Amateur Authorities

Michael Metzger

Unpaid, unorganized amateurs.
It receives millions of hits everyday from around the world. It’s viewed by many to be at least as authoritative as Encyclopedia Britannica – if not more reliable. The compilation process demonstrates the remarkable ability of a community to be self-correcting. And it has challenged the experts who found it inconceivable that a legion of unpaid, unorganized amateurs scattered about the globe could create anything of value, let alone what may one day be the most comprehensive repository of knowledge in human history. Wikipedia is pretty remarkable.

Except that I wasn’t talking about Wikipedia. I was describing how the Bible came to be.

It’s ironic that so many people are skeptical of the Bible while viewing Wikipedia as generally reliable. They both evolved in remarkably similar ways.

The evolutionary process where a body of material is accepted as authoritative is called a “canon.” I copied that from Wikipedia. Admittedly, the story of the Bible’s canon is shrouded in mist for most folks. Protestants hold to 66 books in the Bible. Roman Catholics include 15 more, and that is their canon. The Jewish tradition embraces the 39 books that Protestants and Catholics refer to as the Old Testament. Small wonder it’s confusing.

This process of determining which books were to be included took hundreds of years. It was held together by a loosely-knit community of self-correcting amateurs. The reliability of the books generally increased with the number of eyeballs over the years. Thousands of volumes have been written detailing the progression, including Dr. Bruce Metzger’s Canon of the New Testament (no relation to me – he comes from the deep end of the gene pool).

Wikipedia is also the work of unpaid, unorganized amateurs scattered about the globe. Marshall Roe writes that “Wikipedia has the potential to be the greatest effort in collaborative knowledge gathering the world has ever known, and it may well be the greatest effort in voluntary collaboration of any kind.”¹ Little did founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger know that in launching an online encyclopedia they would rock the world.

Roe reports that Wikipedia had only 17 articles in January 2001. At the end of the year, the site boasted approximately 15,000 articles and about 350 “Wikipedians” (i.e., recognized contributors). As of mid-February 2006, more than 65,000 Wikipedians had contributed to the English-language Wikipedia (which has well over a million articles and expands by about 1,700 a day).

Of course, unpaid amateurs can present a few problems; like errors. But as Poe points out, “the quality of articles generally increases with the number of eyeballs. Given enough eyeballs, all errors are shallow.” The case of journalist John Seigenthaler, whose Wikipedia biography long contained a libel, is an example. When Seigenthaler became aware of the error, he contacted Wikipedia and the community purged the inaccuracy.

Yes, Protestants and Catholics differ on the number of books and there are challenges in reconciling differing views of which books constitute the canon. But that might be an advantage. Rather than blindly accepting what is written, amateur authorities invite inquiry and debate. The quality generally increases with the number of eyeballs.

A lot of folks are skeptical of the Bible because it seemed to come together in a motley manner. If they viewed it as an ancient Wikipedia, their skepticism might be softened. Both canons demonstrate the remarkable power of amateur authorities working in community to assemble some of the most comprehensive repositories of knowledge in human history.

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¹ Marshall Poe, "The Hive," The Atlantic Monthly (September 2006, Volume 298, Number 2) p.86-94

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