Can Biblical Scholarship Free itself from Confessional and Evangelical Interests?

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by Neil Godfrey

The goal of Biblical Studies Online is to provide both biblical scholars and the interested wider public with ease of access to quality biblical scholarship, as it comes available online.

. . . .

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to locate these resources on the internet, and sometimes difficult for those less experienced with biblical scholarship to distinguish worthwhile material from that which is inaccurate or even grossly misleading. And when it comes to the Bible, there is no shortage of the latter to be found. For this reason, Biblical Studies Online offers a gateway for the dissemination and publicizing of worthwhile open-access, online biblical scholarship.

Sounds like a great resource. Professor James Crossley is one of the two scholars listed as a maintainer of the site and given that Crossley has published protests against faith-based scholarship and is a strong advocate of a secular approach to biblical studies I allowed myself hope that “quality biblical scholarship” and “worthwhile material” would mean work free from confessional bias. Crossley, after all, is well aware that the entire field of New Testament studies risks the perception of being described as a “dubious” academic field. He even expresses some dismay that an academic conference should be opened with a prayer!

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? (Crossley, Why Christianity Happened, p. 23)

The most recent two videos posted by the Biblical Studies Online site are lectures by scholars (Professors Tigay and Gathercole) I recognize from my wider reading; the latter’s works I have posted about here. So given Crossley’s association with the site and the site’s own promotional stress on “quality” and “worthwhile” scholarship, I was not prepared for the latest video presentation by Professor Tigay opening with a PRAYER!

Advance to 3:50

I suppose what follows is a form of “biblical scholarship” but I would have categorized it under theology. The entire lecture is about how Jews and others have attempted to rationalize the biblical commands to exterminate the Canaanites with the sort of God and values worshipers want to believe in. Professor Tigay expressed his own view at the end: the genocidal commands were created by scribes attempting to explain why they saw no Canaanites around in their own day.

I would have expected a secular approach to the Deuteronomic laws to focus upon their origins, and that would have meant that Professor Tigay would have argued in some detail for his view and set his arguments beside alternative hypotheses. Rather, the lecture merely demonstrated the confessional interests of the professor, his audience, and the interests behind the site Biblical Studies Online.

An earlier video lecture [Link (https://biblicalstudiesonline.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/simon-gathercole-on-the-journeys-of-jesus-and-jewish-geography) no longer alive: Neil Godfrey, 24th July 2019] was delivered by Professor Gathercole. He was introduced as “one of the stars in academia of evangelical faith”. Thanks for the warning. I will be more aware of his bias next time I read any of his scholarly work.

Professor Gathercole begins by setting himself and his audience apart from “Jesus sceptics” and “sceptical scholars”. A scholar using “sceptical” as a negative descriptor!

What follows is just what I would expect to find set out in an evangelical tract that purports to prove that the Bible is “true”. Twenty-two of twenty-seven place-names in the Gospels are said to be found in other sources, and that compares with a similar ratio of thirty-five out of forty-four towns in Josephus’s writings being identified independently. Meanwhile the apocryphal gospels get place-names hopelessly mixed up.

Conclusion: no-one doubts Josephus wrote real history (despite his exaggerations), so it is implied that there is no excuse to doubt the reliability of the canonical gospels!

I found the framing the argument interesting. It went something like this: Josephus describes traveling from place A to B just as Jesus went from A to B, etc.

How can a geographical place itself support the historicity of a narrative story that is set there? Obviously it can’t. But this added to a site as a contribution to “quality biblical scholarship” and “worthwhile material”.

One has to assume that the other material posted on that site will only be “worthwhile” and “quality” in the eyes of those who have a devotional or evangelical interest in the Bible.


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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “Can Biblical Scholarship Free itself from Confessional and Evangelical Interests?”

  1. “There are certain things I am bound to believe or I lose my job, lose my friends, and spend eternity in hell. But trust me, none of that affects my brilliant scholarship.”

  2. I heard of a comic book where Superman visited an obviously realistic New York. By Prof. Gathercole’s argument, that proves Superman is real.

    Historical fiction novels also, and most movies too, constantly place fictional characters in real geographical settings.

  3. Hi Neil. Fair comment on the Gathercole lecture. I didn’t realize his look at 1stC geography was geared so apologetically. I will delete it.

    The Tigay lecture will stay, though. I completely agree that scholarship should not feature a prayer. But it at least the remainder of the lecture surveys Jewish attempts to deal with genocidal commands, which is of some academic value.

    Biblical Studies Online aims to restrict its content to the academic study of biblical literature. As you are aware, confessional bias runs deep in the field. As a collating website, it obviously isn’t possible to rid the field of unscholarly bias. So we’ve had to draw a grey line between overtly confessional and minimally confessional biases. There is plenty that gets excluded in the former category, I can assure you, but no doubt we have erred at times, and I admit we have done so in including the Gathercole talk. But hopefully you will also find a lot of valuable scholarship on Biblical Studies Online.

  4. “Meanwhile the apocryphal gospels get place-names hopelessly mixed up.”

    No explanation forthcoming on why the Synoptic Gospels has Jesus and his crew landing on the lakeshore at Gerasa, or Gadara, both 30 and 6 miles away respectively, instead of Gergesa which would have been right there.

  5. Christian scholarship be like…

    -Yes we agree that the large part of Gospels are totally fictional.
    -Yes we agree gospels are not eyewitness testimonies or that they were written by contemporaries of HJ
    -Yes we agree there’s not any credible extra-biblical evidence for Jesus.
    -Yes we agree that we know next to nothing about so called lost years of Jesus.
    -Yes we agree almost 90% of gospel fable is a copy of older Jewish tales.

    But believe us there was really a historical man called Jesus.!

    And talking about Gospel geography, even after spending countless millions for over a century worth of archaeological work they still can’t able to locate the mythical towns of Dalmanutha or Arimathia and even the evidence for HJs supposedly ‘hometown’ the Nazareth is dubious at best.

  6. My primary interest is in the history of morality. My question is: do the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teachings (whether he really existed or not) represent a step forward in human moral evolution. If so, how do we account for it? Clearly the gospel teachings draw upon the moral teachings of the Jewish prophets, but they seem to go further, in particular but not limited to, their generalization of moral obligations to other Jews, to all people. I will appreciate any comments or advice.

    1. My question is: do the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teachings (whether he really existed or not) represent a step forward in human moral evolution.

      Not so much. Jesus is OK with slaves being beaten and doesn’t think slaves should even be thanked for their service

      47 That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. –Jesus, Luke 12:47-48

      7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” –Jesus, Luke 17:7-10

      Compare that to a pagan who lived in the early first century:

      “‘They are slaves,’ people declare. NO, rather they are men.
      ‘Slaves! NO, comrades.
      ‘Slaves! NO, they are unpretentious friends.
      ‘Slaves! NO, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike. That is why I smile at those who think it degrading for a man to dine with his slave.

      But why should they think it degrading? It is only purse-proud etiquette… All night long they must stand about hungry and dumb… They are not enemies when we acquire them; we make them enemies… This is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

      ‘He is a slave.’ His soul, however, may be that of a free man.”
          –Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD), Epistulae Morales, 47.

      If so, how do we account for it? Clearly the gospel teachings draw upon the moral teachings of the Jewish prophets, but they seem to go further, in particular but not limited to, their generalization of moral obligations to other Jews, to all people. I will appreciate any comments or advice.

      First century Judaism seems to be Hellenized. Josephus tells us the Pharisees were comparable to the Stoics. Rabbi Hillel came up with a version of the Golden Rule from Leviticus 19:18 before Jesus. Philo harmonized Greek philosophy with the Old Testament.

      Much of the New Testament thought has similarities to the Stoic and Cynic philosophy. Paul and his use of Greek Philosophy shows that Paul was familiar with Plato and expounds on ethics with his allusions. The trial of Jesus in the gospels and the death of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”, in Josephus shows that the Jews were subject to Roman Law and needed permission to carry out their harshest penalties.

      1. Thanks Greg. I agree that the gospels don’t denounce slavery. But isn’t there a leveling element in the defense of the poor against the oppression and exploitation of the rich, that is new?

        1. But isn’t there a leveling element in the defense of the poor against the oppression and exploitation of the rich, that is new?

          Isn’t that what the bold portion of the Seneca the Younger quote does?

          The whole Moses story is about escaping oppression and exploitation, isn’t it?

          1. The Moses story was about the oppression and ecplanation of one culture by another. Jesus focused on oppression and exploitation within his culture. Or so the gospels say. Very little on the oppression and exploitation of the Jews by the Romans. He was certainly foreshadowed by the social justice message of some of the Jewish prophets, but usually not the ones usually cited by early Christians, to prove he was fulfilling a prophetic mission. In the Hammurabi codes, and early Egyption depictions, clear distinctions were made between the value and rights of different grades of men, just as distinctions are made between the value of different animals. I’ll investigate the Seneca quote and get back to you.

          2. Seneca was writing about the same time as Paul. Early Christian tradition even says that Seneca was converted to Christianity by Paul. It is accepted that stoicism had a strong influence on Christianity. Is it even possible that Seneca was known to some of the gospel writers?

            I’m not claiming originality in Jesus’ teachings on social justice. Probably the gospels represent a marriage of Judaic and Greco/Roman traditions. But isn’t it true that it was the Gospels, more than any classical source that propagated a notion of human equality beyond any yet expressed?

      1. Thanks Neil, for directing me to that very interesting post. Of course one would expect Judaism, Christianity or any religion to derive from the culture(s) that spawned it. I am not claiming originality for the teachings of the Gospels as much as their reflecting, and ultimately directing a new stage in the moral development of humanity. Perhaps a respect for the individual that derived from Greek sources put into the framework of Hebrew justice? No doubt these drew in turn on Mesopotamian and Egyptian thinking. And even from Buddhist and Indian thought. But I believe there are critical points in history when moral transitions occur, and that the advent and propagation of Christianity in the Roman empire represents such a transition. Though the Gospels did not forbid slavery, Christian opposition to slavery was significant in the decline of slavery in the later empire. Opposition to the circuses and especially human and animal blood sports became a cause celebre of Christianity. Is it too much to suggest that Christianity’s success depended upon its spread of new concepts of the basic worth of every individual, including women? In spite of the deadening effects of institutionalization, the original light sometimes shines through, as in the person of Pope Francis. In the last couple of centuries we have experienced another transition in moral norms. The equality of women, all races, and now homosexual and transgendered persons, is another step forward towards social justice for all. But these developments also had plenty of precedents and examples to draw from.

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