The pseudo-scholarly “hermeneutics of charity”

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by Neil Godfrey

No, Tommy!
No, Tommy!

Mantra #1 (from 17+ mantras of biblical scholarship)

Any narrative which purports, on the face of it, to be telling about events that actually happened deserves to be treated as true unless it can be demonstrated not to be.

Rational alternative

Withhold judgement about the truth of any narrative until one has evidence to decide either way.


This reminds me of Dieter Georgi’s observation that I noted in How Jesus has been re-imaged:

The reversal of the principle of burden of proof in favor of those who claimed authenticity of material that was obviously and thoroughly shaped by faith in the continued presence of Jesus after his death did not happen by way of methodological argument but by way of decree.

It is not a sin to say “I don’t know” pending evidence that allows one to decide either way. I suspect that biblical scholars who mouth this mantra are really only interested in applying it to the certain selected biblical literature.

When the Hitler diaries appeared, the scholarly response was to suspend judgment on their authenticity until they could be tested. One renowned scholar who was quick to jump in with a claim to their authenticity, Hugh Trevor-Roper, was left with a seriously tarnished reputation when the contrary was eventually established.

The Book of Genesis purports, on the face of it, to be telling about events that actually happened. Does it really “deserve” to be treated as true when it talks about the creation of the world and Adam and Eve?

The hermeneutics of charity and the hermeneutics of suspicion have been much discussed by certain biblical scholars, and I addressed this when reviewing in detail Richard Bauckham’s curious methodologies in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. It is one thing to charitably trust the testimony of my neighbour if he warns me of an adverse weather report, so that I accordingly take precautions.  It is quite another to naively trust a narrative in the course of historical enquiry. Here an approach more akin to what we might expect of a judge or jury evaluating evidence in a courtroom would be more appropriate.

Charity and suspicion are qualities that pertain to human relationships. Biblical historians, or certainly quite a number of them, quaintly seek to apply the divine command to demonstrate “charity” by “believing all things” or “giving the benefit of the doubt” not only towards their fellow brothers and sisters, but to bits of paper, to stories. The justification is that we can assume that the author of a story appears to have wished to be believed, and as good Christians we should do just that when we read his narrative.

This is bizarre. They do not even know who the author was, let alone what he was thinking when he wrote the narrative. In reality they only have a story they are seeking to find excuses to believe. Try introducing their Christian ethic as a replacement to the methods of historical enquiry into the halls of secular historians and classicists!

In historical investigation and research into inanimate documents and texts one needs to suspend judgment until there is sufficient evidence to lean either way. It’s called something like attempting to make an “objective” evaluation.

Objectivity is about “truth”, intellectual honesty. Charity is about bias. Of course complete objectivity is rarely possible, but good scholars know the importance of recognizing their biases and making allowances for them. Some biblical scholars seem to be making a virtue of their biases and declaring that they have more validity than suspension of judgement — something they associate with a negative moral attribute, “suspicion”.

This tendency of a number of biblical scholars to embrace a “hermeneutic of charity” (selectively, to certain New Testament texts only) and to shun a “hermeneutic of suspicion” is nothing other than a rejection of rationalism and scientific methods of enquiry. What they are shunning, and implicitly accusing of a god-rejecting ethic, is the healthy scepticism and suspension of judgment that has been at the heart of intellectual honesty since the Enlightenment at least.

It is simply not true that suspending judgment on the historicity of a text is behaving “suspiciously”. That’s stuff and nonsense.

If scientists are concerned to keep Creationism or Intelligent Design out of secular classrooms because it is really nothing more than faith masquerading as science, then genuine historians and intellectually honest scholars ought to disclaim at every opportunity the pseudo-scholarship that accuses suspension of judgement of being a moral defect. Healthy scepticism pending sufficient evidence to decide either way is neither “uncharitable” or “suspicious”. It is, rather, intellectual honesty.

As Georgi has observed in his lengthy article on the history of scholarly interpretations of Jesus, it is a mantra that has been introduced not by argument but by decree. Bauckham’s attempt to rationalize it by appeal to Ricoeur is a gross distortion of what Ricoeur himself was arguing about “testimony” and “trust”, as I discuss in Bauckham’s use of Paul Ricoeur.

Even their own good book warns them against this pseudo-scholarly mantra:

The simple believes every word, but the prudent considers well his steps. (Proverbs 14:15)


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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “The pseudo-scholarly “hermeneutics of charity””

  1. The approach,by religious scolars,that you describe has always reminded me of Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief.
    See here:

    The first paragraph of this wiki a article seems highly pertinent.

    The religious scholars you describe are indulging in, even demanding, the obverse side of Coleridge’s justification.
    They are demanding ‘presence of belief’ as a prerequisite.

    Whilst ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ may be appropriate for a reader to gain entertainment from a fantasy story or poem utilising the supernatural, it is entirely inappropriate when tackling a question of history.
    I can enjoy and appreciate “the Rime of the Ancient Mariner” using Coleridge’s concept but when trying to practise history the proper methodolgy must take complete precedence.

  2. Bible scholars frequently demonstrate that when they want to “behave suspiciously” (i.e., suspend judgment), they can. Let them examine any non-canonical work, and they’ll show you they know how to evaluate written works fairly. Ask them to discuss a fragment or a book such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocryphon of John, etc. Here’s what you’ll find:

    1. They will seek to date the document within a general range and not affix some arbitrary, specific, early date. After all, it’s the honest thing to do. Sometimes the best you can say is, “That’s probably a second-century work.”

    2. They will describe the work as “what the community who preserved it believed.” Because, really, how can anyone say whether a saying goes all the way back to the historical Jesus?

    3. They will set aside any of the non-canonical miracle stories found inside the document as something an historian can neither prove nor disprove. Seriously, a cross that spoke?!

    4. They will critically appraise the work, seeking to discover whether it has dependencies on earlier documents or traditions. This is something many NT scholars refuse to do when it comes to the canonical Gospel of John.

    5. They will happily point out the twisted logic found in a work like the Epistle of Barnabas, explaining his allegories within the historical framework. Too bad they don’t notice that Paul’s midrashim are frequently just as tortured.

    Granted, the scholars may tend to go overboard when it comes to non-canonical works, assigning the latest possible date, calling it “wholly derivative,” or labeling it “gnostic.” However, more often than not what I see is fair evaluation that simply looks harsh when compared to the privileged treatment they reserve for the canon.

    (Of course, the Gospel of Thomas is a special case. In one breath the scholars will appraise it critically, but in the next they’ll use it to “prove” the historicity of Q.)

  3. For me, the key to all of it is the Bible. If there is a God (christian) then every word in that book has to be true and consistent as well as give the impression that it was given by someone who truly has human interests in mind. I for one have never seen anything like an angel, the plagues, a boat big enough to hold all of the animals in the world etc. I also disagree at the core with some of the Bible’s moral standards regarding homosexuality and women (etc.) I cannot reconcile these things within myself. If we cannot trust the book that claims to be the word of God then:
    A) We cannot trust God.
    B) God does not exist.
    I have not found any other religions to be any better. These things are plenty of proof “against” even without any evidence “for”.

    1. Spot on. In other words, it is scandalous for any publicly funded institution of higher learning to support studies that in some sense serve to advance the notion that this book has any practical or ethical relevance in today’s world.

    2. I’ve read several books by apologists and none of them has ever said every word in the bible is true.
      The Bible was written by human beings. They may have been inspired by God but they are still human and inaccuracies and biases are to be expected.
      You seem to have an all or nothing mentality.
      Evangelical Christianity is not fundamentalism.

      1. I don’t understand how your comment relates to my post. I have never denied even fundamentalists will concede to a few errors in transmission of the Bible. (I fitted a definition of fundamentalist myself once, so I can hardly accuse them of being complete idiots.)

        If you are addressing other posts of mine where I have referred to fundamentalism, I would encourage you to also look at my Category archive for “fundamentalism” and you will see several positive posts about the contributions of fundamentalism for many people. (I think that personally it offered me much that was positive. My issue with it is that the positives are not the whole story.)

        What I attempt to address in many of my posts are the logical fallacies at the heart of mainstream biblical scholarship. That has nothing to do with the question of the inerrancy of the Bible per se. What I take strong exception to is scholarship — especially that which has been publicly funded in some way — that claims special rules and methods that apply exclusively to them and that break down when exposed to wider norms of historiographical methods, and basic logic!

  4. http://www.bib-arch.org/bar/article.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=36&Issue=04&ArticleID=09&Page=0&UserID=0&

    “When I learned of the new move to include fundamentalist groups within the SBL, I wrote to the director and cited the mission statement in the SBL’s official history: “The object of the Society is to stimulate the critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures.”3 The director informed me that in 2004 the SBL revised its mission statement and removed the phrase “critical investigation” from its official standards. Now the mission statement is simply to “foster biblical scholarship.” So critical inquiry—that is to say, reason—has been deliberately deleted as a criterion for the SBL. The views of creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers now count among the kinds of Biblical scholarship that the society seeks to foster.”

    [Via FRDB]

  5. Oh good. That means that they can now include those “scholarly” articles of the kind that “prove” that the miracles Josephus narrates are all historical, too!

    From an old FRDB post:

    CHOCKY: I recently read an interesting article by Robert L. Plummer, giving passages from the Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud, describing strange events at the Temple in Jerusalem c.30AD. I haven’t found a mention of these sources on this forum, so thought I’d post them – what do you think? . . . The article is Plummer, Robert L: ‘Something awry in the Temple? the rending of the Temple veil and early Jewish sources that report unusual phenomena in the Temple around AD 30’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48 no 2 Je 2005, p 301-316

    NEIL: I think Plummer needs a reality check. He concludes:

    it appears to me that there is enough relevant data to warrant considering this information in historical assessments of the Gospel narratives (p.316)

    And what is “this information” specifically? Miracles:

    • of the temple veil being torn
    • of a supernatural light shining from the altar in the Temple
    • an earthquake (just at this place and time!)

    These are said to have happened, “strikingly”, at the same time as Jesus’ crucifixion, and are worthy of serious historical consideration because they come from:

    “Early Jewish sources which seem to corroborate evidence for supernatural phenomena in the temple at the time of, or following, Christ’s crucifixion” (p. 306)

    (As for all this happening at the time of Christ, the Jewish sources merely say it was all 40 years before the destruction of the temple. 40 is a favourite number for the assignment of significance throughout Jewish theological and literary — and even non-Jewish — themes from ancient times. Nor is there any discussion raised about such portents being a standard motif attached to any ancient event of significance, Jewish and non-Jewish.)

    Possibly also open for consideration by Plummer:

    • the manorah light going out, and/or a darkness over the land
    • temple doors opening by themselves

    He does not make overmuch of the list of miracles listed by Josephus, but does remind us that Josephus himself said he would find them incredible except for the fact that they had been reported by eyewitnesses! These included the heifer being brought to the temple for sacrifice having kittens (or rather a lamb). I do not know why Plummer failed to mention that according to eyewitnesses it was a lamb that was born from this heifer, however.

    Do western 21st century developed societies really support scholars spending their time with this sort of “research”?

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