Backgrounds of biblical scholars

I have been amazingly busy over the past week or two and only yesterday got around to reading James Crossley’s post from 27 August entitled Doubting Stephen.  In it he interacts with Stephen Law’s posts doubting the existence of Jesus (just go to his blog and scroll down from about here – there’s lots).  In concluding his comments, James says:

Well, just one aside that doesn’t have so much to do with Law’s arguments…My background in pre-university education was extremely a-Christian and a-religious (and even though I did a theology degrees and PhD I didn’t really think of it as being an overly Christianised context, though that may be more to do with my associations and things have certainly swung in the Christianising direction since those days). The past few years has made me think that this could be quite unusual for biblical studies, at least in British biblical studies. Would it be fair to say that most, many, some or few have been educated in contexts where the dominant Christian culture is evident? Just idle thoughts…

The very energetic discussion on his blog has largely been about his arguments with Law’s conclusions, so I decided to respond to this question here.

I think that in Australia a significant proportion of biblical studies is done from within a Christian context.  We have very few universities offering Studies in Religion/Religious Studies courses and the majority of people doing biblical studies are studying through an institution which has as its primary purpose preparing its students for some form of Christian ministry.  Even the theological faculties that are situated in universities rather than denominational colleges tend to be affiliated with one or more denominations and often some of the academic staff are funded by the denominations with which they are affiliated.  Some call themselves “Bible colleges” and others “faculties of theology”.  Bible Colleges tend to be theologically more conservative and more wary of more recent methods of biblical criticism, and both tend to offer qualifications in theology or divinity.  Most of the academic staff in these institutions are ordained, although quite a few have done very little in the way of pastoral ministry. When I did my bachelor’s degree, all the academic staff in my institution were ordained but there have been several non-ordained people employed there over the last decade or so – people who knew before they started their studies that they weren’t interested in being ministers.  These people are nevertheless practising Christians, not people who are studying Christianity “from the outside”.

I am sure this has implications for how people do biblical studies.  If the affiliated denomination understands the notion of the Bible as the inspired word of God to mean that it is God’s actual words, they will approach the text differently to those who do not believe this.  My own denomination says that Jesus is the Word of God and that the Bible bears witness to the Word.  In at least one of our Sydney churches, the affirmation that goes with the readings in worship is “in this is the Word of God”. I nevertheless approach the text from the perspective that what it says is relevant to the way I live my life.  I have been taught that when I look at it, I should be asking questions like “what does this say to me and to other Christians?” I have also been taught that I need to look at what the text was saying to its original audience, because that’s the key to what it might be saying to us, but my training said that this was a means rather than an end in itself.  The former is not a question that a scholar of Christian origins/early Christianity brings to the study of the text.  I’m not sure whether this means that they will come up with a “better” or “worse” understanding of the text, or just a different one.  I like to think that coming at the text from a faith perspective stops one from following some of the wilder flights of fantasy that I’ve seen indulged in by some “secular” scholars, but I suspect that they say the same about scholars who are practising Christians. 🙂

One thought on “Backgrounds of biblical scholars

  1. That was my impression of Australian universities too when I investigated the possiblity of doing the PhD there rather than the other side of the world. While I think that Victoria (Wellington) and Massey (Palmerston North) and Waikato are the only properly secular departments of world religions in New Zealand, Victoria has quite a strong Christian element now that wasn’t there when I graduated due to staff replacements. I went yonder for the expert I was after anyway. 🙂

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