Monday, May 15, 2006

Meier's Unpapal Conclave Experiment and the Scholarly Task

On my return to blogland after the end of semester rush (I was always jealous of American academics finishing in mid May and now I'm one of them!), I am interested to see Loren Rosson's writing up of an interesting experiment based on John P. Meier's vision of an "unpapal conclave" of scholars engaging in historical Jesus research. Loren's real life experiment was in some ways more ambitious than Meier's hypothetical one and in some ways less so. He was more ambitious by inviting people from a broader range of differing perspectives and in getting these real people to vote on a variety of issues. He was inevitably less ambitious in not having his protagonists engaging in vigorous debate first. They cut to the chase and voted. Here are the relevant posts on The Busybody:

Meier's Unpapal Conclave: An Experiment (I)

Meier's Unpapal Conclave: An Experiment (II)

Meier's Unpapal Conclave (III)

I have a comment and a related suggestion. My comment relates to the way that the experiment is described:
The point of this experiment is to find out if Meier's idea has merit, and whether or not common ground can be found in a group like this. Reason being, any points of consensus reached among people this diverse would stand a good chance of being objectively true.
I understand the idea and sympathize with the attempt, but it does not quite get to what I regard as the (potential) strength of Meier's vision. Let me try to explain.

One of the merits, as I see it, of Meier's idea is that it reminds us of the fundamental task of scholarship, a task that should not be about the attempt to persuade like-minded colleagues who share our own prejudices and presuppositions (which is apologetics) but a rigorous and honest enterprise to engage with others who do not share our own prejudices and presuppositions, and so to have our own preconceived positions (and theirs) challenged. This is one of the reasons that I like to stress the importance of the public, democratic nature of scholarship. It is publicly available evidence and publicly coherent arguments. By publicly available evidence, I mean that it is never admissable to use private revelation in scholarship ("God told me that it was this way"; "it's common sense that it was this way"). By publicly coherent arguments, I mean that the argument you make should be articulated in such a way that you are not primarily attempting to persuade those who share your own views. You are always paying special attention to those who do not share your own perspective. Scholarship should not be self-indulgent. It should not be used as an opportunity to proselytize. It should be self-effacing, paying attention to the dialogue partner's concerns and addressing them seriously.

With all that in mind, it seems to me that the strength of the Meier vision is not about the possibility of finding consensus, or of looking for common ground. It is rather about the way in which we can aspire to the most rigorous, the most honest kind of scholarship, about how people from all perspectives can avoid lapsing into apologetics . The difficulty is that many do not take the scholarly task sufficiently seriously, and Meier's vision allows one to find some help with taking it seriously. For me, it is about saying: I am going to imagine myself into a situation in which I am engaging directly with those with radically different presuppositions, and this imaginative task will help me to keep my scholarship honest. I like the term "vision" that Loren uses, and I don't recall if Meier himself uses that term.

Let me throw in too that one of the reasons that teaching is so essential to good research is that one has to use those publicly coherent arguments in the presence of groups of people from different perspectives. Good teaching is always about engaging with students and never about proselytizing.

Here is my suggestion, for what it is worth. I notice that several of the punters involved in Loren's experiment are big names in the world of e-lists. So how about a bigger version of the experiment in which some engagement actually takes place between them, with attempts to work towards emerging consensus in discussion rather than in voting without discussion? After all, it is not as if we are dealing with the kind of scholar who camps a long way from the world of internet discussion. And I would have thought that the Xtalk e-list would be the obvious place to try it.

Update (Tuesday, 10.01): Ed Cook criticizes my use of the term "apologetics" above. I apologize and withdraw the use of that term. What I am looking for is a term that describes the use of scholarship solely to defend a point of view that has already been reached on prior, non-scholarly grounds.

Update (Tuesday, 12.25): Loren Rosson comments on my post in The Busybody. I agree with pretty much all of what Loren writes. Apparently the protagonists in Loren's experiment are debating their votes on Chris Weimer's Ancient Mediterranean Cultures, a forum that is new to me (but I am very behind). Loren writes:
But I think good scholarship should be about that anyway: unapologetic, democratic, public, and learning from everyone, regardless of the other's faith (or faithless) perspective. What Meier has been doing in the Marginal Jew series, however, is more specific than this. In no small part because he is writing for the Anchor Bible Reference Library -- which makes the series different from the many autonomous works on the historical Jesus, as he sees it (see p 1 of Vol II) -- he seeks a portrait of Jesus derived from a diverse group of people who have been imaginatively "locked in the bowels of Harvard Divinity School, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus was and what he intended in his own time and place" (p 1, Vol 1). Meier's project is certainly about finding consensus -- or at least, about finding consensus wherever possible.
Right, but I think that Meier's vision is more interesting in its potential than in the simple attempt to hammer out consensus. What I find interesting about it is that it provides an actual practical means for scholars to try to avoid the inevitable self-indulgent impulse to look for verification of one's prior perspectives, rather than to look at ways that they can be tested and challenged. Because so much scholarship is done in isolation (I am sitting alone as I write, with just the cats to keep me company while I am putting the finishing touches to an article on the Crucifixion Narrative in Mark), scholars need checks and balances to help them avoid using their scholarship as a means of massaging their prejudices.

Update (Friday, 11.38): James Crossley comments in Earliest Christian History (with further engagement with Christopher Shell in the comments section):
I think that is right but one qualification needs to be added, namely that the intellectual make up of the discipline prevents this from happening at the moment. It is overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly of course Christian dominated and more and more questions could be raised with more and more perspectives. This is why the conclave is an honourable dream and could potentially throw up some interesting results. But in one sense it remains a dream because in reality NT scholarship just cannot function in the way hoped for if it remains a Christian dominated discipline or better a discipline where the overwhelming majority of his participants are Christian.
This is a good point, but let me add that the advantage, as I see it, of thinking through the Meier vision is that it has the potential to help us all to keep our scholarship rigorous and honest by encouraging us to conceptualize our audience not as the like-minded and easily persuaded but as different and sceptical. Let me try to illustrate. I am a Christian but I would regard it as a failure of my scholarship on a given point if someone were to say, "Well, he would say that" rather than to judge the particular point at issue on its merits. The same is true, for example, of an atheist, where the reaction "Well, s/he would say that" would be a disappointing one, and might well show that the scholar in question has not made a sufficiently compelling argument. Let me add that given the fact that NT studies is indeed "a Christian dominated discipline" should lead us all the more to make sure that those of us in that majority are not just engaging in a dialogue among ourselves. This is what I mean about publicly available evidence and publicly coherent argumentation -- scholarship takes place in an arena that should not unfairly privilege certain perspectives and presuppositions. Ultimately, this is what I was trying to say above when I faltingly brought the terminology of "apologetics" into play, and let me try to reconceptualize things like this: whereas scholarship is fundamentally democratic, and can be engaged in by all, apologetics is necessarily privileged -- it it only be practised, of course, by those who come from a particular perspective and who speak a particular language.


Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks for this, Mark. I hope to address some of your concerns later today.

EMC said...

Mark, your definition of apologetics is highly prejudicial and inaccurate. Apologetics does not attempt to persuade the like minded. What would be the point of that? Apologetics is (1) the attempt to defend a point of view from attack, and (2) to deploy reasons in favor of that point of view. Most good apologetics relies on public evidence and not on private revelation.

Mark Goodacre said...

Ed: I am sure you are right, so many thanks for that. I am not sufficiently expert on the correct usage of the term "apologetics" and I have no desire to offend any apologists, and I am very much in danger of that, so I withdraw that wording. What I am looking for is a term that describes the use of scholarship solely to defend a point of view that has already been reached on prior, non-scholarly grounds.

lingamish said...


Thanks for this post and especially your take on the open nature of scholarship. One of the strengths of blogging is the possibility of input from those with differing viewpoints, something that e-lists aren't always the best at.

Deep Furrows said...

Preaching to the Choir

Having sung in a variety of choirs, however, I can attest to the value of preaching to choirs, especially ones that aspire to musical excellence. Aesthetics may be a point of entry, but it's not enough.

Jeremy Pierce said...

As a philosopher, I think of apologetics somewhat differently, but I think Ed is right. I consider some of N.T. Wright's work to be apologetical. After all, he defends the resurrection! If that's not apologetics, I don't know what is. But he surely isn't merely trying to use scholarship to defend only views he's arrived at before engaging in the scholarly effort. I don't think there's a good word for that. I just call it being closed to the evidence or choosing to look only at the evidence that supports your thesis.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I'm not sure any current word is perfect for what you're getting at, but perhaps the term "apriorism" might work, as it emphasizes the role of prior conceptual commitments that interfere with good scholarship.

As Ed Cook noted, "apologetics" as term properly focuses more on the role of defending a position and its denotation therefore may not be completely appropriate for your purposes. But the connotations of the term overlap with apriorism, because there are a lot of bad apologetical arguments out there, and they are often bad because of their prior, non-scholarly commitments.

Mikeal Parsons said...

Mark, in light of Meier's "unpapal conclave" proposal (which I take among other things to be a call for "neutral" rather than faith based scholarship), I recommend Paul Griffiths' challenge to this thesis (that is, generally, of the 'non-theological' neutral study of religion) in "On the Future of the Study of Religion in the Academy," JAAR (now available on SBL; for Griffiths, see This makes for an interesting read also in light of Michael Fox's much discussed piece on faith based scholarship (in sbl archives).

Whit said...

Mark, This is really good stuff - both your post and the links.

A technical blogging question - how did you show the strike through editing of your original post?

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for that. For the strike through, I used: strike and /strike.

Eric Rowe said...

"it reminds us of the fundamental task of scholarship, a task that should not be about the attempt to persuade like-minded colleagues who share our own prejudices and presuppositions (which is apologetics) but a rigorous and honest enterprise to engage with others who do not share our own prejudices and presuppositions"

This statement is also a presupposition. Should it be shared with those whom you engage in scholarship? If so, then it is a self-defeating rule. If not, then the scholars who differ with you on this understanding of the purpose of their task are following your own rule by virtue of their denial of your presuppostion (the rule itself).

Perhaps the rule is defective.

Mark Goodacre said...

Eric: thanks for that. I don't entirely follow what you are saying, perhaps because I can't work out the referent for "it", but I would say that what I was talking about was not a "rule" but a "task", a conception of the way that the best scholarship ought to work, i.e. something we aspire to in the bid to stay honest.

Christopher Shell said...

Re Jeremy's point:
It is, by definition, not apologetics to defend any position arrived at by proper argument. That wd be to overemphasise conclusions (banner headlines) and underemphasise the nittygritty of detailed argumentation. I think Wright is highly agnostic about the mechanics of the resurrection anyway.

Christopher Shell said...

To clarify: I find the term apologetics almost devoid of meaning. I agree that it does not intrinsically imply the defence of some preexisting ideological commitment; but, this being the case, how does it differ from any other form of kosher argumentation? Is there a need to have a separate term 'apologetics' at all?

Jeremy Pierce said...

Christopher, look in a dictionary. Your sense of what the term means is just wrong. Apologetics is simply the defense of the faith. If that's arrived at by proper argument, then it's good apologetics. Maybe that does give us the term that Mark is looking for, then: bad apologetics!

Eric Rowe said...

In re-reading my earlier comment I see that it was unclear. So I'll try to cut through my own wordplay.

The fundamental task of scholarship, like the fundamental task of anything, is a directive that can only be defined by the Creator Himself. There are those of us who (to the chagrin of most I'm sure) honestly believe that apologetics--that is defense of the Christian faith--IS the fundamental task of scholarship.

The difference between your understanding of the task of scholarship and mine is a presuppositional one. And this is why I thought it important to point out that your call to challenge one's presuppositions could be made to challenge your view of the task of scholarship itself.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Eric, if apologetics is about defending the faith to non-Christians, wouldn't it have to be done on some common ground (cf. 1 Cor 9:20)? And if so, isn't that basically Mark's point about "publicly available evidence and publicly coherent arguments"?

When I remarked about bad apologetical arguments, I was referring to those that forget about "publicly available evidence and publicly coherent arguments" and who they are in dialog with. Preaching to the choir is neither good scholarship nor good apologetics.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Mark, on the latest update, I think your use of 'apologetics' there is better. But the term is more general than just Christian apologetics. An apologist for Judaism might argue that the Jewish leadership were right to convict Jesus and take him to the Roman authorities because of his blasphemy. An apologist for atheism might argue for the impossibility of atheism and then conclude that Jesus couldn't have been resurrected. Anyone can be an apologist. So I don't think you have to come from a certain perspective to do apologetics. Even an agnostic can defend agnosticism, and a skeptic can defend skepticism. Defending a lack of a view is apologetics.

As for shared language, I think you need to have shared language to do any argumentation. Your audience have to agree with your starting point and methodology (or at least you have to convince them of it as you go), since no reasoning starts in a vacuum. But I don't think you need to be in a community with an idiosyncratic jargon to do apologetics. One of the main purposes of apologetics is to convice those who don't agree with you. It sounds to me as if you think it's just about bolstering the beliefs of those who agree with you. Those who first used the term for the defense of Christianity (and I believe it's used even in the NT once, in I Peter 3, but I don't have my Greek NT handy) had in mind communication with those who disagreed, not those who already believed.

Christopher Shell said...

Yes, you are right - I was partly wrong, partly unclear, hence my second clarifying comment (above). Namely: what is the difference between good apologetics and proper argument concerning any other matter? Just what is the need for the word 'apologetics'? To 'defend' (as opposed to 'uphold' or 'propound' or 'restate) a position seems to give a not wholly accurate picture of 'being on the defensive', and the fact that 'defend' is used in contexts where the position is (a) a well known ideological stance, and (b) one with eschatological implications to which many may cling emotionally, as opposed to rationally, can't help bringing the suggestion of 'special pleading' into the equation eevry time 'apologetics' or 'defence' is mentioned. Hence I make a point of avoiding both words, and insist that all arguments must be on a level playing field with widely agreed criteria for what constitutes a good argument.