The “Consensus of New Testament Scholars” Isn’t What You Think

The “Consensus of New Testament Scholars” Isn’t What You Think July 23, 2019

When New Testament scholars speak, especially when delivering the consensus of their field, it might be hard for a lay person like me to do anything but accept it. The consensus of these scholars says that Jesus was a historical person, that the tomb was empty, that the experience turned the disciples from cowards into bold proclaimers of the new faith, and so on. These scholars are the experts, and we’re novices.

I’d like to recommend a very different response. I argue that many of these scholars play no part in the consensus of New Testament or biblical scholars because they have disqualified themselves. William Lane Craig, Frank Turek, every professor at Biola—indeed every professor at most other Christian colleges, and more—they’re all disqualified.

Evangelical response to the Jesus Seminar

Let’s start with an attack in the other direction, an objection to the Jesus Seminar by Christian apologist William Lane Craig. The Jesus Seminar was a group of Christian scholars and laypeople who reevaluated the sayings of Jesus from a skeptical viewpoint. Craig said:

Of the 74 [Jesus Seminar fellows] listed in [their] publication The Five Gospels, only 14 would be leading figures in the field of New Testament studies. More than half are basically unknowns, who have published only two or three articles. Eighteen of the fellows have published nothing at all in New Testament studies. Most have relatively undistinguished academic positions, for example, teaching at a community college.

This is a straightforward attack on the Seminar based on their small numbers, lack of credentials, and lack of prestige. Unsurprisingly, Craig thinks that his position is stronger on every point: he represents the group with the big numbers, the complete credentials, and the substantial prestige.

Hold that thought.

The problem of doctrinal statements

Christian colleges or organizations often require that faculty and staff commit to doctrinal statements (also called “faith statements”). Here’s an example. Biola’s Articles of Faith say, in part, “The Scriptures . . . are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind.”

(I’ve written several times about doctrinal statements: here and here.)

The problem with a Bible scholar signing a doctrinal statement is that they have straightjacketed themselves to only reach conclusions about Christianity that are in accord with that statement. Their conclusions in their articles or books are predetermined before they begin their research. For example, if the available evidence points to Jesus not being born of a virgin, they must reject that conclusion because the doctrinal statement says otherwise.

Or see this from the other end: suppose a Biola professor writes a paper that concludes that Jesus was born of a virgin. I can’t simply dismiss the argument, and the argument might be informative, but I have no guarantee that this article weighed the data objectively rather than cherry picking it. This scholar has no inherent reputation, and I’m obliged to evaluate the argument myself.

Contrast that with a historian from Princeton or a cosmologist from CalTech or a physicist from MIT. Here, I don’t have to critique their papers as if I were a member of their discipline but, because I trust their institutions, I can accept those scholars’ conclusions with some confidence that their research was sound.

Where does this leave us?

Let’s return to the title of this post, which referred to the consensus of New Testament scholars. That a claim is the consensus view is typically used to argue that it is a settled position, so we should take it as a given and move forward.

Let me respond by first saying that I always do that with the scientific consensus. Second, there is no religious consensus. The religions of the world can’t even agree on how many gods there are, what their names are, or how to placate them. Every religion is a minority view, and the majority thinks they’re wrong.

And third, if it is to mean anything useful, “the consensus of New Testament scholars” must refer to a set of scholars that are not bound by a doctrinal statement. None of them. Throwing in any scholars who are bound by doctrinal statement—that is, who are obliged what to think and have publicly declared that they won’t honestly follow the evidence—contaminates the set.

Let’s return to William Lane Craig’s portrayal of the Jesus Seminar as a small group with unimpressive credentials and little prestige. Craig might want to rethink his dismissive characterization when he can’t take part in an objective consensus in his own field.

The rest of us should insist that any claimed consensus comes from a group of scholars unbound by doctrinal statements and able to objectively follow the evidence where it leads.

The fools says in his heart there is no god,
but the wise man shouts it from the rooftops.
— seen on internet

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Image from Wikimedia, public domain
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