Joel B. Green on “What makes a good Biblical Scholar?”

Source: fuller.edu

Among those who read the Bible as Christian Scripture, the best biblical scholars genuinely love Scripture, and come to its pages ready to hear God’s address. They exhibit both a certain posture vis-à-vis the text and their own formation in relation to it, and a commitment to the hard work of reading Scripture that takes seriously the nature of the text.

The former involves the life of discipleship, of Christian formation, of worship, and of prayer. As I have written elsewhere: “Formed by our reading of Scripture, we become better readers of Scripture. This is not because we become better skilled at applying biblical principles. The practice of reading Scripture is not about learning how to mold the biblical message to contemporary lives and modern needs. Rather, the Scriptures yearn to reshape how we comprehend our lives and identify our greatest needs. We find in Scripture who we are and what we might become, so that we come to share its assessment of our situation, encounter its promise of restoration, and hear its challenge to serve God’s good news.”

The latter comprises the scholarly work of making the biblical languages one’s own, of finding a home with other readers of Scripture who reflect on its contexts, of exhibiting hospitality to interpretive traditions other than one’s own, and of patiently exploring with others the significance of Scripture’s witness within and to our world. This means, of course, that it is never enough—at least, not for “the good biblical scholar”—simply to live within the world where those biblical materials originated. Good biblical scholars recognize that their work must be set within and engage the grand tradition of the church’s faith and life in service to God’s agenda in the world.

Good biblical scholars don’t think of these as separate parts of the job description, this concern with Christian formation and with engaging biblical texts faithfully. Together, they comprise the singular vocation of the biblical scholar.*

*Note: the original version of this post was amended to clarify the context to which Professor Green directed his comments.


Joel B. Green (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of New Testament interpretation, Fuller Theological Seminary. Author or editor of more than fifty books, he edits the New International Commentary on the New Testament and founded the Journal of Theological Interpretation. Follow him on Twitter @JoelBGreen


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Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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34 comments
  • Yes. And may I add, from experience in my own academic field: The best scholars of fascism genuinely love Nazis, and come to its pages ready to hear Hitler’s address.

    • Everybody is devoted to someone or something. What makes a significant difference is the object of devotion.

  • The inference that those who do not read the Bible “emotionally” or “devotionally” are somehow inferior to those who do is quite offensive. Subordinating critical analysis to “God’s agenda” is not scholarship; it is religion. And there are many New and Old Testament scholars fully capable of bifurcating their faith from their research. The late Bruce Metzger being one example. Dictating the terms of what constitutes “good” biblical scholarship marginalizes those scholars who reach other conclusions regarding the text and thus perpetuates the common misconception among earnest believers that the Bible is a reliable historical document.

  • To Vincent: I would not regard Joel’s statement as “dictating the terms,” nor attribute that as the goal of this entire series that Tavis has been posting on biblical scholars talking about biblical scholarship. It’s a statement of what Joel has pursued and what he believes to be essential, and it’s worth hearing Joel’s perspective (given his stature in the field as one of the most prolific scholars and facilitators of scholarship) even if you strongly disagree. I will say that a posture of HUMILITY before the text one is studying is an important scholarly virtue that too many purely academic biblical scholars fail to exhibit, and I think Joel’s position more readily (not automatically, but more readily) nurtures that humility than, say, what has been exhibited in the work and conclusions of many scholars who approach the Scriptures without due reverence.

    And it would be a shame to study water all one’s life and never take a drink.

    • He (and you) are doing religion first, with scholarship coming in a distant second. Reverence is not a tool to arrive at truth, and humility is a weak substitute for peer review and consensus.

      • Peer review and working toward consensus are certainly part of the process. Humility is important there as well. You bifurcate what ought not to be divided. BTW, I can’t find any “Vincent Racaniello” who’s worked in Scripture or Theology — only a virologist. Is this you?

      • Joel Green’s position aligns with the principle of literary criticism to read the text how it wants to be read. He has only given voice to the biblical teaching that truth is increasingly revealed to those committed to applying it—those “apprenticed” to it, as Kevin Vanhoozer states. Green stands in a long line of theologians from Anselm to Karl Barth who understand scholarship as fide quaerens intellectum. And let us not pretend that those scholars who devote not only their work but also their lives to the words of the Bible are the only ones with a priori commitments. When we aspire to the knowledge of good and evil apart from God’s revealed truth and appoint ourselves judges in its stead, we grasp the fruit on the forbidden tree. We emerge as usurpers, with scientific rationalism as the pseudo-canon. And what superior claim to reliability can it boast? Does it change lives? Does it offer hope or meaning? Can it even begin to explain how a complex, personal, delicately-balanced world was made out of nothing? That also requires an immense amount of faith. If you are displeased with Green’s stance, kindly allow him to follow his conscience and seek first to please the subject of his study.

  • What makes a good Biblical scholar is someone who studiess the writings in terms of their origin, history, and intent; someone who strives to comprehend the material and its impact on history, literature, and philosophy. What you describe in your essay is what makes a good Christian scholar. There is a huge difference between these two. The first is objective and scientific, the second is subjective and done with prejudice.

    • Matt (if I may),

      It seems to me both you and the author of this blogpost are making a judgement on what constitutes “good” scholarship. Neither of your judgments can be independently observed, measured, and either verified or falsified. So I’m not sure what you mean when you say “the first is objective and scientific”.

      Nemo

      • Hello Nemo,

        An objective view of scholarship implies that the scholaship can be independently observed, measured, and verified or falsified by applying the same princioples of analysis that are applied to any other ancient writings. One can strive to determine the provenance of documents (scriptures) through analysis of the claims made in the text compared to other historical evidence, such as archeaology, comparison with other coeval documents and artifacts. One can seek corroborating evidence from many sources. Literary analysis can also be employed to search for consistencies and inconsistencies with established historical evidence, including natural history and historical records from the region from which these scripture derive. The scriptures make testable claims about historical events, including Geology, orbital mechanics, natural history, that can be tested against natural evidence.

        Subjective scholarship, which I suggest Dr. Green is engaging in, begins with a supposition that the scriptures are a true accouting without any attempt to falsify an hypothesis. Dr. Green assumes that the scriptures are the word of his God without any corroborating evidence. That is not good scholarship, that is just religious devotion.

        • Hi Matt,

          Thank you for the thoughtful response.

          Biblical studies, as a discipline, is completely new to me. My own field is genomic and medical research, and I’m very curious how Biblical scholars practice their craft, and evaluate the quality of their own work. I found this blogpost, as well as your comment, very informative and interesting.

          If I understand you correctly, you’re describing some of the methodologies that Biblical scholars use in their research. They seem reasonable and sound to me. I don’t see anything in what you describe that would preclude a Christian scholar from applying the same in his own research, and I think Dr. Green would agree, although I don’t know him personally,

          If I understand him correctly, Dr. Green is describing not what makes a good scholarly methodology, but what makes a good scholar. The emphasis is not on methodology, but on the scholar as a person. The qualities of the scholar, such as intellectual hospitality and patience, impact the quality of his scholarship, and so it is important to identify them, I would think, and these qualities are not exclusive to Christians either.

          Nemo

    • Well, naturally, the question to which I responded for this blog post is not, simply, “What makes a good biblical scholar?” but, rather, if I might clarify, “What makes a good scholar of the Bible understood as the church’s Scripture?” There are important points of overlap between how I would answer these distinct ways of taking the question. In these brief reflections, though, I have only addressed the one question.

      • Thank you for clarifying Dr. Green. As you’re probably aware, the popularity of writers such as Bart Ehrman, Robert Price, Richard Carrier, etc.as well as the abundance of information available on the web regarding biblical studies, textural criticism and analysis, and archaeology, means religious scholars can no longer make unsupportable religious claims without expecting challenge. It is of course your right to interpret and utilize the scriptures in any manner you so choose. What I initially objected to was the apparent exclusionary posture in your response: i.e. that only religiously motivated scholars and scholarship constitute “good” scholarship and are therefore valid as against all other types. I can’t fault you for merely responding to a blog post in the context it was put to you by another author. I’m not familiar with your work but I will take you at your word when you say that you would draw distinctions between your devotional and academic approaches to scripture. Thank You for responding.

  • Would Dr. Green like to defend the implication that non-Christians can’t be good biblical scholars? This seems anti-Semitic at the very least.

    • Jared, I trust that my earlier post (“Well, naturally,…) addresses your concerns. I might have heard, and responded, to the question put to me in more generic terms, as, of course, “biblical scholars” come in all shapes and sizes and with an array of interests. As I have since clarified in the aforementioned comment, however, I took the question in a more limited and focused sense.

    • Yes, it would be anti-Semitic to suggest what YOU suggest. Joel has not suggested this. I personally depend on Jewish scholars of the Hebrew Bible to a great extent for the same cause that (I think) Joel believes that the Christian scholar of the bi-testamental canon is a more sensitive reader and interpreter of these texts than the non-Christian. A scholar like Jacob Milgrom or Baruch Levine — people who are “insiders” to the Torah-driven life — have opened up Leviticus to me in ways that non-Jewish scholars have not been able to do. And while I find Jewish scholarship on the New Testament often to be illuminating, I also find some of it to be bound by the same limitations that I have encountered in Christian scholars’ commentaries on Leviticus (for example). It is the difference between the insider’s and outsider’s understanding of the socio-religious phenomena of which these texts speak.

      • Dr. deSilva,

        You wrote, “A scholar like Jacob Milgrom or Baruch Levine — people who are “insiders” to the Torah-driven life — have opened up Leviticus to me in ways that non-Jewish scholars have not been able to do. … It is the difference between the insider’s and outsider’s understanding of the socio-religious phenomena of which these texts speak.”

        You seem to suggest that Biblical scholars who are also practitioners of the religious life described and prescribed in the Bible have a deeper understanding of the subject than others. If so, can “the difference between the insider’s and outsider’s understanding” be demonstrated objectively? For example, would you be able to identify areas of Jacob Milgrom or Baruch Levine’s work on Leviticus that are 1) superior by scholarly standards accepted by those who don’t share their religion and 2) attributable to their religious beliefs and practices?

  • Does it follow that the best qur’anic scholars are Muslim scholar-activists? Surely Prof. Green wouldn’t side with those (thankfully few) Muslims who accuse historians like me of interloping.

  • Tavis,

    Thank you for posting Green’s view. It is of interest that he postulates and lives the idea that “faith and knowledge” go hand in hand. He understands that faith and knowledge are both intuitive, intellectual and experiential. He also understands that knowledge is limited to the evidence that is presented from the past and present, and that same knowledge will continually interact with Natural and Special Revelation. Faith, on the other hand, is not limited to the past and present, but takes what has been revealed and projects that knowledge to the future. It is an informed faith since, by definition, faith is never blind. It requires an object and a subject. In this instance, that objective and subjective faith is Christ.

    I also noticed that Green does not fall into the “false-dichotomy” trap. Too many make “faith and reason,” faith and knowledge,” “faith and history,” “faith and science,” etc. as separate spheres and never the twain shall meet. Unfortunately, faith is used by every person. Faith is the high degree of reliability on the evidence whether that evidence is physical or textual. Thus, all people use faith in some way. it is the degree of competency that will come into question.

    • Bryant: That is not a compatible definition of faith; yours is itself a religious definition and therefore biased (i.e. not objective) You conflate the concepts of “trust” or reasonable expectation based upon based observable or prior experience with what you call “faith.” Faith in a religious context is NEVER about evidence; it is always about fulfilling previously held assumptions. “What has been revealed” in the context of knowledge, is nebulous and as proof of that all one need do is study the great and many variations in Judeo-Christian belief. There are more denominations, sects, cults, both existing and no longer existing, than you can shake a bible at. If faith is such reliable metric to arrive at truth, why so many opinions? Faith is not a good tool at arriving at truth; faith is believing in that for which there is no evidence, period. And it is a “believers” right to do so, just don’t say that “all people use faith in some way.” Getting on an airplane entails probabilistic expectation that it will fly based upon prior experience; that’s not faith. Believing that my wife is not having an affair is based upon trust, not faith. Be careful with how you use the word. It really belongs solely in the realm of experiential religion and no where else.

      • Vincent (if I may),

        There is an apparent lack of consensus here on what “faith” is. If consensus is the measure of truth, then the lack of consensus would mean that we don’t know the truth about faith. But you seem to assert what faith is with certainty. I’m not sure how you arrived at that certainty.

        Nemo

      • Vincent,
        The problem is the English use of “faith, belief, trust” to translate the Hebrew ” ’emunah,” + cognates; and, the Greek “pistis,” + cognates. Context is the key to all interpretative efforts from the initial findings of physical and textual evidence to the application of those findings into a coherent whole. Every one uses “faith.” Again, Faith is the high degree we assign to the evidence. Faith and knowledge as said above are limited. Knowledge can only take one so far, whether it was revealed (Special Revelation), observed (Natural Revelation), or it was discovered and handed down to us. In any of the scenarios just given, belief, trust, faith in the reliability and transmission of the data is used.

        Now, what is missing in this whole issue of faith, trust or belief is the time element. Knowledge as I said is limited to the revealed or past down to us from the past and present. There is no knowledge of the future. There is supposition, prophecy, speculation (educated guessing), etc. about the future. It is this received knowledge, this data, that Faith, belief, trust uses to postulate what is going to happen in the future. In scientific circles, this postulation of the data is called an hypothesis; in other areas it is called a theory. Either way faith is used. That is what Green, and et al using. They are not dividing the data into separate spheres. They are gathering, arranging, analyzing, synthesizing, all the data into a coherent whole. One large piece of the data is God. Too frequently, modern scholars want to keep Him out of the picture. Green wants to make sure that does not happen.

  • You gentlemen are all conflating faith with other words. Per the American Heritage Dictionary: Faith, belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. Nemo: your premises in your syllogism is incorrect. Consensus is not the measure of truth; it is merely one possible emergent aspect in gauging the truth, which is why we utilize the imperfect system of juries in determining guilt or innocence. So when we speak of scholarly consensus, it’s based upon critical thought and analysis, but that in and of itself is not proof of truth. Bryant: Special revelation is not measurable. It fails the naturalist methodological test. (that which can not be measured or repeated cannot be used to assert a claim) When a scientist of any variety-physical or of the humanities-postulates a theory or hypothesis, faith is no way used. Again, you appear to be manipulating a word to fit an agenda. Scientists build upon prior knowledge to gain new knowledge, and occasionally, re-work prior knowledge. This is all part of the scientific critical method. No faith or gods required. And I’d like to reassert my prior statement: if Faith is a successful methodology for arriving at truth, why are there so many variations among the Christian religions, both extant and extinct?

    • Vincent,

      The following is the full definition of faith from American Heritage Dictionary. Your definition is not listed there. Even if we grant that yours is a valid definition, it is only one among many. How can you be so certain that your definition of faith applies to Christianity, or any other religion?

      Faith
      1.
      a. Belief in God or in a set of religious doctrines.
      b. A set of religious doctrines; a body of dogma: adhered to the Muslim faith.
      c. often Faith Christianity Secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will viewed as a theological virtue.
      2. Confident or unquestioning belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing. See Synonyms at belief, trust.
      3. Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance: keeping faith with one’s supporters; refused to break faith with his friends.

      “Why are there so many variations among the Christian religions?” One short answer is, “Why not?” Variation is a problem only if you assume that consensus is the measure of truth. But you said it is not.

      It is no doubt foolish to give an answer when it is not welcome. But, I have faith (definition 2 above) in human being’s ability to reason, and resolve conflict through civil dialogue. I assume that you would agree reason is a good tool for arriving at truth (otherwise this conversation would be pointless). And yet, though we all have the rational faculty to arrive at truth, we disagree on many things. Does that mean reason is not a good tool for arriving at truth?

      I’ve heard more than one prominent Biblical scholars say that scholars disagree on everything. This is also why I’m very interested in the question “What makes a good Biblical scholar”

      Nemo

  • Nemo: My AHD dates from 1982 and is a relic from college years! But in reading your AHD definition of faith-which I have to assume is more recent-I find myself pleasantly surprised that the editors have chosen to attribute religious definitions as the primary entries. Also, the reference to compare with the words “belief” and “trust” further illustrates the editors’ desire to get that word out of the vernacular and restore to it to its religious context. I applaud them.
    Scholars are like economists: you’ll get as many opinions as there are individuals sitting in the room. But for me, as a non-scholar who is only interested in the topic as an avocation, a good biblical or N.T. scholar is one who is not required to adhere to or sign a university pledge to uphold certain doctrinal tenets as a condition of his or her employment and is free to pursue their research wherever it may lead under peer review.

    • Vincent,

      If you’re concerned about academic freedom, I would agree with you. However, threats to academic freedom come in many different guises.

      When a scholar writes an opinion on a subject closely related to his field of expertise, writing from many years of experience and with sincere conviction. He is under no obligation to explain himself to anyone. If others strongly disagree with him, they are free to present counter arguments and evidence to the contrary to refute him. This is academic freedom, as I understand it.

      That’s not what happened here. People descended on this blog, demanded an explanation, if not apology, from Dr. Green, others ridiculed him, still others in social media tried to shame him into silence. This is not freedom, this is tyranny. If one has to choose between the two, signing a pledge as a condition of employment would be much preferable, for at least in the latter, the scholar has the freedom to choose whether to agree to the terms or pursue his career elsewhere in peace. But the former kind of tyranny follows him wherever he goes.

      • Nemo: I’ve been trying to be civil. I thanked Dr. Green for clarifying and was content to leave the issue alone except to carry on an interesting dialogue with you and others on the topic. I had no desire or intention to go down the counter-apologetic’s road with Dr. Green or anyone else for that matter. My initial objection was my interpretation of Dr Green’s statement which I inferred, incorrectly, to be an assertion that faith based scholarship was superior to more secular biblical scholarship. That’s it. Indeed, if he had maintained that position, which he clarified to the contrary, I probably would have accused him of the same sort of religious privilege that you unfortunately seem to be expressing in your outraged comment towards me. You asked in a prior post, “What makes a good Biblical Scholar?” In the interest of friendly and respectful dialogue, I gave you my opinion. But it’s my opinion, why care? I’m not a scholar. This is an avocation to me.

        • Vincent,

          My apologies if my comment seemed uncivil to you. It was not my intention. Like you, I was trying to be civil, and thought I was, until your comment made me realize that civility is in the eye of the beholder: The people who are on the receiving end of our actions and comments are better judges of our civility than we are. (Come to think of it, most of the people accused of sexual misconduct claimed they did no wrong.)

          Having said that, I don’t think I’ve made any comment about “religious privilege”. Could you point it out to help me see why it may be perceived that way?

          I also want to thank you for the interesting observation about AHD. (I meant to say this in my last comment but for the interest of brevity) The lesson I learned is that old dictionaries are like windows of history, they give us glimpses of the lives and ideas of past generations, which would have been lost without a trace otherwise. The word “faith” means different things to different people and in different ages. You seemed to be holding to one definition of faith in complete disregard of others, which, if I may be frank, prevented you from gaining insights into the thoughts of the peoples of “faith”.

          Nemo

  • Nemo: Sure. I’ll try. When you said “This is not freedom; this is tyranny” in response to the drubbing Dr. Green was taking on this blog and in social media (which is in fact where I first linked in to Dr. Green’s article) it sounded very much like the sort of offense that many Christians take when challenged on some point of their belief. Christian privilege is the presumption, often unconscious, that their particular perspectives, values and beliefs are superior and are therefore unassailable. Challenges to Christian dominance, be they against its doctrine, dogma, church history, scholarship credibility or the deleterious effects Christianity has had and presently has on the broader society, is met not just with objection, but with assertions of persecution. (You’ll see similar parallels in other societies where other religions are the dominant creed) Criticism is not akin to tyranny in this case; it is just criticism. I perceived your reaction to be an example of privilege. Christian ideology stands or falls in the arena of reason, same as any other. It does not get a pass simply because it involves faith or is dressed in mystical language that only the “faithful” can understand, and even then, only the “right” sort of faithful. (The no true Scotsman fallacy hard work) If we are to preserve the concepts of liberty and equality in a pluralistic society, I personally feel it is absolutely necessary to “push back” very strongly against the privileged classes, be they based upon sex, race, financial influence or religion. That’s me. That’s my mind. That’s how I work. Nothing personal. But you should know that I am far from alone in holding this sentiment. Social media and the proliferation of information is causing all believers of all faiths to undergo continuous challenges to their presumptions. Just look at the number of blog posts in response to Dr. Green’s little article! Could this have happened even five years ago? Something is changing in the Zeitgeist regarding religion.

    • Vincent,

      Thank you for sharing your perspective. It helped me to understand (albeit to a rather small extent) where you’re coming from. I’d be more than happy to discuss all the observations you made, but this is not the proper venue. I’m beginning to feel sheepish about two non-scholars taking up space on a scholarly blog aimed at a scholarly audience. So I’ll just address two points I think are most relevant to this blog post.

      First, you wrote, “Christian privilege is the presumption, often unconscious, that their particular perspectives, values and beliefs are superior and are therefore unassailable.”

      Ironically, everyone, including the most vocal critics of Christianity, have the same “privilege”. For why would anyone hold any particular perspectives, values and beliefs if he doesn’t think they are “superior” in some way to the alternatives? Why else would people object to religion with such indignation if they didn’t presume that their own values and beliefs are superior?

      Personally, I’ve learned much from people with different perspectives. I’m grateful that my intellectual life has been greatly enriched by other minds. Dr. Green’s essay presented a view of Biblical scholarship that is new and inspiring to me. I’ve also learned from Matt West, Dr. deSilva and yourself. The main reason I participate in discussions like this is not to convert others to my view, but to learn, and to contribute (if I may be so presumptuous) to our common intellectual heritage, to enrich others as I have been enriched. In that spirit, let me proceed..

      Second, criticism vs. tyranny.

      To criticize is “to judge the merits and faults of” something (AHD). Voicing a contrary opinion is not “criticism”, strictly speaking, unless one demonstrates that the contrary opinion is more worthy of acceptance, by comparing the merits and faults of both opinions.

      Constructive scholarly criticism engages primarily with the arguments and data presented, and endeavours to identify rooms for improvement, e.g., errors in the logic of the arguments, or mistakes in the sampling and interpretation of data; Destructive criticism is characterized by pejorative labels, and aims to intimidate, demean, overwhelm, and ultimately to dominate the target. The latter is akin to tyranny, because it is an unjust and oppressive use of power. I submit that the “drubbing” Dr. Green received in social media belongs to the latter category, though I’m happy to be proven wrong.

      Nemo

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