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.


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