What is the Jesus Seminar’s Version of the Lord’s Prayer?

My last post, How was the Biblical Canon Found?, described the different ways the canon could be formed. I now want to show the tragic results when people decide what books are the word of God.

The Jesus Seminar is an organization trying to find the “Historical Jesus“, or the life and teachings of Jesus, using both Christian and non-Christian resources. These resources can include ancient historians, ancient manuscripts, legends and archaeology. Looking for the historical Jesus means trying to understand the culture and beliefs during Jesus’s life, and fitting his ministry within the confines of what the researchers believe first century life was like. Many of the members  of the Jesus Seminar are not Christian, so they’ve started with the presumption Jesus is not God. Some members are atheists, so there’s also the presumption miracles don’t occur. These attitudes obviously deny inspiration through the Holy Spirit. Rejecting the claims of the New Testament at the outset does not make this an unbiased project.

The Jesus Seminar had over 200 members since its inception. At the first meeting of the Jesus Seminar1, founder Robert W. Funk stated:

Our basic plan is simple. We intend to examine every fragment of the traditions attached to the name of Jesus in order to determine what he really said—not his literal words, perhaps, but the substance and style of his utterances. We are in quest of his voice, insofar as it can be distinguished from many other voices also preserved in the tradition. We are prepared to bring to bear everything we know and can learn about the form and content, about the formation and transmission, of aphorisms and parables, dialogues and debates, attributed or attributable to Jesus, in order to carry out our task.2

The Seminar has rules for voting on what the “Historical Jesus” actually said, and I found a few of them:

Orality and Memory

  • Only sayings and parables that can be traced back to the oral period, 30­-50 C.E., can possibly have originated with Jesus. (Written Sources3) (Oral Sources4)

Distinctive Discourse

  • Jesus’ characteristic talk was distinctive – it can usually be distinguished from common lore. Otherwise it is futile to search for the authentic words of Jesus5.
  • Jesus’ sayings and parables surprise and shock: they characteristically call for a reversal of roles or frustrate ordinary, everyday expectations6.
  • Jesus’ sayings and parables are often characterized by exaggeration, humor, and paradox7.
  • Jesus’ images are concrete and vivid, his sayings and parables customarily metaphorical and without explicit application8.

The Laconic Sage

  • Jesus does not as a rule initiate dialogue or debate, nor does be offer to cure people9.
  • Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about himself in the first person10.
  • Jesus makes no claim to be the Anointed, the messiah11.

The members vote on the authenticity of Jesus’s teachings and actions using colored beads, and assign a value to each color: red (3 points), pink (2 points), gray (1 point) and black (0 points). When the beads were counted, they were run through a formula to determine if Jesus really said what’s recorded in the Gospels. I wasn’t able to find any published information about the formula used, but I believe this one would produce the correct results based on the information I was able to find:

((Red * 3) + (Pink * 2) + (Gray * 1) + (Black * 0)) / ((Red + Pink + Gray + Black) * 3)12

This produces a confidence level from 0 to 1 showing how likely Jesus said something13.

  •  .7501 and up = Red: Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.
  • .5001 to .7500 = Pink: Jesus probably said something like this.
  • .2501 to .5000 = Gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.
  • .0000 to .2500 = Black: Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.

Many Bibles print the words of Jesus in red (Red Letter Editions), but in the Jesus Seminar version, less than 20% of the words of Jesus are in red. Let’s look at a specific example of how the members of the Jesus Seminar voted. Many Christians, and even some non-Christians, know the Lord’s Prayer In the King James Version, and it’s likely still recited every Sunday in some churches.

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13 KJV)

The Jesus Seminar publishes the Gospels using the same colors as they use for voting. Their translation of the Lord’s Prayer is published in the book The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (published 1993).14.15:

OUR FATHER in the heavensyour name be revered. Impose your imperial rule, enact your will on earth as you have in heaven. Provide us with the bread we need for today. Forgive our debts to the extent that we have forgiven those in debt to us. And please don’t subject us to test after test, but rescue us from the evil one.16

According to the Jesus Seminar’s book The Five Gospels, the only words Jesus spoke in the Lord’s Prayer are “Our Father.” Actually, there’s even a debate whether “Our Father” should be in red. Apparently the word “Our” was not voted on, due to the way the voting rules were written, and during printing it was incorrectly associated with the word “Father” and printed in red rather than the default black. There are also members who believe “Father” should also have been printed in pink, gray or black.17

The “ordinary reader,” browsing through The Five Gospels, picks up quite quickly that red or pink is a quite rare accolade, that black is common, and that gray, close enough (it seems) to black, also dominates at several points.18

The Jesus Seminar calls their version of the Gospels the “Scholars Version”, although apparently few of the members have degrees in Biblical studies, theology or a related area. Even fewer are recognized by the academic community as experts in these areas.

But one could compile a very long list of North American New Testament scholars, including several who have written importantly about Jesus, who are not among those present, and whose work has had no visible impact on the Seminar at all…. So, too, one looks in vain for members of the teaching faculties of many of the leading North American colleges and universities. There is nobody currently teaching at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, McGill, or Stanford. Toronto is well represented; so is Claremont (not least by its graduates); several Fellows of the Seminar have doctorates from Harvard. But where is the rest of the guild—those who, for instance, flock to the “Historical Jesus” sessions of the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature? They are conspicuous by their absence.19

Let’s continue to allow the Holy Spirit to guide our understanding of God’s Word. Otherwise, the consequences will be tragic.

Resources

  • Chilton, Bruce and Craig A. Evans, Editors. “Five Gospels but No Gospel: Jesus and the the Seminary” in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (Leiden: Brill, 1999) 83–120. (NTWrightPage)
  • Funk Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company) Introduction. (Accessed 14-Aug-2019)

Footnotes

  1. March 21-24, 1985, in Berkeley, CA (the location might be a clue in how this is going to turn out).
  2. Funk, Robert W. Opening remarks at the first meeting of the Jesus Seminar, March 21-24, 1985. (Westar Institute)
  3. (a) Sayings or parables that are attested in two or more independent sources are older than the sources in which they are embedded. (b) Sayings or parables that are attested in two different contexts probably circulated independently at an earlier time. (c) The same or similar content attested in two or more different forms has had a life of its own and therefore may stem from old tradition. (d) Unwritten tradition that is captured by the written gospels relatively late may preserve very old memories. (Funk Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company) Introduction: 26. (Accessed 14-Aug-2019))
  4. (a) The oral memory best retains sayings and anecdotes that are short, provocative, memorable – and oft-repeated. (b) The most frequently recorded words of Jesus in the surviving gospels take the form of aphorisms and parables. (c) The earliest layer of the gospel tradition is made up of single aphorisms and parables that circulated by word of mouth prior to the written gospels. (d) Jesus’ disciples remembered the core or gist of his sayings and parables, not his precise words, except in rare cases. (Funk Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company) Introduction: 28. (Accessed 14-Aug-2019))
  5. Funk Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company) Introduction: 30. (Accessed 14-Aug-2019)
  6. Funk Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company) Introduction: 31. (Accessed 14-Aug-2019)
  7. Funk Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company) Introduction: 31. (Accessed 14-Aug-2019)
  8. Funk Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company) Introduction: 32. (Accessed 14-Aug-2019)
  9. Funk Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company) Introduction: 32. (Accessed 14-Aug-2019)
  10. Funk Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company) Introduction: 32. (Accessed 14-Aug-2019)
  11. Funk Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company) Introduction: 32. (Accessed 14-Aug-2019)
  12. Spreadsheet: Column Labels: A1=Red, B1=Pink, C1=Gray, D1=Black, E1=Confidence. Formula for E2 =((A2*3)+(B2*2)+(C2*1)+(D2*0))/((A2+B2+C2+D2)*3)
  13. Voting for the Jesus Seminar Phase 1: Sayings of Jesus (Westar Institute) Accessed 10-Jul-2019.
  14. The Five Gospels includes the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, in addition to the four canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
  15. Miller, Stephen M. How scholars voted on the Lord’s Prayer (Stephen M. Miller)
  16. Red: THAT’S JESUS! (3 points); Pink: Sure sounds like Jesus. (2 points); Gray: Well, maybe. (1 point); Black: There’s been some mistake. (0 points)
  17. Huggins, Ronald. “Jesus, Abba, and the Seminar” in Midwestern Journal of Theology (8.1, Fall 2009) 41-56.
  18. Chilton, Bruce and Craig A. Evans, Editors. “Five Gospels but No Gospel: Jesus and the the Seminary” in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (Leiden: Brill, 1999) 83–120. (NTWrightPage)
  19. Chilton, Bruce and Craig A. Evans, Editors. “Five Gospels but No Gospel: Jesus and the the Seminary” in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (Leiden: Brill, 1999) 83–120. (NTWrightPage)
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