What is The Jesus Seminar?

They are a group of prestigious scholars sponsored by a scholarly think tank called the Westar Institute. More than two hundred gospel scholars drawn from the staffs of a huge variety of Colleges and Universities around the world have become the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar.

What was the purpose of The Jesus Seminar?

To search for the Authentic words of Jesus in Scripture!

Can’t one just go to the Bible for actual quotes?

Observe the words recorded of Jesus at the last supper by three new testament authors in the King James Version:

These cannot be actual quotes of Jesus since they are all different. [This just represents the tip of the iceberg.]

In Mark, Jesus is quoted as saying: …"all of a sudden"…but since this evangelist uses the expression forty-two times [as opposed to once in Luke and seven times in Matthew] it is more likely that Mark inserted this phrase into the discourse of Jesus. Such is characteristic of Mark's style.

Do scholars know when the Gospels were written?

The period of time from the death of Jesus to the first collections of sayings ascribed to Jesus was twenty years. These were not narratives nor stories but in reality collections of sayings. This is known as the oral period. The passing of an oral tradition is a lot like telling a joke - seldom do we retell it the exact same way we heard it [or for that matter the same way we last retold it] although we can probably recall the general organization and the punch line.

Disciples of Jesus certainly repeated his memorable words but people don’t ordinarily remember the exact wording of parables and sayings. Hearing these repeated in various forms they would adapt them to the situation at hand, inventing and improvising as the occasions would demand.

A second problem is with the written texts themselves. The oldest surviving copies of the gospels date from about one hundred and seventy five years after the death of Jesus, [no two copies are precisely alike] having been originally composed during the last quarter of the first century by third-generation authors [scholars theorize In the absence of hard information] on the basis of folk memories preserved in stories that had circulated by word of mouth for decades. These gospels were written by people who worshipped him as a divine being and regarded him as the spokesman for their own beliefs and ideals.

Handmade manuscripts have almost always been ‘corrected’ here and there, often by more than one hand. [Remember the printing press was not invented until 1454] One can see that a lot of the emerging Christian theology of the time, as understood by the various authors, got mixed in to what they quoted Jesus as saying.

In what venue did they present their findings?

One of their primary publications is entitled: The Five Gospels. It is their original translation of the New Testament. The reason the number is five is because they have included the recently discovered [non-canonicaI] Book of Thomas.

Permit me to enumerate several features of this work:

A criticism of this group is that they made their determinations by voting.

This procedure is not uncommon. Translation committees for both the King James and Revised Standard versions used voting techniques. The results of the Jesus Seminar, like all works of science, based on the best data at hand, are tentative. They represent the best conjecture based on what is presently known. To form the best consensus of the scholars, a voting method was used on all texts, utilizing colors to represent the following:

One can then tell at a glance to what degree ideas expressed are formulations of the historical Jesus.

What techniques did they use to sort out the Authentic words of Jesus from what was recorded in the gospels?

They used the following techniques:

The most likely words of Jesus to remember [and survive the oral period] would be short, provocative, often repeated sayings, anecdotes, aphorisms and parables because these things are easiest to remember.

The reconstruction is made easier because the talk of Jesus was distinctive. His parables cut against the religious and social grain. His parables surprise and shock. They frustrate ordinary expectations. They often call for reversal of roles. The authentic Jesus uses exaggeration, paradox and humor. He uses concrete, vivid imagery and metaphorical parables without explicit application. He rarely speaks about himself [as purported, for example in much of John’s gospel] and responds to dialogue and debate and cures people but does not initiate these activities in general.

They were able to extract this information, by observing these ideas as they are found in multiple contexts, by the different authors and from independent sources by removing the material added by the authors. In every age we find storytellers freely inventing words for their characters to carry the story line along. In the gospels we find repeated instances where the parable is repeated by a different author with a different story line used in a different context to support a different idea. Items in the story that have happened since Jesus’ death and those transition and repetitive phrases characteristic of that author can easily be excluded. That is the gist of it but in actuality the procedure is much more complicated.

Can you give me a few short examples of what the seminar thought were authentic words of Jesus?

Yes. Here are a few:

How did they score the Lords Prayer?

Here is their translation of the Lords Prayer, in colored text through red, green, blue and black, representing shades of authenticity from Jesus’ words to content of a later or different tradition.

Our father in the heavens, your name be reveared. Impose your imperial rule, enact your will on earth as you have in heaven. Provide us with the bread we need for the day. Forgive our debts to the extent that we have forgiven those in debt to us. And please don’t subject us to test after test, but rescue us from the evil one.

Did the Jesus Seminar find that the major parables of Jesus are his authentic words?

Yes! The Major Parables of Jesus are Authentic!

Among the major parables of Jesus are: Samaritan; prodigal son; dinner party; vineyard laborers; shrewd manager; unforgiving slave; corrupt judge; leaven; mustard seed ;pearl; and treasure. These were rated by the Jesus Seminar in their highest category or in the second highest representing only minor modifications.

What did you learn from the book, The Five Gospels?

The ideas presented by the Jesus seminar will take time for me to sort out. These are just first impressions. The Five Gospels does not have a summary - that is properly left to the reader.

Where can I find more information on the Jesus Seminar?

For more information go to the Jesus Seminar Forum at Rutgers University.

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