Unrecognized Bias in New Testament Scholarship over Christian Origins

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by Neil Godfrey

From time to time someone – lay person or New Testament scholar – publicly insists that there is no more bias among the professional scholars of the Bible than there is among any other academic guild. The question arose recently on the Bible Criticism and History forum and I found myself scrambling quotations from members of the guild themselves to point out what surely is obvious to most outsiders. There are individuals who recognize in greater or lesser degrees just how bound in hidden bias on the question of the historical Jesus are the majority of their peers.

Of course most scholars will openly confess to acknowledging bias to some extent but in practice few appear to truly grasp the extent to which the historical Jesus question is grounded in interests that are not fully scholarly.

Here is the list that came most readily to hand.

Hal Childs, “Myth of the Historical Jesus

If interest in Jesus, whether historical or theological, has a strong, if not predominant, emotional dimension, this is usually not acknowledged, nor named as such. Emotion has a bad name in scholarship, and both methods and literary style have been designed to apparently exclude it from scholarly pursuits and results. If scholarship can be said to have repressed emotion, then, as Freud said, it returns in other forms, perhaps as ideology or dogmatism. It is always present as an invisible hand guiding interest, commitment, choice, judgement, and the framing of meaning. (p. 15)

Scot McKnight, “Jesus and His Death

Since I have placed Carr and Elton in the same category of modernist historiographer, I must add that many if not most historical Jesus scholars tend to make a presentation of Jesus that fits with what they think the future of Christianity holds, as E.H. Carr so clearly argued. While each may make the claim that they are simply after the facts and simply trying to figure out what Jesus was really like—and while most don’t quite say this, most do think this is what they are doing— nearly every one of them presents what they would like the church, or others with faith, to think about Jesus. Clear examples of this can be found in the studies of Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and B.D. Chilton—in fact, we would not be far short of the mark if we claimed that this pertains to each scholar—always and forever. And each claims that his or her presentation of Jesus is rooted in the evidence, and only in the evidence. (p. 36)

From James Crossley: To date the study has been approached too narrowly, “being dominated by Christians”.

As it stands presently, NT scholarship will always get largely Christian results, be they the nineteenth-century liberal lives of Jesus, the Bultmannian dominated neo-Lutheranism, or the results of smaller subgroups, such as the social reformer/critic Cynic Jesus associated with the Jesus Seminar: all different but all recognizably Christian. (p. 23)

Crossley quoting Maurice Casey:

But when 90 percent of the applicants [to New Testament studies] are Protestant Christians, a vast majority of Christian academics is a natural result. Moreover, the figure of Jesus is of central importance in colleges and universities which are overtly Protestant or Catholic, and which produce a mass of books and articles of sufficient technical proficiency to be taken seriously. The overall result of such bias is to make the description of New Testament Studies as an academic field a dubious one. (p. 23)

Crossley’s portrait of the opening of a New Testament conference in September 2000:

In September 2000 the annual British New Testament Conference, held in Roehampton, opened with both a glass of wine and a Christian prayer, the perfect symbols of middle-class Christianity, some might say. The glass of wine I can accept, but should an academic meeting that explicitly has no official party line really hold a collective prayer at its opening, particularly when some of the participants are certainly nonreligious and some possibly from non-Christian faiths? Leaving aside the moral issue, the fact that there is an overwhelming Christian presence in British NT scholarship is surely the reason that this could happen. Would other contemporary conferences in the humanities outside theology and biblical studies even contemplate prayer? Would the participants of nontheological conferences even believe that other academic conferences do such things? (p. 23)

Commenting on another conference that involved a “subgroup of biblical scholarship associated with social-scientific approaches”, the Context Group and their critics, Crossley observes how they concluded:

All the differences were ultimately harmonized under the umbrella of Christian faith . . .

and quoting Luke’s lesson of the Emmaus Road and enlightenment emerging from darkness. It was here where Stephen Barton made the comments we quoted earlier, warning against

unwittingly allowing the agenda of interpretation to shift in a secularizing direction, away from evangelical imperatives native to the NT itself and central to the concerns of those who read the NT with a view to growing in the knowledge and love of God.


It is because of this scholarly context that some quite peculiar academic arguments can be made . . . in what would seem to be historically unlikely cases, such as the resurrection and virgin birth. . . .

It is only in the world of NT scholarship and theology that when Jesus’ resurrection is studied, the major historical debates focus around whether or not these supposed events are beyond historical enquiry or if the “spiritual meaning” is more important than the literal understanding. (p. 24)

Stephen Barton of Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion has warned “that the epistemological roots of much social-scientific methodology lie in Enlightenment atheism and so,

awareness of this genealogy should also act as a safeguard against unwittingly allowing the agenda of interpretation to shift in a secularizing direction, away from evangelical imperatives native to the NT itself and central to the concerns of those who read the NT with a view to growing in the knowledge and love of God. (p. 16)

[Dominance by one group] restricts Christian from properly engaging with those of different persuasions, and it even allows Christians academics to make arguments that (rightly or wrongly) would hardly be permitted in other academic disciplines, not to mention some extremely weak arguments. . . .

The lack of a significant number of non-Christians or even scholars deliberately attempting to see beyond their Christian background has prevented serious secular alternatives to Christian origins being properly discussed. (p. 26)

That’s from Crossley’s “Why Christianity Happened“.

Here’s Niels Peter Lemche:

It should be clear that Christian stories can be treated differently because of Christian dominance, which allows the more literalistic advocates to make such claims. . . .

Would another discipline in the humanities seriously consider as historically reliable something as spectacular as someone literally rising from the dead but also argue that it provided a catalyst for the rise of a major new movement? (From Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion)

Stevan Davies referencing E. P. Sanders in “Jesus the Healer“:

In regard to Jesus research E. P. Sanders correctly observes, “There is, as is usual in dealing with historical questions, no opening which does not involve one in a circle of interpretation, that is, which does not depend on points which in turn require us ot understand other [points],” and he insists that “one must be careful to enter the circle at the right point, that is, to choose the best starting place.” The best starting place, it follows, is one that is historically secure with a meaning that can be known somewhat independently from the rest of the evidence. It further follows, as he rightly says, that one should “found the study on bedrock, and especially to begin at the right point.”

In the field of Jesus research, however, one person’s bedrock is another person’s sand. I cannot honestly think of a single supposed bedrock event or interpretive stance that somebody has not denied. Nor, to my knowledge, are there any two constructions of the “authentic” sayings of Jesus that are identical. One might compile a short set of parables, proverbs, and aphorisms that are universally conceded to be from Jesus, but they will be that set that conveys the least inherent meaning . . . and where one can go from there I am not at all sure. (p. 43)

Here’s Dale Allison referencing C. H. Dodd:

C. H. Dodd maintained that when we have made due allowance for the distortions of the tradition, “it remains that the first three gospels offer a body of sayings on the whole so consistent, so coherent, and withal so distinctive in manner, style, and content, that no reasonable critics should doubt whatever reservations he may have about individual sayings, that we find reflected here the thought of a single, unique teacher.” I understand this comment, with which I am, on most days, sympathetic. . . . . Dodd’s words, however, constitute not an argument but an opinion, albeit an informed one; and my own conviction is inevitably a personal, subjective response. . . .

I can think of no line of reasoning that is not, in the end, strictly circular. Nonetheless, there remain some observations that, though they do not firmly establish anything, remain suggestive, observations that may encourage those of us who are otherwise inclined to side with Dodd. (p. 23)

Allison again in “Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet

Here is what Dale Allison writes on page 60 of Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet:

Jesus turns out to have been a proponent of an apocalyptic eschatology. This result is of course contained in the methodological premise, according to which Jesus was an eschatological prophet. But in this regard history is not different from hermeneutics: circularity we will always have with us. . . .

Compare Hahn, “Methodologische Überlegungen,” pp. 37-38, who observes the problem of interpreting the individual pieces of the Jesus tradition without first having a total picture of Jesus and the problem of having a total picture of Jesus without first interpreting the individual pieces. His method is similar to my own in that he enters the circle from generalizations about Jesus and the Jesus tradition.

Niels Peter Lemche again “The Old Testament: Between Theology and History” on the problem of unexamined a priori assumptions and circularity of arguments (which have been referred to above):

When the procedure of historical-critical scholarship is dissected in this logical manner, it crumbles like a house of cards. Circular argumentation is false and will always remain false. Nothing can change that. A scholarly assumption may look like a legitimate argument, but contrary to genuine argument, it cannot be falsified . . . It is characteristic of such cases that there is no [i]tertium comparationis, no external evidence that may prove the argument to be correct and not a baseless assumption. (p. 111)

Allison again:

So the conclusion that certain apocalyptic sayings go back to Jesus is not just a product of the premise: the final conclusion also fortifies the opening supposition. (p. 61)

and again (from “Constructing Jesus“)

All this is why fictions may contain facts; an accurate impression can take any number of forms. Even a work as full of make-believe as the Alexander Romance sometimes catches the character of the historical Alexander of Macedon. Similarly, tales about an absentminded professor may be apocryphal and yet spot-on because they capture the teacher’s personality. The letter can be false, the spirit true. (pp. 13-14)

Michael Goulder from his autobiography:

I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome. This, however, is only partly true. Before new ideas come, scholars have reached a consensus, and their position as authorities depends upon their agreeing with that consensus. Their teachers, whom they normally honoured, had taught them the consensus; they had written their books assuming it, and they had often helped to develop it themselves. They were not at all likely, therefore, to think that they and their fellow experts had been wrong, and that a new scholar, of whom they had not heard, was in a position to put them right.

But there is another problem: most scholars of the New Testament have religious loyalties: they want the text [Bible] to be orthodox, or historical, or preachable, or relevant. So any new interpretation which does not fulfil these conditions is not likely to be approved. (p. 28)

Again from Goulder:

Scholars who have assumed a position over many years do not quickly recant it and publicly admit their error; nor can a novel hypothesis expect to carry the day at once in a conservative profession. It may be particularly difficult to shift opinion over texts which are fundamental to the faith of the critic. . . ..

There is a hankering after putative lost sources and oral traditions which would take us back to the historical Jesus. (p. 134)

Hal Childs in “Myth of the Historical Jesus”

Speaking of the New Quest’s revival of historical Jesus studies: “Therefore, it was theology’s need that reasserted the historical reliability, in part, of the gospels with respect to Jesus, and sought to re-establish the historical continuity between the preaching of the man Jesus and the preaching of the first primitive Christian communities about Jesus. . . . The New Quest’s agenda was to re-establish historical links between Jesus of Nazareth and Christ, in order to avoid Docetism and the reduction of Christianity to myth. The motivation for this task was theological and not historical. p. 24-25

Of the Third Quest, N.T. Wright himself boasts that “scholars work as historians, implying that they do not have theological axes to grind, either against dogmatic Christianity as in the Old Quest, or for theological continuity as in the New Quest. And these contemporary scholars also have “no doubt that it is possible to know quite a lot about Jesus of Nazareth and that it is worth while to do so….” (p. 25)

N.T. Wright is a well-known arch apologist!

Childs again:

As I read the Third Quest’s use of historical critical methods and the resulting historiography about Jesus, I detect these unwitting (i.e. unconscious) presuppositions that assume that historical method, and social science methods in general, as a kind of “science” under the influence of the traditional mode of positivism, can and will accurately determine the original historical Jesus. Such presuppositions lead the researcher to claim and/or assume that personal bias, as well as the bias of the social, political and historical context of the researcher, can be eliminated from historiography by the right use of method. Again, no one writing today about the historical Jesus makes such claims in the direct and naive manner of the nineteenth century historians.

And again,

There is probably no Jesus scholar writing today who is not explicitly and keenly aware that all historical research is colored and influenced by the personality of the historian. But this awareness never seems to penetrate deeply into the overall approach and methods that shape the historical writing of the scholar. (p. 28)

Scot McKnight, “Jesus and His Death” speaks of the principle of historical study that pervades the works of many scholars who appeal to their limitations in imagination by asking “why would anyone make it up?” – e.g. Richard Bauckham and those who follow or collaborate with him:

I contend that a hermeneutic of suspicion is fundamentally at odds with the Christian gospel, which is what a theological discipline is most concerned with. In other words, what a Christian needs is not a hermeneutic of suspicion but, as Alan Jacobs brilliantly presents, a “hermeneutic of love” or a “hermeneutic of trust.”

Thus the conclusion is set out from the beginning.

McKnight. . .

My overall point is this: historical judgment is diverse, revealing itself more often in subtle judgment and overall picture than in a criteriological approach to the sayings and deeds of Jesus. That is, I doubt very much that any historical Jesus scholar actually begins with a tabula rasa, puts the criteria on the table, and then asks the evidence to come to judgment; if there is one exception to my doubt, it is the work of J.P. Meier. Instead, most have an overall representation of Jesus in mind and go about looking at evidence and making judgments about what is genuine from what is not genuine and, at times, revising the overall representation.

In the end, it is a representation, or a narrative or story about Jesus that compels agreement and disagreement. Rarely, so it seems to me, is it the method that strikes the critic first.

And Hector Avalos concluding his chapter on the scholarship on the historical Jesus in “End of Biblical Studies“:

We can dismiss the conservative scholars as motivated by religious agendas, but what propels the more liberal academic scholars to invest in such futile searches for the historical Jesus? The answer is that both the conservative and liberal historical Jesus scholars still share religionist and bibliolatrous bonds. They believe that Jesus’ words matter or should matter.

But who is the audience for historical Jesus studies? The audience consists mostly of believers who think that Jesus’ words and deeds are preserved in the Bible, or that at least some of them are recoverable. Intellectual honesty should compel at least the liberal scholars to announce aggressively to the world that Jesus cannot be found, and that any notion of following actual words or deeds of Jesus is vacuous.

Scholars should be helping end human dependence on the words and deeds of a man who cannot be shown to be any more special, wise, or ethical than many other people we can name. The fact that most academic scholars are not vigorously pursuing such an educational program only functions to keep their sacred test relevant and themselves employed. (p. 212)

Philip Davies in “Did Jesus Exist”,

. . . a recognition that [Jesus’s] existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.

Thomas Brodie (autobiography) quoting N.T. Wright referring to scholarly reluctance to explain the gospels through comparative literary analysis (often derided as “parallelomania”):

N. T. Wright (2005) refers to a scholar’s “determination not to see”.

Wright is no flyweight. And he measures his words. Besides, it is unusual, in biblical scholarship nowadays, to speak plainly about a negative attitude in another scholar. But there it was: ‘It is hard to argue against such determination not to see what is in fact there in the text’.

Burton Mack, “The Christian Myth”:

[I]t is very important to see that, for all of the critical acumen invested in these studies, the goal of the [first] quest [for the historical Jesus] was never called into question. That goal was to rewrite the gospel story as a plausible “life of Jesus.” It was taken for granted that the proper account of Christian origins would be a biography of Jesus. The unexamined assumption was that the gospels were the confused attempts of early Christians to write a biography, and that the task of the modern scholar was to correct their mistakes by critical reconstructions and rearrangements. (p. 27) . . .

One of the big questions that bothered American scholars was the negative conclusions of the European quest for the historical Jesus. . . . Surely it must be possible to know what Jesus had said or done that started the Christian religion. . . And so, not having worked through all of the critical issues familiar to the older quest, American scholars were not yet sobered by its findings or failures. They decided to work it out for themselves by making a fresh start. (p. 30) . . . .

One example Mack provides to illustrate an instance of this — showing how the presumption of historicity gorges “facts” out of “necessity”:

E. P. Sanders . . . acknowledges one of the embarrassing questions for questers of the historical Jesus . . . is that no one has been able to say why Jesus’s “teachings” . . . motivated the Romans to kill him. Sanders argues that, if it was not what Jesus said that mattered, it must have been something Jesus did. He finds it in the story of Jesus in the temple, the episode of provocation in the narrative of the crucifixion. Taking this narrative incident as historically factual, a story shown to be fiction required by the logic of a mythic martyrdom, Sanders works out the reasons that all of the actors must have had for playing the roles they did in Jesus’s crucifixion. Thus the “passion narrative” turns out to be “historical.” (p. 33)

Despite this criticism of Sanders, Mack finds deeper fault with Crossan for treating the crucifixion as a “fact” of history despite effectively conceding it is without certain explanation, and for failing to address the gospels as an exercise in mythmaking. (pp. 36-37)

Burton Mack again:

The guild [of New Testament scholarship] pretends to be an academic discipline, but in fact resists the pursuit of a theoretical framework and the accompanying rules of argumentation necessary for coming to agreements about matters of data, method, explanation, and replication of experiments or research projects. These are foundational matters for an academic discipline. To resist them indicates that something else of importance must be driving the energies of the quest for reasons other than academic. Thus it is the case that most reconstructions of the historical Jesus have started with prior assumptions, unexpressed, about the importance of a certain kind of Jesus. With this assumed profile in mind, textual material has then been collected in its support. (p. 34) . . . .

This is clearly circular reasoning . . . . (p. 35)

The quest for the historical Jesus and his teachings is an attempt to reconstruct the “real” Jesus behind the gospels. Scholars have thought of this effort as a requirement for intellectual honesty in the face of the extravagant and mythic features of the gospels, and therefore as a helpful correction or revision of Christian origins. But Christian mythic mentality is not thereby called into question. It functions still in the hope that the true, orginary core of the Christian vision or revelation can be found at the beginning in the person of Jesus before the gospels were written. Many new questers, such as Funk and Borg, have expressly stated that they would like their portraits of Jesus to substitute for the gospel picture and thus make it possible for Christians to be followers of Jesus without the entanglements of conventional Christianity. Many are the Christians who have wanted to believe them. (p. 38)

The quest for the historical Jesus . . . seeks, on the model of the Protestant reformation, to leapfrog over the “wrongheaded” myths and rituals of the Christian churches to land at the beginning where the pure, clean impulse of an uncontaminated Jesus can rectify and rejuvenate Christian faith. That is mythic thinking with an apron-string attachment to Christian mentality. It will not produce a scholarly account of Christian origins . . . (p. 39)

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13 thoughts on “Unrecognized Bias in New Testament Scholarship over Christian Origins”

  1. The field of New Testament scholarship is dominated by the Jesus Guild which is made up of people who have based their career on the study of Jesus. They are understandably reluctant to consider the possibility that there never was any Jesus to study. Jesus Guilder rarely if ever begin their career with a study of the historicity of Jesus. They simply take the historical existence of Jesus for granted and move on from there. For that reason, they can hardly claim expertise on a subject they have never studied. It is, therefore, illogical to claim that the majority of New Testament scholars believe in the historical existence of Jesus. That is simply an unexamined assumption of the Jesus Guild which they have a vested interest in insulating from critical inquiry. There is, therefore, a built-in bias which is difficult to overcome.

  2. THANK you, Neil!!
    I discuss this troubling situation at length in the new book (“Jesus: Mything in Action”) – but now I’m going to have to go back and add even more from this post!
    -David Fitzgerald

  3. In the first thousand years of church history, and referring specifically to the first seven ecumenical councils, the popes, bishops, and church leaders were not the slightest bit concerned with any aspect of a Jesus of history, meaning they did not exhibit even a smidgeon of interest, concern, or curiosity about a human being who was born, lived a mortal life, and died. All their intense conflict and argument was focused on whether or not Christ had been preceded by God, as opposed to co-existing from all eternity (Arian controversy), how many natures he had, whether he was composed of more than one substance, what his relationship was to the Holy Spirit, and how he deified man by giving rise to the incarnation of the Word/Logos in human form, while at the same time having one identity with God, etc etc. This fact itself is of historical significance, it seems to me, and I would be interested if anyone could direct me to a book or books by NT scholars which deal with this fact, considered as informing the question of the supposed historical existence of Jesus.

    What does it say about the claim for historicity that not only are there no historical documents dealing with Jesus except tangential remarks such as that of Tacitus, who is clearly making a distant and offhand remark about something he’s heard (there is a movement with a leader named Chrestus), but that no one of consequence in the church for a thousand years has any remote interest in the topic?

  4. Indeed, what may the Councils tell us?
    At least, we may examine “The History of the Jesus Myth”.

    Here is the “fun one”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_the_East
    …with links to a panoply of “isms”, each of which is preoccupied with the physical nature of Jesus’ body at a particular time and place: “The Incarnation”.


  5. Except for Protestant fundamentalists and those quite close to their positions who take the NT neat so to speak, scholars who regard themselves as Christian believers, along with non-Christians who believe Jesus was a real 1st century person, produce a very wide variety of “interpretations” of the “evidence”; as do different mythicists. Writers start with a “hypothesis” to suit their fancy, world-view, or even commercial novelty, and pick and choose bits and pieces from the NT and ancient history that fit the bill.

    Jesus the Aryan hero, the Buddhist pacifist, the Cynic philosopher, the Deity incarnate, the Essene healer….the Ufonaut alien, the Vegetation myth, the Wonder-worker wanderer, the Xenophobe eschatologist, the Zealot rebel. You name it, someone has probably already written it.

    1. Crossan calls this state of affairs an “embarrassment” and that the scholars’ “methods” must be to blame. I am currently reading Hal Childs’ critique of Crossan’s arguments and will probably post something arising from the issues raised. Childs is a postmodernist and would appear to open the gates for the even more flexible interpretative potential of the “memory” theorists. The situation appears to me to be getting worse, not better.

  6. Should not all scholarship be judged on its faithfulness to the null hypothesis? In this case the null hypothesis would be: there is no difference in the evidence for and against an historical Jesus.

    With regard specifically to the bias of the personal need for verification of a Jesus of history, or the opposite, the personal need for verification that Jesus is a fiction, one is no more virtuous or decadent than the other. The result is predictable either way.

    If we consider two investigators: one who has an experiential commitment to Jesus, and one who has “no experience of Jesus,” there is no guarantee that either one will have a superior approach to laying out the null hypothesis evidence. Each will tend to see things that the other missed or perhaps too hastily discounted or accepted. I don’t have an experiential commitment to Buddha, but would it be correct to say that I can develop a more accurate history than someone who did?

    The argument that someone who is uninvolved with Jesus can produce a better investigatory product than one who is involved, in my judgment, is itself unproveable, A fairly recent book that I think did a pretty good job with the null hypothesis is Mark Goodacre’s Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’ Familiarity with the Synoptics (2012). The null hypotheis would be: there is no difference in the evidence that Thomas was or was not familiar with the Synoptics.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. I think these are excellent points. Your first null hypothesis is one of the reasons behind my preference to focus on understanding/exploring the evidence for Christian origins as distinct from “discovering the historical Jesus”. Your comment reminds me of a time when I contacted a Buddhist scholar to ask him what evidence existed for a historical Buddha and if there was any question about his historicity among academic specialists. Though I attempted to phrase my query objectively and cordially the response I received was so rude as to be hostile. I was told I sounded as if I had some hostile polemical agenda in mind so that was the end of the communication.

      Would anyone trust a historian of Hitler who was known to personally believe Hitler was still alive and would soon return to reclaim his reich, and who even claimed to communicate with the absent Hitler through spiritual means?

  7. Re “From time to time someone – lay person or New Testament scholar – publicly insists that there is no more bias among the professional scholars of the Bible than there is among any other academic guild.”

    Does anyone ever ask these gentlepersons how they know this to be so? Ask what studies they have performed or consulted that lead to this conclusion? Acadmics should be elevating opinions, especially uniformed positions, in an academic debate.

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