Jesus Seminar

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The Jesus Seminar is a small organization of scholars assembled by former University of Montana professor Robert Funk for the purpose of finding what they considered the real, historical Jesus Christ through an investigation of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John of the New Testament, plus the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. Their conclusions of what Jesus said and did - arrived at through "scholarly consensus"[1] from a liberal perspective[2] - were published in 1993 as The Five Gospels: The search for the authentic words of Jesus., a work which expresses their opinion as to what Jesus said - or didn't say - in the Bible.


In the mid-1970's Funk had expressed a desire for a work about the historical Jesus. To that end he assembled a team of scholars, with the intent that they would create a version of the Gospels which reflected a consensus, based upon votes as to what constituted what they perceived as the "real" words of Jesus. Rejecting the common "red-letter" edition pattern found in most Bibles, they used four different colors under the concept that historical assessment usually involves a varying degree of probability:

  • Red: to illustrate what they believed were the words of Jesus;
  • Pink: to illustrate those words which the Seminar believed were close to what He said, but not quite 100%;
  • Gray: Jesus didn't say it, but there is evidence of His teachings within them;
  • Black: Jesus never said it.

Starting out with about 200 scholars in 1986, the number fell to 74 when The Five Gospels was published. Fourteen of these individuals were academic professors with published works on the subject; twenty were also academics, but with far fewer publications. Of the remainder, eighteen had no published papers on the subject at all. Thirty-six of the scholars came from Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Claremont Universities, which were criticised for having the most-liberal New Testament study programs in any university. In any case, most of the people who left the Seminar before the book went to print complained of the "radical fringes of New Testament scholarship" who were over-represented there, or of Funk's undermining of traditional Biblical values. [3]


The members of the Seminar have taken the opposite appraoch to the Gospels from that of the average Christian evangelical. As the Christian believes the Bible to be the inspired Word of God which is historically accurate, the Seminar has assumed:

  • the Bible is composed by men, with the Gospels passed by an oral tradition between 30 and 50 A.D.
  • None of the Gospel authors were eyewitnesses to Jesus;
  • Beliefs about Jesus and Christian traditions changed and developed extensively between the Crucifixion and the writing of Mark's gospel about 70 A.D.
  • The Gospels were written by authors unknown.

The result of their research - despite having a collection of more than 1500 versions of approximately 500 Christian writings which were authored prior to 313 A.D. - declared, among other things, that the Virgin Birth, the feeding of the 5000, the raising of Lazarus or any other miracle, had never happened; that Jesus had only said those words which the Seminar had concluded - by consensus - were said during the oral period of 30 - 50 A.D. (Funk, pg. 25). The total use of "red" throughout The Five Gospels was limited to fifteen lines, of which only one shared line - "give to Caesar the things which are Caesar's..." - was red in all the canonical Gospels; it was the only red entry in Mark, and there were no red entries in John. The Lord's Prayer in Matthew was reduced to two words as authentic: "Our Father"[4]. The remainder of Jesus' words were attributed to being partially or fully the creation of the Gospel writers; the pink and grey entries were easily-considered "liberal" entries, i.e. those favored by liberalism. The black entries, predominantly prophetical, were dismissed as fiction.[5] Funk wrote in his book "The Gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church's faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand." (Funk, pg 5))

Anti-Christian agenda

That the Jesus Seminar was never subjective in their findings is evident from their methods in determining the authenticity of Scripture; that they had an anti-Christian agenda came out later. In 1998 Funk published a short paper, "The Coming Radical Reformation"[6], a series of short theses in which he stated his views on Christianity, God, and the Bible, all of which offered a rehash of liberal and atheistic sayings. In the first thesis, Funk reduced God to a non-existant being and replaced Him with a humanistic philosophy:

"The God of the metaphysical age is dead. There is not a personal god out there external to human beings and the material world. We must reckon with a deep crisis in god talk and replace it with talk about whether the universe has meaning and whether human life has purpose."

In his third thesis, he declares that "sin" is a mere dogma, with death just the natural part of things.

"The deliteralization of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis brought an end to the dogma of original sin as something inherited from the first human being. Death is not punishment for sin, but is entirely natural. And sin is not transmitted from generation to generation by means of male sperm, as suggested by Augustine."

As to Jesus Christ, Funk stated that

"The plot early Christians invented for a divine redeemer figure is as archaic as the mythology in which it is framed. A Jesus who drops down out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the power of sin, rises from the dead, and returns to heaven is simply no longer credible. The notion that he will return at the end of time and sit in cosmic judgment is equally incredible. We must find a new plot for a more credible Jesus."

Funk's new plot for Jesus clearly led to the Jesus Seminar and The Five Gospels. This led to the removal of the primary mission of Jesus, that of bringing salvation to mankind; Funk reduced it to an equivelent of pagan sacrifice:

"The doctrine of the atonement—the claim that God killed his own son in order to satisfy his thirst for satisfaction—is subrational and subethical. This monstrous doctrine is the stepchild of a primitive sacrificial system in which the gods had to be appeased by offering them some special gift, such as a child or an animal."

What is seen in Funk's paper the true mission of the Jesus Seminar, to present a fictionalized version of Jesus Christ to the masses, and to get them to believe that their "consensus" is the correct one. According to author and Christian pastor Mark D. Roberts, the Seminar "wore a mask of scholarly objectivity and dispassionate scientific inquiry...based largely upon the image, one might be tempted to say 'the myth,' of the Seminar as a group of unbiased scholars who carefully sifted the evidence to discover what Jesus really said (and didn't say)"[7].


  • Funk, Robert W. et al, The Five Gospels: The search for the authentic words of Jesus., New York: Macmillan (1993).