Saturday, September 22, 2012

What is Known and What is Possible

I was reading a fascinating discussion about the recent discovery of a Coptic papyrus reference Jesus had a wife at the comments section of Mark Goodacre's blog.  Hidden away among the various blogs out there, there exists this oasis of reasonable scholarly opinion.  These are 'experts' who 'know what they are talking about.'  Between them they certainly know what is known about the early Church.  But does that alone make them authorities on what is possible?  This is a very important distinction.

Look at the way Microsoft is an authority on software programming.  They didn't see the Iphone or the Ipad coming.  While some might contend looking at the past is different than looking into the future, I think there is an underlying similarity.  There certainly are large blind spots in our knowledge of early Christianity.  What for instance did the Marcionites actually believe?  Yes we have what a handful of Catholic Church Fathers passed around as 'information' about the sect.  But what do we really know for certain about this tradition or its canon?

I was struck by the fact that all these men shared a basic mindset together.  Perhaps it is the right mind set.  Yet it is important to note that there is a basic agreement that exists among most of them.  They call this 'reasonableness,'  'being informed' or something to that effect.  It certainly comes in no small part from have been schooled at a good university.  Their training however was always to emphasize what is known against what is possible.  This is a fundamental distinction and in many cases biases them with respect to new discoveries which challenge the firmness of this inherited worldview.

If they are the kind of person who likes to be challenged, who accept difference and alternative points of view they might be better suited to evaluate new information than someone who treasures conformity, order and organization.  But how do explain that to a conformist?  On the other hand, someone who is too embracing of radical hypotheses might be too biased in favor of a forgery which was designed to appeal to sympathetic individuals.

I think it all comes down to whether you think the 'right side' won the fourth century.  I think if you believe that Nicaea was a fair shakedown, you probably think any new information which purports to be a 'gospel' is a fake.  It is only a matter then of developing a skillful argument to disprove it as a 'modern' fake in order to help like-minded colleagues to have a good conscience carrying out what comes as second nature for them - that is, ignoring the new information.

As in all social groupings, you see, there are the enablers and the passive observers.

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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