Advancing religious literacy

The Road to the Jesus Seminar

Perry V. Kea
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From The Fourth R
Volume 18-1
January–February 2005

The basic principle of all historical study is that people and things from the past should be understood in the context of their own time. This principle has revolutionized the study of the Bible by enabling us to understand biblical authors as people of their own time writing for ancient audiences rather than channelers of timeless divine revelation. The search for the historical Jesus would be impossible without this principle, which enables us to understand Jesus as a first-century Jewish sage speaking to his fellow Jews rather than as a divine savior teaching eternal truths to all generations.

But the search for the historical Jesus is itself a historical phenomenon and therefore also needs to be understood within the context of its own time. The Jesus Seminar began its work twenty years ago. Enough time has gone by that we can now begin to assess the place of the Seminar within the intellectual history of the twentieth century. Perry Kea’s essay looks back at the beginning of the Seminar and explores the currents in modern biblical scholarship that paved the way for the achievements of the Jesus Seminar. —Ed.

As a fellow of the Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar, I have had many opportunities to discuss the historical Jesus with interested audiences. While these audiences are usually enthusiastic to learn, most are not aware of the larger intellectual context for the work of the Seminar. So I have prepared the following overview of that context. Please note, this is far from a full accounting of the history of scholarship on the historical Jesus. I have provided some bibliography at the end of this essay for those who wish to know more.

Born of the Enlightenment

The quest for the historical Jesus was a product of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in eighteenth-century Europe and North America that promoted reason as the sole standard for establishing matters of truth. The ramifications were enormous. The political underpinnings of the American and French revolutions were established by Enlightenment figures (for example, Locke and Voltaire). The scientific method was born out of the Enlightenment. The privileging of reason over other modes of knowledge (such as tradition) meant that history was brought “down to earth” so to speak. The reasons why things happened in the past had to be sought within the space-time continuum of human life without appeals to divine agency. Just as the scientist could not appeal to supernatural forces to explain natural events, so the Enlightenment historian could not claim that historical events happened because “God so willed it.”

When scholars informed by the Enlightenment considered the figure of Jesus in the gospels, they began to ask if the claims made for Jesus could be supported by rational evidence or arguments. So began the quest for the historical Jesus.

A Scandalous Jesus

Available from Polebridge Press

The Early Quest

The writing of history begins with sources of evidence. For the study of Jesus, the primary sources are the written gospels. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries historians began examining these written records for their evidentiary value. It quickly became apparent that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke shared numerous similarities. How was one to explain these similarities, such as common content, sequence, and wording (often verbatim)? Thus was born the “synoptic problem”. Various theories were developed to explain the similarities as well as the differences between the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. By about the late nineteenth century, a consensus had developed around the view that Mark’s Gospel was the earliest of our extant gospels and that it was used as a source by the authors of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. Furthermore, since Matthew and Luke shared material not found in Mark’s Gospel, it was hypothesized that they had access to a second source, dubbed Q (for Quelle, the German word for “source”). While there were (and are) alternative explanations for the synoptic problem, one of the firm conclusions from this early period in the quest for the historical Jesus was the recognition that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are literarily dependent on each other in some way. All historical Jesus research is informed by this fact.

The nineteenth century also produced numerous “lives” of Jesus. The classic treatment of this period of scholarship is Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus , published in German in 1906 and in English in 1910. Schweitzer not only provided penetrating critiques of many of these “lives,” he championed a view of Jesus that had only recently come onto the stage of scholarly debate. That view held that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. As Schweitzer interpreted the evidence from the gospels, he argued that Jesus expected God to bring the present age of unrighteousness to an end by some kind of divine miracle. As a result, Jesus urged people to prepare for this imminent event. He taught an “interim ethic,” a way of living until God intervened to replace this age with the age to come, the kingdom of God. Frustrated by the non-occurrence of God’s intervention, Jesus went to Jerusalem to force the issue. As Schweitzer famously expressed it, Jesus threw himself on the wheel of history by challenging the religious authorities in Jerusalem. In the process, Jesus was crushed by that wheel.

While there were dissenters, by the time the First World War had ended, the view that Jesus was some kind of apocalyptic preacher was becoming the majority view of scholars. It was also becoming apparent that if this view was correct, the Jesus of history was not going to provide a very adequate basis for traditional Christian claims about him.

Between the World Wars

The period just after World War I saw a change of focus in historical Jesus studies. German scholars Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius began applying the method of form criticism to the gospels. The dominant question for historical Jesus research in the nineteenth century had been the issue of the earliest written sources about Jesus. Form critics recognized that before anything was written down about Jesus, the memories of what he said or did were preserved and transmitted orally. Drawing on studies of folklore, form critics demonstrated that the oral traditions about Jesus behaved in some predictable ways. Sayings of Jesus or stories about him tended to conform to specific types or forms. By identifying the different forms and describing their generic features, form critics believed they were gaining a glimpse into the traditions about Jesus before they were written down. It was recognized that the various forms were assembled by the first writer(s) of the gospel; that is to say, the order and sequence of the episodes in the gospels is artificial. This meant that the chronological sequence of the events of Jesus’ life as related in the gospels could not be taken at face value.

Rudolf Bultmann

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Among biblical scholars and theologians, interest in the historical Jesus significantly waned. Bultmann accepted the view that Jesus was an apocalyptic figure, but he argued that Christian claims about Jesus were not, and should not be, based on the life or teaching of the historical Jesus. Although Bultmann wrote his own historical reconstruction of the message of Jesus, he argued that the Jesus of history was of little importance for New Testament theology, which was based on the resurrection experiences of the earliest community of believers. As Bultmann famously put it, the crucified Jesus rose again in the preaching of his early followers. Early Christian theology flows from this preaching, not from what Jesus himself taught. Consequently, fewer scholars devoted their energies to reconstructing the historical Jesus and, instead, spent more energy on the theological activity of early Christianity. This period in scholarship is sometimes called the period of the “No Quest”.

The New Quest

After the Second World War, Bultmann continued to be influential. A substantial body of his publications were translated into English and so reached a wider audience. Furthermore, Bultmann trained a number of scholars who carried forward his projects. While there had been critics of Bultmann who argued that the Jesus of history was compatible with traditional Christian claims (for example, Joachim Jeremias in Germany and C. H. Dodd in England), it was Bultmann’s own students who renewed the quest for the historical Jesus. In a famous essay, Ernst Käsemann articulated the position that while we could not expect the historical Jesus to mouth the precise claims made by his later followers, Christian theology had a right to expect that the mission and teaching of Jesus be consistent with the claims made about him after his resurrection. It is well to remember that this “New Quest” for the historical Jesus was motivated by the theological aspirations of (mostly) Protestant scholars.

Gunther Bornkamm’s Jesus of Nazareth is an excellent example of a German New Quest study. James Robinson’s A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (1959) put an American face on the discussion. In the 1960s and early 1970s, British born, German trained Norman Perrin taught in the United States and published several influential works on Jesus.
Yet, the 1970s and early 1980s were relatively quiet on the historical Jesus front. In part this was because the academic study of the New Testament and early Christianity was branching out from historical and theological studies to include literary and ideological studies. The attention of many scholars turned away from the quest for the historical Jesus.

New Manuscripts: The Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi

The seeds of renewed interest in the historical Jesus were planted with new manuscript discoveries. The study of early Judaism and early Christianity were enhanced significantly by the manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947) and the Nag Hammadi codices (1945). As the initial manuscripts from the Dead Sea were published in the 1950s, new studies were generated. The scrolls demonstrated that Judaism in the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods was more diverse than had been imagined previously. Before the Dead Sea Scrolls, New Testament scholars had usually described the Judaism of this period through the lenses of the New Testament and early Rabbinic literature. Study of the scrolls helped scholars to see that the way in which many New Testament documents characterized Judaism was biased and that this bias reflected the occasionally polemical and antagonistic situations that existed between early Christian and Jewish communities. Likewise, the corpus of Rabbinic literature was late and reflected the ascendancy of one particular Jewish group. Other Jewish voices were marginalized or suppressed. The Dead Sea scrolls represented a Jewish community that pre-dated the rise of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.

In broad terms, the scrolls appear to have been produced by a sect of Jews whose leaders were dissident priests. The Dead Sea community seems to have been comprised of Jews who had withdrawn from the Temple in Jerusalem because of disagreements with other priests who controlled it. This group established a small community by the shores of the Dead Sea that was consumed by a desire to maintain a high level of ritual and moral purity. Moreover, the people of this community developed an apocalyptic theology. They prepared for a great cosmic battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. They produced interpretations of Jewish scripture that reveal their own particular concerns and peculiarities. The community at the Dead Sea was obviously and thoroughly Jewish. Yet that community of Jews disagreed strongly with all the other Jewish groups of their day. The Dead Sea scrolls made it abundantly clear that one could no longer talk about “normative Judaism” at the time of Jesus. Judaism was far from being a monolithic religion. To be sure, there were common beliefs and practices, yet Judaism was as diverse then as it is now.

The discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts had a similar impact on our understanding of Christianity. The documents in the Nag Hammadi collection were obviously produced by Christian communities that did not fit the traditional, orthodox description of early Christianity. These texts, mostly produced in the second and third centuries of the common era, revealed a diverse side of Christianity that had only been hinted at before. Several of the documents found at Nag Hammadi were gospels. The most famous of these is the Gospel of Thomas, well known to those who have followed the work of the Jesus Seminar. The availability of new documents purporting to contain material about Jesus stimulated scholarly interest. Might some of these materials provide historically reliable information about Jesus or his teaching? As early as 1962, the noted German scholar, Joachim Jeremias, was suggesting that some sayings in the Gospel of Thomas merited consideration as authentic parables of Jesus.

Parables and Aphorisms

In an ironic way, a scholarly shift away from history to literary criticism would significantly enhance our historical understanding of the role played by parables and aphorisms in Jesus’ teaching. In 1964 Amos Wilder (brother of the famous playwright, Thornton Wilder) wrote The Language of the Gospel: Early Christian Rhetoric. Wilder showed that how something was expressed contributed to its meaning. It had been thought by many New Testament scholars that the content of a message could be extracted from its literary form, as if the literary form were the “husk” and the message were the “kernel”. Because of Wilder that view began to change.

The availability of new documents purporting to contain material about Jesus stimulated scholarly interest. Might some of these materials provide historically reliable information about Jesus or his teaching?


Two important studies on Jesus’ parables and language appeared in the mid-1960s and one on Jesus’ aphorisms in the mid-1970s: Dan Via’s The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimensions (1967), Robert Funk’s Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology (1966), and Robert Tannehill’s The Sword of His Mouth (1975). These works demonstrated that the aesthetic dimension of Jesus’ language was not merely decorative or ornamental, but essential to the communication of his message. While these works were concerned to examine Jesus’ speech forms for their literary qualities, they also had the effect of demonstrating that the author of these parables and aphorisms (namely, Jesus) had a rather subversive or unconventional view of reality.

While the majority view still held Jesus to be an apocalyptic preacher, these studies on Jesus’ parables and aphorisms prepared the way for a new appreciation of the wisdom element in Jesus’ message. In the 1970s and 1980s, other scholars pursued these issues. For example, John Dominic Crossan’s In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (1973) and In Fragments: The Aphorisms of Jesus (1983) explored the interaction between Jesus’ language and the socio-cultural realities of Jesus’ day. Bernard Brandon Scott began working on a comprehensive analysis of the parables that culminated in 1989 in his Hear Then The Parable. Sixteen years later Scott’s book is arguably still the best commentary on the parables in any language.

The renewed appreciation of Jesus’ skill with parables and aphorisms prepared the way for a different evaluation of his alleged apocalypticism. This turn toward the Jewish wisdom tradition and away from the Jewish apocalyptic traditions was reinforced by several studies in the late 1960s and 1970s on the “Son of Man” (translated “son of Adam” in the Scholars Version) expression. It had long been recognized that Jesus rarely applied titles to himself in the synoptic gospels, except for the title “Son of Man.” Scholarship had long grouped the Son of Man sayings into three categories:

  1. present activity of the Son of Man (for example, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head; the authority of the Son of Man to forgive sins)
  2. the impending suffering of the Son of Man (the Son of Man must suffer, die, and be raised from the dead)
  3. the future appearance of the Son of Man from heaven.

There was broad and longstanding consensus that the suffering Son of Man sayings were creations of the early church, especially those sayings framed as predictions. Their specificity was judged to be due to the fact that the church knew the particulars of Jesus’ suffering and death and so formed these sayings as a way of making sense of Jesus’ mission.

It was noticed that in the present Son of Man sayings the expression “Son of Man” could be understood not as a title, but as a Jewish idiom for “human being.” For example, Psalm 8:4 had declared “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (Revised Standard Version) and the prophet Ezekiel is frequently addressed as “son of man” (translated “mortal” in NRSV). So by about 1980, many scholars were convinced that the expression “Son of Man” in this group of sayings should be understood in this generic sense.

Proponents of the view that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher cited the heavenly Son of Man sayings. In these sayings, the expression “Son of Man” seemed to function more as a formal title. Moreover, several of these “Son of Man” sayings seemed to make a distinction between Jesus and the future Son of Man (“Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his holy angels”). Bultmann had accepted Schweitzer’s argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher, but had modified this by suggesting that Jesus did not think of himself as the future, heavenly Son of Man. Rather, Jesus’ mission and message was to prepare people for the heavenly appearance of this Son of Man figure.

However, several works in the 1960s and 1970s argued that these heavenly Son of Man sayings were creations of the early church. In a series of essays, Norman Perrin demonstrated how this might have developed. By the early 1980s, Marcus Borg was floating “A Temperate Case for a Non-Eschatological Jesus” (read “apocalyptic” for “eschatological”). When the Jesus Seminar began its work, the time was ripe for a full debate. Whether Jesus was or was not an apocalyptic figure depended largely upon whether one judged the heavenly Son of Man sayings to derive from Jesus or from the early church. But it was also the case that the work on Jesus’ parables and aphorisms were pointing to the importance of the Jewish wisdom tradition for determining what kind of Jew Jesus was.

Archaeology and the Social Sciences

Finally, interest in the historical Jesus was facilitated by the utilization of explanatory models from sociology, anthropology, and archaeology. As New Testament scholarship experimented with literary methods in the 1960s and 1970s, it also looked to the social sciences for tools that could help make fuller sense of these first century documents. The differences between first-century Mediterranean cultures and twentieth-century industrial societies compelled scholars to look for models that more nearly matched the first century. For example, cultural anthropology provided studies of demon possession in so called “Third World” societies that closely resembled the gospel accounts of Jesus’ exorcisms. The Jesus Seminar’s deliberations on these stories were informed by such anthropological studies.

Gospel of Mary of Magdala

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One of the criticisms of the Seminar that people sometimes share with me is its conclusion that there is a historical core to the exorcism stories. These people complain that the Seminar is not being skeptical enough: demons don’t really exist. How can there be such a thing as an exorcism? Such a complaint is typical of a twentieth (now twenty-first) century western mind. But cultural anthropology has demonstrated that belief in evil spirits is not only common throughout human cultures, but that it is tied to demonstrable social factors. In cultures where women’s roles are severely restricted, the incidence of claimed demon possession is much higher for women than for men. In societies where males are politically suppressed, the claimed demon possession rate is higher for them. These kinds of studies, combined with studies of the social, economic, and political systems of the first century have helped make sense of the exorcism stories. While we twenty-first century westerners may not believe in demon possession, first-century people did.They were not merely superstitious; such stories reveal much about the way these people experienced their lives. Likewise, a person in that culture, such as Jesus, with a proven track record as an exorcist would have been very popular.

Sociology and anthropology have contributed many other ways for understanding the lives of the people who produced the gospels (and the other documents of early Christianity). The work of archaeology has revolutionized our understanding of the context of Christian origins. While there had been important excavations in ancient Israel, including first-century sites, throughout the twentieth century, the significance of excavations in Jerusalem and Galilee conducted between the 1950s and the early 1980s was just beginning to be realized. It had long been assumed that Jesus’ home region of the Galilee in northern Israel was less exposed to the cultural forms of Greece and Rome than Jerusalem and southern Israel. The historical stereotype of first-century Galilee was that it was a rural backwater, off the beaten tracks of Greco-Roman influence. Archaeological excavations in Galilee changed that view. One of the sites that attracted the attention of archaeologists was Sepphoris. Never mentioned in the New Testament, it is now recognized as a very important site. Destroyed by Herod the Great, it was rebuilt by his son, Herod Antipas in the second decade of the first century c.e. Excavators discovered a thoroughly Romanized city. As Antipas’ administrative capital for the Galilee, Sepphoris served as a kind of showplace. It signaled Antipas’ support of and compliance with the Roman Empire and provided cultural and civic opportunities for the ruling elite. One of the most spectacular finds at Sepphoris was a Roman style villa decorated with beautiful floor mosaics. What was particularly instructive about Sepphoris was the fact that it was only about four miles from Nazareth, the home of Jesus. Jesus’ father, Joseph, is described in the gospels as a tekton, usually translated as “carpenter”. That is a proper translation of the term, but tekton has a broader range. It refers to artisans with some kind of skill. Presumably, when Sepphoris was being built in the teens of the first century c.e., it provided employment opportunities for skilled laborers. Jesus would have been in his teens when the construction of Sepphoris began. Though it cannot be proven, scholars speculate that Jesus learned and applied the artisan skills of his father on the construction projects of Sepphoris.

Even apart from the question of Jesus’ involvement in the construction of Sepphoris, the excavation revealed a revolutionary fact: Galilee was exposed to Greco-Roman urbanization to a far greater degree than previously thought possible. This realization meant that historians of the Gospels would have to re-imagine the social, economic, and political realities presupposed by those stories.

The Time Was Ripe

I suspect that if Robert Funk had never convened the Jesus Seminar in 1985, the current renaissance in historical Jesus studies still would have occurred. The new discoveries, methods, and studies of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s were bound to stimulate new efforts to locate Jesus of Nazareth within the historical circumstance of first-century Jewish Palestine. The Jesus Seminar had the good fortune to come along at an auspicious time. My own personal experience may serve to illustrate the appeal the Jesus Seminar afforded.

I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in 1983, having written a dissertation on the aphorisms in the Sermon on the Mount. Dan Via, whose work on the parables was mentioned earlier, was my principal advisor. In 1975, as a college undergraduate, I had written a senior thesis on the Son of man sayings where I had concluded that the heavenly Son of man sayings were creations of the early church. So when the opportunity to attend a meeting of the Jesus Seminar came to me in 1987, I went. At that first meeting someone recognized that I had done my dissertation on aphorisms. So it was suggested that I join a group working on the aphorisms of Jesus (at that time, there several different groups working on various projects). Before my first meeting was over, the chairperson of the aphorisms group, John Kloppenborg, had persuaded me to take on a paper for the next meeting of the group. I continued as a member of the Jesus Seminar because I enjoyed the work and the camaraderie of the Fellows and Associates, but also because of the opportunity to soak in the new information and lines of study that I have briefly described above. I know that my teaching has been informed by the archaeological and manuscript finds, the explanatory models of cultural anthropology and sociology, and the literary studies of early Christian traditions. New Testament scholarship is a richer and more diverse field than ever before. By 1985, the time was ripe for a fresh approach to the quest for the historical Jesus. Robert Funk’s idea to convene a Jesus Seminar was right for the time.


Borg, Marcus J. “A Temperate Case for a Non-Eschatological Jesus,” Foundations and Facets Forum 2 (September 1986): 81–102.

Bornkamm, Gunther. Jesus of Nazareth. Translated by Irene and Fraser McLuskey with James M. Robinson. N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1960 (first German edition 1956).

Bultmann, Rudolf. History of the Synoptic Tradition. Revised Edition. Translated by John Marsh. N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1963 (German edition 1921?)

Crossan, John Dominic. In Parables: the Challenge of the Historical Jesus. New York, Harper and Row, 1973.

_______. In Fragments : the Aphorisms of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.

Dibelius, Martin. From Tradition to Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf. New York, Scribner, 1965 (first German edition 1919).

Dodd, C. H. The Parables of the Kingdom. New York, Scribner, 1961 (first published in 1936).

Funk, Robert Walter. Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God; the Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology. New York, Harper & Row, 1966.

Jeremias, Joachim, The Parables of Jesus, Translated by. S. H. Hooke. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963 (based on the sixth German edition of 1962).

Kasemann, Ernst. “The Problem of the Historical Jesus.” In Essays on New Testament Themes. Translated by W. J. Montague. Studies in Biblical Theology. London: SCM Press, 1964.

Perrin, Norman. The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus. New Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963.

_______. Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Robinson, James M. A New Quest of the Historical Jesus. Studies in Biblical Theology. London: SCM Press, 1959.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus; a Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Translated by W. Montgomery. N.Y.: Macmillan, 1910; reprinted, 1968. (first German edition 1906).

Tannehill, Robert C. The Sword of His Mouth. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975

Via, Dan Otto. The Parables; Their Literary and Existential Dimension. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1967.

Wilder, Amos Niven. The Language of the Gospel; Early Christian Rhetoric. New York, Harper and Row, 1964.

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