In short, the Jesus Seminar is a twice-a-year gathering of 70-plus scholars who vote on what they consider to be the historical accuracy of the Gospels. The Jesus Seminar was founded by Robert Funk, a Protestant Theologian, in 1985. The overriding goal of the Seminar, co-chaired by John Dominic Crossan, is to “un-earth” the voice of historical Jesus which they believe has been buried by the writers of the Gospels and by the early Christian community as a whole. Their “findings” are that about 18% of Jesus’ sayings and about 16% of Jesus’ actions are historical while the rest are concoctions of the imagination of the early Church and the evangelists.
A result of the Jesus Seminar is a book titled The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (Macmillan) One of the leading voices against the Jesus Seminar, Anglican Bishop Dr. N.T. Wright, warns that the Seminar basically encourages each of us to reinvent Jesus “to suit our own ideologies.” In essence, the Jesus Seminar is attempting to separate the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith,” something which Catholics believe cannot be done. In other words, the Christ whom we encounter in Scripture is the Christ whom the early Christians encountered in their lives. Although attempts have been made throughout history to “isolate” the historical Jesus, none have garnered such widespread media attention as has the Jesus Seminar, which makes it all the more dangerous. Critics of the Jesus Seminar are highly doubtful of the methods employed by the Seminar scholars (they vote on which sayings of Jesus they believe to be attributed to him or to the imagination of the evangelist). The greatest danger of the Jesus Seminar is that it promotes the notion of re-making Jesus in one’s own image in order to fit one’s own political and ideological thinking.
For a good understanding of the Catholic approach to the historical-critical method of Scripture study, we can look to a document issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1993 titled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. While this document warns against a naïve literalism (fundamentalism) when it comes to Scripture interpretation, it also asserts that God inspired Scripture through human authors, acting through them to proclaim his Word. As Catholics, we acknowledge that the Gospels did not record Jesus word for word but are rather the product of a process of oral proclamation and redaction. However, we believe that this process was guided by the Holy Spirit and is not a corruption, dilution, or contamination of Jesus’ message.