Justification by Doubt -- What Motivates Bible Scholars?

Some of the less imaginative skeptics claim that the reason that NT scholars and historians do not lend support for more radical theories, such as the Jesus Myth, is that they are Christians or fear backlash from Christians. Such a purported cabal has not prevented many scholars from advancing theories that are nearly as contra to traditional Christianity, such as the Jesus Seminar's marking most of the Gospels' Jesus sayings as of dubious authenticity.

In an informed corrective to this idea, leading New Testament scholar Ben Witherington blogs about what he calls "Justification by Doubt." Far from feeling pressure to confirm Christian tradition, many scholars work "to demonstrate his or her scholarly acumen by showing not merely great learning, but how much he can explain away, dismiss, discredit, or otherwise pour cold water on." Witherington rejects the notion that critical scholarship must be skeptical scholarship. He believes that "[a] critical scholar is one who is capable of being self-critical and self-corrective, as well as being able to cast a discerning eye on this or that Biblical text."

Witherington concludes his post with this:

Historical enquiry requires data to be analyzed, not lightly dismissed or simply received. Skepticism is no more scholarly than gullibility. But they both have one thing in common—they are both faith postures, not critical stances.


BK said…
I have long argued that this is one of the reasons that conservative viewpoints are not as well represented in the Ph.Ds hired by colleges. The most common way you get a Ph.D. is taking a position that is not the orthodox or common position. This is true in virtually every discipline. In fact, I think it's more creative to think of something new to say about the conservative position than to take a position contra the established views. Thus, I tend to think that the fewer conservative scholars are probably the brighter and more creative scholars.
Layman said…

Good points.

I think another factor is that many conservative Christians who love the Bible get there BA at a Bible college and want to get "into the ministry." They become pastors or missionaries or evangelists.

That being said, there are a number of excellent Christian scholars, such as Craig Evans, Craig Blomberg, Witherington, N.T. Wright, Darrell Bock, and others.
BK said…
Oh, there's absolutely no question those guys are all top-notch scholars. They would have to be top-notch to get a Ph.D. writing on conservative ideas -- a field that has been exhausted by 100s of years of scholarship that preceded them.
Anonymous said…
Not necessarily. All a Christian apologist has to do is to answer the most recent atheist or liberal argument, show awareness of the relevant literature in the field and think through the argument with Christian assumptions. Some apologists are able to research and write because of funding that allows them to do so, and such funding comes to them because someone believes in them. I dare say if Layman received funding to live for one year he could produce something of equivalent status in the scholarly world. It's just that he doesn't have that funding. Others do.
Steven Carr said…
I don't understand the article.

If somebody genuinely doubts the historicity of a New Testament story, why should he or she not say so?

Even Layman has doubts.

Why should he be forbidden to express them, and stopped from saying 'I doubt that NT story X is historical'?
BK said…

I respectfully disagree. It is much easier to take a new position on an old story then come up with new ways to defend the story because most of the ways to defend it have been stated for years. I understand what you're saying regarding responding to skeptics, and I am certain that does account for some conservative Ph.Ds, but I expect those are rare.


No one said that someone who has doubts about conservative Christianity doesn't have a right to say so. You really need to read and consider what is being said before reacting.
Layman said…

Do not blame us if you cannot understand what was plainly written. No one said anything about forbidding anyone to express anything. And you have no clue what "doubts" I may have had in my life.

As usual, you eschew any serious discussion of the issues. If you really had the confidence of your position I'd expect a more systematic discussion of ideas actually on the table.
Anonymous said…
BK, maybe our disagreement here might merely be one of emphasis, coming as we do from opposite sides of the fence. I suspect it's hard for a conservative to get published in a liberal or skeptic journal, and it is likewise hard for a liberal or skeptic to get published in a conservative journal. The question might consequently come down to whether there are more scholarly journals of one kind than the other kind.

But anyone who takes the premises of a person's argument and from those premises shows an inconsistency, can get published, so long as they don't claim more than their argument allows, and they show an awareness of the relevant literature.

But new ideas? Those are rare birds on both sides of the fence. From the Christian perspective skeptic's arguments are old ones stemming from Hume, and Kant, for instance. I've heard Christians call such argument "canards."

Bill Craig once told me that Hume had been refuted a long time ago! But I think not. I replied that Hume cannot be refuted because his was an inductive argument against miracles, and he had to agree with me.

I am in the process of editing an article that will probably be published in a major philosophy of religion journal that argues on behalf of skepticism based on the Outsider Test I have been developing here. You would call it a liberal scholarly journal, but they would still be opposed to my argument. And I think they will accept it. At least, those are the indications so far.
Layman said…
I actually think that there is room for ground-breaking conservative scholarship, as I posted on a while ago here.

I mention NT Wright and the work of Bauckham and Trobisch as examples of conservatives who find fresh insights and conclusions. My conclusion:

In sum, I think that Christianity, and the academic community, need more scholars like these. There is no doubt that Torbisch, Bauckham, and Wright are Christians. But they are also scholars who--despite what others may view as their conservatism--have offered new and fresh understandings of old subjects. I have benefitted from their efforts. And hope that more Christians will.
Steven Carr said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Layman said…
Your characterization of my commments on another blog was inaccurate. And in light of recent events, we are crafting a policy about attempts to export arguments from other blogs into our Comments section.

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