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The Jesus Seminar was a group of about 150 critical scholars and laymen founded in 1985 by Robert Funk under the auspices of the Westar Institute. The seminar was active in the 1980s and 1990s. It preceded the short-lived Jesus Project, which was active 2008 to 2009.
The Seminar uses votes with colored beads to decide their collective view of the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. They produced new translations of the New Testament and apocrypha to use as textual sources. They published their results in three reports: The Five Gospels (1993), The Acts of Jesus (1998), and The Gospel of Jesus (1999). They also run a series of lectures and workshops in various U.S. cities.
The Jesus Seminar was very active through the 1980s and 1990s, and into the early 21st century. Although never formally disbanded, it effectively ceased functioning as "The Jesus Seminar" in 2006, shortly after the 2005 death of its founder, Robert Funk. Former Seminarians have carried on the tradition of the Seminar, and continue to publish works researched and developed using the methodologies of the original Jesus Seminar.
The seminar's reconstruction of the historical Jesus portrayed him as an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage and faith healer who preached a gospel of liberation from injustice in startling parables and aphorisms. An iconoclast, Jesus broke with established Jewish theological dogmas and social conventions both in his teachings and behaviors, often by turning common-sense ideas upside down, confounding the expectations of his audience: He preached of "Heaven's imperial rule" (traditionally translated as "Kingdom of God") as being already present but unseen; he depicts God as a loving father; he fraternizes with outsiders and criticizes insiders. According to the seminar, Jesus was a mortal man born of two human parents, who did not perform nature miracles nor die as a substitute for sinners nor rise bodily from the dead. Sightings of a risen Jesus were nothing more than the visionary experiences of some of his disciples rather than physical encounters.
The canonical gospels are treated by the Seminar as historical sources that represent Jesus' actual words and deeds as well as elaborations of the early Christian community and of the gospel authors. The fellows placed the burden of proof on those who advocate any passage's historicity. Unconcerned with canonical boundaries, they asserted that the Gospel of Thomas may have more authentic material than the Gospel of John.
The seminar holds a number of premises or "scholarly wisdom" about Jesus when critically approaching the gospels. They act on the premise that Jesus did not hold an apocalyptic worldview, an opinion that is controversial in mainstream scholarly studies of Jesus. Rather than revealing an apocalyptic eschatology, which instructs his disciples to prepare for the end of the world, the fellows argue that the authentic words of Jesus indicate that he preached a sapiential eschatology, which encourages all of God's children to repair the world.
The method and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar have come under harsh criticism by some biblical scholars, historians and clergy for a variety of reasons. It is the assertion of such critics that the Fellows of the seminar are not all trained scholars, that their voting technique doesn't allow for nuance, that they are preoccupied with Q and the Gospel of Thomas but omit material in other sources such as the Gospel of the Hebrews, and that they rely excessively on the criterion of embarrassment.
The scholars attending attempt to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus. They try to ask who he was, what he did, what he said, and what his sayings meant, using a number of tools. Their reconstruction is based on social anthropology, history and textual analysis. The key feature is the rejection of apocalyptic eschatology. They use cross-cultural anthropological studies to set the general background, narrow in on the history and society of first-century Palestine, and use textual analysis (along with more anthropology and history) to focus on Jesus himself. They use a combination of primary sources, secondary sources, and archaeological evidence. Their methodology, which was developed by a team of scholars (who expounded papers for the review of other Fellows and published many in Forum) and is explained in The Five Gospels (the four canonical gospels plus the Gospel of Thomas), involves canvassing the records of the first four centuries for traditions about Jesus and sifting them by criteria such as multiple attestation, distinctiveness, and orality.
The Five Gospels lists seven bases for the modern critical scholarship of Jesus, claiming these "pillars" have developed since the end of the 18th century.
While some of these pillars are noncontroversial, some scholars of the historical Jesus follow Albert Schweitzer in regarding him as apocalyptic. The Five Gospels says that the non-apocalyptic view gained ground in the 1970s and 1980s when research into Jesus shifted out of religious environments and into secular academia. Marcus Borg says "the old consensus that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the imminent end of the world has disappeared," and identifies two reasons for this change. First, since the 1960s, the gospel references to the coming Son of Man have been sometimes viewed as insertions by the early Christian community. Second, many scholars came to see Jesus' kingdom of God as a present reality, a "realized eschatology", rather than an imminent end of the world (Luke 17:20–21). The apocalyptic elements attributed to Jesus, according to The Five Gospels, come from John the Baptist and the early Christian community (p. 4). While the noneschatological Jesus is a significant trend in contemporary research into historical Jesus, most scholars affirm the traditional view that Jesus prophesied the imminent end of the world.
The Seminar began by translating the gospels into modern American English, producing what they call the "Scholars Version," first published in The Complete Gospels. This translation uses current colloquialisms and contemporary phrasing in an effort to provide a contemporary sense of the gospel authors' styles, if not their literal words. The goal was to let the reader hear the message as a first-century listener might have. The translators avoided other translations' archaic, literal translation of the text, or a superficial update of it. For example, they translate "woe to you" as "damn you". The authors of The Complete Gospels argue that some other gospel translations have attempted to unify the language of the gospels, while they themselves have tried to preserve each author's distinct voice.
The first findings of the Jesus Seminar were published in 1993 as The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus.
The Fellows used a voting system to evaluate the authenticity of about 500 statements and events. For certain high-profile passages the votes were embodied in beads, the color of which represented the degree of confidence that a saying or act was or was not authentic:
A confidence value was determined from the voting using a weighted average of the points given for each bead; the text was color-coded from red to black (with the same significance as the bead colors) according to the outcome of the voting.
The Jesus Seminar treats the gospels as fallible historical artifacts, containing both authentic and inauthentic material. The Seminar fellows used several criteria for determining whether a particular saying or story is authentic, including the criteria of multiple attestation and embarrassment. Among additional criteria used by the fellows are the following:.
The seminar looked for several characteristics that, in their judgment, identified a saying as inauthentic, including self-reference, leadership issues, and apocalyptic themes.
The Jesus Seminar rated various beatitudes as red, pink, gray, and black. Three beatitudes are judged to be "paradoxical" and are doubly attested. They are rated red (authentic) as they appear in Luke 6:20–21.
The Seminar fellows decided the beatitude for those persecuted in Jesus' name might trace back to Jesus as a beatitude for those who suffer, but concluded that in its final form the saying represents concerns of the Christian community rather than Jesus' message. Thus it received a gray rating.
Matthew's version of the three authentic beatitudes were rated pink. The author has spiritualized two of them, so that they now refer to the poor "in spirit" and to those who hunger "and thirst for justice." Matthew also includes beatitudes for the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart, and peace-makers. These beatitudes have no second attestation, lack irony, and received a black rating.
The Jesus Seminar produced a significant number of publications both in the form of journal articles and books published for the general public. Individual members of the seminar also produced, and continue to produce books which draw heavily upon the Seminar's work. The following is a selected sampling of those publications; a complete list of Jesus Seminar publications may be found at the Polebridge Press website, the in-house publisher for the Westar Institute:
In 1998 the Jesus Seminar published The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. To create the material for this book, they voted on the individual acts of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, much as they'd previously voted on the individual sayings attributed to him.
According to the Jesus Seminar:
The Jesus Seminar has come under criticism regarding its method, assumptions and conclusions from a wide array of scholars and laymen. Scholars who have expressed concerns with the work of the Jesus Seminar include Richard Hays, Ben Witherington, Greg Boyd, N.T. Wright, William Lane Craig, Luke Timothy Johnson, Craig A. Evans, Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, and Edwin Yamauchi. The specific criticisms leveled against the Jesus Seminar are:
The Seminar places much value on the criterion of dissimilarity. For the Seminar, a saying will only be held as authentic if it does not match the beliefs of Judaism or those held by the early Christians. Critics such as Gregory Boyd have noted that the effect of this is that the Jesus of the Seminar shows no continuity with his Jewish context nor his disciples. J. Ed Komoszewski and co-authors state that the Jesus Seminar's "Criteria for In/Authenticity" create "an eccentric Jesus who learned nothing from his own culture and made no impact on his followers". The same criticism has been made by Craig Evans.
The voting system has been criticized by, among others, N. T. Wright, who says '... I cannot understand how, if a majority ... thought a saying authentic or probably authentic, the "weighted average" turned out to be "probably inauthentic". A voting system that produces a result like this ought to be scrapped.'
Dale Allison of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, in his 1999 book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, cited what he felt were problems with the work of (particularly) John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, arguing that their conclusions were at least in part predetermined by their theological positions. He also pointed out the limitations of their presumptions and methodology. Allison argued that despite the conclusions of the seminar, Jesus was a prophetic figure focused to a large extent on apocalyptic thinking. Some scholars have reasserted Albert Schweitzer's eschatological view of Jesus.
Luke Timothy Johnson of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, in his 1996 book The Real Jesus, voiced concerns with the seminar's work. He criticized the techniques of the Seminar, believing them to be far more limited for historical reconstruction than seminar members believe. Their conclusions were "already determined ahead of time," Johnson says, which "is not responsible, or even critical scholarship. It is a self-indulgent charade." William Lane Craig argues that the principal presuppositions of scientific naturalism, the primacy of the apocryphal gospels, and the necessity of a politically correct Jesus are unjustified and issue in a distorted portrait of the historical Jesus.
Craig Blomberg notes that if the Jesus Seminar’s findings are to be believed then “it requires the assumption that someone, about a generation removed from the events in question, radically transformed the authentic information about Jesus that was circulating at that time, superimposed a body of material four times as large, fabricated almost entirely out of whole cloth, while the church suffered sufficient collective amnesia to accept the transformation as legitimate.” Craig Evans argues that the Jesus Seminar applies a form of hypercriticism to the canonical gospels that unreasonably assumes that "Jesus' contemporaries (that is, the first generation of his movement) were either incapable of remembering or uninterested in recalling accurately what Jesus said and did, and in passing it on" while, in contrast, privileging extra-canonical texts with an uncritical acceptance that sometimes rises to the level of special pleading.
Luke Timothy Johnson argued that while some members of the seminar are reputable scholars (Borg, Crossan, Funk, others), others are relatively unknown or undistinguished in the field of biblical studies. One member, Paul Verhoeven, holds no Ph.D. but a M.Sc. in mathematics and physics, not biblical studies, and is best known as a film director. Johnson also critiqued the seminar for its attempts to gain the attention of the media for the 2000 ABC News program "The Search for Jesus" hosted by news anchor Peter Jennings.
Seminar critic William Lane Craig has argued that the self-selected members of the group do not represent the consensus of New Testament scholars. He writes:
Of the 74 [scholars] listed in their publication The Five Gospels, only 14 would be leading figures in the field of New Testament studies. More than half are basically unknowns, who have published only two or three articles. Eighteen of the fellows have published nothing at all in New Testament studies. Most have relatively undistinguished academic positions, for example, teaching at a community college.
Others have made the same point and have further indicated that thirty-six of those scholars, almost half, have a degree from or currently teach at one of three schools, Harvard, Claremont, or Vanderbilt: all considered to favor "liberal" interpretations of the New Testament.
The Jesus Seminar represents an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking. It does not represent mainstream scholarship.
Garry Wills, a vocal proponent of liberal Catholicism, nonetheless strongly critiques the Seminar:
This is the new fundamentalism. It believes in the literal sense of the Bible—it just reduces to what it can take as literal quotation from Jesus. Though some have called the Jesus Seminarists radical, they are actually very conservative. They tame the real, radical, Jesus, cutting him down to their own size...the sayings that meet with the Seminar's approval were preserved by the Christian communities whose contribution is discounted. Jesus as a person does not exist outside of the gospels, and the only reason he exists there is because of their authors' faith in the Resurrection. Trying to find a construct, "the historical Jesus," is not like finding diamonds in a dunghill, but like finding New York City at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
In addition to scholarly critiques, a number of conservative Christian organisations were critical of the Jesus Seminar. Both The Watchman Expositor and The Christian Arsenal identify the Jesus Seminar as yet another attempt by Satan to twist the meaning of Scripture, founded in the liberalism, modernism, and neo-orthodoxy that are current in academia and mainline seminaries.
Members of the Jesus Seminar have responded to their critics in various books and dialogues, which typically defend both their methodology and their conclusions. Among these responses are The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics by Robert J. Miller, a member of the Seminar; The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, a dialogue with Allison, Borg, Crossan, and Stephen Patterson; The Jesus Controversy: Perspectives in Conflict, a dialogue between Crossan, Johnson, and Werner H. Kelber. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, by Borg and noted New Testament historian and Pauline scholar N. T. Wright demonstrated how two scholars with divergent theological positions can work together to creatively share and discuss their thoughts.
The Jesus seminar was active in the 1980s and 1990s. Early in the 21st century, another group called the "Acts Seminar" was formed by some previous members to follow similar approaches to biblical research.
In March 2006, the Jesus Seminar began work on a new description of the emergence of the Jesus traditions through the first two centuries of the common era [C.E.]. In this new phase, the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins, fellows employ the methods and techniques pioneered by the original Jesus Seminar.
Robert Funk died in 2005, but notable surviving fellows of the Jesus Seminar include Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Stephen L. Harris, Robert M. Price and Burton Mack. Borg is a liberal Christian who articulates the vision hypothesis to explain Jesus' resurrection. Crossan is an important voice in contemporary historical Jesus research, promoting the idea of a non-apocalyptic Jesus who preaches a sapiential eschatology. Funk was one of the most important representatives of recent American research into Jesus' parables. Harris is the author of several books on religion, including university-level textbooks. Mack describes Jesus as a Galilean Cynic, based on the elements of the Q document that he considers to be earliest.