Are All Critical Biblical Scholars Godless Atheists Conspiring to Undermine Your Faith?

Glad you asked.

I say no, as do Marc Brettler (Brandeis University) and Dan Harrington (Boston College). Together we wrote a book that looks at how faith and critical biblical scholarship can co-exist. The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously. It can now be ordered on Amazon

This book originated in a symposium sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania on October 25, 2010. The topic was “The Challenge of Reading the Bible Today: Can the Bible Be Read Both Critically and Religiously? Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Perspectives.”  Professors Jeffrey Tigay and Beth Wenger invited Marc Brettler, Harrington, and your’s truly to share how we look at this issue from the perspectives of our faith traditions.

(I had a tough assignment. YOU try explaining to a non-Protestant audience what “Protestants” think about anything, let alone the Bible and biblical criticism.)

Marc Brettler

The audience, several hundred students and community members, asked probing questions, which convinced us that our topic was worthy of publication. Over dinner we decided to do just that.

Each of us wrote an essay and we all responded to each other’s essays in dialogue rather than critique-mode. We had a great time working together on the book and we learned much from each other. For me, it was a distinct pleasure to work with such respected, prolific, thoughtful, and seasoned scholars as Brettler and Harrington.

Daniel Harrington

Here is the table of contents.

Preface vii

Introduction: The Historical-Critical Reading of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament 3

1. My Bible: A Jew’s Perspective—Marc Zvi Brettler 21

Response by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. 66

Response by Peter Enns 72

2. Reading the Bible Critically and Religiously: Catholic Perspectives,—Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. 8

Response by Peter Enns 113

Response by Marc Zvi Brettler 118

3. Protestantism and Biblical Criticism: One Perspective on a Difficult Dialogue—Peter Enns 126

Response by Marc Zvi Brettler 161

Response by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. 166

Postscript 174

Notes 177

Glossary 195

Index 201

My plan over the next few weeks is to post brief synopses of each of the chapters.

Brettler’s works include How to Read the Bible and The Creation of History in Ancient Israel. He edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy Jill-Levine) and The Jewish Study Bible: featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation (with Adele Berlin and Michael Fishbane).

Harrington is author and editor of countless publications, including editor of New Testament Abstracts since 1972 and the eighteen-volume Sacra Pagina series of New Testament Commentaries, Jesus: A Historical Portrait and Invitation to the Apocrypha.


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  • Doug

    Pete, I do have a question. “Are *SOME* Critical Biblical Scholars Godless Atheists Conspiring to Undermine Your Faith?” Since I don’t know any of them personally, I thought I would ask a person that probably knows quite a few. If the answer is “yes,” what is your advice for how Christians can deal with this?

    • peteenns

      Certainly. But it’s not the epidemic some think it is.

    • AJG

      Doug, I think we should first understand the facts about their arguments instead of ignoring them or putting our fingers in our ears and yelling “I’m not listening!”. Only when we are prepared to acknowledge the merit of some (not necessarily all) of their conclusions can we begin to hope to address them properly.

      Secondly, as Christians we need to be willing to reassess long-help beliefs if evidence demonstrates that some things we believe are not tenable any longer. That is not to say that God’s revealed truth was in error, but that we were not using the right tool for the right job (using the Bible as a biological textbook instead of a guide for living a Godly life and a picture of God’s plan for redeeming His creation).

      Finally, we must understand that Christian faith does not equal unquestioning acceptance of traditional dogma. Instead, it equals living a life as if what we profess to believe is true EVEN WHEN we find ourselves ravaged with doubt. Or as James 1:12 states

      “Blessed are those who persevere under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

      Atheists would deem this to be the action of delusional agents. But we understand that faithful living is meritorious in that it produces a fruit a peace that passes understanding in light of the troubles we encounter in this world. Even if Christianity were completely false, living a life of Christian discipline would still be the preferred way of living for our own benefit.

    • toddh

      I think when a person’s faith is ready, they need to engage with the questions and issues that are brought up by those scholars. That’s not to say that everyone is ready for that kind of engagement, but at the right time I think the questions need to be addressed.

      • peteenns

        That’s pretty much how I approach it.

  • Steve Douglas

    I was first delighted, then concerned, to see a new (long overdue) edition of Lawrence Boat’s brilliant Reading the Old Testament (Paulist Press) coming out soon; his book introduced critical studies to me in a profoundly respectful and even reverent way. Are you familiar with this text? I say I am concerned because, due to Boadt’s death, it is being edited by two other scholars with which I am unfamiliar; one of them is Harrington. Would you happen to have any knowledge about this edition, or general observations about his disposition toward critical studies? Just thought I’d ask!

    • peteenns

      Don’t know it, Steve, but now that I do I will definitely look at it. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • rvs


  • Frederik Mulder

    If you ever visit Cambridge, UK Peter, we should have a nice Starbucks coffee discussing August Tholuck, DF Strauss, Adolf von Harnack, Adolf Schlatter etc…

  • Mark

    Prof. Enns

    I’ve been on a five-year journey of learning to read the Bible as a critical, evangelical thinker.

    The one tension continues to return to me is rooted notion that while the Bible is indeed a human composition wherein God has contextualized his word means human language, concepts, editorial processes, hermeneutics, etc., yet, at the same time, Jesus, Paul, and others in the New Testament who read the Old Testament, do not spend their time on the kind of critical inquiry that we do today. Thus, while I want to hold in tension the pursuit of truth, including the Bible’s compositional history and difficult implications, I also continue to wonder if it is more important to read the Bible in a way that would promote the health of the church and advance the gospel. Maybe the point is that in order to advance the gospel in North America and Europes postmodern contexts, we need to be as honest with the text as possible, and thus in this honesty people will be drawn to beauty of Jesus Christ. So, even though I do think that honesty with the humanness of the text honors God, I can’t get around the fact that Jesus, Paul, Peter did not spend their time engaging compositional history, traditions that seem to be divergent, etc. I want to live the attention of these worlds, but I still struggle to know exactly how to do it. Your thoughts? Grateful for your insights and blessings to you,

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