The Jesus Seminar was a group of about 150 critical scholars and laymen founded in 1985 by Robert Funk under the auspices of the Westar Institute. The seminar was active in the 1980s and 1990s, but has since disbanded. The seminar used votes with colored beads to decide their collective view of the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. They produced new translations of the New Testament and apocrypha to use as textual sources. They published their results in three reports: The Five Gospels (1993), The Acts of Jesus (1998), and The Gospel of Jesus (1999). They also run a series of lectures and workshops in various U.S. cities.
The seminar's reconstruction of the historical Jesus portrayed him as an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage and faith healer who preached a gospel of liberation from injustice in startling parables and aphorisms. An iconoclast, Jesus broke with established Jewish theological dogmas and social conventions both in his teachings and behaviors, often by turning common-sense ideas upside down, confounding the expectations of his audience: He preached of "Heaven's imperial rule" (traditionally translated as "Kingdom of God") as being already present but unseen; he depicts God as a loving father; he fraternizes with outsiders and criticizes insiders. According to the seminar, Jesus was a mortal man born of two human parents, who did not perform nature miracles nor die as a substitute for sinners nor rise bodily from the dead. Sightings of a risen Jesus were nothing more than the visionary experiences of some of his disciples rather than physical encounters.
The seminar treats the canonical gospels as historical sources that represent Jesus' actual words and deeds as well as elaborations of the early Christian community and of the gospel authors. The fellows placed the burden of proof on those who advocate any passage's historicity. Unconcerned with canonical boundaries, they asserted that the Gospel of Thomas may have more authentic material than the Gospel of John.
The seminar holds a number of premises or "scholarly wisdom" about Jesus when critically approaching the gospels. They act on the premise that Jesus did not hold an apocalyptic worldview, an opinion that is controversial in mainstream scholarly studies of Jesus. Rather than revealing an apocalyptic eschatology, which instructs his disciples to prepare for the end of the world, the fellows argue that the authentic words of Jesus indicate that he preached a sapiential eschatology, which encourages all of God's children to repair the world.
The method and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar have come under harsh criticism by biblical scholars, historians and clergy for a variety of reasons. It is the assertion of such critics that the Fellows of the seminar are not all trained scholars, that their voting technique doesn't allow for nuance, that they are preoccupied with Q and the Gospel of Thomas but omit material in other sources such as the Gospel of the Hebrews, and that they rely excessively on the criterion of embarrassment.
Read more about Jesus Seminar: Use of Historical Methods, The Scholars Translation, Seminar Proceedings, Criticism, End of Activities and Fellows of The Jesus Seminar
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