Deliver Us From the Jesus Seminar: Part Four — Funding of the Jesus Seminar

When Robert Funk announced the founding of the Jesus Seminar in 1985, he made a point of saying that all its work would be above-board. “We are going to carry out our work in full public view,” the New Testament scholar told a gathering of scholars in Berkley, California. “We will not only honor the freedom of information, we will insist on the public disclosure of our work and, insofar as it lies within our power, we shall see to it that the public is informed of our judgments. We shall do so…because we are committed to public accountability.”

Funk soon founded the Westar Institute to sponsor the Jesus Seminar and other such projects and named the institute after the first communications satellite because “we’re in the communications business,” he said in a recent interview. Funk’s point was that the general public needs to know what’s going on in Bible scholarship—and needs to hear it in terms an untrained layman can understand. But the candor and communication of which he boasts do not apply to information about who is financially behind the think tank, which is part of a broader effort to challenge traditional teaching about Jesus.

Westar has begun a major fundraising campaign to further its goals, with a view to expand its Internet activity; build a new headquarters in Santa Rosa, California; grant fellowships; and bring in a scholar in residence. It is well on its way to raising its goal of $100,000 for this purpose, having received $60,000 in pledges or contributions at its fall 1999 meeting. But Westar refuses to identify its contributors, including a Californian who offered a $20,000 challenge grant for the current campaign.

More Than Meets the Eye

Charlene Matejovsky, a member of Westar’s board of directors, told Crisis that it is the institute’s policy, out of respect for privacy, not to reveal names. She explained that some of the fellows of the Westar Institute—scholars who vote on whether or not the Gospel accounts of Jesus are historically true—have already been harassed; two have lost their university positions. But her refusal to show a reporter the list of donors—even off the record—leads one to wonder what Westar is hiding. “I don’t think you’d learn anything,” she said, insisting that contributors are “ordinary people” who have “discovered us over the years” by coming to meetings or reading books put out by Polebridge Press, the institute’s publishing arm. “There are no big corporations” behind Westar, she said, “no big organizations.”

Neither was there any organizational help in starting the Jesus Seminar, Funk said. He explained that he wrote to 100 Gospel scholars with his idea to systematically inventory all the words and deeds attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, and about 30 came to the first meeting. He and his wife paid for the meeting “with a credit card,” he told Crisis. “It took us three or four years to pay it off.” He asked each of the 30 to write to three or four other scholars, and the networking led to some 200 joining the effort. The membership has gone up and down, and today there are a little more than 100 fellows in the organization.

According to income tax returns obtained by Crisis, Westar has about $180,000 in annual income. About $58,000 of this is membership dues. Fellows, who must have advanced degrees in biblical studies and be able to read the biblical languages, pay $75 a year. Some 2,000 associate members pay $25. Contributions have grown significantly since 1993, when Westar received its tax-exempt status. In that year, it took in $5,393 in contributions, with $13,208 the following year, and $17,733 in 1995. In 1996, it was $45,431. The 1997 return, the latest one filed, lists $28,914 in direct public support. The rest of the income is in the form of program service revenue: admission fees, merchandise, or other services. These were nil in 1993 and 1994 but $1,050 in 1995 and a whopping $75,667 in 1996. The registration fee for twice-yearly meetings is $300. Though last fall’s attendance of 600 was unusually large, most draw 150 or so, like the four-day meeting in Santa Rosa, California, in March.

Westar’s publishing arm, Polebridge Press, puts out three or four books a year, which Funk would like to increase to make Polebridge “financially stable.” It has 30 books in print, on subjects such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Q document, and the infancy Gospels. Two Polebridge books by Westar fellow and former Servite priest John Dominic Crossan, In Parables and The Dark Interval, have done “very well,” Matejovsky said. Polebridge also sells audiotapes and videotapes from meetings at prices from $12.50 to $49.95, with discounts for members. Some books are copublished with major houses because Polebridge could not afford the color printing required on its own, she said. So Macmillan published The Five Gospels, a new translation, with commentary, of the canonical Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas by Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Seminar. HarperCollins published The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds by Funk and the Seminar. Both use red to show which words and deeds of Jesus the scholars strongly believe to be authentic, pink to indicate a lower level of consensus, and gray and black even less. Harper also has the paperback rights to The Complete Gospels, edited by fellow Robert J. Miller, a member of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. The anthology of 20 canonical and noncanonical Gospels sold about 90,000 copies.

Westar also publishes a scholarly journal, the working papers of Westar seminars, and a bimonthly magazine that covers issues and trends in religion and biblical scholarship—a slim volume with only in-house advertising written for the literate general reader. Funk and Matejovsky said Westar has never applied for any foundation grants. “It’s all been pretty much self-supporting,” Funk said. Westar manages to do all this work with a very small, mostly volunteer staff, including Funk, his wife, Matejovsky, and a tax lawyer. The only paid staff member is Associate Director Gregory C. Jenks, an Episcopalian priest who wrote a book on the “myth” of the Antichrist. Much of the work, including mailing, printing, and other services, is contracted out.

But a large part of Westar’s effectiveness is due to its fellows, who are tenured professors spreading their unorthodox views through classroom lectures—some in Catholic colleges and universities—publishing, radio addresses, and various public service activities. Roy Hoover, for example, was a citizen ambassador with the Delegation of Religious Educators to Russia and Uzbekistan in October 1992. Some fellows are ordained and preach their views Sunday after Sunday. Some, like controversial Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, have larger pulpits than others.

Hitting the Mission

The institute also relies on its associate members as foot soldiers. Many coordinate regular local lectures of fellows in the so-called Jesus Seminar on the Road, which is where two Westar fellows spend a weekend speaking to local gatherings in places like New York, Houston, and Kansas City. Westar seems fully committed to this project. Dynamic presenters are chosen so as to appeal to laymen with a limited knowledge of Bible scholarship (which is most of us). Those who invite the seminar to their hometowns organize and publicize the event, providing staff and a place to meet—sometimes a church. Westar tries to support the endeavor with the collection of a modest registration fee. As many as 130 people attend. Funk says the project is “self-supporting,” though he admits Westar loses money on a few. “We discovered it was an effective way to promote our work,” Funk said.

The institute also coordinates a network of some 45 local study groups that meet in North America, with a few in Australia, New Zealand, and Africa, to discuss the work of the Seminar. “We need to produce more curricular materials for the study groups,” Funk said when discussing Polebridge. He is in England this spring to give lectures and start more groups. “As a lay associate, I try to interpret the results of the Jesus Seminar scholarship to the wider church and have taught many adult classes in mainline Protestant and Catholic churches over the past 10 years,” said Dr. Mark Rutledge, who runs a group in Durham, North Carolina. “By far the majority of ‘average’ laypersons in these classes have been very receptive to the work of the Seminar, with a small minority still remaining threatened within their conservative orthodoxy. But, by being gentle, I am able to introduce the traditional biblical scholarship represented by the Seminar in ways that people find liberating.” Westar also disseminates its views through two Web sites, one designed by a professor at Rutgers University, Mahlon H. Smith, and another wherein the institute bills itself as a “member-supported, nonprofit research and educational institute dedicated to the advancement of religious literacy.”

Darling of the Media

Perhaps what has helped Westar the most is exposure in (some would say rapt attention by) major media. Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report featured the Jesus Seminar in its issues around Easter 1996. And the four-hour PBS Frontline special of a couple of years ago, From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, devoted a massive amount of resources to interviewing scholars and historians and going on location in the Middle East to show that Jesus is not the man we thought He was. Two of the dozen scholars who appeared in the special are Westar fellows: Crossan, who was cochairman of the Jesus Seminar from 1985 to 1996, and Harold W. Attridge, formerly of Notre Dame, now at Yale. Elaine Pagels and L. Michael White, principal historical adviser and editorial consultant, respectively, for the special, both have addressed Westar meetings. Producers even hosted a follow-up colloquy at Harvard on questions that had arisen from the TV special, which was aired during Holy Week. An intricately designed Web site, which includes a transcript of the colloquy, is still accessible.

Marilyn Mellowes, the originator of the Frontline report, is said to have wanted to bring new findings of New Testament scholarship to a lay audience, which is exactly the reason Funk says he started the Jesus Seminar. Funk also has led a couple of highly publicized tours of biblical lands, and although only about 30 people went along on them, the inaugural tour of the Holy Land in 1998 was covered by ABC News and the Chicago Tribune (in a three-part series), again around Easter time.

Although its donor income is modest, compared with some nonprofit organizations, Westar manages to use many avenues—and use them well—to disseminate its “findings.” For an organization that claims to be supported by “ordinary people,” Westar has been effective in spreading its Bad News— and in undermining the faith of traditional believers.


  • John Burger

    John Burger has been news editor of the National Catholic Register since 2003. He came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. Prior to that, he taught English in China and France. He has a bachelor's degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master's degree in English from Iowa State University. He is married and lives in Connecticut.

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