When biblical scholarship clashes with theology


Thanks to a link from the blogger NT Wrong, I found a description by James Crossley of his experience presenting a paper to a conference on the current Pope's book about Jesus. The conference attendees apparently included a fair number of Catholic theologians and various high ranking Catholic figures. Crossley noted that "this conference revealed what seems to me (and others) a significant and very interesting tension between theology (probably more precisely systematic theology) and biblical studies (more precisely historical criticism)." He somewhat casually made the rather significant observation that "many theologians wanted historical criticism to give them the answers they wanted for theology and discard views that were not helpful." (emphasis added).

In a nutshell, that captures what I think is a common problem. Considering what is at stake, it doesn't surprise me. When you base a religious faith on dogmatic assertions about historical events, then any research that is done in the service of that theology is inevitably going to start from the dogma and work backwards to find evidence to support it, lest the very foundation of the faith more or less collapse. This approach is not, of course, particularly scientific, but it seems inevitable given what is at stake. Neither the Catholic Church, nor any other church that is similarly invested in the outcome of such efforts, is likely to to lend support to any research that undermines its own tenets. I can think of analogy from the political world, when the CIA was pressured by Dick Cheney a few years ago to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This is not unlike the Catholic Church telling its theologians to go do biblical studies that support the party line. When you have decided the answer in advance, and only seek out the evidence that supports your position, you naturally (big surprise) get the answers you want. Ultimately, religious faith becomes equated with a willingness to affirm belief in spite of possible evidence to the contrary. This is not a very appealing definition of faith for people who like to think of themselves as rational. This one reason why religion ends up being so unappealing to large numbers of people.

I am reminded of a quote from the wonderful book The Fidelity of Betrayal by Peter Rollins. It is a long quote, but I think it explains very well why it is problematic for Christianity to base itself on the literal truth of extraordinary claims about events that allegedly happened as depicted in the Bible:

As soon as Christianity is thought of as something that makes claims to a set of facts that exist in the world, then it becomes subject to a whole range of critiques. This does not in any way imply that we must reject specific claims in the Bible, any more than it implies that we must embrace them; this is another question entirely, one that can be approached in relation to the best evidence that we have. It merely points out that if we take such claims as the "truth" of faith then we predicate that truth upon claims that will always be open to question. Of course within the Bible there are various claims to historical events; the point is that these claims, like all claims, are open to question, and so, if the truth of faith rests upon them, then it is also open to question.

Thus the truth affirmed by Christianity ends up being treated like any other set of factual claims, claims that are provisional and open to being proven wrong. Even if one believes that the various claims within the Bible are wholly accurate, it is always possible that a new discovery in archaeology, history, or biblical scholarship will overturn the current body of evidence. Apologetics, in its attempt to defend the factual claims of the Bible through the use of reason, thus implicitly affirms the very philosophical outlook that undermines its own project, placing the truth of Christianity in the realm of rational reflection and thus into the realm of reasonable doubt and provisionality.

This has the effect of placing the Christian idea of truth upon a very tentative and fragile foundation, one that could not possibly justify an individual's unconditional commitment--one that would not be able to embrace Jesus' statement that one ought to lay one's life down for one's faith. Such an approach to the truth affirmed by Christianity would effectively mean that the believer would have to bow down before the academic researchers who are able to discuss which biblical texts are authentic, when they were written, by whom, and for what purpose. The believer would need to study all the available evidence and ascertain facts such as whether or not the Gospels record the writings of people who were eyewitnesses to the events they mention, and if not, whether they knew the eyewitnesses.

To be a believer would thus require some hefty subscriptions to the latest academic journals in order to see if the truth claims of Christianity could still be regarded as plausible, or even possible. Philosophy journals would become a stable diet for the preacher who would , in fear and trembling, be working out whether belief in Christianity is still rational. Journals dealing with biblical scholarship would become the norm in home groups, and psychological journals would need to be read as an integral part of our devotional meditations (helping us to work out whether our religious experience was likely to have descended form heaven or whether it really welled up from the depths of our unconscious.) (p. 92-94)
From this I think one can infer at least two rather unappealing responses to the problem of these sorts of truth claims. One response would be to ignore any evidence that contradicts the claims. This would seem to be intellectually dishonest, but it would ensure the continued commitment to the faith. Another alternative would be to make one's faith provisional and dependent on the latest findings, as Rollins describes in the above text. That would be intellectually honest but it would take away the possibility of any real commitment to the faith.

To maintain one's intellectual honesty and one's commitment to faith would require that faith not be dependent on these sorts of contingent truth claims. As Marcus Borg likes to point out, it whether or not Jesus was literally resurrected from the dead should not really matter to the Christian faith. What should matter instead is the deeper truths that the story of the resurrection points to. As he writes in his book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary:
Seeing the Easter stories as parables need not involve a denial of their factuality. The factual question is left open. A parabolic reading affirms: believe whatever you want about whether story happened this way--now let's talk about what the story means. If you believe the tomb was empty, fine. Now, what does the story mean? If you believe that Jesus's appearances could have been videotaped, fine. Now what do these stories mean? And if you're not sure, or even quite sure they didn't happen this way, fine. Now, what do these stories mean?

A parabolic reading insists that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. An empty tomb without meaning ascribed to it is simply an odd, even if exceptional, event. Only when meaning is ascribed to it does it take on significance. This is the function of parable and parabolic language. Parable can be based on an actual event (there could have been a Samritan who did what the character in Jesus's parable is reported to have done), but it need not be. Indeed, it may be that the most important truths can be expressed only in parable.

In any case, asking about the parabolic meaning of biblical stories, including the Easter stories, is always the most important question. The alternative of fixating on whether they report literally factual happenings leads one astray. And so, as we turn tot he stories of Easter in the gospels, I highlight their meaning as parable, as truth-filled stories. I leave open the question of how much of this happened, even as I affirm that their truth does not depend upon their public factuality. (pp. 280-281).


Mike L. said...

Great post! The Rollins and Borg quotes are solid and you tied them together beautifully.

Harry said...

The meaning of Christ's resurrection is the promise that we too will be resurrected. If Christ did not in fact resurrect, then this promise is based on a lie.

Borg's indifference to the historicity of the resurrection must mean he attaches some other (parabolic) meaning.

First, what is this meaning?

Second, why do you think that meaning (whatever it is) is in fact true?

Mystical Seeker said...

Mike, I'm glad it you liked it. I should say that you are the person who introduced me to Rollins from your own reference to the book in your blog.

Mystical Seeker said...

By the way, Mike, it is interesting to run across Rollins's concept of "second naivité", because it seems to match very well Borg's concept of "post-critical naivité". I don't recall him mentioning Borg, but the influence seems undeniable (either that or else he independently came up with a very similar idea.)

PrickliestPear said...


I agree with your point about the relationship between theology and historical scholarship. Historically, theology (at least in the Catholic Church) has been much less interested in discovering new truths than in elaborating on existing doctrines. Theology was described, from the time of Anselm, by the rather naive slogan fides quaerens intellectum, "faith seeking understanding," as if you can believe something before you understand it.

BTW, the notion of "post-critical naiveté" is not original to Borg, it's actually from Paul Ricoeur (as Borg always acknowledges when he uses the term).


Your assertion that the "meaning of Christ's resurrection is the promise that we too will be resurrected," and your suggestion that "this promise is based on a lie" if the resurrection was not a literal event, strikes me as unfair.

A "lie" is not simply a falsehood. It is a deliberate attempt to deceive someone. The original assertion that Jesus's resurrection somehow guarantees our own was not intended to deceive anyone if the person who made that assertion genuinely believed it.

It was, more likely, a misinterpretation. I have no doubt Borg would agree with me on that.

Mystical Seeker said...

Prickliest Pear,

Thanks for the clarification on the origin of the term "post-critical naivité".

As far as the resurrection goes, first of all, Borg is not asserting that Easter was a lie. On the contrary, Borg affirms that Easter happened. He talks quite a bit in his books about the "post-Easter" understanding of Jesus, as a matter of fact. The nature of what Easter was is what is under dispute, not whether Easter occurred at all.

Second, Jesus's contemporaries (except for the Sadducees) already believed in the resurrection of the dead, so it would have been unnecessary for Jesus to have been resuscitated after his crucifixion in order to convince the majority his peers of their own resurrection. The idea of resurrection had already entered Judaism a couple centuries earlier, long before anyone had ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth. It thus seems rather like a waste of Divine pyrotechnics to teach people a theological point that they were already in agreement with.

Frank said...

This is not unlike the Catholic Church telling its theologians to go do biblical studies that support the party line.

Could you explain where you have seen this happening?

I think there is a big difference between the impressions James Crossley got at a particular conference with a particular audience and the actual policies and overall practices of the church.

The Catholic Church has made bold and rather definitive statements in supports of the historical-critical method of Biblical Scholarship, here's a few:

Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943: "Let those who cultivate biblical studies ... let them neglect none of those discoveries, whether in the domain of archaeology or in ancient history or literature, which serve to make better known the mentality of the ancient writers, as well as their manner and art of reasoning, narrating and writing" (paragraph 40).

(I think there is even a better quote out there that I couldn't find, basically saying that all scientific knowledge and methods out there are fair game for Biblical exegetes to work with.)

Pope John Paul II, commenting on the Poe Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus: "The Church is not afraid of scientific criticism". --Address on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 2.

"The Historical-critical method is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts. Holy Scripture, inasmuch as it is the "Word of God in human language," has been composed by human authors in all its various parts and in all the sources that lie behind them. Because of this, its proper understanding not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it." --The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1993.

The climate in the church today does not always align itself to this. I hear that many young priests care little about the historical-critical method and would rather spend their time in personal reflection on the Bible rather than scholarly study.

Still, the church's position is solid. The above documents I quoted, as well as Dei Verbum from Vatican II, lit a fire under an entire generation of scholars. They don't see their mission to be one of apologetics.

Yes, you can also find in some of these encyclicals and councilar documents a desire for Biblical scholars to use their skills to defend the dogmas of the church to some extent. Some of that is within a context, though. For example, Pope Leo's encliclical from 1893 mentioned above fully supports the use of science, but it was also very defensive in its tone, based on the circumstances of the day, right or wrong. I can't lie and say that the desire for scholars to defend existing dogmas isn't a part of Church teaching or history, but it really doesn't reflect the current climate at all.

The main purpose of scholarship, though, is to arrive at the meaning of the text itself and try to deduce the intention of the author. It is up to the Church to do the task of overall interpretation and translation into dogmas.

That seems like control, especially if "the Church" is limited only to the hierarchy, but it kinda makes sense that its up to the Body of Christ as a whole to come to an understanding of the Biblical texts in light of revelation through history, tradition and science. The whole church doesn't revolve exclusively around the findings of individual scholars. Scientific study of ancient texts--valuable though it may be--isn't a complete undertaking by itself. There is so much else that goes into the creation of dogmas.

Harry said...

Prickliest Pear:

Point taken about deliberate lie.

But if it was a misinterpretation, then Christianity is a great tragedy given the millions that were martyred in ancient and modern times (and today) based on a bogus interpretation.

And what is the correct interpretation? Has it been irrevocably lost? Or has Biblical Scholarship somehow recovered it?

(Perhaps by reviewing the Gnostic Gospels?)

Could you tell me what it is?

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank, I do not mean to single out the Catholic Church, because I think that the problem spans across many regions of Christian orthodoxy. Obviously, the Catholic Church encourages an interest in biblical studies; otherwise, there would not have been a conference such as the one James Crossley attended.

But I think the point is that churches that are invested in a certain dogma will always set boundaries on how far research can go, because any research that might challenge the dogma is not going to be tolerated. It is one thing to say that one is investigating what the original authors meant in their texts; but it is also the case that these texts don't just have meanings out of context, but also make historical claims which express those meanings, and what if those historical claims are open to question and doubt and yet are so integrated into Christian dogma that to question them would be to question the dogma? Catholic dogma doesn't just rest on interpretive meanings, but on historical claims that are based on biblical texts. If some of those biblical texts are seen to be not the product of accurate eyewitness accounts, but are in fact mythological narratives with often an unhistorical foundation, then how far will the Catholic Church go in exploring ideas that defy the dogmas?

For example, would a Catholic scholar say, as Dominic Crossan has, that Jesus was probably not buried in a tomb but was placed in a common burial? I am not saying whether Crossan is right or wrong--maybe he is wrong--but it seems to me that if there is to be true academic freedom within the Catholic Church in these matters, then a Catholic scholar would have the full right to suggest what Crossan has suggested. (Part of true academic inquiry includes the freedom to be wrong.) I honestly don't know--maybe there are Catholic scholars who suggest such things. Is that the case?

It seems clear to me that there is not a lot of academic freedom among the theologians in the church. Hans Kung and Uta Ranke-Reinemann can attest to that. The extent to which historical criticism and the tools of biblical scholarship are allowed to flourish fully in the Catholic academic community is something I don't even remotely claim to be an expert on, but it does seem to me that there would be territory that it would be hard for some people to tread upon. But maybe I'm wrong, and I would be happy to see that this is not the case.

PrickliestPear said...

But if it was a misinterpretation, then Christianity is a great tragedy given the millions that were martyred in ancient and modern times (and today) based on a bogus interpretation.

First of all, there have not bee millions of Christian martyrs.

Even apart from that, your argument is a blatant appeal to emotion. Yes, it is tragic that people have given their lives for holding false beliefs -- this is true of the martyrs from many different faiths, not just Christianity.

And so what? Do tragedies not happen? Or is it just that you don't want to accept that this particular "tragedy" happened, is that it?

PrickliestPear said...


Good question about Catholic scholars. First, it's worth noting that Crossan is Catholic, though obviously he's no longer a priest.

Numerous people have noted that ordained Catholic bible scholars get away with a lot more than, say, theologians. Part of the reason for this is that they are dealing exclusively with texts, and so their conclusions can typically be verified. So when Fr. Raymond Brown said that he could find no biblical evidence for certain claims about the priesthood or apostolic succession, he rankled quite a few people, but what were they going to do? The only way to combat the claim that there isn't any biblical evidence for something is to prove that there is evidence! Obviously a lot of Catholic beliefs (like Christian beliefs generally) don't have a whole lot of biblical support.

Mystical Seeker said...


Good point about Crossan. I actually wasn't sure if Crossan is still a member of the Catholic Church or not. He recently made this interesting comment:

"The Pope should convene the Third Vatican Council so that the hierarchy can solemnly return the gift of infallibility, and beg instead for the gift of accuracy, and maybe also for the gifts of transparency, honesty, and integrity."

So if he is a still Catholic, I'd say that his relationship with the church is rather stormy. :)

Frank said...

Well there certainly are movements within the church that are squashed, but your post made it sound like the Church was making some active effort to bend biblical scholarship to fits its dogmas, and that's just not true. Many biblical scholars today actually feel really affirmed by the Church's support of their work, although I'm sure it is not as easy as I'm making it out to be.

A sympathetic view of would be that the church isn't going to change all of its dogmas on the recent findings of a single scholar. The process to form a dogma takes time, and so often scholars are wrong and what can be gleaned from scholarship is so often just an educated guess. The church often trusts the oral tradition that came down and the intervention of the spirit, too.

Its a complicated issue, because of Kung and others who know full well the supression of intellectual inquiry in the Church.

Crossan is hated by mainline scholars more than anyone I have ever seen. Just mention his name and faces will contort in discust. He is not unpopular for what he suggests. He is unpopular because he has the reputation for passing on his speculation as if it were scholarly-based research, and sensationalizing it through the media.

I haven't read enough Crossan to independently verify this or not. You can speculate all you want--maybe Jesus was a Buddish monk, maybe Jesus was an alien, maybe Jesus was buried in a potato field... speculation is good for the imagination. But to pass that off and say that's the product of scientific scholarship is another thing entirely. I can see why the people actually doing the scholarship might be offended that he claims to represent them.

Crossan might argue he's just hated because he has a revolutionary stance and revolutionary people get crucified. Who knows. I'm looking forward to read some Crossan in the near future so I can get some first-hand knowledge of this.

Mystical Seeker said...

I don't think it is a fair criticism at all to accuse Crossan of just engaging in speculation. He backs up his arguments with research with, among other things about first century CE middle eastern culture. That doesn't mean that he is right, of course, but then not all serious scholars are always right; I do believe that he is a serious scholar.

I think that the hostility to him is hardly surprising, and I think it illustrates my point in this posting. He challenges a lot of historical claims that lie at the root of a lot of Christian dogma. As the Rollins quote illustrates, this is highly problematic--when you base a religion on historical claims that can be evaluated and challenged by academics, then a religion has no choice but to strike out at and attack those who actually do question those claims. Crossan is a threat to Christian orthodoxy precisely because so much rests on these historical claims.

The point of the Rollins quote that I was trying to make is that a religion should not even be based on clinging to historical claims. If a religion stands or falls on whether, among other things, a single historical individual was buried in a tomb or not, then I think that the religion is fundamentally on shaky ground to begin with. In my view, Christianity should not rest on whether Jesus was buried in a tomb or if he was eaten by dogs in a common grave as Crossan has suggested.

Frank said...

I think that the hostility to him is hardly surprising, and I think it illustrates my point in this posting. He challenges a lot of historical claims that lie at the root of a lot of Christian dogma.

There might be something to that, and that's what I meant that his revolutionary stance is threatening. However, people who dislike him are very, very reputable, which is what makes the issue so fascinating for me.

But whether it applies to Crossan or not, I do think that many progressives do run wild with speculation and shrug off any criticism this way: "They dont like me because I'm too radical for them to handle." Well, maybe. But it could be that there is more to the story.

Many/most theolgies are considerably well thought out, and the Church is not going to be impressed if a person looks out the window and says "I don't see any miracles happening, so therefore Jesus didn't perform any miracles." That would be an anti-intellectual exercise, but that is what you see all the time in pop theology. They are not rejected because they are too radical, they are rejected because its not an impressive argument.

I'd hate to turn into some kind of centrist, but in all honesty I've been disappointed with the intellectual discipline on both the fundamentalist and progressive extremes.

The point of the Rollins quote that I was trying to make is that a religion should not even be based on clinging to historical claims.

I do agree with this, in general. Although there is something in the theology of the incarnation that is made more special by the focus on a specific person in a specific geography at a specific historical time. Truly incarnate into human history. I don't know what that all means, but I think there's something in there.

PrickliestPear said...


So if he is a still Catholic, I'd say that his relationship with the church is rather stormy. :)


You don't know very many progressive Catholics, do you? Those were pretty mild comments, actually!

In all honesty, I don't know if Crossan still self-identifies as a Catholic. But I've heard him described as such in numerous places, and he did teach at a Catholic university for his entire academic career (DePaul).

Harry said...


As far as the number of martyrs, you can argue that with the Russians under the Communists and the Greeks under the Turks, and the North Koreans, and the Iraqis and the Iranians ...

But forget all that.

What is the proper interpretation of the Resurrection?

I'd really like to know.