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Reason and Revelation Volume 14 #11

A Look at the Jesus Seminar

by  Brad Bromling, D.Min.

One day Philip was told, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). “Seeing” Jesus has been on the minds of humanity ever since. What does Jesus look like? The answer depends on whom you ask. Peter tells of a Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). Isaiah paints a tragic portrait of a sacrificial lamb led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53). The writer of Hebrews shows a glorious scene of One Who is high and lifted up—the perfect replica of God’s bright glory (Hebrews 1). These different pictures confuse some, so they ask, “Will the real Jesus please stand up?” It would seem that the most natural place to go in search of the bare essentials of Jesus’ identity is to His biographies. So we turn to the books we call Gospels. But again, we encounter multiple portraits. In Mark we meet a busy servant of God and humanity. Matthew describes a King. Luke tells of a great, compassionate man. John contributes a picture of Jesus Who is God in the flesh! This diversity has led some people to conclude that the New Testament writers were not divinely inspired, and that we must seek a new, more accurate picture of Jesus (see Funk, et al., 1993, p. 6).

Many men and women have devoted life-long study to finding the true Jesus. They have begun at essentially the same point and sought in different ways to discover a better picture of Jesus. Unfortunately, they have reached diverse and contradictory conclusions. In fact, there are about as many modern portraits of Jesus as there are people seeking them (see Wright, 1992, pp. 1-18; Wright, 1993, pp. 22-26; Borg, 1994, pp. 40-45).


Some time ago, a new portrait was presented to the public. It was composed by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar and has received broad media coverage and wide public attention (see Ostling, 1994; Watson, 1994). Their activities have received notice among conservative journalists as well (see for example Jackson, 1994; Carson, 1994). To understand their picture, it is essential to examine the methodology that led them to it.

In 1985, thirty critical scholars convened and formed an alliance known as the Jesus Seminar. Their purpose was to revive the search for the historical Jesus, and to disseminate their findings beyond the cloistered halls of academia. Since its inception, the number of Fellows has grown to more than 200. The group is comprised of men and women who have advanced academic credentials and who, in some respects, represent the elite of liberal biblical scholarship.

Voting on the Words of Jesus

Their first order of business was to collect all the sayings attributed to Jesus from the first three centuries A.D., and to translate them afresh from their original languages. Each of the sayings (approximately 1,500 versions of about 500 sayings) then was put to a vote by the Fellows at each of their semiannual meetings to determine which sayings should be attributed to Jesus. Voters were given four choices concerning each saying. They cast their vote by placing a colored bead into a box according to how closely the statements agreed with the following choices (see Funk, et al., 1993, pp. 36-37):

Red bead = Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it (i.e., That’s Jesus!).
Pink bead = Jesus probably said something like this (i.e., Sure sounds like Jesus.).
Gray bead = Jesus did not say this, but the ideas in it are close to His own (i.e., Well, maybe.).
Black bead = Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition (i.e., There’s been some mistake.).

BOX 1. Jesus Seminar translation and color coding for Matthew 5:43-48 (after Funk, et al., 1993, p. 145).

43.“ As You know, we once were told, ‘You are to love your neighbor’ and ‘You are to hate your enemy.’ 44.But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. 45.You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens. {God} causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. 46. Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they? 47. And if you greet only your friends, what have you done that is exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, don’t they? 48.To sum up, you are to be unstinting in your generosity in the way your heavenly Father’s generosity is unstinting.”
Red = Jesus said this, or something like it.
Pink = Jesus probably said this.
Gray = Jesus did not say this, but it may represent his idea.
Black = Jesus did not say this; it represents other people's ideas.

The Fellows determined by their votes that only about 18% of what usually is attributed to Jesus is authentic. The rest was put into the Lord’s mouth by the various Gospel writers.

Their conclusions were published in the book, The Five Gospels (Funk, et al., 1993). This volume contains a brief summary of the Fellows’ philosophy and agenda, their color-coded translation (called the Scholar’s Version) of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (in that order), and a commentary-like discussion of all the passages containing the words attributed to Jesus.

The purpose for their voting and color-coding was to lead the scholars to a point where they could, based on Jesus’ authentic words, determine something of His identity. What did they decide? Simply put, Jesus was a traveling “laconic sage” who “traded in wisdom” (Funk, et al., 1993, pp. 32, 27). This picture of a wise man of few words “emerged” for various reasons.

In the main, though, the image of sage is based upon the Fellows’ decision to grant two sources a privileged status above the others. They were Q and the Gospel of Thomas (Funk, et al., 1993, pp. 25-26). “Q” is the abbreviation for quelle—a German word that means simply “source.” In the 1800s, German scholars postulated that the authors of Matthew and Luke employed a common source of sayings when they compiled their Gospel records. That common material, now extracted from Matthew and Luke and printed as an independent “Gospel,” is primarily a collection of short wisdom statements [see accompanying article on the alleged discovery of Q]. The Gospel of Thomas (discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt) is also a collection of 114 short, pithy, wisdom statements attributed to Jesus. Since the Fellows decided that Q and Thomas represent the oldest of written Gospel materials—which they date between A.D. 50-60—they assume these sources are the closest to what Jesus actually said (Funk, et al., 1993, pp. 26, 128). And since these “oldest” materials are short “sayings,” they must best characterize Jesus’ mode of teaching.

This decision has a devastating effect upon the status of the Gospel of John. In John’s record, Jesus usually preaches in longer segments and often makes claims about Himself. Because of this, and the late date assigned to John (c. A.D. 90), the Fellows see virtually nothing of Jesus’ actual identity in John. By their account, John contains no red-bead statements. The only passage that rates a pink bead is John 4:44: “a prophet has no honor in his own country.” Only two statements were granted gray status:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24-25).
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me (John 13:20).

That is all; everything else John attributes to Jesus supposedly was manufactured by someone else and then projected back into the Lord’s mouth.

Although the Fellows believe Mark was the earliest of the canonical gospels (and that Matthew and Luke used much of Mark’s material), they concede only one red-bead statement to Mark: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). They grant Mark’s record less than 20 pink sayings. Matthew and Luke fare only slightly better, partly because they allegedly contain Q.

The question that naturally arises is this: What would lead the Jesus Seminar to reject the authenticity of most of what the Gospel writers say Jesus spoke? The answer is based upon two things: (1) the ideological platform upon which they stand; and (2) the criteria employed to decide between authentic and unauthentic sayings.

The Ideological Platform

For the Jesus Seminar, as well as for many other scholars currently involved in Gospel research, the starting point is an ideological platform composed of at least the following planks (see Funk, et al., 1993, pp. 1-16):

  1. Many years of oral tradition intervened between the actual life of Jesus and the time the Gospels were written. During the intervening period, theological constructions and romantic embellishments were wrapped around the core of facts that was actually known about the man called Jesus.
  2. There is, therefore, a difference between the historical person called “Jesus” and the early church’s embellished version of that person (referred to as the “Christ of faith”).
  3. The writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke present pictures of Jesus that more closely describe Him than does John.
  4. Each Gospel writer told his story of Jesus in a way that best appealed to his own community of faith.
  5. The Gospel of Mark was the earliest Gospel written, and was used by the writers of Matthew and Luke as they compiled their accounts.
  6. The writers of Matthew and Luke both employed a book of Jesus’ sayings (called Q) in conjunction with the Gospel of Mark to compose their biographies. They possibly employed other sources as well.
  7. Only by stripping away the layers of the Gospel writers’ embellishments can we catch an accurate glimpse of the real, historical Jesus.

The sturdiness of this platform will determine the stability of the research that is built upon it.

The Criteria Employed

Accepting the above platform, the scholars then decided upon a standard by which to judge the authenticity of words attributed to Jesus. The criteria employed for this decision are lengthy and involved. However, the principles quoted in Box 2 (below) are representative. These tests (and others like them) were employed by the Fellows to determine if a particular saying truly came from the mouth of Jesus. Sayings that passed the tests could then be evaluated to see what kind of Jesus was represented.

BOX 2. Criteria used by the Jesus Seminar (Funk, et al., 1993, p. 19-32).

A. Words borrowed from the fund of common lore or the Greek scriptures are often put on the lips of Jesus.

B. The evangelist frequently attribute their own statements to Jesus.

C. The Christian community develops apologetic statements to defend it's claims and sometimes attributes such statements to Jesus.

D. Sayings and narratives that reflect knowledge of events that took place after Jesus' death are the creation of the evangelist or the oral tradition before them.

E. Only sayings and parables that can be traced back to the oral period, 30-50 C.E. [viz., A.D.BB], can possibly have originated with Jesus.

F. The oral memory best restains sayings and anecdotes that are short, provacative, memorable—and oft’ repeated.

G. The most frequently recorded words of Jesus in the surviving gospels take the form of aphorisms and parables.

H. The earliest layer of the gospel tradition is made up of single aphorisms and parables that circulated by word of mouth prior to the written gospels.

I. Jesus' characteristic talk is distinctive—it can usually be distinguished from common lore. Otherwise it is futile to search for the authentic words of Jesus.

J. Jesus' sayings and parables cut against the social and religious grain.

K. Jesus' images are concrete and vivid, his sayings and parables customarily metaphorical and without explicit application.

L. Jesus does not as a rule initiate dialogue or debate, nor does he offer to cure people.

M. Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about himself in the first person.

N. Jesus makes no claim to be the Anointed, the messiah.


The ideological platform upon which much modern Jesus research is built is weak and faulty in various respects. The central problem with all of the planks mentioned above is that they fail to take into account divine inspiration. The interval between Jesus’ life and the writing of the four Gospels is irrelevant if the authors wrote by the inspiration of the Spirit of God. God’s Spirit would have no memory problems. Concern over embellishment and the reliability of John (because of the late date of his record) is also needless for this reason.

The idea that the writers of Matthew and Luke employed oral or written sources to compose their Gospels is not a sufficient argument in itself to cast suspicion upon the authenticity of the words attributed to Jesus in each Gospel. Luke admitted he was aware of preexisting sources that were circulating in his day (Luke 1:1-4). If the Gospel writers were guided by the Spirit of God to use such sources in the composition of their own accounts, the alleged evidence of borrowing between Mark, Luke, and Matthew is no reason for alarm. It is important to note, however, that there is serious scholarly work available that challenges the “borrowing” hypothesis (Linnemann, 1992). Likewise, what the liberals label as “embellishment” is, in reality, a particular insight into the character of Jesus that the Spirit allowed one writer to emphasize that the others did not.

The Fellows’ use of the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas is also misleading. Since its discovery, it has been classified as pseudepigraphal (i.e., carrying a false name), and has been rejected by conservative scholars as a candidate for inclusion in the New Testament. The book originated in the early part of the second century (contrary to the date assigned by the Fellows), reflects the heretical theology of the gnostics, and contains many absurdities (Geisler and Nix, 1986, p. 302; see also Blomberg, 1987, pp. 208-212). For example:

Jesus said, Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human (Funk, et al., 1993, p. 477).

Although the tests and criteria used to decide between authentic and unauthentic words may appear thorough, they are subjective and rest upon circular reasoning. Notice the list in Box 2 again. Taken as a whole, it denies Jesus the ability to employ Jewish wisdom sayings and to quote from the Old Testament. Since (they allege) the Gospel writers were likely to put words in Jesus’ mouth, anytime Jesus is presented as saying something the Fellows’ feel came from an evangelist’s pen, they dismiss it. In each case, personal conviction is the deciding factor.

The identity of Jesus is supposedly based upon only those words He actually spoke. Yet, the words credited to Him are determined by the preconception that He would say only certain things. Note again, the Fellows decided beforehand that Jesus: would not defend or explain Himself; would not preach extended sermons, but would instead talk in short aphorisms and parables; would make no claims on His identity, and offer to heal no one. Further, they determined that everything He said was unique to Him and always cut against the social grain. The circular reasoning involved in all these restrictions shows that the Fellows had a definite picture of Jesus in mind before they started “looking” for Him!

What is the origin of this picture? It is painted with three brush strokes. First, when scholars suspected that Matthew and Luke employed a source (Q) containing only “sayings” (without narrative framework), they decided it would be older and more representative of the real Jesus. Second, the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas proved to them that a “sayings” Gospel was not only possible, but a reality since Thomas was an example of such; this granted the scholars permission to isolate all the sayings from the Gospels. Third, they decided that since Thomas and Q are mainly comprised of short, aphoristic (provocative) statements that lack any reference to crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus was simply one of a large number of traveling sages Who made no special claims for Himself. What separated Jesus from other first-century wise men was that His followers deluded themselves into deifying Him.


The crucial issue is this: were the Gospels written under divine guidance or by mere human wisdom? If the former, then the Jesus Seminar’s picture of Jesus is purely fictional and wholly inadequate. If the latter, then there is little reason to be a Christian; a traveling sage (who was neither the Son of God, nor the resurrected Christ) would have no power or desire to make salvation claims upon humanity.

The question might linger, though, as to why the New Testament writers present a gallery of different portraits of Jesus and not simply the same portrait. Obviously, the multiple portraits are intended by the Master Painter to present the many sides of Jesus. He is not a monolithic figure of the ancient past, He is Alpha and Omega, Son of God and Son of man, Good Shepherd and Lamb of God, Prophet, Priest, Prince of Peace, King of kings, Lord of lords, Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Way, the Truth, and the Life Who is from everlasting to everlasting. How could any one portrait adequately convey all that? The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar need to heed their own advice: “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you” (Funk, et al., 1993, p. 5). The challenge has always been for people to lay aside preconceived ideas about Jesus and to be open to His multi-faceted nature presented in the inspired Gospels.


Blomberg, Craig L. (1987), The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).

Borg, Marcus (1994), “Profiles in Scholarly Courage,” Bible Review, 10[5]:40-45, October.

Carson, D.A. (1994), “The Five Gospels, No Christ,” Christianity Today, 38[5]:30-33.

Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (1993), The Five Gospels—The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan).

Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix (1986), A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody, revised edition).

Jackson, Wayne (1994), “The Jesus Seminar” Christian Courier, 30[2-3]:5-10, June.

Linnemann, Eta (1992), Is There a Synoptic Problem? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Ostling, Richard N. (1994), “Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple,” Time, pp. 38-39, January 10.

Watson, Russell (1994), “A Lesser Child of God,” Newsweek, pp. 53-54, April 4.

Wright, N.T. (1992), Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

Wright, N.T. (1993), “The New, Unimproved Jesus,” Christianity Today, 37[10]:22-26.

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