Magazine article The Christian Century

Revitalized Jesus Seminar Gets New Home

Magazine article The Christian Century

Revitalized Jesus Seminar Gets New Home

Article excerpt

The Jesus Seminar began making headlines in 1986 as more than 70 biblical scholars voted on which sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels probably derived from him and what words were more likely put in his mouth by Gospel writers or early church tradition.

The volunteer group, a part of the Westar Institute in Santa Rosa, California, drew upon years of mainstream scholarship to inform their views. But founder Robert Funk, a New Testament scholar, said that such critical findings rarely surfaced in churches, much less among the general public.

To counter televangelists in the 1980s and to gain news media attention, Funk asked seminar members to cast votes by dropping red, pink, gray or black balls into a box after hearing presentations and discussions. Eventually, less than a third of Jesus' sayings received red votes of authenticity. Many sayings were blackballed--an outrage not only to many believers but also to some academic colleagues who called the provocative method unscholarly.

The Jesus Seminar was ridiculed by detractors, but as its research lost its novelty it faded from the news. Funk died in September 2005, and because he took no salary as Westar executive director, it was not evident that the nonprofit group could carry on. "Many people predicted its demise," said Andrew Scrimgeour, the dean of libraries at Drew University and new chair of the Westar board of directors.

However, the outgoing board chair, Lane C. McGaughy, this year engineered a major money-saving relocation to the private Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, across from the state capitol. A longtime professor there, McGaughy convinced university president Lee Pelton, already a supporter of the Jesus Seminar, that the academic group and its Polebridge Press would fill the university's desire for an additional research center and an expandable university press.

"Westar was never on the verge of closing shop," McGaughy said. A core of Jesus Seminar fellows and lay associates "decided that Westar is an important voice for disseminating the results of serious scholarship on the Bible to the literate public." Its leaders had the respect of many biblical scholars not associated with theologically conservative schools.

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Most people who looked into what the Jesus Seminar was saying "realized that our work was more mainstream (and boring) than they had thought," said one participant. …

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