Some Clarifications (I Hope) on the Subject of Credentials: Part II

Additional recapitulations of my thoughts and feelings on credentials, beginning where my previous post left off: the impetus for my initial contributions to the discussion.

  • Jim’s apparent rejection of Early Christian Religion based solely upon the qualifications (or lack thereof) of its creator rather than its contents struck me as oddly perfunctory, and not in keeping with the basic critical dictum that ideas are evaluated according to their substance rather than the background or character of their proponents.

Several bloggers (e.g., Polycarp) have kindly and helpfully cataloged the outpouring of recent credential-oriented posts.  However, those lists which begin with my first post rather than Jim’s assessment of Early Christian Religion have omitted the true genesis of the discussion.  When I came across these highly critical comments, I was surprised to discover that they contained no references to nor analyses of the actual contents of the website.  Its creator’s lack of suitable expertise (the exact definition of which is unclear) was the sole stated objection; his statements freely admitting his lack of formal education and outlining his personal course of study were presented as evidence of his “hubris.”  These tactics struck me as insufficient and unfair.  As James Pate (a doctoral student at Hebrew Union and excellent blogger in his own right) has rightly asked, “Why can’t we focus on the content of what people say rather than on whether or not they have a degree in Bible? If a person is wrong, show him where he is wrong! But don’t flash your degrees as if that decides anything!”

  • Jim’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion that biblical scholars should publicly proclaim their opinions on other subjects (e.g., “physics and astronomy and cat farming and raising ducks”) caused me to question whether this was an accurate analogy—in other words, whether the hierarchies of knowledge and study which surround the Bible are equivalent to those surrounding the fields of physics, astronomy, etc.

This may have been one of the most misunderstood portions of my first post.  In a passing statement drawing upon Jim’s observation that “[e]veryone has an opinion on the bible and christian origins,” I observed  that “much like matters of politics (about which Jim writes frequently, although, as far as I am aware, he has no formal training or advanced degree in the subject), religious views are indescribably numerous and diverse.” Jim immediately jumped upon this seeming equation of biblical sudies with politics and responded, “The central thing Matt sadly overlooks- and oddly for a self confessed bible junkie- is that politics are ultimately unimportant; but the bible really matters”; others followed suit.  But this highly generalized aside was by no means the crux of my argument, and in any case it was Jim rather than myself who seemed to equate biblical studies with other fields when he suggested that biblical scholars should take to commenting in other arenas “so that the people who are experts in those things can feel the same annoyance we get to feel every time we discover one of them…” After further reflection, I determined that despite these hints that the investigation of the Bible and its world is equivalent to any other area of study in its structure and operation…  I would disagree.  Whether as an object of academic research, a vehicle for the determination of the divine will and the subsequent implications for humanity, an influence of unrivaled proportions upon the development of Western thought and culture, or some combination thereof, the Bible is universally present throughout the many dimensions of the complex composite organism of American society—much more so than, say, theoretical physics.” The Bible is uniquely important, and uniquely omnipresent.  These factors, in my view, necessitate the development of alternative pedagogical strategies if its scholars are to communicate their findings to laypeople in an effective way.  The present generations—shaped by the successive revolutions of readily available scriptures, widespread literacy, and personalized religion—are unlikely to respond to the usual brusque complaint of the expert, “You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.  Let me tell you what’s what.”  How different things might be if the expert offered instead, “I know that this book, and the things it stands for, are important to you.  They’re important to me too.  Let me work with you to explore them even more deeply and rewardingly.  Let’s do this together.”

8 Responses to “Some Clarifications (I Hope) on the Subject of Credentials: Part II”

  1. July 20, 2009 at 9:00 am

    All this talk of credentials and right to comment about this or that in public sounds strangely familiar. It’s like déjà vu all over again.

  2. July 20, 2009 at 3:19 pm


    I hadn’t come across this thread before… thanks for tracking it down. Now that I know we’ve been around the block on this issue more than once, I’m definitely going to shut up. 😉

    P.S. I saw that comment you left on James’ blog. If you can understand real scholars like Bauckham and Hurtado, you can understand me. So you can’t use that as an excuse. 😉

  3. July 20, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    Matt, I updated my post to include Jim’s first post on the matter. (Sorry about that.)

  4. July 20, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Thanks, Polycarp… I appreciate it!

  5. July 23, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    It’s been fascinating to watch the discussions spawned by my humble website. As you point out, Matt, Jim West doesn’t seem to have any complaint about what I wrote – just about me personally.

    The thing that strikes me as odd about all this discussion is that many commenters express their wishes that pastors, and the lay public, were more conversant with scholarly work. But that is exactly what my website is all about: making scholarly discoveries more widely known! Ben Byerly, for example, stresses the importance of understanding the cultural gap between ourselves and the NT authors: this is one of the main themes of my essays.

    You wrote:

    “I don’t feel that my views stand in absolute contrast to those of Jim; I certainly do not disregard the indispensable, primary role of highly trained and accredited interpreters of the biblical text.”

    And James McGrath (via Mike Whitenton) wrote:

    “The books they are reading derive from a very different world, and therefore one should not cease reading but should utilize the multitude of books and other resources that scholars have made available, expressly with the aim of helping readers make sense of these ancient texts.”

    Exactly. I created my website specifically to help folks become more knowledgeable about Biblical scholarship. I state this emphatically in my introductory essay, and I specifically warn readers that there is a range of opinions among the experts, and that some or all of the conclusions reached might be wrong. Each essay points to further reading by recognized scholars. If the site does nothing more than spur a few people to pick up one or more of those books and read it, I will consider it a success.

    So I hope people will focus on the content, as you and James Pate recommend, and not on the credentials.

  6. July 23, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    “How different things might be if the expert offered instead, ‘I know that this book, and the things it stands for, are important to you. They’re important to me too. Let me work with you to explore them even more deeply and rewardingly. Let’s do this together.’”


  7. July 23, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Robert: I completely agree. One of the reasons why I think your project is so worthwhile is that it will encourage people to do just that–pick up some other books and read through them.

    James: Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

July 2009


© 2006-2009, Matthew Burgess. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use of the original content of this website is strictly prohibited. Quotations or citations should include a link to this website. The views and opinions given here are my own and do not represent those of the University of Virginia (or anyone else, for that matter).

%d bloggers like this: