Over time, as my own studies in Luke-Acts matured, I came to see that most of the New Testament narratives were — by modern standards — at least fictive, if not entirely fictional. Although my convictions about the fictive nature of most New Testament narratives have often rendered me a bewildered spectator to scholarly debates about the “history” of early Christianity, my skepticism about the wisdom of deriving modern historical claims from the New Testament narratives seldom impacted my own scholarly work. Even while chairing the section on Acts at the Society of Biblical Literature, I silently excused myself from discussions which presumed the historicity of Acts, and I confined my own work to other areas of inquiry.
Phillips, Thomas E. 2016. “‘When Did Paul Become a Christian?’” In Christian Origins and the New Testament in the Greco-Roman Context: Essays in Honor of Dennis R. MacDonald, edited by Margaret Froelich, Michael Kochenash, Thomas E. Phillips, and Ilseo Park, 163–82. Claremont, Calif: Claremont School of Theology Press.
I have to ask. Is this experience unique to the study of Christian origins? Surely not. I would appreciate being informed of comparable examples in other historical fields.
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8 thoughts on “What is a scholar to do when there is no agreement on the basics?”
Well there’s also the studies of Islam, Mormonism and Scientology.
“my skepticism about the wisdom of deriving modern historical claims from the New Testament narratives seldom impacted my own scholarly work” – how can this be when his scholarly work was all about a New Testament Narrative – Acts?
“Even while chairing the section on Acts at the Society of Biblical Literature, I silently excused myself from discussions which presumed the historicity of Acts” – why would he be unwilling to share his views, as one scholar to another, about Acts? Afraid of offending the Christians?
Re 1: Acts can be studied for its impact – theologically, culturally, historically – on those who read it.
Re 2: As chair of the section his opinion could have undue weight and he rightly should be impartial when acting in that role.
Georges Las Vergnas (Jesus-Christ a-t-il existé?, p. 140, my free translation):
Objection as serious: “Without Jesus, the history of Christianity would seem to me as inexplicable as that of Islam without Mohammed or Pythagorism without Pythagoras” (1). And, no doubt, neochristianism without Neochrist.
It is impossible to explain how can be Christians there out today without a ‘Neo-Christ’: the concept of a ‘historical Jesus’.
It is impossible to explain how can be Odinists there out today without a ‘Neo-Odin’: the concept of a ‘historical Odin’.
I studied history and I never felt the pressure to shut up if the professor or one of my fellow students talked nonsense. On the contrary, the professors encouraged debate and scrutiny of the consensus. “But the consensus is…” was an argument that never came up, because the (obvious) riposte was: “Yes, I know what the consensus is. No, I do not agree with it. That is exactly the subject of my paper.” It is possible that some of my fellow students were too shy to speak out. But as one of my professors said: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
That was my experience also, and the degree I was studying was led by a chap who co-wrote books with James McGrath! I did my best to upset one tutor who was a happy-clappy type minister telling him Jesus was fiction but I wasn’t at all successful, indeed I got quite good marks notwithstanding scoffing outrageously. It was an English university, however :-).
Is outing yourself as intellectually dishonest more or less likely to make anyone take you seriously, Dr. Phillips?