Seminar Rules Out 80% of Words Attributed to Jesus : Religion: Provocative meeting of biblical scholars ends six years of voting on authenticity in the Gospels.


The provocative Jesus Seminar on Sunday concluded six years of voting on what the Jesus of history most likely said, ruling out about 80% of words attributed to him in the Gospels and emerging with the picture of a prophet-sage who told parables and made pithy comments.

Virtually all of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John were voted down by scholars meeting in Sonoma, including a pulpit favorite, 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. . . .”

Formed in part to counteract literalist views of the Bible, the Jesus Seminar, a 200-member group of mainline biblical scholars from all over the country, has stirred controversy since its first meetings in 1985. “Televangelists on talk shows say it’s the work of the devil,” said founder Robert Funk, a New Testament scholar who has published widely in Gospel studies.


The scholars have met twice a year examining either particular Gospels or types of sayings, basing their discussions on earlier scholarship and their own studies.

Many academic colleagues have criticized, among other things, the seminar’s unconventional voting techniques--red and pink beads dropped into a ballot box for probable or possible authentic sayings; gray and black beads for sayings that allegedly reveal the theological bias of the Gospel authors or the beliefs of beleaguered early Christians, but not necessarily the messages of Jesus.

At the same time, almost 200 reputable scholars from universities and seminaries have participated; their conclusions are often the same as those taught outside of fundamentalist and evangelical circles, Funk said.

Seminar member Marcus Borg of Oregon State University, who also chairs the Historical Jesus Section of the large Society of Biblical Literature, said that his experience of teaching adults is that the findings will “feed a hunger” in the churches.

“Many mainstream Christians can no longer believe the picture of Jesus they got as children,” Borg said.

Funk contended that most mainline scholars would agree with the Jesus Seminar that in the parallel Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, plus the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, “Jesus speaks regularly in adages or aphorisms, or in parables, or in witticisms created as rebuff or retort in the context of dialogue or debate. It is clear he did not speak in long monologues of the type found in the Gospel of John.”


The only saying in John that received a pink vote was one (4:44) that has parallels in the other Gospels--that a prophet has no honor in his own country.

“Most scholars, if they had worked through the sayings as we had, would tend to agree there is virtually nothing in the fourth Gospel (John) that goes back to Jesus,” said Robert Fortna of Vassar College. Jesus says in John “I am the good shepherd . . . I am the light of the world . . . I am the bread of life,” but that “is mostly the work of the author,” Fortna said. Jesus rarely refers to himself in the other Gospels.

Because the Gospel of John is a favorite source in sermons, Fortna said the Jesus Seminar results “will be startling to most people and deeply offensive to many, not just fundamentalists.”

By contrast, Father Raymond Brown, a Catholic authority on the Gospel of John, says he finds “a strong historical substratum” in that gospel. Retired from teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Brown now is at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park and said he had no interest in joining the Jesus Seminar discussions north of San Francisco.

“As soon as somebody says ‘the Jesus Seminar,’ I look the other direction,” Brown said in an interview. Brown charged that the Seminar’s methods are “totally incompatible” with proper historical study.

Borg emphasized that Christians should not think of the sayings falsely attributed to Jesus as worthless. They are still important in hearing the religious understanding of the 1st-Century churches, said Borg, currently a visiting professor at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.


“Jesus didn’t say, ‘I am the bread of life,’ but that tells us that John’s community thought of Jesus as the nourishment for their spiritual life,” he said.

Funk had not tallied full results as of Sunday, but he said that, in all, 31 sayings in the four biblical Gospels and several apocryphal sources fell into the “red” category of authentic sayings (only 15 of which are actually different, due to parallel versions in more than one gospel). They included the good Samaritan and mustard seed parables, the advice to love your enemies and some Sermon on the Mount pronouncements such as, “Blessed are you poor, for you shall inherit the kingdom of God.”

Another 200 sayings were accorded pink votes, meaning that Jesus said something similar to the recorded words. Together, the red and pink sayings constituted about 20% of the total; another 30% fell into the gray class. “A gray vote meant that some of the ideas may have gone back to Jesus, but not those words,” Funk said.

Funk said Sunday that the nearly two dozen scholars who voted over the weekend in Sonoma made one caveat. “We don’t know to what extent the Gospels have filtered Jesus’ words and actually turned him into a teller of aphorisms,” he said. “What we have may be the most memorable sayings; he may have spoken in more prosaic or pedantic ways, and if he did, that has been lost.”

Seminar fellows, however, years ago voted down the apocalyptic voice of Jesus when he is quoted as saying he will return someday amid tumult and turmoil. Scholars felt that the doomsaying words were put on his lips to bolster the hopes of Gospel writers and their churches about 30 to 60 years after Jesus’ lifetime.

A non-participant, Mary Ann Tolbert of Vanderbilt University, said it “is hard to assess” whether the work of the Jesus Seminar will be important for a new generation of New Testament scholars. “I haven’t seen a lot of articles that have picked up on the work of the Jesus Seminar,” she said.


The seminar voting has periodically made the news, however. A session in Atlanta concluded that the Lord’s Prayer did not go back to the historical Jesus--only some of the phrases in it. Critics familiar with the voting charged that the results often reflect only whoever argues best in the meetings.

A number of early seminar participants dropped out after a few years. But, according to Seminar spokesman David Carter, an associate of Funk, “Our biggest critics are those people who couldn’t win their way (in the debates and votes).”

However, some who stopped going said they had no quarrel with the scholarship. “They still have good scholars making good contributions, but I dropped out when it became a group that had to make money,” said one professor, who did not wish to be identified.

He said several scholars felt that the sponsoring Westar Institute and its journal- and book-publishing arm, Polebridge Press, both headed by Funk in Sonoma, strove too hard to be controversial in order to gain attention and become profitable.

Funk denied the charge, saying that no one has been asked to compromise his or her academic integrity.

The Westar Institute has created other ongoing seminars, including one examining early Christian creeds. Funk said that starting in the fall, New Testament scholars will study the deeds attributed to Jesus and discuss which ones have a historical basis.



The Jesus Seminar, a six-year project based in Sonoma to assess the historical authenticity of sayings attributed to Jesus, concluded that about half were words put into his mouth by Gospel authors and early believers in reflection of their own hopes and fears. Among the sayings rejected were the following:

John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Mark 13:25, 30: (A series of apocalyptic sayings) “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory. . . . Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

Matthew 5:11: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

Mark 10:32-34: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”