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The No-man's-land of Biblical Studies: Isn't it odd?

The no-man's-land of biblical studies

By Tim Bulkeley
Carey Baptist College, Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School
December 2010

The Bible's most vociferous cultured despisers, the so-called neo-atheists, argue that (read literally as some sort of instruction manual) the Bible supports all sorts of barbarity. Christopher Hitchens calls it “a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human animals.”1 Sam Harris points out that thankfully few Christians follow the advice of Dt 13:7-11 and stone to death any of our children who convert to other faiths.2 That's not strange, the challenge they pose is a reasonable and necessary one. What is strange is that their reading of Scripture is one that Jewish and Christian tradition across the millennia has NOT practiced. Religious reading of sacred texts has been more nuanced and careful.

In this article I am not addressing those new Atheists, nor the a-religious biblical scholars, my target is those, like myself who teach Bible with religious motives, and in particular my fellow Christian biblical scholars who teach in seminaries.

So how can this new wave of atheist argument get away with such misuse of Scripture? Only because vociferous groups of Christians also use and advocate just such blind simplistic readings. Put bluntly it is Christian (and Jewish) “fundamentalists” who provide the atheists with the excuse they need to misuse Scripture. Indeed (at least many of) the students the neo-atheists teach, and my students too, seem to use just such a literalistic fundamentalist approach. A whole industry has grown up claiming that “real” Christians believe that Genesis 1 and 2 both describe how the world was made, and so predetermine the results that science “ought” to find. Or equally bizarre and historically novel interpretations of the other end of time, with its thousand year Reich and its rapture, and any number of other frightening or exciting visions that historic Christianity failed to recognize.

If there was a battle for the Bible in the churches, then by and large the fundamentalists, the “creation scientists” and the televangelists have won it. But since the tradition of Scriptural interpretation for nearly two millennia was not literalist/fundamentalist the sudden victory in the last few decades is indeed strange.

How has this revolution in popular Bible reading come about?

Partly it is clever use of communications technologies, and the tidy profits to be made from the “long tail” (the sum of a very large number of small donations adds up to amounts that more than cover the costs of the flashy TV and print promotionals). But we in the biblical studies “guild” bear our share of the blame. The explosion of exciting, challenging, and intellectually satisfying results of the application of historical approaches to studying these ancient texts as ancient texts has carried us along on a wave of research and publication. Then, after a time, those thoroughly secular methods began to look stale.3 As some of their luster faded, a plethora of different, competing, but equally secular-materialist approaches emerged as alternatives.

It was not only the University departments and faculties that were captured by the materialistic practical atheism of this wave of non-religious scholarship. Seminaries too have increasingly bought into4 these modern and post-modern styles of Bible reading. Students in these seminaries across the wealthy Western world (and in privileged, and so prestigious, Western-supported institutions elsewhere) learned more about J, E, D, & P or M, L, & Q than about the religious meaning of the Torah or of the teaching of Jesus.

This creeping, but near total, takeover by humanistic practical atheism5 in the academies does not seem to students to suggest ways to preach the Bible texts they study. Their teachers are more concerned to get the history, or the methodology right than to reveal spiritual significance. So the students become schizophrenic in their approach to Scripture: Atheist in scholarship, Fundamentalist in preaching or personal faith. The result of this quasi-Fundamentalist preaching is Christians in the pews who can no longer even imagine the older, richer traditional ways to read their foundational texts. They are therefore unprotected and prey to every smart-suited televangelist who enters their living room, with a car-salesman-like smile beaming from the box in the corner. In short, by our educational practices, we have bred sheep ready and docile to head uncritically into the shearing pens of the fundamentalist religion industry.

The answer is not to offer more, and more entertainingly presented, instruction in neuro-reflexological readings of biblical texts. Nor is it a good dose of minimalist historiography. The effective response is simpler than that, and more radical. Offer religious readings of the sacred texts to religious students. Recognize and celebrate their (our?) faith, and explore the texts within that framework, with spiritual goals in view. Such a study would not focus almost exclusively on the last century or two of scholarship. Rather it would give students a sense of how our spiritual ancestors wrestled with the texts. Thus revealing that our predecessors read the Bible using a range of non-literal hermeneutics, and how they read parts in the light of the whole. Particularly it would show that Christian readers in the past understood everything in Scripture in the light of the story of Jesus. After such a course of study our seminary students will be able to withstand the wiles of the Fundamentalists, whether of the atheist or the creation scientist varieties.

If we continue as we have been, seeking to separate faith from biblical studies, then all we can expect to foster are sharper and wilder fights between the extremists, with the middle ground left as a muddied no-man's-land.


1 Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Hachette, 2007, 102.

2 Sam Harris, The End of Faith. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004, 18.

3 At least they are thoroughly secular when kept pure, for as Avalos, Davies and others have pointed out those studies were in fact often contaminated by the wishful thinking of religionist practitioners.

4 Quite literally purchased either by “buying in staff” or with research time and publication funding.

5 By this phrase, I intend to imply the teaching of the Bible (whatever the expressed or unexpressed religious stance of the teacher) which talks about and examines the Bible as if its texts were just ancient human texts, and in all class-related material avoids considering the possible religious implications of the text.

Comments (12)

I love these words of your: "...Christian readers in the past understood everything in Scripture in the light of the story of Jesus." Such an attitude of reading brought me to the realization that everyone is going to heaven.

This understanding, and others that come with it, are the fully effective deterrent which you seek for televangelists on the one side and atheistic evangelists (who can deny that the "new atheists" are all about proselytizing?) on the other.
#1 - Michael Gantt - 12/28/2010 - 10:17

excellent- except for the swipe at minimalist historiography. it is my opinion that minimalism FORCES us to think theologically about scripture instead of constricting it with some supposed historiographic slavery.
#2 - jim - 12/28/2010 - 11:13

What is wrong with believing that the Bible is literally true, word by word? If you are going to blame evangelicals for neo-atheist nonsense, please be specific and explain how one leads to another. God did command Israel to destroy the Canaanites after the Exodus. He did not ask or allow us to do that today. I think if you are going to disbelieve the creation account in Gen 1-2, then you disbelieve the whole Bible.
-Steve Miller
#3 - Steve Miller - 12/28/2010 - 12:44

Placing Jesus Christ at the center, we see he called us at John 18.37 to bear witness to truth, in response to Pilate's worldly paganism.

As soon as Christians accept lower standards for truth by holding to beliefs that have been disproved by science, we are on the slippery slope to hypocrisy, becoming what Jesus calls 'whited sepulchres' (Matt 23.27) who claim to speak the truth but inwardly are rotting.
#4 - Robert Tulip - 12/28/2010 - 14:47

Taken literally, the bible is clearly full of nonsense ... like the Harry Potter books. Not taken literally, the bible can mean anything you want it to ... like the Harry Potter books. At least Harry Potter books are an entertaining read (without having to ignore the backward morality of people who lived 2000 years ago).

I conclude that christians believe whatever they want to believe and simply interpret the bible accordingly. They might as well use the Harry Potter books to do that.

Also, there is no such thing as 'new' or 'neo' atheism. It is a phrase coined by religiots to make reasoned criticism of religion sound like a religion in itself.
#5 - Dyz - 12/29/2010 - 07:24

There is a subtle equivocation that runs throughout this essay, and it concerns the word "faith". That is, are we talking about studying the particular faith implicit in a particular piece of writing now included in the Bible? Or are we talking about our own faith as contemporary readers? Or again, about the faith of past or other interpreters? Or is this distinction between these three objects of study (the faith implicit in the original text; in subsequent interpreters; in our own interpretation) being fudged in some way? The tension comes to a head in the essay at one point, when you have to choose one sense, but show that you really want to conflate the three. You write, "Recognize and celebrate their (our?) faith...." Theirs or ours? Now, that is the critical question. A simple conflation - and I recognise that you don't quite come out and openly make such a conflation - would on the other hand be uncritical in biblical studies.

Unlike you, I don't see any necessary or significant opposition between critical examination of the faith represented in the biblical text and faith's subsequent use and interpretation of the biblical text. Sure, there has been opposition in the past, in the battle between academics and church, but in the main biblical scholarship has been consistently governed by the concerns of faith - which is, I suppose, why you had to resort to the extreme example of the current crop of infamous new atheists, none of whom are biblical scholars. (There is of course the odd biblical scholar who is an atheist, but she tends to be on the fringe of what is in the main a very confessional group, and dismissed with outrage for even attempting to interpret a book which describes and prescribes various manifestations of faith, without subscribing to a recognisable contemporary brand of faith.) But you might object that all this focus on historical critical method, literary and ideological criticism still gets in the way of the study of faith, even if it doesn't preclude it. I really can't see that happening. It certainly hasn't in the past. Whether you have a Noth or a Trible or a Boer, you almost inevitably end up with methods being pursued for the modern interpreter's own faith-based, religious goals. Again, there is the odd exception, but these few do stand out as oddities. So I can't accept your opposition between the historical-critical and literary-ideological methodologies on the one hand, and the study of faith on the other.

And so, if there is no real opposition between these various old and new methodologies and faith-goals, then I wonder if your concern lies elsewhere: with reducing or eliminating the critical distance concerning our and their "faith", by a conflation of "their" faith with "our" faith. However, when the study of historical forms of faith in biblical texts and their interpretations is not duly separated from our own, that is a rather different discipline. It's called "theology", and the object of their study is "scripture" and "church history", not the bible and reception history. I wonder if this is in fact what you want? I don't mind in the least if you do, but for biblical studies, we must continue to distinguish, critically, between their and our faith.
#6 - Deane Galbraith - 12/30/2010 - 16:13

'Religious reading of sacred texts has been more nuanced and careful.'

Of course it has. People do not want to be regarded as lunatics or criminals.

If someone tells you to stone people, you don't just do what they tell you is right and proper to do, even if you believe their writings are inspired Scripture, and the source of Western morality.
#7 - Steven Carr - 12/31/2010 - 02:41

Deane wrote:
"However, when the study of historical forms of faith in biblical texts and their interpretations is not duly separated from our own, that is a rather different discipline. It's called "theology", and the object of their study is "scripture" and "church history", not the bible and reception history. I wonder if this is in fact what you want? I don't mind in the least if you do, but for biblical studies, we must continue to distinguish, critically, between their and our faith."

What I'd like to see is Biblical Studies and the study of Scripture clearly distinguished. (See my earlier opinion piece here "The End of Scripture and/or Biblical Studies".)

Our experiences have been different, so some (as you seem to) see the current confusion favouring the Study of Scripture at the expense of Biblical Studies (if we understand the Study of Scripture as the investigation of these texts as Scripture, and Biblical Studies as a branch of Ancient Literary/Historical Studies), while others from our different standpoint see the dominance of secular approaches to the same texts as marginalising the study of their religious appropriation.

You seem to think that I wish to conflate ancient and contemporary thought about and use of the texts. I don't. But I do want the freedom to explore both with my students, and not be bound by the culture of the guild to exclude all non-materialist understandings a priori.
#8 - Tim Bulkeley - 12/31/2010 - 21:37

I grew up in a rather fundamentalist New Testament church where we were encouraged to study the Bible (since you might actually recognize the denomination, I'll say that it is a descendant of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement). As an atheist, I read a lot of atheist blogs where I think they get animosity to Christians, Christianity, and the Bible wrong. I'm currently watching a Yale University open course about the New Testament, and it makes me even more incredulous that anyone could actually have faith in the Bible. I just don't get it. So whether you take an absolutist fundamentalist perspective, or you ask me to believe in the centuries of shrouded interpretation accorded the book by theologians, I have no found a reason to believe. I find it astonishing that anyone who can put together a coherent sentence or thought would not be appalled by the inconsistencies and the way scriptures are used to defend inane practices (e.g., anything that prevents gays from getting equal rights). But I'm happy to have found another site to read.
#9 - Jude - 01/01/2011 - 11:58

Thanks, Dr Bulkeley. Well, we're at least agreed on the need for a firm distinction between the study of scripture (with all of its theological assumptions) and the study of bible, as we're calling it (with all of its various ideological assumptions). I read your earlier recent article, too, and noted an odd convergence with the central proposition contained in Philip Davies' book from 15 years ago, in which he likewise called for clearer lines of separation of the disciplines. I agree.

I wouldn't say that the biblical studies assumption of "materialism" is an a priori, though. It seems, rather to have been forged from a gradual acceptance that such explanations provide the best explanation in all arts and sciences - so it is rather an abductive assumption and so refutable within the current rules, without even (just to be somewhat controversial) a need for any paradigm shift. Scratch at the surface just a little and modern "secular" biblical criticism is deeply enchanted. The great practitioners of the modern historical critical method seemed all too keen to uncover the imagined original core of pure religious sentiment (Eichhorn to Wellhausen to Noth). So too, most technological advances in the modern era (such as modern communications) have been motivated by religious concerns. There is no dominant materialist a priori at work here, but almost everywhere the opposite tendency prevails.

I note that I didn't mean that you conflate the objects of study (the opposite: I'm sure you would finely and expertly distinguish them!), but rather that you wish to conflate the faith of the subjects carrying out the study ("ours" and "theirs"). But, however difficult it is to separate our assumptions from the objects of our study, I maintain that this must be the goal of biblical studies. In theology or scriptural studies, by contrast, one may proceed from the assumption that the faith of our ancestors is in some essetial way the same as our own faith. Biblical studies, or rather the type of biblical studies that should be distinguished from scriptural studies, cannot afford such an assumption. That is my point, sorry it was unclear.
#10 - Deane Galbraith - 01/01/2011 - 21:38


I think you badly misunderstand where many of us “New Atheists”™ are coming from. Our beef is not so much with the fundies – who are, after all, pretty easy targets! – but rather with folks like you.

You speak positively of understanding “everything in Scripture in the light of the story of Jesus.” Well… strip away the obvious fairy tales in the New Testament – the miracles, an actual physical Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, etc. – and what do you have left? An apocalyptic Jewish teacher who made some mistaken predictions about the near future and who presented some ethical teachings that are so obviously impractical and counter-productive that no one truly advocates trying to live by those teachings.

Why interpret “everything in Scripture” in the light of Jesus? Why treat this poor, deluded, dead Jewish guy as more central to contemporary life than Socrates or George Bernard Shaw?

One of the main points of us New Atheists is that once you strip away the myths and lies, *there is nothing left.*

Or, more accurately, what is left is Durkheim’s point: Mainline religious denominations that do not insist on the literal truth of all the myths of the Bible are really not worshiping the dead Jewish guy. They are, rather, simply, worshiping themselves. The religious congregation itself is truly the object of worship.

Aren’t we ignoring the fact that, in your words, “Religious reading of sacred texts has been more nuanced and careful”?

Not at all. That traditional “nuanced and careful” approach is disingenuous, pretending that there is some mystic “spiritual” truth in texts that are, after all, not literally true. The only reason for choosing these texts – rather than, say, the “Odyssey” or the collected works of James Joyce, is that the works accepted into the canon happen to be the traditional talismans of the social groups known as Christian churches.

Again, Durkheim was right: non-fundamentalists are really worshiping their own group, not Jesus. I realize that this “Durkheimian Christianity” is not some modernist deviation. Indeed, many of the Reformers’ central complaints could be interpreted as objections to the “Durkheimian Christianity” that dominated the Catholic Church for so many centuries. Yes, “Durkheimian Christianity” is indeed traditional.

Many of us New Atheists do find the fundies more tolerable than more mainline folks such as yourself. The reason is simple: the fundies play fewer games; they are upfront about what they are doing, even though they are seriously deluded.

Many of us New Atheists find the surreptitious worship of a social group rather offensive, like the more irrational forms of nationalism, racism, etc. In Biblical terms, mainline, non-fundamentalist Christianity is simply an insidious form of idolatry, which pays lip-service to a non-essential “Jesus” when the true idol is the denomination or the congregation itself.

Richard Dawkins has said that he wishes that Americans and Brits would learn more about the Bible: we New Atheists are not trying to deny the Bible’s cultural, historical, and literary significance.

Our target is rather the worship of social groups masquerading as the veneration of a misguided, long-dead Jewish teacher.

Dave Miller in Sacramento
#11 - PhysicistDave - 01/07/2011 - 18:02


While I am all for open and honest debate and dont presume to act as moderator, I have to say that your comments come across as disrespectful and antagonistic.

For example, why refer to central elements of the Christian testimony to Jesus as "fairy tales"? Why describe "mainline Christianity" as an "insidious form of idolatry"? Why refer to the one the author and intended audience worships as Lord, as a "poor, deluded, dead Jewish guy"? The points can surely be made in less derogatory ways.

In regards to the argument you present, seeking to debunk beliefs (such as canon and christology) which in this article act as shared working assumptions between the author and intended audience (Christian Biblical Scholars who teach in seminaries) does not contribute to the discussion of the main issue addressed in the article.
#12 - Eddie - 01/13/2011 - 01:32

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