Quodlibet: The Jesus Project

jesusWhat can you say about a thirty-three year old Jew who died.  History suggests, a lot.  The Jesus Project, previewed here, isn’t so sure.

Even before the Jesus Project had resolved itself into a critical mass of scholars with ideas, goals, and vision, bloggers of various persuasions pronounced its fate. It was quickly bloggled into one of three things: More of the Same Old Thing, A Radically New Thing, or a Thing that Wouldn’t Make a Difference whether old or new. To chop these positions finely: the first group consisted of apologists—those who believed that the questions proposed by TJP, or their formulation was impertinent, so were happy to declare the question dead at asking; but also of skeptics who had seen the grunts and groans and fissiparation of previous quests and seminars and were skeptical that anything really new would come from another set of scholarly calisthenics. The second group, which might have included me but didn’t, was giddy at the prospect that stalwart scholars were going to blast the timidity of the Jesus Seminar when it came to the edge of the Big Question, and march on to Baghdad, if the analogy between Gulf I and Iraq isn’t an inappropriate one.

I was not the inventor of the preposterous slogan “What if the Most Influential Man in Human History Never Lived?” but I should have been its destroyer. I was however the “creator” of the suggestion that the non-historicity of Jesus is a testable hypothesis and can no longer be ignored and I still believe it. The second group also included, along with people who wanted to ventilate their “myth theories” in a serious forum, many who were interested in the formative power of myth in the creation of social groups and religious movements. The third group, mainly post-Christian and post religious skeptics wondered why in the twenty-first century anyone would worry about such an issue: whatever motives underlay the founding of TJP they were not (surely) as important as such pressing matters as getting God out of the Pledge and getting evolution back into the schools. For two years seriously concerned people wrote, emailed and phoned asking whether I had nothing better to do with my time.

In this space, I want briefly to address each of these positions directly—not to put straight a record that has not yet been written, but to alert both scholars and onlookers that we have everything to gain from confronting our critics as well as our theories. TJP was never construed as a sequel to the Jesus Seminar. (I have now written that sentence eight times in different places.) That has not prevented linkages in the press of the “Mars-is-to-Earth …”variety. It did not begin as a corrective or a replacement to the Jesus Seminar.   I recently wrote that the Seminar asked some of the wrong questions in the wrong order, skated past others, and that to accept any critique of TJP methodology, as it evolves, from a seminar whose own methods were often seen as risible would be–risible. Hence without being dismissive of the Seminar Jeremiahs who’ve been there, done that, TJP cannot proceed without an evaluation of what the Seminar accomplished, failed to accomplish, and the reasons for its performance. While I take the term “scientific” as it is used in the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion both cum grano salis and in its most German sense as “scholarly,” it’s my impression that all of those so far associated with the project take “scholarship” very seriously indeed and want this to be, at the very least, a faith-free process. My colleague April Deconick has recently offered her own superb assessment of the Seminar in a blog-series called “The Jesus Seminar Jesus is Bankrupt” (http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/).

Critique is always a postmortem enterprise, and I believe the post-mortem has begun. From what has been said above, it follows that the other part of the category who see the JP as a rehash of the Seminar, the apologists, need to look again. There are certainly associates who hold to a “myth theory,” and there are others who hold to a non-super-naturalist or radical historicist position. There are textualists who believe that a careful and positivistic reading of canonical sources will provide more information than a “fuller” view of Christian origins, and others who believe that there is only a notional difference between what canonical and non-canonical sources have to offer. There are advocates of Matthew Black’s famous view that we need to get behind the text to an Aramaic context to understand what it going on in the translations (if that’s what they are) we possess, and others who think a Galilean folk hero has been inserted into a Greek myth. Obviously that degree of non-unanimity is discomfiting to those who think the New Testament is self-authenticating text without context, but it can hardly be seen as business as usual to invite a free and open discussion of these positions knowing that they cannot all be right.

As to the idea that TJP is “radically new,” let me be the first to say calm down. There has been nothing “radically”—that is, theological-foundation-shatteringly—new in this area since Strauss, and almost no one reads Strauss anymore. Even if they did he’s virtually impenetrable without reading the heroic Hegel first. There has been, to be sure, a great deal of jockeying to say something radically new, as though Jesus-research is no different from looking for a new isotope.  At a certain point in contemporary New Testament scholarship the quest to be the puzzle-solver largely replaced the quest for the historical Jesus—another caution we can take from the Seminar. In a culture of celebrity, the slow pace of scholarship is painful; in a dozen interviews about TJP, the first question, almost without fail, is “What are you people trying to prove?” or “What’s the conclusion?” Presumably, if I had said that we had stumbled on impressive information that, prior to his ascension Jesus gave to James the instructions for making a camera, and that we now had photographic proof of the event, they would have hung up. But if I say that new papyrus discoveries, combined with some pretty impressive canonical clues, substantiate the claim that the followers of Jesus were a first century gay alliance, they become more interested. Reporters will call you back.

As a matter of fact, TJP needs to be new, but new also in eschewing sensationalism and exhibiting a certain lack of intellectual concupiscence as we trudge on. It is not enough to be “non-theological” since what is not theological is not eo ipso “right”; the Project also needs to be bold enough to say that some conclusions will be out of its reach, either for lack of evidence or lack of measurement. Again, the analogy is the sciences. There is nothing about the world of the twentieth century (save global warming) that is physically different from the world of Thomas Aquinas’s day. Our mode of describing the same things about that world has changed dramatically, however, and with it our understanding of how life evolved and human beings assumed their place on the planet. There is nothing in the nature of old evidence that cannot provide better understanding if the right methods of description are developed. TJP, if it is new, will be new to that extent.

And finally to the indifferent, the skeptics-with-portfolio (as distinct from the “detractors” in group one). The question “What does it matter?” is a fair question. It’s a sort of distaff to the view that Jesus matters as a self-evident proposition—matters to the life of faith, to the heart, or, as a moral teacher, to our conduct—not just the necessary presupposition of the movement that bears his title, but as the centerpiece to the religious life. The slogan “What if [he] had never lived” was somewhat bluffly and mistakenly directed at them, as though the sole legitimating reason for the Project is to disabuse religious men and women of their beliefs. Yet why would a Jesus who “did not exist” be of more value to unbelievers than a Jesus who existed in the “ordinary” way and died in an ordinary way? And why would religious folk be troubled by any conclusion reached by any group with such a siloistic objective? That Jesus matters in one sense is a statement of faith, therefore he cannot matter historically anymore than any other event can matter. It is not legitimate to read back into his original story, whatever that may have been and however it may have evolved, a significance that was three hundred years in the canonical and doctrinal making and millennia in the revising. It seems to me that women and men who have decided that most historical questions have no bearing on the meaning and purpose of life are dead right. That disjunct will have to be acknowledged and almost all scholars do acknowledge it today. But to say that “Jesus does not matter” is a different sort of statement and strikes me as immensely uncurious if not downright tiresome. Does it mean that the question itself is uninteresting because the asker has decided that religion, being bogus anyway, causes us to indulge in inherently silly pastimes? Or does it mean that the question lacks what Aristotle called “Magnitude”—greatness—as might be claimed, for example, for the question of the origins of the universe, or human life, or language? I have to say that people who have asked me the question seem shocked when I ask them why they are asking it. As if to say, “You seem like an intelligent man; why don’t you know the answer yourself?” But it seems to me that intellectual curiosity cuts in two ways, and that people need to be able to say why they are bored by something as much as why they are intrigued by it. As you may gather, from this little discursus, my sense is that the people in group three are displaying hostility rather than boredom. I remember telling my mother once that I was working on a research paper on the history of Christian marriage and had become fascinated with how relatively late the Church decided to ecclesize nuptial arrangements. Her immediate “Catholic” response was that such inquiries are better left to bachelors and maidens and she hoped that I wouldn’t publish the paper. That kind of hostility.

As to magnitude, I think it has to be said that the “big questions” are always etiological and hence always to a certain extent historical; where things come from matters, and without subscribing to historicist or originalist positions, I would find it odd to maintain that the origins of a religion—any religion—are not at least as deserving of investigation as the origins of the English language or the trans-Asian migrations of the early Americans. Some things are worth knowing not because they are matters of fact or de coeur, but because they have achieved magnitude by assent or influence. I would regard it as more informative to know why the “question” of Jesus is not interesting than to explain its interest. And so to “knowledge.”

TJP might begin where Descartes did in 1637 with the Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason. Those who have kept their sophomore philosophy anthology on the shelf will remember that Descartes had professed “perfect confidence” in the ability of reason to achieve knowledge. His own “project” involved a preparation which he compared to the architectural destruction of a whole town. Towns, he recalled, had not developed “rationally” but in fits and starts creating a chaos of a landscape. This he compared to the state of knowledge in the seventeenth century, heavily dependent on everything that had come before, when nothing that had come before achieved the systematic standard he set for himself. “We must begin,” he wrote, by “deliberately renouncing all of the firmly held but questionable beliefs we have acquired through experience and education.” And as we know, while Descartes was not occupied with the question of scripture, having learned a thing or two from Galileo’s fate, he was immensely interested in the question of God.

No one who lives in a post-Enlightenment and postmodern world can believe that Descartes fulfilled even his own hubristic agenda, but he did provide a “method” that TJP might consider (and is considering) as it moves along. In his seminal Book III, the philosopher proposes that a proper investigation should always include four parts:

1. “To accept as true what is indubitable.” That is to say, ascertain to the extent possible what is factual, and what is based only on the prestige of authority. This requires a method within the method. No other field of investigation is so authority-laden as Jesus-research. Thus the question has to be, ‘what sort of authority is it and does it have bearing on the kind of investigation TJP wants to be?’ Do scholars in Christian origins regard anything beyond the mere fact of early Christian literature and aspects of its context as “indubitable”?

2. “Divide every question into manageable parts.” This seems self-evident, but it has not been the pattern of previous investigations. Neither the question “Did Jesus exist?” nor “What did he ‘really’ say?” was manageable. Formulating the sub-questions and prior questions is likely to be a painstaking business. If it is not done systematically and in a free and open debate, the Project may as well disband now.

3. “Begin with the simplest issues and ascend to the more complex.” It seems to me that this is the one step we have a grip on—the early reports came from communities. Their historicity cannot be doubted. That is a simple fact. These communities were called into existence by an event or sequence of events, the precise nature of which scholarship has spent over two centuries trying to reconstruct. I do not think those reconstructions, from the most radical to the most “traditional,” can escape our scrutiny. The road from simplicity to complexity cannot be shortcut by an appeal to the sanctity of consensus. The scientific nature of TJP is on trial precisely at this point; can we be as iconoclastic and skeptical as the Cartesian method requires us to be or do we look for safe havens in the competing correctnesses of our educational or political investments?

4. “Review the process consistently, so that the objectives of the process (the “argument”) is always in view.” The “argument,” it follows, should not be a conclusion, a favorite hypothesis, an agenda. What Virgil says of “Rumour” (Aeneid, IV, 173) can be applied here to “Reputation.” It flies aloft, moves with a strength of its own—threatens every collaboration, and it threatens this one. The ability to keep an objective in view derives from the successful execution of steps one through three. The Seminar evoked attrition because it lost sight of an objective and became a cloud of unknowing rather than a cloud of witnesses. It is important that TJP does not become a sounding board for private or exotic fantasies about Who Jesus Really Was

In short, TJP must not become an opportunity for its members to proselytize others to their point of view. Above all, Descartes understood the importance of deconstruction, landscape, and using precise measures for “what is known.” His naïve faith in certainty comes to us from a different world, with a different sense of “measurability” and expectation of success. But I submit the process still has on its side simplicity and intellectual candor, and that is what I personally would like TJP to display.

9 thoughts on “Quodlibet: The Jesus Project

  1. RJH wrote:

    “I was .. the “creator” of the suggestion that the non-historicity of Jesus is a testable hypothesis”.

    I have no necessary problem with the notion of the “non-historicity of Jesus”, but isn’t it just as untestable as the historicity of Jesus — given the dearth of sources regarding Jesus certainly from the period?


  2. In addition to Spin’s question, I’d like to ask what constitutes a definition for “Jesus.”

    I am agnostic on the historicity question, but I think we have to establish a set of criteria for what kind of historical figure could or could not be definitively called “Jesus.”

  3. I am sorry this promising project was halted. I agree absolutely with your claim that the non-historicity of Jesus is a testable hypothesis and can no longer be ignored and it took me a while to persuade someone else of this. The problem I think is that contemporary ‘serious’ scholarship does not take the myth theory seriously and relies on outdated scholarship which is perceived to have made the idea redundant. However, the non-historicity of Jesus hypothesis has equal rights with the historicity of Jesus hypothesis to be examined and tested. Another problem of course is that myth theories have more recently been supported by those outside scholarship who might be accused of not having clear enough grounding in basic learning of languages and culture of first century Judaism, and also a further a problem arises when religious presuppositions and anti religious antagonism get in the way…

  4. Connecting this post with the Atheist Attitudes post, I am beginning to suspect that your argument against atheism would be wielded much the same way against any label that claimed a gnostic position on the realm of beliefs and what that means for the rest of us. I think I’m reading a skepticism for any conclusion that ends up right where the hypothesis started because it isn’t truly an investigation. I might be inclined to view your opinion of a Christian or an atheist as two kinds of people who fail to view ethics and the purpose of religion in a scholarly fashion. Hence, the circular bit about the table being made of wood at the end of your Atheist Attitude post.

    This comment is not designed to put words in your mouth. It should be noted that I do my best thinking when write down my opinions as I go.

  5. I don’t think you’re being very clear here Seth. Joe is critiquing methods and attitudes, but he is not rejecting hypotheses because they are not scholarly.

  6. One thing I think I’m saying is that Joe is critiquing common examples of atheists. His arguments go “denial isn’t the end of the road nor does negating whatever advancements Christianity offered sound like a good strategy.” Because that leaves the sample believer feeling like they are going backwards. In his atheist attitudes, he targets New Atheists and their incomplete arguments. On the Christian side of the continuum of belief I have yet to see Joe accept that they have strong arguments either.

    Then I come across this post because I figured I should back up and get a better background on Joe because as you probably know I jumped in on a kind of random article and I didn’t really know who he was in any sense.

    On this post, he mentions Descartes’ rules for investigations and I got the sense that one way to generalize what Joe says is to observe that both sides of the Christian/atheist divide (in America we definitely see that division more often than other belief/atheist divides) is to say these folks (including me) start with a position and neatly end at the same position which means they didn’t use their own critical thinking skills.

    I may be reading into this, but it’s not a bad point to suggest that if someone were to investigate the purpose of faith, the functions it serves, and how best to take faith to the twenty first century, you would expect the investigators to be surprised by something along the way. I would guess that from an atheist standpoint we could be expected to stumble across reasons why religion provides an advantage even now (which means there’s a reasonable decision being made by believers) and from a believer standpoint I expect they might be surprised to find out what the god of their testaments actually meant to the people at the time of the early Hebrews or the almost Christians or something.

    The rule of thumb is that if you come out knowing what you knew going into the investigation, it wasn’t an investigation.

    That’s what I think I was thinking yesterday.

  7. I think it’s always a mistake to generalise and to ‘sum up’ one person’s point of view and it is definitely impossible to generalise Joe. Often groups are identified but this does not deny individuality. In fact his own thinking is a reflection of individuality. This blog I think reflects an evolving thinking process, and investigations are conducted continually outside it, as a scholar with a wealth of knowledge, learning and experience, in the real world. Do you really know what his ideas prior to investigations are identical to those at the end of investigations? I don’t think so. Joe’s arguments are complex and he defines them with clarity. It is unhelpful to attempt to boil them down and condense them into a box if this is what you’re doing. I’m still not sure what your point is.

  8. Maybe they slipped me decaf today, I will accept the possibility that I’m not thinking clearly or not writing clearly or both.

    I think Joe’s prescribing against those sorts of investigations. I do not intend to suggest he is a part of investigations.

    Here, Joe makes a case for why historical Jesus matters despite all of the conventional wisdom that we might think has been covered millions of times. Joe acknowledges that an expression of disinterest is fine but that many of the complaints of secular and nonsecular folk of “not interested”. are actually a form of hostility. There, he closes with “What physics has shown is that a table is in full conformity with a square-topped four-legged entity used for eating, writing or similar function. Just as we expected before we made it. From wood.” which I interpret to be a denouncement of circular logic.

    In both posts, Dawkins and friends in the other post and the detractors of TJP here offer a position that might be “Why would you bother with an issue that is already decided?” For Dawkins, the answer is that people might be Dim to fail to understand the obvious conclusion. And his argument might go “I suspect there is a God Delusion, therefor we have found a delusion about God”. The secular folks in this post would say “why bother learning about Jesus” which is them saying “I suspect there is nothing important about Jesus, therefor I’ve noticed nothing important about Jesus.” The Christians do the same thing with a probelief variation. “Why bother learning about Jesus” which is them saying “I suspect Jesus has already been thoroughly revealed and there he is right where I expected to find him in the New Testament and Josephus’s works.”

    My hypothesis is that Joe suggests fairly frequently that there is a scientific method to be used on questions of belief as well as the historicity of beliefs and that method is not being employed in these cases. And when I google him, it becomes more likely to me that this is the underlying theme of the New Oxonian.

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