Rather a lot of people mistrust biblical scholars. Other scholars look at them sideways. Christians treat them with suspicion, because they so often appear on TV in the UK bashing the Christians. Since few outside of Christianity are much interested in biblical studies, the curious effect is that the discipline in general is brought under suspicion of being biased against its subject matter.
It is, perhaps, a sensitive subject. Those who raise it often find themselves being screamed at. Cynics may feel that the discipline might incur less odium if it made more of an effort to be objective, and to steer clear of religious and political controversy, and there is probably truth in that, at least in the UK. I’m not sure whether that is entirely fair, however.
But quite by accident today I saw this post which advertises a historical Jesus seminar. I’d like to look at the abstract of the first paper, as an example of the sort of thing that makes me quite uneasy about biblical studies. I don’t know who wrote that abstract, and I certainly don’t want to pillory the author who doubtless reflects the college he comes from. But I have seen the same sort of attitude, expressed or insinuated more subtly, on a number of occasions. Here’s the start:
“‘How did Jesus cure?’ … It has become common in NT studies to avoid such questions by either declaring them inadmissible or providing supernaturalist explanations which would be unacceptable in any other discipline and are not usually considered appropriate when looking at comparable figures with reputations as healers in antiquity.”
The author is plainly not a Christian; but that’s fine. He appeals to objective standards, and so is that. But somehow this distills the essence of much of my unease. To the author, the only objective way to study Christianity is on the basis that it is untrue.
Now one might have various things to say about this. But this is not a value-neutral position! It is, in fact, the intrusion of a prejudice as an axiom.
I must ask whether this is how we want to study any ancient text? Do we define in advance that, in every important element, the text before us is wrong, and its authors mistaken, duped or dishonest? I would feel deep unease at any study of any book that started on that foot. We might draw that conclusion at the end of our studies; but hardly in advance.
There is genuine difference of opinion among the educated on questions such as whether miracles happen. Is it the place of scholarship to answer that? If it is — which seems doubtful — is it right to do it, not by debate, but by means of subterfuge and insinuation? It seems to me that the above sentence does just this. For instance, are we not invited to acquiesce in the belief that either we must hold that every ancient superstition was genuine, or else we must reject Christianity? Likewise does it not insinuate that Jesus is no different from any other healer in antiquity? Both of these might be discussed, although not here, but they can hardly be assumed, or treated as ‘objective’. I feel that this sort of thing is rather common.
It is certainly quite possible that Christianity is not true. Let us frankly admit this. But is it the job of biblical studies to take a position that it is not, before starting work?
The real issue is how we do scholarship. On any subject, I want to see the data gathered, conclusions drawn cautiously from it, and a general refusal to speculate or introduce extraneous political or religious opinions, on which people may well have differing opinions.
Let’s look at that paper in this light. What data exists on ‘how Jesus cured’? Jesus heals a leper; but neither Jesus nor the leper is available for interview. No archaeological evidence exists or indeed is conceivable. We’re reliant solely on the accounts in the New Testament, perhaps leavened with a bit of patristic quotation from Celsus.
And what do these say? Well, it hardly matters: because we have already decided that any testimony they give to supernatural events must be rejected without discussion, and every last source suggests that supernatural means are involved. But if that is the case, surely we have nothing further to discuss, not based on data and deductions from it! All the data gives one answer.
Disentangling some core of truth from a book that is (on this hypothesis) a complete and persistent set of lies must be impossible without some further external data. All that is left is silence. But we’re not offered silence; so we must be looking at unevidenced speculation which is contradicted by the only literary source. Is that scholarship? If it is, then I would treat scholarship as a fraud on the taxpayer and on the public.
But I think better of scholarship than this, despite my scientific training and the contempt for the humanities that Oxford instills. This is merely bad scholarship, where a theory takes the place of the data, and prejudice substitutes for evidence. Haven’t we all seen this habit, in all sorts of fields of scholarship?
I tend to wonder whether biblical studies, as a discipline, needs to be reformed. After all, to whom — outside of the few in the field — is it currently convincing? There is much genuine scholarship around in biblical studies. One has only to look at NA27, or at Metzger on the Text of the NT, to see that at once. But then there is stuff like this.
But if biblical studies should be reformed, how should it be carried out? What measures will restore the confidence of the public in the discipline? What measures would convince the academy at large that biblical studies is a genuine, objective discipline, and not merely an excuse for peddling religion (or, in fear of that accusation, its reverse)?
Or is it easier to scream at anyone who asks whether the emperor has any clothes?