Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Meier's Unpapal Conclave: An Experiment (I)

In A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, John Meier sketches his interpretation of the historical Jesus using the fantasy of an unpapal conclave "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). This hypothetical conclave consists of a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic, all of whom are knowledgeable about the history of early Christianity. More recently, in an online interview at biblioblogs.com, Stephen Carlson stated that he too shares Meier's dream, "except that I would expand Meier's 'unpapal conclave' to include an evangelical, a Unitarian, and an atheist..."

I've always liked Meier's idea in theory -- and Carlson's extension of it even more -- but have wondered how it would play out in practice. Would such a conclave come to the conclusions Meier thinks they would in A Marginal Jew? It would depend on the reperesentative members for each position, and of course no one individual can speak for an entire "faith". Still, I thought the concept worth testing, to see if at least some common ground could be found. If there were at least some points of consensus a conclave this diverse could reach about Jesus, they would stand a good chance of being objectively true.

So back in March I assembled the following group, with two members sitting in for each of seven positions (save Unitarian and Evangelical: I couldn't find another Unitarian, and one of the two evangelicals who initially agreed was unable to participate after all). So that makes a fairly balanced conclave of 12:

Atheist/Non-theist: Mike Grondin (a) Jeffrey Gibson (n)
Jewish: Mark Nanos Chris Weimer
Agnostic: Zeba Crook James Crossley
Protestant: Stephen Carlson Robert Schacht
Catholic: Brian Trafford Michael Barber
Evangelical: Tim Gallant
Unitarian: Loren Rosson

Each member of the conclave answered a poll of 100 questions (which I came up with) about the historical Jesus. I intended the questions to be illustrative of the things scholars have been saying about Jesus, though by no means exhaustive. Needless to say, this isn't the most accurate way of engaging Meier's vision. Such questions are meant to be discussed and debated among the conclave's members (not just initially voted on), but not everyone in the group had time for this. The survey is at least a start.

I won't produce the entire poll here in one blogpost, but here are some (about 20) representative questions:

* Rate the following criteria (on a scale of 0-4) for determining the authenticity/inauthenticity of Jesus' sayings and deeds:

4 = very useful; can hardly go wrong with it
3 = useful guide; helpful in getting at probabilities
2 = some limited use
1 = poor criterion; needs redefinition
0 = completely useless; wrong in principle

-- embarassment
-- dissimilarity to Judaism
-- dissimilarity to the early church
-- multiple attestation
-- rejection/execution

* The historical Jesus is (choose one):

a. a close relative of the Jesus found in the synoptics and John
b. a close relative of the Jesus found in the synoptics
c. a close relative of the Jesus found in Q and/or Thomas
d. a stranger to all gospel portraits of Jesus

* Rate the following sources in order of value for recovering the historical Jesus:

-- synoptic gospels
-- gospel of John
-- gospel of Thomas
-- letters of Paul
-- letter of James

* The historical Jesus and his followers are best described as:

a. a reform movement
b. a renewal/restoration movement
c. a sect
d. a philosophical group
e. other_____________

* Jesus' kingdom of God was about (choose the best answer):

a. the apocalypse (end of the world, or "heaven come to earth")
b. the climax of Israel's history, resulting in a new historical phase
c. major events about to happen, resulting in a new socio-political order
d. a countercultural philosophy
e. a better spiritual existence
f. an insurrectionist takeover
g. other_____________

* Jesus is best understood as (choose one):

a. a miracle worker
b. a magician
c. either term suffices
(d. neither)

* The exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman's daughter (Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28) goes back in some form to Jesus.


* If yes, Jesus eventually healed the daughter because (choose the best answer):

a. he was gratified by the woman besting him (using his own insult against him)
b. of the woman's persistent faith
c. he wanted to foreshadow the Gentile mission with a special sign

* Jesus said that hating one's family members (Lk 14:26/Thom 55, 101) was a prerequisite to being one of his disciples.


* If yes, he said this because (choose the best answer):

a. the demands for itinerant missionary work inevitably pulled family members apart and set them against each other anyway
b. to make it easier to form a fictive kin network in place of biological kin
c. he grew up as a ridiculed child (whether because he was illegitimate or a mamzer), had hated his own family, and wanted disciples who could identify with being similarly ostracized
d. other_____________

* During his ministry, Jesus was ascetic in matters of:

(assign a value of 0-2 for each, where

2 = always ascetic
1 = sometimes ascetic
0 = never ascetic

you may use each value more than once)

a. sex
b. money
c. food

* Most of Jesus' parables were (choose the best answer):

a. allegories
b. metaphors
c. artistic/literary devices
d. Hebraic mashals
e. Greek fables
f. peasant folk-tales

* Jesus told some form of the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32).


* If yes, the original parable was (choose the best answer):

a. a repentance and forgiveness story
b. an allegory vindicating Jesus’ association with sinners
c. an anti-rejection story stressing unity through acceptance
d. an honor-shame story about a beleagured father with two equally lousy sons
e. an allegory of Israel's return from exile
f. other_____________

* Jesus prohibitted divorce (Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9; Mt 5:32/Lk16:18; I Cor 7:1-11).


* If yes, the reason for his prohibition was (choose the strongest reason):

a. metaphysical: because divorce was inherently wrong in principle, for inner spiritual reasons
b. eschatological: to repair the law in light of the imminent end, as the law contained concessions to the fall from Eden
c. ascetical: to maintain celibacy between men and women who were cut off from their spouses as they travelled itinerantly with Jesus
d. social: to protect the honor of families in village settings, and stop the feuding which resulted from contested property rights
e. other_____________

* The historical Jesus spoke and/or acted against the Judean temple (Mk 11:15-17/Mt 21:12-13/Lk 19:45-46; Mk 13:2/Mt 24:2/Lk 21:6; Mk 14:58, 15:29/Mt 26:61, 27:40/Thom 71).


* If yes, his speech/act against the temple is best understood as (choose the best answer):

a. a cleansing of its commercial activities
b. a prelude to establishing alternative religious ritual (the eucharist) in place of sacrifice
c. a protest against systematic injustice
d. a pointer to its imminent (apocalyptic) destruction
e. a pointer to its future decimation by Rome
f. an act symbolizing its replacement by his own body
g. a violent attempt to take it over
h. other_____________

* Jesus thought about his death (choose the best answer, even if you believe more than one correct):

a. in no special way; he may not even have expected to be killed in Jerusalem
b. as a martyrdom, part of the necessary suffering in the tribulation period before the apocalypse
c. as a martyrdom, "the noble death" -- an example for others to follow
d. in terms of the suffering servant of Isaiah
e. as the true paschal lamb, warding believers against divine wrath at the judgment
f. as the true sacrifice on the mercy seat of atonement, reconciling people to God
g. as a ransom payment, liberating humanity held captive under Satan's influence
h. other_____________

* The resurrection belief came from (choose one):

a. early sightings of apparitions and/or an empty tomb
b. later legends of apparitions and/or an empty tomb

In the next post, we'll look at the conclave's votes and any points of reasonable consensus.


Blogger Chris Petersen said...

Excellent, Loren. I cannot wait to see the results.


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