Jesus seminar to mark 25 years of questions
G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Religion News Service
October 13, 2010

Jesus seminar to mark 25 years of questions

Jesus seminar to mark 25 years of questions
G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Religion News Service
October 13, 2010

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

end-times prophet.

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

is divided.

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

anniversary event.

“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

Christian communities.

“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

messianic status.

“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

as well.”

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.