Westar Institute—home of the Jesus Seminar—sponsors both large and small-scale, collaborative research projects to examine questions about religion that matter. More than 200 scholars of religion, called Fellows, have participated in the Jesus Seminar and other Westar projects since 1985. A culture of collaboration, collegiality, and public outreach sets Westar apart from other academic societies.
Explore the goals and results of Westar Seminars below.
What was early Christianity really like, behind the New Testament? The Christianity Seminar reimagines how the movement that began around Jesus became Christian orthodoxy and the official religion of the Roman Empire. Learn more, and join the conversation at the next national meeting.
Historical questions about the Bible can be very specific. What did Jesus really say? What date should be given the book of Acts? But when it comes to “God questions”—the meaning of God, the existence of God, the future of God—the ground shifts from critical history to metaphysical quandary. Where does one even begin? Yet a Seminar on God cannot be dismissed lightly, for there is an important sense in which God is every bit as historical as Jesus was, perhaps in a certain sense even more so. God is historical in the sense that God is rhetorical—the product of the language used to speak about God. Language contains its own history and is the witness to an era’s concerns and outlooks. God-language is embedded in history and is the archaeological evidence of theological systems. Learn more, and join the conversation at the next national meeting.
Acts is the first and most successful attempt to tell the story of Christian origins. It is a story so well told that it has dominated Christian self-understanding down to the present day. Yet today the historicity of much of the story Acts tells can be challenged. The Acts Seminar evaluated the canonical Acts of the Apostles from beginning to end for historical accuracy.
The Christian Origins Seminar examined the emergence of the Jesus traditions through the first two centuries of the Common Era (CE). This project developed a new history of early Christianities and Christian writings and placed Jesus traditions within their cultural context.
The letters of Paul delivered a distinct voice and universal vision to the first-century Mediterranean world. Unfortunately the distinctive sound of Paul’s letters have been distorted by the cacophony of later voices that have attempted to speak in his name. A team of Westar Fellows produced a new translation of the letters of Paul found to be authentic in an attempt to bring the authentic voiceprint of Paul back to the conversation.
Westar’s first and best-known project was the Jesus Seminar. This Seminar was organized to discover and report a scholarly consensus on the historical authenticity of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the gospels. In the judgment of the Jesus Seminar, 18 percent of the sayings and 16 percent of the deeds are authentic. These findings, along with the public nature of the seminar system, led to widespread public debate.
Jesus Seminar Fellows inventoried and classified all the words attributed to Jesus in the first three centuries of the Common Era. Then they reviewed each of 1500 items collected and determined which of them could be ascribed with a high degree of probability to Jesus.
Jesus Seminar Fellows evaluated the deeds attributed to Jesus in the ancient sources, as well as the reported events of his life. The Fellows examined 387 reports of 176 events, in most of which Jesus is the principal actor, although occasionally John the Baptist, Simon Peter, or Judas is featured.
Who was the man that emerged from all these historical explorations? After 12 years of systematically examining the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus, more than 20 Fellows either drew a profile of Jesus based on the evidence or critiqued important books on the historical Jesus by other scholars.