The Jesus Seminar

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©1999
So many people have been confused by the findings of the Jesus Seminar. Dr. Geisler explains exactly who the scholars are, their purpose, and how they reach their conclusions, to help you evaluate what they say.”

(from Baker’s Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker, 1999)


The Jesus Seminar is a consortium of New Testament scholars, directed by Robert W. Funk, who were organized in 1985 under the auspices of the Estar Institute of Santa Rosa, California. Seventy-plus scholars meet twice a year to make pronouncements about the authenticity of the words and deeds of Christ. The Seminar is comprised of liberal Catholics and Protestants, Jews, and atheists. Most are male professors, though their number in­cludes a pastor, a filmmaker, and three women. About half are graduates of Harvard, Claremont, or Vanderbilt divinity schools.


One of the intents of the organization is to publish critical books for a wider range of people than normally read such studies. So the group has a growing literary out­put. Among the works so far published: Marcus Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time; John Dominic Crossan, In Fragments: The Aphorisms of Jesus, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, and The Other Four Gospels: Shadows on the Contours of Canon; Funk, The Five Gospels and The Parables of Jesus; and Burton Mack, Jesus: A New Vision, The Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins, and Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth. The group’s crowning effort has been a translation of the Gospels edited by Robert J. Miller, The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars’ Version.

Aims of the Seminars Work

While Seminar members produce critical works, from its inception the Jesus Seminar has sought to make its views available to the general public, rather than just the scholarly community: “We are going to try to carry out our work in full public view; we will not only honor the freedom of information, we will insist on the public disclosure of our work” (Funk, Forum, 1.1). To this end the Seminar has sought publicity from every possible source. A TV summit, many articles, interviews with the press, tapes, and even a possible movie are part of this public information campaign for anti-supernatu­ral theology. Funk frankly confessed the radical nature of the work when he said, “We are probing what is most sacred to millions, and hence we will constantly border on blasphemy” (ibid., 8). This is an honest and accurate disclosure of what has happened.

Procedures of the Seminar

The group has used colored beads to vote on the accuracy of Jesus’ sayings. A red bead means words that Jesus probably spoke. Pink indicates words that could probably be attributed to Jesus. Gray represents words probably, though not certainly, came from later sources. Black indicates words that Jesus almost certainly did not speak.

The vote was based on a variety of Christian writings other than the four canonical Gospels, including the fragmentary Gospel of Peter, the supposed but not extant Q or Quelle (“source”) document, the second-century Gospel of Thomas, and the non-extant Secret Mark. Thomas is usually treated as a fifth Gospel, on a par with the four canonical books.

Results of the Voting

The results of their work is the conclusion that only fifteen sayings (2 percent) can absolutely be regarded as Jesus’ actual words. About 82 percent of what the canonical Gospels ascribe to Jesus are not authentic. Another 16 percent of the words are of doubtful authenticity. The following chart breaks down the proportions of each Gos­pel in each category and the percentage of “authentic” sayings of Christ. Notice that Tho­mas had a higher percentage of authentic “red” votes than did either Mark or John.

Gospel Sayings Red Pink Gray Black Authentic
(420 sayings) 11 61 114 235 2.6%
Mark 1 18 66 92 0.6%
(177 sayings)
Luke 14 65 128 185 3.6%
(392 sayings)
John 0 1 5 134 0.0%
(140 sayings)
Thomas 3 40 67 92 1.5%
(202 sayings)

Conclusions of the Seminar

Several radical conclusions emerge from the work of the Jesus Seminar which seriously affect historic orthodox Christianity, to the extent that they are taken seriously by the public:

  1. The “old” Jesus and “old Christianity” are no longer relevant.
  2. There is no agreement about who Jesus was: a cynic, a sage, a Jewish reformer, a feminist, a prophet-teacher, a radical social prophet, or an eschatological prophet.
  3. Jesus did not rise from the dead. One member, Crossan, theorizes that Jesus’ corpse was buried in a shallow grave, dug up, and eaten by dogs.
  4. The canonical Gospels are late and cannot be trusted.
  5. The authentic words of Jesus can be reconstructed from the so-called “Q document,” The Gospel of Thomas, Secret Mark, and The Gospel of Peter.

As Funk stated clearly, the Seminar concluded that “the narrative contexts in which the sayings of Jesus are preserved in the Gospels are the creation of the evangelists. They are fictive [fictional] and secondary” (“The Emerging Jesus,” 11).


A Radical Fringe of Scholarship. The Jesus Seminar represents a radical fringe of New Testament scholarship, though one that unfortunately includes a large number of mainline scholars and pastors. The fact that some of their views are adopted by many contemporary scholars is not the point, for truth is not determined by majority vote. Most of the proofs they offer, in addition to the voting procedure, are uncompelling and often nonexistent except for quotations from one another and other liberal scholars as unimpeachable sources. While radical scholars are making considerable noise at the end of the twentieth century, in the broad range of Christian history they are a small minority.

Unjustified Antisupernaturalism. The radical conclusions of the group are based on radical presuppositions, one of which is an unjustified rejection of any miraculous interven­tion in history by God.

One of the chief grounds for rejecting the authenticity of the canonical Gospels is the assumption that any reference to a miracle is not credible. This presupposition crept into biblical scholarship by way of David Hume and David Strauss. David Hume’s antisupernaturalism is without foundation.

Unfounded Acceptance of Late Dates. Flowing from the presumption of antisupernaturalism is the tendency to posit dates as late as possible for the writing of the Gospels (at earliest, 70 to 100, and in some arguments later). By doing this they can create enough time between the events and the recording for eyewitnesses to die off and a my­thology to develop around the founder of Christianity. Thus they can say that 84 percent of the sayings of Jesus were invented later. However, there are problems with these late dates, and as archaeology broadens understanding of the first-century sources, the posi­tion is becoming untenable. Among problems:

  • Manuscript evidence from the very early second century strongly argues for an Asian origin in the first century
  • Gospels are cited in other first-century works.
  • The Gospel of Luke was written before Acts, which has strong evidence for a date of no later than A.D. 60-62. This is well within the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporaries.
  • The writings of Paul speak of the historicity of the most crucial events in the Gospels, the death and resurrection of Christ. Even critical scholars date 1 Corinthians to ca. A.D. 55- 56. This would place it within a quarter century of Jesus’ death in 33.
  • Some critical scholars admit early dates for the basic Gospels. The late Bishop J. A. T. Robinson argued that they were written between 40 and 60. This would place the first records as close as seven years after the events they report.
  • Even the later dates of the 60s through the 80s do not allow time for mythological distor­tions to develop. It has been demonstrated that even two generations is too short a period to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical fact.

Uncritical Acceptance of Q. The method by which the Jesus Seminar was able to come to their radical conclusions with a flourish of scholarly activity was simple. They demoted the first-century and eyewitness contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life (the four Gospels) to late works of mythology and replaced them with nonextant works, such as Q, and clearly apocryphal writings, such as The Gospel of Thomas. But Q is a purely hypothetical docu­ment. There are no manuscripts. No one ever quoted such a book or referred to its exist­ence. It is a purely hypothetical literary reconstruction based on unjustified presuppositions. It stands in contradiction to the known evidence.

Use of Thomas is questionable on a number of accounts. It is clearly a second-century work, well out of range of contemporaries to the events.

It has a heretical agenda, for its teaching is gnostic. Its claim to be written by an apostle places it in the category of legend. Interestingly, its use to disprove the resurrection over­looks the fact that the work purports to be the words of the resurrected Christ.

Scholars of the Jesus Seminar also use Secret Mark and The Gospel of Peter. Peter is a second-or even third-century apocryphal work that is infamous for its outlandish legends. No one living in recent history has ever seen Peter or the copy of Clement’s letter that supposedly contained it. How then can its content be used for scholarly judgment on the authenticity of the Gospels?

Circular Reasoning. The reasoning process of the Jesus Seminar is a sophisticated form of the logical fallacy known as Petitio Princippi, or begging the question. Its circular reasoning begins with a desupernaturalized view of a first-century religious figure and concludes at the same point.


Despite their desire and achievements for drawing wide publicity, nothing is new in the Jesus Seminar’s radical conclusions. They offer only another example of unsubstantiated negative Bible criticism. Their conclusions are contrary to the overwhelming evidence for the historicity of the New Testament and the reliability of the New Testament witnesses. They are based on an unsubstantiated antisupernatural bias.


C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels

C. Blomberg, “The Seventy-Four ‘Scholars’: Who Does the Jesus Seminar Really Speak For?” in CRJ (Fall 1994)

G. Boyd. Jesus Under Siege

D. A. Carson, “Five Gospels, No Christ.” CT (25 April 1994)

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Earliest Christianity

G. Habermas, The Historical Jesus

C. J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenic History

I. H. Marshall, I Believe in the Historical Jesus

J. W. Montgomery, History and Christianity

A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament

M. J. Wilkins, et al., Jesus Under Fire

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