The Jesus Seminar is a group of about 150 individuals, including scholars with advanced degrees in biblical studies, religious studies or related fields as well as published authors who are notable in the field of religion, founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan under the auspices of the Westar Institute. One of the most active groups in biblical criticism, the seminar uses votes with colored beads to decide their collective view of the historicity of Jesus, specifically what he may or may not have said and done as a historical figure. In addition, the seminar popularizes the quest for the historical Jesus. The public is welcome to attend the twice-yearly meetings. 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 seminar's reconstruction of the historical Jesus portrays him as an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage who did not die as a substitute for sinners nor rise from the dead, but preached a "social gospel" 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.
The seminar treats the gospels as historical artifacts, representing not only some of Jesus' actual words and deeds but also the inventions and 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.
While analyzing the gospels as fallible human creations is a standard historical-critical method, the seminar's premise that Jesus did not hold an apocalyptic world view is controversial. 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 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. 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. The apocalyptic elements attributed to Jesus, according to The Five Gospels, come from John the Baptist and the early Christian community (p. 4).
The Seminar began by translating the gospels into modern American English, producing the "Scholars Version," (to be found in The Five 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" because it sounds like something someone today would really say. The authors of The Five 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 Jesus Seminar, like the translation committees who created the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and the Novum Testamentum Graece, chose voting as the most efficient means of determining consensus in an assembled group. The system also lent itself to publicity, which the Seminar actively pursued.
The Fellows used a "bead system" to vote on the authenticity of about 500 statements and events. The color of the bead represented how sure the Fellow was that a saying or act was or was not authentic.
The consensus position was determined by the average weighted score, rather than by simple majority. This meant that all opinions were reflected in the decisions. The voting system means that the reader can second-guess each vote. The Five Gospels defines not only the result of the vote (red, pink, gray, or black) but also how many polls were necessary to reach a conclusion (if any were necessary at all) and why various fellows chose to vote in different ways.
Attendees, however, did more than vote. They met semi-annually to debate the papers presented. Some verses required extensive debate and repeated votes.
Like other scholars of the historical Jesus, the Jesus Seminar treats the gospels as fallible historical artifacts, containing both authentic and inauthentic material. Like their colleagues, the 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 Red sayings (with % indicating the weighted average of those in agreement), given in the Seminar's own "Scholar's Version" translation, are:
The top 15 (of 75) Pink sayings are:
The Seminar concluded that of the various statements in the "five gospels" attributed to Jesus, only about 18% of them were likely uttered by Jesus himself (red or pink). The Gospel of John fared worse than the synoptic gospels, with nearly all its passages attributed to Jesus being judged inauthentic. The Gospel of Thomas includes just two unique sayings that the seminar attributes to Jesus: the empty jar (97) and the assassin (98). Every other probably-authentic or authentic saying has parallels in the synoptics.
The gospels use the terms gehenna and hades for places of fiery punishment and death. The fellows rated Jesus' references to gehenna and hades as gray at best, often black. Some such references (such as the parable of Lazarus and Dives) have features that the fellows might regard as authentic, such as dramatic reversals of fortune. These received gray designations. The fellows regarded other references as inventions of early Christians responding to those who rejected Jesus' message or to "false" Christians within the community.
The Jesus Seminar rated various beatitudes as red, pink, gray, and black.
To analyze the beatitudes, they first innovated a nonliteral translation for the formula "blessed are," as in "Blessed are the poor." Modern readers are familiar enough with the beatitudes that this construction doesn't shock or surprise, as the original sayings allegedly did. As the modern equivalent, the Scholar's Version uses "Congratulations!"
Three beatitudes are "paradoxical" and doubly attested. They are rated red (authentic) as they appear in Luke 6:20-21.
Congratulations, you poor!
God's domain belongs to you.
Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.
These beatitudes feature the dramatic presentation and reversal of expectations that the seminar regards as characteristic of Jesus.
The beatitude for those persecuted in Jesus' name might trace back to Jesus as a beatitude for those who suffer, the fellows decided, but 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.
In 1998 the Jesus Seminar published The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. According to the front flap summary: "Through rigorous research and debate, they have combed the gospels for evidence of the man behind the myths. The figure they have discovered is very different from the icon of traditional Christianity."
According to the Jesus Seminar:
The 10 authentic ("red") acts of Jesus are:
The 19 "pink" acts ("a close approximation of what Jesus did") are:
Many conservative Christian scholars and laymen have questioned the methodology, assumptions and intent of the Jesus Seminar. Scholars who have expressed concerns with the work of the Jesus Seminar include Richard Hays, Birger A. Pearson, Ben Witherington, Gregory A. Boyd, N.T. Wright, William Lane Craig, Craig A. Evans, Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, and Edwin Yamauchi. The specific criticisms leveled against the Jesus Seminar include charges that:
More extreme reactions have come from Christian organizations such as the Fundamental Evangelistic Association, and the Watchman Expositor. The Christian Arsenal go so far as to depict the Jesus Seminar as a tool of Satan, meant to undermine Biblical beliefs.
Not all of the Seminar's critics are conservative Christians. Gary 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.
One of the Seminar's tests for inauthenticity is that it "matches closely with beliefs of the early Church community". Matthias Zahniser of Asbury Theological Seminary criticizes this criteria as it prohibits the possibility that Jesus would be concerned with any issues that were of the concern of the early church. 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". Others ask rhetorically, "why would such a Jesus be crucified?" The same criticism has been made by Craig Evans.
The voting system has been criticized by, among others, NT 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."
Daniel L. Akin, writing in the Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention, called the work of the Jesus Seminar "destructive criticism". 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 of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, in his 1996 book The Real Jesus, also argued that while many 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. 
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 N. T. Wright demonstrated how two scholars with divergent theological positions can work together to creatively share and discuss their thoughts.
This is a partial list of past and present members of the Jesus seminar at The Westar Institute Website.