Wednesday, August 1, 2007

What about The Jesus Project?

There has been some activity about The Jesus Project on Jim West's blog and on Chris Zeichmann's blog and on Novum Testamentum. I wrote about my own impressions of the project in an earlier post here.

As Chris writes, it is a project involving 50 scholars who will assess the historicity of Jesus and review the earliest traditions about Jesus. Chris wonders how the Fellows became Fellows, since it appears that at least one person who used to be listed was not actually asked. Chris has asked me to illuminate this situation.

I know nothing more than has been published on CSER's website. My name appeared on the website after the Scripture and Skepticism conference that took place in January 2007. Once I saw my name on the Fellows list along with a number of other scholars who presented papers at that conference, I just assumed that those who attended the conference were considered by CSER to be Fellows. This was only my assumption. It may be wrong. As for how other scholars became Fellows or why "50" is the magic number, these questions I do not have answers for, but Joe Hoffmann would since he is directing the Project.

I continue to have mixed feelings about the Project. As many of you know already, I am not convinced that we can really recover an historical Jesus from the types of sources that we have available let alone prove or disprove his existence. Neither of these questions are burning questions for me, although I am certainly interested in recovering the earliest traditions about him.

I do not know how the Project plans to proceed methodologically, which concerns me immensely, especially given the very divergent approaches of the current list of Fellows. I don't know how the Project plans to keep itself away from (anti-)theological agendas guised as historical, and I don't know how the Project plans to keep itself from deconstructing the traditions to nothing.

Perhaps these issues will be resolved in December when the Fellows are supposed to meet for the first time as a group. I don't know yet if I will be in attendance.

Update: August 2, 2007
Doug Chaplin writes a nice piece: a sentence of wit - "Perhaps, if they want to be taken seriously as arbiters of history, they should learn how to tell the truth about the present first, and not create a myth of widespread support from eyewitnesses who are around to deny their involvement."

Other posts I came across on the subject: Jim West, Higgaion, James McGrath


Jared Calaway said...

I received a flyer in the mail about this, but I think I threw it away. I do recall a selling point that all things are up for grabs including Jesus' existence. But, if they plan to use the scientific method (since "science" is in the name fo CSER), I do not think the conversation will go anywhere, since the scientific method/science is of extremely limited utility for the reconstruction of history (outside of things like spectral imaging to read unreadable papyri, etc.). The problem is that history is about probabilities and improbabilities and so is incompatible with scientific inquiry, which demands repeatability and disprovability.

April DeConick said...


If you received a flyer, it is more than I received!

I agree that the scientific inquiry into Jesus is not going to go very far, if that is what they plan to do. Of this, though, I am not sure since methodology has not been laid out as far as I know.

Jared Calaway said...

I see...perhaps they have no method. What would be more interesting is if method itself were a point of debate (necessarily the very first point of debate). Although, the methods for the historical Jesus are so well-known now that people basically know what Jesus they will get when they pick the methods or criteria. I wonder if your historical Jesus readers on this blog know a way around this impasse.

The only thing more annoying than theology parading as history is theology parading as history parading as science.

Leon said...

The question in historical Jesus studies is not whether some definite results can be achieved. The two main questions are: Do you want to know the historical Jesus? And do you want to face the depth of prejudice that has prevented the historical, Jewish Jesus from being known?

Here are a couple of simple points. From day one of historical Jesus studies until today, our culture has blocked some basic historical principles from being applied to the NT. No one ever looks at the shared cultural traditions and memories between Jesus and his Jewish audience. Whenever I read anything in the NT, especially the Gospels, I always ask myself how Jesus' audience would have heard this. How did this reverberate for them? And you can come up with some very interesting answers this way. But absolutely no one in this field ever does this. It is as if there is a will not to know.

So too with Paul. What experince is he writing out of? What are the shared traditions and memories that undulate beneath the surface of what he says?

What is the tradition flowing underneath Mark's account of Judas? These questions can be answered. But this means demonsrating how scholars created a field in which simple historical science must never be practiced. It means talking about a certain kind of corruption in academia. Nobody really wants to know this so we go on pretending that the historical Jesus is a mystery who can never be recovered.

The idea that history cannot be found with any certainty in the Gospels or that they have more theology in them than history is itself a theological assertion, not a historically sensible proposition. Scholars have done everything they can to prevent historical study of the Gospels. There is history there that can easily be demonstrated. Over and over again, theology is used to make it impossible and the common assertion that history cannot be gleaned from the NT is another such theological ploy.

Repeatable experiments are one of the accoutrements of science but they are not the essence. The essence of science is really about examining the evidence and looking for patterns — especially the simplest patterns that reveal what is going on.

I've probably gone on too long. But I find it incredibly frustrating that so much effort goes into preventing good historical study of the NT and then proclaiming that this is good scholarship. And no one is outraged by this?

Leon Zitzer