Jesus Seminar

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This page is part of the Jesus Database project.


Introduction

The ground-breaking work of the Jesus Seminar appears in two texts: The Five Gospels (1993) and The Acts of Jesus (1998), both published by Polebridge Press. The Jesus Seminar is a group of biblical scholars drawn together at the initiative of Robert W. Funk. Jointly chaired by Robert W. Funk and John Dominic Crossan, the Seminar took the unprecedented step of voting as a group on the authenticity of the teachings and acts of Jesus. The following observations are taken from the introductory chapters of 5G and AJesus.

Every individual saying and action was examined and rated by the Seminar as to whether Jesus actually said it or did it, or whether it was primarily the product of the author of the gospel. Building on the earlier work of individual scholars, the Seminar’s research represents an unprecedented cooperative effort to separate what Jesus really said and did from what gets added on over time in the story telling and writing process.

In addition to the four Gospels: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, that we have known for two thousand years, the Seminar included all the surviving non-canonical gospels in their considerations. The most significant of these texts is the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus sayings that was discovered at Nag Hammadi, along with hundreds of other ancient texts, in a major archeological discovery in 1945. Thomas is not in story form, but it is a series of sayings. Many of the sayings are very similar to what appear in the other four gospels, and it was used by the Seminar as an independent report of what Jesus said.

The Seminar's work assumes that for a period of some years the stories about Jesus were passed on by word of mouth as his followers practiced his teachings and some anxiously expected his return. Ten years may have gone by before teachings and actions began to be written down, and perhaps another ten years passed before they were put into larger collections like Thomas. These collections were probably taking place about the same time that Paul was writing letters (Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans) to various Christian communities. Eventually the materials were put together in story form, probably first by Mark, sometime around 70CE, followed by Matthew, John, and Luke/Acts, in that order. Some of the writing occurred as late as the first part to the middle of the second century CE.


Process

When the Seminar members voted, a red vote received 3 points, a pink vote received 2 points, a gray vote received 1 point, and a black vote received 0 points. The colors were given the following definitions:

  • Red = This statement accurately represents what Jesus said or did.
  • Pink = This statement very likely represents what Jesus said or did.
  • Gray = This statement basically represents the thoughts of the author, but it may contain a kernel of accuracy.
  • Black = The author imagines that this was said or happened, or perhaps it is the author's attempt by metaphor to teach a truth.

A statement or event was given a final color code based on the following percentages:

  • Red = .7501 or more of the scholars agreed that the teaching or event was authentic.
  • Pink = .5001 to .7500 of the scholars agreed that the teaching or event was authentic.
  • Gray = .2501 to .5000 of the scholars agreed that the teaching or event was authentic.
  • Black = .0000 to .2500 of the scholars agreed that the teaching or event was authentic.


Criteria

The scholars used rules to determine if Jesus really said or did something; for example:

1. Primary assumption: Jesus was a reasonably well integrated person whose behavior was more or less congruent with his words.

2. Certain categories, some much more than others, are common to the teaching and behavioral materials.

(a) Itinerant

(b) Family ties don't bind
(c) Demon possession and exorcism
(d) Social deviance
(e) Association with undesirables
(f) Embracing the unclean
(g) Sabbath
(h) Critics of Jesus

(i) Healing

3. Material that reflects knowledge of events after Jesus' death must be looked at cautiously.

4. Material that appears in independent sources is older than the sources.

5. Material that appears in independent contexts circulated on its own at an earlier time.

6. Similar content that has taken on different forms had a prior life of its own.

7. Oral memory best retains short, provocative, memorable material, like aphorisms and parables.

8. It is more likely that the core or gist of a matter was recalled, rather than precise words.

9. The writers likely put their own words in Jesus' mouth under the following conditions.

(a) Story transitions: for example, "Let'€™s go over to the other side." (Mk 4:35)

(b) Summarizing the message: "The time is up. God'€™s imperial rule is closing in." (Mk 1:15)
(c) Anticipating the story: "The son of Adam is being turned over to his enemies, and they will end up killing him." (Mk 9:31)
(d) Expressing the writer’s view: "Why are you so cowardly? You still don’t trust, do you?" (Mk 4:40)
(e) Underscoring a narrative point: "He was unable to perform a single miracle there, except ..." (Mk 6:6)
(f) Clarifying current practices: "The days will come when the groom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day." (Mk 2:20)

(g) Eliciting a confessional point: "What about you, who do you say that I am?" (Mk 8:29)

When the rules are applied an emerging pattern reinforces itself:

  • Talks distinctively, distinguishable from common lore.
  • Teaches against the social and religious grain.
  • Surprises and shocks by role reversal or frustration of ordinary expectation.
  • Uses characteristics of exaggeration, humor, and paradox.
  • Uses concrete and vivid images.
  • Uses metaphorical language without explicit application.
  • Seldom initiates dialogue, debate, or healing activity.
  • Rarely speaks about himself in the first person.
  • Makes no claim to be the Messiah.

A Biography of Jesus

The Jesus Seminar's red and pink votes endorse the following data about Jesus.

Jesus was a descendent of Abraham (Mt 1:1), probably born during the reign of Herod the Great (Mt 2:1) to a woman named Mary (Lk 2:5-6). He was likely circumcised and named on the eighth day as per Jewish custom (Lk 2:21). He was supposedly the son of Joseph (Lk 3:23). Jesus had female siblings (Mk 6:3). He also had male siblings named James, Joses, Judas, and Simon (Mk 6:3). There is no certainty about his age (Lk 3:23), but he had lived in Nazareth, Galilee (Mk 1:9) and was baptized in the Jordan river (Mk 1:9), likely in the region of Judaea (Mk 1:5), by a preacher named John (Mk 1:9). Sometime later, in Galilee, he began to proclaim a message of God's good news (Mk 1:14). It is not certain if his ministry began after John's arrest (Mk 1:14) which eventuated in a beheading by Herod Antipas (Mk 6:27). It appears that Jesus remembered John with honor in his teachings (Mt 11:7-8).

Jesus and his followers/companions would walk through the countryside and villages, and he would teach (Mk 6:6). People were probably amazed that an uneducated person could be so articulate (Jn 7:15). Large groups of people likely gathered to hear him, perhaps along the lake shore, and at other places (Mk 2:13).

Jesus' behavior challenged the purity practices. For example, he made a practice of eating with social outcasts (Mk 2:15) and perhaps even invited them to join in his travels (Mk 2:14). He was also most likely flexible about Sabbath observances (Mk 2:23-28) and about what foods to eat (Mk 7:15).

Jesus spent a considerable amount of time around Capernaum (Mk 1:21) where he probably cured a fever in Peter's mother-in-law (Mk 1:30-31), and a man suffering from a skin disorder (Mk 1:40-42), and a case of paralysis (Mk 2:3-5, 12). Another time a woman's chronic vaginal flow most likely stopped just by her trust in touching his garment (Mk 5:25, 27, 29), and there was likely more than one cure of a blind person (Mk 8:22-23; 10:46-52).

Jesus further had success in releasing people from inner demons (Lk 11:19-20; Seminar opinion: Acts of Jesus, p. 61), so much so that various religious authorities most likely concluded that the power to do so must come from a chief demon within himself (Mk 3:22), and his biological family probably feared that he was “crazy” (Mk 3:21). He likely taught that his family were those who did the will of God (Thom 99:2). Some religious leaders wanted a sign from him that he had authority from God to do these things, but he gave no sign (Mk 8:11-12; Seminar opinion, Acts of Jesus, p. 101).

Jesus eventually made what turned out to be a final trip to Jerusalem (Mk 11:15). He probably created an incident in the Temple (Mk 11:15), and he taught with ambiguity about government authority to collect taxes (Mk 12:13). He was arrested (Mk 14:46), and his followers deserted (Mk 14:50). The High Priest Caiaphas and the Roman governor Pilate probably took a personal interest in his fate (Mk 14:53; Mk 15:1). He was flogged (Mk 15:15) and crucified (Mk 15:24) by soldiers; the only ones who stood faithful watch were a few women from among his followers, and they were at a safe distance (Mk 15:40-41).

After Jesus' death, within the time frame of a couple days to several years, Peter (1 Cor 15:5), Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:11-18; Seminar opinion: Acts of Jesus, p. 479), and Paul (I Cor 15:8) reported that Jesus "became visible" to them.


Prepared by Gene Stecher.

Gene is the author of numerous poems that explore the wisdom and practice of Jesus.


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