All Bible Scholars Agree . . . (so what?)

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by Neil Godfrey

No scholar employed by a major university doubts Jesus existed. 

Is all scholarly consensus equal?

One sometimes reads a claim like this by a theologian or bible scholar although generally they will more modestly say only that no scholar employed by a theology or biblical studies department holds this view.

How should we evaluate such a claim?

The intention behind the claim is to persuade us to accept the authority of biblical scholarship in the same way we might accept the authoritative claims of scientists, engineers or doctors.

But the difference should be obvious to all. The sciences are about universal physical facts; biblical studies are a culturally limited and ideological area of interest.

What if we were to read an Islamic scholar saying no scholar of the Koran or Islam at a reputable university believes Jesus was crucified or doubts Mohammad rose to heaven on a flying horse?

Look, also, at the Who’s Who table to see who in relatively recent years have confessed to doubts about the most fundamental claim of biblical scholarship. Highly respected linguists, philosophers and scientists as well as a broad range of literature scholars, psychologists, engineers are on the list.

These are people who do know how to evaluate claims and are not going to be fobbed off with authoritative declarations about what “bible scholars believe”. These are not people who are somehow perverse eccentrics who are just as likely to be found wondering if Young Earth Creationists are right after all.

People know biblical scholarship does not hold the same universal authoritative status as the medical sciences. It is not hard to find scholars in the sciences even mocking the whole discipline of theology for its ill-informed pretensions to accommodation with evolution.

All authority should be held accountable and welcome challenges if it is to validly justify itself.

Everyone knows the study of the bible is far more of an ideological interest than are the sciences. There is no doubt that most scholars who have taken up biblical studies do so out of a personal religious interest. Most are Christians, liberal or conservative.

The token atheists in their ranks for most part acknowledge that they were once believers and that is why they took up their studies. Others who claim to be atheists or agnostics are very often quiet publicly about their past interests so we can only wonder. Past interest is clearly very important in the eyes of a good number of these scholars as we can see from the way some of them are quick to accuse peers like Robert Price (and even Bart Ehrman) of embracing their critical views as a reaction against past fundamentalism. On the other hand no atheists are faulted for the possibility that they continues to believe elements of their old fundamentalist faith in order to cling to some relics of their past and not admit they were totally wrong about everything.

I only know of one prominent bible scholar who had no religious background at all and took up his studies for purely intellectual interests. I’m sure there must be others but surely they are very few. And one thing he and other scholars agree on, both atheists and believers, is the nature of the ideological domination of biblical studies.

But don’t get me wrong.

I enjoy reading a wide range of scholarly works related to the origins of the Bible and Christianity. (Lest you think I’m obsessed I should point out that I enjoy reading on many other topics: in the last couple of months I have also read works on cosmologyevolution, and Chinese history among others.) The main reason I wanted to start this blog years ago was to share some of the interesting things I was reading about biblical studies that I thought many others would likewise find interesting and informative.

The more one reads the more one’s critical skills are honed. One book never has the final word on any topic. One becomes increasingly aware of the biases and assumptions of the different authors. That doesn’t mean we throw their work in the bin but it does mean we can better evaluate their arguments and learn in the process.

But sometimes one finds a bible scholar making a declaration of authority for his/her entire academic guild that strikes me as blind hubris.



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44 thoughts on “All Bible Scholars Agree . . . (so what?)”

  1. Anyway, it should be “No scholar employed by a major university publicly doubts Jesus existed. ” It’s not like we can get into the heads of others.

  2. You have a point. Truth is not settled by votes. We are not sure when Zoroaster lived – did he? Has anyone written a book arguing not only that Muhammad didn’t travel like the cow that jumped over the moon, but that he never existed at all -just curious.

    1. Google “Muhammad did not exist” and you’ll find your answer. I have yet only had a chance to skim Spencer’s book but from the little I have read on this, including a few journal articles, it appears to me that the few brave souls who do raise the question are merely applying the same fundamental processes of historical inquiry and assessment of documents that I have been arguing for in the case of Jesus and Christian origins.

      It is not only Christianity but also Islam that has traditionally held historical inquiry hostage to dogma (even among the atheist practitioners). And from the way we see a few archaeologists in Israel mistreated publicly we should add Judaism to that short list as well.

          1. No it has nothing to do with Christianity or Judaism. It is a matter of ethics/morals. The Quran says that there is some benefit in alcohol but also harm—(addiction) and the Quran discourages addictions/intoxicants of any kind.(including gambling–Surah 2:219) Because of the wording used in the Quran—there are various opinions as to the degree of prohibition for alcohol—some Muslims are very strict about it, others are accepting of it to some degree such as health or medicinal use….

              1. If by “spirit” you mean something along the lines of the Jewish Ruach (spirit in hebrew–arabic Ruh or Ruach Hakodesh=Holy spirit in Hebrew/Ruh al Quddus in arabic) Then no, the nature of the spirit is inherently good. Because of this, the nature of humanity is also inherently good—because when God created Adam (humanity—people of the soil) God blew the spirit into l

                But you are right about the harm to the mental state—The Quran is concerned not just with physical harm(body)–but also harm to the soul (Nefesh=Hebrew, nafs=arabic)

              2. by harm to the soul, I mean “moral injury”—that occurs when a person transgresses certain ethical/moral values they hold.
                (it has nothing to do with any Christian rituals)

      1. I’d forgotten Spencer! A proper analysis of the Holy Qur’an needs to be pulled together, after several previous attempts. I once asked a well-educated white convert to Islam, and its Al Murabitun sect launched by a Scottish monetary theorist and Wagnerian, whether he seriously believed in the jinn fire-spirits. He said, “We have to accept the entire metaphysical package” and then added: “Muslims don’t distinguish between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’.”

      2. For a fascinating look at the history of early Islam read;
        “In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire” by Tom Holland. Excellent scholarly work.

  3. Well said. I want to be even more critical though. When there is such extreme unanimity, I suggest there is a de facto dogma or exclusionary shibboleth at work.

    1. Hi Ruth. If I’d known the post was going to attract this interest I would have tried to polish it up some more in advance but then I might have ruined it with too much effort. 🙂 All my posts come with the Creative Commons licence. If that’s complex legalese then have a look at the brief notes in Permissions: mine and yours under the “About Vridar” heading in the right hand column.

      1. Thanks, Neil! I had read that, but I always like to ask anyway before reblogging. I would never dream of posting someone else’s work and not giving proper credit and a link. This is such an interesting topic. I’ve seen any number of apologists use that phrase, “All, or most, scholars agree [insert Jesus existed, archaeology proves that among other things, or whatever else you might think of]. So thanks for the article. I’ll be posting it over at my place along with a link and proper credit.

  4. “The thesis under review is generally accepted as proven, or at least as probable. There are, of course, many variations of the thesis, for not all authors who treat the subject accept the complete accuracy and relevance of every aspect of the historical analogue that has been constructed.

    Yet nearly all accept the general claim that the historicity of the biblical traditions about the patriarchs has been substantiated by the archaeological and historical research of the last half-century.

    Indeed, within the last ten years, the delineation of the ‘patriarchal period’ as a real historical period has been commonly spoken of as one of the major achievements of archaeology. This opinion has become so commonplace that many recent works on Genesis and the patriarchs proceed on the assumption that this historicity has been substantially proven and might serve as a basis for further interpretation.

    Even literary critical studies of individual traditions within Genesis now accept the basic historicity of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and see the present ground of debate to lie not in the question of historicity itself but in the dating of the ‘patriarchal period’ …….

    The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives T.T. Thompson, TPI, originally published 1974
    From the Introduction page 1

    After that intro Thompson then spends the rest of the book precisely and authoritatively demolishing that paradigm such that today that paragraph would not be considered mainstream at all.

    For that masterful research he failed his PhD application and was denied credibility a job in the field for years.

        1. I can’t find the quote right now, but i distinctly remember Ratzinger as a pope saying something along the lines that it is not possible to analyze scripture only through reason, faith is required (a staple of his doctrine, and by itself a classic “dog chaising his tail”). I can only imagine Thompson’s face while hearing that, 30 years later!

          It is maddening that up to at least Darwin history was actually defined as “mosaic history”, as everyone assumed not only that he existed, but that he actually wrote the stuff; i read this book some time ago, because it was oddly quoted by both opponents and supporters of intelligent design:
          It isn’t even comprehensive, but it is still amazing how long and how hard they tried to fit history, geology and cosmology within the bible framework, and every single time they failed miserably.
          Biblical studies still haven’t fully recovered from that blunder.

      1. Nice review. I would love to see a “Top Ten” of the points he makes. For instance, was he the first to point out that there were no camels in the Levant at the time of Abraham?

      2. I wish I could do such succinct yet meaty reviews like yours, mcduff.

        Lowen, I have been wanting to do just some sort of post for almost as long as I’ve had this blog. One day….

  5. The Google or Amazon “About This Item” section ends up confirming McDuff though.

    Often believers have poor reading skills, and miss the subtext.

    And until recently, atheism was too despised to speak openly

    1. Of course, as Neil perfectly realizes, the qualification swallows up the assertion. There are in fact a great many scholars employed by major universities who doubt the existence of Jesus. They’re just not in departments of theology. Here is a question for you, Neil, and for your readers: I am reading Leo Donald Davis’s “The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787),” and it leaves me wondering whether any mythicists have ever taken the approach that the mythical nature of Jesus is strongly suggested by creedal theology, by Christologies themselves. As I read them, they are so utterly esoteric and intellectualized that one can’t imagine them having anything to do with a real person born of a woman, who walked around on the earth and did all the things human beings do. What do you think of the early theological controversies in this regard?

      1. Clarke, without even analyzing the esoteric aspects of the creeds as support for a mythic Christ, why not look to the parts in the creeds that center him in time and place. Why did “crucified under Pontius Pilate” get added if not because some competing group said he wasn’t either crucified and/or crucified under Pilate? Yet getting crucified during Pilate’s tenure, for causing a disturbance in the temple, is a bedrock claim for the historicity of Jesus.

        1. It’s a ‘bedrock claim’ derived solely from a mythical story. It’s like saying that Moby Dick existed because the Pequod left from Nantucket, which really was a whaling site in the 19th C. What could be more absurd? On the other hand, reading about the eternal preexistence of the Son, who is God from God, Light from Light, one lying on top of the other, etc etc. . . . isn’t it rather obvious that this religion is based, unlike Greek religion which appears largely folk-mythical, on ancient philosophical concepts and mystery religion notions (probably)? And what has that got to do with a real person? The bishops are interested in things that have no reference to any real life event, that would evaporate if placed next to a real human history.

      2. Clarke, I have not studied the creeds and only have a general knowledge of the history of the church from late antiquity on.

        But I did once post on a very lengthy discussion by Dieter Georgi: How Jesus has been re-imaged through the ages to fit different historical needs.

        Jesus is a cultural icon as we know, and is re-imaged in the shape of whatever cause he is used to represent — and I’m thinking of a wide spectrum of activist groups in our day. Ditto in songs and art.

        As part of our cultural landscape it is only natural that his historical existence would be taken for granted. Without that foundation he would become as, well, fictional or mythical as Robin Hood and Superman. The game would be exposed for what it is. We would see how the sausage we just ate was made.

        Burton Mack made the point that this is how it has been from the very beginning with “Myth of Innocence”.

  6. I was reading “The Case Against Q” and Goodacre laments about how Q is just presumed or taken for granted:

    “Yet more important than any of these considerations, the language
    of Q theorists and the widespread failure to consider alternatives to it,
    is the simple fact that Q has been consensus for a long time. Its dominance
    is largely a function of the fact that it has been assumed for a
    century. Most scholars therefore begin with Q and write books assuming
    Q without investigating the matter carefully for themselves.”

    Now just replace these two parties with historicist and mythicist and you could say almost the same words.

  7. He goes on to say “the fact of majority acceptance cannot itself function as an argument
    for the existence”.

    This sound like he has copied from this blog!

    1. I like Mark Goodacre’s approach to many things including the Q question. While he does regret the tendency to take Q for granted at the same time he also knows that Q is ultimately grounded in very serious and detailed scholarly argument.

      As Tim Widowfield has often posted here, we keep running across indications that too few scholars have actually taken the time to read and think through some of the foundational arguments in their discipline.

      More significantly Burton Mack also wrote critically of scholars who reject Q without demonstrating any serious awareness of the arguments in its favour. It’s so easy to reject something in favour of an alternative if one has only a superficial knowledge of its foundations.

  8. Yes, I agree that saying “all biblical scholars agree” is wrongheaded, for the reasons you raise. In particular, scholarly discussions must proceed at the level of reasoning and logical argumentation, backed by sound facts – not by appeals to “consensus”.

    What is more, what if we take seriously the requirement that a biblical studies “scholar” must have written a PhD dissertation that counts as an “original work” which makes “a significant contribution to knowledge”? In order to satisfy the requirement for “originality”, every biblical scholar must have disagreed with what “all biblical scholars” had until that point “agreed”, at least on some aspect of their PhD. Scholarship, real scholarship rather than the apologetics that passes for scholarship in the majority of institutions employing New Testament employees, can only proceed by disagreeing with what “all biblical scholars agree”. Thus the statement “no scholar employed by a major university doubts Jesus existed” should only be read, by those with a scholarly inclination, as an indication of a potential blind-spot.

  9. You may not be obsessed, Neil, but I certainly am! And I thank you for carrying the torch on this blog for intellectual engagement regarding these subjects and their history in a way that stands completely outside and independent of the influence of those institutions with (what little) employment (there is) for professors specifically of biblical studies. Embedded in the headline slogan is the assumption that such a perspective is irrelevant, but I beg to differ.

  10. Deane, yes, understood. I originally posted an image that lined up famous scientists like Newton and Einstein — which would have made your point exactly but also have been somewhat at cross purposes with the specific point I was wanting to make in this post. As you indicate, however, it’s not completely a simple black or white question.

    Peter, thanks for the compliment. It’s an enjoyable hobby but someone’s gotta do it! 😉 And yes, of course there is relevance of some sort in all scholars agreeing on any point. I don’t really like my “so what” quip in the title and had I thought anyone would notice I’d have made more effort to change it. (To change it now might break other links, though.) Relevance is relative, of course, isn’t it. Relevant to what? As a demonstration of ideology? politics? rationality? method of [fill in this space]?

      1. There is currently a high % of Christian scholars who publicly support HJ, or historical Jesus. However, many acknowledge childhood conditioning and continued social pressures as a factor in that. People are emotionally attached to their religion. Then too, even a high degree of attachment, proves nothing, after all.

    1. Thanks for that post, Peter. I will post about it and link to it here soon in more detail. Peter Enns’ post strengthens the conclusion that biblical studies is a quite relatively small field compared with the numbers interested in getting involved. “In-breeding” with all its associated problems is an inevitable result, I think.

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