Saturday, October 6, 2012

dayton conference on jesus criteria: plowing old soil, planting new fields

I've just spent the past two days at the Dayton conference on the criteria of authenticity in historical Jesus research: Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. As such events always are, this was somehow both mentally exhausting and intellectually invigorating at the same time.

One of the major highlights of any conference, especially small gatherings such as this one (perhaps 40-50 people), is seeing friends and meeting new people. It was great to have lunch before the conference with Mark Goodacre (one of my doctoral supervisors) and Jack Poirier (a contributor to my co-edited book, The Sacred Text). And it was a privilege to make some new acquaintances of some good scholars and good people, too many to mention.

Another major highlight, of course, is the papers. I won't summarize each paper here; for some summary check out Mark Goodacre's two liveblogs (cf. #JesusCriteria), and for the papers themselves check out United Theological Seminary's videos as well as the book edited by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne on which the conference was based. Each paper was good and helpful in its own way; there were no bad papers. For me, though, the stars of the conference were Dale Allison (like Mark, I felt Allison's was "the keynote paper of the conference"), Mark Goodacre himself, and Chris Keith.

I would summarize the main accomplishments of both the book and the conference with the phrase in the title of my blog post: "plowing old soil, planting new fields."

"Plowing old soil..."

I must confess to feeling some disappointment when I began to read the book and then also at the beginning of the conference. Much of both book and conference seemed to be merely compiling the varied critiques of the major authenticity criteria which have been spoken by many scholars for several years. At one point as I was listening, I pulled up my teaching notes on past "Jesus and the Gospels" courses, and there in my notes were described most of the same difficulties with these criteria that I was hearing from the podium. In this respect, the book and conference were old news.

For example, on multiple attestation: how many early, independent sources do we actually have, and how can we be sure they were either really early or truly independent? On double dissimilarity: how can a Jesus separated from either his Jewish world or his subsequent adherents be a historically plausible Jesus? On coherence: how can we escape imposing our own "coherence" upon the material? On embarrassment: if the Gospel authors were really embarrassed by things like Jesus' baptism, why did they even include them?

These questions and others like them have been raised for a while, along with questions on what the authenticity criteria can actually achieve. The best Jesus historians have long acknowledged that these tools have constraints and limits, that no historian approaches Jesus research with impersonal objectivity, that we can never achieve certainty but at best probability, that there's a big difference between getting back to earlier tradition and actually getting back to Jesus, and so on.

Furthermore, scholars such as Dale Allison, James Dunn, Gerd Thiessen and Dagmar Winter, N. T. Wright, and others have already offered a way forward: jettisoning the most problematic criteria and radically re-visioning others. This re-visioning has mostly been done by reducing the number of tools and generalizing them. So, for example, we must keep multiple attestation but think of this in more general terms, on the basis of careful source criticism and a preference for known ancient sources over hypothetical ones. Or, it is important to situate Jesus plausibly within his historical location while still highlighting the distinctive elements of his life and teaching. Or, we should think in larger blocks or groups of traditional material (or, as Allison put it, in large "swaths" of tradition), not atomizing the tradition into small, discrete, contextless units.

As I said, I felt some disappointment with this "old news" at the beginning of the conference. But as it went on, I realized this disappointment was unfair: this work of gathering complaints against the status quo of historical Jesus research needs to be done, and it's helpful to have a collection of such incisive critiques by some top-notch and up-and-coming scholars.

It's as if we have some fruitless soil, overgrown with weeds or just lying fallow, and some are plowing up this old ground.

"Planting new fields..."

It needs to be underscored that there were many at the conference (and with whom I agree) who were not entirely ready to abandon the old fields. I find some of the radical re-visioning of old methods, such as those points noted above, to be helpful and persuasive in doing history related to Jesus. Perhaps most significantly with this re-visioning—and this was strongly suggested at the conference if not stated outright—we must not look at these as "criteria for authenticity" but simply as methods for doing good history, producing a historically plausible and compelling narrative of Jesus.

But there was much talk in the book and at the conference of some innovative ideas in historical Jesus research, ideas which have been put forward in recent years and hold promise for years to come. Three struck me as especially important. The first is a Wirkungsgeschichte analysis, attempting to explain how Jesus could have generated the particular portraits of him that emerged in early Christianity. The second and third are orality/aurality and its newer cousin on the biblical studies block, memory theory. Unfortunately, neither the book nor the conference provided a lot of detail on these approaches, unless I just missed it (possible, as I did miss a couple sessions). But the bits I read and heard left me wanting much more. I suppose it should just whet my appetite and push me to read more of the most recent literature myself.

In these ways, it's as if some are moving into new fields, planting seeds in this fresh soil.

All in all, a great conference around an important topic and a very helpful book, wonderfully hosted by United Theological Seminary, the University of Dayton, and South Park United Methodist Church.

Hmmmm… "Fruitless soil, overgrown with weeds or just lying fallow, plowing up this old ground." "Finding new fields, planting seeds in this fresh soil."

Sounds like the makings of an authentic saying of Jesus. Or at least a true one.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. Thank you. It was helpful. :-)


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