Making biblical scholarship available to congregational members – a bit of a rant

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).

13 thoughts on “Making biblical scholarship available to congregational members – a bit of a rant

  1. Bob, I’m not sure that I follow you. I’m not suggesting that we don’t translate the Bible. I’m not suggesting that everyone should be expected to be academic biblical scholars, simply that it is possible to explain the work of biblical scholars in terms that people without academic training can understand.

  2. Hi Judy…I find your post very interesting. From my own experience, I have been invited to speak in some rather conservative churches on things like a critical historical reconstruction of Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity, Greek and Roman religions, etc. And, while the response was mixed, people mostly seemed to be rather interested (and I was somewhat surprised at and humbled by which people were following scholarship). I brought up things like contradictions in Ezra and Nehemiah, differences in the same stories that show up in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and many parishioners told me that they had already noticed these things, but were afraid to discuss them in a public forum since they contradicted what they had always been taught. While many remain hostile, it has seemed to me, based upon my limited experience, that many positive things can happen if a safe space is provided for such a discussion. The only time that anyone has ever asked for a copy of my lecture notes has been when I spoke in a church!

  3. Hello Judy,

    Your concerns here, and the similar ones of April and others regarding public illiteracy of biblical scholarship, bear analogy to my own concerns on the illiteracy of most biblical scholarship to new findings on Gospel origins. Just as the public are lacking the prerequisites that would prepare them for college classes on the New Testament, so also NT scholars are lacking the prerequisites that would prepare them for the new findings ( The latter generally lack awareness of the reality of the UFO phenomenon (, and so cannot accept the straightforward interpretation of Merkabah mysticism and certain NT events like the “star” of Bethlehem. Also lacking is an appreciation of the apparent reality of reincarnation ( Hence they are unprepared for the real teachings of the man known as “Jesus.” The illiterate public is fearful of losing their faith and perhaps being sent to damnation, while NT scholarship is lacking in curiosity over topics they have been conditioned to feel would be a waste of their time and detract from their professional advancement.

    Some of us, therefore, are not so concerned with the public’s illiteracy as with that of scholars who ought to be capable of educating the public in “true” truth.

    Jim Deardorff

  4. A further note – do you think Bauckham is trying to prove faith – I certainly don’t get this impression. What he has done – and I have looked at a lot of his books and met him (briefly) – what he has done is to point out structural issues in the text that are a kind of signature of the ancient writer – It does not mean the texts are then flawless, just that the writer took extraordinary pains to express his or her message. One can then decide whether or not to ‘engage’ with the message or the messenger. Such engagement can lead to a walk of faith – faith is not the same as ignorance or credulity or wishful thinking.

  5. Bob,

    I have to re-read Bauckham in order to be able to be certain about this, but the impression I received from his book was that he believes that if we could show that (parts of) the gospels are eyewitness text, this would make them more reliable than the heavily redacted documents that historical criticism takes them to be. I don’t think that this is necessarily true for reasons that I’ve blogged on before – here and here. So while I don’t think that Bauckham has necessarily set out to ‘prove’ faith, I am not quite sure why he or anyone else might consider it important to categorise bits of Scripture as ‘eyewitness’ accounts except because they could thus be considered to be more accurate. Are my biases showing? 🙂

  6. I think there is widespread illiteracy about the Bible largely because churches want it that way. They have a vested interest in persuading people to believe their views are infallible, so very few will allow information to be presented that doesn’t confirm their belief system. How many times did I hear in sermons that orthodox christianity was taught straight from the times of the disciples? Of course, anyone who reads about history cannot honestly maintain that the mainstream Christian system of belief is remotely close to the teachings of the early believers.

    Once you start to study the Bible as history or literature or anything other than the pure word of God, then it is hard to avoid noticing that it is not really consistent and often contradictory, which leads to the slippery slope that a particular church’s beliefs might not be so set in stone.

    Also, few few people have the curiosity or desire to learn in depth. Intellectual subjects bore most people.

  7. I think it is less that ‘churches want it that way’ (as the last comment suggests) as that clergy, dependent on congregations for their salaries, avoid issues they feel will be controversial or resisted. That’s why you can spend 50 years in most churches and never encounter the Synoptic problem – not the term necessarily, but even the general point that there is a literary relationship between these Gospels.

    I myself have been seeking to use my Sunday school class to introduce some information from academic Biblical studies to people in that class, and it has been responded to mostly favorably. This suggests to me that there is a mutually-reinforcing circle, with clergy not saying anything about things they learned in seminary, and ordinary church members not hearing about things and so never having a chance to show they can cope with more than their clergy believe. In particular, if one approaches these topics inductively, so that it is the overlapping passages (and thus the Bible itself) that raises these issues, rather than those scholars that some people are suspicious of, the exposure to these topics can be a positive one and less painful than either side imagined.

    The problem of individuals at differing levels of faith development and religious education has always existed – Origen mentioned the issue of topics that might be too unsettling or controversial and which should therefore only be discussed among the educated. Although I personally believe that people can cope with more than we give them credit for, people at different places in their lives may not be ready to graduate from an elementary school approach (books that provide the ‘right answer’) to a more advanced one (questions, methods, and some things being more or less certain than others).

  8. I think that it depends on which part of the church you move in. I think there are definitely some parts of the church where Paul is right – those in power want members of congregations to remain biblically illiterate. There are other parts, however, where I think James’ categorisation is right.

    His post reminds me that while I was in Houston earlier this year, I attended a big United Methodist congregation where every Sunday morning 150-200 people gathered each week to be part of an adult Sunday School class where Rev Bill Kerley presents academic biblical scholarship in ways that are accessible to the non-theologian. I was taken there by the brother and sister-in-law of my hosts and it was clear that my transport providers’ lives and those of the regular attenders had been transformed by what they were hearing. I found it fairly basic, but it would have been quite concerning if I hadn’t.

    I also agree with James about the need to provide material at different levels, although I think we sell people short if the ‘elementary school’ level material doesn’t at least hint at the fact that there is more to it than what is being presented.

  9. Judy,
    Nihil obstat or a fair summary of what I wrote. Also, I think you’ll find that Bauckham is not interested in purely “proving” the history of the Synoptics. His main interest seems to be in turning over the Form-Critical consensus that the eyewitnesses vanished and did not influence or affect the shape of the oral tradition. I think he overstates his case at points, e.g. his version of the ancient witness protection program, but the Form Critics have long been due their coup de grace. For what it’s worthy many conservatives have big problems with his views on the authorship of John’s Gospel and 2 Peter, so I don’t think Baukcham is writing apologetics for the masses.

  10. Pingback: History, the Bible, and Belief | History, the Bible, and Belief astrology | History, the Bible, and Belief > | 2011 Astrology | Horoscope and Astrology | Free Astrology

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