Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Assured Results of Biblical Criticism

Bart Ehrman, self-confessed agnostic and Professor of Religious Studies, boasts that,

• “A large number of seminarians are completely blind-sided by the historical-critical method. They come in with the expectation of learning the pious truths of the Bible so that they can pass them along in their sermons, as their own pastors have done for them. Nothing prepares them for historical criticism. To their surprise they learn, instead of materials for sermons, all the results of what historical critics have established on the basis of centuries of research. The Bible is filled with discrepancies…” (Jesus Interrupted, 5)

The “historical-critical method” is a way of investigating the texts of the Bible by starting out with the presuppositions that the Bible is entirely the product of human machinations and that its true underlying history can better be reconstructed by modern scholarship than by allowing the texts to speak for themselves as genuine historical documents.

Sadly, Ehrman is correct that many seminarians are “blind-sided” and overwhelmed by the “fruits” of this method, to the great detriment of the Church. However, the important question is “why?” Ehrman believes that this represents their coming into the light of “centuries of [sound] research.”

However, there are many others who take a very different view of the “historical-critical method.” Some point out that this method can be subjectively manipulated to derive the conclusions that we want to find. Professor of Religion Scot McKnight writes,

• “The quest for the historical Jesus [not the same thing as the Jesus of Scripture] is an attempt to get behind the theology and the established faith to the Jesus who was – I must say it this way – much more like the Jesus we would like him to be.” (“Christianity Today,” April 2010)

Bart Ehrman would like to find a Jesus who had no Messianic aspirations and didn’t regard himself as God, and this is the very Jesus he “found.” Similarly, Marcus Borg wanted a mystic Jesus, and unsurprisingly was able to reconstruct a mystic Jesus. McKnight rightly observes,

• “The theological conclusions of those who pursue the historical Jesus simply correlate too strongly with their own theological predilections…A reconstructed Jesus is just that – one scholar’s version of Jesus. It is unlikely to convince anyone other than the scholar, his or her students…” (25)

This is just the problem. Students enter universities and are convinced that they have been freed from their religious strait-jackets in order to think for themselves. However, they leave their schools indoctrinated into the worldviews of their professors without even knowing it.

This shouldn’t be surprising. The “Jesus” of the skeptics is not based upon any solid evidence – reliable, ancient documents – but speculation based upon their idea of what Jesus must have said. Well, what was it that Jesus must have said? Words that conform to the cynical expectations of the skeptics!

McKnight quotes Dale Anderson, who he regards as the “most knowledgeable New Testament scholar in the United States”:

• “I opened my eyes to the obvious: I had created [Jesus with the historical-critical method] in my own image, after my own likeness.”

• “Professional historians are not bloodless templates passively registering the facts: we actively and imaginatively project. Our rationality cannot be extricated from our sentiments and feelings, our hopes and fears, our hunches and ambitions.”

• “The fragmentary and imperfect nature of the evidence as well as the limitations of our historical-critical abilities should move us to confess, if we are conscientious, how hard it is to recover the past…We wield our criteria to get what we want.” (26)

The tools we choose determine the results of our investigation. The criteria or scholarly tools that we use can only give us a certain spectrum of “evidence.” A microscope cannot show us planets; a telescope cannot see bacteria. This doesn’t mean that these tools wrong. It simply means that we have to be aware of the one-sided data that they give us. The historical-critical method can only hope to give us data about the humanity of Scripture. However, many scholars proceed as if they are seeing the entire universe and erroneously conclude that Scripture is a messy human affair.

Our tools determine our conclusions. If the selection of our tools is biased, so too our conclusions! Former atheist and Professor of New Testament, Craig Keener, attempts to take an overview of the “historical” quest for Jesus and concludes:

• “The Gospel writers’ portrait of Jesus makes much better historical sense than scholars’ historical reconstructions do.” (CT, 27)

What is the matter with the New Testament accounts that the skeptical scholars treat them as criminals “guilty until proven innocent?” For one thing, they testify of miracles, something that many of the skeptics rule out as impossible from the get-go. For another thing, many simply regard the Christian faith as objectionable and therefore resort to a double-standard. Keener continues:

• “Historians would normally take very seriously biographies written within a generation or two of their subjects. I contend that if skeptics really treated the Gospels as they treat other historical documents, they would be less skeptical.” (CT, 28)

While Ehrman insists that we can trust the fruits of his methods, McKnight insists that these kinds of inquiries have come to a fruitless dead end:

• “The historical Jesus game has run its course and it cannot deliver us the original Jesus.” (26)

However, Bart Ehrman is right about another thing: “Nothing prepares them [seminarians] for historical criticism.” Truly, they need to be prepared to recognize the biased nature of these tools and how they can be used selectively to derive skewed results. We also need to be aware of the powerful, but often hidden, biases of our institutions of “higher” learning, and perhaps even to avoid some of them. Perhaps we are overly arrogant in thinking that we can sit under a cadre of well-trained skeptics and expect to emerge unscathed?

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