The Fault Lines of Biblical Scholarship

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I was recently prompted to read (listen to, actually) Paula Fredriksen’s When Christians Were Jews by her engaging Wall Street Journal essay “When Jesus Celebrated Passover.” Readers will note that I am not a theologian or a biblical scholar, but merely a historian of American religion and culture, so I come to the subject as something of an interloper. I do teach an adult Sunday school class at my church, and I tend to read biblical commentaries as part of my preparation for weekly teaching duties. I’m also fascinated with the history of the Jews and of ancient Israel, so Fredriksen’s book checked a lot of boxes for me.

I was immediately struck in the book, however, that virtually every claim she made about the books of the New Testament seemed to assume that we are likely to find in them errors, later impositions, and contradictions between the New Testament authors. I’m totally fine with an author saying that passages raise problems and questions of interpretation, of course, and I routinely do that in my class. (It’s kind of a running joke in my class that I love dealing with problem verses!) But she goes well beyond that and assumes, for example, that when one Gospel writer includes a detail that the others don’t, it reveals a contradiction rather than an additional facet of the story.

My impression is that Fredriksen is hardly a radical skeptic within the broader scope of biblical scholarship. For example, she unquestionably assumes that Jesus existed as a historical figure, and that we can know some things for certain about his life (such as his crucifixion).

But I was pleased to see that the TGC review of the book, by Adam Stewart Brown (who has more expertise in the subject than I do), comes to basically the same conclusions as I do about Fredriksen’s view of Scripture, while also commending her desire to place Jesus and his early followers firmly in their Jewish context.

I’m not sure what Fredriksen’s target audience would be. How many rank-and-file evangelicals would pick up a book like this? Some, perhaps. I’m a bit more concerned about the results if an evangelical student ran into this book in a religion class, especially if he or she is not familiar with higher biblical criticism.

Indeed, it is a good idea for parents of teenagers to engage their children about the basic criticisms that scholars such as Fredriksen make of the traditional Christian view of Scripture. I would hate to think that our kids would get to adulthood without an inkling that some talented scholars don’t believe the Bible is inspired, much less inerrant. But some evangelical kids do not know that, and it can have ugly consequences if they end up in a religion class with an aggressively skeptical professor.

Moderate skeptic though Fredriksen may be, she still illustrates basic fault lines of biblical scholarship that date back to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 20th century, or even earlier in some cases.

Skeptics see the biblical texts as just like other texts of the ancient world. They might contain errors, fiction, omissions, and impositions, alongside some factual material. These readers compare all the available evidence, both biblical and extrabiblical, and patch together the best approximation of what we can know or not know from the biblical accounts. They’re not constrained by an assumption of the essential reliability of the text of Scripture, or its identity as the Word of God.

Some more liberal Christian readers would suggest that the Bible can still be inspired even if it does contain some errors or limitations, whether of fact or morality.

Traditional believers, however, see the biblical texts as divinely set apart from all other texts throughout time. Uniquely inspired and protected by God the Holy Spirit, God the Father uses the texts (in the original manuscripts) to tell us exactly what he wants us to know about God the Son and the rest of the history of redemption. God is all-powerful and entirely truthful, we believe, therefore his Word must also be entirely reliable.

This does not mean that we take every passage of the Bible “literally.” We read the Bible literally when it is speaking literally. Whatever the beast of Revelation means, for example, it does not seem likely to be referring to a literal “beast rising up out of the sea.” [See also Justin Taylor’s post on whether we literally interpret the Bible “literally.”]

This also does not mean that every verse and chapter of the Bible is equally obvious in its meaning. John 3:16 is pretty obvious. Revelation 13:1 (the beast) is less so.

The best evangelical study guides and commentaries don’t try to avoid or obscure the debates over perplexing passages, and I routinely consult the notes of the ESV Study Bible for help on such issues.

When traditional believers run into passages that are hard to interpret or seem potentially to stand in conflict with other passages of Scripture, we assume that it all fits together somehow. We might understand it better through further study or discussion with fellow believers, or we might never understand it this side of heaven. That is ok. But to such a believing reader of Scripture, “difficult” and “perplexing” parts of Scripture can never mean “erroneous.”

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