As I believe is reasonably standard, most of the sessions followed the same format with two or three speakers reading a paper, followed by some time for questions, clarification and further discussion. Although there were 3 panel discussions in the afternoon (where we had to choose which of three we would attend) they effectively functioned in the same manner only with smaller audiences and marginally shorter papers.
In the run up to the conference the person I had been most excited about hearing was Geza Vermes. Sadly he had to cancel and his presence was missed in more ways than one. Nevertheless there were a number of other speakers I had heard of including Marcus Bockmuehl who featured in the day's opening session with his paper 'Lessons learned from Reading Scripture with Pope Benedict'. But it was the other two papers in that session that had the greater resonances with the paper from Durham's Walter Moberly provoking the most immediate discussion. Moberly was primarily tackling Benedict's use of Exodus and Deuteronomy in the opening chapter. The Pope links the occurrences of the word "like" in Deut 18:15 and 34:10 and treats it as a specifically messianic prediction about Jesus. Moberly was suggesting that it was more likely that the word "like" had slightly different meanings in each context. This was one of the things I had disagreed with when I'd read the book, so I was surprised to see that many there, including John Millbank, strongly disagreeing with Moberly. Someone remarked that this perhaps highlighted the difference between the Theology types and those from Biblical Studies, an observation that I heard at least once more during the day. Olivier-Thomas Venard gave the session's final paper, and whilst there was little immediate discussion of it, it was referenced a few times throughout the day.
The second session featured papers from Simon Oliver, co-organiser Angus Paddison and Henri-Jérôme Gagey. Oliver and Paddison's papers were very much from the systemmatic theology side of things, and so didn't hugely appeal to me. Gagey's paper took a closer look at Ratzinger's attempt to stand in the gap between faith and historical criticism. Gagey was broadly supportive of the Pope's position, and I was surprised (again) that no-one really seemed to challenge it. Whilst Ratzinger is, in my view, broadly correct that it's a mistake to act solely from either extreme, his approach does seem to be very much more towards the faith end of the spectrum. At the time I had thought that one of the later speakers would perhaps offer a robust challenge to this position, and I imagine that this is very much the role that Vermes would have fulfilled had he been in attendance. Unfortunately no really did. Speaking in the afternoon James Crossley admitted that he had a number of quibbles with it, but deferred us to Gerd Ludemann. All this left things feeling somewhat unbalanced. Prior to the conference I had imagined that many of the papers would criticise Ratzinger on precisely this point. For me, it seems Ratzinger wants to have his cake and eat it. I was reminded of Marcus Borg's question to Tom Wright in 'The Meaning of Jesus' along the lines of "which parts of the gospels would you say were invented by the early church"? In a similar vein, it's difficult to see where he considers the results of historical criticism to challenge the orthodox "faith" position. He's fully entitled to take a literal position on the Transfiguration, but surely he should at least acknowledge, or even refute those who question its historicity.
The afternoon featured the aforementioned panel discussions, and I'd been looking forward to the one featuring James Crossley. I've not read much by Crossley, but know of him from his blog (which had also discussed the conference in advance), his dialogue with Tom Wright and his appearance in Channel 4's Secrets of the 12 Disciples at Easter. His main focus was on the way that Ratzinger, like many of the lives of Jesus since Vermes's 'Jesus the Jew' have presented a Jesus who is "Jewish, but not that Jewish". Unfortunately there was almost no time for questions, and those that were raised largely seemed to have misunderstood what was being said. Crossley gave an abrupt response, but then it was time to rush off. Jane Heath's paper in this session was also interesting. (Edit - Incidentally, Crossley has posted his own review of the day).
Once that session had overrun, we had to creep into the back of Roland Deines's paper 'Can the "Real" Jesus be Identified with the Historical Jesus?' This may have covered more of the material I felt was lacking overall, but we missed the start of it, and then spent the next minutes trying to work out where he was on his notes, and by that time it was largely over. Deines was followed by Mona Siddiqui who discussed the book from an Islamic position. I had hoped to ask her whether she felt its historical criticism / faith position could work as an approach to the Qu'ran, but there were too many questions. That left a final coffee break (with some delicious cake) before Fergus Kerr wrapped things up with a final paper on 'Reckoning with the Originality of Jesus: Where Did Christology Come from?'
Unfortunately, it then took me three and a half hours to get home for what is normally a 15 minute train ride. On the bright side it did mean that I got to spend over an hour chatting it all over with my friend Stu who is doing his PhD at Nottingham.
Overall, I very much enjoyed the occasion, but was surprised at how conservative the discussion was in general. Perhaps this is inevitable for a conference based on a book; generally very few people are prepared to invest the time and/or fork out the money to discuss something they hate. That said, it would have been good if one or two such people had turned up just to spice things up a bit.
Labels: Historical Jesus