2010-02-28

Is This a Freudian Slip from a Professor of Religion?

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by Neil Godfrey

Has James McGrath given the game away — that the historical study of Jesus is as much a servant of a Faith as the arts and sciences have been (and in some countries still are) in the service of State ideologies? Only the party faithful are allowed to truly sway the directions of both the questions and the answers.

In his introductory chapter of The Burial of Jesus, James McGrath addresses a conservative Christian readership. He attempts to reassure them that critical studies of the Bible are not a threat to the real fundamentals of their faith.

First he denies “the impression many Christian believers end up with is that historians are a bunch of atheists and unbelievers, out to discredit and undermine their faith at all costs”:

This impression is inevitably true of some who work in the field of history, just as it is true of some biologists and some musicians and even some preachers, but there is no reason to think that it is true of the majority of scholars working in any of these fields.

After assuring his readers what most biblical historians are not, McGrath then gives the positive side to explain what they are:

Indeed, there is much evidence to refute it, much evidence that there are many people working in the fields of history and Biblical studies as an expression of their faith rather than because of opposition to it. (p.8)

Are these words from James McGrath really how he sees historical studies of Bible narratives, or are these thoughts strictly occasioned by the particular audience he is addressing — “conservative Christians” in the United States?

As his words stand McGrath appears to be admitting of no middle ground for a majority of scholars. There are a few who are opposed to the faith and use their historical enquiries to discredit Christianity. But on the other hand — am I misreading James here? — he says the “majority of scholars” involved in historical studies of Jesus and early Christianity do so “as an expression of their faith“.

Is the idea that there might actually be a middle approach whereby historians sought to study the evidence for the sake of historical enquiry in its own right? Is McGrath’s statement here a true indication of a majority bias of historians of biblical studies?

So most historians of biblical studies are not interested in their subject as a dispassionate enquiry into Christian origins, but rather as “an expression of their faith”?

Perhaps so, because McGrath a little later writes:

Particularly for Christians, for whom past events are central to their religious beliefs and doctrines, history is important and cannot be ignored. (p.10)

Here is the reason one sometimes hears calls from within the guild itself for studies in biblical history to be removed from the isolation of religion departments and incorporated within mainstream historical studies. In recent exchanges it became clear that McGrath — and he is presumably representative of at least a significant number of biblical historians — has very scant knowledge of how classical and other nonbiblical historians evaluate the value of documents as sources of historical information. I once wrote notes from my reading of a book by Lemche to address the nonsense that passes for “historical methodology” among the likes of Craig Evans and Richard Bauckham. Perhaps I was too harsh personally, but I see public intellectuals like these (and now James McGrath) as being personally responsible for contributing to large pools of ignorance still bedevilling some Western societies.

Ignoring Albert Schweitzer’s call (see quotation below) for Christianity to be founded on a metaphysic and not on any historical event, not even on an historical Jesus, James McGrath, a Christian himself, stresses the importance of core historical events as the foundation of the Christian faith.

(I wonder also what mainstream biblical scholars really thinks of Schweitzer’s argument in the same passage about the “probability” of evidence in Gospel studies.)

Why should any historian even think to write that his professional interest will not pose a threat to any faith that relies on certain events and explanations of those events in history? To make such a statement is to betray a bias that will guide one’s studies. I would have thought that a true professional would be willing to be moved to alternative and as yet unknown conclusions the further one researched.

Is not James McGrath here admitting that historians of biblical topics, in particular of Jesus and early Christianity, are as much in the service of The Faith as the arts and sciences have been, in other times and places, in the service of State ideologies?

Am preparing another post on the specific unquestioned and unquestionable assumptions in biblical studies.


From pages 401-402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

. . . . The writers call on ‘sound judgment’, a ‘sense of reality’ . . . of the man whose views they are opposing . . . In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

So nothing is achieved by calling on sound judgment or on whatever else one likes to ask of the opponent. Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .


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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Is This a Freudian Slip from a Professor of Religion?”

  1. I think you are misreading McGrath, but only slightly. The “majority” are not out to discredit Christianity, but it is “many” that are expressing their faith. I think he is somewhat coyly leaving room for that middle ground.

    However, I think you have correctly identified the source of McGrath’s dilemma. He wants to convince conservative Christians that mainstream scholarship can enhance their faith by peeling back the mythological layers of Jesus, but he knows that he loses that argument if there is any possibility that mainstream scholars might peel back all the layers. Therefore, anyone who wants to explore that possibility must be discredited.

  2. There are certainly scholars who do not practice their biblical/Jesus research from any faith assumptions. Burton Mack is not out to destroy Christianity but his findings on the Gospel of Mark do lead him to findings that he uses to speak bluntly about the “faults” of the Christian faith as it originated and that have been perpetuated up till today. (The Myth of Innocence). There are others like Walker and O’Neill who publish on interpolation arguments in Paul’s letters seem. And atheists like Hoffmann. To what extent do these “talk to” Christian historians in their studies? Or do the Christian historians see the likes of Mack as being an example of those who are out to “destroy” the faith?

    But even atheist scholars like Gibson and Hoffmann seem incapable of stepping outside the cultural ‘certainties’ about Jesus. I tentatively wonder if we have here a counterpart of those Hindu historians who take for granted the existence of Rama and thus are partly responsible for the public ignorance that sometimes flares up in violence, as at Ayodhya.

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