The Jesus Seminar: History and Issues

Redacted by Kurt Dahlin October 14, 2002

In March of 1985 Robert Funk, for many years a well known professor at the University of Montana, presided over the first meeting of a group of scholars known as the Jesus Seminar. They met on the campus of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California and supposedly set out to determine which words of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament were truly authentic. Funk assembled a team of scholars that would vote on each saying of Jesus in to order create a new red-letter edition of the Gospels. Only those sayings that they believed really went back to Jesus would be colored red.  Birger Pearson, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara noted,

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.
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 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.

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.


Craig L. Blomberg published an article, which originally appeared in the Fall 1994 issue of the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL.  Blomberg wrote,

The Five Gospels uses more black ink for the sayings of Jesus than red, pink, and gray put together. Only 15 sayings of Jesus are colored red — and then not always in all the different versions in which they appear in the various Gospel parallels. The red sayings are all short, pithy “aphorisms” (unconventional proverb-like sayings) such as, “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29), “congratulations, you poor” (Luke 6:20; Thomas 54), and “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27; Matt. 5:44) — or parables (particularly the more subversive ones) such as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), the Shrewd Manager (Luke l6:l-8a), and the Vineyard Laborers (Matt. 20:1-15). The only saying that appears in more than two Gospels that was colored red each time was, “Pay to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and God what belongs to God” (Matt. 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25; Thomas 100:2). This was also the only saying in the entire Gospel of Mark to be colored red.

Pink sayings are much more plentiful; an appendix lists 75. But again they are almost entirely limited to short, unconventional utterances such as one might expect from an Oriental sage or cryptic guru. Most of these come from sayings paralleled either in Matthew and Luke or in one of those Gospels plus Thomas. The gray sayings are not indexed but appear about twice as often as the pink. Indeed, the commentary explains that much of the gray matter came very close to being pink in the voting. At times over half of the Fellows voted red or pink, but the remaining black vote resulted in a gray “compromise.” Somewhat more than half of all the teaching attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, however, remains black, including virtually everything in the Gospel of John.

Quests of the Historical Jesus

Why would biblical scholars even question the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus? In the 17th and 18th centuries, liberal European scholars, especially in Germany, began to reexamine the Gospel stories and to raise questions about their accuracy. A two-hundred-year war on the gospels was begun by Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768), professor of Oriental languages at Hamburg in Germany. Pearson summarized the scholarship of Reimarus,

Reimarus saw in Jesus of Nazareth a Jewish messianic revolutionary whose failure led his followers to steal his body and create a new story of Jesus based on aspects of Jewish messianism. The Christian religion did not grow out of the teaching of Jesus; it is a new creation which gradually unfolded out of a series of failed expectations.

Famed historian Will Durant stated that Reimarus attacked the gospels as the “deceitful work of Jesus' followers, who, after he had failed to establish a Jewish state along nationalist lines, created accounts depicting him as a spiritual savior of humanity” (553).
Historical investigation of the Jesus tradition is the product of the 18th-century Enlightenment.

·       Beginning with Reimarus liberal intellectuals sought to use naturalism as a basis to undermine confidence in the accuracy of the portrait of Jesus in the New Testament.

·       In 1766, J. J. Griesbach designed a gospel synopsis which printed parallel portions of Matthew, Mark and Luke in adjoining columns. Griesbach's work became popular for studying and comparing the texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke. This led scholars to call the three gospels "the synoptics." Thereafter, the problem of explaining the relationship of the contents of Matthew, Mark and Luke was labeled: "the synoptic problem."

·       In 1796 Herder pointed out what he believed to be the apparently irreconcilable differences between the Christ of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the Christ of the Gospel of St. John.

·       In 1828 Heinrich Paulus, published a 1192 page summary of The Life of Christ. He proposed a rationalistic interpretation of the miracles and ascribed them to natural causes and human powers.

·       In 1835-36 David Strauss rejected this compromise, which viewed miracles as actual events in his Life of Jesus. He classified the Gospels as mythical stories. The gospel writers embedded important spiritual truths, ideas and principles in stories surrounded with the appearance of history. These myths combined actual stories about the historical Jesus with poetic speculation. The Gospels contain a basic historical core of information about Jesus embellished with a richly integrated network of pious reflections and imaginings. The gospel writers creatively developed the humble Jesus of history into the glorious Jesus of the New Testament (Howard C. Kee). Strauss thought “the supernatural elements in the Gospels should be classed as myths, and the actual career of Christ must be reconstructed without using these elements in any form. Strauss's massive volumes made Biblical criticism the storm center of German thought for a generation” (Durant 553).

·       In 1835 Karl Lachmann first supported the priority of Mark.  Lachmann attempted to show that Matthew and Luke used material found in Mark.  It was discovered that when Matthew and Luke shared common material found in Mark the chronological sequence of events corresponded closely. Yet, with material that is common to Matthew and Luke (Q) the events are not ordered in a Markan sequence (McKnight 6).  The priority of Mark was a new invention and it took until the end of the 19th century before it was accepted. 

·       In 1836 Ferdinand Christian Baur attacked the Epistles of Paul, rejecting as unauthentic all but those written to the Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans (Durant 553).

·       In 1838 C. H. Weisse, a German scholar, proposed that Matthew and Luke were based on two documents: Mark and an additional sayings source that no longer existed as a distinct document.  This theory became known as the "Two Document" or "Two Source" hypothesis. 

·       In 1890 another German scholar, J. Weiss, designated as “Q” the non-Markan material shared by Matthew and Luke. "Q" comes from the German word for source: Quelle.

Howard Kee in Groiler’s Encyclopedia wrote,

In reaction to these mythical and symbolic interpretations of the Gospel stories, historians began to reconstruct what they called "objective" historical accounts of Jesus. This undertaking was launched by Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860) and reached its climax in the work of Heinrich Holtzmann (1832-1910). In each case, what purported to be objective was in fact determined from the outset by the philosophical presuppositions of the historian. Baur was strongly influenced by the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel, with its notion that history moves in a dialectical process by which opposing forces are synthesized. He saw the tensions between the Jewish wing of the early church (which insisted that Christians must observe the Jewish law) and a Gentile faction that rejected the law as the historical core that explained not only the Gospel accounts of Jesus, but also the subsequent development of the church itself. Adolf van HARNACK (1851-1930) analyzed the Gospels and concluded that the essence of Christianity was the inner rule of God in the human heart, the worth of the human soul, and the command of love. Everything else in the Gospel accounts could be attributed to the misconceptions and naiveté of 1st-century Judaism with its hopes of divine intervention in history and the restoration of Israel.

Albert Schweitzer begins his classic work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

The Quest for the Historical Jesus

The quest for the historical Jesus is best typified by the work of Rudolph Bultmann.  Birger Pearson stated that Rudolf Bultmann was “the preeminent New Testament scholar of the first half of our century.” Beginning in 1921, Bultmann inaugurated an attempt to find the Jesus of History.  Bultmann believed that underlying the literary text of the New Testament was a mythological blending of Jewish apocalyptic and Hellenistic mystery religion.  This supernatural element needed a naturalistic and non-supernatural interpretation.  He believed that the Bible, and especially the New Testament, should be understood as any other secular work.  The New Testament was a product of the mythologizing elements present in every culture.  Therefore the NT should be read as a mythological compilation of literary techniques and forms.  Implementing this rationalistic approach to understanding the New Testament, Bultmann sought to demythologize the forms and embellishments of the Early Church to discover the simple historical Jesus of Nazareth.  Bultmann considered the worldview of the New Testament as a pre-scientific cosmology.  His a priori assumption concluded that since we now live in a modern and scientific culture, closed to supernatural intrusion and intervention (the Sadducean view), this mythology must be stripped away from the Bible to find the real Jesus of history: a mere man.

Therefore, Bultmann summarily rejected, the birth narratives of Jesus, his Baptism, Temptation, his miracles, the Atoning Sacrifice, his death and crucifixion, Resurrection, his exaltation to the right hand of the Father, his coming again as the apocalyptic Son of Man in the clouds with 10,000's of his saints, etc. For Bultmann the gospel was not simply a matter of separating myth from history.  The entire New Testament was a mythological production consisting of literary forms.

Bultmann then attempted to separate the Jesus of History from the Jesus of Faith created by the Early Church or the Kerygmatic Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible.  However, the quest was abandoned because at every level in the source tradition, the supernatural apocalyptic Jesus remained.  Albert Schweitzer stated that the apocalyptic message was central to the teaching of Jesus.

So, form critics divided the Synoptic gospels into various literary forms, such as apophtegms, paradigms or settings, tales, legends, sayings, parables, narratives, woe, exhortation, apocalypse, etc.  Yet even subject to this naturalistic worldview, the Jesus of History is the Jesus of the New Testament proclamation. Birger noted,

In his classic treatment of the historical Jesus, Jesus and the Word, Bultmann asserted that "we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary (15)."

For Bultmann, a scholarly "quest of the historical Jesus" is not only impossible, but theologically illegitimate because it substitutes worldly proof for faith.

The “Third Quest” for the Historical Jesus

Pearson wrote,

This brings us to the recent work of John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, [31] whose dust jacket advertises it as "the first comprehensive determination of who Jesus was, what he did, what he said"! According to Crossan, the eschatological Jesus was foisted on the tradition by the early church. Jesus himself rejected the eschatological message of John the Baptist and adopted an "egalitarian" and "sapiential" teaching and demeanor appropriate to his peasant background. Crossan's handling of his sources produces an astonishing conclusion, in what most people would regard as an oxymoron: "The historical Jesus was, then, a peasant Jewish Cynic" [32].

The wandering Cynic philosophers are in some way analogous to the earliest Christian wandering charismatics. They too seem to have led a vagabond existence and also to have renounced home, families, and possessions. [26]

The Cynics, it will be recalled, were itinerant preachers of a philosophy of freedom from every constraint and a life lived with minimal requirements "according to nature."

An article published in Time Magazine (January 10, 1994) titled, Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple, summarized the “scholarship” of John Crossan. Author Richard Ostling wrote:

·       For Crossan, Jesus' de ification was akin to the worship of Augustus Cae sar-a mixture of myth, propaganda and social convention. It was simply a thing that was done in the ancient Mediterranean world.

·       Christ's pedigree his virgin birth in Bethle hem of Judea, home of his reputed ancestor King David-is retrospective mythmaking by writers who had "already decided on the transcendental im portance of the adult Je sus,” Crossan says.

·       The journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth, he adds, is "pure fiction, a creation of Luke's own imagination."

·       He speculates that Jesus may not even have been Mary's firstborn and that the man the Bible calls his brother James was the el dest child.

·       Crossan argues that Jesus did not cure any one but that he did "heal" people by refusing to ostra cize them because of their illnesses.

·       While Jesus may have had some ability to use trancelike therapies to "ex orcise" demons, Crossan says, he used the incidents themselves chiefly to characterize "Roman imperialism as demonic possession."

·       Both Crossan and Mack say that Jesus' ideas are simi lar to those of the Cynics of the age. These were men who believed not in nothing, as the word now implies, but in the rejection of the standard beliefs and values of society (38).

·       Jesus—a peasant nobody—was never buried, never taken by his friends to a rich man’s sepulcher.

·       Rather, says Crossan, the tales of entomb ment and resurrection were latter-day wishful thinking.

·       Instead, Jesus' corpse went the way of all abandoned crimi nals' bodies: it was probably barely covered with dirt, vul nerable to the wild dogs that roamed the wasteland of the ex ecution grounds (39).

None of Crossan’s conclusions are based on biblical scholarship. They are statements of opinion based on preconceived notions derived from naturalism.

Much of the naturalistic methodology of the Jesus Seminar is standard and builds on two centuries of liberal biblical scholarship. Pearson notes that the basic critical approach is presented in a discussion of seven "pillars of scholarly wisdom" in the Introduction to The Five Gospels. The first four of these are:

1. The distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of Christian faith. The “biblical” Jesus is a product of the faith needs of a suffering church. The “real” Jesus of history was a typical itinerant Jewish sage.

2. Preference for the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke over John as sources for the historical Jesus.

3. The chronological priority of the Gospel of Mark. The acceptance of the Two Source hypothesis by most leading synoptic scholars in the 20th century has made it the basis of most gospel analysis for the past century.

4. The hypothetical source "Q" used independently by Matthew and Luke (3). These four pillars represent the findings of 19th-century scholarship now commonly accepted.

The last three reflect more recent trends:

5. "The liberation of the non-eschatological Jesus . . . from Schweitzer's eschatological Jesus."

6. The fundamental contrast between an oral culture, such as that of Jesus, and a print culture.

7. The "burden of proof" on those who argue for authenticity, rather than on those who argue for inauthenticity (4-5).

A significant feature of the Jesus Seminar's methodology is reflected in pillar five, the rejection of the eschatological Jesus. The rejection of eschatology inevitably results in the rejection of 82% of the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. Pearson summarizes the 18% Jesus,
  • Jesus does not as a rule initiate dialogue or debate, nor does he offer to cure people. 
  • Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about himself in the first person.
  •  Jesus makes no claim to be the Anointed, or messiah. . . . Like the cowboy hero of the American West exemplified by Gary Cooper, the sage of the ancient Near East was laconic, slow to speech, a person of few words. The sage does not provoke encounters. . . . As a rule, the sage is self-effacing, modest, unostentatious (32) .
The Jesus Seminar will now have us believe that Jesus, after his baptism by John, rejected John's "mentality" of impending cataclysm, "quit the ascetic desert, and returned to urban Galilee" where he "took up eating and drinking and consorting with toll collectors and sinners, and developed a different point of view" (4), one much like that of "the Cynic philosophers who probably wandered about Galilee in Jesus' day" (316).

All of the sayings in the Jesus tradition that refer to the future kingdom of God, or judgment, rewards and punishments after death, etc., are colored black by the Seminar.

That early Christians reinterpreted Jesus' message in the interests of their developing Christology.

Pearson noted,

The "Scholars Version" Translation

The intent of "the Scholars Version" as stated in a preface to The Five Gospels, is to "desacralize" the text of the gospels and make the translation "sound like a piece of contemporary literature" (xvi) by using "the common street language of the original" (xiv).

The "authentic" material in the Jesus sayings tradition comprises 18% of the total, according to the Jesus Seminar. This, in the view of the scholars, is the non-eschatological part of the tradition.

Many of Jesus' recorded parables are accepted as genuine by the Seminar, but in some cases only with the application of scissors and paste. The parable of the "Lost Sheep" (Luke 15:4-7) is colored pink, but only up to v. 6, which concludes with "'Celebrate with me, because I have found my lost sheep." The point of the parable is painted black:

I'm telling you that it'll be just like this in heaven; there'll be more celebrating over one sinner who has a change of heart than over ninety-nine virtuous people who have no need to change their hearts (355).

The parable of the "shrewd manager" (Luke 16:1-8) is colored red up to the first part of v. 8: "The master praised the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly." The point of the parable is colored black.

The Fellows of the Seminar were overwhelmingly of the opinion that Jesus did not advocate celibacy. A majority of the Fellows doubted, in fact, that Jesus himself was celibate. They regard it as probable that he had a special relationship with at least one woman, Mary of Magdala. In any case, the sayings on castration should not be taken as Jesus' authorization for an ascetic lifestyle; his behavior suggests that he celebrated life by eating, drinking, and fraternizing freely with both women and men (220-21).

The question posed earlier bears repeating: Who would want to crucify a fellow like this?

Craig Blomber wrote,

As leading Catholic scholar John Meier puts it in his much more representative, recent work on the historical Jesus, “A tweedy poetaster who spent his time spinning out parables and Japanese koans, a literary aesthete who toyed with 1st-century deconstructionism, or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field — such a Jesus would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one.”


In the introduction to Jesus Under Fire editors Wilkins and Moreland note,

The members of the Jesus Seminar are com mitted to a strict philosophical naturalism. Modern science and experience demonstrate that supernatural phenomena do not exist. Therefore, any record of supernatural events in the Gospels must be rejected as inauthentic. Recorded supernatural events are either mythic fictions created by the early church, or else they can now be accounted for by naturalistic explanations. This includes mirac ulous activity of healings, exorcisms, resurrection, prophecy, and inspiration of the biblical documents. Not only does philosophical naturalism automatically exclude large portions of the Gospel material, but it also has significant implica tions for related issues (4).

Any prophecy of Jesus that foretold knowledge of future events such as the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem was placed on his lips after the event occurred. For this reason they conclude that all the gospels were written after A.D. 70. There is no evidence to support their claims other than a previous commitment to naturalism. The sub title to Jesus Under Fire is Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. However, there is no scholarship involved on the part of the Jesus Seminar. A better title would be How Naturalists and Atheists Pervert the Bible.

Without reading even one word from any so-called atheistic scholars we could determine exactly what their conclusions about the Bible would be. This is because we know the naturalistic substance of their presuppositions. We could accurately predetermine their voting on the words and works of Jesus. Their interpretation of the Bible would perfectly match their naturalistic worldview. There is no scholarship needed. What would you expect from someone committed to the philosophy of naturalism? It is no surprise that their voting is consistent with naturalism. Their so-called scholarship is merely a servant of their bias.

According to their scholarship 82% of the gospels are mythological. Yet we could guess this percentage simply by knowing their worldview. The Jesus Seminar Fellows believe that science has proven the supernatural to be obsolete. The mythological deities and demons were swept away by the secularizing advances of science (Habermas 126). The findings of the Jesus Seminar are not about history, fact or scholarship. Their conclusions are based on naturalism. An atheist can only understand the Bible as an atheist. Therefore, everything that has to do with God, God’s plan of salvation, the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts and miracles must be eliminated. The goal of the Jesus Seminar is to eliminate God from the gospels. They must remove any and all supernatural elements from the text. Therefore, it is no surprise to discover that their scholarship has reduced the NT to 18%.

1.     No real miracles

2.     No prophecy

3.     No spiritual gifts

4.     No deity of Christ

5.     No Trinity

6.     No eschatology

7.     No atoning sacrifice

8.     No resurrection

9.     No Second Coming

10.   No judgment

Their Jesus was merely a low-key itinerant poet. Jesus is only the 18% left over after the Jesus Seminar is through stripping him of his glory. A better title for their book would be The 18% Jesus. Why bother founding a global missionary movement around such weak personality?  The so-called scholarship of the Jesus Seminar is driven by their ideology. Gary Habermas wrote,

The "hidden agenda" in the work of the Jesus Seminar is clearly an ideology that drives it. So what is this ideology? An important clue is found in the frequency with which the word "secular" appears in The Five Gospels.

Jesus was, simply, "a secular sage" (287).

The ideology driving the Jesus Seminar is, I would argue, one of "secularization." Of course, one should expect that, in secular academic settings (such as a state university in the U.S.),

What we have, instead, is an approach driven by an ideology of secularization, and a process of coloring the historical evidence to fit a secular ideal.

A group of secularized theologians and secular academics went seeking a secular Jesus, and they found him! They think they found him, but, in fact, they created him. Jesus the "party animal," whose zany wit and caustic humor would enliven an otherwise dull cocktail party --this is the product of the Jesus Seminar's six years' research. In a sense the Jesus Seminar, with its ideology of secularization, represents a "shadow image" of the old "New Quest," with its neo-orthodox theology -- and its ultimate bankruptcy (287).

The reason the liberal scholars can have their way with the New Testament is because history is rejected for conjecture. The unanimous record of history that clearly evidences the early origin of Matthew’s gospel is mocked as hearsay. The best the Jesus Seminar can do is to reject the biblical Jesus for a Jesus made in their own image.

Will Durant summed up the controversy very well.

In summary, it is clear that there are many contradictions between one gospel and another, many dubious statements of history, many suspicious resemblances to the legends told of pagan gods, many incidents apparently designed to prove the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many pas sages possibly aiming to establish a historical basis for some later doctrine or ritual of the Church. The evangelists shared with Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus the conception of history as a vehicle for moral ideas. And presum ably the conversations and speeches reported in the Gospels were subject to the frailties of illiterate memories, and the errors or emendations of copyists.

All this granted, much remains. The contradictions are of minutiae, not substance; in essentials the synoptic gospels agree remarkably well, and form a consistent portrait of Christ. In the enthusiasm of its discoveries the Higher Criticism has applied to the New Testament tests of authenticity so severe that by them a hundred ancient worthies--e.g., Hammurabi, David, Socrates-would fade into legend. Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere in­ventors would have concealed--the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus' arrest, Peter's denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man (557).
Blomberg, Craig. “Scholars: Who Does the Jesus Seminar Really Speak For?” CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL. Christian Research Institute International, Fall 1994.

Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1944.

 Habermas, Gary. “Did Jesus Perform Miracles,” Jesus Under Fire. Michael Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, editors. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 1995.

McKee, Howard.

McKnight, Edgar.  What is Form Criticism?   Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1975.

Ostling, Richard. “Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple,” Time Magazine January 10, 1994.
Pearson, Birger. The Gospel According To The Jesus Seminar. Claremont Graduate School, CA: The "Occasional Papers" series of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity no. 35, April 1996.

Wilkins, Michael and J.P.Moreland, editors. “Introduction,” Jesus Under Fire. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 1995.