Inerrancy, the doctrine that the Bible is completely free of any kind of error (historical, scientific, moral or religious), is a cornerstone of Fundamentalism.


The results of the Jesus Seminar’s ten years of deliberations are reported in two books: The sayings material is analyzed in The Five Gospels (New York: Macmillan, 1993); the deeds material is analyzed in our forthcoming book tentatively titled The Acts of Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco).


Voting among biblical scholars to determine a consensus on issues of translation and textual criticism is by now an uncontroversial practice, even if it is relatively recent. The tradition of voting by ecclesiastical authorities to determine official doctrines concerning the Bible is an ancient practice. For example, the Catholic Church formally adopted Jerome’s Vulgate as its canonical Bible at the Council of Trent—the vote among the bishops in attendance was 23 for, 15 against, with 16 abstentions.

Voting does carry a potential for misrepresentation if all that is published is the final result, for this might give the appearance of unanimity when in fact some votes may have been close calls. This is why the Jesus Seminar publishes the percentage of red, pink, gray and black votes for each individual item.


Multiple independent attestation means that a saying attributed to Jesus is attested in two or more independent sources—that is, sources that had no knowlege of one another. A saying found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, for example, is not independently attested since Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark. On the other hand, a saying found in Mark and John, or Mark and Thomas, meets the standard of multiple independent attestation. This criterion is extremely important in historical Jesus research because it proves that a particular saying is earlier than any of the gospels in which it appears.



Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 44. For a thorough critique of this book, see Robert J. Miller, “Can the Historical Jesus Be Made Safe for Orthodoxy? A Critique of The Jesus Quest by Ben Witherington III,” Journal of Higher Criticism 4.1 (Spring 1997).


Luke Johnson, “The Jesus Seminar’s misguided quest for the historical Jesus,” The Christian Century (January 3–10, 1996), p. 17.


Ben Witherington goes so far as to characterize the seminar as “a very carefully self-selected group” (Jesus Quest, p. 43). But a group that accepts all qualified applicants cannot control who joins.


Johnson, “Jesus Seminar’s misguided quest,” p. 16.


Richard Hays of Duke University provides a list of important graduate institutions without members of the seminar on the faculty: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, the University of Chicago, Union Theological Seminary, Vanderbilt, Southern Methodist University and Catholic University (“The Corrected Jesus,” First Things [May 1994], p. 47). Luke Johnson redacts Hays’s list of institutions to include Emory, where Johnson teaches (see “Jesus Seminar’s misguided quest,” p. 16).


Witherington, Jesus Quest, p. 44.


Witherington, Jesus Quest, p. 57.


Howard Clark Kee, “A Century of Quests for the Culturally Compatible Jesus,” Theology Today 25 (April 1995), p. 25.


Birger Pearson, “The Gospel According to the Jesus Seminar,” Religion 25 (1995), p. 322.


Witherington asserts that “the Seminar seems to be overly optimistic not only about the antiquity of the sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas, but also about its independence from the canonical Gospels” (Jesus Quest, p. 48). He also says that “of the sayings in Thomas that have no parallels in the Synoptics, a few may be authentic” (Jesus Quest, p. 49). Witherington is even more “optimistic” in this regard than the seminar, which found no sayings unique to Thomas that it could rate red and only two that it could rate pink.


Of the seminar’s critics, only Luke Johnson rejects this premise. But he rejects the legitimacy of all historical Jesus research. Commenting on the inclusion of Thomas in The Five Gospels, he charges, “Its inclusion seems to make primarily a political or ‘culture wars’ point: the Gospels are to be considered of value only insofar as they are sources for the historical Jesus” (“Jesus Seminar’s misguided quest,” pp. 19–20). If this were so, John would not have been included.


The seminar assigns two meanings to the gray vote: (1)“I don’t think Jesus said this, but some of its content might tell us something about him” or (2) “Jesus didn’t say this, but it is based on his ideas.” A gray vote can thus be considered as a negative or a positive vote. For a discussion of the nuances of meaning in the seminar’s color scheme, and of all the problems with our voting process, see Robert J. Miller, “The Jesus Seminar and the Search for the Words of Jesus,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 31.3 (Fall 1996).