I often find myself attracted to intellectual discussions because it is a good way to engage new perspectives and learn new info. However, it almost always ends up more frustrating than satisfying. There are two factors to this that I’ve observed recently in terms of New Testament discussions.
First off, there are categories of people that just don’t see eye to eye… nor even want to try most of the time. There are: believers, atheists, agnostics, spiritual seekers, philosophers/theologians, scholars, curious bystanders, and of course trolls. Excluding the troll category, I find myself a mix of all of these
An even more basic division are those who want to debate (whether apologists, intellectual, or troll) and those who seek meaning. New Testament studies discussions attract mostly the former type. It consists of people arguing over the validity of some ancient reference or the proper translation of a word. It is rare for people to look at the big picture to see how it all fits together because nobody can agree to even a basic set of facts and premises. This is why mythicists have such a hard time because their position isn’t very convincing when you argue over a single detail. You have to enter the mindset of an ancient person and get at their fundamental perception and understanding of the world. In order to do this, it helps to step outside of ancient texts and engage other types of info from diverse fields (such as ethnology and comparative religion). However, to want to seek out a larger perspective one has to be a meaning seeker and not just an intellectual debater.
This brings me to the second factor New Testament studies isn’t primarily about meaning. Most of the discussion is about how Christianity and the scriptures developed rather than why. This is because considering why can’t as easily be answered, and it would require New Testament scholars (of the academic and armchair varieties) to step outside of their comfort zones. I’ve noticed scholarly types (and those who like to consider themselves as such) tend to stake out a territory. This happens on an individual level and within an entire field of study. Many scholars defend their field from the intrusion of scholars from other fields… even sometimes going so far as to say an authority on history or ancient languages aren’t worthy of commenting on New Testament because that isn’t their specialty (even if they spent their whole life studying the New Testament scholarship). The scholars that dismiss the scholarship of other fields usually do so out of ignorance. Academia has a way of creating tunnel vision.
Robert M. Price talks about this problem (http://www.atheistalliance.org/jhc/Pricejhc.htm). He is a good example of someone who seeks a broader understanding in order to resist getting trapped in the lowest common denominator of scholarly consensus. He writes about higher criticism, theology, apologetics, literary theory, comparative religion, and mythicism… along with unscholarly subjects such as Lovecraft’s horror writing and superheroes. More importantly, he refuses to identify entirely with any given theory.
Price is on the Jesus Project. I have some hope that the Jesus Project may open up the New Testament field. I was reading Richard Carrier’s view on it in his blog (http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2008/12/jesus-project.html) It sounds like the project is trying to get past the biases of past New Testament scholarship. No scholar is being rejected because their theory isn’t consensus opinion, and the participating scholars will actually judge eachother’s theories based on the the strength of the scholarship. Gee golly! What a concept! Carrier has another blog where he discusses the problems of the field in reference to a book he is writing about historicism (http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2008/09/ignatian-vexation.html). He points out how New Testament scholars don’t follow the standard practices of historians in other fields. This is probably because the field has been controlled by apologists for centuries now. Interestingly, Carrier’s opinion about older scholarship (http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/04/history-before-1950.html) disagrees with the opinion of Price (in the link from the above paragraph).
However, the Jesus Project doesn’t go far enough for me. I’d like to see some similar project about early Christianity that included scholars from all relevant fields: historians from other fields, ancient language expterts, literary theorists, comparative religionists, comparative mythologists, folklorists, archaeologists (including archaeoastronomers), anthropologists (including ethnologists and ethnoastronomers), astrotheologists, experts on ancient theology and philosophy, and New Testament higher critics. I’d only exclude apologists if they lacked appropriate objectivity. The basis of this project would be determining standards across fields in order to encourage discussion. I can dream.