Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Legal Guide for Bloggers

The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently updated its Legal Guide for Bloggers. It's worth going through all of this.

Oliver Stone's 9/11 Film

It looks like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center may turn out to be a decent film after all. Foxnews reports:

Stone and Paramount Pictures showed an invited audience the first 26 minutes of this controversial new film. The full feature is set for release on Aug. 9... From what we saw, World Trade Center looks like it will be a very moving, effective piece about Sept. 11. Five years after the tragedies, it is time to start seeing films and hearing music about the catastrophe, as long as they're done with wisdom and judiciousness... All signs point to Stone not delivering his usual conspiracy theories, but depicting the lives of two families on the verge of disaster.

What a relief. So we're not going to learn about how the World Trade Center was really brought down by Bush's demolitions according to conspiracy theorist David Ray Griffin. The author of The New Pearl Harbor and The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions insists that the plane crashes could not have caused the towers to collapse like they did: straight down, at free-fall speed, as in controlled demolitions. Griffin actually has a lot of crackpot ideas. He thinks a missile hit the Pentagon (not American 77); that United 93 was shot down by the U.S.; that Bush knew the hijackings were coming, and gave the military stand down orders in order to allow the attacks, so as to justify a war in the Middle-East for oil control. Many of his ideas are outlined in this essay.

I was almost positive that David Ray Griffin would become prime source material for Oliver Stone, but apparently even Stone has his limits. Either that or he's just becoming less paranoid.

The trailer for World Trade Center can now be seen here. I still doubt the film will be as good as United 93, but perhaps I'll be surprised.

Monday, May 29, 2006

"Greatest Living New Testament Scholar(s)"

Chris Tilling asks, "Who do you think is the greatest living New Testament scholar, and why?"

I can't give a single answer to this question. Back in October I came up with Scholars to Spend Time With, and I suppose I consider four of the (living) individuals on this list as the "best": Dale Allison for the historical Jesus; Philip Esler and Mark Nanos (tied) for Paul; and Richard Rohrbaugh for biblical culture. Dale's approach to the historical Jesus question is identical to my own on almost every level; Philip and Mark tackle Galatians/Romans so oppositely, yet each so compellingly; and Dick knows more about honor-shame societies than anyone else I know.

(Naturally, you can link to each of these scholars under my "Websites of Interest". Allison and Nanos have direct links; Esler and Rohrbaugh can be accessed from the "Context Group" link.)

Da Vinci Book and Film: Which is Worse?

Some reviewers of The Da Vinci Code film, including The Associated Press and Jim Davila, claim that it went out of his way to soften some of the book's factual errors. Greg Wright of Hollywood Jesus takes the opposite view:

"[Reportedly] Ron Howard's movie 'subtly softens' the material of Dan Brown's book. The Associated Press couldn't have it more wrong...

"Yes, Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon does find some new dialogue in his mouth courtesy of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, words that at least play devil's advocate with Ian McKellen's Leigh Teabing. But in the end, the cinematic Langdon becomes much more of a true believer than does his literary counterpart...

"[The] film portrays Opus Dei and the 'shadow council' of the Vatican as really being in cahoots, really conspiring to kill people in the name of God, really trying to supress intellectual inquiry, really turning its back on truth and righteousness. In short, Ron Howard turns the Catholic Church into a genuine villain...

"Most importantly, the film invests significant energy in validating the Magdalene myth. While in Brown's book Marie Chauvel basically leaves the existence of the Sangreal documents and Magdalene's bones to the world's imagination, Howard has Langdon and Neveu discover plenty of material evidence to back up the claim...

"Where's the mystery that feeds the soul? Where's the adventure? You'll have to find it in the book, I'm afraid. There's no codebreaking here, just polemic."

That's being rather generous to the book, but whatever. Da Vinci is a wreck no matter how you look at it.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Interview with Tyler Williams

Catch the interview with Tyler Williams at biblioblogs.com.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Quote for the Day: The Worst Poison

"If you put away those who report accurately, you'll keep only those who know what you want to hear. I can think of nothing more poisonous than to rot in the stink of your own reflections." (The Lady Jessica to her daughter Alia, in Frank Herbert's Children of Dune)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Blog Value

It's been a while since I checked on the value of this blog. Back in October it was worthless, and it remained that way for a while. Now it's apparently worth close to thirty grand. If my ideas are really worth that much...well, we won't go there.

UPDATE: Tyler Williams is now revelling in the fact that he's no longer worthless either -- and that he has surpassed me by leaps and bounds. How dare he?

As my friend Matt pointed out, these blog values are apparently based not on site visits, but on the number of sites which link to your blog. See the bottom of this page: $564.64/site seems to be the figure used. Then go to this page, type in your blog URL, and click on "search". You'll get a return of "X number of sites linking to [your blog]". If you multiply that number by $564.64, lo and behold, that's your blog worth.

But that doesn't wash entirely, because there have always been links to this blog, even back in the days when I was worthless. Well, in any case, the underlying assumption is rather amusing: that media companies would actually pay $564.64 per site that links to you.

My blog is worth $27,097.92.
How much is your blog worth?

Davila on The Da Vinci Code

Jim Davila gives The Da Vinci Code a fairly good review. He's easier to please than most critics (on which see here), and far easier to please than someone like me. (I know I'll hate this film with a passion when I finally get around to seeing it on DVD.)

Two points of interest in Jim's review. First:

"The movie not only corrected some errors by omission (e.g., that the Dead Sea Scrolls were Christian documents), it also seemed to go out of its way to correct a few (by no means all!!) of the historical errors in the book. Langdon challenges Teabing's reference to the Priory of Sion and says that it's been discredited. (Teabing, of course, says ha ha that's what they want you to think.) And when Teabing spouts the nonsense about the idea of a divine Jesus only arising in Constantine's time, Langdon vigorously and correctly asserts that it had been around for a long time before that, and Teabing does not disagree. All in all, that awful bogus infodump in the middle of the book is made more bearable in the movie, mainly because it's shorter."

So the deluge of rebuttals to Brown's "historical facts" has evidently made an impression on people.

Jim also notes that "the up side [to The Da Vinci Code's popularity] is that millions of people are now enthusiastically debating historical and theological issues that they were not even aware of a few years ago." As much as it galls and chafes me to admit it, Dan Brown has done the world a service by fueling a massive interest in Christian origins. Scholarly books by Ed Sanders, Dale Allison, Bart Ehrman, etc. have been getting more circulation at my library -- even if not as much as Baigent's Holy Blood, Holy Grail -- ever since Brown's novel became a blockbuster.

The evangelical Mike Gunn puts the matter this way (I finished reading his new book):

Dan Brown gives us a gift much like the gift that Arius gave the Church in the fourth century. Arius opposed the truth with an alternate story that made the Church stand up and take notice, that made the Church clear the dross and cobwebs from its beliefs and crystallize the truths that it knew to be true. (The Da Vinci Code Adventure, p 234)

I'd put it in more secular terms, but yes: Brown has forced certain issues out in the open by engaging the interest of everyone. The down side is that a sadly high number of people will follow cranks like Baigent anyway.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Da Vinci Adventure

I'm currently reading a book which examines The Da Vinci Code not just by exposing its bogus errors (too many have done that already), but by engaging it in the wider context of Christian-faith mysteries depicted in novel and film. It's called The Da Vinci Code Adventure: On the Trail of Fact, Legend, Faith and Film , written mostly by Mike Gunn, but with contributions from Greg and Jenn Wright from Hollywood Jesus. The book breathes an evangelical air, but lightly enough so that anyone can enjoy reading it.

At one point Gunn contrasts Da Vinci with my favorite Jesus film, Jesus of Montreal, both of which are unorthodox and aimed at guardians of Christian doctrine.

While Jesus of Montreal, like The Da Vinci Code, offers an alternate story, I never really got the feeling I was being duped. Jesus of Montreal made me think and contemplate the potential truths of the alternate story while maintaining the integrity of the original... I never found myself wanting to argue theology while I was watching Jesus of Montreal. I could actually even resonate with Arcand's redemptive story, even though it is no doubt one that the institutional church would prefer to edit; but like good art, it allows for tension, begging you to think. Dan Brown's characters, though, often appear as preachy as Jimmy Swaggart on the "Old Time Gospel Hour", leaving as much to my imagination as a game of hide-and-seek with a three year old. (In case you haven't done that lately, they pretty much hide right in front of you.) (p 13)

I couldn't have said it better.

On the whole the book offers a remarkably positive criticism The Da Vinci Code by inviting people to do what Dan Brown wants them to do: follow his adventure, and see where it leads; and see how it compares to other novels/films which delve into the mysteries of the Christian faith. That's a healthy approach, and opposite to that of insecure Christian leaders who prefer boycotts. All the same, I'm waiting until the DVD comes out to make fun of Howard's film. The Da Vinci Code is an adventure I can put aside for a day when I have absolutely nothing better to do.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Farewell to The Sword

Michael Turton has decided to retire The Sword. I will miss his presence in the blogosphere very much. He was one of three bloggers who inspired me to start The Busybody, and though I rarely agree with him on the subject of Christian origins, I'm wiser about aspects of his mythicist position than I was over a year ago. I wish Michael the best of luck in his endeavors.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Bring on the Insults

"The ancient circum-Mediterraneans had to deal with the stereotypical judgments that were thrown at them. Their strategy was not a doubt about or rejection of stereotypical judgment... They were forced to massage the negative judgments into a positive image that they would want to project." (John Pilch, RBL review of J. Albert Harrill's Slaves in the New Testament)

That, Pilch tells us, was the ongoing cultural preoccupation in a world of stereotypes: turning invective to one's advantage. Paul is an example of such machismo; he was good at pressing shameful liabilities into honorable service. At Corinth he was accused of weakness -- of having a weak presence (II Cor 10:10) -- and instead of denying it, he boasted about it (11:30), implying that through his weakness the macho virtues of endurance, strength of resolve, and courage were demonstrated in the long run (11:23b-27).

This phenomenon relates, as Pilch notes, to the anti-introspective character of the Mediterraneans: since no one but God could read Paul's heart (not even Paul himself), the apostle would have simply accepted what his opponents said about him -- but then twist it to his advantage by incorporating the shame into a positive image overall. Which he did quite well.

Blog Brawl: The Politics of New Testament Studies

It started with Michael Turton’s review of Tabor's Jesus Dynasty. Jim West dismissed the review (without linking to it or pointing out who wrote it), which in turn prompted Turton's open letter to Jim West. Then James Crossley jumped into the fray. Read all of these posts, but especially the last two which dig into the politics of New Testament studies. I think Michael makes a fair point that mythicists need to be acknowledged more in the guild (though I take Jesus' existence for granted), but I agree with James that we shouldn't get carried away with the idea that radical views of Christian origins are somehow politically liberating. Radical views often do us nothing but disservice (Baigent is an obvious example).

UPDATE: (1) Michael has removed his posts. (2) In comments below, I explain why I credit mythicist positions over most minimalist ones (though I'm neither).

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Da Vinci Panned

The Da Vinci Code currently has a whopping 0% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I've never seen a 0% rating before, and it couldn't have happened to a better film. The rating will probably increase (at least some) as more reviews are added, but for now, have a good laugh.

LAST UPDATE (5/26): It now has a 22% approval rating (out of 184 reviews), which is still woefully rotten. The initial 0% image can be seen on my StumbleUpon blog, preserved for the sake of posterity and amusement. I guess I have a sick mind.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Meier's Unpapal Conclave (IV): Reflections from Mark Goodacre

Thanks to Mark Goodacre for critiquing my unpapal conclave experiment. He writes:

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.

I should note that as of yesterday, our group has begun debating the initial votes on Chris Weimer's Ancient Mediterranean Cultures Forum. Registered users can watch the unfolding discussion.

I have a comment and a related suggestion. My comment relates to the way that the experiment is described:

[Rosson:] "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... 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... This is one of the reasons that I like to stress the importance of the public, democratic nature of scholarship."

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.

I should note too that Meier's hypothetical unpapal conclave differs from a group like the Jesus Seminar. I don't see Meier advocating scholarship by committees. Good scholarship is ultimately done by individuals, just as A Marginal Jew is. But the results of a conclave like this could serve as a useful guide to individuals. How so?

In the following way: The goal of the unpapal conclave, as I understand it, is rather modest in targeting what a diverse group can possibly agree to -- not to pronounce judgments on every aspect of Jesus, for which there could never possibly be consensus. The more members involved, and the more diversity involved, the more difficult it becomes to reach consensus, and therefore any points of consensus increase the possibility of those points being objectively true. That's why I liked Stephen's idea of adding an evangelical, a Unitarian, and an atheist to Meier's original group of four (Protestant, Catholic, Jew, agnostic); and that's why I tried getting two members for each of the seven slots. More diversity, more numbers. The results point to increased likelihoods, nothing more.

"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."

As I said, we've begun discussion on Chris Weimer's board, but to maintain the integrity of the experiment we're keeping the discussion itself closed to the actual members of the group. That's not undemocratic, by the way, just following the experiment. The democratic part actually lies in involving members from the diverse perspectives. The only condition I insisted on was a belief that Jesus actually existed (for obvious reasons).

I should emphasize that I agree entirely with Mark's general remarks but believe that Meier had something more specific in mind with the unpapal conclave idea.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Meier's Unpapal Conclave (III)

Two things should be mentioned about the results of the unpapal conclave. One is that there may be follow-up discussion at Chris Weimer's Ancient Mediterranean Cultures Forum, if the group has time for it.

Another is that the results have prompted some discussion over at Internet Infidels. Worth keeping an eye on that thread.

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.

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.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Damn those happy endings (III)

(Part I here. Part II here.)

Peter Jackson has consistently understood the need for sad endings. With only a few films under his belt, the best of them finish on tragedy:

The Lord of the Rings: The Grey Havens. The best ending to the best story ever told is about more than hobbits crying over the fact that they'll never see Frodo again. It points to Frodo's death, the fading of the elves, and the inevitable decline of men in the new age. Sauron may have been defeated, but the end of the Third Age is about everyone's defeat.

King Kong: The Empire State Building. After cartoonish action sequences on Skull Island (worthy of Spielberg), Jackson got the Manhattan part of the story right with heartbreaking silent-film sequences between Ann Darrow and the beast, and the slaying of Kong. It's the only way the story could have ended.

Heavenly Creatures: Killing Mom. This is based on the true story of two girlfriends who saw the need to kill one of their mothers (which they did) in order to stay together (which they didn't). It's one of the best teen love stories out there, tapping into the girls' gifted imaginations, made all the more poignant by the horrific murder at the end.

This isn't to imply that happy endings never work. Shawshank Redemption offers a good one without selling out. So does Blue Velvet -- here the happy ending is almost demanded by an otherwise excessively dark story. The irreverent South Park: The Movie has a miraculously happy ending which is perfect (though comedy doesn't really count here). But the best stories are tragic, and if done right, all the more uplifting for it.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Damn those happy endings (II)

(Part I here.)

Two months ago The Guardian reported on a truth "which keeps many true artists poor in garrets and many false ones rich in mansions": that most people want happy endings to the novels they read. Of those surveyed:

"41% per cent are overwhelmingly in favour of books with a happy ending, as against 2.2% who like it sad. Women were 13% more likely than men to say they want it all to end happily. Almost 1/5 of men expressed a preference for books with ambiguous endings....

"Young people were most likely to prefer books with a sad ending -- 8.6% of under 16s. Those aged 41-65, however, a group with more personal experience of sadness, dislike sad endings, with only 1.1% preferring books that end this way."

What a sad report. No wonder the fiction genre is so hollow these days.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Damn those happy endings

In a Chud interview, the director of United 93 was asked about the difference between the tragic ending of his film and the happy ending of Oliver Stone's upcoming World Trade Center. Greengrass replied:

"Flight 93 is an unbelievably inspiring story. You're talking about exceptional courage... But you're never going to make a story out of 9/11 and turn it into a happy ending truly, are you? Otherwise what are we saying here?"

With each passing year I have less tolerance for happy endings -- and it was never high to begin with -- whether in films or novels, and whether or not we're talking about something as obviously tragic as 9/11. Sometimes happy endings work (especially in comedies), but most of the time they're just disengenous. The ending to United 93 is one of the most powerful to any film I've seen.

The playwright Eugene O’Neill should be required reading in high schools. He understood reality better than most in saying:

"I love life. But I don't love life because it is pretty. Prettiness is only clothes-deep. I am a truer lover than that. I love it naked. There is beauty to me even in its ugliness. In fact, I deny the ugliness entirely, for its vices are often nobler than its virtues, and nearly always closer to a revelation. To me, the tragic alone has that significant beauty which is truth. It is the meaning of life -- and the hope. The noblest is eternally the most tragic."

That's a lesson well understood by our best authors and filmmakers: J.R.R. Tolkien, James Clavell, Stephen R. Donaldson, Stanley Kubrick, Ang Lee, Todd Solondz -- and Paul Greengrass.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Political Tests

Take the World's Smallest Political Quiz. Like Matt Bertrand, I test as a centrist with inclinations toward the left and libertarianism.


This quiz reminds me of the more involved Political Compass, which places you in one of four quadrants: right authoritarian, left authoritarian, right libertarian, left libertarian. On this compass I test as a left libertarian -- slightly left, moderately libertarian.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Biblical Studies Carnival V

Biblical Studies Carnival V is up at Kevin Wilson's Blue Cord, the successor blog to Karamat. Nice job, Kevin.