PORTLAND, ORE. -- An interdenominational group of New Testament scholars plans to publish a new edition of the Gospels that will be color-coded to indicate which of the sayings attributed to Jesus they believe are authentic.
"Red means we think he said it, pink maybe, gray probably not and black, almost certainly not," said Marcus Borg, an associate professor of religious studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
The 125 scholars compose the "Jesus Seminar," a collection of New Testament scholars from a variety of backgrounds trying to untangle the mixture of symbol and history surrounding Jesus Christ. Their stated goal is to help unravel clues to the life of Jesus.
At meetings during the last three years, the historians have agreed that Jesus did not foretell his second coming, did not predict his death and did not speak of his death as dying for the sins of the world. Among many Christians, those ideas are accepted as Gospel.
The seminar's work not only challenges many popular beliefs about Jesus, but it also has overturned a basic assumption among Christian scholars: that Jesus expected to see the end of the world in his own generation, said Borg, a designated spokesman for the seminar.
The seminar, based in Sonoma, Calif., plans a "four-color edition" of the five Gospels. The expected title of the book, which is to be published in 1990, is "The New Red-Letter Edition of the Five Gospels."
The seminar is composed primarily of professors from colleges, universities and divinity schools. They meet twice a year to study the sayings of Jesus, trying to reach a consensus on whether Jesus actually uttered the words attributed to him.
For example, the seminar decided the sayings attributed to Jesus on the cross are not authentic, Borg said.
"To a large extent, all of those statements are quotations from the Old Testament or allusions from the Old Testament, which interpret the significance of Jesus' death," Borg said.
"Now it's not impossible at all to believe that Jesus might have prayed a prayer from the Old Testament while dying on the cross. But it's very difficult to believe that, on the cross, he was interpreting the meaning of his own death by quoting scripture.
"It reflects something we know the early church did a lot in the New Testament. They looked back on the life of Jesus and used Old Testament scripture to interpret what was going on. So when we see things like that put into the mouth of Jesus, we're quite sure that's the hand of the church. The basic point is that if the saying reflects in an obvious way the thinking of the church, we cannot, as historians, attribute it to Jesus."
Borg says participants believe Jesus was real, and many sayings attributed to him are authentic.
Though seminar members occasionally disagree on the authenticity of a saying, they do agree that Jesus was unique, Borg said.
"Put together his language gifts, his perception as a sage, the powers of the spirit flowing through him as a healer, his passionate concern for his people's historical and political life and his exceptional courage, and you have a very remarkable historical figure," Borg said.
"Beyond that, there is his subsequent cultural importance. On historical grounds alone, Jesus is the single most important figure in the history of the West, maybe in the history of the world."