Since 1985, scholars
affiliated with the Jesus Seminar have been casting doubt on the authenticity
of sayings attributed to Jesus and questioning whether he saw himself as an
As the seminar marks its
25th anniversary Oct. 13-16 in Santa Rosa, Calif., it’s generating far less
attention and controversy than in years past, when the media spotlight gave
members a platform to reach millions.
Now observers are debating a
new question: What difference has the Jesus Seminar made? Once again, the jury
Among the seminar’s 100
fellows is a strong sense that the group has effectively made the general
public more aware of questions surrounding the so-called “historical Jesus.”
For example: By using
color-coded beads to vote on whether Jesus likely said this or that, the group
captured widespread attention, said John Dominic Crossan, chair of the 25th
“When some of our critics
said, ‘These guys are seeking publicity,’ we said ‘Duh! That’s the whole
purpose!”’ Crossan said.
“We wanted people to know
what we were doing. That was the whole purpose of the voting with colored beads
and all the rest of that paraphernalia. It was designed for cameras.”
Critics of the Jesus Seminar
concede that the group deftly drew the spotlight and got a cross-section of
people talking about Jesus. But they also fault the scholars for allegedly
misrepresenting their views as mainstream and for shaking the faith of
“They created this
impression that they were representing a genuine consensus of opinion that
Jesus only said 18 percent of what’s attributed to him in the Gospels and so
on,” said Duke Divinity School Dean and New Testament scholar Richard Hays.
“In point of fact, that was
never so. They didn’t represent the sort of consensus that they claimed to
represent. It was a self-selected group of scholars who held a particular view.”
The Jesus Seminar held its
first meeting in Berkeley, Calif., as 35 individuals, mostly scholars,
responded to an invitation from the late Robert Funk, who died in 2005.
Having rejected the
fundamentalism of his youth, Funk was eager to assemble fellow scholars to
dispel what he considered to be mistaken church teachings about Jesus,
according to Lane McGaughy, a member of the seminar since its beginning.
What emerged from the group’s
semiannual meetings was a sense of Jesus as human, not divine, rising to
prominence because of his social justice teachings, not because of his
“The danger is that any of
us will see in Jesus what it is that we’re looking for,” McGaughy said. “That
is a problem not just for Jesus Seminar scholars but for conservative scholars
Critics say the Jesus
Seminar has long been an agenda-driven project marked by flawed methodology.
Fellows of the seminar
defend its methods and its impact.
Crossan says that through
the seminar, scholars fulfilled a moral duty to make their insights accessible
to rank-and-file Christians and other curious people, not just academic
McGaughy goes even further,
saying the seminar, in presenting a historical and human Jesus, helped make
Christianity meaningful for people who stopped believing doctrine and left the
“It’s opened up some very
interesting changes in a lot of these so-called dying churches,” McGaughy said.
“Because of the Jesus Seminar, a lot of people feel that they have permission
to ask questions that they never before thought they could ask in church.”
Without a doubt, the Jesus
Seminar elicited strong reactions from scholars and clerics who defend tenets
of orthodox Christianity.
The seminar provided a “wake-up
call” for conservative scholars to popularize their own writings, said Ben
Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary.
“One of the positive effects
is that it’s changed the way the networks deal with that kind of subject,”
Witherington said. “They started bending over backward to get more of a
spectrum of opinion about the historical Jesus because they realized there was
such pushback to just interviewing the Jesus Seminar people.”
After more than two decades
of examining the Gospels, the Jesus Seminar is moving on. Fellows continue to
meet, but they now focus on the biblical book of Acts and the letters of Paul.
The Westar Institute, an
umbrella group for the Jesus Seminar, will this month publish “The Authentic
Letters of Paul.”
As the seminar moves beyond
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, critics say the initiative has ceased to compel
public interest. Witherington sees the lack of public attention as a sign that
the seminar is now largely irrelevant to public conversation about religion and
Fellows of the seminar
acknowledge that public attention has waned, but they aren’t entirely
disappointed. To some, being disregarded has become a badge of success.
“There is in a way less
criticism of the Jesus Seminar now and less publicity in fact because our work
has been accepted. It’s no longer regarded as on the fringes,” McGaughy said.