2013-12-27

O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate #3, Are Most Biblical Historians Christian Preachers?

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by Neil Godfrey

nailed

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All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.

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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:

This is glib, but it is also too 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)

DF answered:

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)

Again, see “Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?” for a deeper examination of these fundamental issues. . . . . (Fitzgerald, 2012)

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).

2 Comments

  • 2013-12-28 00:15:33 UTC - 00:15 | Permalink

    More wish fulfillment from O’Neill. Jesus Studies is somehow a pure science practiced by serious, objective historians who are only interested in the truth, with no theological or social agendas? Give me a break. The only reason why teenagers go to Seminary schools is the 24/7 church indoctrination that they’ve been subject to since birth, as Ehrman’s memoirs readily attest to.

    “In the last twenty years or so there has been a major shift in biblical studies. Consensus even about method has broken down, and the field is now a battleground of conflicting approaches, with no agreed conclusions any longer.

    “This can intensify a popular feeling among believing Christians and Jews that biblical scholars are the enemies of faith. In fact, most biblical scholars the world over are religious believers themselves, though not always of a very orthodox kind. NEARLY ALL ARE CHRISTIANS, but in recent years biblical studies have been practiced more among Jewish scholars. Only in very recent years have agnostics and even atheists come to take an interest in the bible, partly because of the turn to literary and sociological interpretations … But a religious motivation for biblical study is still the predominant one.

    “…for most people who study the Bible the concern remains, as it has always been, to yield results that are helpful and informative for religious believers. Until the last couple of decades this was achieved through what is called “the historical critical method” – not really a method, more a series of questions that can be put to the text, a particular style of interrogating it.”

    Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology (2004)
    Chapt. 2 – Biblical Studies by John Barton


    I’ve taken the liberty to bold-highlight some of the above. — Neil


  • Blanche Quizno
    2013-12-28 07:13:58 UTC - 07:13 | Permalink

    “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.”

    That surprises me as well. Is this a matter of nitpicking, along the lines that a full-time Biblical historian would not have time for a full-time preacher job on the side or something like that? I would like to present a few short excerpts from a paper written by an Evangelical Christian Biblical scholar:

    “Historical Criticism and the Great Commission” by Robert L. Thomas

    “Since the release of ‘The Jesus Crisis’ in October of 1998 a number of informative developments have come. Response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, but a few have reacted strongly against it. Some are yet undecided as to how to respond to it. The differences in response have magnified a significant difference of opinion about the accuracy of the Synoptic Gospels that exists in the evangelical community at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The diversity of opinion about the Gospels raises interesting questions: What difference does it make in terms of Christian ministry? Does it matter that some evangelicals understand the Gospels to be historically accurate down to the last
    detail, and others see the Gospels as only approximations of what Jesus said and did? Does it affect how people will preach and teach those Gospels during the next century?”

    Really. Should those be our concerns up front? Or would those concerns tend to color the results we arrive at, or even determine what results are possible to be arrived at? Oh, won’t SOMEBODY think of the preachers???

    What of truth, of integrity in research, and let the preachers and teachers figure out how to adjust to reality, finally? He continues:

    “The diversity of opinion about the Gospels raises interesting questions: What difference does it make in terms of Christian ministry? Does it matter that some evangelists understand the Gospels to be historically accurate down to the last detail, and others see the Gospels as only approximations of what Jesus said and did? Does it affect how people will preach and teach those Gospels during the next century?”

    “From the above citations, it is evident that certain evangelical scholars have sided with radical historical critics in raising questions about whether Jesus ever gave the Great Commission. In trying to find a middle point between the orthodox position of the early church and recent radical opinions, they have compromised the basic historical accuracy of this Commission. If they have done that, a question mark hovers over the source of the rest of the Commission.”

    See what he did there? Comparing an “orthodox position” to a “radical opinion” – how can those two even be considered in the same sentence? Blasphemy!! Mere *opinions* against orthodox positions? Fie, sir! Fie! That’s “rejecting facts or logic as opinion,” an intellectually dishonest debate tactic!

    “If questions exist about the genuineness of four major parts of the Great Commission as well as about the Commission as a whole, can evangelical preachers have any confidence in affirming that Jesus spoke *any* of the words of the Commission?”

    There we go again, with the overriding concern for the evangelical preachers. We won’t consider at any point that perhaps these evangelical preachers have devoted their lifetimes and careers to a big fat lie.

    “With so much of what may be labeled as ambivalence at best and dehistoricizing at worst, how is an evangelical leader to preach and instruct his people about Jesus’ final command to His disciples and His church? It is quite evident that some evangelical scholars have conceded major ground to theories of Historical Criticism. Fifty years ago, evangelical scholars stood squarely for the historical accuracy of the Gospels in general and the Great Commission in particular. Their stand matched that of the early church leaders and representative post-Reformation scholars cited early in this article. Today much equivocation prevails among them on that point.”

    Progress can be a bitch, I suppose, especially when you manufacture buggy whips…

    “To say that the words represent Jesus’ intent even if He did not utter these specific instructions is a presumptuous copout, possibly a concession to gain respectability with the academic intelligentsia, an effort to find a middle ground between the absolute accuracy of the Gospel account and the extreme view that Jesus never said any such thing. If He never spoke the words, the Gospel writer has misrepresented a historical happening and the text is not inerrant. Further, the church from earliest times has mistakenly tied the words directly to Jesus and has obeyed the command of a clever redactor of church tradition, not of Jesus. The missions mandate is a clever ruse. The directive to carry the good news to the ends of the earth did not come from Jesus. To belivev His claim to universal authority, in carrying the gospel to all nations, in baptizing, and in using the trinitarian formula therewith is mistaken assumption. He never spoke those words, A very early Christian community and/or Matthew put the words on his lips.”

    Yeah – and?

    “The practical impact of Historical Criticism on proclaiming and obeying the Great Commission is devastating. The evangelical church will do better if it dispenses with that ideology in studying and responding to this portion of the Gospel accounts. The same holds true for the Synoptic Gospels as a whole. Those works are historically accurate and deserve to be recognized and preached in that light.”

    THERE it is! The only solution is to exempt these texts from the rigorous examination that is the norm for every other ancient text! Does this demand for special treatment qualify as a variant of special pleading? Appeal to tradition? Or have we got a full-blown genetic fallacy in play? In fact, I think I smell a moralistic fallacy sliding down a slippery slope.

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