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Critical New Testament Scholarship: Up Close and Personal

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, June 21, 2007

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Without exception, my grad school teachers echoed Professor MacRae’s conclusions about the historical limitations of the New Testament Gospels. In fact, several faculty members made him look rather conservative. I did learn a great deal from these scholars, however. Their knowledge of the world of early Christianity was encyclopedic, and their ability to interpret ancient texts critically was superlative. Yet I began to see how often their interpretations were saturated by unquestioned philosophical presuppositions. If, for example, a passage from the Gospels included a prophecy of Jesus concerning his death, it was assumed without argument that this had been added later by the church because prophecy didn’t fit within the naturalistic worldview of my profs. (Photo to the right: Harvard Divinity School)

The more I spent time with some of the leading New Testament scholars in the world, the more I came to respect their brilliance and, at the same time, to recognize the limitations of their scholarly perspectives. I saw how often conclusions based on unsophisticated assumptions were accepted without question by the reigning scholarly community, and taught uncritically as if they were, well, the Gospel truth.

I also discovered how rarely my professors entertained perspectives by scholars who didn’t share their naturalistic worldview. Evangelical scholars were usually ignored simply because they were conservative. This fact was driven home once when I was on winter break in Southern California. I needed to read a few books for one of my courses, so I went to the Fuller Seminary library because it was close to my home. What I found at Fuller stunned me. Fuller students were required to read many of the same books I was assigned, and also books written from an evangelical perspective. Whereas I was getting one party line, Fuller students were challenged to think more broadly and, dare I admit it, more critically. This put an arrogant Harvard student in his place, let me tell you. It also helped me see how much my own education was lopsided. Only once in my entire graduate school experience was I assigned a book by an evangelical scholar.

Topics: Can We Trust the Gospels? |

5 Responses to “Critical New Testament Scholarship: Up Close and Personal”

  1. Evan Says:
    June 21st, 2007 at 5:32 am

    “Only once in my entire graduate school experience was I assigned a book by an evangelical scholar.”

    Sounds familiar to my undergrad experience. And the point of reading the book was to ultimately mock the author and ridicule the “fundamentalist” viewpoint in my experience.

    We would also be assigned select chapters of the New Testament to read and discuss in class. On the day that 1 Cor 7 came up, the professor had someone read verse 1 out loud, and the class erupted into laughter at “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” Oh, those moron Christians, missing out on the fun of sex! Needless to say, context went out the window whenever biblical passages were examined. Since the next verses qualify verse 1, that each man should have his own wife and each woman should have her own husband, and go on to describe the marriage relationship, it is not unreasonable to conclude that verse 1 is prohibiting extra-marital sexual relations, not sex altogether, etc. But sex all the time with anyone willing to have it with you was an important part of my professors’ agendas typically, so my courses generally followed the above pattern.

    The idea is to fairly address what the biblical text is saying. You can take it or leave it as you will. But if you approach the text with your desired outcome already in hand, it can lead to problems, and that is true from whatever direction you are coming.

    My anecdote is reminiscent of a cartoon I once saw: Moses is hold the Ten Commandments and is saying, “There’s good new and bad news. The good news is that I got Him down to just ten. The bad news is that No Adultery is still in there.” It says what it says, and like it or not, No Adultery is still in there. Well, once many of my professors got done with it, no it wasn’t, and that is not good scholarship.

  2. Dave D. Says:
    June 21st, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    I have to question the motivation of ANYONE who would become a Bible “scholar” with the opinion that the work is any degree of fiction or other human creation. You either latch on to the words because you believe they are true and reveled by God or you do not. Anything in between, from an academic/teaching point of view) reeks of a disingenuous desire to become a scholar on this subject, unless you wish to study the book because of its “popularity” in western culture? Thsi is just as valid as anyone who obtains a PhD in Hardy Boys books or similar. I can see debating the literal validity of each passage and using context and language to interpret the meanings, but to mock people who believe that the Bible is the revealed word of God and then chose the STUDY the book? For what reason?

    I’m confused, Mark!

  3. Kurt Norlin Says:
    June 22nd, 2007 at 1:46 am

    Lots of scholars study works of fiction (e.g. Shakespeare) just because they enjoy doing so. And lots of scholars study semi-reliable works of history (e.g., Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars”), just because because they’re interesting reading and they do offer some insight into what past times were like. What’s so odd (or disingenuous) about that?

  4. Dave D. Says:
    June 22nd, 2007 at 7:41 am

    So they study the bible because it is a great work of literature? Or provides fiction for entertainment? I just don’t see the reason for doing so unless your goal is to spread the message or prove it wrong. My point is that I am VERY skeptical of anyone who is a bible “scholar” that believes it contains a made-up religion and I would think that the historical material contained in it would be viewed as marginaly usefull or essentially uninteresting if the scholar were not a believer in the faith that it outlines or the God that it describes.

  5. Kurt Norlin Says:
    June 22nd, 2007 at 10:26 am

    Scholars study ancient literature for all sorts of reasons. They enjoy the stories, they think there’s some genuine history to be gleaned, they think it sheds light on their own cultural roots, they’re struggling to come to terms with religious questions, they found a niche and got tenure and now this is their job, etc., etc. All of these motivations can lead to genuine expertise, although of course with possible biases that the “consumer” of scholarly work-product does well to be on guard for. You’re quite right to be worried about biases. But I don’t understand why you express that worry by insisting that there are only two possible motivations for being a Bible scholar.


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