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
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,
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.