Biblical Studies Comparable to Other Academic Disciplines?

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by Neil Godfrey

Would you trust a history professor who introduced his first lecture to you like this?

Make your PhD [does the message apply any less to undergraduate history students?] an object of service, devotion, worship, and love, for both God and the church. Your job is to preach Jesus and be forgotten.

Bird, Michael F. 2019. “The Book That Every Evangelical Phd Student in Bible/Theology Must Read!” Euangelion (blog). April 21, 2019. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2019/04/the-book-that-every-evangelical-phd-student-in-bible-theology-must-read/.

Not all biblical scholars are evangelicals. Correct. But is it not a worry that a field with claims to serious academic standing even tolerates such intellectual wolves in their midst, in same journals, books, conferences…?

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8 thoughts on “Biblical Studies Comparable to Other Academic Disciplines?”

  1. This is exactly the problem when we start talking about “consensus”. In the field of Biblical studies a significant portion of the “scholars” are people like this. Yes, it is true that there are a decent number of good academics in the field of biblical studies, BUT, when we talk about consensus we are talking about the predominate views among the community of “scholars”. So if the field is 30% high quality and objective academics (I’m being generous) and 30% highly biased devout Christians and 40% minorly biased Christians who try to be objective (but aren’t very good at it), you can see the problem we have.

    It’s not enough to have a few good apples in the field.

  2. What elements go into “serious academic standing”? We are presupposing here that academic research is a pursuit of truth. The university is an institution which has the purpose of building and supporting the other institutions of society: churches, courts, schools, legislatures, hospitals. I don’t know the percentages, but a huge number of universities in the U.S. are church-supported institutions. That is, all the private ones, as opposed to the public ones, for the most part. Within these universities, the Depts of Religion exist primarily for the purpose of training clerics. Academics talk about “academic freedom,” they prize it highly, but they know it only goes so far. Where, in this world, do you see an unfettered, disinterested pursuit of truth? In the U.S. Congress? In the media? In the schools? The human mind sees truth through the lens of its interest, an interest often handed down to it from the contingencies of previous history, and which it tenaciously clings to in its desperate need to maintain its economic and self-cognitive sense of stability and well-being.

  3. One of the major regional centers of education which has produced some of the best quality Qumran scholarship on the West coast, as well as its faculty also credited with having produced continuing contributions to biblical scholarship in general, is Trinity Western University in British Columbia, close across the Canadian border from where I live in the U.S. I was surprised to discover on this university’s website that all faculty there are compelled, as a condition of employment, to sign a Statement of Faith, introduced with “all faculty and staff are committed without reservation” to a “unifying philosophical framework” which is “historic orthodox Christianity as expressed by the official Statement of Faith”. Commitment “without reservation” appears to suggest not simply a commitment to outward expression but also never to seriously question any of the following even within the unexpressed privacy of one’s own mind.

    I have known several scholars employed at this institution personally, and am familiar with others through their publications. Certainly in my own field of Qumran texts, I can attest that much of the scholarly output from this institution has long been truly first-rate, technically cutting-edge, without hint of influence from theological considerations. I want to get that said, which is true, before quoting the following from the Statement of Faith which every faculty member must sign to be employed. I understand that faculty are permitted to have optional accompanying “signing statements” with interpretive explanations allowed to be submitted and filed with the signed Statement, but the requirement to sign the Statement itself is non-negotiable. This Statement includes, which I quote without further comment . . .

    “As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.”

    “We believe that God created Adam and Eve in His image…”

    “We believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate … conceived through the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He lived a sinless life …”

    “We believe in the personal, bodily and glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ with His holy angels …”

    “We believe that God commands everyone everywhere to believe the gospel by turning to Him in repentance and receiving the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that God will raise the dead bodily and judge the world, assigning the unbeliever to condemnation and eternal conscious punishment …”

    1. I felt some quibbles after and even while posting this piece. The “controversies” (euphemism for twisting daggers in opponents) arise when the questions touch on core elements in such statements of faith, and it is in those areas that Tim and I have been targeted with some flack. I think my respect for a considerable swathe of biblical scholarship is clear in many posts here.

  4. Such a quotation makes me wonder how such a scholar would deal with evidence that would undermine the Christian faith. Would he or she ignore or try to suppress such evidence or try to explain it away? In any case, his or her objectivity would be undermined.

    1. “…how such a scholar would deal with evidence that would undermine the Christian faith.”

      Short answer: they would ignore it, evade it, claim access to a higher authority (the Holy Spirit, the “magisterium,” etc), or engage in an ad hominem attack on the person who presented that evidence.

  5. I have long argued that Christian Origins, aka NT Studies, doesn’t qualify as an academic discipline and that properly speaking there are no “specialists” or “experts” on the New Testament. Allow me to briefly defend that position.

    Back in the 70’s I enrolled in a state university with a strong philosophy and religion department and for the next 2+ years studied Greek and Hebrew assiduously, as well as Aramaic and Coptic rather less assiduously, before coming to the conclusion that Jesus had been a failed apocalyptic prophet who expected the miraculous restoration of Jewish home rule and the expulsion of the Romans and thought he would have some crucial role to play in it, a position I continue to hold. In that regard, Joshua of Nazareth, aka Gospel Jesus, was not unlike scores of other would-be prophets and wonder-workers who popped up around Palestine and whom the Romans nailed up like shingles. Everything else that has accreted around this bare (probably) historical core is folklore aimed at Jesusplaining, i.e., theologizing, the failure of that expectation. One could argue that Gospel Jesus is just a case of Jerusalem Syndrome avant la lettre. (Then along comes the head case we know as Paul of Tarsus, another can of worms entirely.)

    A real academic discipline has a broad base of data derived from the real world, the possibility of new material entering that data base, and methodologies that limit rampant conjecture and speculation. Christian Origins has a dubious, contested, incredibly slim data base, essentially no probability that relevant new data will be added, and virtually no checks on how the questionable “data” that (may) exist is interpreted. NT Studies starts off as linguistics and rapidly degenerates into increasingly questionable (and arcane) levels of what basically amounts to Sunday school, plagiarizing willy-nilly from other disciplines to maintain its veneer of credibility. In short, NT Studies is a “discipline” with nil data base, zero prospects of relevant new data–what is more surreal than a professor of NT being described as engaging in “research”?–and no canons of evidence. The curious need look no further than the “literature” in which sober historians, asking pertinent questions, are published alongside question-begging apologists.

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