Strange Bedfellows in New Testament Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

In my books an apologist includes any academic who defends some sort of privileged status for the veracity or contemporary relevance of the narratives and teachings of the Bible. N.T. Wright uses the historical methods of New Testament scholars to argue for the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus. That ought to ring alarm bells to any serious academic. Evidently we need to question the reliability of methods that can be used to prove such nonsense; we also need to wake up to the confessional interests of a “scholarly” field that can even tolerate any of its members seriously arguing such a thing.

Scientists do not work with methods that allow one to prove God made Adam and Eve; and their guild would never give professional respectability to a member who member who argued dinosaurs were included on Noah’s ark.

Historians do not work with methods that allow for battles to be decided by mysterious angels appearing in the sky and nor would we expect them to grant professional esteem to a colleague who argued the angels of Mons decided the outcome of World War 1.

But it is quite common in New Testament studies to find scholars being highly respected academically even though their works amount to a litany of “proofs” for their personal confessional beliefs.

There are a few New Testament scholars who do speak out, however. One of these is Paul Holloway, Professor of New Testament at the University of the South. He protested against his university awarding N.T. Wright an honorary doctorate.

My complaint is that Sewanee has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.

For Paul Holloway’s commendable protest and for his defence of sound scholarship apologist Michael Bird of Euangelion writes:

Paul Holloway has written what can only be called a nasty and intemperate rant as to why Wright should not have been awarded such an honor. 

Unfortunately this is not Bird’s first foray into somewhat intemperate language directed at those who take a stand at odds with his personal faith.

Bird acknowledge another colleague, Nijay Gupta, who likewise takes Holloway to task:

My concern is that Holloway is misrepresenting Wright, and mocking many of us who are in academic dialogue with him.

I can understand Gupta’s concern that Holloway’s remarks by implication condemn scholars who give Wright the time of day but his first complaint, “misrepresentation”, is based primarily on the reputation Wright already has. All the appeals to the recognition Wright has among other NT scholars is hardly debunking Holloway’s point. If anything it is underscoring the reason for Holloway’s indignation. Bird makes the same sorts of logically fallacious arguments in defence of Wright.

Happily there are a few (hopefully more than just a few) academics who agree with the principles espoused by Holloway.

Here is a comment by a now retired Professor of Old Testament studies, Niels Peter Lemche, who makes the point well, I think:

Another explanation may have to do with the change of gravity within biblical scholarship. A generation ago the center was definitely Europe, and here German scholarship was unquestionably the flagship. European scholars were all brought up in the shadow of de Wette, Wellhausen, Kuenen, Alt, Noth, and von Rad, and without accepting these scholars as leading stars; nobody would be allowed to enter the temple of academic biblical studies. It is true that some critical voices were raised . . . [But] no conservative, i.e., evangelical scholar would ever be allowed to contribute.

Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be – according to European standards – critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.

This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one’s own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship-irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her. . . .

Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists. Don’t read Davies, Thompson, and Lemche; read books about them! From Niels Peter Lemche, 2003, Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion on Bible and Interpretation.

Oh yes. Never engage with the critical scholar. So Hurtado will never engage with Ehrman but will politely keep to his own trajectory. I made the mistake of attempting to dialogue with Hurtado recently and could not understand why every comment of mine was rebuffed with some sort of innuendo or even outright insult. Only in hindsight did I realize he was avoiding engagement in a discussion of fundamental philosophical and methodological approaches and putting me in my place from the outset.

It’s the same with mythicists. They must be insulted, denigrated, have their motives and character impugned. Yes there is an appearance of engagement but it is only an appearance. As has been demonstrated on Bible and Interpretation McGrath’s treatment of Carrier’s book is quite misleading. Presumably he does not expect colleagues to check the veracity of his comments.

And so we come to Bird’s shock that Holloway has breached academic collegiality. He should not expose apologists but pretend everyone is an equally professional critical scholar. This brings us back to the modus operandi of the apologist scholars as brought out by Stephen Young in Protective Strategies and the Prestige of the “Academic”.

James C. Hanges has likewise pointed out the apologetic nature of much NT scholarship that sets up barriers to protect Christianity from being like any other religion in the past. Its uniqueness must be preserved. (Except for Judaism. The scholars need to prove they are no longer antisemitic as their forefathers were so Christianity can be very much like Judaism.) In one of his books Hanges has further noted that even scholars who ostensibly attempt to argue for sociological explanations for Christianity’s rise do not avoid the trap of their “apologist” colleagues who always say Christianity began with something “unique”, “unknowable”, a mysterious “easter experience” whereby somehow followers of Jesus became convinced he was alive, etc. That is, Christianity is removed from the realm of normal historical explanations even by many who are trying to avoid the supernatural and the unique.

Not very long ago I wrote a review and critique of James Crossley’s efforts to find a secular and “scientific” historical explanation for Christianity’s spread and pointed out that I felt he was putting himself in a quandary by seeking dialogue with the N.T. Wrights.

This post has turned into a somewhat disorganized ramble. I hope to write something more specific with respect to a question of interest to many readers in the coming days.


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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Strange Bedfellows in New Testament Studies”

  1. My point was not to bolster up Wright by appealing to “recognition.” It was more to say I do not see the standards by which one decides who is a “scholar” – Holloway makes it seem like his circle of friends should define the discipline. I am at least making appeal that if Holloway publishes with JBL, and Wright publishes with JBL – and the process is “blind” – Holloway is at the same time saying that he wants legitimacy by JBL but Wright should be allowed that same legitimacy. It just seems magisterial of Holloway to “oust” Wright from the discipline altogether.

    1. Hi Nijay.

      My reference to “recognition” is meant to encompass recognition through the peer-review process as well as public acknowledgements.

      As a scholar I am sure you are even more aware of the pros and cons of the peer review process than I am. Peer-review in a field as clearly dominated by ideology as Biblical Studies (and ideology, it is widely acknowledged, is to greater and lesser degrees found in areas of the social sciences, the arts, history more than in the “hard sciences”, and one does not have to read very widely to find biblical scholars themselves complaining of theological domination in their field) is not in itself a guarantee of the scholarly soundness of the methods behind what is published. That can only be determined by a study of the arguments themselves.

      Recently I posted on Michael Bird’s boast that as an editor of a peer-reviewed journal he would never allow any mythicist argument to be published, for example. So Richard Carrier would be prevented from arguing his case yet a scholar who argues for the historicity of the resurrection would be allowed to publish.

      I find on this point I am in complete agreement with Richard Carrier when he writes in OHJ:

      Finally, however, one last remark is needed on mistaking Christian apol­ogetics for objective (or even mainstream) scholarship . . . . I take only secular scholarship seriously-which doesn’t mean sec­ular scholars (since a great deal of secular scholarship is produced by the devout), but rather scholars who rely on secular methods and principles of scholarship (a good example being the late Raymond Brown). Because apologetics differs from scholarship. Apologists ignore methodological dis­tinctions between the possible and the probable in order to maintain the defensibility of a religious dogma.

      I would add that one also sees among secular scholars of the New Testament the same failure to distinguish between the possible and probable in order to maintain the defensibility of a thesis. Religiosity does not always translate into bad scholarship and lack of religiosity does not always assure us of good scholarship, either.

      1. This is helpful, Neil, but I would say then that Holloway’s beef is not really with Wright but with a very flawed discipline of New Testament scholarship – one that has granted Holloway a PhD, published his articles and books, and given him a platform for teaching and an income.

  2. You post may be disorganized and rambly, Neil, but this post makes a solid case for transferring NT scholarship including the HJ studies to the mythology and history departments! (Which will quickly dispose of the historical Jesus, with well-justified prejudice).

    I wonder how worse it could possibly get, once the centre of gravity for this field of scholarly endeavor shifts to Russia? I heard the Russian Orthodox Church is fairly fundamentalist now.

  3. There never has, nor apparently, ever will be, “a secular and scientific historical explanation for Christianity’s spread,” because social scientists would be forced to rely on the ‘expertise’ of theologians, just like historian Michael Grant did in his Historical Jesus book.

    1. Hanges in Christ, the Image of the Church writes of Rodeny Stark:

      While explaining, on the basis of analogy, a wide range of phenomena associated with the rise of Christianity through the application of critical social science theory, when Stark [in The Rise of Christianity, 1997] comes to the question of the actual origin of Christianity he simply defers to the mystery of the resurrection and the fact that Jesus’ followers believed in it as sufficient explanation for the rise of the first believing group.

    2. Richard Carrier actually deals with this somewhat in “not the impossible faith.” Following his extensive footnotes would have one reading for a while. The work has been done.

  4. But there is hope.

    Roger Bagnall wrote a [short] book which was scathing in its opinion of the past and current
    misuse of Egyptian papyrology by Christian academics, with particular reference to dating manuscripts ideologically rather than scientifically and historically objectively.

    I take the thrust of the academic at “Faces and Voices” as exhibiting a degree of frustration with, at least, the fundamentalist apologists.

    Our standard issue apologists have displayed real fear at the writings of Carrier as is witnessed by their desperate resort to the tricks described by Neil.

    I suspect we are in the early days of a paradigm change similar to that watershed in the 1970s which saw the historicity of the patriarchs, exodus and the conquest of Canaan demolished by those such as Thompson and company and even more recently Finkelstein.

    There are gaps in the flood gates.

    Part of the driving force today eating away at the foundations of orthodoxy is the internet, no longer can the apologists mutter their platitudes in blissful group isolation but today those trite writings are being subjected to a wider audience who can detect the lack of clothing on the emperor.

    The process has begun, it has a ways to go and the directions of the possible paths is unknown but as I said a few days ago ‘the times they are a’changin'”

  5. Was I the only one who read Holloway’s letter and thought, “Well, it’s just an honorary degree in Theology”? I mean it isn’t the same as a Ph.D. in literature or history — you know, a real doctorate in a real subject.

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