The confessional bias of scholarship’s quest for Christian origins

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by Neil Godfrey

Scholar and his books by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout
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Even scholars who are attempting to find an “independent” and “socio-economic” explanation for Christian origins (such as James Crossley) are, like virtually all scholars involved in this quest, “driven by the Christian imagination” itself. Burton L. Mack explains the nature of this bias in his introduction to A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins.

The reader who dares to enter this discourse [of Christian origins] from the humanities or from the social sciences, cannot avoid coming to a certain conclusion. The events that center the massive amounts of scholarly learning are exactly those that haunt the average Christian imagination as well. They are exactly those suggested by the Christian gospel, the gospel that sets them forth as inaugural and foundational for Christian history and faith. (p. 8)

Christians well know that the claims in the Gospel that offer them personal conversion or a new life in Christ are very same ones that also explain the origin of the Church. These are:

  • Jesus
  • his teachings
  • his activities
  • the supper
  • the cross
  • the resurrection

And it is these that are the focus of scholarly studies of Christian origins. Mack continues:

These, it should then be emphasized, are just those moments thought by scholars to be candidates for the point of Christian origins. They are taken from the gospel, actually, the gospel that Mark wrote, others enlarge, and the church eventually claimed for its charter. So the suspicion cannot be avoided that the scholarly quest for the origins of Christianity has, in effect, been driven by the Christian imagination.

Published in 1988, Mack notes the scholarly language used as sophisticated euphemisms when seeking the inaugural Christian moment via a study of these confessional moments:

  1. For those who emphasize the teachings of Jesus use the language of “presence, immediacy, ‘nakedness,’ and even silence in order to name the critical moment of transformation.”
  2. For those who seek the inaugural moment in the life of the historical Jesus stress the importance of the miracle stories — and tend to speak of his “charismatic power“.
  3. Scholars who seek Christian origins in the death of Christ and how this affected his followers have tended use the term “Christ event“.
  4. The importance of the resurrection is common to all scholars. The coded expressions for this include “Easter, appearance, and spirit.

The casual reader may not notice how often recourse is made to these terms in the language of New Testament scholarship, thinking perhaps that their occurrence is to be attributed to the idiosyncrasy of an occasional confessional writer. After reading seriously into the field and at length, however, the repetition of these terms creates a crescendo that becomes quite shrill. These coded signs, usually capitalized, do not enlighten because they mark the point beyond which the scholar chooses not to proceed with investigation, indeed, the point beyond which reasoned argument must cease. They serve as ciphers to hold the space for the unimaginable miracle that must have happened prior to any and all interpretation. They have become an all too convenient rhetorical device for evoking the myth of Christian origins without having to explain it. (p. 7)

Both confessional and secular scholars follow this same bias in their scholarly explorations of Christian origins. The assumption is that of a dramatically new event entered history and “interrupted the normal course of human social activity and created a new kind of time and society.”

I mentioned even an “independent” scholar like James Crossley at the beginning. Crossley’s attempt to find a socio-economic explanation for Christian origins is really an attempt to find a socio-economic explanation for “Jesus”, for “his teachings, for “his activities”, and for the popular appeal of these. So even Crossley is under the spell of the explaining Christian origins within the framework of the Confession and Faith of The Church.

Christian origin studies are still at the same stage as were Old Testament studies under Albright’s shadow. They are still trapped within the circular logic of arguing that the narrative of the gospels is itself the historical reality from which the gospels were born.

The way out is to study the documentary evidence for early Christianity within the framework of reliable external controls. By that I mean to use external confirmations as the starting point for the placement of the Gospels and Acts, and to study their narratives against the narratives and issues of contemporary politics and available literature; and to study other Christian writings such as the epistles in their own right, and again within the framework of contacts with similar thoughts and images contemporary and external to them, and not under the tyranny of Gospel presuppositions.

In other words, to pull the studies of Christian origins out of schools of religion and biblical studies and seminaries, and relocate them squarely within the academic departments of classical studies and secular history.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “The confessional bias of scholarship’s quest for Christian origins”

  1. In other words, to pull the studies of Christian origins out of schools of religion and biblical studies and seminaries, and relocate them squarely within the academic departments of classical studies and secular history.

    Neil, how would this be accomplished? (Or have you already covered this in another post…)

    1. I’ve no idea! 🙂

      Maybe mike’s suggestion below is the best option — let the ancient history departments start fresh enquiries into the topic independently of the religion departments. Let a few scholars jump ships. But given the nature of politics I can’t see that happening realistically either.

      Rich Griese is very strong on the idea. He might have a few thoughts.

      Someone (Vinny?) once expressed interest in completing a PhD in the area and taking on the task from within their ranks that way.

      One would like to think that there will be a return to the days when scholars like Bruno Bauer and the Dutch Radicals apparently had a higher profile and more clout than the mavericks today. The publication by Hector Avalos,’The End of Biblical Studies’, gives one hope that a new day may soon dawn.

      1. A friend of mine once said that while some consider it a thankless task keeping the goats from mixing with the sheep, a more insidious concern is keeping the sheep from corrupting the goats.

        It’s a difficult venture working toward fundamental change from the inside. There are barriers when branded as extreme “radicals” or “heretics” by a mainstream group. But in order to survive there is also the danger of compromising to the extent that original goals become whitewashed. Hopefully some will continue to traverse the tightrope successfully.

      2. Hoffmann commented (re my Christ Myth and Holocaust Denial post):

        I should also mention that the biggest reason for the shyness of scholars with respect to the non-historicity thesis had/has to do with academic appointments (as in security thereof)rather than common sense. As a middle-of-the road Hegelian like Strauss discovered.

        I suspect most of us would agree any change will only be part of a wider cultural shift.

      3. Is it true the Thomas L. Thompson ended up in Copenhagen because as a minimalist he couldn’t get tenure in North America (probably not in the UK, either)?

        I was going to write something about shaking the foundations of NT maximalism by knocking away the foundations, but the words sound hollow. I should think any well-read person could debunk the foundational “facts” that E.P. Sanders, Ehrman, or Crossan lay out. But let’s take the Nazareth myth. I have never heard a mainstream scholar admit that some archeologists say that Nazareth was uninhabited during Jesus’ lifetime. All they ever say is, “It is unlikely that the early Christians would have made up a story that Jesus came from Nazareth.” Of course, nobody says they made it up. What seems to have happened is that Nazorean became confused with Nazarene (a person from Nazareth). But if you only read the mainstream scholars you’d probably think it’s a cold, hard fact that Jesus came from Nazareth.

  2. I don’t think that schools of religion, bible study, and seminaries will be dropping their studies of Christian origins, so I think the solution would be to encourage more students in classical studies and secular history to study Christian origins.

  3. http://cscoedinburgh.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/what-is-christian-origins/

    If you read this, you will see that scholars don’t actually find historical Jesus research as relevant to the study of Christian origins.

    ‘But this historical inquiry can take in a lot: e.g., early Christian beliefs, structures, organization, social characteristics, religious practices, political stances, perceptions of Christians by others, relationship to the larger religious and cultural environment, gender-questions, early Christian symbols, “visual culture”, material artefacts (including manuscripts), and still more.’

    Where did the Jesus go in the study of Christian origins?

    The article does show that a purely mythicist stance still allows an awful lot of research on Christian origins.

    1. The confessional bias can be stifling. I downloaded a sample of Phillip Comfort’s Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism to my Nook over the weekend, but I ended up deleting it. He seems like a nice guy, but he is far too credulous when it comes to the provenance of the text. He really believes that there’s a lost ending to Mark, that Peter and Paul dictated all those canonical epistles, and that Jesus made his disciples memorize his kerygma (hence the complete reliability of the text, stemming from the pristine oral tradition).

      I could almost swallow all the quaint credulity, but then I stumbled on some sample pages at Google Books in which he flatly states that Marcion was a heretic. It is simply not correct to label anything or anyone as orthodox or heterodox before the Council of Nicea. And it’s fine to say that the proto-orthodox Christians labeled Marcion a heretic, a liar, a bad dude, but a serious scholar should refrain from taking sides. I have to wonder, if somebody swallows the orthodox position hook, line, and sinker, how does that affect his or her judgment as to textual criticism? I suspect he would deny any orthodox interpolations of the kind that Ehrman describes in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

      Similarly, if we were all wearing anti-mythicist blinders, we would likely miss out on some interesting historical implications — like the fact that Christianity at its very inception was wildly diverse. The assumption that there was an historical Jesus causes the anti-mythicist to presume that Christianity was all one thing, which shattered into a hundred pieces, and then slowly coalesced back into orthodoxy. But where is the evidence that it was ever “all one thing”? Not even the canonical books of the New Testament can agree on basic facts. And I’m not talking about esoteric stuff like Jesus’ birthplace. I’m talking about core beliefs like, “What does the crucifixion ultimately mean?” If you asked Paul, the author of Luke, and the author of Hebrews, what would they have in common? Anything?

      1. A confessional bias (even among the secular-minded) has guaranteed a willingness to settle for models and quests that leave some of the most fundamental questions in doubt or without any answer. And the same bias enables the practitioners to remain convinced the model is the right one and any attempt to offer an alternative that does resolve or even remove some of those questions is to be shunned and ridiculed.

  4. What is needed in the USA is a court challenge saying that theology classes offered at tax supported institutions amount to a violation of the separation of church and state.

    In too many cases, particularly in the American South, these classes amount to giving a glib diploma-mill bible-college “PhD” a tax supported, ultimately tenured, pulpit, from which to promulgate his propaganda.

    Any one taking these classes who does not spout back the doctrines being taught will not pass or be promoted.
    The solution is to close down these state financed stealth courses is religious indoctrination and move the course content under the auspices of the literature and history departments, where the so-called sacred texts will be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other text, without being “priveleged”.

    The spread and mutation of the texts and doctrines can be examined by the folklorists and not by bible college trained apologeticists who create a deliberate smoke screen around their topics. The obscurantist vocabulary, endless “quests” giving the false impression of progress, and the ridiculous form free “criteria” they have established, need to be flushed away.

    Theologians have absolutely no place in a modern secular publicly supported instructional facility.

    1. I like the idea, but we are still left with the culturally sanctioned paradigm of Christian origins that even many nonreligious scholars subscribe to. Even when Crossley, for example, tries to apply socio-economic models to Christian origins, he is really only applying them to the inherited faith-culturally-sanctioned paradigm.

      Any such change would need to be accompanied by a strict warrant for hitherto fringe paradigms — that will initially include some bizarre mix on all sides, but the sounder methods within such an environment will hopefully sift the wheat from the chaff. (I think even in the “real-world” disciplines, few academics will boast of politically-free work-spaces — but possibility of failure is no excuse for not trying.)

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