Jun 27 2013

The Jesus Seminar

Published by under Talks


(Address by Colin Gibson at Open Education Session, Mornington Methodist Church, 17 April 2013, and represented on his behalf by David Kitchingman at the Dunedin Sea of Faith Group meeting)




Once upon a time it was very, very simple.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke and John,

Bless the bed that I lie on.

Four corners to my bed,

Four angels round my head;

One to watch and one to pray

And two to bear my soul away.


Once upon a time there were four (and only four) accounts of the life of Jesus, what he did and what he said. Each one was written by a member of his original group of disciples, beginning with Matthew and ending with John. Their gospels weren’t exactly the same: any one could tell that from the way each began. Matthew started with all those names, Abraham begat Isaac and Isaac begat Jacob and Jacob begat Judas. Mark started with the prophets and John the Baptist busy baptising. Luke started with Herod and Zecharias and Elizabeth, who was barren and well past the age of child bearing. John started with ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’ But the differences didn’t matter because really you couldn’t remember exactly what they were and if you put it all together you got something like the same Jesus, who was actually the Son of God, who did miracles and told stories and said to love your neighbour as much as you do yourself and went about doing good until he was arrested and condemned by the High Priest and Pilate, died on a cross and rose again and is with us still though he’s actually sitting in heaven on the right hand of God until he comes back to judge the quick and the dead—so you’d better behave.


Enter the scholars, the historians, the archaeologists, the literary critics, the theologians, the religious experts who set to digging and delving, and reading and studying and thinking and philosophizing and comparing and contrasting and all the other things scholars and historians and archaeologists and critics and theologians and experts do, and hey presto there aren’t just four gospels, there are more like forty, and Matthew, Mark and Luke and John aren’t guardian angels round my bed, but fallible human beings recording memories of Jesus and making some it up in their own peculiar way, and Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin mother, and he didn’t walk on water, and he’s not coming back for the Last Judgement to send people to heaven or to hell; in fact there isn’t going to be one—a Last Judgement, I mean, or a hell where they burn in everlasting fire or a heaven where they sing the Hallelujah chorus for ever and ever. And now those scholars and experts are busy quarreling among themselves, as scholars always do, and nobody can be sure of anything any longer like it was in the olden days when at least you could lie in bed and listen to those reassuring words when you were tucked up warm and safe at night:


Matthew, Mark, and Luke and John,

Bless the bed that I lie on.

Four corners to my bed,

Four angels round my head;

One to watch and one to pray

And two to bear my soul away.




We’re talking tonight about a modern group of scholars.


Now let me put that word ‘modern’ into perspective.


The life records of Jesus have been under continuous study and reflection inside the Christian community and outside it ever since his death in about 30 AD/CE. Virtually from the time when the earliest post-Jesus communities were formed Christians were busy preserving, gathering, arranging, embellishing, interpreting and creating new traditions about the teachings and actions of Jesus.


One of the useful outcomes of the work of the Jesus Seminar has been to assemble and list the many gospels and accounts of Jesus that have emerged from archaeological digs and ancient libraries. They are brought together in their publication The Complete Gospels (1992) with translations into contemporary English and explanatory notes.


20 years after Jesus’ death come the letters of Paul, the gospel of Thomas (found in Egypt in 1940) and an important collection of the sayings of Jesus (later built into the gospel of John. About 30 years after Jesus’ death comes the gospel of Mark (the first to put Jesus’ life into a narrative sequence of events), the Signs Gospel—a collection of miracle stories showing that Jesus was indeed the expected Messiah—and the Didache or the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles (the first believer’s handbook, dealing with Christian ethics, church organization and church rituals for baptism and communion). By the end of the first century AD, Christians were reading the earliest versions of the gospels associated with the names of Matthew, Luke and John, but there were also in existence a gospel attributed to Peter (containing probably the oldest account of the Passion), another independent gospel fragment found in Egypt and not published till 1935, and the text of a discussion between Jesus and his disciples called Dialogue of the Saviour.


About 100 years after the death of Jesus there were in circulation further gospels; one associated with Mary (which makes Mary the close companion and confidante of Jesus) and others with James and Thomas (known as infancy gospels because they tell stories about Jesus as a child), as well as a Gospel of the Hebrews. And further ancient writings about Jesus have survived in the work of Christian scholars and historians known as the early Church fathers, people like St Clement of Alexandria (150-215), who quotes from a Secret Gospel of Mark.


In fact there has been a continuous tradition of historical and scholarly work from about 20 years after Jesus’ death to the work of the Jesus Seminar and many others in the present.  Of course, if you remember that Jesus himself both quoted much earlier Jewish writers and thinkers from the sacred scriptures and sometimes challenged them—‘you have heard it said by those of olden times, but I say unto you’—you could argue that the tradition of scholarly criticism of scriptural texts goes back to his own lifetime.


Since a dry narrative about the history of scholarship on the Jesus story, even to help place the work of the Jesus Seminar, is not exactly gripping material, let me take a pause to read you some of the gospel material you won’t find in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.


THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS SAYINGS 1-4 (page 305 in The Complete Gospels)


THE INFANCY GOSPEL OF JAMES  21: 10-24: 10 (pages 394-6, ibid)


Now, back to the Jesus Seminar. They are called the Jesus seminar because their focus is on Jesus—the historical Jesus, the real person who lived 2000 years ago in Palestine. The 200 or so scholars attending this seminar attempt to reconstruct as fully as possible the life of that historical Jesus. They ask who he was, what he did, what he said, and what his sayings meant, using a number of tools. Their answers are based on what social historians and archaeologists have been able to find out about the realities of ordinary social life in Jesus’ time—and exhaustive scrutiny of all the writings that have survived and report or in any way relate to his life. You see, the world that Jesus lived in was not a world filled as ours is with written words. And since memories fail and die with the human brains that carry them, eventually it is only the written down memories that carry across the centuries. And these must survive the accidents of war and loss and decay and neglect.


To give you an idea of just how precious are the written words about Jesus that have reached us from 2000 years ago, they all  amount to no more than 300 pages—about the length of an average popular novel—and if you take away the 150 pages or so that make up the four gospels we all know about, that leaves about 150 pages making up all the other gospels, fragments of gospels, collections of early sayings and stories and bits and pieces that have emerged into the light of day since about 150AD/CE to the present. No wonder the Jesus Seminar and many other scholars pore over such precious fragments of historical evidence about a person who matters so much to us.


The Jesus Seminar was founded in 1985 by Robert Funk, (1926 –2005), an American biblical scholar who had a bachelor and master of divinity degree from Butler University and a PhD from Vanderbilt University, was a Guggenheim Fellow and a Senior Fulbright Scholar. He taught at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, was Professor of New Testament Studies at Montana University, headed the Graduate department of religion at Vanderbilt University and became executive Secretary of the Society of Biblical literature. He set the first agenda for the Jesus Seminar: to examine every shred of historical evidence about Jesus that survived from the first 250 years after the life and death of Christ in order to establish what could be regarded as authentic and factually true about the Jesus of human history, as distinct from all the elaborations and interpretations introduced by the gospel writers and the early Christian communities to which they belonged.

To carry out this huge task he gathered together a group of prominent scholars from the United States, Canada Great Britain, Germany, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Some of their names are now familiar to us, they include Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Their conclusions were published in a series of books: 1992 The Complete Gospels; 1993 The Five Gospels (including The Gospel of Thomas as the fifth gospel): The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus; 1998 The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images; 1998 The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus.

In 2006, following the death of Robert Funk, the group reformed,  adopted a new agenda, and gave itself a new name, the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins. It has now turned its attention to the emergence of the Jesus tradition in the earliest centuries of what we now call the Christian Church. They are bringing to the study of the Book of Acts and the Letters of Paul the same kind of rigorous and exhaustive study they first brought to the records of Jesus’ life- story, his sayings and his actions.

The way the Jesus Seminar scholars work is described as a seminar: the word comes from the Latin word for seed, a seminar is a seed-place, only in this case it is the seeds of knowledge which are grown and cultivated. ‘Seminar’ is a university term for a group meeting or forum in which everybody is able to share ideas and quiz and examine and add to what is said by anyone else. Normally such a seminar is led by an experienced teacher (perhaps a Professor) who works with a group of students, who are learning how the search for fresh knowledge or new insights into a subject is properly conducted. In this case the Seminar is composed of a community of about 200 scholars with different but related areas of expertise in their subject, who sometimes physically meet in one place for conferences, but often work together from quite different places in the world through network discussions and shared publications. That kind of seminar has been made possible through the development of the web, which was never available to earlier scholars—who usually had to work on their own, only getting in touch through other people’s books, or scholarly articles when they could get hold of them. These scholars keep electronic records of all their debates and decisions and report them through the major news media.


How do the scholars work?


They start from certain premises or assumptions, ‘the seven pillars of scholarly wisdom about Jesus,’ which they argue have gradually developed among the international community of Christian scholars since the end of the 18th century.


1. The person of the historical Jesus should be distinguished from the stories the gospels tell about him.


2. Mark’s was the first of the four gospels to be written and was used as a source by Matthew and Luke.


3. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke generally offer a more historically accurate view of Jesus than does John’s gospel, which gives us a more ‘spiritual’ account of Jesus.


4. Matthew and Luke draw on a now lost collection of sayings of Jesus (Q or Quellen)


5. The historical Jesus did not proclaim the imminent end of the world. End-of-the-world prophecies attributed to him probably originated with John the Baptist.


6. Since Jesus lived in an oral environment, not a print world, short, memorable phrases are more likely to be historical (that is, what he really said) than are long, elaborate speeches.


7. Once it was assumed that everything written in the four gospels was authentic—that is, historically factual—even if there were disagreements among the gospels. Now, it must be assumed that the gospels carry such an amount of theological and interpretative spin on the material that there needs to be additional evidence to back up the belief that anything in them is historical and authentic.


The seminar has come to the view that far from being infallible (even divinely dictated) documents, the gospels—like most other historical documents—include a mixture of factual, verifiable information and much non-factual material. They are not so much biographies in the modern sense as accounts of what Jesus meant to the writers and their faith communities. So to Matthew and his Jewish community, Jesus was the inheritor and fulfillment of the Jewish nation’s long history; to John and his Greek-speaking gentile community, the mysterious Logos (‘Word’) of God.


In investigating and distinguishing what Jesus might truly have said from what a gospel writer attributed to him, the seminar developed an interesting set of criteria,  tests for authenticity.


The saying or story is present in more than one gospel in much the same form: Love as the crucial commandment; the story of the rich young ruler; Jesus’ meeting with and baptism by John the Baptist.


The saying or story is short and pithy: such material was more likely to be passed on and remembered from the time of the speaker’s death to decades later when it was written down. ‘Turn the other cheek’ ‘blessed are the poor’


The story or saying shows a reversal of expectations (that is, the real Jesus characteristically challenged his listeners’ comfortable assumptions. ‘Love your enemies’, the parable of the Good Samaritan or the parable of the Mustard Seed


The saying or parable shows a typical Jesus theme of trust in God. ‘Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek and you will find. Abba, Father. The parable of the prodigal son.


On the other hand, the Seminar doubted that material was historically truthful if it showed Jesus talking about himself: I am the Way, I am the Truth, I am the Life. No man comes to the Father except through me.’


Or if it dealt with concerns of the early Christian communities such as issues of leadership or missionary activities. Interestingly here, the Seminar doubted that Jesus’ affirmation that Peter was the Rock on which he would build the Church was something ever said by the historical Jesus.


And it was dubious if it appeared to demonstrate the presence of a special agenda: for instance the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s gospel, a gospel which constantly speaks out strongly against unworthy members of the Christian community.


And, controversially, the scholars of the Seminar also came to doubt whether the real Jesus went about prophesying that the end of the world was near and that he himself would make a spectacular return to the world (the second coming) to judge the quick and the dead. They concluded that such material was written back into the narrative of the life of Jesus by the earliest Christian communities and reflected their expectations and pious hopes.


Well, using such criteria the Seminar went about testing each utterance attributed to Jesus in the four gospels. Wisely, and in the manner of true scholars they did not attempt to bluntly discriminate between a simple true or false. Authentic; not authentic. Each scholar offered his/her thoughtful opinion on each “Jesus” statement by voting with differently colored beads:


Red: Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.

Pink: Jesus probably or might have said something like this.

Gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas are close to His own.

Black: Jesus did not say this; it comes from later interpreters ior represents a later tradition.


Having done so, they came to a consensus of opinion, a collective view that was expressed as the official opinion of the Seminar. Then in 1993 they published a book, The Five Gospels: The Search [note that careful word ’search’] for the Authentic Words of Jesus, using the same colour-coded system in the texts of each gospel. Readers of this book were also given sufficient information to see how each decision was reached, including the various opinions of the participating scholars. Sometimes they did more than vote: some verses required extensive debate and repeated votes: all this was recorded, too.


Here’s an example of how they worked—on the Beatitudes, which appear in two of the gospels: those of Matthew and Luke. Here’s the familiar King James translation of the Beatitudes in Matthew’s version 5: 1-12


MATTHEW 5: 1-12


To analyze the beatitudes, they first created a fresh, non-literal translation, including a new formula for “blessed are,” as in “Blessed are the poor.” They argued that modern readers are so familiar now with the common biblical translations of the text that this construction doesn’t shock or surprise, as the original sayings must have done. As a modern equivalent, the Scholars’ Version uses “Congratulations!”.

Said the Seminar, Three of the  beatitudes are paradoxical (they challenge our normal expectations) and are found in two of the gospels. They are rated red (authentic) as they appear in Luke 6:20-21.

Congratulations, you poor ones!
 God’s domain belongs to you.

Congratulations, you hungry ones!
 You will have a feast.

Congratulations, you who weep now!
 You will laugh.

These beatitudes feature the dramatic presentation and reversal of expectations that the seminar regards as characteristic of authentic Jesus sayings.

The scholars decided that the beatitude for those persecuted in Jesus’ name (Matthew 5: 11-2) might trace back to Jesus, as a blessing for those who suffer, but they concluded that in its gospel form the saying represents concerns of the Christian community rather than Jesus’ message. So it received a gray rating.

Matthew’s version of the three authentic beatitudes were rated pink. The author has spiritualized two of them, so that they now refer to the “poor in spirit” and to those who “hunger and thirst for justice.”


Matthew also includes beatitudes for the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart, and peace-makers. These beatitudes are not represented in any of the other gospels, and received a black rating.




Their conclusions were always going to be controversial, indeed how dare mere human minds question the absolute truth of the scriptures. And sometimes they were deliberately put out in a challenging way.


in a keynote address to the Jesus Seminar scholars in the spring of 1994, their founder, Robert Funk said:


Jesus did not ask us to believe that his death was a blood sacrifice, that he was going to die for our sins.


Jesus did not ask us to believe that he was the messiah.

He certainly never suggested that he was the second person of the trinity. In fact, he rarely referred to himself at all.


Jesus did not call upon people to repent, or fast, or observe the sabbath.


He did not threaten with hell or promise heaven.


Jesus did not ask us to believe that he would be raised from the dead.


Jesus did not ask us to believe that he was born of a virgin.


Jesus did not regard scripture as infallible or even inspired.


Subsequently, the Seminar has been criticized on several grounds for its limited membership (‘an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left of New Testament thinking’), defective scholarship (‘they prefer non-canonical sources to canonical ones’) leading to the character assassination of Jesus (‘the Seminar Fellows, like all sceptics, prefer their own reason and biases over the possibility that the gospels are accurate in what they say about miracles, Jesus’ prophecies and his claims to be  God, Saviour, Messiah, Judge, Forgiver of sins and sacrificial Lamb of God’).  They are even accused by some critics of being allies of Satan (‘another attempt by Satan to twist the meaning of scripture, founded in the liberalism, modernism, and neo-orthodoxies that are  current in academia and mainline seminaries’).


The controversies continue, since the work of the Jesus Seminar plainly challenges the scriptural basis for many dearly-held theological and doctrinal beliefs (the Last Judgement, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement theory of the crucifixion)—and the whole fundamentalist position that every word of scripture is divinely inspired, if not actually dictated by God.


What has the Jesus Seminar achieved?

It has shown that Christians are still free to think and inquire about their faith and their sacred books (Muslim scholars are much more restricted)

It has widened the circle of awareness (that is, the general public) to New Testament studies and scholarly criticism and issues which up until the 1990s had been restricted to academic discussion among other New Testament scholars

It has provided vibrant and accurate translations into English of the many ancient Christian sources and documents which we now know exist beyond the four gospels.

It has challenged us to think again about the nature and character and meaning of the person Jesus Christ.

It has reminded us that we need to understand what kind of texts we are reading when we read scripture.

It has shown us, that, like the scientists who are forever reaching for a better understanding of the world in which we live, Christians—whether they are priests, scholars or lay people—are engaged in a never-ending pursuit of better understanding of the mysteries of our faith. In the words of George Rawson’s great old hymn, 1020 in the 1933 Methodist Hymnbook, ‘


We limit not the truth of God

to our poor reach of mind,

by notions of our day and sect,

crude, partial and confined.

No, let a new and better hope

within our hearts be stirred:

The Lord hath yet more light and truth

to break forth from his Word.


No responses yet

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply