April DeConick, over on The Forbidden Gospels blog, has three posts (starting here) reflecting on why the Society of Biblical Literature hasn’t set up a panel to discuss Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, which has not exactly received a standing ovation in biblical scholarship circles. If you want to see why, Gerd Lüdemann’s review in Free Inquiry provides some information from a secular humanist perspective.
I haven’t read the book and don’t have time to, but Geoff Hudson’s first comment on this post raises a bigger issue on which I do want to comment. He says:
So how did the public ‘religious illiteracy’ come about, if not through the academics who trained students and ministers?
This is something I have strong feelings about. As I say in my comment on April’s blog, during my ministry training and in conversations with colleagues, I have reasonably frequently heard it said that telling members of congregations about ‘modern’ biblical scholarship is not appropriate either because they wouldn’t understand or it would destroy their faith. I find this elitist and condescending and have been known to ask whether the person making the statement has understood the scholarship and if so, whether it has destroyed their faith.
In fact, quite a number of people have the opposite response when they are told about it – excitement that it helps them to make sense of things they’ve wondered about for decades and anger that no-one has told them before. Unfortunately, since preachers have, by and large kept this stuff under wraps for well over a century, there’s a lot of catching up to do, so the prospect of dealing with it is quite daunting but, at least in my experience, very worthwhile.
At the other extreme, I get really frustrated when biblical scholars try to use historical-critical method to ‘prove’ things that are actually faith-based. Bauckham’s work on eyewitness accounts in the gospels springs immediately to mind, but there are other examples. I continue to return to the fact that what makes the gospels trustworthy from the Christian perspective is that we believe that we have documents that are inspired by God, so that the processes through which they went to reach the final version were guided by God and can therefore be trusted to preserve “truth”. If someone is not reading them from a faith perspective then it doesn’t matter whether they are eyewitness accounts or not, there is no way to prove that they are accurate accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. They are simply a corpus of writings that a group of people believe to be true and upon which they base their lives and the non-believer examines them from that perspective. It appears that a particular part of the Christian church is trying very hard to change Christianity from something that is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Co 1:23, NRSV) to something that can be scientifically proven to be correct and I really don’t see it happening this side of the eschaton. That is, after all, the point of Christianity being called a “faith” and there really is no way to stop people who don’t share that faith from thinking that you’re anything from not overly bright to seriously dangerous.
Update 15 Sept: Over on Euangelion, Michael Bird posts about developing a theology of early Christianity which takes seriously both what we know about the history Christian origins and the fact that the early Christians were writing about their encounters with God (sorry, Michael, if I’ve oversimplified).