Jesus Seminar Redux
The Jesus Seminar is a group of biblical scholars founded by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan under the umbrella of the Westar Institute with the stated purpose to develop a scholarly consensus on the sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament and other early Christian writings.
The Fellows met twice a year, and each meeting focused on a particular collection of sayings. Members would write and circulate papers on the collection of sayings that was being discussed at the upcoming meeting, so that at the meetings themselves the Fellows would discuss the sayings rather than listening to people presenting their papers. Each saying was discussed until no one had any more to say, and then they would move on to discuss the next one. Once they completed their discussion, the Fellows would then vote by secret ballot, dropping one of four differently colored beads into a ballot box.
- A red bead meant that a Fellow believed that the words were the authentic words of Jesus
- A pink bead meant that they believed that the words closely approximated what Jesus said
- A gray bead meant they believed the words weren’t Jesus’ but they may reflect his ideas
- A black bead meant Jesus definitely did not speak them
Someone else proposed that the meanings could be understood as follows:
- Red = “That’s Jesus”
- Pink = “Sure sounds like him”
- Gray = “Well, maybe.”
- Black = “There’s been some mistake.”
In all they voted on 1,544 sayings of Jesus. Often these were multiple instances of the same saying found in different sources (sometimes with slight variations in the wording). They then tallied the votes and summarized there results in “The Five Gospels” as well as providing detail voting records in the group's academic journal, "Forum," which is from where I gathered the data for the preliminary results presented below. Before turning to those, however, a quick word on the criterion of multiple sources (or attestation).
The Criterion of Multiple Attestation: More Sources are Better!
Most biblical scholars, including the members of the Jesus Seminar, hold that sayings and acts that are found in two or more independent sources are more likely to have originated with the historical Jesus. Identifying the source of a particular saying involves more than simply listing what gospel it came from, however. For example, with regards to the synoptic gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), most New Testament believe that Mark is the earliest Gospel and Matthew and Luke used Mark as the narrative basis for their own Gospels. They marshaled considerable amount of evidence in support of this theory:
- Sometimes the same wording & sequence of material is found in Matthew, Luke & Mark
- Sometimes Matthew & Mark agree in sequence and/or wording of passages, while Luke differs
- Sometimes Luke & Mark have the same sequence and/or wording of passages, while Matthew differs
- But the texts of Matthew & Luke almost never agree in both wording & sequence except for material found also in Mark
- In passage after passage Mark is demonstrably the middle term in any narrative agreement between the synoptic gospels. Thus, the first premise of the two source hypothesis is that Matthew & Luke each followed the text of Mark as their primary narrative sourceA Gospel synopsis, in which all three synoptic Gospels are printed in parallel columns, permits scholars and students to observe how Matthew and Luke used (and changed) Mark to create their own Gospels.
However, scholars couldn’t help noticing that Matthew had material that was neither in Mark or Luke, and Luke contained material that was neither in Mark or Matthew. This led later scholars to expand the two-source hypothesis to a four-source hypothesis, which argues that the author of Matthew used Mark, Q and his own special source (“M”), while Luke used Mark, Q and his own special source (“L”). It is likely that "M" and "L" are drawn from multiple sources, possibly even the same sources, including Q, but for convenience scholars treat "M" and "L" as single independent sources:
In other words, the sayings and events that we find in the synoptic Gospels come from one of four separate sources: Mark, "Q," "M" or "L." What this means is that if scholars are adhere to the multiple sources criterion, they have to look beyond these four sources to find a second independent source in order for a saying that appears in Matthew, Mark or Luke to be deemed authentic. In other words, because any saying or event that appears in Matthew, Mark or Luke can only be traced back to either M, Mark, Q or L, scholars need to look to other sources, such as the Gospel of John, the Gospel of Thomas, the letters of Paul (they include a few sayings of Jesus), the Didache, and so on for additional independent attestations of the event or saying.
Take, for example, the beatitude, "Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). A parallel saying occurs in Matthew (5:3), and scholars trace this saying back to Q (because it appears in Luke and Matthew but not in Mark). In other words, while the saying occurs twice in the Gospels, it is only seen as having one independent source. Scholars do believe there's a second independent source for this saying, however (the Gospel of Thomas), which provides empirical support that the saying goes back to the historical Jesus (at least in theory).
In what follows, I present the voting of the Jesus Seminar fellows in three ways: by gospel, by number of sources, and by the sources themselves. Table 1 breaks down the Jesus Seminar voting (by color) by the four New Testament Gospels plus the Gospel of Thomas. As you can see Matthew contains more sayings of Jesus than any of the other gospels although Luke is not far behind. Mark and John contain surprisingly few (although Mark is pretty short), fewer than Thomas in fact. One thing that is striking is how few sayings the Jesus Seminar voted to be red (31 out of 1,544 or 2.01%). A higher percentage were voted pink (13.67%), but most of the sayings were voted either black or gray by the Jesus Seminar fellows. Of the five gospels, John has the fewest sayings that fellows believed to have originated with the historical Jesus (i.e., those voted either pink or red). In fact almost all of John's sayings were considered to contain no traces of the historical Jesus (95.74%), while a few (3.55%) may reflect his ideas but not necessarily his words. Somewhat surprising (but then again, maybe not), a higher perecentage of Thomas's sayings were voted either pink or red than any of the other Gospels. Luke and Matthew follow, and then comes Mark. Mark's second to last place finish is somewhat surprising given that it is the earliest of the gospels, which makes one wonder how seriously the Jesus Seminar fellows took the dates of sayings into account when casting their votes. Of course, the results presented in this post don't take into account the dates of the sayings; that will be topic for a later post, and may alter the preliminary conclusions presented here.
Table 1: Results by Gospel
Table 2 breaks the results down by number of sources for each saying and voting color. As it indicates most sayings of Jesus could be traced to only a single source (i.e., 946 out of 1,544 or 61.27%), and most of these (69.03%) were believed to contain absolutely no trace of the historical Jesus. Interestingly, though, more (and higher percentage) single source sayings were voted red than were two and three-source sayings. Only nine two source-sayings and only one (!) three-source saying were voted red. That said, two and three source sayings are much less likely to be voted black and much more likely to be voted gray or pink. In short, the effect that having multiple sources seems to have on a saying's "authenticity" is pushing it out of the black category and into either the gray or pink categories.
Table 2: Results by Number of Sources
Number of Sources
While it appears that the number of sources is important, one can't help but wonder (or at least I can't) whether the source itself matters more than the count. That's where the results presented in the next table (Table 3) come into play. It breaks down the results by source (rather than gospel). You can see that 136 sayings of Jesus can be traced back to sources unique to Matthew, 639 to those unique to Mark, 90 to Luke, 201 to John, 527 to Thomas, 609 to "Q," and 78 to other sources. Note that the numbers for "Lukan" do not match those for Luke in Table 1. That is because in Table 1, the sayings are broken down by gospel. Here they are broken down by source. Remember, the source of sayings that appear in Luke's Gospel can be Mark, Q, or sources unique to Luke (i.e., Lukan sources). Also, because a particular saying can have more than one source, the amounts listed in each column for each source do not add to the total at the bottom.
Table 3: Results by Source
The Jesus Seminar fellows apparently preferred Thomas and Q over New Testament sources. They concluded that approximately 25% of the sayings found in the Thomas and Q sources go back to the historical Jesus, compared to 19% of those found in Lukan sources, just over 13% found in the Markan and Matthean sources, and only 4% of those in the Johannine sources.
These results do suggest that perhaps it is possible that the source(s) of a saying matters more than the number of sources. In fact, I estimated two types of multivariate regression models (both an ordinary least squares and an ordered logit model) that regressed the Jesus Seminar's voting results onto a series of independent variables that included the gospel from which a saying came, its source, and how many sources each saying had (as noted earlier, the date of the saying has yet to be factored in). For now, I'll spare you the details of multivariate models; all I'll note here is that they allow analysts to separate genuine causes from spurious ones. In other words, they can help determine questions such as whether what really matters is the actual source of a saying or the number of independent sources lying behind it. What both models found was that the former matters more than the latter with "Q" and "Thomas" being the two most important sources. In fact, after "controlling" for all the different sources, the number of sources actually has a negative effect on the voting outcome. That is, more sources meant a lower (not a higher) score, which, of course, calls into question how seriously members of the seminar took this criterion into account.
Of course, these results are preliminary. I still have to control for other criteria (e.g, date, dissimilarity, length of a saying, etc.). Still, preferring non-canonical sources over canonical ones has been one of the charges leveled by critics at the Jesus Seminar (see e.g., Philip Jenkins, "Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way"). Even though most mainline New Testament (NT) scholars believe that many of the sayings of Jesus found in the NT Gospels don't originate with the historical Jesus, they still consider the Gospels to the primary source of reconstructing who Jesus was, what he did, and what he taught. This doesn't appear to be the case for members of the Jesus Seminar.