Advancing religious literacy

Voting for the Jesus Seminar Phase 2: Deeds of Jesus

Fellows of the Jesus Seminar adopted two optional ways of understanding the four categories:

Option 1

  • Red:  I would include this narrative information unequivocally in the database for determining who Jesus was.
  • Pink:  I would include this narrative information with reservations (or modifications) in the database for determining who Jesus was.
  • Gray:  I would not include this narrative information in the primary database, but I might make use of some of the content in determining who Jesus was.
  • Black:  I would not include this narrative information in the primary database for determining who Jesus was.

Option 2

  • Red:  The historical reliability of this information is virtually certain. It is supported by a preponderance of evidence.
  • Pink:  This information is probably reliable. It fits well with other evidence that is verifiable.
  • Gray:  This information is possible but unreliable. It lacks supporting evidence.
  • Black:  This information is improbable. It does not fit verifiable evidence; it is largely or entirely fictive.

To be sure, the categories are not precise. They allow for some flexibility. Fellows who are uncertain of their judgment often vote gray on something they consider a “gray area.” Pink is the fallback color for those who are more skeptical of the historical accuracy of stories but who believe a particular account to be generally reliable. Red is not often chosen, except in instances where the information is regarded as virtually unassailable. And because the seminar works with weighted averages, a red consensus is not easy to achieve.

The weighting system works like this:

  • Red  = 3
  • Pink  = 2
  • Gray  = 1
  • Black  = 0

Each Fellow casts a ballot on each item on the agenda. The numbers of colored beads are multiplied by their corresponding points, the points are added up and then divided by the number of votes in order to determine the weighted average. We then divide by 3 to convert the scale to percentages—to yield a scale of 1.00 rather than a scale of 3.00.

The result is a scale we divide into four quadrants:

  • Red:  .7501 and up
  • Pink:  .5001 to .7500
  • Gray:  .2501 to .5000
  • Black:  .0000 to .2500

This system seems superior to one that relies 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 in a close contest. There would be only winners and losers.

By using weighted averages, all votes count. Black votes in particular readily pull an average down, as students know who have one “F” in a course along with several “As.” Yet this feature seems consonant with the methodological skepticism that was a working principle of the Seminar: when in doubt, leave it out. The weighted average also gave Fellows good reason to weigh their votes carefully: the end result could be dramatically affected by a single deviant vote.