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?


Will JSTOR kill the web?

I don’t belong to any academic institution, so like most people I have no access to the electronic resources now becoming available unless they happen to be accessible from somewhere that I can visit. But today I had the chance to use JSTOR. It contained complete runs of mostly anglophone-centred journals. Frankly, after seeing it, I see no reason to ever scan another academic article myself.

Indeed it contained all the articles from Vigiliae Christianae from the 1950’s which I was myself refused permission to scan! Amusingly it discusses a time ‘wall’ after which articles won’t appear, so that it doesn’t interfere with publishers’ revenue streams — of about 10 years before the present! This makes ironic reading for those of us afflicted by the copyright law: only material 70+ years old may appear. But of course it is good that they have found a way around that. It also highlights that the material protected by copyright law really is nearly all commercially worthless.

Clearly this system must have a huge impact on how people access information, if you can access it. It’s accurate, it’s searchable, the articles can be exported to PDF, and it’s fast. I did searches on “Severus Sebokht” (who gets relatively few mentions on google) and came up with a mass of recent and not-so-recent scholarly articles about him.

There are still limitations. The coverage of French and German serials was negligible; but I think that this will change, such is the obvious benefit to all of the system. Likewise I think that access will be broadened as time goes by, probably as central institutions buy access for all colleges in a country or something like that. It was interesting to learn that all educational establishments in Africa will be given free access. But I don’t think that the general public will ever get access, and I think that the period of non-inclusion will remain or extend. This allows publishers to sell their CDROMs.

So what will be the impact on the web? Why would anyone use amateur sites, when this is available? Likewise, what is the point of Project Gutenberg, the CCEL, indeed my own collection, if instead the books can all be downloaded in PDF? Well, this last is not yet the case. But the success of the Early English Books Online project (likewise inaccessible to the public, but free to all educational institutions in the UK at least) which does just this for all English printed books to 1700 means that the writing must be on the wall. A project to do the books to 1900 must be in proposal somewhere already, I would imagine.

As these sorts of projects become more mature, I think that we will see more attempts by publishers to push sites like my own offline using copyright law, so as to bring the whole dissemination of data under commercial control again. After all, all these projects involve fees, payments, revenue streams. They have completeness, and state-funding, so they are far more desirable than some amateur site full of typos. The publishers profit, the average student doesn’t care. But the publisher has thus a financial interest to ensure that only the approved site is used.

One thing is for sure, in 10 years time the internet will be a very different beast for people with our interests. We may all be much better informed (if we belong to one of the favoured groups with access). But the “Wild west” days of the internet will be over.


When does antiquity end?

This week I have been reading Ignatius Aphram Barsoum, “The scattered pearls”, which is a monster history of Syriac literature (mostly ignoring the Nestorian half) at the monster price of $100. Barsoum wrote in the 1920’s, from notes of visits that he had made to libraries around the world and in the east, and so he gives lists of manuscripts where texts can be found. He’s pretty vague, sometimes, tho, and also adds that World War 1 may have destroyed some of them.

I’ve been looking at this to see what texts are of interest now. Since I have online collections of patristic texts, this raises the question of where the cut-off is, in the east. If we draw the line ca. 640, with the Arab conquest, this is a sensible point. It also fits in with the death of Isidore of Seville in the west. But then we have writers working later who still have access to ancient sources. Jacob of Edessa, I was interested to note, wrote a Syriac translation of Eusebius of Caesarea’s “Chronicle” and extended it down to his own time. Do we exclude such texts?

On the other hand the scholiast to Dionysius Bar Salibi writing in the 13th century is routinely quoted online as a source about the origins of Christmas. We can’t really go that far, surely?

When does “antiquity” end in the east? And why?