Bad Scholar

I have recently read or listened to a few biblical scholars give their opinion on a few topics.  These scholars, however, are not representing their title very well.  I have found many of their claims to be incredibly flawed and I am shocked that people who consider themselves to be scholars could be so blind to their error.

I do not consider myself a scholar, but I do consider myself knowledgeable in biblical topics.  I have researched biblical ideas and events for many years and have taught many public and private biblical studies as both a layperson and a professional.  I know enough about biblical studies to spot an obvious or subtle error.  So with that, here are a few errors I read or heard recently.

Intragospel inconsistency

Adele Reinhartz is a professor at the University of Ottawa.  She gave a lecture that was broadcasted on NPR on April 10, 2016.  I had many problems with her lecture, but I will only pick this one problem with her logic for the sake of brevity.

Reinhartz proposed that the Gospel of John is not an actual historical account but instead was a collection of mostly fanciful stories suggesting how the future generations should act.  Now, of course John was suggesting how future generations should act, but that is beside the point; John used historical stories to show us how Christ acted and to suggest how humans should act.  Reinhartz tried to give evidence to her claim by sharing two stories in John, one in chapter 9, and the other in chapter 11.  In chapter 9 a man who is blind is healed by Jesus.  When the Jewish religious leaders question the man, they threaten to throw anybody out of the synagogue (Jewish place of worship) who professed that Jesus actually healed a blind man, thereby making Jesus more than just a common teacher.  In chapter 11, Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, dies and many Jews are bemoaning his death.  Reinhartz then claims that the problem with these accounts is that if Lazarus was a known friend of Jesus, then there would not have been Jews there publicly mourning his death out of fear of being thrown out of the synagogue.

To claim that these two stories make the Gospel of John (or at least these two stories) historically implausible is very narrow minded.  One of the problems I have with scholars is that they try to fit everything into a box neatly.  The fact of the matter is that not everything fits neatly (especially history).  There are many possibilities that could make these stories very much historically accurate.  I am amazed that Reinhartz never came up with these very likely possibilities.  Here is a list of four highly probably explanations to these two stories.

1. Reinhartz said that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were known followers of Jesus.  John 9:22 states exactly what would get someone put out of the synagogue; it says that if someone confessed Jesus as the Messiah (Greek: Christ), then someone would be put out of the synagogue.  While Mary, Martha, and Lazarus may have entertained Jesus, they may not have publicly stated that Jesus was the Christ.  We know from the other gospels that Pharisees were entertaining Jesus and still not necessarily being kicked out of the synagogue.  Martha confesses to Jesus Himself that He is the Christ, but that is completely different from confessing to hostiles that Jesus is the Christ.  There is little reason to unquestionably assume that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus where publicly confessing Jesus as the Christ prior to Lazarus’s resurrection, therefore there is little reason to assume they would have been kicked out of the synagogue.

2. Reinhartz does not seem to consider the fact that there may have been many sympathetic Jews to Jesus’s cause.  John says many times in his gospel that large crowds followed him.  It is very likely that the Jews who came to mourn Lazarus were sympathetic to Jesus and so did not care about what certain other Jews thought about them appearing at the funeral of a Jesus sympathizer.  Maybe Lazarus’s family was already put out of the synagogue but there were enough sympathizers that people still showed up to his funeral.

3. Maybe there were some people who did not come to mourn because of theological reasons or fear but they are not mentioned by John.  There is no reason to talk about the Jews who did not show up to Lazarus’s funeral because of theological reasons.  So it is quite possible that there was some level of ostracization but to John it is not worth mentioning.

4. It is quite possible that Martha and Mary’s family was not that big of a priority to care about.  Lazarus, Martha, and Mary may not have been in any limelight that would force the Jewish religious leaders to cast them out of society.  Now, they certainly became important figures after Jesus resurrects Lazarus, but that does not play a role in John 11.

There is very little reason to question the authenticity of these stories once someone thinks a little harder about the possibilities that would allow for these stories to coexist.  So I find what Reinhartz says to be unfounded and very bad.

Empty tomb playing no role in belief

Bart Ehrman, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, in an NPR interview stated, “I was struck in doing my research by the fact that the New Testament never indicates that people came to believe in the resurrection because of the empty tomb. This was a striking find because it’s just commonly said that that’s what led to the resurrection belief.”

Really?  Has this scholar of the New Testament never read John 20:8 where it explicitly says that John saw the empty tomb and immediately believed?  The empty tomb was an incredibly powerful witness for an author of five books of the bible.  Again, I hear what a scholar is declaring and I find it to be very bad.

Illiteracy of Christ

Within the last couple years I have read books by former professor John Dominic Crossan and professor Reeza Aslan at the University of California, Riverside.  Both of these men declare undoubtedly that Christ was illiterate.  They try to substantiate this claim by saying that the literacy rate among Galilean peasants was somewhere around 3%.

Now, whether Christ was literate or not has little to no impact on the person of Christ.  Even if He was illiterate, it does not take anything away from the wisdom of His sayings and the beauty of His life, death, and resurrection.  However, it does seem that Crossan and Aslan are trying to make some kind of subtle insult to the person of Christ.  Even if Crossan and Aslan were not themselves trying to insult Christ, I have heard many other popular speakers or writers make a statement about Christ’s presumed illiteracy in an obviously insulting manner.  By the way, that would be what is called an ad hominem argument, and again I say, bad scholar for using a logical fallacy.

At any rate, let us look at this claim by Crossan and Aslan.  Whether they like to admit it or not, we have only one solitary piece of historical witness as to whether or not Christ was literate.  It comes from Luke 4:17 where Luke says that Christ read from the book of Isaiah.  There is not a single other historical witness as to whether or not Christ was literate.  But what do both Crossan and Aslan do with this historical document?  Simply dismiss it as assumptive.  That is right, they simply refuse to believe it.  If that is not bias, I do not know what is.

(There is one other story in Scripture about Jesus writing in the sand but this story does not appear in the earliest manuscripts, so I do not use it as evidence here.  John 7:15 says the crowd of people were amazed that Christ “knows letters” without formal education, but this could just be saying that they were amazed that Christ knew as much of Scripture as He did without formal education; this statement is not necessarily saying he knows how to read letters.  Although both of these could be used to support Christ’s literacy, I do not think they are the best examples, so I will not use them here.)

Why do they refuse to believe Luke’s account?  Mostly because they believe that the educated guess of 3% literacy makes it highly unlikely that Christ was literate.  Indeed, it makes it a 97% chance that Jesus was illiterate based on the numbers alone.  However, when one considers other factors, this 3% does not seem that daunting.  What are the other factors?

First, the literacy rate may not have been that low.  As I said before, the 3% number is an educated guess based on the literacy rates of other low income, non-industrialized areas of today’s age.  So there was not an actual study conducted back in Galilee 2000 years ago that found the literacy rate to be 3%.  Indeed, a recent New York Times article suggested that literacy rates may have been higher than assumed in ancient times even hundreds of years before Christ.

Second, let us assume that 3% was the actual literacy rate.  Do you not think that it is a very good possibility that a peasant who said the things that Christ said, who did the things Christ did, who challenged the most educated people of His day the way He did, do you not think that it is a very good possibility that he was among the 3%?  I mean if anyone had the possibility of being literate, it would be Christ because of how He handled Himself and how knowledgeable He was.  Many times in the gospels Christ taught and quoted Scripture.  Now it is possible that he only memorized certain passages through oral learning, but I find it much more likely that he actually read Scripture since He did not just use Scripture when speaking to unlearned people but to the most learned people in His society.  If you are debating people who read a text on a daily basis, you had better be armed with more than just stories that you memorized when you were young.

Some peasants had to be part of that 3%.  Why is it so unlikely that the peasant who changed the world with His wisdom was part of that 3%?  Logically it is very likely that He was part of that 3%.

Third, there is of course the historical documentation of Luke which Crossan and Aslan unscholarly dismiss.  They provide no evidence for the assumptive nature of Luke’s account.  Instead, ironically, they assumptively state that Christ was illiterate.

So once again I have to say that these scholars acted very badly.

Paul’s inconsistency

I run the risk of losing some of you here in this section, but I am going to type this out anyway because I find it fun.

John Dominic Crossan, in his book The Birth of Christianity, accused the apostle Paul of inconsistency by making the statement he does in Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.  For you are all one in Chist.”), but still teaching against circumcision.  Crossan says, “[Paul] does not say for ethnicity [i.e., circumcision], as he does for class and gender, that it is irrelevant before God religiously and spiritually but should be maintained physically and socially.”  Crossan goes on to say, “… if Paul had had a son, he would not have circumcised him.  Even though Galatians 5:6 and 6:15 insist that ‘neither circumcision nor uncircumcision’ is important, not to circumcise was important for Paul.  Circumcision is caustically termed mutilation in 5:12.”

(As a side point, it is quite clear that Crossan really does not like Paul.  One cannot get past the introduction of his book without being convinced of that.)

Does Crossan have a point?  Did Paul teach that class and gender did not matter to God, but male circumcision does?  Let us find out why Paul could logically consistently say that circumcision should not be performed but still insist that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision was important.  To understand this correctly we have to understand under what circumstances circumcision was looked at negatively and when it was looked at neutrally.

Negatively: Male circumcision was not merely a physical act as Crossan tries to make it out to be.  Circumcision was a deeply religious and spiritual act for the Jewish people.  The religious and spiritual component of circumcision was much more important than the physical component as even the Old Testament states (Jeremiah 9:25-26 “A time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will punish all those who are circumcised in body but not in spirit … like all [the] pagan nations, the people of Israel also have uncircumcised hearts.”).

Because circumcision was such a deeply spiritual act, some Jews were seeing Gentiles believe in the Jewish Messiah (i.e., Jesus the Christ) and expected them to do other Jewish things too, the primary one being circumcision.  They would claim that a person cannot truly follow the Messiah without first being circumcised.  It is this that Paul had such disagreement with.

Paul and the rest of the apostles knew that circumcision was not a necessary act to become a follower of Christ, so anyone who taught that circumcision was necessary was vehemently rebuked by Paul.  But notice why Paul taught against circumcision: it was because of spiritual reasons, not physical reasons as Crossan suggests.  Paul taught that circumcision is not necessary for Gentile believers because God does not command circumcision under the new covenant.  Paul did not want new Gentile believers to start following the old covenant (i.e., the Old Testament Law) in order to gain salvation.  Salvation was made possible by 1) believing that Jesus is the Messiah, 2) repenting of sins, and 3) following Christ in obedience.  Circumcision was not part of the equation.  Requiring circumcision was taking the focus of salvation off of Christ and putting it on something else, and doing that was heretical.

Neutrally: Paul did not teach against Jewish circumcision for Jews.  In fact, Paul even had a traveling companion of his named Timothy circumcised.  The reason for this is that Timothy was half Jewish and Paul did not want to offend the Jewish people by keeping him uncircumcised.  This is where I find Crossan’s statement about Paul’s theoretical son so bogus.  Paul was Jewish.  If he had a son, he would have had him circumcised.  How do I know this?  Because he had someone who was his spiritual son circumcised.  He would have circumcised his son for the same reason he circumcised Timothy: because there were people out there who cared about the issue and since circumcision or uncircumcision does not matter to God from a physical standpoint, he would circumcise his son in order not to be a stumbling block to people, people to whom it did matter.

Paul did have another traveling companion named Titus who was fully Gentile.  Paul did not have him circumcised since there was no reason to have him circumcised since he was never under the Law in the first place.  Titus did not want to be circumcised and since there was no spiritual requirement for him to be circumcised, Paul supported his decision to remain uncircumcised.  The only people who wanted Titus to be circumcised were people who wanted to put false spiritual requirements on him, and Titus did not want to give in to these false spiritual demands.

In Galatians 5:11 Paul says that he “still preach[es] circumcision”.  He preaches that it is acceptable under situations where salvation is not trying to be attained.  But when it comes to Gentiles having to be circumcised for salvation, then it is not acceptable.

So understanding the circumstances in which Paul would act differently toward circumcision allows us to see the very sound logical approach of Paul.  I am surprised that such a renowned scholar as Crossan could not see this.  If you ask me, this is rather easy theology, so once again I have to say, bad scholar.

Concluding thoughts

I do not mind honest mistakes.  However, each one of the scholars that I mentioned are rather liberal biblical scholars.  What I have found from liberal scholars is that they are just as apt as extremely conservative scholars to make incredibly flawed judgments based on bias.

Reinhartz’s bias leads her to believe that the book of John is not authentic in its content; therefore she rather blindly and quickly concludes that two stories cannot coexist due to this bias.  Ehrman’s bias leads him to resist accepting any supernatural explanation of any event in Scripture; therefore he skips over direct scriptural evidence that at least one person was convinced by the evidence of the empty tomb and that it was recorded as evidence.  Crossan and Aslan’s bias leads them to unabashedly dismiss biblical historical records when doing so will help them strengthen their case.

These few examples are reasons why I am not impressed with an abundance of letters and credentials after certain scholars’ names.  There are many scholars out there who act very badly.  It is a shame that so many people who do not know the difference will listen to them and be persuaded by them simply because they are known as scholars.

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2 comments

  1. The trouble in these discussions is that you want “good” scholarship that contains a supernatural explanation. In all academic fields, including biblical scholarship, it becomes problematic to insert a supernatural event to explain other parts of one’s hypothesis. So when you ask why liberal scholars can’t accept a supernatural explanation, it’s because they are taught to look for non-supernatural explanations. You can certainly see why this would be important in so many other academic arenas.

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    • I understand your point. However, I did not use a single supernatural explanation myself to counter the aforementioned scholars. I used logic and evidence. I did not require the scholars to concede a supernatural cause.

      Even in the case of the empty tomb, notice that I did not say the reason why the tomb was empty, but I did point out that the empty tomb was an important fact to at least one historical witness.

      I have little problem with being taught to look for natural explanations. What I do have a problem with is a bias against supernatural causes when the supernatural explanation actually fits the evidence better. It would be rather odd to invoke a supernatural cause in academic areas that do not involve direct supernatural evidence. However, in a field of study such as theology, it is rather odd not to allow for supernatural explanations. I know that Ehrman claims to be an historian and so says he cannot use supernatural explanations, but he is an historian of theological events and to be a complete, unbiased historian, he should at least allow the possibility of supernatural occurrences when they are highly probable. If he refuses to allow even the possibility of them, then he only shows himself bias towards a very plausible explanation that he simply does not want to admit. There are many historians who admit supernatural occurrences; he is not so special that he cannot also. Nothing in the field of History requires an historian to refuse to accept a supernatural explanation.

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