Thursday, May 11, 2006

Meier's Unpapal Conclave: An Experiment (II)

As mentioned previously, the following people were willing to serve on an "unpapal conclave" like the one envisioned by John Meier in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus:

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

[Jeffrey Gibson, Robert Schacht, and Brian Trafford don't have personal homepages or blogs. Gibson is the owner of the Crosstalk mailing list (and other list-serves), for which Schacht is also one of the moderators. Trafford has been a contributor to that list for many years now.]

Each conclave member is either a professional in the field, independent scholar, or amateur who has studied the subject matter over a long period of time. 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.

The members were given a survey of 100 questions, examples of which I mentioned in the previous post. Our initial plan had been to discuss and debate our answers (in an online "conclave" somewhere), but not everyone had time for this.

Because our group may have been able to find more common ground had we further debated and discussed issues of contention (as Meier envisions when he speaks of locking the group in the "jury room" of Harvard Divinity and not allowing them to emerge until consensus has been hammered out), I will take a "consensus" answer to refer to a question answered the same way by all but one or two members of the conclave. In other words, if at least ten of the twelve members voted the same way, I'm calling that a reasonable consensus.

I won't go through every question on the survey, but here are the highlights.

Criteria for Determining Authenticity

There was no consensus about the value of the criteria traditionally used to determine what Jesus said and did (embarrassment, dissimilarity to Judaism, dissimilarity to the early church, multiple attestation, rejection/execution). One person's bedrock was another's sand. The group members seemed most dubious about "dissimilarity to Judaism", but again, there was no consensus as to the degree.

The Value of Sources

The survey asked:

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

Few members rated these in the exact same order, though the most common ranking (shared by three members: myself, Gibson, Crossley) may be worth mentioning:

1. synoptic gospels
2. letter of James
3. letters of Paul
4. gospel of John
5. gospel of Thomas

But what about consensus? Only two things stood out: (1) the synoptic gospels always came in first or second place; (2) aside from one exception, the letters of Paul fell somewhere in the top three. So the group agreed that the synoptic gospels and Paul's letters provide good windows onto the historical Jesus. But consensus stopped there.

The gospel of Thomas rated curiously. Half the conclave ranked it at rock bottom. The other half placed it anywhere between (2) - (4). But even the two members who awarded it second place didn't put much stock in the historical value of sayings unique to Thomas mentioned elsewhere in the survey. (The survey later asked about the historical value of sayings 82 and 97, for instance, and there was a landslide consensus that Jesus didn't say them -- even by the two members who rated Thomas second priority.) So the conclave seems to share a distrust of the gospel of Thomas when it comes to sayings unique to Thomas, even if a few members see value in this gospel overall.

Sayings and Deeds

There was no consensus about whether Jesus' sayings or deeds are more important when considering him as an historical figure. Only two members favored sayings, but three members were unwilling to commit to one over the other. So there was a slight preference for deeds, but not enough to call consensus.

What was the Jesus movement?

The survey asked:

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_____________

No one took (d) seriously, but there was no agreement otherwise. Most favored the renewal/restoration movement option (b), but two voted for (a) and three voted for (c). So there was no consensus here.

Jesus' Mission

The survey asked:

Jesus saw the purpose of his ministry as primarily (choose the main purpose, even if you think more than one is correct):

a. a battle with Satan and his minions (through exorcising the mad/possessed)
b. a venue for teaching subversive or alternative wisdom
c. announcing and preparing the way for a new age
d. to engage in public challenges with representatives of various factions (Pharisees, priests, etc)
e. other______________

There was no consensus here, though most agreed on (c) -- that Jesus was preparing for a new age in some way. One member favored (a), while another said (b). Two members offered a similar alternative in (e): that Jesus' aim was, above all else, to uphold Jewish values in the face of Greco-Roman pressures and/or to prevent the destruction of Israel. (None of these options are exclusive, of course.)

Regarding predecessors and followers in his mission: Everyone (without exception) agreed that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. Everyone (save one member) agreed that Jesus called a group of twelve special disciples. But there was no consensus about John's precise role, nor the role of the twelve disciples.

The Kingdom of God

The survey asked:

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__________

There was no consensus here, though no one voted for (e) or (f), and only one member voted for (d). The votes were spread out over (a), (b), and (c). So if we loosely group together these three options, we can say there was consensus that the kingdom Jesus expected involved something momentous and dramatic, which would happen on a large scale.

The survey also asked about Jesus' view of the temporal dimension of the kingdom. There was consensus that the kingdom was understood to be both future and present, but how that present/future tension works out remained unclear.


There was a landslide consensus with regard to Jesus' healings and exorcisms. Everyone in the group (no exceptions) agreed that Jesus performed exorcisms, and everyone (save one member) agreed that he performed healings. These results are remarkable given the conclave's diversity. John Meier wasn't kidding when he said that "Nothing is more certain about Jesus than he was viewed by his contemporaries as an exorcist and a healer." ("Jesus" in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (Revised), p 1321)

On the other hand -- and not surprisingly -- there was no consensus about the nature miracles and resurrections. For instance, we were evenly divided as to whether or not the account of the loaves and fish goes back to Jesus, and most of us (except four members) denied that the raising of Lazarus happened.

The survey asked about distinctions between miracles and magic:

Miracle and magic, for historical purposes, are best understood (choose one):

a. as essentially the same thing: a way of using divine/superhuman power to achieve desired ends in the material world
b. as opposites: miracles involving faith in a deity, and the use of terse words along with symbolic gestures; magic involving spiritual manipulation or coercion of a deity, and the use of incantations, spells, and/or recipes of foodstuffs
c. on a sliding scale: the opposites in (b.) being valid, though on a spectrum (magical traits occasionally appearing in miracle-working activity, or the miraculous entering into magical manipulation)

Everyone in the group (except one member) agreed on the necessity of distinguishing between miracles and magic, but we were almost evenly divided between (b) and (c).

In response to another question, about half the group said that "miracle-worker" is the proper title for Jesus, while the other half allowed that either "magician" or "miracle-worker" suffices. So there was really no consensus on the subject of magic vs. miracle.

So on the whole, regarding miracles, there was consensus about Jesus being an exorcist-healer, but not much else.


The survey asked:

During his ministry, Jesus was ascetic in matters of:

-- sex
-- money
-- food

(assign a value of 0-2 for each, where 2 = always ascetic, 1 = sometimes ascetic, and 0 = never ascetic)

There was consensus about sex. Everyone (except one member) agreed that Jesus was thoroughly sexually ascetic during his prophetic career. (Take that, Dan Brown.)

There was no consensus, however, about money and food. Most of us said that Jesus sometimes fasted and sometimes feasted (but not enough to call consensus), and we were evenly divided between "always" and "sometimes" on the question of money (i.e. half of us said he shunned money like the plague, the other half allowed that he dealt with money if he had to).

The Pagan Nations

There was no consensus about how Jesus felt about Gentiles. Our opinions ranged between Jesus foretelling and endorsing a future programmatic mission to the Gentiles, more modestly prophesying that Gentiles would inherit the kingdom of God, allowing Gentiles in his movement with no specific provisions for them, and having no use for Gentiles at all.


Sometimes there was consensus that Jesus said or did something, but no consensus about what he meant by what he said or did. For instance:

Everyone (save one member) agreed that Jesus spoke the Lord's Prayer, but there was no consensus as to the prayer's focus. Some said it was about apocalyptic blessings being realized on earth; others said it was a prayer of protection against unfaithfulness; and others had a variety of interpretations.

Everyone (save one member) agreed that Jesus told people to "turn the other cheek", but there was no agreement as to what he was getting at. Some thought it reflected general pacifism; some thought it was a practical survival strategy for itinerant travelers; others said it was designed to curtail blood feuds; still others said it was a way of shaming one's oppressors.

Everyone (save one member) agreed that Jesus required people to hate their families in order to be his disciple. But the group was divided over whether or not this related to the demands of itinerant missionary work or a strategy of replacing biological kin with fictive kin.

Everyone (save one member) agreed that Jesus feasted with outcasts and sinners, but there was no consensus about why he did so. Half the conclave said it was Jesus' way of enacting on the fact that these people were forgiven and would inherit the kingdom of God. But others had different interpretations.

Everyone (without exception) agreed that Jesus said, "Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's." But there was no consensus at all as to what he meant by it. Some thought he advocated paying taxes; others thought he meant to rid the Jewish land of idolatrous coins; and others thought he opposed paying Caesar's taxes.

The Parables

The topic generating the least amount of consensus was the parables. This isn't surprising, given that parables are open-ended and malleable enough to be interpreted in almost any way. One member said that Jesus' parables were allegories; another thought they were metaphors; some said they were artistic/literary devices; others said they were Hebraic mashals; still others said they were peasant folk tales.

In addition to general questions about the parables, the survey asked about nine specific ones: the prodigal son, the talents, the sower, the mustard seed, the laborers in the vineyard, the dishonest steward, the rich man and Lazarus, the broken jar, and the leased vineyard. (This is a cross-section of parables unique to Matthew, Luke, Thomas, as well as multiply attested parables.)

The only consensus was that Jesus spoke four of the above parables, and that he didn't speak one of them. We agree he spoke the prodigal son (save two members), the sower (save one member), the mustard seed (without exception), and the leased vineyard (without exception). We deny that he spoke the broken jar (save one member), which again confirms the group's distrust of things unique to the gospel of Thomas.

But there was no consensus as to the original meaning of the four parables agreed to go back to Jesus. The closest area of agreement involved the leased vineyard: eight members thought Jesus was portraying God's judgment on the priesthood and rich, derived from classical prophetic condemnations of aristocrats who "ruin/devour" the vineyard of Israel (Isa. 3:14, Amos 5:11, etc); but others had different interpretations.

So all things considered, regarding the parables, there was really not much consensus to speak of.

The Torah

There was overwhelming consensus that Jesus engaged in the Torah-disputes reported in the gospels, but infrequent consensus as to why he did so. For instance:

Everyone (save one member) agreed that Jesus condoned plucking grain on the sabbath, but there was no consensus as to why. Some thought it was in the interest of competing moral imperatives, while others thought it was in Christological interests (Jesus deliberately modeling himself on David).

Everyone (save two members) agreed that Jesus disputed handwashing in conjunction with food laws. Among those who agreed, there was reasonable consensus that he did so in order to maintain a conservative view of the Torah over against Pharisaic innovations and/or inapplicable priestly codes.

Everyone (without exception) agreed that Jesus prohibited divorce, but there was no consensus as to why. Some said it was to protect the honor of families in village settings. One said it was a relative prohibition assuming divorce only in certain circumstances. Another thought Jesus had eschatology in view here. One believed it was out of concern for the unity of man and woman expressed in the Torah. Another said it was a critique of Herod. Still another thought it was to protect the vulnerable.

The Temple

Everyone (without exception) agreed that Jesus spoke and/or acted against the Judean temple. The survey then asked:

If he did, 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 ____________

To which there was no consensus at all. Some voted for (a) (I was surprised anyone voted for this option), some for (c), one for (d) (surprisingly, only one), two for (e), and two offered alternative answers (h) -- the first a demonstration saying that the temple could never be pure as long as the Romans were around, and the second a prophetic critique not against the temple but the way it was being run.

The Eucharist

Everyone (without exception) agreed that Jesus shared a last supper with his closest followers in Jerusalem. The survey then asked:

If he did, then the last supper is best understood as (choose the best answer):

a. a meal with no attached significance to it
b. the last of a series of meals pointing to the great feast in God’s coming kingdom
c. a converted passover meal by which Jesus symbolically offered himself as a paschal lamb so that his "blood" would protect the faithful when God came in judgment
d. a ritual supplanting the temple's sacrificial system in which bread became one's "flesh" of sacrifice to God, wine one's "blood" of sacrifice
e. a Hellenistic mystery rite
f. a rite by which the bread and wine were changed into Jesus’ physical body and blood, retaining only the appearance of bread and wine
g. other____________

No one voted for (d) or (e), but there was at least one vote for every other option. The most popular was (c) (Scot McKnight's view, incidentally, argued recently in Jesus and His Death) which had five votes. So there was no consensus.


Everyone (without exception) agreed that Jesus was arrested and crucified in Jerusalem during passover festival. There was a loose consensus that he was killed for being perceived as some kind of political troublemaker.

Everyone (save two members) agreed that the Jewish elite helped engineer Jesus' arrest and crucifixion, but we couldn't agree as to the reason(s) why.

There was no consensus at all about how Jesus thought about his death (assuming he thought about it at all).


Here's a surprise: everyone (save two members) agreed that the resurrection belief came from early sightings of apparitions and/or an empty tomb, rather than later legends of such. Needless to say, this leaves open the question of how to understand the apparitions and/or empty tomb (and there will never be consensus on that point).


The upshot is that there was little consensus on what we can say about Jesus. We agree that he was baptized by John; that he was an exorcist-healer; that he was sexually ascetic; that he was a prophet (whether apocalyptic, messianic, social, or some combination thereof) who expected something rather dramatic to happen soon (i.e. the coming kingdom of God); that he called twelve special disciples; that he said a lot of memorable things which continue lending themselves to a variety of interpretations (especially the parables); that he engaged in disputes over the Torah, temple, and taxes; that he was killed by the Romans (in collaboration with the Judean elite) in Jerusalem during passover as a political troublemaker; that the synoptic gospels and Paul's letters are good ways of getting to Jesus. We could perhaps call these basic facts which stand a good chance of being objectively true, since they are agreed to by people from Christian, Jewish, and secular backgrounds. But these modest results are somewhat disappointing: they simply confirm what most books about the historical Jesus say anyway.

It's possible that our group would have found more common ground had we further debated and discussed issues of contention (hence my provision for up to two dissenters from a majority opinion), but even so, these results call into question the vision which John Meier has been using in his Marginal Jew series. If our group is modestly representative of the various faith positions (or lack thereof), then an unpapal conclave would obviously not reach or endorse many of Meier's conclusions. This is not to undermine Meier's Marginal Jew series per se -- speaking for myself, I think it's one of the best works to date. But our results do show that Meier's work is more autonomous than he seems to believe, and that his muse -- the hypothetical "unpapal conclave" -- reaches consensus about a lot more things than an actual conclave does in the real world.

Thanks to everyone who served on this board! Any comments (from anyone) to this experiment are welcome.


Blogger Chris Petersen said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent. Loren, I can't tell you how much I appreciate the hard work you put into this. My thanks goes to all the others who were involved as well. I agree with you that Meier's work is perhaps more autonomous than he himself would like to admit and your consensus exhibited this beautifully. Many thanks again. I was wondering if perhaps you could send me the survey. I'm just curious as to the rest of the questions and I would like to take it. If not that's quite alright. Again, many thanks for the hard work you put into this.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Hey -- you're welcome, welcome, welcome. I'll send you the survey later today, Chris.

Blogger Michael Turton said...

You all agreed that he spoke the Sower? Wow! I don't know whether to laugh or cry. The Sower is a literary invention of the writer of Mark and goes back no further than that text.

Everyone (without exception) agreed that Jesus said, "Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's."

Wow. I'm stunned.


Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Wow. I'm stunned.

I assume you were probably stunned by the whole report, given that you don't think Jesus even existed!

Blogger Andrew Criddle said...

I firmly believe that Jesus existed but I was a little surprised by the consensus on the parables.

To take the parable of the Sower as an example, there are three main options a/ that Parable and interpretation both go back to Jesus b/ that the Parable goes back to Jesus but not the interpretation c/ that neither go back to Jesus. All three options have IMHO real problems making the conclave's unanimity in preferring a/ or b/ to c/ surprising.

FWIW Meier hints at the end of book 3 of 'A Marginal Jew' that in the 4th and last book he may well be taking an unusually sceptical position on how many of the Parables go back to Jesus.

Blogger Michael Barber said...


Thanks for all doing all of this. I can't believe how well you synthesized the bulk of material you had to go through. Great job!

Blogger Michael Turton said...

I assume you were probably stunned by the whole report, given that you don't think Jesus even existed!

LOL. I think one of the thing assuming that there was an HJ forces you to do is dumb down the texts. Mark doesn't get his full props as a creative author.

It is also interesting that opinion on the criteria is mixed, but opinion is so unanimous on something like this. It makes me think that when people evaluate these texts they criteria they use are not formalized enough -- there are many criteria that are used but not made clear even to the user.


Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

It is also interesting that opinion on the criteria is mixed, but opinion is so unanimous on something like this.

The criteria are definitely the first thing we should try to resolve as a group if we follow up to this exercise in Chris' forum. FWIW, I gave my own take on the criteria here many months ago.


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