Category Archives: Biblical Studies


2017-01-01

Biblical Scholar Watch #1

by Neil Godfrey

There are many excellent biblical scholars whose works are discussed here as often as opportunity arises. Check out the Categories list in the right column here to see the extent of our coverage.

But as with any profession there are some rogues who need to be exposed. A few hours ago on the Religion Prof blog appeared a post in effect leading the public to believe that mainstream biblical scholars have published far, far more on the topic of the historicity of Jesus than anyone who doubts Jesus’ historicity. Here is the screenshot:

The link is to the following page on Amazon:

Scrolling down one sees the number of pages is said to be 3300.

I have access to the electronic edition and can confirm that the number of pages is closer to 4000 than 3000.

But is it honest to claim that these four volumes under the title Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus address the question of the historicity of Jesus itself? After all, that is the clear message and point of the “religion prof’s” post. His message is that mainstream scholars have published far more on the topic that is addressed by, say, Richard Carrier.

But open up the pages of those four volumes and one soon discovers that this claim is misleading.

Of the over 3700 pages contained in these volumes there are exactly 29 pages that appear on first glance to be devoted to the question of whether Jesus existed or not. They are by Samuel Byrskog in a chapter titled “The Historicity of Jesus: How Do We Know That Jesus Existed?” — pages 2183 to 2211.

The four volumes are not about the question of Jesus’ historicity but in fact presume the existence of Jesus and from that starting point address scholarly questions relating to how we can learn what kind of person this Jesus was. Let me show a few more screen shots from the table of contents so you can get the idea:  read more »


2016-09-24

Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity, Conference. Some Questions.

by Neil Godfrey

Lectures from the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) have been made available at Biblical Studies Online. I look forward to updating myself with these talks and have already listened with interest to the first two, “The Memory Approach and the Reception of Jesus” by Chris Keith (though read by Steve Walton) and “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi.

Chris Keith’s paper essentially outlined the introductory points he has published previously about the nature of the social memory approach to Jesus studies but with an emphasis on defending the originality of what it has to offer New Testament scholars today. Much of the criticism of memory theory in New Testament studies, he begins, even criticism that has passed through the peer-review process, has been inaccurate. It has mischaracterized what the approach is about and failed to engage with the theory and its methodology.

The main point Keith emphasizes is that past events are not remembered (individually or collectively) in a “pristine” state as if preserved whole in a time capsule for our benefit, but are always remembered through the filters of earlier interpretation of the event that we have inherited and our present interests, needs, circumstances, environmental or cultural influences. As a long-time student of history I see nothing controversial about this statement. It strikes me as little more than a truism for any serious historian.

brueghel_ii_pieter_-_christ_and_the_woman_taken_in_adultery_1600However, I do wonder what such a process of “remembering” means for Chris Keith when he cites as a case study by David Parker(?) the pericope adulterae or passage in the Gospel of John about the woman taken in adultery. The manuscript evidence informs us that this story was not part of the original Gospel yet the story is such a part of our heritage that it inevitably influences the way we read and think about the gospels and the historical Jesus. Knowing that it was not part of the original accounts does not remove its influence over the way we think about Jesus.

I question that claim. If I understand the point correctly, I cannot accept that it is true. Surely scholars have written their own views on the historical Jesus that have no place at all for this story. Traditionally many scholars have attempted to reconstruct the teachings of Jesus entirely by means of comparing data in the synoptic gospels and leaving the entire Gospel of John (not just the pericope adulterae) out of their view completely.

Parker’s (and Keith’s) claim that the story inevitably influences how we think about Jesus is true at a general cultural level; Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman is part of image of Jesus that has come to us through our cultural heritage. But anyone who is interested in a serious study of the gospels by normative scholarly means can indeed construct a “historical Jesus” that allows no place for it.

Or perhaps I misunderstand the point. I am open to being corrected.

Misunderstanding Historical Positivism and Mnemohistory

Later Keith argues that memory theory turns traditional historical positivism on its head. Again, I find myself questioning his presentation. To begin with, he offers what to me is an inadequate definition of what positivism means as an approach by historians to the past. In Keith’s view as I understand it historical positivism is the belief that the historian can and should “get behind the sources” to recover a purely objective truth or fact of what actually happened. From this point Keith argues that since the past must always necessarily be interpreted to be remembered at all, then it can never be “truly objective reality” but always some form of narrated “myth”.

To justify this view Keith refers to the work of Jan Assmann on mnemohistory. I have addressed Jan Assmann’s interest and what he means by mnemohistory in Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies and show why comparing Assmann’s history of how historical figures were remembered with other historical tasks such as understanding, say, the origins of the French Revolution (or the origins of Christianity) is seriously misguided.

What Jesus scholars aspire to do (however unrealistic their hopes) is comparable to what Egyptologists do when they uncover and analyze the data in order to find out as far as possible “what happened” in the days of Akhenaten; Assmann’s interest is entirely different. His mnemohistory is a survey of the various cultural myths that appear to have arisen in the wake of the Akhenaten revolution. The two types of historical inquiry are completely different. Both are valid, but they each have quite different agendas.

To see a fuller explanation of historical positivism and how historians have both embraced and moved away from it see R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, originally published 1946 but printed and released many times since.

It seems to me that with an oversimplified view of historical positivism Chris Keith has thrown out the baby with the bath water. Historical positivism originated as an attempt to set historical inquiry on a scientific footing. To this end historians believed that they should first establish the “facts” as a scientist establishes the facts, and from that starting point hypothesize and test laws to explain the relationships between those facts. By turning to Assmann it looks to me as if Keith has begun with a view of history that has no interest in the historical origin of a myth, that is, uncovering “the original facts” (this being considered an impossible quest), but only in the various ways the myth came to be “remembered” and mutated through the generations and again in his own time.

But even when mainstream historians rejected positivism (the belief that they could establish historical laws or principles from “the facts”) they did not reject the belief that they could find some form of real substance or “true events” in the past. Of course everything is necessarily interpreted. That again is a truism that needs no elaboration — at least to most historians I know of. (It only seems to be “big news” among some New Testament scholars, it seems to me.) But interpretation of an event does not mean that the event does not have some form of objective reality. We all have our interpretations of World War 2, of Churchill and Hitler. We cannot avoid them. But that does not remove the possibility of knowing that Churchill and Hitler really did do and say certain things, made certain decisions, and that very real and objective events that we can know about did follow as a result. Yes, we view those events through our interpretations. We know that people in other cultures and nations will have different interpretations, but no-one can deny that certain events are real and really did happen.

If I have misunderstood Chris Keith’s point I am more than willing to be better informed.

The difficulty with historical Jesus studies that has given rise to this misguided view of history as being completely beyond reach is that our earliest sources for Jesus, the letters of Paul, write about nothing but the myth of Jesus. Jesus, and what is sometimes referred to as “the Christ event”, is to Paul an entirely theological construct. The same is true of the later sources, the Gospels.

We only come to historical constructs (as distinguished from theological/mythical ones) in the next lecture in the conference, “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi. However, as we shall see, those earliest historical constructs — the model of Jesus teaching and his words being remembered and passed on in various forms until they are set down in the Gospels — are entirely hypothetical. They are entirely extrapolations from the myth itself.

I suspect Chris Keith would respond by saying that all records of history are by nature, inevitably, some form of myth because they must be interpreted in order to be narrated. My response is that yes, but interpretation does not deny the reality of events or persons. Recall my example above referencing the facts and persons of World War 2. We can know there was a real person Akhenaten and series of events that really happened around him — independently of the myths that those events generated.

It does not logically follow that there was no historical Jesus at the start of it all or that Jacobi’s historical construct is wrong. What does follow, in my view, is that it is pointless to ask questions about what the historical Jesus was like or what he said. We simply have nothing beyond the myths to inform us. The only question that the available evidence allows us to ask, as I see it, is how are we to understand the nature of the earliest evidence and how do we account for its origins.

To answer that the historian needs to inquire into not only the character of the world from which our sources emerged but also into attentive literary, redactional and other analyses that deepen our understanding of the nature of those sources.


2016-08-11

Can Biblical Scholarship Free itself from Confessional and Evangelical Interests?

by Neil Godfrey

The goal of Biblical Studies Online is to provide both biblical scholars and the interested wider public with ease of access to quality biblical scholarship, as it comes available online.

. . . .

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to locate these resources on the internet, and sometimes difficult for those less experienced with biblical scholarship to distinguish worthwhile material from that which is inaccurate or even grossly misleading. And when it comes to the Bible, there is no shortage of the latter to be found. For this reason, Biblical Studies Online offers a gateway for the dissemination and publicizing of worthwhile open-access, online biblical scholarship.

Sounds like a great resource. Professor James Crossley is one of the two scholars listed as a maintainer of the site and given that Crossley has published protests against faith-based scholarship and is a strong advocate of a secular approach to biblical studies I allowed myself hope that “quality biblical scholarship” and “worthwhile material” would mean work free from confessional bias. Crossley, after all, is well aware that the entire field of New Testament studies risks the perception of being described as a “dubious” academic field. He even expresses some dismay that an academic conference should be opened with a prayer!

In September 2000 the annual British New Testament Conference, held in Roehampton, opened with both a glass of wine and a Christian prayer, the perfect symbols of middle-class Christianity, some might say. The glass of wine I can accept, but should an academic meeting that explicitly has no official party line really hold a collective prayer at its opening, particularly when some of the participants are certainly nonreligious and some possibly from non-Christian faiths? Leaving aside the moral issue, the fact that there is an overwhelming Christian presence in British NT scholarship is surely the reason that this could happen. Would other contemporary conferences in the humanities outside theology and biblical studies even contemplate prayer? Would the participants of nontheological conferences even believe that other academic conferences do such things? (Crossley, Why Christianity Happened, p. 23)

The most recent two videos posted by the Biblical Studies Online site are lectures by scholars (Professors Tigay and Gathercole) I recognize from my wider reading; the latter’s works I have posted about here. So given Crossley’s association with the site and the site’s own promotional stress on “quality” and “worthwhile” scholarship, I was not prepared for the latest video presentation by Professor Tigay opening with a PRAYER!

Advance to 3:50

I suppose what follows is a form of “biblical scholarship” but I would have categorized it under theology. The entire lecture is about how Jews and others have attempted to rationalize the biblical commands to exterminate the Canaanites with the sort of God and values worshipers want to believe in. Professor Tigay expressed his own view at the end: the genocidal commands were created by scribes attempting to explain why they saw no Canaanites around in their own day.

I would have expected a secular approach to the Deuteronomic laws to focus upon their origins, and that would have meant that Professor Tigay would have argued in some detail for his view and set his arguments beside alternative hypotheses. Rather, the lecture merely demonstrated the confessional interests of the professor, his audience, and the interests behind the site Biblical Studies Online.

An earlier video lecture was delivered by Professor Gathercole. He was introduced as “one of the stars in academia of evangelical faith”. Thanks for the warning. I will be more aware of his bias next time I read any of his scholarly work.

Professor Gathercole begins by setting himself and his audience apart from “Jesus sceptics” and “sceptical scholars”. A scholar using “sceptical” as a negative descriptor!

What follows is just what I would expect to find set out in an evangelical tract that purports to prove that the Bible is “true”. Twenty-two of twenty-seven place-names in the Gospels are said to be found in other sources, and that compares with a similar ratio of thirty-five out of forty-four towns in Josephus’s writings being identified independently. Meanwhile the apocryphal gospels get place-names hopelessly mixed up.

Conclusion: no-one doubts Josephus wrote real history (despite his exaggerations), so it is implied that there is no excuse to doubt the reliability of the canonical gospels!

I found the framing the argument interesting. It went something like this: Josephus describes traveling from place A to B just as Jesus went from A to B, etc.

How can a geographical place itself support the historicity of a narrative story that is set there? Obviously it can’t. But this added to a site as a contribution to “quality biblical scholarship” and “worthwhile material”.

One has to assume that the other material posted on that site will only be “worthwhile” and “quality” in the eyes of those who have a devotional or evangelical interest in the Bible.

 


2016-03-05

The Polarization of Biblical Studies

by Neil Godfrey

René Salm has been posting some interesting articles on his Mythicistpapers website lately. His most recent is Brodie, McGrath, and the increasing polarization of biblical studies—Pt. 2. James McGrath has prided himself on rarely taking a cutting edge stand but always remaining steadfast in the middle of controversial issues. He calls it The Radical Middle!

I was once asked (in a job interview for a faculty position at a seminary), because I seem to like the ‘middle of the road’ position on many things, what if anything I get excited about. I thought it was a great question, and I would still answer it the same way now as I did then: I am excited about finding and maintaining the middle ground.

The middle ground is anything but where McGrath stands in relation to mythicism. René points out in his article that McGrath “presents such a good example of the polarization in biblical studies.”

Thus, what comes screaming through, more than anything else, is the paranoia of an aging, entitled, and arrogant tradition. It all stands to reason. There’s a paycheck at stake. Reputation. Legacy. Ooh…

The article touches on a number of recent developments among biblical scholars that present challenges to their traditional assumptions. He begins with Dennis MacDonald’s studies in intertextuality and mimesis and the conclusion that the gospel authors were essentially writing fiction. I have been reading not only MacDonald’s work but also studies by a number of more conservative scholars also investigating intertextuality. They fail to draw the logical conclusions that MacDonald does, but their work is still informative and yet another topic I would like to post about one day.

Other names in the article of interest: Thomas Brodie, Tom Dykstra, Markus Vinzent. Salm is of the view that “Paul” belongs firmly in the second century. Vinzent is going so far as to argue that all four canonical gospels postdate the Marcionite heresy.

Some other recent interesting articles of interest at Mythicist Papers

 


2016-01-11

THE SECOND WAVE OF THE NEW ATHEISM: A Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship ​and Religious Studies

by Neil Godfrey

The following is copied with permission from THE SECOND WAVE OF THE NEW ATHEISM

This Manifesto was initiated in the summer of 2015 by Hector Avalos and André Gagné.

Please contact the authors if you wish to add your signature.

Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa
HectorAvalos@aol.com

André Gagné
Concordia University
Montreal, Canada
Gagne.Andre@hotmail.com

BACKGROUND

The New Atheism is a name given to a movement represented by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom wrote best-selling books that were highly critical of religion.[1]

Although the New Atheism does not eschew the classical arguments against the existence of God, its focus is primarily on the immorality and harmful consequences of religious thinking itself. For some, the New Atheism is not merely atheistic, but also anti-theistic.[2]

Another main feature of the New Atheism is a secular apocalyptic outlook born out of the events of September 11, 2001. A secular apocalyptic outlook refers to the view that religion has the potential to destroy humanity and our entire biosphere.

However, many secular and religious critics of the New Atheism have charged the New Atheism with a number of flaws. One is a lack of expertise in scriptural and religious studies that has led Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens to make pronouncements that are rightly viewed as simplistic or inaccurate in some cases.

This situation has led to the perception that the New Atheism has no experts in scriptural and religious studies that could challenge religious counterparts with as much or more expertise. Others have conflated all New Atheists as followers of a neoliberal or capitalist ideology. Still others note that all the representatives of the New Atheism are white males.

Accordingly, there is a need to identify a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Such a need was discussed briefly in Hector Avalos, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015), but it received no elaboration.[3]

The First Wave focused on the problems that religious thinking can cause. Since religion was the focus of the First Wave, then a Second Wave seeks to rethink how self-identified atheist scholars of religion and scripture approach the issues that the First Wave raised.

The recent uprising of terror attacks across the globe from groups like ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and others, is also one of the reasons why scholars of religion and scriptural studies who identify with a Second Wave of New Atheists should speak out against the catastrophic effects of religious violence and ideology.

The authors of this statement, Hector Avalos and André Gagné, thought it useful to identify the main characteristics of what can be called a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Our hope is that other secular scholars who have similar ideas might join us or help us to clarify the nature and purpose of scriptural scholarship and the study of religion as it relates to current global events in the coming decades.

A MANIFESTO FOR SECULAR SCRIPTURAL SCHOLARSHIP AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES

Insofar as we believe that religious belief has the potential to incite actions that could ultimately lead to the destruction of our planet, we identify ourselves with what is called “the New Atheism.” We affirm that a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists insofar as that descriptor encompasses self-identified atheist scriptural scholars or scholars of religion who:

  • Are academically trained experts in the study of religion and sacred scriptures (e.g., the Bible, Quran, and any other text deemed sacred on religious grounds);
  • Regard activism as a fundamental orientation of all scholarship insofar they agree with Noam Chomsky’s view that “[i]t is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”;[4]
  • Uphold and defend freedom of expression;
  • Question the notion that religious thinking is itself good or ethical;
  • Acknowledge that human ethics need not depend on religion;
  • Welcome as wide a diversity of scholars as possible in terms of ethnic self- identification, gender, or sexual orientation;
  • Recognize that most of biblical scholarship is still largely part of an ecclesial-academic complex that renders it very distinct from other areas of the humanities and social sciences, especially insofar as it seeks to protect and preserve religion as a valuable feature of human existence;
  • Aim to expose the bibliolatry that still lies at the core of biblical studies insofar as most biblical scholars believe the Bible should be a vital part of modern cultures or bears superior ethical values;
  • Advocate the discontinuation of the use of any sacred scripture as a moral authority in the modern world;
  • Acknowledge that the traditional scriptural canons are an artificial theological construct, and encourages scriptural scholarship to study all texts considered authoritative or sacred by ancient religions;
  • Call attention to the ethical advances or positive features of texts in the ancient Near East that have not received due attention;
  • Seek to make scriptural and religious studies relevant by encouraging scholars of sacred scriptures and religions to engage in public discussions and/or use cyber-media to educate the public about issues such as the role of religion in violence and the use of sacred scriptures to oppose gay rights, contraception, gender equality, and other social and human rights issues that should be adjudicated on non-religious grounds;
  • Encourage secular scholars of religion and sacred scriptures to help establish policies that are based on reason and democratic values instead of religion; they should be the guardians of a strict separation between religion and state;
  • View cooperation with scientists as a necessary strategy to challenge those who use sacred scriptures to deny the existence of evolution or anthropogenic climate change, among other general scientific conclusions;
  • Work to ensure that professional organizations of scriptural and religious studies, such as the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, insist on methodological naturalism, and not theological methodologies, in their basic approach to all research presented at its meetings, as is the case with all other areas of the humanities and social sciences;
  • Affirm that religious obscurantism can only be countered through education;
  • Insist on critical education that focuses on a historical and social understanding and development of religion; that is, teaching and education that is fact-based instead of faith-based; people should know ABOUT religions and religious texts, not in the sense of maintaining the value of any religious tradition, but to develop critical thinking about religions;
  • Regard the study of the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred scriptures as important in understanding western history and       modern culture, but without seeking to retain their moral authority.

Scholars who share these views may not identify themselves as any sort of New Atheists or as part of any Second Wave of the New Atheism. Indeed, some of the following signatories do not necessarily apply those labels to themselves. When the co-authors say that “a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists…” they are affirming the existence of people who already think this way, but may not have identified as such explicitly up to now.

However, we invite all scholars who share these views to join us in expressing, or putting into practice, any or all of the ideas and goals that we have outlined here.

SIGNATORIES:

Marc-André Argentino, PhD student, Department of Religion, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Kenneth Atkinson, Professor of History. University of Northern Iowa Department of History, University of Northern, Iowa, (Cedar Falls, Iowa, USA)

Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies, Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa, USA)

Carol Delaney, Associate Professor, Emerita, Cultural and Social Anthropology, Stanford University (Stanford, California, USA)

Matthew Ferguson, PhD student, Department of Classics, University of California at Irvine (USA)

André Gagné, Associate Professor, Departments of Religion and Theological Studies, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Karen Garst, PhD, University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin (USA)

Daniel Gullotta, Graduate student, Yale Divinity School (New Haven, CT, USA)

Jaco Gericke, Associate research professor in the subject group Theology and Philosophy, School of Basic Sciences, Faculty of Humanities, North-West University (Vaal Campus, South Africa)

James Linville, Faculty, Department of Religious Studies, University of Lethbridge (Lethbridge, Canada).

David Madison, PhD in Biblical Studies, Boston University (USA)

Ivan Miroshnikov, Graduate student, Department of Biblical Studies, University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland)

Emmanuel Pradeilhes, MA in Biblical Studies, Faculté de théologie et de sciences des religions, Université de Montréal (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Jennifer Tacci, Graduate student, Department of Theological Studies, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

_______________________________
Notes

* This Manifesto was first published on The Bible and Interpretation website on January 7, 2016

[1] According to Victor Stenger (The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason [Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2009], p. ii), who describes himself as a New Atheist, the New Atheism was motivated primarily by 9/11 and began with “a series of six best-selling books that took a harder line against religion than had been the custom among secularists.” Harris (The End of Faith, p. 323) states that he “began writing this book on September 12, 2001,” which clearly shows the link between 9/11 and the rise of the New Atheism. On the New Atheism among ethnic minorities, see Hector Avalos, ‘The Hidden Enlightenment: Humanism among US Latinos’, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 20 (2012), pp. 3-14.

[2] When speaking of the atrocities in the Bible, Christopher Hitchens stated “…it helps make the case for ‘anti-theism.’ By this I mean the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it” (god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything [New York: Hachette, 2007], p. 102).

[3] Jaco Gericke (“A Fourth Paradigm?: Some Thoughts on Atheism in Old Testament Scholarship,” Old Testament Essays 25/3 [2012]: 518-533) speaks of the emergence of a Fourth Paradigm in Old Testament scholarship that is essentially atheistic. This Manifesto extends to all scriptural and religious studies, not just the Old Testament.

[4] Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in The Chomsky Reader, edited by James Peck (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), p. 60.

 

 


2015-10-04

Another Biblical Scholar (Richard Bauckham) on Historical Jesus Studies

by Neil Godfrey
Richard J. Bauckham, FBA, FRSE (born 22 September 1946) is an English scholar in theology, historical theology and New Testament studies, specialising in New Testament Christology and the Gospel of John. He is a senior scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. — Wikipedia (4th Oct 2015).

eyewitnesses

Richard Bauckham is probably best known to the wider public for his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony in which he argues that the gospel narratives about Jesus were derived from reports of eyewitnesses. Is it reasonable to ask if Bauckham’s thesis was the product of disinterested historical inquiry?

Anyone who has read the first chapter of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses will know that my overall concern in the book was to help Christians recover the confidence that the Jesus they find in the Gospels (rather than in some dubiously reconstructed history behind the Gospels) is the real Jesus. 

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 27). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Does this entitle us to be suspicious that the arguments might have been tendentious?

I did not think this prejudiced the purely historical argument that followed because I am accustomed to making sure that my historical arguments stand up as historical arguments.

I have covered in depth what his “historical arguments” look like in a detailed series of chapter by chapter posts now available in the archives. One of the more bizarre of Bauckham’s “historical arguments” is to compare the gospel narratives of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus with testimony of another “unique” event, the Holocaust of the 1940s. To approach the testimony of survivors/eyewitnesses with a hermeneutic of “radical suspicion” is “epistemological suicide”. Normative approaches of critical analysis of the evidence, of testing the evidence, are set aside in preference for a choice between either believing or rejecting the testimony, for either cynically rejecting the “astonishing testimony” of something unspeakably unique or charitably trusting the words of a privileged eyewitness report. Ad hoc rationalisations dominate: if passages such as the crucifixion narratives are replete with biblical (Old Testament) allusions it is because the eyewitnesses were overawed by their memories of the events; yet if passages such as the resurrection narratives contain no biblical allusions it is because the eyewitnesses were even more overawed by their memories of something that “defied reality”.

What about Bauckham’s personal faith interest? Does that shape his work in any way?

Maybe (but how could I ever know?) I would still love God if I came to the conclusion that there was no shred of real history in the New Testament. But, to say the least, I would find it more difficult to believe in God if I did not believe that God became incarnate as the man Jesus, who died and rose bodily from death and is alive eternally with God. (Here I differ profoundly from people who find it easier to believe in God than in the incarnation and the resurrection.) This gives my love of God an indispensable stake in the historical credibility of the Gospels. For as long as I have thought about it, it has always been clear to me that, for Christian faith to be true, the Jesus Christians find in the Gospels must be the real Jesus . . . 

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 24). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Does this mean that Bauckham invariably knows that he expects to find his faith confirmed in all of his studies? He does at least permit himself to change his mind on a number of issues so no-one can say he does not courageously follow wherever the evidence leads . . . Coincidentally the three changes of mind that he admits to having arisen out of his studies have all been in the direction of establishing the “truth” of a more conservative and traditional view of his faith: read more »


2015-10-03

We are not historians; we are Christians — (“I know what you mean, but don’t say it like that!”)

by Neil Godfrey
Scot McKnight is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, speaker, author and blogger who has written widely on the historical Jesus, early Christianity, the emerging church and missional church movements, spiritual formation and Christian living. He is currently Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL. McKnight is an ordained Anglican with anabaptist leanings, and has also written frequently on issues in modern anabaptism. — Wikipedia (4th Oct 2015)

believeI cited Scot McKnight in my first serious attempt to point out the differences in the ways biblical scholars approach their study of Jesus and Christian origins from the ways other historians handled sources and investigated other historical persons and events. In Jesus and His Death McKnight quite rightly notes the general ignorance among his theologian/biblical studies peers of the methods followed by other historians and their debates over the very nature of their craft. He notes that the reliance upon criteria of authenticity (“criteriology”) is both unique to historical Jesus studies and fallacious. In another early post I quoted McKnight’s view that historical Jesus scholars are in fact fooling themselves when they claim their reconstructions of Jesus are derived solely from the evidence:

While each may make the claim that they are simply after the facts and simply trying to figure out what Jesus was really like—and while most don’t quite say this, most do think this is what they are doing— nearly every one of them presents what they would like the church, or others with faith, to think about Jesus. Clear examples of this can be found in the studies of Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and B.D. Chilton—in fact, we would not be far short of the mark if we claimed that this pertains to each scholar—always and forever. And each claims that his or her presentation of Jesus is rooted in the evidence, and only in the evidence. (Jesus and His Death, p. 36)

McKnight has elaborated on some of his views about historical Jesus scholarship and the nature of biblical source material in a new publication,  I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship.

The Bible is God’s true and living word

McKnight does not hide his view that his historical studies are investigations into “God’s true and living word”. Don’t call him an inerrantist, though. Rather, each book in the Bible adds to the previous one, “sometimes agreeing, sometimes even disagreeing, but often expanding and adjusting and renewing — the previous texts. God’s inspiration then is at work in a history and a community as expressed by an author for a given moment.”

It was not until many years later that I read Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel when he gave me the best words for what is happening in the Bible and not least in the Synoptics. There is an inner dialogue at work and once one begins to see the dialogue one sees the Bible for what it really is. It is not one self-contained text added to the previous but one text interacting with — sometimes agreeing, sometimes even disagreeing, but often expanding and adjusting and renewing — the previous texts. God’s inspiration then is at work in a history and a community as expressed by an author for a given moment. This experience of underlining the Synoptics one word and one line after another led me to think that words like “inerrancy” are inadequate descriptions of what is going in the Bible. I have for a long time preferred the word “true” or “truth.” The Bible is God’s true and living Word is far more in line with the realities of the Bible itself than the political terms that have arisen among evangelicals in the twentieth century.

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (pp. 167-168). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

So when Scot McKnight was criticizing the scholarly methods used by his peers to investigate Jesus he was not calling for them to turn their backs on fallacious “criteriology” and turn towards the methods of other professional historians (such a turn would have meant a revision in even the very questions they asked as historians) but he was, rather, declaring that historical inquiry was not capable of uncovering very much of relevance for the Church.

As a Gospels specialist I entered into the historical Jesus debates, first with an invitation from Craig Evans and Bruce Chilton to sketch the teachings of Jesus in the context of his mission to Israel (A New Vision for Israel) but then even more intensively in a book called Jesus and His Death (Baylor University Press). Two things happened to me — at the deepest level of my being — through that decade of study. First, I became convinced the historical method used in historical Jesus studies yields limited conclusions. My “aha” moment was sitting at my desk realizing I can prove that Jesus died but I can never prove that he died for my sins; I can prove that Jesus asserted that he would be raised from the dead but I can never prove he rose for my justification. . . .

Interesting that the two details that McKnight singles out as subject to unequivocal “proof” are the two points central to the Christian faith itself. He follows by affirming the importance of traditional Church belief over the findings of historical studies. . . read more »


2015-06-29

Theological Feudalism — by Otagosh

by Neil Godfrey

 

I have a problem when these privileged few summarily discount the experiences of those not so fortunate. . . . ‘Popular’ is a term of disdain. 

.

emsworth

Let them read Barth!

Gavin Rumney has published a hard hitting post directed at those theologians and other biblical scholars who are accustomed to looking down their aristoctratic noses upon efforts by ex-fundamentalists to contribute ideas emerging to some extent from muddy experience. He has titled it Theological Feudalism.

I’d love to be able to wrap the entire post and place it prominently on the desks of a few erudite scholars who have made no secret of their disdain for certain outsiders who have passed through the wrong side of town.

Here are a few lines . . . .

Ex-fundamentalists (a tribe to which I belong) often get a lot of stick from the theoristocrats, those who have attained a tenured place at the top table in Christian discourse without acquiring the deep scars that come from living through a biblicist nightmare.

These theoristocrats (a term that isn’t entirely new, though the usage I’m putting it to may be) are invariably decent, much studied, perceptive sorts. They rightly appreciate that ‘truth’ is a nuanced concept, and that one person’s truth may not be another’s. They also tend to dialogue among their peers rather than bothering over-much with the common herd. Indeed, many eschew entirely the ‘popular’ contributions to their field even when those attempting this feat are as qualified as themselves. ‘Popular’ is a term of disdain. . . . 

‘Popular’ is a term of disdain, Amen. One detail: Next time you see one of them sniggering at what he or she read in Wikipedia (ignorant of its its real status beside, say, Encyclopedia Britannica), ask them why they did not deign to dirty their fingers by adding a helpful correction to that body of knowledge.

. . . .

The ‘common herd’ obviously make up the overwhelming majority of Christian believers. So those ex-fundamentalists or ex-evangelicals are not reacting to a straw man or a caricature of Christian faith, as is often implied. They’re reacting to what is increasingly the most common, most virulent form. And that’s not only their right, it’s their responsibility. . . . . read more »


2015-03-24

Defensive Postures of Biblical Scholarship

by Neil Godfrey

Following are some general thoughts about a negative side of biblical scholarship. Each point needs unpacking in order to justify itself. But for now I’m just having a bit of a lament concerning the overview.

In the midst of an abundance of solid scholarship that I thoroughly enjoy and that I like to share when I can on this blog there is sadly also a fair amount of poorly reasoned and ill informed writing by even some of the prominent names among scholars of early Christianity. I have in mind not only writings that relate to popular misconceptions about noncanonical texts and the view that Jesus did not exist but also a more general adherence to assumptions that are in reality apologetic in origin and that are the foundation of “historical methods” unique to the world of “Biblical history“.

It’s disappointing and frustrating when one encounters scholarly essays, presentations, blog posts dripping with smugness, defensiveness and fear exactly at those junctures where the public is most interested. This is not what one expects from professionals of any kind, least of all from those in the business of education. Wider public education seems irrelevant to those who appear to have no interest in audiences beyond their peers and fell0w-Christians. Some scholars even convey the sense that they distrust the interests of anyone who is neither a peer nor a committed Christian.

If this sounds as though there is something of a defensive wall surrounding the declining field of biblical studies then the scene within that wall might be described as “softly” dictatorial. Peter Kirby has compiled “a short list” of some twenty-five scholars who “have resigned or were dismissed from their positions in awkward circumstances, typically arising in connection to some kind of statement of faith issue (or otherwise controversial circumstances).” read more »


2014-08-04

How Open To Radically Fresh Ideas Are New Testament Scholars Really?

by Neil Godfrey

6th August: corrected the first quote: the first line should have read 

I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome. 

————————————–

Even some of the more conservative of New Testament scholars boast how they belong to a guild that prides itself on craving exploration for new insights, that is committed to testing the old ideas following wherever the truth may lead. Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado about a year ago posted one such claim that as stridently endorsed by fellow faithful Christian soldiers/scholars James McGrath and Jim West:

The field of NT/Christian Origins, for example, is now more diverse, with more approaches, more perspectives, than ever; and probably most scholars dream of being able to correct or refute some established view, or successfully lodge some new view, or publish some hitherto unknown or insufficiently noted datum. 

Innocent bystanders might raise an eyebrow at such claims emanating from a field that looks for all the world as if it is dominated by persons with a conflict of interest to such a pursuit. The vast majority are clearly committed in some fashion to the faith their scholarship seeks to underpin (or test).

I responded critically to the main theme of Larry’s disingenuously self-serving remarks because they sounded to me so contrary to what I have known researchers in “real” say about their fields. Do theologians really believe their own propaganda aimed at the masses of unwashed outsiders?

Fortunately not all do.

I have just had the pleasure of reading the memoirs of Michael Goulder, Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar. Goulder is most noted for keeping the torch burning for the Austin Farrer thesis — the thesis that Luke knew and used Matthew and that there was no Q document behind either of these gospels — until Mark Goodacre came along to stand at his side and take up the cause.

There’s much in Goulder’s memoirs to write about but here let’s just see what this renowned scholar had to say about his own scholarly peers and their willingness to take up new ideas.

He explains the disappointment he experienced when scholars first dismissed his carefully reasoned arguments without any attempt to engage seriously with them: read more »


2014-05-17

Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?

by Neil Godfrey
Professor

Some professors make a false equation between the humanities/social sciences on the one hand and hard sciences/mathematics on the other and imply both are equally incomprehensible to the general public.

Once again we see a representative of the elite coterie of theologians pouring scorn on the ability of mere lay people to make any valid assessment of their highly learned and scholarly arguments.

Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally (and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong. (Professor James McGrath, Galileo was Wrong, 8th May 2014, my emphasis)

Of course the first thing one notes here is the mischievous framing of the question. Our theologian friend makes it sound as if what is open to challenge are the complex details of “data”, the facts, let’s say the nuances of Greek, Syriac and Aramaic texts, and so forth, by only partially informed amateurs and whether they should be so flippant on a “normal” every-day basis.

Of course that is not what the issue is at all. In matters of historical inquiry there is no argument or data that is so complex that it cannot be explained simply and understood by the average anybody. History is not advanced mathematics or quantum physics. If theologians have good arguments for the historical existence of Jesus then there is no reason they cannot be presented in a way that is comprehensible to all.

To this extent the Professor is being a little misleading when he implies that the views of theologians (and let’s add historians here, too) and scientists deserve equally unquestioning acceptance by the public. A historian can explain to me clearly in a way I can understand the reasons, the evidence, for his or her claims and I can understand the arguments of other historians who disagree. I cannot do the same with scholars who debate questions in mathematics or complex physics and the origins of the universe. I have forgotten too much of the science I once learned to pretend I can even fully understand or evaluate the research of climate scientists.

Unfortunately McGrath’s post fails to grasp this basic point. In his failure to grasp the fact that there really is a vast gulf between the humanities/social sciences on the one hand and the hard sciences/mathematics on the other when it comes to the potential for public understanding, he probably fails to realize how patronizing his stance really is.

That is, his argument takes a turn that sets up an ignorant elitist gulf between academics generally and a riff-raff public.

(Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that academics are not superior to others at some things. There would be real problems if they weren’t. Universities can truly be said to contain more of the most intelligent members of society than other institutions. But anyone who works among academics, whether as an academic or support staff, also knows that a few of them truly are the most arrogant, insufferable snobs. I am sure Professor McGrath is not one of those, but he does unfortunately express a snobbish — certainly a breathtakingly thoughtless — argument in his post.)

Before we turn our attention to the elephant in the room, maybe I could use my own way of evaluating scholarly arguments to make the point that a lay amateur really can make valid evaluations of scholarly arguments. If Professor McGrath or anyone else can find serious error and a propensity for misjudgment in how I go about assessing scholarly claims I would love to be told. I have been seriously wrong about things before so I have tried to hone my methods of learning to try to be less wrong now.

read more »


2014-04-25

Biblioblogging, Politics & the Core Function of Biblical Studies

by Neil Godfrey
jesus-in-an-age-of-neoliberalism2

Crossley as Che Guevara Jesus. See image at end of post

This is part 3 of my review of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by James G. Crossley. (Once again I invite Professor Crossley to alert me to anything he sees in these posts that he believes is a misrepresentation of his views.)

In the previous post we saw how James Crossley uses chapter 2 to convey a general idea of the concepts scholars of “postmodernism” associate with postmodernity, postmodernism and related political and economic developments. This is essentially to set the “broad contextual basis”, Crossley explains, “for analysing some of the ways in which Jesus has been constructed in scholarship and beyond in recent decades.”

Crossley’s own political polemic dominates his discussion. His concluding paragraph begins:

Many people now look back in disbelief over the past decade, and the roles of Bush and Blair in particular. But now we have Obama, the great liberal figure of our time. . . .

And continues . . .

Yet, beneath the high rhetoric, Obama rarely deviated from standard American positions on the Middle East in recent years and provided minimum detail. And, in the heart of an anti-democratic police state with an unfortunate human rights record . . .

And concludes . . .

as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Mubarak, an issue which is apparently best forgotten now that the Western media could no longer avoid showing Mubarak for what he is.

No reference to biblical scholarship. As I pointed out previously, in major respects I sympathize with Crossley’s political views but I was led to read a book expecting an explanation of how political and related trends influenced Jesus scholarship; rather, one senses that Crossley is hoping to politically (re)educate his scholarly peers.

The Wrong, the Defeated and the Exception

So we come to chapter 3 which is about Biblioblogging.

read more »


2014-04-13

Why Today’s Theologians Call Themselves Historians

by Neil Godfrey

symbolicjesusIn The Symbolic Jesus: Historical Scholarship, Judaism and the Construction of Contemporary Identity, William Arnal gives us a reasonable explanation for why Historical Jesus scholars today are characterized by:

  • a general assumption that the gospel narratives reflect at some level genuine historical events;
  • a minimizing of the criterion of dissimilarity;
  • a preference for a criterion of plausibility;
  • an explicit, even strident, emphasis on Jesus’ “Jewishness”;
  • a preference to present themselves as historians more than theologians.

In other words, whatever happened to Rudolf Bultmann and good-old scholarly scepticism?

Arnal’s discussion is a broad one encompassing scholarly, political, religious and cultural identities. This posts focuses on only the scholarly identity. I give some of the background relevant to this new scholarly identity formation since the 1970s and 1980s since it helps us understand more completely what has been going on that has led theologians to stress their apparent credentials as historians.

Up until the 1970s and 1980s New Testament scholarship was dominated by “Bultmannian, post-Bultmannian, or Bultmann-trained scholars”.

The “New Quest” for the Historical Jesus is traditionally said to have begun in 1953 with a publication by Ernst Käsemann arguing that the only way to be assured a saying of Jesus was authentic was that it stood distinct from both Christianity and Judaism. This was called the criterion of double dissimilarity. It did not mean that Jesus said nothing that overlapped with distinctively Jewish or Christian ideas but that the only ones we could be reasonably confident came from Jesus were those that were dissimilar to both.

Ernst Käsemann was a student of Bultmann.

Other scholars prominent in this “New Quest” (that is, the apparent revival of Historical Jesus studies after Albert Schweitzer is said to have closed the curtain on the “First Quest”) have been

  • James M. Robinson — an American, but whose D. Theol was from Basel;
  • Norman Perrin — an American, not a student of Bultmann but a student of Jeremias.

This “New Quest” throughout the 1950s and 1960s, in both Europe and North America, could be most distinctively described as follows:

  • A focus on the sayings of Jesus as the key to understanding Jesus;
  • Emphasis on the criterion of double dissimilarity as the key to identifying authentic sayings of Jesus;
  • A “considerable skepticism about the historicity of any of the gospel material, especially narrative but also sayings materials’ (The Symbolic Jesus, p. 41).

But Arnal points out that all of that changed “with a vengeance” in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The Third Quest”

read more »


2010-10-27

The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)

by Neil Godfrey
Diversionary tactics

Image by tompagenet via Flickr

In 2003 Niels-Peter Lemche posted a blunt article addressing the unscholarly tactics of conservative scholars. He noted how even historical-critical scholars had come to resort to the same polemics as conservatives in their efforts to “crush so-called ‘radical’ critical scholarship.”

There may be a number of explanations for this strange fact. One may be that the majority of critical scholars originate within a religious milieu and at the bottom of their hearts are conservatives without probably realizing this. Thus, critical scholarship represents a kind of breaking away from one’s own background. The changing attitude towards even more critical scholars questioning, e.g., the very existence of King David, may have to do with the fear of totally losing the tradition-after all Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem so the new David could be born there! Somehow there seem to be questions that we are not allowed to ask.

The above is cited from Niels Peter Lemche’s 2003 post, Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion on Bible and Interpretation.

Surely we find the same motives for these same tactics among those biblical scholars who are most vociferous in their polemics against the very idea of questioning the existence of Jesus Christ, also.

I quote sections from Lemche’s article here that look very like the same sized shoe that fits the reactions of biblical scholars against Christ-mythicism. read more »