I was contacted by a blogger named Bryce Walker (a confessed pseudonym) about engaging him in a discussion regarding the current state of the field of biblical studies. I know it bothers some people that Walker won’t use his real name (e.g., Jim West who wrote a post titled, “Shooting from the Safety of the Shadows” denouncing Walker saying “he can’t be taken seriously” if he refuses to make known his identity). Walker is using this pen name because he fears that the use of his real name could negatively impact his career in academia preventing him from obtaining tenure. (Personally, I don’t foresee a day when any academic institute will offer me tenure and I hate the political climate of academia enough to refuse to play the games that might be necessary for such achievements. If it cost me, so be it. That said, I understand Walker’s reasoning.) Walker is dissatisfied with the field of biblical studies and he gives his reasons in a post titled, “A Critique of the Field of Biblical Studies” which you will need to read to understand my response here. 

What’s wrong with the field of biblical studies?

Walker begins by lamenting evangelicalism’s preference for biblical studies over theological studies. He says that it is surprising that so many evangelicals would rather “read a commentary on Matthew” than “a section of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.” I don’t know if this is true or not. In my ThM program at Western Seminary it seemed that there were far more people interested in historical theology than biblical studies. It is true for me though. I confess, I am one of those who wonders why I should give more of my time to understanding Barth’s understanding of Romans than to Romans itself. It is likely that this has something to do with the Protestant ethos from which evangelicalism emerges. We evangelicals affirm tradition as subservient to Scripture. Of course, I understand there are problems with this view, but it is what it is.

For students of biblical studies we share with others (some Christians, some not) a commitment to historicism. In other words, we are asking what ancient works meant in their ancient context. I don’t think Christians have to be limited to this hermeneutic, but the field of biblical studies is (for better or for worse) part of the broader field of historical studies. If we were to study ancient Assyrian literature we would use our best historiographic tools. Are they infallible? No, but that is how we do history. We use historiographic tools to provide some guidance, some coherence. If we didn’t have a shared methodology then anyone could propose anything and there would be no way to measure their claims.

If someone wants to read Scripture theologically that is fine. I do it. Yet I know when I go to a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) there are presumed presuppositions and shared guidelines for talking about the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as historical works. Is there a rule ingrained in the cosmos that demands this approach? No, but it is part of what allows SBL to “work.” If we don’t have some guidelines the discipline becomes impossible and communication nullified. We need to emphasize “original sources.” We need to check geography to see if it matches the descriptions of literature and archaeological finds for the same reason. We need to avoid various logical fallacies.

Walker decries the field of biblical studies as “often masquerades as a science.” I share this concern. I fear that sometimes biblical scholars think they can be “objective” in a way that is quite impossible. So I don’t have a problem with Walkers’ concern here. The epistemological confidence of some scholars can be quite befuddling.

That said, we must differentiate between overblown epistemological arrogance and really believing one is correct. There is nothing wrong with presenting one’s methodology, showing how one reached particular conclusions, then arguing with one’s peers that their conclusion is correct. Personally I think I am a critical realist. I believe I can know something and I believe I can be wrong about what I think I know. Most biblical scholars affirm this to some degree and I find less and less people who are dogmatically convinced that they are absolutely correct. In fact, I have seen more humility at SBL than from most pulpits.

When I presented at SBL a few months ago I felt very humbled. I felt that my interpretation of the text upon which I was presenting was correct and I felt that I had something to share. Also, I knew there would be people who would critique and challenge me.

No one says that someone can’t challenge the dogma of academia. Mythicist do it all the time. Sometimes the “consensus” may be wrong, but even when we think this is true it is worth asking why it is the consensus.

If the field of biblical studies is not a science what is it? I think of it as a trade. As I’ve gone through my schooling and as I begin my doctoral studies (hopefully in 2013) I am learning a trade from my supervisors. A science? No. A trade? Yes. They are teaching me the methodology that they have used that helps them categorize and interpret data. I am free to depart from it someday if I wish (like any trade) but as a student I ought to listen to those who have come before me.

Walker is troubled by the methodology used by historians. To be fair, sure, there are some things that may be more trouble than they are worth. For example, much of the criteria used by The Jesus Seminar seems quite suspicious to me (e.g., the criteria of “double dissimilarity). But we should not toss out the baby with the bathwater. One of the reasons why confessional scholars can argue for the superiority of the canonical gospels over and against gospels like Judas and Thomas is because the historiographic tools like similarities to Jewish culture as expressed in other documents (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus), the similarities to Roman culture (Caesars for instance), or the fairly accurate (or at least somewhat familiar) geography (which is one of the great benefits of archaeology) show the canonical gospels to be more trustworthy (in my estimation).

Sure, scholars get zealous. Sometimes they emphasize Jewish culture as if it was free from Hellenization. In the past there was a great emphasis on Hellenization as if Christianity was merely another version of Greek mythology (e.g., an emphasis on Jewish culture has become especially important when talking about Jesus as the “Son of God”). Pendulum swings occurs, but this is part of the corrective nature of the discipline.

As we continue our trade we will discard old approaches, invent new approaches, and continually refine how we do history. So Walker is right, it is not a science, but neither would I call it an “art” as if it is a purely relativistic exercise where one could paint any old reconstruction and it be as equal an expression as another. One may retell Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicorn from a variety of angles, but no one has yet to propose he did it on a unicorn.

And that is the point. Walker says our methodology is too restrictive. Maybe, maybe not. Can we “prove” the resurrection of Jesus using historiographic methodology? Probably not without a lot of “begging the question.” Does not mean the resurrection didn’t happen? No, I believe it did. But historiography has to be conservative to work. Walker doesn’t like this, but what is the solution? I can believe God used a donkey to talk without having to stretch the boundaries of historiographical method to try to prove something that cannot be proven. (If a Buddhist wanted me to affirm some of the stories of the Buddha as historical it would take more than historical criteria to get me to affirm it so why should Christians get a free pass?)

Let me say again, I don’t oppose theological readings or presuppositions of faith (so-called analogia fidei). Those have their places, especially for Christian discourse among Christians. But the field of biblical studies as an academic exercise shares a playing field with atheist, agnostics, liberal/progressive Christians, Buddhist, Muslims, and anyone and everyone who wants to read the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures as a historical document just like ancient writings of Egypt, or Assyria, or Babylon. As Christians we may believe Scripture to be more than just another historical document, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is whether or not we should engage in the academic study of the Bible. I believe we should. I don’t think we should ghettoize or beg the question. If we can’t prove the exodus through historiographic method then so be it. We can chose to believe it happened or not, but we shouldn’t pretend like the field is too restrictive when it demands the same level of proof as it would for other ancient stories and myths.

I will end my response here because I don’t want to ramble. Let me know your thoughts.