Some Biblical scholarship/early Christianity basics

A commenter posted a link to this comment by someone named “Randy” in one of Leah Libresco’s threads. I started typing up a reply (which you can see here), but I cut my reply a little short because I decided Randy was probably the kind of person who a long reply would be wasted on. But then I got to thinking…

So that there’s the is problem that when you know a lot about a subject, it’s very hard to remember every important detail you need to include when explaining the subject to people who don’t know anything about it. And maybe I made that mistake with chapter 7 of the book (which Randy was responding to), particularly with respect to Biblical scholarship. So here’s a reply to Randy on Biblical scholarship, with some information that maybe will be worked into a later revision of chapter 7:

Same thing with New Testament scholarship. He kept talking about what most scholars think. The trouble is what most scholars think makes no sense. Again it is what is fashionable because it avoids accepting claims of the supernatural.

So first of all, it would be helpful to define be able to use the term “mainstream” with respect to Biblical scholarship, but I have to be a bit careful here. Biblical scholarship is something largely done by seminary professors, or at least people who got their degrees at seminaries. Bart Ehrman, for example, is an agnostic employed by a secular university, but he got his degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.

The smartest thing I’ve ever read about claims about what the majority of Biblical scholars supposedly believe is Robert M. Price’s point that this is largely going to be a matter of which denominations can afford to produce more Biblical scholars. And I know of no good surveys of what the majority of Biblical scholars believe. So I’ll just define “mainstream” Biblical scholarship to be the kind of stuff you’ll find at places like Princeton Theological Seminary, rather than at the kind of evangelical institutions that require their professors to sign statements of faith affirming Biblical inerrancy. (Note that there are plenty of rumors of evangelical professors who don’t believe the statements of faith they’re required to sign in order to keep their jobs.)

Having said that, it’s simply false that the conclusions of mainstream Biblical scholarship are driven purely by anti-supernaturalist bias. True, many mainstream Biblical scholars do reject the supernatural, even ones who continue to call themselves Christians. For example, the late Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown railed against skeptical scholars who ruled out the supernatural, but accepted that many of the books of the New Testament weren’t written by the people who they’re traditionally attributed to, and even had doubts about the Virgin Birth.

It also avoids explaining where Christianity came from.

Actually, there’s a strong consensus in mainstream Biblical scholarship that Jesus, Peter, and Paul actually existed, but the view is that their stories were greatly inflated in the retelling.

Someone at sometime wrote the bible and convinced everyone it was written in the first century and left no trace of their actions.

There’s a consensus in mainstream Biblical scholarship that the books of the New Testament were written in the 1st century (with a few maybe being early 2nd century). It’s accepted that some of the letters attributed to Paul were really written by Paul, some books were written by anonymous Christians who never dreamed their words would later come to be imbued with apostolic authority, and some were “pseudoepigraphical,” that is written under a false name. Many scholars claim pseudoepigraphy was considered an honest practice at the time, though in my opinion Bart Ehrman argues convincingly that the pseudoepigraphal books should be viewed as forgeries.

For some reason this Jesus guy who did no miracles and definitely did not rise from the dead had captured the attention of the entire Roman world.

No he didn’t, at least not until long after his death. There are no first-century pagan references to Jesus anywhere.

Then somebody decided to make him God and nobody objected.

It’s false that “nobody objected,” as we can see from early Christian fights over heresy. Oh, and the Jews kinda objected a little bit.

From a follow-up comment by Randy:

I don’t have much time to respond so I will try and be brief with the rest of it. You keep quoting the 0.9% atheist number like it means something. Scholarship has been essentially atheist for a long time. They have not been explicitly atheist but have had an anti-supernatural bias so strong they can only come to atheist conclusions. So no scholar can evaluate a claim of a miracle. They can only say it is false. There is such a fear of accepting faith-based claims of miracles that they arrive at their own faith-based claim that all miracles are frauds. There is no academic freedom on this question. There is no intelligent discussion permitted. It is dogma and if you question it you are excommunicated from the intellectual elite.

False. From what I understand, Raymond Brown was regarded with respect by liberals and conservatives alike. And I don’t think N. T. Wright has been “excommunicated from the intellectual elite.”

This has stifled historical analysis. You can’t make any sense of how Christianity developed. When you try and fill in the details of exactly when and where and how these supernatural stories came to be you end up with a mess. Nothing makes sense. Did the apostles make stuff up? Did it happen in the 4th century after Christianity became legal and the church had real power? All these theories have huge problems. They lack evidence and they lack plausibility.

As noted above, there’s a rough consensus in mainstream scholarship about when the New Testament was written. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing the exact dates. Mainstream Biblical scholarship tends not to accuse the apostles of making anything up, though I suspect that possibility may be under-explored because at the end of the day Biblical scholars are mostly Christian-identified and working in seminaries.

Of course, even if disagreement were more widespread, “experts disagree, therefore the fundamentalist view is right” is a fallacy here as much as it is in the evolution-creationism debate.

It is true that we’re short on evidence for figuring out how Christianity got started, but that’s just as true of the traditional view as it is for the views of mainstream Biblical scholars. If Christians try to argue we must believe the Bible because we have no other good sources, would they accept the same argument about our earliest Muslim accounts of the life of Muhammad? Probably not.

But you can’t suggest the obvious. Maybe the apostles did what they did because they really saw Jesus rise from the dead. This is what NT Wright argues for. Scholars can’t take him seriously because he violates their anti-supernatural dogma. This where it feels like question begging.

Bart Ehrman has indicated that he read Wright–and Mike Licona!–while researching his next book, and it seems likely he’ll interact with them some there.

But note the ignorance of assuming we know what “the apostles did.” Presumably this is a reference to the apostles being martyred, but our earliest accounts of their martyrdom are in late second century apocryphal acts of the apostles, which even Christians realize aren’t historically reliable (that’s why they’re considered apocryphal).

There are also a couple very brief early second century references to the deaths of Peter and Paul, but even assuming those references are historically reliable, we don’t know enough details to argue that they could have escaped death by admitting it all was a lie.

The other point to make is that the point of this section of the book wasn’t to argue that the mainstream view of the New Testament is correct. Rather, it was to explain to conservative Christians what the point of view they need to be arguing against is. In my experience, they tend to massively fail at understanding that.

Re-reading the section… eh, maybe I won’t revise it to include an argument about what “mainstream” means. Easier to say “non-Christians and many more liberal Christians.” Explaining that there is considerable consensus in mainstream Biblical scholarship is worth doing, though, as well as explaining lack of evidence ≠ “fundamentalist Christianity is true” and the dodgy nature of our accounts of the death of the apostles. And bolding and underlining the point of the section. Maybe mention Raymond Brown very briefly.

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