The Jesus Seminar
I will refer often to the work of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, so a word on their origin, methodology and works is in order. In the early 1980s, Robert W. Funk, disappointed at the available scholarship on the acts and words of Jesus, invited thirty colleagues to form the Jesus Seminar. The Fellows eventually grew to more than 200 academics from leading colleges, universities and seminaries in Canada and the US.
This consensus was achieved by voting, using four different colored beads: red meant Jesus undoubtedly said it; pink meant that Jesus probably said something like this; gray meant Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own; black meant Jesus did not say this, and it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.
I consider the work of the Fellows extraordinarily valuable to serious researchers and anyone interested in Jesus. The Fellows, many of them knowing they might pay a price professionally for their efforts, pushed forward our understanding of what Jesus said well beyond where matters stood in 1980. The weighted designations of the sayings of Jesus by the Fellows are not indicative of their diverse views on which sayings go back to Jesus. They are merely weighted averages of large votes; thus, it is not accurate to say that all of the Fellows designated a particular saying pink or gray. Many may have voted red or black for a saying for which the weighted average turned out pink or gray. I disagree with several of the weighted designations they reached, though only a small number (less than 10%) on a percentage basis. In most cases, several of the Fellows disagreed with the weighted average too. More often than not, however, I am in agreement or close agreement with the weighted averages of the Seminar’s votes.
Behind the Votes of the Fellows
In his recent work The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore, Deepak Chopra poses the question: “Is Jesus really about enlightenment?” Chopra then proposes that “The best way to find out is to examine his own words.”
The Jesus Seminar’s decision to examine the sayings in Thomas alongside Mark, Matthew, Luke and John yielded a surprising result. In the end, one third of the sayings in Thomas—38 of the 114—were deemed as probably or certainly the words of the historical Jesus. This margin is about double the result obtained for the sayings in the synoptic gospels. Looking behind the gross results, however, is even more revealing.
This increasing slope of division in the pink and red zones tells us that, even though modern scholars have come a long way in identifying the characteristics of Jesus’ discourse, interpretation of his sayings remains problematic. It is easier to take away an alleged saying of Jesus than it is to deem it to be historical. I take the raw percentages produced by the Jesus Seminar for the probable and certain categories to be too low for Thomas and the synoptics. I am uncertain just how much higher they should be, but I would wager that fifty years from now more of Jesus’ sayings will be viewed as historical than they are today—for one reason: Any established baseline of high-value sayings necessarily creates the tendency to work only within that “safe” group, just as multiple independent attestations of sayings in various gospels creates that same kind of tendency.
I remember how, when working in Army Intelligence as an analyst, we had the same problem: the A (certain) and B (probable) validity identifications were all that most of us cared about—especially the least experienced among us. I also remember why a few of the most astute and experienced analysts were the ones who always ended up making the greatest breakthroughs in analysis: they spent a great deal of energy looking at those case files which carried a C (possible) or U (unknown) validity. They sometimes referred lovingly to these files as “development” files. These veteran analysts understood, of course, that the overwhelming majority of these case files would never amount to anything. Yet they also knew from years of experience that lurking in them somewhere was the next great breakthrough.
I think we are at a similar place today in analysis of the sayings and acts of Jesus. The tendency to take the safe road sometimes holds us back, especially in cases where broad-brush interpretive labels are used to do it. I remember encountering an uneasy feeling when examining the Seminar’s vote on Thomas’ version (saying 71) of House Destroyed—a declaration about destroying a “house” that is very difficult to interpret. The vote on Thomas’ version interested me because, unlike all of the other five versions of the saying (including Mark 14:58), it was the only version that drew some red votes. As the Seminar’s commentary notes, however, because of the saying’s fragmentary nature and unclear ending, most of the Fellows (about 70%)
I suspect that, among the many sayings which drew gray designations and those sayings with weighted black designations for which there were also pink and red votes, there are a precious few that not only go back to the historical Jesus but also hold the keys to open some of the interpretive gridlocks that continue to impede our exegetical (interpretation of scripture) progress. For the same reason, I am drawn to the sayings whose weighted designations fell just under or above the gray-pink boundary and for which many of the Fellows had different, if not diametrically opposed, interpretations.
Appendix III compares my own designations for all 114 sayings in Thomas to those of the Jesus Seminar. My result was 52 sayings (46%) in the probable/certain range, somewhat higher than the Seminar’s result of 38 sayings (33%) in that range. As I have reflected on the possible reasons for these different results, there are two problems that stand out. Previously I mentioned the lengthy list of criteria and rules that the Jesus Seminar as a whole agreed to adopt and use in evaluating the authenticity of the sayings attributed to Jesus. A close read of the Seminar’s commentary by Funk and Hoover reveals that there were at least two more criteria, not included in that list, that affected the votes of a large number of the Fellows. A significant number of the Fellows excluded sayings from Jesus when, in their view, they appeared to reflect Gnosticism or asceticism. In my view, this outcome has left some low hanging fruit that is long overdue for harvesting, an activity I will devote myself to in several of the chapters of this book. I now turn to a brief discussion of the problems that asceticism and Gnosticism have posed for the ongoing debate about those sayings that go back to Jesus and those that do not.