Why We Can't Really Auto-Trust Biblical Scholars

Apr 15, 2018
Why We Can't Really Auto-Trust Biblical Scholars
  • Circular reasoning is endemic in the annals of Biblical scholarship. We recently reviewed a long essay by apologist and culture warrior Lydia McGrew that asserted that the Gospels were reliable histories--and to bolster her opinion, she pointed to Biblical scholars who also thought the Gospels were reliable histories. She included no scholars who were hostile to her religion, except for one essay by Richard Carrier that she clearly chose because she saw it as vulnerable to her brand of Gish galloping.

    And Christians themselves have no idea what a house of cards the entire field of Biblical scholarship really is.

    Lambchop Commentary:

    Here are a few more sources showing the unreliability of biblical scholars and the questionable nature of their results:

    Yet in his effort to engage the popular readers’ market, Chilton has departed from the caution demanded of an historian. Conjectures with little or no support appear on nearly every page, yet Chilton rarely resorts to words like “may have” or “perhaps.” His reliance on Acts of the Apostles is excessive. He sometimes takes dialogue or speeches as direct or nearly direct reports. At times his narrative was an amplified version of Acts of the Apostles, but with more, rather than fewer, touches of color and humor.
    There are many questions about the life of Paul that scholars have debated over the years. A signal feature of this book is that Chilton presents such issues as though they were settled. For instance, was Paul actually in Jerusalem studying under Gamaliel? Yes, says Chilton. He studied in Jerusalem for four years (Why four years?), and he came under the sway of Caiaphas during that time. What was the famous “thorn in the flesh” of 2 Corinthians 12:7? It was “herpes zoster,” an affliction of the eyes aggravated by stress. “Bulging, inflamed, and searing [his eyes] felt like thorns in his head during the attacks” (61). Are the reports of the meeting in Jerusalem told in Galatians 2:1-10 and Acts 15:6-29 reconcilable? Chilton explains it as three meetings: 1) a general meeting at which Paul, in a shameless betrayal of his constituents, did not speak up because he was so enthralled with James; 2) a private meeting of Paul with James, Peter, and John as described in Gal 2:1-10; and 3) another meeting where James asserted rules for Gentile/Jewish table fellowship (133-46).

    At no point does Chilton acknowledge the speculative character of this reconstruction, and much depends on his pet theory of Paul being enthralled with James, not to mention the accuracy of Luke.
    Was Paul actually a Roman citizen? Not only is that not in dispute, but Chilton asserts “Paul wore the toga, but only occasionally” (25). The famous unutterable message that Paul received in a vision (2 Corinthians 12:4), which most scholars do not identify since Paul himself never did, is disclosed by Chilton as simply, “Those who believed and were baptized were ‘the Israel of God’” (119). Could someone like Apollos actually be preaching Christianity without the Holy Spirit (as related in Acts 19:1-7)? “Of course,” says Chilton, and this required that Apollos baptized his listeners repeatedly (177). What did Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 4:21 when he threatened the Corinthians with a stick? There is no question for Chilton; Paul was threatening them with his exorcistic power (202). Finally, why does Acts end where it does? For Chilton, this too is clear. Luke had to end Acts with the house arrest of Paul because a description of Nero as Paul’s killer would hurt his portrayal of the compatibility of Christianity with the Roman Empire, but also James was killed in 62 and so the entire link between Christianity and the Temple in Jerusalem was severed, and this would be a very bad note on which to end (247). SOURCE

    Exhibiting an amazing amount of consensus, most researchers across a very wide conceptual spectrum have rejected naturalistic approaches as explanations for the earliest Christians’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus. . . . Accordingly, the path of natural alternative theories is definitely a minority approach. - Biblical scholar Habermas

    One might as well simply state bluntly that biblical studies generally has no time for post-Enlightenment intellectual values. One is reminded of Niels Peter Lemche’s point that critical scholarship should not even be engaged in professional discussion with such academics.
    I suppose Christian believers might be heartened by such a state of the game. But surely if this really is the way it is, surely it ought to raise questions about the place of such studies in publicly funded secular institutions. I wonder what Habermas would think if he uncovered similar results among the higher educational institutions in a predominantly Muslim nation, perhaps in relation to Muhammad’s ascent to heaven.

    What hope is there in such a climate of applying normal secular-historical analysis to the Gospels? Is this climate reflective of the general upsurge (swansong?) of fundamentalism in America in particular at this time?
    What if the Gospels really are very much more like ancient Jewish novels, let’s say, than historiography or biography? What if the real question is not why the characters in a narrative believed something, but why was the narrative written at all? What was behind it? Was it really historical memory? Habermas began by noting that certain views are in effect beyond question. Maybe that’s the problem.Source

    Some Lemche excerpts are below:

    "A conservative evangelical student, asked to read Wellhausen and discuss the reasons for his ordering of sources in the Pentateuch, will not want to read Wellhausen and will try, if possible, to escape from the imposition: what he will do is to read a work which will tell him why Wellhausen was wrong. His pastoral advisers, if he has any, will council him to read this kind of book: they will not advise him to read energetically the works of Wellhausen himself, or of de Wette, or of Kuenen."

    Conservative scholarship is on the move, often disguising itself as mainstream scholarship.

    How can it be that historical-critical scholars end up allied to conservative scholars? A generation ago the historical-critical scholar would never have accepted the conservative as his equal and never have allowed him into his company. It is a strange by-product of recent trends in biblical scholarship that opposing forces have now joined in the effort to crush so-called "radical" critical scholarship. Now it is common that traditionally minded (meaning accepting critical results of the past) scholars, who cannot accept recent ideas and trends in biblical studies because of their own critical opinion-an absolutely legitimate position-resort to the same kind of polemics as formerly found only in conservative literature.

    There may be a number of explanations for this strange fact. One may be that the majority of critical scholars originate within a religious milieu and at the bottom of their hearts are conservatives without probably realizing this. Thus, critical scholarship represents a kind of breaking away from one's own background. The changing attitude towards even more critical scholars questioning, e.g., the very existence of King David, may have to do with the fear of totally losing the tradition-after all Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem so the new David could be born there! Somehow there seem to be questions that we are not allowed to ask.

    Another explanation may have to do with the change of gravity within biblical scholarship. A generation ago the center was definitely Europe, and here German scholarship was unquestionably the flagship. European scholars were all brought up in the shadow of de Wette, Wellhausen, Kuenen, Alt, Noth, and von Rad, and without accepting these scholars as leading stars; nobody would be allowed to enter the temple of academic biblical studies. It is true that some critical voices were raised, mostly in the periphery of German scholarship such as the Uppsala School in Scandinavia and the "Myth-and-Ritual" school in Great Britain; in addition, these voices joined the chorus of historical-critical scholars. No conservative, i.e., evangelical scholar would ever be allowed to contribute.

    Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be-according to European standards-critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.

    This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one's own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship-irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her.

    As a matter of fact, critical scholarship should not be in danger. If we study the conservative literature of the last fifteen years, we will with a few decent exceptions never find a serious discussion of ideas put forward by scholars dubbed "minimalists." There is no reason to be surprised. James Barr made the point twenty-five years ago: never read Wellhausen; read books about Wellhausen. An evangelical student of mine made that mistake: he took part in a seminar on fundamentalism and choose Luther as his subject; a couple of days later he returned to tell me that after having read Luther he had come to the realization that Luther was not a fundamentalist.

    Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists. Don't read Davies, Thompson, and Lemche; read books aboutthem! Happily, many critical scholars understand the problem, and their contribution to the discussion is sound and helpful. It is, however, a serious mistake when critical scholars like Dever and Baruch Halpern apply the tactics of the conservatives, thereby ending up in a morass, supporting ideas that are not really their own.

    By accusing a special group of critical scholars of today of being ideologists, the conservative scholars simply invert the fact that they are themselves embedded in religious communities with conservative ideologies. SourceAs well as the danger of relying on texts which do not exist, there is the massive problem of known texts which have been ‘lost’ (such as the declarations of loyalty to Diocletian from every town and city in the empire) and the enormous quantity of texts which Christian scholars and the Christian Church admit to being forgeries. Between the destruction of important texts and inscriptions, and the admitted dishonesty for Christian texts, a scholar is faced with the unedifying task of investigating a religion which, down to its roots, is riddled with lies and fakery.

    ...both transliterators and translators of early texts ascribed as Christian seem to insist on reporting untruthfully on a matter of simple fact: the early texts never use the title 'Christ', but 'Chrest'. As the latter translates as 'good' (rather than 'messiah'), this is appalling. The falsity produces generations of readers, students and other scholars who wrongly assume the historicity of a 'Jesus Christ'because of these texts.​

    The original site from which I took that excerpt is gone, but much of the background is also here, if anyone is interested in the fact that "Christ" didn't replace "Chrest" until the 6th Century CE. Until then, it was "Chrest" (the good, the useful) or cryptic abbreviations all the way down. That source also shows images of the so-called "Christ Magus Bowl" which clearly says "CHREST", not "Christ".

    In this radical critique of his own academic specialty, biblical scholar Hector Avalos calls for an end to biblical studies as we know them. He outlines two main arguments for this surprising conclusion. First, academic biblical scholarship has clearly succeeded in showing that the ancient civilization that produced the Bible held beliefs about the origin, nature, and purpose of the world and humanity that are fundamentally opposed to the views of modern society. The Bible is thus largely irrelevant to the needs and concerns of contemporary human beings. Second, Avalos criticizes his colleagues for applying a variety of flawed and specious techniques aimed at maintaining the illusion that the Bible is still relevant in today's world. In effect, he accuses his profession of being more concerned about its self-preservation than about giving an honest account of its own findings to the general public and faith communities. - from here.
    In fact, most biblical scholars the world over are religious believers themselves...Nearly all are Christians...a religious motivation for biblical study is still the predominant one. For most people who study the Bible the concern remains, as it has always been, to yield results that are helpful and informative for religious believers. Source
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