Thursday, November 03, 2005

Q: Skeptical Brits, Credulous Americans

With trademark wit and engaging prose, Donald Akenson contrasts, as he sees it, British and American approaches to Q:

"Michael Goulder, and his predecessor of the 1960s, A.M. Farrer, are so very unlike the present-day Q industry as to be almost unfathomable to the Q scholars. Part of the problem is that Goulder and Farrer are, well, too English. The Teutonic school...has blossomed into America's unique biblical mega-projects, the Jesus Seminar and the International Q Project... These New World magnates just don't understand the English. The Brits, for instance, mostly work alone. And they usually express themselves cautiously and, when on the attack, use the stiletto rather than the cheque book. Thus, two of the sharpest, shortest, most radical criticisms of the last 40 years -- Farrer's 'On Dispensing with Q' and Goulder's 'Is Q a Juggernaut?' -- have gone unanswered, presumably because they are too obliquely witty to be taken seriously and too lethal to be faced squarely. And Goulder, as a one-man Disloyal Opposition to the Q industry, has the dismaying characteristic of being very precise in his hypotheses and rigorous in his standards of proof. These virtues are easily drowned out by special pleading and general large-group harrumping. All this is a mistake, because Q needs sharpening if it is to have any continuing value." (Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, pp 112-113)

Akenson's book was published a couple of years before Mark Goodacre's Case Against Q -- the book which, on second reading, finally persuaded me to give up my belief in Q. I wonder what Mark thinks of Akenson's contrast between the continents, especially now that he's been transplanted to U.S. soil. Do the Brits have an edge on us here? Is it a coincidence that the three most formidable challenges to Q have come out of the U.K.? Do Americans, on the whole, need more skepticism and less credulity?

Akenson thinks so. Pages before the above citation, he indicts North American Jesus-questors as follows:

"The 'third quest' is distinguished not so much by any new methods, but, in North America, by a mega-project mentality (the Jesus Seminar and the Q project being the best known examples) and by a generally high level of confidence: a pervasive, shared, but largely unarticulated belief that we can indeed know a lot about the Yeshua of history and that the forays of professional biblical scholars are just the thing to bring that knowledge back." (p 89)

While I object to Akenson's (rather foolish) claim that we haven't introduced new important methodology into the third quest (we obviously have much better knowledge of ancient Judaism and Mediterranean culture than ever before), I agree about the inordinate amount of confidence many Americans place in certain mega-projects, particularly those based on hypothetical sources. "More skepticism, less confidence," is a good mantra to adopt when dealing with phantom documents. The credulity of so many liberal Americans derives from an overreaction to the fundamentalist movement, whose success, of course, depends on credulity from its own adherents.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre comments helpfully, clearly of the mind that Akenson paints too broadly. He notes: “America too has produced Q sceptics, James Hardy Ropes, Morton Scott Enslin, Edward Hobbs, E. P. Sanders. I suppose that the interesting question for me is: why have these been just as unsuccessful in persuading people as the Brits mentioned? The answer is complex, and to some extent it is a thing I try to answer in the first chapter of The Case Against Q. Essentially, I think it comes down to strategy, palatability and plausibility. Farrer was no tactician (he did not think about strategy); Goulder has problems with palatability (the perceived unattractiveness of the associated claims; yet both had an essentially plausible thesis, which is why the seeds that they have sown are bearing fruit, perhaps not yet one hundredfold, but bearing fruit nonetheless."

UPDATE (II): In the comments section of Mark Goodacre's post (see above), John Poirier responds as follows: "I have to agree with Loren's comments: I find that American academia is much more trendy than European academia. I find many more American scholars who simply take over the latest trend without looking closely at the arguments supporting it. In terms of credulity, that translates into always believing in the latest thing hatched. Of course, Q isn't the latest thing hatched--and to that extent the difference between here and over there might be mitigated to some degree--but I do think that the same blind trust in the fruits of scholarship is at work." "Trendy" is a good way of putting it.

6 Comments:

Blogger Phil Harland said...

Just a few important qualifications: John S. Kloppenborg is not American (he is Canadian--important difference in most Canadians' opinions), he is not a Jesus-quester (as far as I know), and he is extremely far from credulous in his presentation of any theory, including the Q theory;) I myself am not a Q-scholar, though, and don't have much to say on that. All the best. Phil

11/03/2005  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Kloppenborg is North American, which is the idea here, as contrasted with the U.K. He's certainly an excellent scholar and has written things I agree with (like a great article on the parable of the "Dishonest Steward"). The same holds true for someone like Scott Brown, who wrote a diligent treatment of Secret Mark. Even the best can be taken in by mirages. The point remains that hypothetical documents/2nd-century gospels/hoaxes are widely favored on the North American (U.S./Canadian) continent more than elsewhere. I think our cultural climates lend themselves to this.

But yes, I should have been more careful about conflating the poor Canadians with (U.S.) Americans. No insult intended. :)

11/03/2005  
Blogger Chris Weimer said...

Well, technically, Canadian is American (North American, as you mentioned, which by extension is American). He is not of the United States, which by popular reckoning equates with American, but that's a semantic quibble.

Furthermore, I don't think skepticism really has anything to do with Q. Following the debates between Stephen Carlson and Walter Shandruk, Walt actually convinced me of joining the Q crowd. Today, I'm still up in the air about it, but it looks better all the time. I'm not from England but from the USA. The issue of credulity and skepticism is far too broad for general assumptions such as nationality. Instead, the focus is on academic trends in the country. Unfortunately, in America, they happen to fall upon the quest for the Historical Jesus, which as I indicated to you before is utterly ludicrous and presumptuous. But nonetheless, people will write about the currency, and the HJ is what is now playing. Think about the Dutch radical school - are the Dutch more skeptical than British? Nah, but at the time, that was popular then.

11/04/2005  
Anonymous John C. Poirier said...

I posted this on Mark Goodacre's weblog:

I have to agree with Loren's comments: I find that American academia is much more trendy than European academia. I find many more American scholars who simply take over the latest trend without looking closely at the arguments supporting it. In terms of credulity, that translates into always believing in the latest thing hatched. Of course, Q isn't the latest thing hatched--and to that extent the difference between here and over there might be mitigated to some degree--but I do think that the same blind trust in the fruits of scholarship is at work.

11/14/2005  
Anonymous John C. Poirier said...

Oh, now I see that my last comment wasn't needed. Thanks Loren for putting it on the main page.

11/14/2005  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Sure John. Thanks for commenting.

11/14/2005  

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