Which New Testament scholars should we trust?

April 18th, 2015 in Bible. Tags: , , , , ,

Books about Jesus

I was asked by a reader recently to outline why I recommend and refer to certain New Testament scholars and not others. I refer to historical scholars often enough, and other websites do too, she said, so how do we know who to trust?

I thought this was a good question. So here’s how I determine who I should take most notice of.

Sometimes we need expert information

Jesus lived in a very different time and culture to us, and spoke a different language. Most of us can only read his biographies in the Bible via a translation. It’s easy enough to understand the basics, but if we want to delve deeper, we need to get some understanding of language, culture, archaeological discoveries and other ancient writings.

Few of us have access to this information nor the skill and training to interpret it. While we are each free and responsible to form our own conclusions about Jesus, sometimes we need to listen to the experts.

To be considered an expert in the academic world, we might expect someone to meet all or most of these criteria:

  1. PhD degree in relevant discipline;
  2. actively at work in the field, in a respected academic or research institution;
  3. publishing results in respected academic journals or books; and
  4. respected by their peers (judged by citations and comments).

Not everyone’s doing the same thing

People who write about Jesus and history may have very different aims.

Christian theologians and apologists

Some writers are christian theologians who write to explain or defend the christian faith. They may be acknowledged experts in their fields, but they will generally believe or assume that the New Testament has been inspired by God and kept accurate by him, and are willing to accept the reality of supernatural events and causes.

Christians who are looking for devotional material or christian approaches to history and the scriptures may find these writers helpful, but their writings may not always be historically or culturally accurate, and they are less useful in discussion with non-believers, because they start with christian assumptions.

There are many writers in this category. Some of the best known are Craig Blomberg, Mike Licona, Don Carson, Michael Bird, Gordon Fee, Norman Geisler and Scot McKnight.

Sceptical “apologists”

At the other end of the spectrum are non-believers who use speculative or radical methods not generally endorsed by other historians, and often write to disprove or discredit the christian faith. They will generally believe or assume that that the miraculous cannot occur, and the New Testament is unhistorical except where it can be proved otherwise.

Non-believers are often happy to accept the views of these writers but historians generally are not. Christians should not accept what they say as having any authority unless they are supported by more neutral scholars.

This category includes qualified scholars such as the Jesus Seminar, Robert Price and Richard Carrier, although the latter two are not working at respected academic institutions.

But there are many writers in this category who are not well qualified in relevant areas, and their views are generally not endorsed by mainstream scholarship. These include Earl Doherty, Acharya S aka Dorothy Murdoch, Tom Harpur, David Fitzgerald, Neil Godfrey, Frank Zindler, Rene Salm, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.

How do I know this?

We can dismiss the unorthodox ideas of these sceptical apologists for three reasons:

  1. They generally don’t meet many, if any, of the criteria for being expert scholars that I outlined above.
  2. They often espouse views that the majority of scholars have rejected for good reason – e.g. that Jesus is just a myth, Nazareth didn’t exist at the time of Jesus, or that stories about Jesus were copied from pagan gods – all ideas that scholars have considered and rejected based on the available evidence. Often the scholars they quote are a century out of date.
  3. Reputable scholars have pointed out serious shortcomings in many of these sceptical writers and their views.
    • Bart Ehrman, in his book Did Jesus Exist?, criticised the writings of most of the above-named mythicists, saying that the conclusion that Jesus was a truly historical character “is the view of nearly every trained scholar on the planet”. He particularly singled our Acharya S and Freke & Gandy, listing many historical mistakes that each of these has made. On his blog he argued against Rene Salm, who says that Nazareth didn’t exist at the time of Jesus.
    • Maurice Casey, in Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, also criticises the same group of writers for their poor understanding and methods, particularly mentioning Frank Zindler and Earl Doherty.
    • Other scholars such as Craig Evans, James McGrath and Robert Van Voorst, point out errors in the same writers’ conclusions.

New Testament scholars don’t always agree (to put it mildly), but when they do on these matters, and against these arch-sceptics, one of only two conclusions is possible – either the arch-sceptics are sadly and comprehensively wrong, or there is a conspiracy against their ideas by thousands of reputable scholars, both believers and unbelievers, at hundreds of reputable universities.

So if anyone quotes any of these writers to you, you can basically ignore what they say if you don’t have the time to investigate further.

Mainstream secular scholars

The mainstream of secular New Testament scholarship uses objective methods and assumptions that remove as much as possible the effect of any pre-conceived viewpoint. They will exercise caution, but not scepticism, in drawing historical conclusions. Some are not willing to pass historical judgment, one way or the other, on miraculous matters, as they see these as beyond the domain of the historian. Some (in my opinion the most trustworthy ones) will apply similar methods of historical analysis to the New Testament as would be applied to other writings of a similar age, but others adopt even more stringent methods to “bend over backwards” so that they reach conservative conclusions.

The most respected New Testament scholars are in this category, including, EP Sanders, NT Wright, James Charlesworth, Michael Grant, Craig Evans, Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Geza Vermes, James Dunn and Richard Bauckham. This list includes atheists, agnostics, christians and a Jew. Some are much more sceptical than others. If you want a scholarly christian view, it is hard to go past NT Wright and Craig Evans plus John Dickson, an Aussie historian who writes excellent books at a popular level.

If you want to find the best historical information about Jesus without making christian assumptions, these (and others like them) are the authors to read. If you want to discuss with sceptics, these are also the authors to read, and suggest they should do the same.

How do I know this?

It is easy to get a general idea which scholars are most respected in the field.

  • Some writers list who are the most respected. For example, a decade ago Mark Alan Powell named JD Crossan, Marcus Borg, EP Sanders, John Meier and NT Wright as the leading New Testament scholars. Paula Fredriksen nominated the same five plus Geza Vermes.
  • Some of these are less prominent today, but some continue to be the most respected. For example, Maurice Casey recently wrote most highly of EP Sanders, Geza Vermes and NT Wright.
  • You can also check out who is most cited (positively) in books. You’ll find many of the same names appearing again. Craig Evans, Bart Ehrman, Richard Bauckham and James Dunn are others who seem to be often cited

Reading and responding to arch sceptic

If you’re reading this, you probably read quite a lot about Jesus on the web. And you may be troubled by some of the things sceptics claim. Rather than believing everything that is said, especially if references to apparent scholars are included, I suggest a more careful response.

1. Find out who the supposed expert is.

Using Google, it is usually possible to find out where a writer works if they are a genuine scholar. Be wary of anyone without such academic credentials.

2. Check out reviews

It is usually possible to find reviews, both positive and negative, of most books. Before you take too much notice of an author, check out the reviews and try to form a view about how well-received their views have been in the academic community.

3. Read what you can from the book

Amazon “Look inside” and Google Books often allow you to read parts of books and to search for words within them. Use these services to get a feel for what the book is like, and whether it sounds reasonable or not. Don’t forget your local library.

4. Don’t believe biased writers

If you read websites which habitually quote non-scholarly authors, such as the ones I’ve mentioned, you know that site is either ignorant of good scholarship, or (more likely) biased. You should not believe, without good verification from a reliable source, anything on such a site.

5. Find some good respected sources

If you have some good sources you can refer to, consult them on questionable matters raised by arch-sceptics. In internet discussions it is reasonable to ask those espousing radically different views from the scholars why we should believe them when the experts generally say something different?

My personal preference

I am willing to determine my views on the New Testament in two stages.

Firstly, I use the best secular historians to get an understanding of what is well supported by evidence without requiring faith, choosing to read both believers and unbelievers to get a feeling for the range of views. I have found Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman and EP Sanders useful in giving a non-christian perspective, and NT Wright, Craig Evans, Richard Bauckhan and John Dickson for a christian perspective.

Then, having found a good basis for belief and for discussing with non-christians, I can accept in faith many other matters about which the scholars are in less agreement. NT Wright, John Dickson, AM Hunter and Scot McKnight are helpful here.

I wish you well in deciding who you will trust.

Photo: Books about Jesus that I have read and refer to, some more than others. Most are my own but a few are from our local library.

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  1. Laity have questions that only scholarship can answer. It’s a two pronged dilemma, some things are too complicated to be answered in two sentence explanation.

  2. Can I ask why you think of John Dominic Crossan as a trustworthy source? It seems to me that the whole Historical Jesus/ Jesus Seminar stuff is widely discredited. William Lane Craig wrote the following about JD Crossan specifically: “In a blistering critique Howard Clark Kee hails Crossan’s procedure as “a triumph of circular reasoning” (Kee, “A Century of Quests of the Culturally Compatible Jesus,” Theology Today, 52 [1995]: 22; cf. p. 24). Slightly more charitably, N. T. Wright says that Crossan’s Historical Jesus “is a book to treasure for its learning, its thoroughness, its brilliant handling of multiple and complex issues, its amazing inventiveness, and above all its sheer readability…. It is all the more frustrating, therefore, to have to conclude that the book is almost entirely wrong” (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996], p. 44). Similarly, Ben Meyer praises the book for its readability, rapid pace, and useful information, but concludes: “As historical-Jesus research, it is unsalvageable” (Meyer, critical notice of The Historical Jesus, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 55 [1993], p. 576).”
    Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/grounds-for-scepticism-concerning-jesus-burial-and-empty-tomb#ixzz3XgD4sUGz

  3. Do my eyes deceive me or is that a library copy of Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?? That must be quite the library if they have books like that.

  4. Thanks for that outline. I personally like John Dickson, Bart Ehrman and Richard Baukham. I’m really tempted to look into some of the authors here whom I haven’t read yet but my reading list is extensive enough!

  5. Hi William, thanks for reading my blog.
    I’m sorry IGNORANTIANESCIA but your eyes do deceive you. Our library has some good books but it’s not that up-to-date. The four library books among all my own books are The Jesus Seminar on the gospels (forget the actual title), The Cambridge Companion to Jesus by Markus Bockmuehl, The Jesus Debate by Mark Alan Powell, and the final book is I think one by Geza Vermes – I think that may be the one you mistook for Casey’s book.
    Eva, we agree on Dickson, and Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. Ehrman is certainly very readable, and I think his scholarship is very good, though I think he tends to overstate his conclusions a little. Maurice Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth is very readable and helpful, even though it has its faults (he is very certain of his opinions, sometimes over-critical of others), and as a non-christian he doesn’t accept many things which I as a christian have no problems with. And of course NT Wright is excellent.

  6. Hi Jordan, thanks for reading.
    FF Bruce’s The NT Documents: are they reliable? was the first scholarly book on the NT I ever read, about 50 years ago. I loved it, but I think it’s probably a little dated now. Bruce was a well-respected scholar, but the book definitely belonged in my first category of defending the NT rather than examining it. Good for its purpose, but less useful in talking to sceptics.
    I personally don’t rate Crossan as a trustworthy source. I have read parts of two of his books but not all of them, and I agree with others’ assessments. I only mentioned him because Powell and Fredriksen, writing maybe 15 years ago, both said he was very influential. But I felt at the time that both he and Borg were interesting, but not the best scholars, and it is interesting that they haven’t endured like Sanders, Wright and Vermes have. Bauckham (especially), Dunn and Evans seem to me to be stronger scholars.
    Who do you enjoy reading?

  7. I also like Larry Hurtado. He’s a scholar in e fields of historical Jesus and Christian origins. He’s a Christian. He’s very intentional in his effort to reach historically tenable conclusions. Do not expect him to be an apologist. He’s a historian. He also writes a blog at https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com

  8. Yes I agree. I follow his blog and have one of his books. If I’d have listed any more, he might have been next. Thanks for adding his name into the mix.

  9. Hi Jim, thanks for leaving a comment. I think people are different. For those who have no doubts about Jesus, I agree with you – it is a “simple” matter of love, forgiveness and care. But there are many who have doubts about Jesus and need to work through issues of truth. I am one such, and the person who asked me to write this post is another.

  10. Wow, no Richard Hays, Luke Timothy Johnson, Ray Brown, or Craig Keener? Ben Witherington? Also, Crossan has been harpooned by great scholars, like Hays, Johnson, and Brown. The Jesus seminar (especially Mack) has an, at times, ridiculous approach to historical Jesus research. It’s a dying fad.

  11. Hi Matt, yes I agree that the Jesus Seminar was not a very useful or respected bunch, even though it contained a few respected scholars. But Crossan is definitely a respect scholar, even if some say he is much more wrong than right.
    But I have set out my reasons for the scholars I have taken notice of. I don’t really respect atheists who base everything on Richard Carrier or Robert Price, because their views appear not to be respected by the majority of scholars, and anyone who quotes only them is probably looking to support a biased opinion.
    So to be fair, I must treat strongly christian scholars the same. The people you mention (the ones I know about – Johnson, Witherington and Keener) are good scholars and I have books by Keener, but I prefer to base my writing on the most respected secular scholars that even atheists should be able to accept. Of course it is good to read widely, but writing a blog requires (I think) me to be able to speak across a range of viewpoints.
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  12. Veteran biblical scholar and professor of religion Arthur Bellinzoni:
    The Old Testament An Intro to Biblical Scholarship
    The New Testament An Intro to Biblical Scholarship
    Most scholarly HONEST and helpful intro’s I’ve seen yet, and I’ve read most of ’em published in the last 40 years.

  13. I have encountered your writings on a regular basis and found them quite helpful. Not a biblical scholar, but a follower of the Christ. I am a reader with a preference for scientific explanations. I surely agree with your preference for the writings of scholars and you have studied and listed the sources you admire and trust and why. I appreciate that, but must rely on your scholarship in this area for confirmation.
    Best wishes for your lucid explanations and opinions! Blessings, Bill Kinzie

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