Should we call for biblical studies to be reformed?

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?

18 thoughts on “Should we call for biblical studies to be reformed?”

  1. I can sense a tone of frustration in this article. While reading it, i think you are genuinely expecting a scholarship with a positive set of presuppositions. But then i think again, how can they start positive and then prove negative? Maybe it is not possible at all. This is also what frustrates me when i read Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruptions of the Scriptures or Misquoting Jesus. He did exactly the same thing that you just mentioned above. The data is the same data we all see. But the interpretation of the data is deeply based on negative presuppositions.

    Seriously, i would agree with you that the whole problem with modern biblical scholarship is on their false or (maybe negative) assumptions toward the Bible. I believe that the problem is not objectively in the biblical text/witness itself, but rather in their attitude toward it. However, i am still struggling with this question as well: philosophically speaking, is it possible to approach a text without any subjective ‘presuppositions’ either negative or positive? I don’t know.

    But anyway, thanks for this short enlightening article. I enjoy reading it. God bless you!

    best wishes,
    Ekaputra Tupamahu

  2. Ah, darn it! I had posted a response, but accidentally lost it. OK, here goes again, but briefer:

    The reason for accepting miraculous accounts to be false is because all we know of miracles, i.e. events which seem to deny the current laws of nature, are false. None have yet to past the test beyond mere hypothesis. I said that in more eloquent words before, so please don’t think I’m being rude. If miracles are found to happen, if evidence of God is enough to warrant scientific belief, then yes, we’ll start including them in our histories, but for now, they remain outside current anthroplogical and historical studies.

    The subject is not limited to Biblical Studies by any stretch of the imagination. We also come to the Quran, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Tanakh, Homer, Hesiod, and other miraculous accounts on equal footing – not plausible as miracles. Perhaps as something else.

    Also, “lies” is a bit strong, and probably not accurate. Did the Evangelists intend to deceive? If not, then I doubt it’s a “lie”. This reminds me of Stephen Carlson and his distinction of forgery and hoax in his book on Secret Mark.

    Chris Weimer

  3. I see two critical problems with this post. The first has been pointed out already by Chris, but let me try to articulate it a bit differently. No field operates in a vacuum, and the conclusions of some fields have more far reaching implications than those of others. The physical sciences are an example of this; it affects all other scholarly investigation on some level. It would be utter folly to deny basic conclusions of physics, chemistry and the like. And, simply said, they allow no space for the miraculous. To the extent that supernatural phenomena (e.g. ESP, telekinesis) have been tested there is a long string of experimental failures stretch back at least a century. It isn’t the place of the biblical scholar to test any of this, but to adopt the conclusions of the physical sciences. Therefore, yes, biblical scholars assume that the miraculous doesn’t happen and rightly so!

    The other critical problem has to do with the very nature of biblical scholarship. It is grounded in the historical-critical method, which would be rendered meaningless if supernatural claims in the Bible might be true. How can you possibly engage in things like textual criticism, sociological analysis, philology if the basic rules of time and space no longer apply? If the OT might have really prophesied Jesus then it’s meaningless to make any counter-arguments based on historical and cultural context to bring understanding to the OT: the prophets could simply have been inspired and operating outside the limits of time and space. In short, the very foundations of modern scholarship are meaningless if one allows for the miraculous. So, you cannot possible ask for biblical studies to be “a genuine, objective discipline” if all of the rules under which anything “genuine” or “objective” may be formulated have gone out the window. And you certainly can not ask other disciplines to take us more seriously; if biblical studies outright accepted the possibility of the miraclous then the problem would not be that “Other scholars look at them sideways”, but that they would simply laugh and completely ignore. If you question the basic propositions of the physical sciences, there is no longer any logical way to formulate objections against any statement of faith. So, you are, essentially, asking for the impossible.

    Because religion has continued to play an active role in the lives of ordinary people biblical studies is in a peculiar position. If it is to hold true to a rigorous historical-critical method, then it will continue to be at odds with the masses. That’s okay, there is no reason the two must take each other seriously.

  4. I mentioned it before it got lost, but I think if we drop “Biblical studies” altogether and adopt a broader field, like early Christian studies, or Christian origins, or Jewish studies, and place it within a larger context, like Levantine studies, which is placed in Graeco-Roman and Mesopotamian studies, etc. and so on and so forth, then it too would demand more respect, methinks.

  5. I think “biblical studies” is too useful a name. The core around which everything revolves for most people who study “early Christianity” or “Jewish studies” is the bible; there’s just no way around it. The extent to which they delve into broader cross-cultural issues is usually for informing their understanding of the Bible. Perhaps one can extend the name instead of eliminate it; for example, “biblical and levantine studies” or “biblical and ancient mediterranean studies” sort of along the lines of “classics and ancient mediterranean studies” at PSU.

  6. Just a few points, most of which simply echo other comments. First, it doesn’t seem that a “reform” of Biblical studies would recover confidence about accounts of miracles from millenia ago. Would you call for a similar reform of all study of ancient texts? Miracles aren’t limited to Biblical studies. But presumably the “reform” envisages treating the Biblical texts in a way that doesn’t attempt to be fair between them and other ancient sources.

    Second, contemporary scholarship has come a huge way in opening up to the possibility that Jesus actually effected cures. An interesting book along these lines is Capps’ Jesus The Village Psychiatrist.

    OK, I’ll stop! 🙂

  7. Perhaps I need to reiterate the basic point here. To demand that biblical studies be carried out on the basis that Christianity is untrue is not a value-neutral position.

    “The reason for accepting miraculous accounts to be false is because all we know of miracles… are false” is, of course, a religious rather than an objective position. Surely we want objective scholarship, not merely the articulation of religious, political, or class loyalties?

    We’ve seen appeals to “we must do what we do for all the other religions.” Perhaps we might look at this a moment, for illumination. In truth I wonder how many papers get published at Islamic studies conferences which presume that Mohammed was lying — not many, I would guess.

    But nor should there be. Taking part should not require participants to adopt or reject a religious position, or make either uncomfortable. Either we are discussing objectively verifiable facts, data in the historical record; or we are talking bull, surely?

    What we want are *facts*, and theses that organise and illuminate the facts, surely?

    Suppose that someone came along to such a conference and wanted to ‘explain’ the creation of Islam in psycho-analytical terms. If I were in the audience, I would personally throw bread rolls at him. Who needs some dreary fairy-tale based on nothing but imagination which starts by disregarding all the data? It might be true; but all it would tell me is that (a) the author wasn’t a Moslem and (b) wasn’t a scholar.

    Moving on, I wonder if we really see that many papers along the lines of “how did the pagan faith healers do their healing?” Don’t we usually see studies of them, which discuss the data about them and see what we can know, rather than presuming (a) that they were frauds and (b) writing an imaginary account of what, despite the data, ‘must’ have happened?

    That, surely, is what biblical studies should be about?

    This raises the question of whether the problem is that biblical studies would have to shut down for lack of material, if we adopted that.

  8. I love this post, Roger. I also see the other side. Let’s assume one does a first read of the whole NT with completely suspended judgment. After that, is there any greater obstacle to further work than the miraculous claims? And since there is no further evidence to consider, we would be left at nothing but a decision: faith or anti-faith. Obviously, this isn’t hypothetical. This is exactly what happens.

    Now, I don’t buy the claim that we must assume the miraculous did NOT happen. That’s purely and clearly illogical. But I do admit that proper scholarship should not simply assume it did happen, either. Again, it boils down to “how then shall one proceed?” If everyone was purely logical about this, your shutdown guess seems like one very real option.

    Or is there another way?

    I would LOVE to see a non-believing Biblical Scholar examine the claims at face value and do an objective analysis along the lines of – “Okay, for Christianity to be valid, here’s the minimum number of claims we’d have to accept.”

    Or what about a nonbeliever doing a piece that assumes (for the sake of argument) that all claims of the NT are factually true, including the miraculous, and then considering whether that makes the whole thing more consistent, at least.

    I personally feel that most religious scholarship is so stinking weighed down with dogma and political denominational agendas that it’s not worth what it could be… and I might be opening a pandora’s box of a whole different stripe by suggesting what I’m saying… but I’d love to see what some OBJECTIVE unbelievers could do if they began from the minimally necessary amount of premeses required to trust the whole text.

    Here’s one more:

    What if Jesus not only rose but actually indwelt every believer after his ascention. As preposterous as that sounds to an unbeliever, one could assume that position for the sake of argument, and then objectively analyze Paul’s writings for consistency or inconsistency. It would be interesting to see (from a truly objective standpoint) whether that view was found to produce more or less consistency in an understanding of Pauline thought, as a whole.

    And Crosson thought there was nothing else he could write about the NT!

    Come on, unbelievers…

    Use your imaginations! 😉

  9. My sincerest, most humble apologies. I am so sorry.
    I meant Crossley. James Crossley. Not Crosson.
    It’s 3 AM, and I caught it just after I clicked.
    Must have been a Freudian Sleep. 😉

  10. The real myth is the hope that we could ever arrive at a religiously neutral study of any topic. We all bring presuppositions, interpretations and personal narratives to everything we do. We cannot escape them.

    The best option would be for us to stop believing the myth and start being honest about our presuppositions and work from the start. As a believer I will always analyze the data as a believer. Those who are reductionist will always analyze the data as such.

    If Richard Bauckham is writing on John’s Gospel he will allow for the possibility of miracles. If James Crossley is writing on the same passage he will not allow the same possibility. Does that mean that one’s research is less credible? Of course not, it just means that they have different interpretations of the world we live in, which neither theology, science or any other field can give a comprehensive metanarrative to explain. Thus , in the end we are all simply believing the presuppositions that we value most and working from that standpoint.

  11. “Moving on, I wonder if we really see that many papers along the lines of “how did the pagan faith healers do their healing?” Don’t we usually see studies of them, which discuss the data about them and see what we can know, rather than presuming (a) that they were frauds and (b) writing an imaginary account of what, despite the data, ‘must’ have happened?”

    No, on the contrary, we do see papers about what “must” have happened, except they usually couch it in the terms of what “may” have happened. I see what you’re saying, Roger, that it’s the immense amount of speculation that you don’t like. However, when dealing with a person with so little actually known about him, it can be more than tempting to research the possibilities, plausibilities, and probabilities of how he did the things he did. With the miraculous automatically excluded, in comes such and such researcher who will test another hypothesis.


  12. ““The reason for accepting miraculous accounts to be false is because all we know of miracles… are false” is, of course, a religious rather than an objective position. Surely we want objective scholarship, not merely the articulation of religious, political, or class loyalties?”

    Chris’ position is not religious but a scientific one loosely spoken. Even if you want to admit the possibility of the supernatural, and therefore don’t agree with science, you still have the methodological problem that arises for scholarly work. Once physical cause-effect is not considered absolute and non-linear movements on the timeline (such as with prophecies) are admitted as perhaps possible, let alone violations of formal logic (saying, for example, that Jesus is fully divine and fully human is merely a violation of the law of non-contradiction), then what we consider as good scholarship becomes indefensible; indeed, the scientific method has to be thrown out the window. A hypothesis can never be experimentally dismissed or fatally contradicted by any historical record simply because “history” can be violated at any moment with non-linear movements and physical experiments can’t take occult forces into consideration. What we now call evidence no longer remains evidence. Scholars can continue to behave “as if” physics still works and time moves linearly, but then they would be caught in a grand self-contradiction in their methodology. Admitting miracles isn’t an issue of being impartial; rather, it undermines the foundation of ANY historical investigation, in which case we should all just pack up, go home and find something else to do with our lives.

  13. Churches tend to view biblical studies with askance because they perceive that academic study of the Bible undermines the basis of religious faith. In fact they are entirely correct in this. James Kugel’s “How To Read The Bible” spells this out exceedingly clearly—even writing as a believing Orthodox Jew he basically admits that the Bible when understood in any kind of historical context just does not support the beliefs of Jews or Christians about the Old Testament. Given this situation, considering the Bible from a completely non-religious perspective is not only the sole possibility for academic respectability, it’s the only thing that the text in its own right can sustain.

  14. As I was reading this post, I was keeping a running mental talley of points I wanted to make. But then, after I read all the excellent responses, alas, I have nothing further to add.

  15. There are some advantages in being an
    Chemistry graduate of Oxford University, as I am. I can only say that suggesting that prejudice is scientific is rather curious.

    I’ve read these posts. That all the posters want the bible to be studied on the basis that it is untrue is obvious. That none can offer any valid response to my point, however, is equally obvious.

  16. I daresay it’s not obvious, unless you mean obvious to you, which is a subjective call, and at that riddled with your own biases. I know my biases – I don’t have faith in the Bible, and I buy into the scientific method and the historical-critical method. I start from zero with ancient texts, i.e. the miracles of Jesus are just as likely as the miracles of Vespasian or Apollonius of Tyana. The God YHWH is just as likely as Allah, Zeus, Krishna, or Kagutsuchi. Your bias, on the other hand, is that the Bible is true, but does also extend to other ancient documents concerning faith? If not, then it’s prejudice.

    Do I start with the Bible being untrue? No. I start with no presumptions about the Bible, and then go from there. I didn’t start out studying the Bible as an atheist. I started as a Christian, and learned enough to not believe everything I read.

    Sorry, Roger, I just don’t see what else you might be trying to get across.

    All the best,


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