In a recent post on her blog, The Forbidden Gospels, April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University, discussed what she referred to as “confessional scholarship.” She alleges (and I’m sure her allegations stick in some cases) that “confessional scholars” are a group within the field of Early Christian and New Testament studies who consistently twist or excuse history to defend their theology.
She points to the “historical-critical method” as the scholarly standard that needs to be upheld and defended against these “confessional scholars.” The historical-critical method, though, is a deeply flawed approach to Scripture and history which arises from a deeply flawed philosophy. [The ironically-named] Ferdinand Christian Baur is the father of the historical-critical method, sometimes called “higher criticism,” as an approach to the study of Christianity’s history and Sacred Text.
Baur was an adherent to the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel’s philosophy, like most Continental philosophy, looks good on paper but doesn’t have a leg to stand on when it’s applied to the real world. Hegel posited a historical dialectic in which two (or more) equal opposites begin in conflict with each other and eventually form a synthesis. According to Hegel, this was the course of history; he believed that the story of man was unity proceeding from diversity. His philosophy, in addition to inspiring Baur’s historical-critical method, helped to lay the framework for both Communism and Naziism.
Baur, in applying Hegel’s assumptions to early Christian history, posited that Pauline Christianity and Jewish Christianity were the two equal and opposite forces of early Christianity which eventually formed the synthesis we know today. Others, following in Baur’s footsteps, have added even more early “Christianities” to the mix, including Marcionitism (which they sometimes identify with Pauline Christianity) and the various strains of Gnosticism.
All of this is essentially unhistorical, though, as it defies the common sense facts of the matter: there was one person, Jesus Christ, who, unless he was a deceiver or insane, taught one consistent message. Either one or none of the groups in early Christianity preserved this message and the others falsely attributed their beliefs to a man who didn’t teach them. And, as time went on, more and more groups popped up with new false claims.
In history, diversity proceeds from unity far more often than unity proceeds from diversity. To look only at the history of religion:
- Muhammad founded Islam. After his death, the Shi’a split from the Sunni in a disagreement over who should succeed him. The Sufis later split from both in favor of a more “spiritualized” reading of the Qur’an.
- The Buddha founded Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhists split from Theravada Buddhists as they favored a more cultural, colorful form of spirituality. Of course, most Mahayanans will readily admit that the Theravadins carry on the original teachings and practices of the Buddha himself. Later, various sects such as the Pure Land Buddhists and Zenists broke off from the Mahayanans claiming new revelations or interpretations.
- Martin Luther broke from the Roman Catholic Church, founding Protestantism. His newly-founded counter-Church quickly broke up into dozens of different sects as more and more individuals cast more and more doubt on more and more traditional Christian teachings.
The story is the same with early Christianity. Christ founded a single early Christian group with a single set of beliefs (I won’t attempt here to name what “group” that is, but I’m sure you can guess what I believe it to be); everyone else came later and either broke from this first group or copied from it in founding their own group. The theory of unity proceeding from diversity in history is illogical.
All that said, I’d also say that scholars who use the historical-critical method are confessional in their own way. Historical-critical scholars are the equal and opposite of those who excuse history to defend their faith (will there be a synthesis, I wonder?).
In her post, Professor DeConick unintentionally gives several examples of what I’m talking about. She outright and reflexively declares the Resurrection and Virgin Birth to be impossibilities. By doing so, though, she acts in the same unscholarly, unscientific manner in which she accuses others of acting; she automatically biases the results in favor of her own agnostic worldview. She, like most Biblical scholars, starts with assumptions which do not allow her to reach unbiased conclusions, proving the old adage about those who assume (don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about).
Bart Ehrman, a Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and prolific author on early Christianity and the New Testament, provides a good example to help me explain. In arguing against the extreme fringe of scholars in the field who assert that Jesus Christ is not even a historical personality, he has stated what is the obvious truth: there’s abundant evidence for a historical person called “Jesus,” upon whose life and teachings Christianity is based. He even goes as far as to say that there is abundant historical evidence for the empty tomb. He stops short, however, and claims that, as a historian, he cannot defend the historical veracity of the Resurrection. The problem with his logic, though, is that every one of the early sources which mentions Christ mentions the empty tomb and every mention of the empty tomb is explained with the Resurrection! In short, he claims that the Gospels and other first- and second-century sources are abundant evidence for a historical Jesus, but not for the theme which every one of them makes its central declaration: the Resurrection.
This, obviously, isn’t logical. So why do so many scholars continue to do it? The only explanation I can see is that they’re afraid to follow what every bit of historical evidence points us towards: that Jesus Christ really did Resurrect. And that would, of course, make someone a Christian. And who’d want to be one of them?