You can also read the official CFI Press Release that came out shortly afterward (which was picked up pretty much verbatim by major media, e.g. in The Christian Post, though with some interesting revisions of emphasis well worth comparing against the original). But I can speak as my own witness and participant in everything that went on. Being one of the presenters, I was able to interact with all the scholars who read papers at the event, and with the organizer, R. Joseph Hoffmann (an expert on Marcion and the Pagan Critics).
The Aims of the Project
The aim of the Jesus Project is not to vindicate mythicism (the belief that Jesus didn't exist at all), but to test all theories, including mythicism (of every degree, partial and complete), and arrive at a consensus based on objective methods. Hence it doesn't matter who participates in the Project or what their pet theories are: all are committed to pursuing a consensus of some kind, which they concede might not ultimately vindicate their own pet theories. As Dr. J. Harold Ellens suggested, and everyone I spoke with agreed, instead of starting with total confidence in a theory and interpreting all the evidence in light of that theory, we're going to establish agreement on what the evidence is, and then debate where that evidence leads, developing and relying on methods of answering these questions that we can all agree to. Accordingly, establishing these agreements, on both facts and methods, is now the Project's first goal.
This will be like a fourth "Quest for the Historical Jesus" (or fifth or sixth, depending on how you count), with two major differences that shall define the Project:
- It will exclude all theological and dogmatic bias--conservative or liberal (none attending were sympathetic to either the Jesus Seminar or conservative apologetics). It will instead attempt to develop objective methods (which won't inherently favor any pet theory) and establish the facts independently of theory before moving forward. All the scholars present agreed every past Quest had (and has) consistently failed to do either.
- It won't rule out anything just because someone attending thinks it's fringe. They will hear all the Dohertys, Tabors, Eisenmans, MacDonalds, Q-deniers, the lot. Hoffmann is intent on maintaining a wide and critical diversity of scholars in the Project. As his press release says, "Participants represent a wide variety of perspectives, ranging from Tabor's argument that there is substantial evidence that the tomb of the family of Jesus has been located, to the view that the evidence for the existence of Jesus as an historical figure is not persuasive." What we will require is an objective methodology from anyone who intends to argue anything to the group. It won't be a soapbox society. You will either explain how your conclusions can be proved to everyone's satisfaction, or you'll be shown the door.
What Will Be My Involvement?
I am not "officially" a member (an invited fellow) of the Jesus Project, but I have had my toes in the water for years now as R. Joseph Hoffmann (shown at right) tried to get the Project going. As soon as I heard about this Project, I expressed my concern to him that they pay attention to methodology and not become a crankhouse for either mythicism or historicity. And he has expressed nothing but agreement with that. And so far it looks good. His tenor throughout the conference was balanced, highly competent, and broadly critical. And he is very receptive to fair-minded criticisms and suggestions for the Project, including issues of managing its public image (which by all accounts he hasn't done too well).
A question that frequently came up during the conference was "What does it matter? Why do we care?" Everyone had (and has) their own reasons, which are valid for each of them, since everyone has their own interests, questions, concerns, and skillsets. But for me the answer is simply this: I want to know what we can claim to know about Jesus and the origins of the Christian movement (or what we can't claim to know, especially if we can't claim to know anything), and even more than that (because it applies to all historical knowledge, and not just this), I want to know how and why we can claim to know it (or how and why we can't). I'm quite annoyed by the lack of progress in this field, in fact not merely the lack, but even the disintegration of progress, as we get more and more versions of the historical Jesus, rather than going the other way around, with options narrowing toward some sign of consensus.
With an objective methodology, when we input the same facts into the same methods, we will get the same results. So we need to pursue agreement on both facts and methods. The first stage is establishing the facts, and this is in the works. But alongside that must also be an effort to develop an agreement on methods, which first requires identifying what methods we are actually using. So one of the persistent questions that I will keep asking the Project is, "Why should we agree with you? Why is your conclusion probable, rather than improbable, or merely possible?" And I will bring to bear my skills and knowledge to evaluate the merits of the answers, as they come.
Even if we only end up with an "agreement to disagree," I won't let that pass unless by this everyone is conceding that the truth cannot be known reliably enough to be sure that either of us is right (and therefore, that we cannot be dogmatic about our conclusions, or against those of our opponents). If we are unwilling to concede that, then we must be able to show how the truth can be known reliably enough to be sure "we" are right and not our critics. I didn't see any resistance to this plan. Despite the diversity of scholars present (every one of whom held views the others vehemently disagreed with), there was a consensus that we need to pursue a consensus, and pursue it through honest scholarship and sound argument, rather than finding a party line and punishing dissenters.
Are We Just a Bunch of Cranks?
Some said they were down on the Project because James Tabor was prominently associated with it (he's supposedly a crank historicist), while others said they were down on the Project because Frank Zindler was invited to give a paper (he's supposedly a crank mythicist). This is all rather ironic, since being down on the Project for being too sympathetic to historicity and mythicism entails a rather obvious contradiction, and belies instead the fact that the Project isn't "too sympathetic" to either. Citing evidence that we're willing to hear out scholars of wildly diverse perspectives only confirms the validity of what we're doing.
In fact, being "down on the Project" because it invites scholars with such diverse opinions is maddeningly stupid. We'll never get anywhere if we refuse to listen to anyone we disagree with. Our only standards should be rigorous standards. As long as Zindler and Tabor and everyone else tows that party line, they'll be welcome. They understand that. And so should anyone else attempting to judge the Project from the outside. As far as work for the Project is concerned, we'll hold them to high standards, and they us.
Indeed, there is some unfounded prejudice here. The paper Zindler read at the conference was predominately right on target and entirely respectable, even when controversial (and most of his remarks weren't). His command of the languages is impressive, and though I completely disagree with his more controversial theories, holding them up to the fire of strong methodological demands can only be a good thing. Likewise for Tabor. He may advocate just as controversial a position in the area of historicity (diametrically opposite Zindler), but he's no crank. He's a very capable scholar, and a fierce critic of excesses on both sides of the debate. Yes, I think Zindler way over-interprets the Gospels and Tabor way over-interprets certain archaeological finds, but neither is a loon.
Someone also remarked to me that Earl Doherty was down on the Jesus Project because of something critical or flippant Hoffmann had said about him. That's also a bad reason to be down on the Project. All the scholars in attendance have 'badnoted' each other. And most completely disagreed with each other. Yet they were all invited and all got along (with the exception of Eisenmann, as I'll comment later, but that was his own fault). As in the published exchange between Morton Smith and G.A. Wells in Jesus in History and Myth (which was quoted during the conference), Smith opened with something like, "We have nothing at all in common except that each of us holds a position the other regards as absurd." And even they got along and had their fair time to speak (and that was twenty years ago).
In fact, several of the scholars in attendance made a particular point of saying they didn't want anyone drummed out because they held views the others regarded as too radical--even as they had biting things to say about each other behind their backs. They nevertheless wanted to hear everyone who could at least be scholarly and cordial. As I'll note later, Eisenmann was much the former but little the latter (producing some of the more entertaining gossip and drama of the weekend). And some were offended by Robert Price's talk (regarding it as too flippant, although I quite enjoyed it), and some thought Paul Kutz should have spoken a great deal less than he did (I have to agree). But overall the weekend was so filled with superb talks on some real cutting edge stuff that I ended up with a far bigger pile of notes (and of questions and ideas) than I expected I would.
But on that, next time...