Defensive Postures of Biblical Scholarship

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by Neil Godfrey

Following are some general thoughts about a negative side of biblical scholarship. Each point needs unpacking in order to justify itself. But for now I’m just having a bit of a lament concerning the overview.

In the midst of an abundance of solid scholarship that I thoroughly enjoy and that I like to share when I can on this blog there is sadly also a fair amount of poorly reasoned and ill informed writing by even some of the prominent names among scholars of early Christianity. I have in mind not only writings that relate to popular misconceptions about noncanonical texts and the view that Jesus did not exist but also a more general adherence to assumptions that are in reality apologetic in origin and that are the foundation of “historical methods” unique to the world of “Biblical history“.

It’s disappointing and frustrating when one encounters scholarly essays, presentations, blog posts dripping with smugness, defensiveness and fear exactly at those junctures where the public is most interested. This is not what one expects from professionals of any kind, least of all from those in the business of education. Wider public education seems irrelevant to those who appear to have no interest in audiences beyond their peers and fell0w-Christians. Some scholars even convey the sense that they distrust the interests of anyone who is neither a peer nor a committed Christian.

If this sounds as though there is something of a defensive wall surrounding the declining field of biblical studies then the scene within that wall might be described as “softly” dictatorial. Peter Kirby has compiled “a short list” of some twenty-five scholars who “have resigned or were dismissed from their positions in awkward circumstances, typically arising in connection to some kind of statement of faith issue (or otherwise controversial circumstances).”

PhD candidate Stephen Young has deconstructed the reasoning of apologist scholars who attempt to argue that their “post-Enlightenment” methods of argument are superior to those of their rationalist peers following in the heritage of the Enlightenment. Scholars who argue we should approach the gospels with a “hermeneutic of charity” (very biblical, that word “charity”) and believe them by default unless we have “good reasons” not to go to extraordinary lengths to justify their methods before their peers. They’ll tell their lay readers how superior and “more open-minded” and “more scientific” their own methods are compared to those of secular rationalists.

One might think that this would leave the rest of the scholars sane and dry but curiously some of the secular rationalists seriously engage with these apologists thus giving them and their “pre-Enlightenment” methods professional credibility and respect. Perhaps the unbelievers need the respect of the believers to survive in a field dominated by the faithful.

Of course there are other scholars who are genuinely scholarly and I have posted on many of them on this blog, but indulge my little complaint for now.

One prominent scholar from whom I have learned a lot (especially with respect to issues of textual transmission) is Bart Ehrman. He certainly does attempt to reach the wider public with the ideas current among Bible scholars and that is a commendable thing to do. So it is depressing to see him tarnish his efforts with careless errors and even incorrect information. Some who know better might see this as a lack of respect for his paying audiences.

Other well known scholars such as Larry Hurtado remind me of my own dark days as a staunch believer when I judged the motives of outsider “gainsayers” as ultimately Satanic. Several times I attempted to engage him in a discussion over why he sometimes seemed to blog-post as if only one point of view (his own) was “The Truth” and failed to inform his readers of alternative perspectives. I failed; it took me some time to acknowledge that nothing I could say to him would prevent him from disdainfully treating me as one motivated by a desire to attack Christianity by any nonsensical means I could.

From time to time Hurtado pontificates on “mythicism” telling his readers how ignorant its advocates are. Yet his own remarks sadly demonstrate only his own ignorance — and his refusal to inform seriously himself beyond an eighty yeas old publication the contents of which he appears to have forgotten.

This really is a damn shame because Hurtado is so knowledgeable and I have learned so much from several of his books and I’d love to discuss a number of questions with him in depth.

That reminds me how some years back (2008/9) when I first “met” James McGrath we enjoyed some stimulating discussions and he would regularly comment positively in response to my posts here. But what one recent observer sees as akin to a “pathological” need to contradict anything said by a mythicist at every turn (and worse) took over and the rest is history.

One can soon tire of the dishonest and hostile approach by McGrath — not only in his attacks on mythicism but also in the offensive (counterproductive) way he attacks creationists and the naive ways he defends the “ultimate” or “spiritual” or “intentional” “truth” or “value” of the Bible in today’s world all the while denying any apologetic leanings — one can learn to ignore all of that sort of thing whether it’s from McGrath or anyone else.

But what does one make of a scholar who presents a more reasonable and civil face to the world yet writes as if McGrath’s anti-mythicist posts are honest scholarly works and that McGrath is the persecuted victim hounded by the ignorant mob for his efforts?

This post has scarcely skimmed the negative side of a guild that seems to me to be either out of touch with a wider group of interested bystanders or that fails to recognise just how shallow the methodological foundations of so much of their work on historical events — related to both Old and New Testament narratives — really are.

It’s a great shame. The situation reinforces the message of Hector Avalos about the diminishing relevance of biblical studies — at least as it is undertaken by the mainstream today.

I may yet elaborate on a few of the above points in future posts. But this is enough negativity for now. I look forward to returning to something much more positive in my next post. Though I fear many will be horrified by its theme. To me, however, any learning about how the world came to be the way it is is always fascinating and a positive thing.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Defensive Postures of Biblical Scholarship”

  1. The first sentence of the 5th paragraph seems incomplete: “PhD candidate Stephen Young has deconstructed the reasoning of apologist scholars who attempt to argue that their “post-Enlightenment” methods of argument.”

    1. Thanks for your patience and kindness in pointing that out. I should apologize for impatiently putting posts out too quickly and before I have had a chance to shape them as they should be. Tim is much more conscientious in that direction.

  2. Apologists like to criticise mythicism as “old.” Not classic. As they defend ideas from 1,700 years ago.

    I think Hurtado may be trying to defend in any case not so much real religion, but his legacy. Which in retrospect to be sure, if s best termed New Evangelistic apologetics. Typical of the 198o’s to the present.

  3. Hi Neil,

    I had some personal correspondence with Gullotta a while back, and I can attest to the quality of his character. I have seen, among other things, that he has the ability to change his mind when presented with new evidence and that he seems devoted to correctly represent his opponents’ viewpoints.

    I agree that McGrath’s writings on mythicism are superficial (that is, superficial when they are not downright fallacious or intellectually dishonest). I’m not sure how much of McGrath Gullotta has read, or whether Gullotta has read enough mythicism literature to know the truth from the misrepresentation (Gullotta has apparently read, and is rereading Carrier’s book). So I think Gullotta should be welcomed to the discussion, at least as long as he continues the high road he is presently on.

  4. Just to ‘head them off at the pass,’ critics might lodge the criticism that this ‘short list’ does not exclusively list faculty that could be called “scholars.” At least a couple taught science or philosophy.

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