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.
Christianity Seminar, Phase II
From the very beginning of Westar, with the work of the Jesus Seminar, we have been striving to understand and make known the historical origins of Christianity. Just as the Jesus Seminar advanced the findings of scholarship about the historical Jesus and disseminated the results to the public, so the Christianity Seminar has been taking the next steps to reimagine how the movement that began around Jesus eventually became Christian orthodoxy and the official religion of the Roman Empire. For the last eight years, we have focused on the first two centuries, a time after Jesus, but before “Christianity” as we now know it had taken shape. By the end of the second century of the Christian era, an assortment of groups and communities identified by their association with Jesus were only beginning to grapple with the significant differences in how they thought about and expressed that association.
The Christianity Seminar now begins a new phase, in which it will examine the next two centuries of developments among Jesus-related communities in the third and fourth centuries, culminating in the establishment of one particular articulation of this movement as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 381 C.E. As hard as it may be to accept, it is only in this period that we have the first manuscripts, works of art, and architectural remains related to Jesus. This evidence reveals continued diversity among groups on the ground, alongside the emergence of new aspects of religious identity, as these groups confronted a changing political, social, economic, and cultural environment, not only within the Roman Empire, but beyond its borders as they moved into areas of Asia, Africa, and Europe beyond Roman control. Legalization of at least some forms of Christianity under the emperor Constantine effected the most dramatic change in conditions for these groups, not all of which were experienced as positive.
The Christianity Seminar, Phase II, will be exploring key aspects of this history, as we bring the latest scholarly methods and insights to the wider public, in order to better understand how and why particular elements came to be part of the religion we know today as Christianity. Recovering an accurate picture of early Christianity provides an opportunity to critically assess the choices made along the way of Christian history, and reconnect with lost aspects of the faith that may speak to people today in fresh ways.
The scholars just concluded their most recent public-facing seminar gathering: Contested Meanings of Jesus Christ in the Third through Sixth Centuries.
Description: Traditional accounts of the development of Christology (“talking about Christ”) typically jump from New Testament texts to the fourth and fifth century creeds issued by Ecclesiastical Councils. Everything in between is viewed as leading from the former to the latter in logical steps of development. But history is not so neat and tidy, nor do the texts tell the whole story. In this meeting, we will explore the world before and around the Councils, trying to get at the diverse views of Jesus that the Councils tried to distill or censor. We will use art as much as text to reconstruct how people outside of the Councils thought of and related to Jesus within different communities, not all of which was communicated in words. Featured speakers include Judith Herrin, Art Dewey, Felicity Harley-McGowan, and Jason BeDuhn.
SEMINAR ON GOD AND THE HUMAN FUTURE DESCRIPTION
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.
Recent Seminar Meetings
Seminar papers available here
Mini-Seminar on the Clobber Passages
–Sex or Sexuality Revisited: Leviticus 18-20 (Tamar Kamionkowski)
–Johnathan’s Love for David: Ambiguity as Liberation (Dirk von der Horst)
–Do Not Neglect to Show Hospitality (Michael Carden)
–Marriage, Disposable spouses, and the Gender Binary in Mark 10:1-12 and Matthew 19:3-12 (Susan M. (Elli) Elliott)
–Malakoi and Arsenokoitai (Perry Kea)
–Romans 1 (Art Dewey)
From God to the Future
Jordan Miller and Sarah Morice Brubaker on the varieties of post-theistic conceptions of God.
Saving God from Religion
Natalie Perkins discusses with Robin Meyers his book Saving God from Religion (New York: Penguin Random House, 2020).
–Becoming a People of the Book (Jason BeDuhn)
–Some Observations on the Evolution and Politics of Roman Imperial Canons (Chris Shea)
–Scripture and Resistance Hybridity: Without Canon (Hal Taussig)
–Gathered around Absence (Erin Vearncombe)
–If Not Christians, What? (Brandon Scott, Hal Taussig, and Erin Vearncombe)
Christianity Seminar, Phase I (2013 – 2020)
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.
Acts of the Apostles (2001 – 2011)
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.
Christian Origins (2006 – 2009)
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.
Paul Seminar (1993 – 2010)
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.
The Jesus Seminar (1985 – 1998)
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.