2011-11-19

It is good to question biblical scholars: a little bio, 1

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by Neil Godfrey

It is good to question any scholar, biblical or otherwise, but my focus here is on those who specialize in biblical studies.

Every authority, political,  professional, intellectual, should be held to account and made to justify itself. Most recognized intellectual authorities have little trouble doing this but there have been instances of fraud nonetheless.

But I am addressing biblical scholars in particular because they can be seen as important contributors to our knowledge and understanding of the Bible and Christianity, and it is the Bible and Christianity that enjoy central places in Western culture. And the Bible and Christianity have most definitely played vital roles in my own life, both for good and ill, which is probably true for most of us.

My break from Christianity and from belief in God was a little traumatic. It did not happen in a single day. There were a series of deepening realizations that I had been living in a fairy tale world. What appalled me so much was the realization of how thoroughly I had deceived myself as a believer. I had prided myself (being a pious Christian this was a humble sort of pride, of course) on being so careful to “prove all things” (as I thought the Bible admonished). Don’t be a fool, the Book of Proverbs enjoined, don’t take the first thing you hear as gospel.

My journey out of the faith was a journey of questioning one layer after another of all that I had been so sure I had proved to myself for so many years. In discussions with a cleric I recall explaining that though I questioned the teachings of my old church I had absolutely no doubt that the Bible was the word of God. It took a little longer for me to seriously question that proposition.

Don’t get me wrong. Even as a believer I always believed I had a healthy questioning attitude to both my church’s teachings and the Bible as the word of God. I could ask myself how I knew or why I believed certain things and I would go over the arguments and reach essentially the same conclusions each time, sometimes with my conviction all the more strengthened for the exercise.

My arguments against evolution were instructive. I knew more about anti-evolution arguments than I ever did about the details of what there was to understand about evolution itself. There was on exception, however. I was particularly interested in the evolution of hominids so I read the major scholarly studies of the time about this. I could not deny the fact of the evolutionary tree of pre-homo-sapiens creatures. I don’t recall now exactly how I reconciled all of this with my belief in Genesis, but I think I played with some sort of rationalization along the lines of pre-Adamic species were not “in the image of God” nor with “the human spirit” and so were some form of prototype before God created us. I probably suspected the dating of the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras was a bit skewed and that it was only a matter of time before the scientists would eventually confirm the Bible narrative. I do recall trying to find ways to squeeze the dates for the earliest signs of human urban and pastoral (neolithic) civilization within the Biblical 4000 years before Christ.

One of my most vivid turning point memories was when I finally reached the point of realizing I could no longer believe in God and at the same time be completely honest with myself. The fact that I had spent most of my life kidding myself into believing I had proven all things that I had come to believe was a shock to my system. What became of utmost importance to me now was to do my level best, no matter what it took, to avoid, as far as possible, self-deception.

Now I know I cannot say I am ever without self-deception. No-one can say that. The best we can do is to strive to be as honest as we can with those fleeting dark thoughts that lurk at the back of our consciousnesses and strive know ourselves, and the weaknesses, propensities and limitations that accompany our strengths as well as we can. The urge for self-deception is probably always with us at some level. The trick is to be aware of it where it matters most and endeavour to avoid or make amends for it as much as we can.

My intellectual journey — and this was really a journey of my own identity — had led me to the point where I knew I could no longer believe in God and still be completely honest with myself and all I had come to understand about “life, the universe and everything”. My viscera did not like the direction my brain was leading them. To leave God behind was to leave the one constant of my whole life behind. I could not imagine life without belief in God. I did not know where I was headed and that was the truly scary part. I had always believed that God was the whole source of goodness and reason for self-control. I was entering a zone where all my past beliefs warned me there would be nothing to prevent me from becoming “wicked”. I would be entering a world of new associates and activities I had not really known before. What would I find there? Would I find a new life or simply wither away in isolated bitterness?

So my break with God and the turning point in my life hinged on my decision to be as intellectually honest with myself as I knew how to possibly be no matter what the cost — and not knowing what that cost would be though fearing it could be severe.

Happily the results were not so severe, at least after a short time, in the way I had feared. It was the best decision I could ever have made and has taken me to a far more fulfilling life than I could ever have imagined.

I got carried away here and wrote more about my background than I intended so have added “a little bio” to the title. I did not set out to write a little vanity post. Oh the power of self-deception!

Next time I’ll address what led me to question the historical Jesus and the whole methodology underpinning HJ studies.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • eheffa
    2011-11-20 02:40:04 GMT+0000 - 02:40 | Permalink

    Thank you Neil for this post.

    It is not vanity to be able to articulate where you have come from in your search for authentic truth.

    My own story has some very similar parallels. It’s good to know that others share this sort of history & that I am not alone.

    Thanks.

    -evan

  • Steven Carr
    2011-11-22 18:17:58 GMT+0000 - 18:17 | Permalink

    Larry Hurtado recently wrote ‘That was a view that didn’t survive that period, and so subsequent scholars have devoted enormous energies to devising criteria by which to establish convincingly a body of material that could be used to develop a “historical” picture of Jesus, especially his teachings. As any reviewer of this effort can testify, however, it has proven very difficult to come up with a set of criteria that are accepted by all, and more difficult still to produce results from criteria that are accepted by those not already inclined to do so.’

    As far as I can see, no similar effort has been made to develop a body of material to establish the historicity of Judas, Joseph of Arimathea, Thomas, Nicodemus, Mary of Magdalene etc.

    Despite the admitted failure of of these ‘enormous energies’ to produce criteria that are accepted by all, the basic plot line is unquestioned.

    Why?

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