A survey of the Seminar's results comes up with the following partial list of negative findings:

  1. Jesus did not claim to be the messiah or to be divine.
  2. Jesus did not demand that people "believe in" him or worship him.
  3. Jesus did not intend to establish a church or found a new religion.
  4. Jesus did not believe that his death would be a sacrifice for sins.
  5. There is no historical evidence that Jesus had no human father.
  6. There is no historical evidence that Jesus' corpse came back to life.

Those findings would surprise, even shock, most churchgoers, would they not? Yet how many critical scholars, indeed how many critical scholars who are Christians, would argue the opposite position on any of those assertions? Most of the Seminar's positions that are perceived by the public as controversial or objectionable are actually well within the broad consensus of mainstream critical scholarship.

The remarkable sales of the Seminar's published reports—The Five Gospels was listed in Publishers Weekly Religion Bestsellers for nine months—shows that there is an audience for serious biblical scholarship that is both critical and written for general readers. Because the Bible is an icon of authority in Christianity and central to what may rightly be called the "American myth" and because we live in a time when both biblical illiteracy and the political influence of reactionary agendas that claim the Bible's authority are simultaneously on the rise, it is increasingly important for critical biblical scholars to bring their learning to the public. The Jesus Seminar has pioneered one way for scholars to work collaboratively and to communicate responsibly with the public. The Seminar's process is not perfect and there are other ways in which we scholars can add our expertise to the political discourse in both the churches and the nation. The only unacceptable option is for us to hide our lamps under bushels.


[1] "The Jesus Seminar's Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus," Christian Century (January 3-10, 1996), p. 17.

[2] "The Corrected Jesus," First Things (May 1994), p. 47.

[3] "A Century of Quests for the Culturally Compatible Jesus," Theology Today 25 (April 1995), p. 27.