(RNS) Since 1985, scholars affiliated with the Jesus Seminar have been
casting doubt on the authenticity of sayings attributed to Jesus and
questioning whether he saw himself as an end-times prophet.
As the seminar marks its 25th anniversary Oct. 13-16 in Santa Rosa,
Calif., it's generating far less attention and controversy than in years
past, when the media spotlight gave members a platform to reach
Now observers are debating a new question: What difference has the
Jesus Seminar made? Once again, the jury is divided.
Among the seminar's 100 fellows is a strong sense that the group has
effectively made the general public more aware of questions surrounding
the so-called "historical Jesus."
For example: By using color-coded beads to vote on whether Jesus
likely said this or that, the group captured widespread attention, said
John Dominic Crossan, chair of the 25th anniversary event.
"When some of our critics said, `These guys are seeking publicity,'
we said `Duh! That's the whole purpose!"' Crossan said.
"We wanted people to know what we were doing. That was the whole
purpose of the voting with colored beads and all the rest of that
paraphernalia. It was designed for cameras."
Critics of the Jesus Seminar concede that the group deftly drew the
spotlight and got a cross-section of people talking about Jesus. But
they also fault the scholars for allegedly misrepresenting their views
as mainstream and for shaking the faith of Christian communities.
"They created this impression that they were representing a genuine
consensus of opinion that Jesus only said 18 percent of what's
attributed to him in the Gospels and so on," said Duke Divinity School
Dean and New Testament scholar Richard Hays.
"In point of fact, that was never so. They didn't represent the sort
of consensus that they claimed to represent. It was a self-selected
group of scholars who held a particular view."
The Jesus Seminar held its first meeting in Berkeley, Calif., as 35
individuals, mostly scholars, responded to an invitation from the late
Robert Funk, who died in 2005.
Having rejected the fundamentalism of his youth, Funk was eager to
assemble fellow scholars to dispel what he considered to be mistaken
church teachings about Jesus, according to Lane McGaughy, a member of
the seminar since its beginning.
What emerged from the group's semiannual meetings was a sense of
Jesus as human, not divine, rising to prominence because of his social
justice teachings, not because of his messianic status.
"The danger is that any of us will see in Jesus what it is that
we're looking for," McGaughy said. "That is a problem not just for Jesus
Seminar scholars but for conservative scholars as well."
Critics say the Jesus Seminar has long been an agenda-driven project
marked by flawed methodology.
Fellows of the seminar defend its methods and its impact.
Crossan says that through the seminar, scholars fulfilled a moral
duty to make their insights accessible to rank-and-file Christians and
other curious people, not just academic journals.
McGaughy goes even further, saying the seminar, in presenting a
historical and human Jesus, helped make Christianity meaningful for
people who stopped believing doctrine and left the church.
"It's opened up some very interesting changes in a lot of these
so-called dying churches," McGaughy said. "Because of the Jesus Seminar,
a lot of people feel that they have permission to ask questions that
they never before thought they could ask in church."
Without a doubt, the Jesus Seminar elicited strong reactions from
scholars and clerics who defend tenets of orthodox Christianity.
The seminar provided a "wake-up call" for conservative scholars to
popularize their own writings, said Ben Witherington, professor of New
Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary.
"One of the positive effects is that it's changed the way the
networks deal with that kind of subject," Witherington said. "They
started bending over backward to get more of a spectrum of opinion about
the historical Jesus because they realized there was such pushback to
just interviewing the Jesus Seminar people."
After more than two decades of examining the Gospels, the Jesus
Seminar is moving on. Fellows continue to meet, but they now focus on
the biblical book of Acts and the letters of Paul.
The Westar Institute, an umbrella group for the Jesus Seminar, will
in October publish "The Authentic Letters of Paul."
As the seminar moves beyond Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, critics
say the initiative has ceased to compel public interest. Witherington
sees the lack of public attention as a sign that the seminar is now
largely irrelevant to public conversation about religion and culture.
Fellows of the seminar acknowledge that public attention has waned,
but they aren't entirely disappointed. To some, being disregarded has
become a badge of success.
"There is in a way less criticism of the Jesus Seminar now and less
publicity in fact because our work has been accepted. It's no longer
regarded as on the fringes," McGaughy said.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance journalist, ordained United Church of Christ minister, and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).