Last modified on January 22, 2022, at 21:51

Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar is an organization of scholars assembled by former University of Montana professor Robert Funk for the purpose of finding what they considered the real, historical Jesus Christ through an investigation of the known sources (the four Gospels plus other non-canonical sources). Their conclusions of what Jesus said and did - arrived at through "scholarly consensus"[1] from a liberal perspective[2] - were published in 1993 as The Five Gospels: The search for the authentic words of Jesus, a work which expresses their opinion as to what Jesus said - or didn't say - in the Bible.

The Seminar has never officially disbanded (though Funk passed away in 2005), but many of the original members still continue their research and publications using the Seminar's methodologies. The Westar Institute maintains a website explaining the work of the Seminar and future publications of the "Fellows" (all of whom, not surprisingly, are liberal theologians, though some notable liberal theologians such as Bart Ehrman are not Fellows and are openly criticial of the Seminar's findings).


In the mid-1970's Funk had expressed a desire for a work about the historical Jesus. To that end he assembled a team of theological scholars, with the intent that they would create a version of the Gospels which reflected a consensus, based upon votes as to what constituted what they perceived as the "real" words of Jesus.

Their work would be divided into three phases:

  • Phase 1 (active from 1985-1991) had the Seminar determining what Jesus actually said. The Seminar collected over 1,500 versions of about 500 different sayings, categorized into four groups: Parables, Aphorisms, Dialogues, and Stories containing words attributed to Jesus, from both the four Gospels and other non-canonical sources such as the controversial Gospel of Thomas.
  • Phase 2 (active from 1991-1996) had the Seminar determining what Jesus actually did. The Seminar investigated 387 reports of 176 events, where Jesus was the principal actor in the majority (but in some cases involved events where the principal actor was John the Baptist, the Apostle Peter, or Judas Iscariot).
  • Phase 3 (active from 1996-1998) had the Seminar (based on its work in the first two phases) compiling a profile of "what kind of figure [Jesus] was emerging from the evidence they had found to be most probably historically authentic".

Originally starting out with 30 members, at its peak the Seminar would have about 200 scholars, but only 74 would remain when The Five Gospels (the summary of Phase 1) was published. Of the 74, 14 were academic professors with published works on the subject of historical Jesus, 20 were also academics but with far fewer publications on the subject; 18 of the remaining members had no published papers on the subject at all.


The Seminar used what it termed "Seven Pillars of Scholarly Wisdom" which it termed the basis for "modern critical scholarship" of Jesus:

  1. Distinguishing between "historical Jesus" and what the Gospels say about Him;
  2. Distinguishing between the Synoptic gospels and the Gospel according to John (considering the Synoptics to be "more historical" and John's Gospel to be "more spiritual", and considering the Gospel of Thomas to be more canonical than John);
  3. Identifying the Gospel according to Mark as the first Gospel account, and the source of the information found in the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to Luke;
  4. Identifying the (hypothetical) "Q document", which it considered the source of information found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark;
  5. Questioning the eschatological views of Jesus as historically understood (i.e. rejecting the historic view of apocalyptic eschatology -- that Jesus was concerned about the End of the World in His teachings -- in favor of a sapiential eschatology -- which has Him concerned about trying to better the world in which we live today);
  6. Distinguishing between cultures relying on oral sayings vs. written accounts (in their view, as Jesus lived in an oral culture, the Seminar assumed that short, memorable stories or phrases were more likely to be historically accurate); and
  7. Finally, reversing the burden of proof (i.e. instead of assuming the Gospel accounts were accurate and forcing someone to prove they were not, the Seminar assumed that the Gospel accounts were inaccurate and required someone to prove they were).

Since the Seminar rejected the infallibility of the Gospels, it identified certain "criteria for authenticity", which included:

  • Multiple attestations (an account listed in more than one Gospel would be rated higher than one found in only one)
  • Embarrassment (an account that was embarrassing to the author or the people mentioned was likely more authentic, as an author would not invent a story to embarrass himself or his followers)
  • Orality (the shorter the phrase, the more likely it was authentic)
  • Irony (if it was counter to the norm, the more likely it was authentic)
  • Trust in God (if Jesus told His followers to trust in God, the more likely it was authentic)

Conversely it identified certain "criteria for inauthenticity", where a passage would be considered not to be an actual saying, which included:

  • Self-reference (if it had Jesus referring to Himself, the more likely it was not authentic)
  • Framing Material (verses which preceded an "authentic" saying were generally considered not authentic)
  • Community Issues (verses relating to concerns of early Christians were generally considered not authentic)
  • Theological Agenda (verses supporting an opinion or outlook unique to that Gospel were generally considered not authentic)

Each member of the Seminar used a series of colored beads for each saying of Jesus found in the Gospels (along with the Gospel of Thomas) to determine that voter's assessment of historical accuracy; each bead represented a number of "points", the more points, the more the voter (and, ultimately, the Seminar as a whole) considered the saying to be attributed to Jesus:[3]

  • A red bead (worth 3 points) indicated that the voter "would include this item unequivocally in the database for determining who Jesus was" or that the voter believed "Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it" (unofficially called "That’s Jesus!")
  • A pink bead (worth 2 points) indicated that the voter "would include this item with reservations (or modifications) in the database" or that the voter believed "Jesus probably said something like this" (unofficially called "Sure sounds like Jesus.")
  • A gray bead (worth 1 point) indicated that the voter "would not include this item in the database, but I might make use of some of the content in determining who Jesus was" or that the voter believed "Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own" (unofficially called "Well, maybe.")
  • A black bead (worth 0 points) indicated that the voter "would not include this item in the primary database" or that the voter believed "Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition" (unofficially called "There’s been some mistake.")

The total points were divided by the number of votes cast (which gave unequal weight to black votes, on the view that "when in doubt, leave it out") and then converted to a percentage scale:

  • Red: 75.01% or higher
  • Pink: 50.01% to 75.00%
  • Gray: 25.01% to 50.00%
  • Black: 25.00% or lower

As an example of the methodology, certain portions of The Beatitudes were given the following ratings:

  • The Beatitudes as accounted in Luke 6:20-21 (the poor, the hungry, and those who weep) were rated red.
  • Matthew's accounts of those same Beatitudes were rated pink, as Matthew had "spiritualized" those pertaining to the poor and the hungry.
  • The Beatitude for those persecuted in Jesus' name was rated gray, as it "might" trace back to those who suffer, but likely represented the concerns of the early Christian community and not the actual message of Jesus.
  • The Beatitudes for the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart, and peace-makers were rated black, for lack of second attestation and for lack of irony.

Anti-Christian agenda

That the Jesus Seminar was never subjective in their findings is evident from their methods in determining the authenticity of Scripture; that they had an anti-Christian agenda was evident from the start.

Of the 74 scholars that remained at the end of the original book, 36 came from Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Claremont, universities which were criticized for having the most-liberal New Testament study programs. In any case, most of the people who left the Seminar before the book went to print complained of the "radical fringes of New Testament scholarship" who were over-represented there, or of Funk's undermining of traditional Biblical values from the outset.[4]

Furthermore the Seminar did not use any actual English translation of the Gospels (such as the venerable King James Version or any of the modern ones available at the time), nor did it use any of the Greek texts available (which would counter any issues that unavoidably exist when translating from one language to another). Instead, it created its own "translation" which it called "the Scholars version", thereby (likely) adding bias into the final vote (and in one case adding a profanity which did not exist in the Greek or in any English translation).

In his opening remarks at the first Seminar meeting, Funk openly stated that "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" and further that said difficulty "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". Funk would go on further to state that "that the Bible, along with all our histories, is a fiction" and that the "fiction of Revelation keeps many common folk in bondage to ignorance and fear". [5]

In 1998 Funk published a short paper, "The Coming Radical Reformation" [6], a series of 21 short theses in which he stated his views on Christianity, God, and the Bible, all of which offered a rehash of liberal and atheistic sayings.

  • In the first thesis, Funk reduced God to a non-existant being and replaced Him with a humanistic philosophy:
"The God of the metaphysical age is dead. There is not a personal god out there external to human beings and the material world. We must reckon with a deep crisis in god talk and replace it with talk about whether the universe has meaning and whether human life has purpose."
  • In his third thesis, he declares that "sin" is a mere dogma, with death just the natural part of things.
"The deliteralization of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis brought an end to the dogma of original sin as something inherited from the first human being. Death is not punishment for sin, but is entirely natural. And sin is not transmitted from generation to generation by means of male sperm, as suggested by Augustine."
  • As to Jesus Christ (Thesis Seven), Funk stated that
"The plot early Christians invented for a divine redeemer figure is as archaic as the mythology in which it is framed. A Jesus who drops down out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the power of sin, rises from the dead, and returns to heaven is simply no longer credible. The notion that he will return at the end of time and sit in cosmic judgment is equally incredible. We must find a new plot for a more credible Jesus."
  • He also claimed in Thesis Eight that the Virgin Birth:
"is an insult to modern intelligence and should be abandoned" and furthermore "is a pernicious doctrine that denigrates women."
  • Funk's new plot for Jesus clearly led to the Jesus Seminar and The Five Gospels. This led to the removal of the primary mission of Jesus, that of bringing salvation to mankind; Funk reduced it to an equivalent of pagan sacrifice (Thesis Nine):
"The doctrine of the atonement—the claim that God killed his own son in order to satisfy his thirst for satisfaction—is subrational and subethical. This monstrous doctrine is the stepchild of a primitive sacrificial system in which the gods had to be appeased by offering them some special gift, such as a child or an animal."

What is seen in Funk's paper is the true mission of the Jesus Seminar, to present a fictionalized version of Jesus Christ to the masses, and to get them to believe that their "consensus" is the correct one. According to author and Christian pastor Mark D. Roberts, the Seminar "wore a mask of scholarly objectivity and dispassionate scientific inquiry...based largely upon the image, one might be tempted to say 'the myth,' of the Seminar as a group of unbiased scholars who carefully sifted the evidence to discover what Jesus really said (and didn't say)",[7]


The result of their research - despite having a collection of more than 1500 versions of approximately 500 Christian writings which were authored prior to 313 A.D. - declared, not unsurprisingly, that the majority of what Jesus said and did, and who He claimed he was, was likely not authentic and the result of later additions by early Christians.

In Phase 1, of all the sayings attributed Jesus, in the Bible and elsewhere, the Seminar concluded that only 11 were "most likely to be authentic".[8] Luke and Matthew had the most accounts voted as such, with Mark (though it is considered by many theologians to be the source of Matthew's and Luke's accounts) having only one verse voted as such (the Gospel of Thomas, by comparison, had four accounts voted as such, though all four were also listed in the Gospels) and John having zero. In a bit of irony, the Seminar concluded that Luke 6:37 -- which contains the well-known "judge not, lest ye be judged" phrase often used by non-Christians and liberal Christians to oppose any attempts by conservative Christians to call out sin, either personal or corporate -- was in their view likely not authentic.[9]

In Phase 2, of all the actions attributed to Jesus, in the Bible and elsewhere, the Seminar concluded that only ten were "most likely to be authentic", with another 19 given a pink (probable) rating.[10] Notably they concluded that Jesus did not walk on water, feed the multitudes, change water into wine, or raise Lazarus from the dead, that He was executed as a "public nuisance" and not for claiming to be the Son of God, and that He did not resurrect from the dead ("the resurrection is based instead on visionary experiences of Peter, Paul, and Mary").

In Phase 3, overall the Seminar concluded that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah nor a "divine being" come to Earth from Heaven to die as a sacrifice for sins, that at the heart of His teachings was a vision of life "in which God’s generosity and goodness is regarded as the model and measure of human life; everyone is accepted as a child of God", and that He never held to an apocalyptic view of the Kingdom of God.[11]


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