The Jesus Seminar's 'progressive thinking'

© Revd Rex A E Hunt
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Canberra
October 2003


I wish to pay my respects to the Ngunnawal People
and to those who have cared for this part of the land
from time immemorial.


The year 1985 was a good year for Christian biblical studies.

For it was in that year American New Testament scholar Robert Funk called together a group of 30 biblical scholars and invited them to begin a new journey of discovery - a ‘new quest’ for the historical Jesus.

It was going to be different journey to those commenced in the past.

This journey was to start with a ‘sayings’ data base to see if they could discover a Jesus ‘voice print’ amid the recorded subject matter of his speeches and mode of public discourse.

While there had been some work done in the past on one form of Jesus’ public discourse - parables - this study was to include a comparison of Jesus’ language with the ordinary language of his day.  Funk, a well know parables scholar himself, was convinced it was in the parables, the aphorisms and the dialogues of Jesus that one could catch sight of bits and pieces of the Jesus vision of that something Jesus called God’s kingdom or realm or empire.

Yet from these fragments of insight
“we can begin to piece together some sense of the whole.  Together those fragments provide us with glimpses of the historical figure... indeed, a glimpse of a glimpse” (Funk 2002:9).

Funk claimed the task was to discover the Jesus ‘voice print’ as distinctive discourse and as it stood out in contrast to both ordinary speech as well as from the speech of other sages and speakers of his day.  To discover the distinctive voice in the Galilean crowd, the forgotten Jesus.

Funk’s work has interested me for several years.  Indeed, ever since I sat in Dayton, Ohio, with NT scholar Tom Boomershine and began to understand Tom’s narrative or storytelling approach to biblical studies, beginning with the oral tradition.  And where I first heard of Funk’s work - although Boomershine had many questions (and I have continued to suggest to Boomershine he join the Jesus Seminar journey).  Later, in 1998, I was to meet Funk in Sydney at the only Australian Jesus Seminar on the Road (JSOR).

While we in the 21st century generally have a ‘silent print’ mentality to biblical studies - now being challenged by ‘electronic’ culture - this was not the case in 1st century Galilee.

Jesus was a travelling sage who conversesd with those around him orally.  Our religious tradition protrays him as one who speaks rather than as one who writes.  There is a fundamental contrast between oral culture (Jesus’ time) and print culture (our time).

The primary form of communication in an oral-aural culture was the human voice.  The word is something that happens.  Where the sounded word is received by the listener there is always community.  So the imprint of orality is shaped by:
• short sentences,
• provocative and memorable words,
• oft-repeated phrases,
• is situational rather than abstract,
• stories are often stitched together.

The Jesus Seminar started with the premise: primary information regarding Jesus of Nazareth is derived from the synoptic gospels, along with the Gospel of Thomas.  The latter was considered very important as this document, found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, contained 114 saying and parables ascribed to Jesus - 65 of them unique to Thomas.

Hence their first Report The Five Gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus.

The task was to be time consuming.  Christian conviction had overwhelmed Jesus.  He had been made to confess what Christians had come to believe.  But Jesus was not the first Christian even when he is made to talk like one.

Funk and his associates, now numbering more than 250 international scholars, claim Jesus develops a consistent rhetorical strategy that matches the content of his message.  The Jesus strategy was:
(i) his language is concrete and specific,
(ii) he makes use of typifications,
(iii) does not cite or interpret scripture,
(iv) does not make personal confessions;
(v) language is indirect and highly figurative or metaphorical,
(vi) he exaggerates;
(vii) frustrates ordinary expectations, and
(viii) makes free use of parody.

Remembering the ‘red letter’ bibles of past generations, where the so-called ‘words’ of Jesus were printed in red ink while the rest of the Bible was printed in black ink, the Jesus Seminar set up a process whereby scholars would examine the texts and vote on whether it was, in their opinion, an authentic saying or not.

After much discussion and refinement a system of voting using four colours to grade the sayings was used:
Red = Jesus undoubtedly said something like this;
Pink = Jesus probably said this or something like it;
Grey = Jesus didn’t say it but it contains some similar ideas;
Black = Jesus did not say it. It belongs to a later/different tradition.

While this may seem a novel way of sharing knowledge Funk insisted their work had to be open and honest, subject to debate and peer justification, as well as made available to anyone who was interested.  Gone was the time when scholars wrote for other scholars. Ordinary people needed to benefit from such scholarship and honesty.  Because too many had been left in the dark due to “soft”, if not dishonest, sermons.

But their work caused alarm among the more conservative scholars.

Of the 500 or so ‘sayings’ attributed to Jesus, only 90 gained either a Red or Pink response. That is, only 18% were classified as being ‘that’s Jesus’ or ‘That’s probably Jesus’.  A massive 82% were either voted as Grey or Black.

Similarly, of The acts of Jesus, their second Report, only 16% or 29 out of a total of 176 were graded as either Red or Pink.  Commenting on this result, one of the scholars, Lane McGaughy, says:
“the vote... does not mean they are the actual words of Jesus, but that they preserve the gist of Jesus’ message in a way that makes those sayings recognizable as deriving from him and not from the early church or the Evangelists” (McGaughy 2002:125).

As to be expected, says McGaughy, the Jesus Seminar findings on the distinctiveness of Jesus’ sayings has some serious implications for biblical studies - and I might add, church sermons!

1. Though other ancient Rabbis, it is claimed, used parables, the parables of Jesus are immediately recognisable.  They are:
• short stories which begin with a realistic scene,
• transformed into metaphors by a surprising ‘twist’ in the middle,
• invite the hearers to act on the basis of this new, but not fully defined, vision of reality.

2. In order to fathom their metaphors, each parable must be viewed as a whole rather than allegorising their parts.

3. Jesus ‘style’ was descriptive rather than prescriptive, indirect rather than direct.

4. Jesus social mission or ‘revolt’ was less through social action and more through parables of new possibilities.  He “affected the lives of people, but he was not a social organiser or activist” (Scott 2002:38).

These four suggestions sum up the importance of the Jesus Seminar in my understanding of biblical studies.  And that’s why I have spent the last 20 years or so fascinated by the sayings and parables and aphorisms of this wandering Galilean storyteller.

Funk, R. 2002. “Jesus: A voice print” in R. Hoover (ed). Profiles of Jesus. CAL: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
McGaughy, L. C. 2002. “The search for the historical Jesus. Why start with the sayings?” in  R. Hoover (ed). Profiles of Jesus. CAL: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Scott, B. B. 2002. “The reappearance of parables” in  R. Hoover (ed). Profiles of Jesus. CAL: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.