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The Jesus Seminar is a controversial research team of academic New Testament scholars founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk under the auspices of the Westar Institute. It is a relatively new corporate venture that attempts, by a process of discussion and voting, to arrive at an answer to two questions: “What did Jesus really say?” and “What did Jesus really do?” It is a continuation of the "quest for the Historical Jesus" movement of the early 20th century. N.T. Wright says, "People have been looking for Jesus for a long time, but never quite like this."

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.[1]

The initial two hundred scholars has now dwindled to about seventy-four active members who meet periodically to debate newly presented or recently circulated papers.[2] Among its many recent publications, one stands out as a kind of flagship: The Five Gospels, published late in 1993. It was the book towards which all else was preliminary.[3]

These scholars attempt to reconstruct the life of Jesus. They try to answer who he was, what he did, what he said, and what his sayings meant using all extant evidence and available tools. The Seminar's approach, like that of Funk, is historical and critical, with a strongly skeptical view of traditional Christian belief.[1]

The Seminar has now completed many years of detailed and painstaking work. Their reconstruction of Jesus is based on the triple pillar of social anthropology, history, and textual analysis. They use cross-cultural anthropological studies to set the general background; narrow in on the history and society of first-century Judea; and use textual analysis, anthropology and historical data to focus on Jesus himself.[3]

The Five Gospels

This book takes its title from the traditional four Gospels─Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John─with the addition of Thomas because of its apparent similarity with some reconstructions of the hypothetical source “Q” and the portrait of Jesus which the “Q” source appears to support.

Some have questioned whether the Jesus proposed by The Five Gospels constitutes, or offers, good news, i.e., “gospel,” at all. According to Wright, "the main thing this Jesus has to the news that the fundamentalists are wrong."[3]


From Robert Funk at a keynote address in 1994 to the Jesus Seminar Fellows:

  • "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. "


Following each debate, colored beads have been used to "vote" on the authenticity of Jesus' words and deeds. For example:

Jesus' words

  • 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 results

"Their voting conclusions: Over 80% of the statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are, by voting consensus, either gray or black. This means that only 20% of Jesus' statements are likely to have been spoken by Him. The other 80% are most assuredly, they say, unlikely to have ever been uttered by Jesus. They were published in a book referenced below."[2]

Jesus' deeds

  • Red - The historical reliability of this information is virtually certain. It is supported by a preponderance of evidence.
  • Pink - This information is probably reliable. It fits well with other evidence that is verifiable.
  • Gray - This information is possible but unreliable. It lacks supporting evidence.
  • Black - This information is improbable. It does not fit verifiable evidence; it is largely or entirely fictive


N.T. Wright [3] identifies three actual guiding principles of the Jesus Seminar. In each case, he writes, there is "every reason to reject the principle in question.":

  • First, the Seminar in fact presupposes a particular portrait of Jesus.
  • Second, the Seminar adopts a particular, and highly misleading, position about eschatology and apocalyptic, particularly about the kingdom of God; this too was presupposed.
  • Third, the Seminar assumes a particular picture of the early church, especially its interest in and transmission of material about Jesus.

Calling the agenda "fundamentally antifundamentalist," Wright provides this quote from the book's introduction:

Once the discrepancy between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith emerged from under the smothering cloud of the historic creeds, it was only a matter of time before scholars sought to disengage [the two] ... It is ironic that Roman Catholic scholars are emerging from the dark ages of theological tyranny just as many Protestant scholars are reentering it as a consequence of the dictatorial tactics of the Southern Baptist Convention and other fundamentalisms.

Wright continues: "Perhaps the deepest flaw in terms of apparent method is that this book appeals constantly, as does all the literature of the Jesus Seminar, to the possibility that by the application of supposedly scientific or 'scholarly' criteria one will arrive at a definite answer to the question as to what Jesus actually said."[3]

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.[1]

Most prominent members


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 B.A. Robinson. "The Jesus Seminar: Liberal theologians investigating the life of Jesus." Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Web: 22 Nov 2009>
  2. 2.0 2.1
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 N. T. Wright. "Five Gospels but No Gospel: Jesus and the Seminar." in Bruce Chilton, Craig A. Evans. Authenticating the activities of Jesus, Volume 2. Brill Academic Publishers, 1998. ISBN 978-9004113022 Web: 22 Nov 2009




  • The results of their search for Jesus' words were published in The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (ISBN 006063040X)
  • The results of their search for Jesus' deeds were published in The Acts of Jesus: What did Jesus Really Do? by Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar (ISBN 0060629789)

See also

External links