1985-1991

Goal

The first step in the work of the Jesus Seminar was to inventory and classify all the words attributed to Jesus in the first three centuries of the Common Era. The goal was to review each of 1500 items collected and determine which of them could be ascribed with a high degree of probability to Jesus.

The Seminar collected more than 1500 versions of about 500 items sorted into four categories:

  • Parables
  • Aphorisms
  • Dialogues
  • Stories containing words attributed to Jesus

The inventory covers all the surviving gospels and reports from the period, not just the canonical gospels. The Fellows adopted this rule: Canonical boundaries are irrelevant in critical assessments of the various sources of information about Jesus.

In other words, the Fellows refused to privilege the gospels that came to be regarded as canonical by the church, which is consistent with the canons of historical inquiry.

Voting

After debate on each agenda item, Fellows voted using colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of Jesus' words. Each color was assigned a number rating, so that votes could be quantified with a weighted average.

The Fellows adopted four categories:

  • Red (likely authentic)
  • Pink (somewhat likely)
  • Gray (somewhat unlikely)
  • Black (unlikely)

More about voting »

Findings

The sayings the Fellows voted as most likely to be authentic were:

  1. Other cheek (Q) Matt 5:39, Luke 6:29a
  2. Coat & shirt (Q) Matt 5:40, Luke 6:29b
  3. Congratulations, poor! (Q, Thomas) Luke 6:20, Thomas 54
  4. Matt 5:3
  5. Second mile (Q) Matt 5:41
  6. Love of enemies (Q) Luke 6:27b, Matt 5:44b, Luke 6:32, 35a
  7. Leaven (Q, Thomas) Luke 13:20-21, Matt 13:33, Thom 96:1-2
  8. Emperor & God (Thomas, Mark) Thom 100:2b, Mark 12:17b, Luke 20:25b, Matt 22:21c
  9. Give to beggars (Q) Matt 5:42a, Luke 6:30a
  10. The Samaritan (L) Luke 10:30-35
  11. Congratulations, hungry! (Q, Thomas) Luke 6:21a, Matt 5:6, Thom 69:2

Jesus Seminar Fellows also came to consensus on the following:

  • Jesus of Nazareth did not refer to himself as the Messiah, nor did he claim to be a divine being who descended to earth from heaven in order to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. These are claims that some people in the early church made about Jesus, not claims he made about himself.
  • At the heart of Jesus’ teaching and actions was a vision of a life under the reign of God (or, in the empire of God) in which God’s generosity and goodness is regarded as the model and measure of human life; everyone is accepted as a child of God and thus liberated both from the ethnocentric confines of traditional Judaism and from the secularizing servitude and meagerness of their lives under the rule of the empire of Rome.
  • Jesus did not hold an apocalyptic view of the reign (or kingdom) of God—that by direct intervention God was about to bring history to an end and bring a new, perfect order of life into being. Rather, in Jesus’ teaching the reign of God is a vision of what life in this world could be, not a vision of life in a future world that would soon be brought into being by a miraculous act of god.

The Parables of Jesus

This first report of the Jesus Seminar reviews the authenticity of all gospel versions of the 33 parables attributed to Jesus. Individual versions of each parable are grouped together and arranged for easy reference and comparison. In this red-letter edition, each parable is color-coded to indicate its authenticity. Read more »

The Five Gospels

The complete results of the Jesus Seminar deliberations on the sayings of Jesus were published in 1993 as The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus.

Read an example from Luke 6:29-37 »

This critical red-letter edition of the gospels is a completely new translation from Greek and Coptic texts. Each saying attributed to Jesus is color-coded to indicate its authenticity. The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar designed it to be understood at a glance by the casual reader not familiar with the history of critical scholarship over the past two centuries.

Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him, according to the Jesus Seminar. How do scholars account for this pronounced discrepancy? Read more from the introduction »