A group of Bible scholars sat around a big U-shaped table, discussing whether Jesus actually spoke the "Golden Rule": "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Amid voiced doubts, one professor laughed, saying: "If he didn't say it, he was probably the only Jew of his time who didn't."Nevertheless, although the Gospels repeatedly quote Jesus as expressing the idea, his speaking it was classified uncertain because it was regarded common and not particularly distinctive of him.
So was similar counsel - to "love your neighbor as yourself." It is attributed to Jesus in the Gospels but is also contained in Jewish law of the Old Testament and thus its voicing by Jesus is classified indefinite.
This is a sample of the rigorous sifting done by scholars of the Jesus Seminar to determine by strict historical evidence what quotations ascribed to Jesus were actually, originally his own and which weren't.
"We looked for things that particularly identify Jesus, that identify a single face in the Galilean crowd," said New Testament scholar Robert Funk, founder and head of the controversial project.
"We had to be really hard-nosed. If we were uncertain, we would exclude rather than include. We have been extraordinarily cautious to admit to the data base only sayings which we were relatively certain came from Jesus."
The approach is called "methodological skepticism," Funk said, and it means questioning every piece of evidence and not accepting any quotation that doesn't pass the various critical tests.
After six years work, the group of Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars has completed its examination of the four New Testament books about Jesus - the Gospels - and found a mix of sayings, some considered real, some not his own.
In the system of weighted averages used, Funk estimates 30 percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus were voted "red", definitely his, or "pink," probably his, and 30 percent "gray," questionable, but with views like his.
The other estimated 40 percent of the sayings were voted "black," that Jesus himself never said it, but it was borrowed from common lore or put in Jesus' mouth by the early church community that formulated the Gospels.
This conclusion has riled many ordinary Christians, but Funk said that is because the church has "failed in its education program to keep people informed about advances in biblical scholarship."
However, he added in an interview that others find such probing "not only doesn't hinder faith, but opens up understandings that they find refreshing and helpful, that strengthen faith.
"Telling the truth has a salutary effect on a lot of people."
With an estimated 60 percent of the sayings ruled definitely or likely those of Jesus or expressing his sort of ideas, Funk said the project can clarify the genuinely historical character of Jesus.
Previously some Bible scholars, influenced by views of the late famed Albert Schweitzer, Bible analyst and missionary doctor, had given up the search for the "historical Jesus" - his special, distinct individuality.
"We think the clues to the historical Jesus are in the Gospel on balance," Funk said, and the project has winnowed out "a considerable amount of material to work with in forming a profile" of that historical person.
"We haven't yet done it and are still working on the data base, but that is the implication in the future," he said. "The results are rather impressive.
"A great many New Testament scholars have doubted that anything could be traced back reliably to Jesus. They would color everything black. Some conservatives would color everything red.
"The fact is that in six years, we have found a substantial number of parables and sayings we could color red or pink, which is very important substanial evidence of just who the historical Jesus really was."
About 200 Bible scholars from across the country have been involved in the project, about half of them participating actively, Funk said. A few withdrew because of objections in their denominations.
Some other scholars have criticized the evaluating method used.
"We had disagreements about nearly everything," Funk said. "There was always some spread of opinion, of judgment about different matters. Only on very rare occasions did we have 100 percent agreement on anything.
"That's part of the scholarly enterprise."
He said he considered the averages used in classifying the sayings as fairly representative of views of New Testament scholarship, but added, "Somebody sometime may come along and redo our work and find different results."
Most of the parables, much of the Sermon on the Mount and key lines of the Lord's Prayer were classified as originating with Jesus, along with many pithy epigrams, paradoxes and retorts in the first three Gospels.
But virtually all the quotations attributed to him in the highly interpretative Gospel of John were considered added by the early Christian community.