All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.
In Nailed David Fitzgerald (DF) wrote:
It’s true enough that the majority of Biblical historians do not question the historicity of Jesus – but then again, the majority of Biblical historians have always been Christian preachers, so what else could we expect them to say? (p. 16)
Tim O’Neill (TO) responded:
glib, but it is alsotoo simplistic. Many scholars working in relevant fields may well be Christians (and a tiny few may even be “preachers” as he claims, though not many), but a great many are definitely not.
Leading scholars like Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Paula Fredriksen and Gerd Ludemann are all non-Christians. Then there are the Jewish scholars like Mark Nanos, Alan Segal, Jacob Neusner, Hyam Maccoby and Geza Vermes. Even those scholars who describe themselves as Christians often hold ideas about Jesus that few church-goers would recognise, let alone be comfortable with and which are nothing like the positions of people like Geivett and McDowell. Dale C. Allison, E P Sanders and John Dominic Crossan may all regard themselves as Christians, but I doubt Josh McDowell would agree, given their highly non-orthodox ideas about the historical Jesus. (O’Neill 2011)
Surprisingly, O’Neill takes objection when I point out something I didn’t expect anyone to have an issue with: that even though the majority of Biblical historians reject the idea that Jesus never existed, the majority of Biblical historians have always been Christian preachers, so what else could we expect them to say? O’Neill insists many scholars may well be Christians and allows that a tiny few (but not many) may be preachers, but “a great many” are definitely not.
I’d be willing to grant him that there are probably more non-Christian biblical scholars today than ever before, but that doesn’t change the fact that from the beginning, biblical studies have always been dominated by Christian clergy of various denominations – and remain so. One simply has to flip through a standard history of biblical studies, or take a roll call of the Society of Biblical Literature any time since its founding in 1880 to quickly see that not only do they freely admit that the entire field was originally an apologetic endeavor, but there has scarcely been a member who was not also a pastor, priest or rabbi.
Even in secular circles today, it is difficult to find a biblical scholar who does not come out of a religious background – even those without a divinity degree. Rabbi Jon D. Levensen, one of today’s most prominent Jewish biblical scholars, notes
“It is a rare scholar in the field whose past does not include an intense Christian or Jewish commitment.” (The Hebrew Bible: The Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies, Westminster John Knox Press, 1993, p. 30)
What’s more, as religious scholar Timothy Fitzgerald (no relation) notes in The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford University Press, 2000), even among former believers, theological assumptions are pervasive:
“even in the work of scholars who are explicitly non-theological, half-disguised theological presuppositions persistently distort the analytical pitch.” (p. 6-7)
My own two bits:
Maurice Casey (whom TO includes in his list as a “non-Christian”) is as much in a love-hate relationship with Christianity as is our friend R. Joseph Hoffmann. Casey was the son of a parish priest and studied theology as his first degree. He lost his faith, however, so turned to Classics apparently in order to enhance his employment prospects. Note how incensed he becomes at anything so slight and innocuous that he can somehow interpret as a slight on Christian piety! His little bio and subsequent habits help explain why he is antagonistic towards certain atheist criticisms of the Church. (I can hate my family but if you do I’ll defend them to the death!)
Biblical scholar James Crossley (not a Christian) even quotes Maurice Casey’s own words in support of DF’s position. In the same article Crossley points out a little habit found among meetings of Biblical scholars that is unique — the number of such meetings that open with prayer! See Partisanship in New Testament Scholarship for details and links.
Trying to argue that the likes of Crossan, Allison, et al are not orthodox or conservative Christians is quite beside the point. All Christianity, of whatever stripe, is defined by its fundamental doctrine that God acted in history in the person of Jesus. Take away that teaching and Christians have, as Peter Kirby points out in his recent post, nothing really distinctively Christian to talk about.
John Spong and Marcus Borg and Dale Allison and John Crossan base their faith squarely on the belief in an historical Jesus as surely as do the Josh McDowells do for their own brand of Christianity. In further support of this I suggest that anyone who has read any of their works on Jesus will notice their own confessional faith statements somewhere in their works, if not in the preface than surely in the concluding chapter(s).
Recall, also, our recent observation of John Meier’s confession that the “quest for the historical Jesus” really is, in effect, a theological quest in disguise.
Lest someone turn all this around to suggest that those who are not convinced that Jesus was historical have chosen to reject the works of all the above scholars because they are Christians, I direct you to Tim Widowfield’s About Justice, Love, and Peace . . . and That “Nice Guy” from Emory and the many posts on this blog positively addressing arguments of Christian scholars and non-Christians alike, “mythicist” and “historicist” of either stripe.
Then there’s Part 2 of Hector Avalos’s The End of Biblical Studies, “The Infrastructure of Biblical Studies”. That section alone ought to be enough to put to rest any notion of that biblical scholars are as free from theological bias in their outputs as we would expect any other researcher in any other field to be.
Unless I missed it I don’t believe TO made any further reference to DFs defence of his position (O’Neill 2013).