Why are Christians afraid of biblical criticism?

Aractus 26, September, 2022

Around a decade ago, one of my Christian friends put forward the view that the bible should not be subjected to academic enquiry. I had heard this view many times, including by the late minister at my (former) parish. Going back around 20 years now, another friend who was studying at Moore (one of the most conservative seminaries) was being taught stuff that even I as unread and uneducated on biblical scholarship at the time knew was breathtakingly wrong. One time when when I said Jesus spoke Aramaic he responded dogmatically with “that’s pure conjecture and my teachers would wipe the floor with you”. He repeated “pure conjecture” at me.

Seminaries don’t exist to create free critical-thinking academic graduates. If they did, well then they’ve done a lousy job. Prepare to be shocked by the disparity.

By the Numbers

There are currently around 8,000 SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) scholars. Those are the people recognised in the West as bible scholars. They need to work in a Western university (including university seminaries/bible colleges) and either hold a teaching position or be active in some way in biblical-related research. “Eastern bible scholars” don’t count.

By way of comparison, there at least 800,000 ordained Christian clergy in the world. Let that number sink in for a moment. There’s over 400,000 Roman Catholic priests according to their own statistics. Although precise statistics on the rest of Christianity is not available we can conservatively estimate the number as at least 400,000 on the following grounds: 1. Roman Catholics represent about 50% of global Christianity, 2. they have a global shortage of priests, 3. the barrier to ordination for protestants is lower and includes women. Because the RC’s have a shortage of priests there will likely be less retired or part-time clergy compared with non-Catholic denominations, so the true number of global clergy could easily be in excess of 1 million.

Bible colleges and seminaries tell a similar story. Conservative seminary Moore churns out over 400 graduates per year, whereas St Mark’s here in Canberra which is moderate has less than 10 per year. Most of Moore’s graduates go on to work in the church as that is the goal of seminaries, whereas most graduates from the moderate bible colleges like St Mark’s do not.

Influence on Christianity

The numbers above begin to explain why academic biblical scholarship holds such little sway within Christianity today. For every bible scholar there is at least 100 clergy! Clergy are in direct regular contact with ordinary Christians and scholars generally aren’t. Therefore much of what has been known for years, decades, or even centuries among scholars is never even offered for consideration to Christians by their priests. Often what is considered settled in scholarship is outright denied in church!

More worryingly, the numbers don’t even begin to tell the full story. You don’t have to be ordained to become a pseudo-academic theologian or apologist, and begin creating apologetic material for Christians to consume. There are two types of apologists: the majority are not bible scholars. Among this group includes Pentecostal musicians that create popular Christian music to profess faith beliefs, as well pseudo-academics who masquerade as if they are scholars and create material either online or in print for Christians to consume (even conservative bible scholars cringe at this stuff).

The second type of apologist is more insidious. They are conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist bible scholars who intentionally deceive unlearned Christians. They are professional liars, the equivalent of politicians who are skilled in the shameless use of unmitigated bullshit for promoting their propaganda. I am not afraid to name them either: “scholars” like Daniel B Wallace. A decade back Wallace misled Christians in a debate with Bart Ehrman where he was willing to lie for someone who later be proven to be a fraudster and a criminal, who is currently evading authorities, and what he lied about was directly related to antiquities fraud (I’m not suggesting Wallace is guilty of a crime himself). Yet he seems to think his role in this was marginal! We can infer this belief because Wallace has since apologised to Ehrman, but he has never apologised to his Evangelical Christian audience. I was one of them at the time, and I felt misled and betrayed. I feel he should apologise to the Christians he misled and his refusal to do so demonstrates to me that his deception is intentional. Another thing that demonstrates this is that he was part of a group of scholars that directly encouraged the Greens to ignore the professional advice given to them regarding antiquities crime and to purchase stolen antiquities. So let me explain how this works: It’s his material, and material from other Evangelical scholars like him that is responsible for creating or fostering the fundamentalist beliefs held by those who then later act on those beliefs. It’s not just apologetic publications, podcasts, videos, and Christian music, it’s also seminars and sermons, blogs, debates, bible commentaries, and even bible translations. Even the best English translation of the Christian bible, the NRSVue, has deliberate mistranslation put into it by its Evangelical translators.

If you don’t believe me, I’ll give you one of the most egregious examples there is: Psalm 22:16 (or 22:17 in Jewish numbering) in the NRSVue it reads as follows:

For dogs are all around me;
  a company of evildoers encircles me;
they bound my hands and feet.[a]

Footnote: [a] 22.16 Meaning of Heb uncertain.

Psalm 22:16

It is so notorious that it even has its own Wikipedia page. The Hebrew is not “uncertain”, the translation is based on a hypothetical Hebrew variant. Let me repeat that so you understand: the variant used to translate as “bound my hands and feet” or “pierced my hands and feet” is not attested to in any Hebrew manuscript. The footnote is false and deceptive, what it should say is: “hypothetical reading based on the Greek found in the 4th century CE Christian Old Testament” (or it could say LXX/Septuagint but Christian Old Testament is more accurate). So as you can see, it’s quite serious when Evangelical scholars make deliberate choices that mislead Christians. And this brings me to the next part…

The State of Scholarship

The lack of engagement by Christians with biblical scholarship means that they are unaware of the true state of scholarship today. Bible commentaries mislead them into thinking that most bible scholars agree with faith positions when they don’t. Let’s stick with Wallace as an example, you can read a whole series of introductions to New Testament books here that deceive readers into thinking that the conclusions offered are accurately representative of scholarship. We can infer that this is deliberate for the following reasons: 1. They are non-scholarly opinion pieces by scholars, but this is not made clear to the reader. Consider a scholar’s online blog – a reader would instantly understand that a blog is their opinion platform and not academic. 2. Conclusions are generally phrased with the words “we conclude …” giving the clear impression to the reader that the “we” means scholars. 3. There are plenty of examples in online forums and social media where Christians unwittingly quote what their bible commentaries say as “most scholars think …” which is clear evidence that this strategy to mislead is effective. If this were not the intention then care would have been given to prevent this misunderstanding.

The result of this is that most Christians are exposed only to pseudo-academic opinions by Evangelical scholars and not real scholarship. Consequently Christians are ill equipped to defend their beliefs about their bible when challenged by someone with better biblical literacy or who has engaged with real scholarship. I mean no disrespect, but they don’t realise how ignorant they are. People want certainty with their faith beliefs so they gravitate towards material that agrees with their beliefs. It’s the Evangelical churches that are flourishing, and the moderate ones that are withering (there’s a good blog post on this from the evangelical perspective by Rev. Mark Durie).

Biblical scholarship undoubtedly raises doubts and challenges doctrines that are fundamental to Christian worldviews. But it also advances knowledge, understanding, reduces prejudice and dogma, and is conjunctive for a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate dialogue. Christians fear it because they’re disengaged with it and have a fear of the unknown. They dislike it because it’s presented to them using negative framing and pejorative terms. Meanwhile Christians can’t agree amongst themselves how to read and interpret the Christian bible: their approaches are wildly inconsistent both between denominations and compared against historical use (including Jewish!) This problem though is not unique to Christians, most other atheists (thinking specifically about ex-Christians) are also disengaged and come up with idiotic ideas about the bible as well.

It’s a Problem of Engagement

As briefly mentioned, most bible scholars don’t care about the dining room table discussions of lay Christians and don’t care to correct their misunderstandings of their bible. In fact it’s even worse than this really: most don’t want to. Why? Well they’re used to talking to professionals and to their students who are willing to learn with an open mind, and Christians have very strong beliefs about the bible. They can get dogmatic, they can become easily offended and very upset when their opinions are challenged. Nerdy bible scholars don’t want to have to answer “dumb” questions from random members of the public who have low biblical literacy, and there just are not enough of them in any case. How do you expect 8,000 scholars to individually and personally answer the questions of 2.4 billion Christians? It can’t be done! Most scholars are not specialists on the entire bible either, some of them specialise on a single book and spend their entire careers disinterested in the other 65-72 books. There’s a prejudiced view against bible scholars as well, and guess what – nerds don’t like opening themselves up to stigma, bullies or bible-bashing fundamentalists. And even if they do, they’ll be totally undermined by the Evangelical/apologist scholars who will just go and tell Christians whatever the hell they want to hear anyway! It’s difficult for any academic to simultaneously appeal to competing interests (with biblical scholarship that would include universities, seminaries, journals, publications, all forms of academics, the church in all its denominations and its laity!)

The “average” Christian today is a poor and uneducated woman in her early 20’s in Africa or Latin America, and the fastest growing areas for Christianity are also in Africa and Latin America. SBL represents Western scholars and Western institutions, mostly northern Atlantic, and they are highly educated very well paid working professionals. Those two cohorts could not be more different to each other! This is a fundamental problem for biblical scholarship. The entire way that it became a profession is that a small number of people in the 18th and 19th centuries started to question things they weren’t permitted by the church to question, so they formed their own academic circles to study the things that the church didn’t want them to think about (e.g. “did Moses really write the Torah?”) They’re literally the seminary dropouts who decided not to be priests but to instead critically examine the bible! This might help explain why they’ve failed to engage with Christianity in a positive way that advances Christianity for a modern society.

If bible scholars really want to be relevant to ordinary Christians they need to create a plan for engagement. It’s just not tenable to publish everything in paywalled academic journals that only their peers and students can read and books that only the wealthy and libraries can afford. Hiding isn’t the answer. They need to hold their peers to account. Daniel Wallace is surrounded by enablers: Bart Ehrman is his friend, but has Ehrman tried putting any pressure on him to do the right thing? No. Ehrman just accepted his apology and acts as if it’s between scholars and the public doesn’t matter. Let that truth sink in, because at the same time Ehrman is one of the few scholars engaged with the public by writing and publishing books intended for non-scholars and running a popular blog for ordinary people. So his indifference here is ironic.

Ultimately you can’t blame Christians for their disengagement. Biblical scholarship needs to do better. That the NRSVue is the best translation they can come up with, containing deliberately deceptive translation techniques, is very concerning. They need to do better. English translations of the bible are so bad that most decent bible scholars give their students their own translations in the classroom! They generally don’t care about translations because their attitude is that people should just read it in the original language. That might work for nerdy bible scholars, but it doesn’t work for ordinary people and I would hardly call that an example of positive engagement with the public. They need to hold the Evangelicals to account – how is it that in a professional academic profession there are no consequences for bad behaviour? Finally they should pay more attention to Christianity in the real world. Their profession wouldn’t exist without it, and yet their scholarly findings are rarely shared openly within it.

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