Sean Everton on the Jesus Seminar
Date: August 10th, 2014

What was (is) the Jesus Seminar?  Prof. Sean Everton, assistant professor in the Department of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, returns to Research on Religion to discuss this ambitious scholarly project that sought to determine the authenticity of approximately 1,500 sayings attributed to Jesus Christ.

Our conversation begins with an outline of what the Jesus Seminar was, when it was created, and who was involved in it.  Dating back to 1985 and emanating from the Westar Institute, the Jesus Seminar represented the “third wave” of scholarly attempts to get at the historical Jesus.  (We learn later in the interview what the first two waves were.)  Spearheaded by noted New Testament scholars Robert Funk and John Crossan, the initial goal of this ambitious scholarly collaboration was to determine the authenticity of sayings generally attributed to Christ and involved upwards of 200 different scholars, mostly affiliated with mainline Protestant denominations.  Sean notes that while this was their main and initial purpose, the Jesus Seminar still continues to look at a number of other aspects of early Christianity including the Pauline letters and the origins of Christianity.  We chat a bit about how people are selected into the seminar and how often they meet.

The bulk of our discussion involves the process of how members of the Jesus Seminar determined the authenticity of Jesus’s sayings.  Seminar members would meet twice a year and discuss a batch of sayings that were selected and then each scholar would vote as to how authentic they thought each saying was.  The voting procedure was rather unique, employing a set of colored beads — red, pink, gray, and black — that were dropped into a bowl.  Red implied that the individual scholar thought Jesus definitely did say those words, whereas black represented “definitely did not” come from Jesus.  Pink and gray were the middle ground.  These beads would then be assigned numbers and an average score assigned to each saying.  We note how the color red was chosen to represent the “red letters” found in some Bibles that denote when Jesus is speaking directly.  Our discussion also covers some of the sources of the sayings, which obviously include the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but also include the Gospel of Thomas and the controversial Q Source.  Sean spends some time explaining what these latter two sources represent.  Tony notes how there is general agreement that Jesus did not write his teachings down directly and that the Gospels were written some time after the death of Christ, and how this complicates the problem of determining authenticity.

Sean reviews the five main criteria that were used in determining authenticity of each sayings: 1) the early appearance of the saying (with earlier sayings assumed to be more authentic); 2) multiple attestations (i.e., the more genuine sources attributing a saying to Jesus the more likely it was authentic); 3) dissimilarity (i.e., sayings that were much different from Jewish, Greek, or early Church writings were more likely to be unique to Jesus); 4) embarrassing to the later Church (i.e., sayings that would have embarrassed Church leaders in later decades would be considered more attributable to Jesus; and 5) enfant terrible, a term coined by Sean himself that describes the notion of a saying that would have prompted Jesus’s crucifixion would be considered more authentic.  Tony asks a number of basic methodological questions, some of which are shared by critics of the Jesus Seminar, who are also briefly reviewed.  For instance, Tony wonders to what extent voting on authenticity represents the typical procedures of social science, and whether the group composition for any given set of sayings would skew the results.  Noting that most of the participants from the seminar were from liberal, mainline Protestant denominations makes the latter concern all the more salient.  Sean addresses these concerns.

We then move on to the findings of the Jesus Seminar were, as published in The Five Gospels, the most well-known book to come from this project.  Interestingly, only about 2% of the 1,500 sayings that were examined were considered to be authentically attributable to Jesus, whereas about 57% were coded as black (i.e., definitely not uttered by Jesus).  When including the additional 18% that were coded gray, the members of this project concluded that roughly 75% of the words associated with Jesus were considered to have been probably said by somebody else.  Not surprisingly, such a finding would cause a stir of controversy among the Christian faithful and we discuss the public reception of these results.  Sean’s own coding and studying of the voting data that he was able to obtain also showed how there was a tendency for Jesus Seminar scholars to reject apocryphal sayings and to favor aphorisms and parables, with the latter being eight times more likely to be accepted as authentic compared to any other statement.  Sean takes time to explain what an aphorism is since Tony notes that he didn’t pay attention much in high school or college English classes.  Sean also notes how an emerging “fourth wave” of historical Jesus studies is tending to be more accepting of the apocryphal statements of Jesus.  Sean concludes with some general observations about how our own contemporary situation and beliefs  are often imposed upon who we envision the historical Jesus to be.  Recorded: July 29, 2014.


Prof. Sean Everton’s bio at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Disrupting Dark Networks, by Sean Everton.

God, Politics, and Baseball blog.

The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, by Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar.

The Westar Institute.

American Academy of Religion (with links to the Society for Biblical Literature).


Sean Everton on Dark Networks.

Jim Papandrea on the Early Church Fathers and Patristic Exegesis.

Tim Kelleher on the Nicene Creed and Hollywood.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part 1.

9 Responses to “Sean Everton on the Jesus Seminar”

  1. Geoff says:

    Jesus Seminar folks should watch the following:

  2. Fr. John W. Morris says:

    The Jesus Seminar if a fraud. Their decisions are purely subjective based on their own personal prejudices. What they have done is not discovering the true sayings of Christ. What thy have actually done is to create a Christ the way that they want Him to be. No serious scholar would be associated with such shoddy methods of scholarship. I bought the 5 Gospels out of curiosity and quickly learned that their methods would be laughed out of any secular graduate seminar in history. These people have made a mockery of the noble academic discipline of history.

  3. Dan Wafford says:

    The Jesus Seminar is a steaming pile of ka-ka. The accepted text of the New Testament is based upon the oldest known manuscripts, and virtually every verse has been found in at a minimum dozens, in most cases hundreds of dating to the first and second centuries. The opinions of the Jesus Seminar are based almost completely on their personal opinions of what “seems valid.” How do you suppose they determined that 57% of the sayings attributed to Jesus were “definitely not” spoken by Him? They were there at His side every moment, and wrote down every word verbatim? This is equal to saying that they are 100% certain that he “definitely did not” trip over an exposed root as he was walking on the road from Cana to Nazareth on 24th June, Ad 29.

  4. Wally Right says:

    Christ is not a name, it’s a title, a bastardized form of the Greek word “Christos” which was used to translate the hebrew word for anointed king “Mashiah”. Christos and Chrestos (good man) blended together to show Yeshu`a/Jesous as a good special divine person.

    If an author does not realize that Christ is not the name of a person, nor the surname of a person but a title, then… well draw your own conclusions…

  5. What a waste of time and space. The Jesus Seminar was/is an agenda driven ideological joke masquerading as legitimate scholarship. About as credible as the Jesus’ wife nonsense. Sad and pathetic.

  6. Nothing but a politically motivated attack on Biblical Truth. Nothing to see here but blind fools doing Satan’s handiwork.

  7. The Jesus Seminar was/is a sad and pathetic ideologically and politically driven attempt to discredit biblical claims of authenticity. It has about as much credibility as the Jesus’ wife nonsense. Fodder for the foolish.

  8. Fr. Morris is exactly right. The Jesus Seminar is a subjective, speculative farce, an intellectually dishonest exercise of the imagination. It cannot be taken seriously.

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