Advancing religious literacy

Voting for the Jesus Seminar Phase 1: Sayings of Jesus

Jesus Seminar Fellows cast ballots under two different options for understanding the four colors.

Option 1

  • Red: I would include this item unequivocally in the database for determining who Jesus was.
  • Pink: I would include this item with reservations (or modifications) in the database.
  • Gray: I would not include this item in the database, but I might make use of some of the content in determining who Jesus was.
  • Black: I would not include this item in the primary database.

Option 2

  • Red: Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.
  • Pink: Jesus probably said something like this.
  • Gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.
  • Black: Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.

One member suggested this unofficial but helpful interpretation of the colors:

  • Red: That’s Jesus!
  • Pink: Sure sounds like Jesus.
  • Gray: Well, maybe.
  • Black: There’s been some mistake.

The Fellows did not insist on uniform standards for balloting. The ranking of items was determined by weighted vote. Since most Fellows are professors, they are accustomed to grade points and grade-point averages. So they decided on the following scheme:

  • Red = 3
  • Pink = 2
  • Gray = 1
  • Black = 0

The points on each ballot were added up and divided by the number of votes to determine the weighted average. They then converted the scale to percentages—to yield a scale of 1.00 rather than a scale of 3.00.

The result was a scale divided into four quadrants:

  • Red: .7501 and up
  • Pink: .5001 to .7500
  • Gray: .2501 to .5000
  • Black: .0000 to .2500

This system seemed superior to a system that relied on majorities or pluralities of one type or another. In a system that made the dividing line between pink and gray a simple majority, nearly half of the Fellows would lose their vote. There would only be winners and losers.

Under weighted averages, all votes would count in the averages. Black votes in particular could readily pull an average down, as students know who have one “F” along with several “As.” Yet this shortcoming seemed consonant with the methodological skepticism that was a working principle of the seminar: when in sufficient doubt, leave it out.