Scholars are a funny lot. I ought to know--- I’m one of them. Some are eccentric, some are eclectic, some are extraordinary. But when you participate in the rarified air of Biblical scholarship, a particular sort of historical scholarship, it seems that this discipline especially brings the peculiar out of the woodwork. Biblical scholarship becomes a ripe field where the odd try to get even. I guess this is to be expected since the Bible is Western culture’s number one all time bestseller, its number one artifact and icon.
But there is a particular trait of some Biblical scholars, indeed many of them, which I would like to comment on, on this blog, because it drives too much of what passes for critical Biblical scholarship. It is the tendency I call justification by doubt. A scholar tries to demonstrate his or her scholarly acumen by showing not merely great learning, but how much he can explain away, dismiss, discredit, or otherwise pour cold water on. This activity in itself is sometimes mistakenly called ‘critical scholarship’ apparently in contradistinction to uncritical or pre-critical scholarship. And having once trotted out this label it is then assumed that any real scholar worth her or his salt will want to be a skeptic so they can then be revered as a ‘critical scholar’. Otherwise they are not really being scholarly.
Here is where I call the bluff of those who think this way. I was recently reading a very fine manuscript by a friend and fellow NT scholar, Craig Evans. He says in this manuscript that sometimes skepticism is mistaken for critical thinking. Some scholars think the more skeptical they are the more scholarly they are being. He adds that adopting an unwarranted and unreasonably skeptical posture is no more justified when it comes to the Bible than adopting a gullible one that accepts anything and everything that comes down the pike masquerading as real scholarship. He is so right about this. Let it be said that the Bible has survived the critical scrutiny of many of the greatest minds that ever existed over the last several millennia. We shouldn’t think that it is now in danger of being explained away or set aside or shown to be irrelevant. As Jerome once put it “Defend the Bible? It needs about as much defense as a lion!”
My main point is this. Skepticism is itself a faith posture, a presupposition that affects and infects how one reads Biblical texts, just as ardent faith is also a faith posture. It is of course necessary for any historical scholar to recognize and take into account what his or her faith posture or inclinations or predispositions are as one approaches the Biblical text.
But here’s the rub. Some scholars, mistaking skepticism for critical thinking, assume that they are being ‘objective’, approaching the text in a value free way with no axes to grind, while person’s of ‘faith’ are approaching the text in a ‘subjective’ manner that is tendentious and necessarily predetermines the outcome of the interpretation of the Biblical text. This is not necessarily true at all on either side of the equation.
There is of course no purely objective value free scholarship out there. It is just that some do a better job of admitting this, and owning up to their presuppositions and inclinations than others do, and some do a better job of being objective than others. And I would say that it is those who are aware of their own commitments and take them into account and even correct for them that are the persons who really ought to be called critical scholars whether they are persons of no apparent faith, agnostic, or persons of one or another sort of ardent faith. A critical scholar is one who is capable of being self-critical and self-corrective, as well as being able to cast a discerning eye on this or that Biblical text.
It also needs to be said that it is not good scholarship to have as a beginning point a posture of distrust towards the subject of one’s historical study. One ought to begin with a posture of trust when approaching a certain historical subject, not with a hermeneutic of suspicion for the very good reason that proving, or even just showing a reasonably strong case for a positive after you have assumed a strong negative is virtually impossible to do. It is like trying to prove you didn’t do something. We all know how hard that is to do. Ancient texts deserve the same respect and benefit of the doubt and willingness to trust and listen at least initially that Biblical scholars want their colleagues to exhibit when evaluating their own modern works.
So in the end, justification by doubt is not a good starting point for critical scholarship. You haven’t necessarily explained something just because you think you have explained it away, any more than you have proved something just because you have demonstrated that the Bible claims this or that. Historical enquiry requires data to be analyzed, not lightly dismissed or simply received. Skepticism is no more scholarly than gullibility. But they both have one thing in common—they are both faith postures, not critical stances.