Birger A. Pearson

1. The Jesus Seminar

In March of 1985 Robert Funk, a well known New Testament scholar, presided over the first meeting of a group of scholars that he had convened, dubbed "the Jesus Seminar." Meeting on the campus of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, the group embarked on an unprecedented project, to examine the available sources, canonical and non-canonical, in quest of "the voice of Jesus," i.e. "what he really said." [1] The procedure would be as follows: the group would meet biennially, each meeting focusing on a particular set of sayings attributed to Jesus with discussion of previously circulated position papers, with the view to achieving a consensus on the authenticity or non-authenticity of each of the sayings. After discussion and debate a vote would be taken, with each participant casting a colored bead into a box. There would be four colors: red, indicating that Jesus undoubtedly said this, or something very close; pink, indicating that Jesus probably said something like this; gray, indicating that Jesus did not say this, though the idea(s) contained in it may reflect something of Jesus' own; and black, indicating that Jesus did not say anything like it, the saying in question reflecting a different or later tradition. [2] Each color would be assigned a rating (red=3; pink=2; gray=1; black=0), and the results would be tabulated to achieve a "weighted average" on a scale of 1.00 (.7501 and up = red; .5001 to .7500 = pink; .2501 to .5000 = gray; .0000 to .2500 = black). The tabulated votes would be reflected in the published results, in which sayings attributed to Jesus would be color-coded, in a kind of "red-letter edition" of the gospels.
The Jesus Seminar proceeded in this fashion for six years, averaging around 30 participants per session. From time to time its results would be reported to the press, resulting in newspaper and magazine articles intended for public consumption. The attendant publicity was designed to guarantee an awareness of, and stimulate interest in, the work of the Jesus Seminar among the general public, and to create a ready readership for the published results. Part of the project was also the preparation of a new translation of the gospels, prepared by a group within the Seminar, known as "the Scholars Version." This translation, and the work of the Jesus Seminar as a whole, includes the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, preserved in a Coptic version as part of the Nag Hammadi Codices discovered in Upper Egypt in 1945. [3] The results of all this work appeared in 1993: The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, published by Macmillan in New York. Meanwhile, the Jesus Seminar has embarked on a new phase, designed to answer the question, "What did Jesus really do?"
The Five Gospels includes an extensive Introduction, followed by the translation of, and commentary on, the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas. After each segment ("pericope") of the gospels in which Jesus is quoted as saying something, commentary is provided explaining why the sayings were colored as they were. Special topics are treated in brief "cameo essays" scattered throughout the book. It should be noted that only 18% of the attributed sayings of Jesus are regarded by the Jesus Seminar as authentic, i.e. receiving a rating of either red or pink. Thus a full 82% of the sayings tradition is counted as inauthentic, i.e. rated as black or gray. [4] Such a surprising result might provide the grounds for some scepticism as to the procedures and methods that led to it. As we shall see, such scepticism is not unjustified.
In what follows I shall assess the work of the Jesus Seminar and its results as published in The Five Gospels. This will be done with reference to the Seminar's statements in the Introduction, in the commentary to individual pericopes, and in some of the "cameo essays." [5] Limitations of space preclude a complete discussion of all of the evidence, but the items chosen for discussion should provide enough of a sample to arrive at a critical assessment and some concluding observations. This discussion will proceed under four headings, considering 1) problems of method, 2) historical premises, 3) examples of mistranslation in "the Scholars Version," and 4) problems of interpretation of the 18% of the sayings tradition assigned by the Jesus Seminar to the historical Jesus.
But first, it is necessary to situate the work of the Jesus Seminar in its own historical context as part of the on-going scholarly "quest of the historical Jesus."

Next: Quests of the Historical Jesus


1. This first meeting of the Jesus Seminar is briefly discussed by one of the participants, Marcus J. Borg, in a recent book, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994). The quotations are from an excerpt of Robert Funk's address to the assembled group (ibid., p. 161).

2. See discussion in the Introduction to The Five Gospels, 35-37.

3. See James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 3rd revised edition (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988). The Gospel of Thomas is the second of seven tractates preserved in NH Codex II (NHLE 124-38). Greek fragments of three different copies of Gos. Thom. were found at Oxyrhynchus in Upper Egypt in 1897 and 1904 (P. Oxy. 1; P. Oxy. 654; P. Oxy 655). For a critical edition of the Coptic and Greek versions see Bentley Layton, ed., Nag Hammadi Codex II,2-7 (Nag Hammadi Studies 20; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989) 1: 38-128.

4. These figures appear on p. 5 of The Five Gospels. At the end of the book there is an index of red- and pink-letter sayings (pp. 549-553).

5. It should be noted that the results of the Jesus Seminar's work do not reflect unanimity; many of the same sayings got red votes from some and black votes from others. Thus, it cannot be assumed that all of the scholars listed in the Roster of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar (The Five Gospels, 533-37) agree with everything presented in the commentaries to individual pericopes. The presence of their names in the roster, on the other hand, would seem to require them to bear some responsibility for the published results.