Granting all the wonderful, important things modern scriptural scholarship has given us, it bears within it something dreadfully wrong. If you have had the misfortune of coming into earshot of all too many of our contemporary scriptural scholars, they will assure you that scholarship, properly speaking, must strip both the Old and New Testaments of any and every miracle, of angels and demons, of prophecies and visions, of divine appearances, the incarnation, the resurrection, and of all but the most wan and obsequious theological content.
The damage to the faithful by such “scholarship” is all too evident. If you ask such scholars if Jesus actually rose from the dead, you’ll receive something like the following answer: “No. If we go back to a study of the Old Testament, we realize that the notion of resurrection was really a rather late occurrence arising mainly from a literal interpretation of a passage from Ezekiel that was originally meant only metaphorically. Alas, the Pharisees — who were a bit loose in their application of the Mosaic Law — became the historical bearers of this misplaced metaphor. Adding to Ezekiel a dash of the alien Greek belief in the immortality of the soul, the Pharisees became the party of the resurrection, ever more eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Messiah in the second and first centuries B.C. Some members of this party took Jesus to be the anointed one, but the anointed one was arrested, tried, and executed by the Romans. Deluded and disappointed by the Messiah’s actual death, the Pharisees foisted upon the plain, sad fact of the crucifixion the scientifically impossible and hence unhistorical doctrine of the resurrection.”
You may receive this answer with a condescending scowl or with a patronizing, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” smile. But in either case, the result is much the same: the denial of the resurrection as a historical fact, the very fact upon which Christianity was built. If you press these scholars — and you don’t have to press very hard — you’ll find that the denial of the resurrection is part of their larger a priori rejection of anything miraculous and supernatural.
How did scriptural scholars (at least those considered “academically respectable”) come to define their proper task as attacking what they should preserve? That is a complicated story — too complicated to present in any detail in so short an article. Yet we can gain a general understanding of the problem by taking a closer look at some of the key assumptions, especially if we see how and why these assumptions were set forth at the origin of modern scriptural scholarship.
Three False Assumptions
The one thing that all modern scriptural scholarship shares is the assumption that miracles are impossible. I call this an assumption because it does not arise from Scripture. How could it, given the number of miracles reported in the Bible? Rather, it is an extra-scriptural principle borrowed indiscriminately from modern science. The logic of the assumption goes something like this: Modern science informs us that miracles are impossible, and indeed, that the denial of the miraculous is the very essence of science; therefore, if scriptural scholarship is to be scientific, it must begin with the rejection of the miraculous. We can call this assumption indiscriminate because it rests wholly on the unquestioned acceptance of a particular view of science (what may be called modern scientific materialism).
A second assumption is that faith — especially orthodox faith — distorts rather than illuminates the analysis of Scripture. We can see how this assumption follows upon the first. Orthodox faith rests on the reality of the miraculous; if the miraculous is impossible, then obviously nothing good or true can come from someone who approaches the biblical text under the irrational illusion that Jesus turned water into wine, raised Lazarus from the dead, and rose from the dead Himself.
A third assumption arises directly from the second. If orthodoxy is unscientific in relying on the miraculous as central to its interpretation of the text, then a scientific exegesis of the text must proceed by removing the miraculous and carefully sifting through what remains to figure out what really happened. Thus, scriptural exegesis must be defined primarily as a historical science (history being defined, again, by what scientists say can or cannot occur).
From these three assumptions flow a variety of methods and approaches to scriptural analysis that, however innocent and meritorious they may be in and of themselves, all too often serve merely to reinforce the assumptions. What scriptural scholars don’t do, however, is question those very assumptions, especially the first upon which all the others rest: that modern scientific materialism is an adequate account of reality. To do so would obviously take them far outside their discipline — and hence, far outside their competence — into the history and philosophy of science, into the diverse sciences themselves, from chemistry and biology to physics and astronomy, and finally into metaphysics. This would be an enormous undertaking, one obviously beyond the reach of this article. But we can get an inkling of why such an undertaking would be necessary if we briefly examine the origins of modern scholarship.
Back to the Beginning
If you open up any of a number of histories of scriptural scholarship, you will find the great bulk of what is considered definitively modern occurring in both a specific time and place — 19th-century Germany. Pushing farther back in search of origins, you’ll then be led to a shorter section on the 18th-century Deists. Finally, you’ll be drawn into the 17th century, through an even shorter section on Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, and a handful of other proto-Deists, to the father of them all, the Englishman Thomas Hobbes.
Interestingly enough, Hobbes was modernity’s first thorough-going materialist and likely an atheist as well. He was born in 1588, pushed into the world prematurely by his mother, who was frightened by news of the approach of the Spanish Armada. Soon to follow were the bloody religious and political Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and, in England, the religious and political civil wars (1642-1648) and the execution of Charles I (1649). All of this before Hobbes published his great treatise, the Leviathan (1651), outlining his materialist account of human nature and society. A surprising proportion of the Leviathan is taken up in scriptural exegesis — a quarter to a third, by rough estimate.
Why so much time devoted to Scripture? As Hobbes himself declared in the very last paragraph, the writing of Leviathan was “occasioned by the disorders of the present time.” For Hobbes, the “disorders” had two sources: first, that political life was not grounded in true science; and second, that religion, especially Christianity, was a continual source of political confusion and turmoil. For political life to be well-ordered, it must be built on the rock-solid foundation of the new materialism. This same materialism could take care of the problem of Christianity as well.
According to the tenets of the new materialism, all that existed was brute matter in motion. Since all that existed was matter (and the void within which it could move), there could be no immaterial beings (such as human souls, angels, or deities). Further, since matter moved according to brute and inexorable necessity, there was no room for miracles. Finally, given that there was also no extra-material reality, heaven and hell were likewise jettisoned. Obviously, if the new materialism were correct, then there was no room for Christianity at all. For Hobbes, this was certainly good news.
But as a devoted disciple of materialism, Hobbes couldn’t simply preach the “good news.” Even divided against itself, Christianity was still a seemingly insuperable cultural and political force in the 17th century. An astute reader of Machiavelli, Hobbes realized that the only way to remove the obstacle was to devastate it from within. In this regard, we should note that even with all of Hobbes’s Machiavellian circumspection, his piling of pious phrases, and his continual appeals to scriptural evidence to support his position, the Leviathan was immediately, continually, and directly charged with undermining Christianity, and Hobbes himself was charged with atheism. Small wonder when we examine Hobbes’s approach to Scripture.
Denying the Word
Hobbes’s devotion to materialism defined both his approach and the results. It follows then, that if later exegetes applied his approach, they would generate the same results even if they didn’t share his materialist assumptions.
Take, for example, Hobbes’s treatment of the miraculous. Again, miracles don’t fit into a materialist cosmos, and so Hobbes hoped that the new science of matter in motion would ensure by its ever greater successes that notions of miracles would eventually disappear. In the meantime, however, Holy Writ was replete with miracles, and something had to be done. He was up to the task.
Miracle means something that causes wonder, Hobbes pointed out. But wonder is often caused by ignorance of natural causes, so that “ignorant and superstitious men” take for miraculous those things “which other men, knowing to proceed from nature… admire not at all.” To the ignorant, for example, an eclipse or a rainbow is a great wonder, and are therefore taken to be supernatural portents.
But ignorance of science isn’t the only cause of the belief in miracles, Hobbes hastened to inform. Many apparent miracles are actually instances of magic — that is, the art of illusion. In Exodus, for example, we see the “magicians” of Egypt change their rods into serpents, turn water into blood, and conjure up frogs. Hobbes also cleverly noted that the art of the ventriloquist can make it appear that there is a “voice from Heaven,” and further that “two men conspiring, one to seem lame, the other to cure him with a charm, will deceive many.”
In sum, alleged miracles are nearly always the result of ignorance or chicanery, and since Hobbes deftly but offhandedly introduced the possibility that many miracles in the Bible could have such ignoble origins, the notion that faith can rest on biblically reported miracles becomes dubious. While God may have performed miracles, Hobbes reluctantly admitted, it certainly wasn’t common (and occurred solely for the sake of obedience to God’s law as interpreted by His earthly minister, the civil sovereign). In any case, he noted, the age of miracles is over, especially since the age of true science has begun. Obviously, legitimate scriptural analysis cannot take them seriously.
It is no accident that the 18th-century Deists, in rejecting orthodox Christianity, took up Hobbes’s assumptions and method and wrote a nearly endless spate of books ridiculing the belief in miracles as reported in the Old and New Testaments. The predictable result was either the complete dismissal of the Bible as ignorant and irredeemable superstition or the complete dissection of the Bible in an effort to sort fact from fiction.
But it wasn’t enough for Hobbes to eliminate the miraculous. He wanted Scripture to support materialism so that it could become a rather obsequious handmaid to secularism. The materialism Hobbes championed defined the universe so as to eliminate spiritual reality, specifically the human soul. In Hobbes’s words, “the universe, being the aggregate of all bodies, there is no real part thereof that is not also body.” Thus, for Hobbes, the notion of an immaterial substance was “without meaning, that is to say, absurd.” Yet, the Bible contained countless references to the soul. In order to “purify” Scripture, Hobbes invented a kind of methodological assumption that eventually became an unquestioned method for modern scriptural scholars.
Hobbes first asserted that the belief in the immaterial soul was “built on the vain philosophy of Aristotle,” a pagan. Since the immortal soul was a Greek contagion, then the original, pure beliefs of the Hebrews and first Christians must be that human beings are purely bodily creatures. Voilà! True faith supports materialism.
But what about the innumerable references to the soul and eternal life in the Bible? If Holy Writ is inspired, how did they get in there? By infinitely ingenious exegetical acrobatics, Hobbes tried to show that, appearances to the contrary, they really weren’t there at all.
According to Hobbes, “soul and life in the Scripture… signify the same thing,” therefore, by implication, “soul” only means “life,” bodily life, not some ghostly existence after death. Death means complete annihilation. And so, for example, when Jesus seems to prove the existence of the immortal soul in His dispute with the Sadducees (Luke 20:34-38), He’s really only arguing for the resurrection of the body. Since there is no soul, Jesus (so Hobbes assured the reader) is actually teaching that when we’re dead, we’re dead, and therefore God must recreate us ex nihilo on the day of judgment. Hobbes thereby revived, for his own purposes, the ancient heresy of Annihilationism (condemned at the Fifth Lateran Council in 1513), and added a materialist twist. In so doing, he set a pattern: The plain meaning of the text is denied so that a heresy may be affirmed.
As for heaven, Hobbes simply materialized it by a method that reversed orthodox exegesis. Taking Christ to be the fulfillment and transformation of the law and the prophets, orthodox exegetes from St. Paul forward interpreted the Old Testament in light of its fulfillment in the New. Hobbes turned orthodoxy on its head, interpreting the New in terms of the Old. Since the Old Testament concerns this-worldly existence, focusing more on the body than the spirit, this approach proved to be a handy tool for the materialist.
Hobbes achieved this effect by first showing that all the Old Testament references to the Kingdom of God were earthly. Because the New Testament is based on the Old, it must be referring to an earthly kingdom as well. And so, contrary to orthodoxy, the righteous man, re-created by God for final judgment, shall not “ascend to his happiness any higher than God’s footstool the earth.” Heaven was no more than a secular kingdom.
But how to finesse the many scriptural references to hell? Hobbes’s method was quite simple: If the literal meaning of a word is bothersome, then it must be a mere metaphor. By this method, Hobbes demonstrated that all the references to hellfire were “spoken metaphorically,” not at all signifying “any certain kind or place of torment.” Rather, the fires of hell, referred to repeatedly by Christ, were to be understood merely in the most general way, “for destruction.” Thus, while the fires themselves may be eternally burning, as with all merely material things, those newly re-created bodies cast into them at the final judgment will be immediately consumed, suffering a quick and nearly painless “second death.” Not a bad end — certainly nothing to compare with what a civil sovereign could mete out for disobedience.
Having seen Hobbes’s materialist assumptions at work, it should be clear that the results were deleterious to the Faith. Of course, that was the entire point. Hobbes wanted to ruin the Faith. But we can also understand that if later scholars shared his assumptions or even just his methods, then they too would contribute mightily to the corruption of scriptural scholarship.
And so they did.
The Floodgates Open
David Friedrich Strauss stood at the head of 19th-century German biblical scholarship, and German scholarship defined the liberal approach to scriptural exegesis that still reigns today. Strauss was an apple that did not fall far from the Hobbesian tree.
In his enormously influential Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835), Strauss assumed, in accordance with materialism, that miracles were impossible. He therefore declared that an “account is not historical” if the “narration is irreconcilable with the known and universal laws which govern the course of events.” Since miracles are not historical, they must be merely mythological. Hence the goal of the exegete becomes first the separation of the historical from the mythological and then an analysis of the real causes of the myth.
Thus, to take a particular application, Jesus could not have been born of the Virgin Mary, miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit, since “such a conception would be a most remarkable deviation from all natural laws.” It must, then, be a myth. “In the world of mythology,” explained Strauss, “many great men had extraordinary births, and were called sons of the gods.” Since Jesus was an extraordinary man, the logic goes, the first Christians felt that He couldn’t be one-upped by the Greek and Roman semi-deities, and so they fabricated a myth accordingly.
But, argued Strauss, there was another reason for the deification of Jesus, a confusion of the metaphorical with the literal. The earlier Jews, by and large, knew that a metaphor was a metaphor. But “it was a daily occurrence, especially among the later Jews, to attach a sensible signification to that which originally had merely a spiritual or figurative meaning.” Following the sweep of later Judaism, the first Christians erroneously attributed a literal meaning to the merely metaphorical title of “Messiah” understood as the “Son of God.” By these and similar means, Strauss systematically “demythologized” the entire New Testament, scrubbing away every “alleged” miracle right up to and including the resurrection.
What was left after Strauss’s “cleansing” of Scripture? As with Hobbes, so also with Strauss. The vacuum left by removing all of orthodoxy was filled by his favored ideology. Just as Hobbes’s exegetical manipulations had allowed him to assert that Scripture really supported his materialism, Strauss’s exegesis cleared the way for his favored secularist ideology, a species of Hegelianism that allowed the march of history to end in a this-worldly kingdom. For Strauss, whereas Jesus was certainly not divine, He manifested a powerful “God-consciousness” that faintly prefigured the philosophy of the great early 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
As with Strauss, so also with the whole panoply of 19th-century liberal biblical scholars. Out with miracles (and hence orthodoxy) and in with the latest philosophies, using variations of Hobbes’s approach as refined by Strauss. Albert Schweitzer, summing up the entire century of scholarship in his Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), wryly noted that all the cavalier stripping away of the text to get at the “historical Jesus,” the mere man behind the myth, resulted only in the creation of a Jesus made after the particular image of each scholar. A different Jesus for each exegete.
By the time we travel halfway through the 20th century, the attempt to separate myth from historical fact had been given up, and all was taken to be myth. So announced the great scholar Rudolf Karl Bultmann in his landmark essay “New Testament and Mythology.” Given that we no longer have any access to a historical kernel, we are left, Bultmann argued, with milking our meaning from the myth alone — the meaning for us, that is. For Bultmann, that meant the attempt to understand the myth in terms of existentialism as enunciated by the 20th-century philosopher Martin Heidegger. The same pattern is repeated in the second half of the 20th century, when other pet philosophies filled the vacuum created by the elimination of miracle, and hence the elimination of orthodoxy. When I was in graduate school in the early 1980s, Marx and liberation theology had taken the place of Heidegger and existentialism. A new philosophy with yet another version of a purely secular utopia — but the exegetical acrobatics used to obtain the desired result had not changed much.
With the currently fashionable Jesus Seminar, the ruin continues right on into contemporary scriptural scholarship. But it doesn’t end there. Postmodern scholarship prides itself in giving up everything — not just miracles and orthodoxy, not just the historical Jesus, not just myth — but giving up any truth. This is, of course, the great opposite — the most extreme rejection of orthodoxy possible. Yet, into this greater vacuum rush the latest philosophical fancies fashioned after Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, François Lyotard, and others.
Reversing the Ruin
In setting all of this before the reader, I’m not pressing for the rejection of every method or result of modern or contemporary biblical scholarship — far from it. Rather, I’m calling first of all for a clearer understanding of assumptions and secondly for a more careful analysis of methods.
For example, to engage in textual criticism, it’s necessary to sort through the various readings of particular passages in extant manuscripts, given the number of variants. To decide, however, that variant A is to be preferred over all others because A is the least tinged by belief in the miraculous, or because the others are Greek ideas, is quite another thing entirely. To engage in historical criticism, studying the text’s original historical, geographical, and cultural settings is most helpful. Using such criticism to demonstrate that a this-worldly, earthly reading taken from the Old Testament supercedes a next-worldly, supernatural reading of the New Testament is unwarranted. Literary and form criticism rightly attend to literary contexts and types found in various passages and books of the Bible. But assuming that certain literary forms convey only myths and metaphors oversteps the bounds of literary criticism.
It seems to me that the heart of the problem is the continued assumption that materialism is correct. The question that must be settled, then, is this: Is materialism an adequate philosophy? The answer will determine the merit of particular methods of scriptural scholarship.
If scriptural scholars, for example, were introduced to the actual philosophical controversies in regard to the adequacy of materialism, they’d realize very quickly that they couldn’t rely on the truth of a view of nature and science that’s both debatable and hotly debated. The same would be true in regard to their indiscriminate use of this or that current philosopher. A clearheaded introduction to the history of philosophy would reveal that most philosophers and their systems, especially in modernity, are here today and gone tomorrow.
Another point, and perhaps stranger to our ears: If any of a number of scholars would actually experience a miracle or something supernatural, or sit in on an especially troublesome exorcism, they’d find themselves having to reassess their entire approach. Recall the famous materialist-atheist A. J. Ayer, who was declared clinically dead for four minutes on June 6, 1988, after choking on a bit of salmon. Happily, he was revived, and the experienced transformed him. In the words of the attending physician, Dr. Jeremy George, “I came back to talk to him. Very discreetly, I asked him, as a philosopher, what it was like to have had a near-death experience? He suddenly looked rather sheepish. Then he said, ‘I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my various books and opinions.'” Under pressure of a long career as Britain’s village atheist-philosopher, Ayer later hedged his stark reassessment, but if he had been asked at that time to pick up the Bible and read it, he would surely have seen it with new eyes.
While I certainly don’t wish near-death experiences upon scriptural scholars, I do hope that they’ll remove those assumptions that have so long blinded them, so that they may see what is truly before their very eyes. Only then will ruin turn to restoration.