2018-11-10

Should Scholars Vote? Mocking The Jesus Seminar / The Jesus SeM&Minar

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by Neil Godfrey

Religion Prof James McGrath has a class on the historical Jesus in which he regularly pokes fun at the Jesus Seminar for supposedly attempting to decide the authentic words of Jesus by voting.

I have an activity that I run in my class on the historical Jesus, in which I get students to reenact what the Jesus Seminar became famous for doing at its meetings. The Jesus Seminar, for those who may not be familiar with it, produced a variation on the classic red letter editions of the Gospels. They voted as a group on which sayings of Jesus they consider authentic – the actual words of Jesus; which provided the gist but probably not something really close to what Jesus said; which may be in essence still true to the emphases of Jesus but owe more to the later church; and which are simply inauthentic. They voted using colored beads: red, pink, grey, and black. These correspond to the views on the authenticity of the saying in question listed above, so that the resulting edition still has “the very words of Jesus himself in red letters,” but very few of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels end up printed in that color.

I got students to do the same things, giving them a particular saying in its various forms across ancient sources, letting them debate, and then asking them to vote.

The especially “fun part” this time was that customized M&M’s were used:

This year, I took a step that I never did before. In the past I’ve simply had students bring M&Ms and we’ve decided what the regular colors would correspond to in the scale. This year, I placed an order for custom M&Ms for use in this activity. They are red, pink, grey, and black, and some of them say “Jesus SeM&Minar” on them!

McGrath’s idea has been taken up by another scholar, Keith Reich, who explains

The idea is to, Jesus Seminar style, vote on various sayings and/or deeds of Jesus as to their historical probability, but instead of using colored stones, one uses M&Ms.  More fun, and hey, you get to eat your vote after you are finished. 

McGrath hews to the point of making fun of the Jesus Seminar:

Then we vote, secretly, by dropping a colored M&M into a box with a hole cut in the top. We then tally the votes and figure out the average. (Students can also learn the useful skill of calculating their grade point average through this activity).

. . . . .

The Jesus Seminar, as far as I know, doesn’t get to eat the beads used for voting once that process is over, and so the case can be made that our way of doing things doesn’t merely imitate theirs, but is superior.

As if “truth” or “history” can be decided by a vote! Ha ha.

One often sees the Jesus Seminar ridiculed in this way. So let’s give the Seminar a chance to explain itself.

The Jesus Seminar was organized under the auspices of the Westar Institute to renew the quest of the historical Jesus and to report the results of its research to more than a handful of gospel specialists. At its inception in 1985, thirty scholars took up the challenge. Eventually more than two hundred professionally trained specialists, called Fellows, joined the group. The Seminar met twice a year to debate technical papers that had been prepared and circulated in advance. At the close of debate on each agenda item, Fellows of the Seminar voted, using colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of Jesus’ words. Dropping colored beads into a box became the trademark of the Seminar and the brunt of attack for many elitist academic critics who deplored the public face of the Seminar.

(Funk, 34. Bolding in all quotations is my own)

What were the methods to be followed in those debates?

This was the rule the Fellows adopted:

• Canonical boundaries are irrelevant in critical assessments of the various sources of information about Jesus.

They refused, in other words, to privilege the gospels that came to be regarded as canonical by the church. The Seminar thus acted in accordance with the canons of historical inquiry.

(Funk, 35. Red text original)

So where did the voting come in? What was that all about?

Voting was adopted, after extended debate, as the most efficient way of ascertaining whether a scholarly consensus existed on a given point.

(Funk, 35)

So why pick on the Jesus Seminar?

Committees creating a critical text of the Greek New Testament under the auspices of the United Bible Societies vote on whether to print this or that text and what variants to consign to notes.

So the practice was not some Jesus Seminar idiosyncrasy?

Translation committees, such as those that created the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version, vote in the course of their deliberations on which translation proposal to accept and which to reject.

But truth is not really decided by a vote, is it?

Voting does not, of course, determine the truth; voting only indicates what the best judgment is of a significant number of scholars sitting around the table.

It was deemed entirely consonant with the mission of the Jesus Seminar to decide whether, after careful review of the evidence, a particular saying or parable did or did not fairly represent the voice of the historical Jesus.

(Funk, 35f)

Tim Widowfield earlier pointed out that ridiculing the practice of voting has been limited to targeting the Jesus Seminar, the scoffers overlooking the practice in other mainstays of their profession. To quote from Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. . . . .

Frequently it had happened that the members of the Committee differed in their evaluation of the textual evidence, and thus many readings were adopted on the basis of a majority vote. In special cases, when a member holding a minority opinion had strong feelings that the majority had seriously gone astray, opportunity was given for him to express his own point of view. Such occasional comments, identified by the writer’s initials and enclosed within square brackets, are appended to the main discussion of the textual problem in question. . . .

Κύριε, which is absent from א* 33 565 vg syrs copsams, bomss, may be regarded as an accretion in the other witnesses by assimilation to ver. 36. On the other hand, however, in view of early and widespread manuscript support for the word, a majority of the Committee voted to retain it, explaining its omission as either accidental (κύριε was often contracted to κε) or deliberate (because it seemed redundant so soon after Κύριε in ver. 36). . . .

Unable to determine which consideration is more probable, and in view of more or less equally weighty external evidence, a majority of the Committee voted to include έν in the text, but to enclose it within square brackets. . . .

By a casting vote Δουβέριος, found in D d gig, was preferred to Δερβαίος, the reading of the other MSS,” R. V. G. Tasker, “Notes on Variant Readings,” The Greek New Testament, Being the Text Translated in The New English Bible, 1961 (Oxford and Cambridge, 1964), p. 433. . . .

Nevertheless, in order to reflect the weight of the witnesses that lack έν κυρίω, a majority of the Committee voted to enclose the words within square brackets. . . .

In the light of such considerations a majority of the Committee voted to represent the divergent textual evidence by adopting the reading (a), which is supported by אc (K P 049) 81 181 326 1739 copbo Origen, but to enclose τινα within square brackets.

(Metzger, viii, 206, 244, 445, 542, 626)

I haven’t seen any scholars mock the United Bible Societies’ practice of voting as per above.

These were the voting options of the Seminar:

Option 1

red: I would include this item unequivocally in the database for determining who Jesus was.
pink: I would include this item with reservations (or modifications) in the database.
gray: I would not include this item in the database, but I might make use of some of the content in determining who Jesus was.
black: I would not include this item in the primary database.

Option 2

red: Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.
pink: Jesus probably said something like this.
gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.
black: Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.

One member suggested this unofficial but helpful interpretation of the colors:

red: That’s Jesus!
pink: Sure sounds like Jesus.
gray: Well, maybe.
black: There’s been some mistake.

When it comes to calculating averages from the total vote we have two different views. James McGrath’s concern:

[I]t is possible for only one person to cast a vote of a particular color, and yet the average to be there. Sometimes a greater complexity lies behind the color coding in a printed edition of the Gospels than one might assume.

The Seminar’s perspective on averages:

The ranking of items was determined by weighted vote. Since most Fellows of the Seminar are professors, they are accustomed to grade points and grade-point averages. So they decided on the following scheme:

red =3
pink = 2
gray = 1
black = 0

The points on each ballot were added up and divided by the number of votes in order to determine the weighted average. We then converted the scale to percentages-to yield a scale of 1.00 rather than a scale of 3.00. The result was a scale divided into four quadrants:

red: .7501 and up
pink: .5001 to .7500
gray: .2501 to .5000
black: .0000 to .2500

This system seemed superior to a system that relied on majorities or pluralities of one type or another. In a system that made the dividing line between pink and gray a simple majority, nearly half of the Fellows would lose their vote. There would only be winners and losers. Under weighted averages, all votes would count in the averages. Black votes in particular could readily pull an average down, as students know who have one .. F .. along with several .. A”s. Yet this shortcoming seemed consonant with the methodological skepticism that was a working principle of the Seminar: when in sufficient doubt, leave it out.

(Funk, 37)


Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar. 1993. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus: New Translation and Commentary. New York: Polebridge Press.

McGrath, Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. 2018. “The Jesus SeM&Minar.” Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath (blog). November 9, 2018. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2018/11/the-jesus-semminar-2.html.

Metzger, Chair Bruce M. 2005. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2nd ed. edition. Hendrickson.

Reich, Keith. 2012. “The Jesus SeM&Minar.” Know Thyself (blog). November 27, 2012. http://keithreich.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-jesus-sem.html.


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Neil Godfrey

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5 Comments

  • 2018-11-10 11:11:52 UTC - 11:11 | Permalink

    Yeah, the voting seems like reasonable process to me. The problem isn’t with voting its with the scholarship and arguments that led up to the voting.

    • MrHorse
      2018-11-10 20:13:45 UTC - 20:13 | Permalink

      skolarship (sic)

      Australian slang: to down (a drink); in this case ‘kool-aid’

      via Scotland: a drinking-toast; “cheers”

      Originally and borrowed from Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish: skål

  • Tim Widowfield
    2018-11-10 15:14:06 UTC - 15:14 | Permalink

    Reading the line about the KJV translators taking a vote, I’m reminded of the fact that the process in most English translations of the Bible is entirely opaque. Often, the translators themselves are anonymous. Did every translator have a vote? Or did the chief translator have the final say?

    An honest translation would be transparent. An honest translation would admit, “We have no way of knowing for sure whether reading A or reading B is more accurate; however, we picked reading A because it fits in with our doctrinal prejudices.” An honest translation would explain in a footnote, “We knew that the correct translation in John 1:1 should be ‘And the word was a god,’ but we knew you pew-squatters would have a fit if we wrote it that way.”

    The real reason the mainstream laughs at the Jesus Seminar’s methodology is they weren’t invited.

  • Jim Glass
    2018-11-10 19:27:34 UTC - 19:27 | Permalink

    ‘Development of the Christian biblical canon’ (cf. Wikipedia’s review as a start of comparison) was a better process than that of the Jesus Seminar? lol.

  • 2018-11-10 22:22:15 UTC - 22:22 | Permalink

    I like McGrath’s lesson – It sparks student interest (McGrath is also a great advocate for Gamification)

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