After completing its work on Phase 1, Sayings of Jesus, in 1989, Jesus Seminar Fellows undertook to evaluate the deeds attributed to Jesus in the ancient sources, as well as the reported events of his life.
During Phase 2 of the Jesus Seminar, 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.
After debate on each agenda item, Fellows voted using colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of Jesus’ deeds. Each color was assigned a number rating, so that votes could be quantified with a weighted average.
The Seminar adopted four categories:
- Red (likely authentic)
- Pink (somewhat likely)
- Gray (somewhat unlikely)
- Black (unlikely)
More about voting »
Of the 176 events examined:
- Only ten were given a red rating (indicating that the Fellows had a relatively high level of confidence that the event actually took place)
- Nineteen were colored pink (suggesting that the event probably occurred)
The combined number of red and pink events (29) amounts to 16% of the total (176). That is slightly lower than the 18% of the sayings—primarily parables and aphorisms—assigned to the red and pink categories in The Five Gospels.
The deeds of Jesus the Fellows voted as most likely to be authentic are:
- The Beelzebul controversy
- A voice in the wilderness
- John Baptizes Jesus
- Jesus proclaims the good news
- Peter’s mother-in-law
- The leper
- Paralytic and four
- Call of Levi
- Dining with sinners
- Sabbath observance
The Fellows concluded that the Jesus of history is very different from the icon of traditional Christianity: Jesus did not walk on water, feed the multitude, change water into wine, or raise Lazarus from the dead. He was executed as a public nuisance, not for claiming to be the son of God. And in the view of the Seminar, he did not rise bodily from the dead; the resurrection is based instead on visionary experiences of Peter, Paul, and Mary.
The Acts of Jesus
The complete results of the Jesus Seminar deliberations on the deeds of Jesus were published in 1996 as The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus.
Like The Five Gospels, this critical red-letter edition of the gospels is a completely new translation from Greek and Coptic texts. The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar designed the format to be understood at a glance by the casual reader not familiar with the history of critical scholarship over the past two centuries.
For those who believe the Bible to be the word of God a 16% historical accuracy rate may seem ridiculously low. Why did the Seminar end up with so many black (largely or entirely fictive) and gray (possible but unreliable) reports?
Read more from the introduction