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Scholarship and Personal Stakes

June 25, 2011

It’s simply the case that the overwhelming majority of scholars in biblical studies (including NT and Christian Origins) come to their studies in the context of their own personal involvement in Jewish or Christian faith.  Critical study, however, which rightfully means self-critical study requires scholars to try to avoid their own personal faith and commitments from influencing unduly their conclusions.  But it’s sometimes assumed that this is a concern solely for those who identify themselves with a religious tradition, and that those who don’t so identify themselves, or who no longer do so, are immune from what I’ve called “personal stakes”.

Indeed, occasionally scholars make much of their departure from religious faith, sometimes even making that a major subject in its own right (I mention no names, as ask any comments to avoid doing so too).  But surely a moment’s reflection should indicate that there is no really neutral ground, and that those in negative reaction against their own faith are in danger of being unduly influenced (skewed?) in their work as any apologist for a given religious stance.

Years ago I read one of the finest statements about a scholar that I’ve ever encountered.  In a letter of reference for a younger colleague, a more senior scholar said of him, “He is neither captive to his tradition nor in reaction against it.”  That would be a worthy stance for anyone to my mind.

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  1. Bernardo Cho permalink

    Dear professor Hurtado,
    I’m from Brazil and a student of NT at Regent College.
    Would you mind if I translated this post to Portuguese and then posted it on my blog? I think what you’ve just written has great significance to many Christians who are seeking solid scholarship in my country.
    Every blessing!

  2. What about this recently announced find?
    JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli scholars have confirmed the authenticity of a 2,000-year-old burial box that appears to bear the name of a relative of the high priest Caiaphas mentioned in the New Testament, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Wednesday.

    • Thanks for drawing attention to this news story. From first reports, the bone-box seems to have had competent analysis. Too bad that we can’t establish its provenance.

  3. I’m by no means a Biblical scholar nor have I ever played one on TV. However, in 1995 I was an atheist with all the trimmings (PhD in genetics and armed and ready for anybody who might dare to take me on). Well, I fell in love and married a very devout Christian woman on the condition that I read the Bible rather than parrot what my fellow travelers said about it. To make a long story short, I became so enthralled (and impressed) with the text that I took up Biblical Hebrew in 1998 and a few years later became a Christian.

    I offer this because I truly hope that the kind of person of whom this post is about is not particularly rare. In fact, my first reaction to the post was “no way” because, in my experience as a former research scientist, I knew many people who could read a paper that cast their life’s work in doubt and still exclaim, “Well, isn’t that cool?”. Sure, many scholars I’ve known were often enraged when the grant requests were refused or, more often, reduced. They often felt jealous of their collegues whose grants were approved or who were able to get published in PNAS, JI, or JEM. But I’ve never met a one who didn’t follow their research no matter where it led.

    If true — that dispassion is rare in Biblical scholarship — then that would be a shame and surely not to the glory of the truth that is God’s.



    • To respond to the specific matter of how much one’s personal “stakes” might influence one’s scholarship, not being involved in the sciences I’m not able to judge whether your experience is representative. I will note, however, that the whole series of recent exposures of fudging and falsifying data in scientific published work, plus other documented abuses does seem to show that the sciences are by no means the temples of intellectual virtue that has sometimes been touted.
      But also, although one’s grant or advancement might be a “stake”, it’s likely not the same as biblical and theological studies, where one’s whole frame of reference (at least as one has understood it) might be challenged. Moreover, the the Humanities generally, where we can’t produce new data by some clever experiment, but instead rely more on refining our analysis of the data available (e.g., texts, artifacts, etc.), it has always been more a matter of competing analyses and interpretations.
      I often say to students that it is necessary to distinguish between the
      object of one’s faith (“God”) and one’s formulation/understanding of that faith-object. Our formulations/understandings are human products, our attempt to capture and express our sense of “God”, and so should be subject to revision in principle. If, however, we can’t distinguish between “God” and our understanding of “God”, then any threat to the latter has much more trauma than it should.

  4. Thanks for the post, Larry.

    Although I am not yet there, I too wish to live up to such an accolade one day.

    Such a position is difficult to achieve, because it is often the very deep-seated convictions (which we often derive from our traditions) that fuel and motivate our desire to study and do research in the first place. It would be difficult to imagine spending so many hours at the library and reading so many pages of books to gain an expertise on something you are not personally invested in. Perhaps this state of mind, of not allowing your scholarship to be unduly influenced by your tradition, is something that can be attained only after years of wrestling and engagement with the issue?

    Some good food for thought.

  5. Timothy Knowlton permalink

    Thank you Professor Hurtado for this fine analysis. I’m currently reading Ben F. Meyer’s, ‘Critical Realism and the New Testament,’ which, among other points, argues against the myth of a purely neutral objectivity. And Meyer even alludes to Bernard Lonergan’s ‘Principle of the Empty Head,’ the idea that once a thinker eliminates all bias, prejudice and subjectivity, then truth may be arrived at. Ultimately though, we all come to the data from our own frame of reference, preunderstandings, and horizons, and these must be factored in when assessing the relevant data.

    • Yes, but critical engagement in scholarship = we don’t just live with(in) our frames, horizons, etc., and certainly shouldn’t celebrate them blindly; but instead we try to serve the truth as best we can, and live with the consequences.

  6. ryan permalink

    Richard Fellows wrote, “I think there are many who identify themselves with religious traditions who are so acutely aware of the need to be self-critical that they end up over-compensating for the dangers of bias. That, in itself, is a bias, and it makes them uncritically accept whatever theory they consider to be the less conservative.”

    Interestingly, I was recently reading a popular level ethics book (“Blind Spots” by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel) and their research implied that the phenomenon is exactly the opposite: those who identify themselves as having a likely bias – in this case, a biblical scholar confessing their religious stakes – subsequently tend to under-compensate, since the very confession of possible bias tends to make the person stop watching for its influence. It’s almost like they admit their stakes and make full disclosure, but then their mind says “ok, good, got that out of the way…” and stops worrying about it.

    Meanwhile, Larry, I really enjoyed this post. One question, which you may or may not feel comfortable answering (and either is fine). The phrase “He is neither captive to his tradition nor in reaction against it”: I am quite certain I have read that before, which means either you and I have read the same reference letter, or its been recycled. I’m trying but failing to remember where I read it, and my best searching is turning up nothing. I’d love it if you could reveal your source.

    much thanks,

    Ryan Wettlaufer

    • Actually, the composer of that statement I quoted was Gordon Harland (a then-senior member of the Department of Religion, University of Manitoba), and it was written on behalf of a then-junior colleague (with whom my wife is intimately acquainted). I have striven ever since to try to live up to Gordon’s eloquent statement. It would be a fitting epitaph for scholars, to my mind.

      • ryan permalink

        Well, I certainly wouldn’t have been privy to that! But I am beyond sure that I have read it before, so now I wonder who poached such a fine turn of phrase. Thanks for the reminder in either case, and while I’m at it, I think I’d hope to live up to that too.

      • For historical data: Gordon wrote that letter of reference back in 1980, and called called me into his office so he could read it to me. When I protested that it was to be a confidential letter, he told me to sit down and listen to his letter and give him no guff. You didn’t mess about with Gordon, especially as a junior colleague, and so I duly complied. It was a very supportive letter, but the phrasing I remember is where he paused and said, “Now let me know what you think of this bit. I worked on it and I’m proud of it.”
        I’ve told the story many times over the years, and Gordon’s phrasing has always elicited admiring responses. So I’m not surprised that it may have been adopted for wider usage.

  7. Richard Fellows permalink

    I think there are many who identify themselves with religious traditions who are so acutely aware of the need to be self-critical that they end up over-compensating for the dangers of bias. That, in itself, is a bias, and it makes them uncritically accept whatever theory they consider to be the less conservative.

    • I’m not really aware of such a phenomenon. I think that scholars generally tend to weigh various critical options as best they can. There can be pressures of “right” or “left” from colleagues, institutions, etc. All the more need for one to “call ’em the way you see ’em”.

  8. “He is neither captive to his tradition nor in reaction against it.” A rare person indeed!

  9. David A Booth permalink

    The desire to fit in and be approved of has a powerful impact on most of us. This is not entirely a bad thing as it causes us to work together within a field of discipline.

    One thing to remember, though, is that the desire to receive approval is not limited merely to our religious traditions or ecclesiastical affiliations. It also comes from our academic peers in our departments, admired professors that we studied under, or even leaders in our field whom we hope will think well of us. The scholar who holds his theological tradition loosely – like everyone else on the faculty in his or her department – may simply be conforming to the pressure of a different peer group.

  10. Great post, Larry!

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