to walk worthily of the Lord, pleasing him in all respects

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Scholarship and the faith of Bart Erhman

Lately, a discussion has been briewing among biblical scholars (often via their blogs) about whether professors who have an explicit faith commitment can properly teach biblical studies, if it is possible for there to be "faith-based scholarship." Chris Heard, relying on the work of Richard Hughes, has I think made a very strong positive argument that there can be such a thing as faith-based scholarship.

Perhaps I am a "Johnny-come-lately" to this discussion, or even a "Johnny-missing-the-mark," but I am nonplussed by the persistent claim to truly objective scholarship, at least when it works to the exclusion of a "pseudo" faith-based alternative. I wholeheartedly accept the notion that the university requires certain standards of intellectual rigor and intellectual integrity and charity that may not be required (or may even be implausible) in faith communities. But these standards apply across every spectrum of every subject. (Are not the Marxist political scientist and the philsopher of religion who adheres to- and teaches about - an east Asian religion persons who teach with a particular commitment? Are they to be excluded because of their commitments? Or am I mistaken, and these are not "faiths" of a sort?)

In Biblical Studies, I think of Bart Ehrman. The Washington Post recently ran a story about Prof. Ehrman and his most recent work, Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman is a very capable scholar and I wouldn't think of impugning his abilities. However, it is patently evident (to me, anyway) that he has an ax to grind regarding conservative (or fundamentalist) Christianity. The Washington Post article is a case in point. Its author points to Bart's claims about textual questions in the NT, issues relating to the "adulteress story" in John's Gospel, the ending(s) of the Gospel of Mark, and the trinitarian insertion in 1 John. Most interesting is how the author shows Ehrman focusing on these types of issues in his teaching of undergraduates. If the article is correct, Ehrman parades these as evidences of the questionable textual tradition before his class. Erhman states (and he is right): "There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament" (emphasis his). What does Ehrman take from this? In a lecture at UNC Chapel Hill, Ehrman says: "Sometimes Christian apologists say there are only three options to who Jesus was: a liar, a lunatic or the Lord....But there could be a fourth option -- legend." And (again, if the article correctly reflects his perspective), as he uncovered this reality, he "slowly came to a horrifying realization: There was no real historical record. It was, he felt, all incense and myth, told by illiterate men and not set down in writing for decades."

How is this not evidence of his faith commitment (atheism [spelled out in the last part of the article]) determining the manner in which information, no matter how valid, is dispensed? You see, in my classes (taught from my faith-based perspective at my faith-based institution) I also address these very same textual problems (my knowledge of some of them is in fact derived from Ehrman's work). Furthermore, I am careful not to defend any preconceived notion of Scripture or Orthodoxy in the process of illuminating these variances. But instead of deducing from them the legendary status of Jesus or utter lack of historical value of the Scriptures, I am able to encourage my students to wrestle for themselves with both the problems and possibilities of such findings, and (most importantly) to appreciate the Gospel of Mark, Gospel of John, 1 John, etc. as ancient documents and their transmision as an ancient process.

A couple of annoying things and a final clarifcation. First annoyance: Why is it that Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus seems so detrimental to the text of the Bible and yet others are able to make the Nag Hammadi corpus (often fragmentary, in not-exactly-erudite-Coptic translation, and impenatrably esoteric) the foundation for a reliable and viable alternative forms of "Christianities"? I would say that even with its 20,000 manuscript differences, the NT still is a bit more accessible than the NHC.

Second annoyance: Regarding the WashPo article - why is it that everytime newspapers and news magazines cover stories about how scholars question certain biblical events or ideas, they present only two options: the fundamentalist, literalist view and the rationalist, "anti-Orthodox" view? Since the lates 80s and the advent of the Jesus Seminar's "Jesus didn't rise from the dead/wasn't born of a virgin" campaigns, newspapers have only ever interviewed fundamentalist scholars for an alternative view.

A clarification. I simply wanted to be clear that I believe there should be a quality of inquiry and teaching that the University environment espouse and protect. Michael V. Fox's essay on the this matter in the SBL Forum is thought provoking and he says a number of things I resonate with. One of his readers might think me guilty of saying that since other "committed" persons can have a seat at the scholary table, why not faith-based persons. In a sense I am saying that, so long as all follow the rules of inquiry enforced by the University. Having a predetermined outcome in one's inquiry violates the rules of inquiry. However, I think Fox misses something when he writes the following:

The reader or student of Bible scholarship is likely to suspect (or hope) that the author or teacher is moving toward a predetermined conclusion. Those who choose a faith-based approach should realize that they cannot expect the attention of those who don't share their postulates.

There can be and should be (and I hope, in my case, there actually is) a difference between "moving toward a predetermined conclusion" and "a faith-based approach," i.e., how one approaches the text. One view is focused on the outcome, the other is capable of focusing on the item being studied and bracketing a desire for set conclusions. I believe it is possible to approach the Scriptures from a position of faith and still engage in free inquiry, that is, to allow the documents to remain undomesticated by that faith, to yeild data that is unexpected, counter to and even supportive of my a priori hypotheses and proclivities. (According to The Busybody (or so I understand him), this approach is what typifies the scholarship of Dale Allison with respect to the resurrection.)

(Thank you, X. RRC)


Jared Cramer said...

I echo your frustration. I wish that the media involved some good postlib scholars in this debate for a different viewpoint. However, as we all witnessed with Nancy Grace, accuracy and fairness means nothing next to entertainment news.

Greg said...

Erhman . . . aaarrrgghh!

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