In general the conference revealed some cutting edge stuff in the works. Later this year or the next, Prometheus Books will publish the conference papers (or rather, improved and lengthened versions of them, e.g. my chapter in that book will be rather different from my actual talk, which was largely off-the-cuff, but most of the content will be the same). That should appear as Sources of the Jesus Tradition: An Inquiry, the same title as the conference. I'll blog that when it's released. There was also a video made of the proceedings, but their sound capture was so inconsistent I suspect little of that will be produced for the public.
A note of warning and apology before I begin. My remarks below are largely based on subjective personal impressions. They are my own opinions, the way things seemed to me. So when I get critical, for example, I'm just telling it as I saw it. I believe in the role of historians as the rewarders and punishers of the good and the bad with their condemnations and praise, since nothing will get better if failings are never openly criticized, and it's with praise that we inspire more of the best. So if I piss anyone off, sorry.
The opening day (Friday, December 5th) we were shown a video from a previous conference by CSER in which John Dominic Crossan received an award and gave an acceptance speech in which he asked that a future conference be organized to answer the question of how you would prove any person in history actually existed. And he connected this specifically to Jesus studies, asking us to establish what method would determine a historical person really existed, like Jesus. The skepticism inherent in his remarks, and his attention to the need of actually answering this question in a formal and resolute way, came as a surprise to me (and I think to many others present). Though he didn't attend, this conference was a preliminary attempt to answer Crosson's request.
Then came an introductory panel talk in which Paul Kurtz delivered a rambling, overlong, and frequently inaccurate keynote speech. This was something of a disaster, but a rare one of the weekend. I know it's impolitic to speak ill of the Grand Lord of Humanism (legend has it his wrath is reminiscent of Ruper Murdoch on a bad day), but I'm a suicidally honest man, and I honestly have to say there was no reason for this speech other than to please the Kurtz fans in the audience. Since that's where the money comes from, I suppose this was a practical tactic, though that's generally not how scholarly conferences are oriented.
Kurtz's speech was so full of historically naive or inaccurate statements that it seems to have embarrassed some of the scholars. I got the impression some were growing concerned over what they'd gotten into. We were all sitting roughly near each other, and I at the back of our group, and I could discern a lot from monitoring my colleague's reactions and overhearing some of their exchanges. I also discussed it with some of them later on. Unfortunately I didn't take notes, so I can't recall specifics. If I ever review the video again I'm sure I can make a list. But I distinctly recall numerous whispers in the audience of such actual words as "embarrassing" and "long-winded," and some of the experts were literally shaking their heads and muttering "no" to various claims he was making about their subject field. Not good.
Kurtz is not a historian of antiquity or biblical literature, so he really shouldn't have delivered the keynote anyway. True, I'll grant you, Kurtz's speech was called "Opening Remarks" rather than "Keynote Address," but a rose by any other name... Keynotes are traditionally delivered by a prestigious scholar who is thus honored by being assigned that role for the respect he or she has among the conference peers (not the audience, the speakers). So one of the most prestigious of the scholars invited would have been a better candidate, or the organizer R.J. Hoffman himself, who was far more qualified for this role (and whose own speech at this point I think rescued the day and restored the faith of the scholars attending).
In fact, as best I can tell, most if not all the scholars there were impressed by Hoffmann, as both a scholar and a moderator, and were very happy to see him in charge of the project. His opening was on "Jesus 'Projects' and the Historical Jesus: Receding Conclusions," which made the entirely sound point that Jesus is getting more vague, ambiguous, and uncertain the more scholars study him, rather than the other way around. Something is fishy about that. We are multiplying contradictory images, rather than narrowing them down and increasing clarity (or solidifying our state of uncertainty or ignorance). As Hoffmann said, all these versions of Jesus seem entirely plausible, and yet most of them must be false (logically, after all--only one of them can actually be accurate, and that at best). Which means even such an indicator as compelling plausibility cannot be regarded as a marker of truth. (I would add that this is as much true for mythicism as historicism.)
Altogether the opening included Hoffmann, Robert Price, and Gerd Lüdemann, each giving some preliminary remarks. Everyone respects Lüdemann, and I could tell many were glad he was there. And though most of the scholars I found were unhappy with Price, finding him a bit of a kook, I found him funny and erudite and generally right. None of his more controversial claims were on display here, even if his delivery was perceived as flippant or snide. But then again, there's no pleasing everyone (as I found in reaction to our very different styles in the Carrier/Barker-Rajabali/Corey debate).
Session 1: Evidence & Methods
After some additional preliminaries, Saturday (the 6th) began with Ronald Lindsay's "Assessing the Evidence: Philosophical and Legal Perspectives." Lindsay is a lawyer and legal scholar, and fully conceded he wasn't going to tell us historians our business, but only pose us some questions. And he did. He provided a valid logical analysis of the problem of historicity, correctly framing the sorts of questions we need to be answering, such as what counts as evidence, what evidence can we trust (illustrating the problem here with parallels from the Federal Rules of Evidence), or what it even means to say that Jesus existed (Jesus who? What sort of Jesus? How much detail is necessary to count as the Jesus? Which details? Etc. He used the apt analogies of Agamemnon and Moses here).
His talk really sold me on the idea of including philosophers and other academics in the Project, not to act as historians, but to help raise and frame issues in a way historians need but often overlook. For example, Lindsay pointed out that sometimes stories are fabricated not to advocate a dogma but simply because people like to hear them. Of course, that's a related motive, since there must be a reason they like it, and that would be the point of fabricating the story, but his point was that there is a tendency to assume that if a story didn't support any particular religious dogma that therefore it's likely true, but that doesn't logically follow. He likewise expressed dismay at the fact that there was still no consensus yet on what the Gospels were even meant to communicate. He also used Plato's dialogues as an example of the rapid fabrication of sayings and conversations of a historical person (it is generally acknowledged that these are not a verbatim record, and often not even true at all, of what Socrates said), proving two points in one: that rapid fabrication of unchallenged legends is not improbable but in fact routine, and that such fabrication does not entail the non-historicity of the speaker.
So we were off to a good start. Frank Zindler was next, with his "Prologomena to a Science of Christian Origins." Zindler is somewhat infamous for excessive skepticism (such as doubting even the historical existence of Capernaum) while ironically advancing astrological theories of a mythical Jesus that strain plausibility, and that despite having no relevant degrees (that I know of), but he's a member of the Jesus Seminar, and a bona fide master of biblical languages, and (literally) a scientist, which was the real impetus for his topic today (just as legal logic was for Lindsay). Some of his remarks were a bit too provocative and may have worried some of the presenters, but most of what he had to say was entirely sound and valid.
His topic was methodological. He decried the sorry state of NTS or New Testament Studies (along lines surprisingly similar to my recent blog on the same subject, although using different and more generic examples), and then made actual recommendations on how to fix it. Mainly, this involved a call for producing more rigorous and user-friendly databases of the evidence and scholarship, so it would be easier to examine the evidence and discover what's actually been done (this is notably a deplorable problem in the field, as far more has been published than anyone even knows, and by "far more" I'm talking about a scale truly beyond belief). Though all his recommendations were sound, IMO they were beyond any available means to accomplish (as the cost to implement them would be prohibitive, even for the wealthiest institutions even willing to spend money on NTS in the first place). He rightly noted that comparable projects are routinely accomplished in the sciences (using Chemical Abstracts as an example), but the scale of funding available for the sciences is Olympian by comparison. Nevertheless, his point was well made. The absence of such a resource does expose some major root sources of problems in the field, which we must address somehow, even if we can't solve them in the way he proposes.
Last in this session was me, Richard Carrier. My talk was on "Bayes' Theorem for Beginners: Formal Logic and Its Relevance to Historical Method." My remarks on this subject were based on and drew from (and were expanded in) an online adjunct document that is available online (as a multi-section PDF, Adjunct Materials and Tutorial, which includes the handout I gave to the audience and an improved version of the tutorial I gave during lunch--which a lot of people surprisingly attended). The chapter that will appear in the upcoming Prometheus book on the conference will be a superior combination of that and what I said in the conference.
The gist of my paper came in two parts, which were both well received: (1) that the method currently employed (of building and using historicity criteria) is fatally flawed (both in logic and in practice) to the point of bankruptcy, and has to be replaced (a conclusion that is not my own, but is already the rising view in the community, particularly demonstrated of late in the works of Porter, Theissen, and Winter); and (2) that the only available solution to this problem lies in Bayes' Theorem (which I argued represents all sound historical reasoning even when we don't know it, then I described the structure and logic of the theorem in a manner pertinent to historians, and addressed a few common objections to it). Though I think much of the material on Bayes' Theorem went over the heads of most, and of course I couldn't convince anyone in such a short talk that this is the way to go, it was a necessary first step, and something I can build on (as indicated by the interest and response I received).
Session 2: Paul, Mythologies, and the 'Evidence' of Earliest Christianity
After lunch Saturday we started again with Gerd Lüdemann's rather brilliant paper on "Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus." I say brilliant because it was surprisingly brief and succint, yet thorough, persuasive, and spot on. (For those who don't know, Dr. Lüdemann is a widely respected professor of New Testament Studies at Georg-August-University, Göttingen, with a considerable body of books and papers, and who was famously fired from an earlier professorship for no longer believing in Jesus, cf. resources at the Secular Web). Lüdemann was actually startled by the conclusion of his research on this subject, which is that Paul's epistles show no knowledge of a historical Jesus beyond a few generic and stylized declarations of dogma.
To be precise, he concludes there is no reliable evidence regarding the historical Jesus in Paul's letters. Lüdemann stops well short of concluding they don't support his existence. He devoted some time to arguing that some evidence in the epistles shows Paul knew of such a person, he just didn't know anything about him that we would consider useful. Instead, Lüdemann finds, Paul's Jesus was clearly not based on the earthly Jesus at all (even if there was one) but the celestial Jesus that Paul in fact talks about constantly.
Though Lüdemann is still defending historicity, his findings were self-confessedly cold comfort to historicists, which is a trend I'm seeing of late. Dennis MacDonald, for instance, once acknowledged (or so I'm told) that most if not all the names of persons intimately connected to Jesus in the Gospels may be mytho-symbolic creations, and (as he more or less said at the conference) that the Gospels as a whole are essentially literary inventions rather than histories, yet he stops short of concluding from this that Jesus didn't exist, and even defends historicity by various arguments. But you can see what direction this trend is heading. Despite the efforts of Christian apologists like Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd to reverse this trend (e.g. in the anti-mythical The Jesus Legend), their arguments are heaped with special pleading and question begging, while mainstream scholars seem to be moving the other way.
Philippa Carter of MacMaster University in Canada was due to present "In Good Faith: What Have They Done with Paul?" but she couldn't make the conference. Hector Avalos, the famously pugnacious professor of religious studies at Iowa State University, was also due to present "Jesus and the 'End' of Biblical Studies" the following day, but a sudden family emergency kept him home as well. I was especially keen to meet him, as I had just looked over his recent and provocative The End of Biblical Studies, and discovered it's a hyperbolic but often correct rant on what a total cockup New (and Old) Testament Studies has become (coincidentally corroborating, in broader scope, what I had earlier reported in my research on Ignatius), and because he's done work in ancient science, my principal field. However, I don't know whether their papers will be included in the book, and I don't know what they were going to argue.
But in lieu of what we lost came Justin Meggitt's outstanding "Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions." Meggitt is a director of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge and clearly well versed in classical history and literature (he is also one the growing crowd of experts who are recently coming to doubt and reject the Q hypothesis). His published paper is going to be an absolute goldmine of resources and data on the comparative evidence of the ubiquity and rapidity of mythmaking in ancient Greco-Roman culture generally. Which makes for simple math: having showed that this was routine in the culture that produced the New Testament, we can no longer treat the New Testament as if it were somehow special or immune to the general trends and behaviors of the time. He concludes "we should expect mythmaking at [even] the earliest stage of the tradition."
Session 3: The Sayings of Jesus
Everything was so awesome up to this point. But then up went Robert Eisenman (formerly of CSU Long Beach, now working at Oxford). He's the author of quite a few controversial books, advancing a theory of the origins of Christianity that I consider as far-fetched and bizarre as most historicists consider any mythicism to be. His talk this day was weirdly titled "Every Plant Which My Heavenly Father Has Not Planted Shall Be Uprooted: An Inquiry into the Sources of Certain Sayings of Jesus," which as far as titles go was presciently long, as his talk was equally annoying, and he rambled on far beyond his allotted time, to the point that fellow scholars in the audience started standing up and openly shouting for him to shut up already (no, I kid you not).
I have to admit, if I had the balls I would have been one of them. At one point in his talk, for no clear reason, he read (verbatim) the entire (and rather elaborate and uninformative) table of contents of his new book The New Testament Code: The Cup of the Lord, the Damascus Covenant, and the Blood of Christ, which advances the thesis (as far as I can tell--I found the book so rambling and disorganized it was practically impossible for me to follow or understand) that the entire New Testament is a deliberate parody of an equivalent collection of documents at Qumran (plus various consequent theories even stranger still). He even read the entire Dead Sea Damascus Document without pause or commentary (hence also to no useful purpose). Making things worse, in subsequent roundtables his interruptive and paranoid manner pretty much pissed off everyone in attendance, until he eventually snuck out of town in the middle of the night before the conference even concluded.
Okay, I'm gossipping. But honestly, this is behavior well deserving of a literary bitch slap. So there it is. His talk was essentially a summary of his argument in The New Testament Code, with emphasis on his claims to have found secrets to the history of the church in the writings of Josephus, whom he claims actually speaks frequently of the Chrisian Paul under the name Saul (a prominent Jewish ambassador whom Josephus often talks about), and other such claims that IMO are no less fringe than anything you might hear from Earl Doherty or Joseph Atwill. I got the distinct impression (reminiscent of Acts 26:24) that he's become passionately seduced by an elaborate retrofitting fallacy as a consequence of reading the Dead Sea Scrolls one (hundred thousand) too many times. But that's just me. Moving on.
Next up was Dennis MacDonald, a professor at Claremont School of Theology, whose work on the emulation of Homer in the Gospels I've long admired (see my old review of his first book on this subject). His theory of Homeric emulation is certainly correct as a whole, although I think he over-interprets many cases, where there probably was no intended connection. I find emulation of the Septuagint in the Gospels is far more extensive and fundamental, extending even to their overall structure, and the Homeric link only a secondary addition padded on. Now I learn MacDonald is heading in that direction, too. In fact, his conference paper was an enormous surprise to me, and brilliant, heralding a book he is currently writing (and shared excerpts of before the conference began, and summarized in his talk), which solves the Synoptic problem in a way that is not only entirely novel, but IMO most probably correct.
[Update: After further inquiry, having now read MacDonald's book on it (Two Shipwrecked Gospels) and further on the Q thesis, I am no longer persuaded, but I will agree his is the second best theory of the contents of the Synoptics. The best is simply that Luke is redacting Matthew. Which I think we should just accept already.]
After reading recent work criticizing the traditional Q theory (e.g. Goodacre's The Case Against Q and Goodacre & Perrin's Questioning Q) I was starting to despair that we'd ever have a coherent and defensible theory of the relationship of Mark, Matthew, and Luke and their lost sources (and once again starting to realize that New Testament scholars love to parrot a consensus built on sand as if it were settled on rock). Then along comes MacDonald and his new thesis, completely departing from his focus on Homer, and tackling the Synoptic problem, and yet nailing it in a way I didn't expect anyone could. I'm not sure everyone was convinced, but I'm also not sure they read through all the materials he had circulated.
In a nutshell, he argues that Luke used as his sources the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (as Q-deniers have long maintained), as well as the Dominical Logia referred to by Papias, and that in fact this Dominical Logia was used as a source by all three Synoptic Gospels, Mark included, and in effect represents the original (and now lost) Gospel of Jesus (as I would put it). The clincher for me is the fact that a surprising effect arises from the reconstruction that follows from his theory: the Dominical Logia appears to be a mythical emulation and transvaluation of the Septuagint book of Deuteronomy. As this fit is highly improbable unless MacDonald's reconstruction is correct, I think MacDonald is going to win this argument in the long run.
Another thing MacDonald argues (in fact, IMO, even more convincingly) is that Luke-Acts was written after Papias and is in fact a deliberate response to Papias and the Gospel situation he described and lamented. His demonstration of this fact is fairly persuasive (e.g. Luke's preface is so obviously an emulation and transvaluation of Papias' remarks that it's a Eureka moment when you see it). MacDonald dates Papias early, however, c. 100 A.D., but this still puts Luke-Acts 105-115 A.D. (which actually agrees with the recent trend in Luke-Acts studies, e.g. the latest work of Richard Pervo and David Trobisch, below). I'm skeptical of his date for Papias, however, since it's based solely on the tense of a single verb implying he knew living Disciples of Jesus (but that interpretation is not so secure, IMO, nor is Papias reliable enough to trust on such a point) and contradicts the report in Irenaeus that Polycarp and Papias were good friends (since Polycarp is mid-to-late second century).
Nevertheless, his take on these things will be argued (with thorough scholarship and clear reasoning) in his next book, so keep your eye out for it. That will also contain a reconstruction of the lost Dominical Logia, which I expect will eventually replace what we now mean by Q. Throughout the conference MacDonald emphasized that his work and others' essentially entail the Gospels should be entirely taken off the table when attempting to get at the historical Jesus, as they are not at all useful for any historical data (almost the same conclusion reached by Burton Mack, Randel Helms, and many other mainstream scholars of recent times). In MacDonald's view, we can only extract from the Gospels what their contents meant to their authors (their underlying meaning, and purpose for being written), and he recommends this is all we can do, and thus all we should do. I partly disagree, as there is still work to be done first (as I'll explain below), but I think in the end he's right.
Last in this session was Bruce Chilton, professor of Religion at Bard College, and an expert in Judaism (author of Rabbi Jesus, for example, presenting the historical Jesus as an ordinary Jewish activist and not the radical counter-cultural Jew Christians want him to have been). His talk, on "Aramaic Jesus Traditions: Evidence and Reconstruction," consisted of announcing and describing the new online Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon and his recent work on the Jewish Targumic literature which reveal Jewish precedents (in sayings and prophecies) for many of the sayings and acts of Jesus, which are too often overlooked because scholars focus on the modern critical editions instead of the many rewrites of the bible that actually circulated in antiquity (and thus would have been used by actual Christians). His find of a Targumic source for the cleansing of the Temple was an interesting example. He also combined the two subjects by discussing how both can be used to reconstruct the original Aramaic of Jesus' teachings (but admittedly only speculatively).
Session 4: The Formation of Jesus Traditions
The last session of the day started with James Tabor's "Leaving the Bones Behind: A Resurrected Jesus Tradition with an Intact Tomb" (emphasis his). Tabor is chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and perhaps most infamous for his support of the conclusion that the Talpiot Tomb is genuinely that of Jesus (in truth he only maintains that it could be, but he seems convinced, probably because it dovetails so neatly with his own bold theory about Jesus' family in The Jesus Dynasty), among other things (and he and I have tustled over that in the past). But he's well-qualified, and his paper at the conference was revealing and well-argued.
As the title suggests, he claims to have found evidence of a resurrection-appearance tradition for Jesus that never included the discovery of an empty tomb (and in such a way that suggests the original version of the appearance stories preceded the addition of the empty tomb element). Though the best evidence he would need to confirm this is lost, so his theory is not conclusive, the evidence he has is tantalizing enough to consider his conclusion an undismissable possibility. Basically, the second appearance narrative in the Gospel of Peter (GPet 14) contains elements clearly supporting the conclusion that it derives from a tradition that had no knowledge of an empty tomb, and the second ending of John (GJn 21) appears to derive from that same tradition, i.e. both indicate differing redactions of the same earlier story. The most telltale element (clearest in GPet) is that in both versions the Disciples have gone back to their workaday lives in Galilee as if defeated, with no apparent idea that Jesus has risen from the dead or that anything miraculous had happened yet at all (which entails there had been no report to them of an empty tomb--and I would add: the original ending of Mark, GMk 16:8, does in fact imply that was the case).
To my surprise, Tabor also spent some time defending my two-body theory of the resurrection, as being the view of Paul and the earliest Christians, without in fact knowing I had defended that very theory (and quite comprehensively, in The Empty Tomb, and more briefly in a recently-concluded debate with Jake O'Connell). This inspired me to ask around and I found none of the scholars present seemed to find this theory untenable. Bruce Chilton even noted that he himself defends it in Rabbi Paul (pp. 57-58). So I have more names to add to the list of scholars who agree with me on this.
By an accident of fate I ended up spending a lot of time with Tabor (and his friend Art Droge, below) over the whole weekend, and I have to say I really like Tabor. He's sharp, funny, self-deprecating, easy-going, reasonable, well-informed, and passionate about his views. His friend Art was good company, too, engaging and ballsy (in an entirely admirable way), and he has some fascinating projects in the mix that I'm looking forward to.
Then up was David Trobisch (who studied under Theissen and was most recently professor of the New Testament at Bangor Theological Seminary). I was very keen to hear his talk, after reading his provocative "Who Published the Christian Bible?" in CSER Review 2.1 (2007: pp. 29-32) and finding it very convincing in light of other research I've done. His talk summarized some of the elements of this, and his book The First Edition of the New Testament (2000) well beyond his CSER article, which altogether made his case even more convincing.
What is his argument? That the present New Testament canon is based on an actual four-volume codex edition published around 150 A.D. (+/- 20 years), partly in response to Marcion (Trobisch has also argued that Polycarp is the most likely redactor and publisher--although he admits we can't prove this, several clues make Polycarp a strong candidate). Trobisch's case fits the evidence so well, and explains so much so well, it's hard to doubt he's right (at least in most respects). Trobisch also makes a good case that the named authors of the Gospels were fictional additions invented at this time, when the whole NT also underwent considerable redactional activity that essentially solidified what we now call the Textus Receptus (and therefore, IMO, this is actually as far back as we can reconstruct the text--what the documents looked like before this publication is almost entirely inaccessible to us now).
I must say I'm convinced. He brilliantly employs physical evidence, paleography, literary and textual analysis, and other well-established tools and facts (some of it often overlooked), which all converges on the same conclusions. Trobisch's argument also entails, BTW, a late date for our Luke-Acts (which was heavily redacted from earlier drafts now lost, as has long been argued already, e.g. Strange's The Problem of the Text of Acts 1992), and corroborates MacDonald's conclusion that even the original Luke-Acts is late. Indeed, the world's leading expert on Acts, Richard Pervo, now argues (on similar and additional evidence) that Luke-Acts dates to the first half of the 2nd century, in Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists (2006). So this seems to be the trend today in biblical scholarship on Luke-Acts. (FYI, though Pervo was recently convicted of collecting child pornography--ironically, considering his name--that may impugn his character, but not his scholarship, which is still top notch and well respected).
After this came A.J. Droge (Tabor's friend Art), professor of literature at the University of Toronto at Scarborough (and co-author of several books on ancient Christianity), who read his paper "Jesus and Ned Lud[d]: What's in a Name?" which I found unexpectedly fascinating. Droge confessed he was an agnostic about the historicity of Jesus and might even be leaning to the conclusion that Jesus was apocryphal. And the gist of his paper was pretty much that: that just as Ned Ludd (the apocryphal father of the Luddite movement) is likely ahistorical, and even if not, unrecoverable (and therefore, either way, only the mythical Ned Ludd can be studied now, so that's all we should study, much the same conclusion MacDonald maintained at the conference), so, too, for Jesus. He argued the analogy holds, but he and others conceded that more comparative studies like this are needed before we can be certain.
To this end, Droge summarized the latest research on Ned Ludd and drew some parallels with the extant Jesus tradition. Like Jesus, Ludd had many contradictory traditions arise about him well within a century--in fact many quite rapidly, within 40 years of his alleged techno-sabotage in 1779, an event that historians have failed to find any evidence of, or of the man at all, yet by 1810 he was a revered hero and imagined founder of a movement (or several originally unrelated movements) of antitechnocrats. Soon all manner of stories were circulating about him, even fake letters by him were written as early as 1812, and novels about his life within decades of that.
Droge argued that since it's silly to try and find the "historical" Ned Ludd (whether he existed or not), it's just as silly to try and find the "historical" Jesus (ditto). At some point in the conference I made the counter-point to Droge that a common explanation for any given Christian tradition about Jesus is that Jesus actually said or did something (or people reacted to something Jesus said or did) that inspired that tradition. So we cannot presume Droge is correct that we cannot recover any history about Jesus. Droge (or anyone else who shares his view) has to demonstrate that all such arguments (i.e. every attempt to explain specific traditions by appealing to some underlying historicity) are invalid or unsound. That would be a valuable achievement in its own right. But it must actually be done before moving on to Droge's desired project of only studying the traditions as traditions, rather than as vehicles for preserving kernels of historical fact. Achieving one or the other (i.e. proving Droge either right or wrong about this) is exactly what the Jesus Project should be about. So I found his paper a good wake-up call to the real problem we need to solve.
Session 5: Summary and Positions
Throughout the weekend there were several roundtables and Q&A's, blurring into casual meetings and exchanges and conversations, in which I learned a great deal. There was also some reorganizing of the schedule due to the scholars who couldn't make it. Sunday was officially occupied by Session 5, the final round of papers for the weekend, but one change was made: Price's paper was supposed to be delivered in Session 2, but was instead moved to Sunday, and was the last paper read.
But first scheduled was R. Joseph Hoffmann who gave a well-tempered talk on "Heretics and the Role of the Canon in Delimiting the Historical Jesus," on the simple point that much (if not all) that was ever claimed about Jesus was driven by ideological battles rather than what we would consider an objective inquiry into the historical facts, and we have to take this seriously in any effort to reconstruct a historical Jesus. Robert Price followed him with "The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus," bringing up the examples of fabricated sayings (and biography) for Jesus in the Infancy Gospels, and then elaborating on the comparative analogy of the legendary development of the Islamic Hadith, the oral traditions about the deeds and sayings of Mohammed and his circle.
Just as it's impossible to honestly reconstruct which if any of the Hadith sayings really came from Mohammed (not least because the evidence shows sayings and stories were freely invented, even consciously invented, to serve ideological interests), so, too, the sayings of Jesus. Or so Price argued. But whether the analogy carries over completely or not, he's right that this presents us with a methodological parallel at the very least. Even the Mishnah, BTW, was the same thing: alleged traditions of legal matters handed on by Moses by spoken word rather than in the written Torah, and then (supposedly) "preserved" orally for a thousand years. The Talmuds were the same again, this time for oral traditions of Rabbis interpreting the Mishnah. But the issue, I think, comes down to how quickly this can happen, and that's where the battle will be fought.
That concludes what went on at the conference. All of it was fascinating, useful, and indicative of new cutting edge work in the field. Well worth my time. The next conference is being scheduled for mid-2009, probably Chicago, provided it's funded. I haven't heard yet whether I'll be invited again, but the odds are good--provided Kurtz doesn't get pissed at my candor and blacklist me. In any case, I'll say more when I know.