Modern Biblical Scholarship, Philosophy of Religion and Traditional Christianity

Professor Eleonore Stump

In recent decades biblical scholarship as practiced in secular universities has been dominated by a certain historical approach to biblical studies. I have in mind the sort of biblical studies represented by the work of F. M. Cross, O. Cullmann, E. Haenchen, E. Kasemann, and G. E. Wright, for example. Operating in conjunction with the related disciplines of archaeology, classical languages, and near-Eastern studies, this approach has made significant contributions to our understanding of the historical context in which the biblical texts were composed. But to many outsiders what has been at least equally noteworthy about this approach is the havoc it has wreaked on traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs. In their effort to discover and present what is historically authentic in the Bible, the practitioners of this approach have in effect rewritten the Bible. They have cut the Old and New Testaments into a variety of snippets; some they have discarded entirely as not historically authentic, and others they have reassembled in new ways to form what these scholars consider the truly original historical documents or traditions. They have denied the traditional authorship of certain books of the Bible-for example, they tend to hold that the pastoral apostles (the one to Titus and the two to Timothy) were not really written by Paul-and they have claimed to find the sources for other biblical texts in such clearly human products as Hittite suzerainty treaties and Hellenistic philosophy. The general result of such scholarship is, for example, that a text which a church father such as Augustine may have used to support a particular theological doctrine on the grounds that the text was composed by a disciple of Jesus who was an eye-witness to the events recorded may now be classified as a much later document fabricated by certain anonymous Christians for theological motives and derived by them from identifiable pagan sources. But if the biblical passages on which traditional doctrines are based are truly of such a character, they provide no credible support for the doctrines. And so the general effect of this approach to biblical studies has been a powerful undermining of classical Christian doctrines and a powerful impetus to religious skepticism.

Partly because it requires a set of highly specialized skills, the research generated by this historical approach has not received much critical scrutiny either from professional historians or from philosophers, even those with a professional interest in the study of religion. And some dialogue among these specialists, especially between biblical scholars and philosophers of religion, is unquestionably long overdue. No doubt philosophers of religion can benefit greatly from biblical scholars by learning about the historical foundations of Christianity and Judaism. Surely some detailed acquaintance with biblical criticism is crucial for understanding the religion one is attacking or defending, and the philosophical examination of Judaism and Christianity will not be done well without some attention to the best contemporary understanding of the biblical texts on which those religions are founded. On the other hand, however, the final judgement regarding historical authenticity may turn out very differently if biblical scholarship is subjected to analysis and questioning by philosophers. Many cannot survive philosophical scrutiny, and bringing philosophical analysis to bear on biblical criticism often alters the historical conclusions which can be justified by that discipline.

A good case study for this claim about the importance of philosophy to biblical criticism is provided by David Brown's excellent and impressively learned book The Divine Trinity.[1] It is an attempt to stimulate a dialogue between philosophers of religion and biblical scholars in order to produce a combined study of the historical basis for and philosophical credibility of Christian doctrine. Brown is one of the more judicious and careful biblical scholars I have read, and he also possesses an extensive acquaintance with the literature and methods of contemporary philosophy of religion. And yet even his book abounds in examples of biblical exegesis based on specious arguments.

Consider, for example, Brown's discussion of the Magnificat. In the last part of Chapter 3 (p. 136)

Brown makes this claim: "Earlier in the chapter I gave a reason why the Magnificat is unlikely to be historical; it reflects the victory of the Resurrection." If we turn to the relevant section earlier in the chapter, we find the following argument to support Brown's claim:

"That the birth narratives [concerning Jesus] cannot be accepted as historical in toto as they stand would now be all but universally conceded . . . . To mention but two of the problems, the sentiments of the Magnificat 'are not really the appropriate sentiments of a maiden who has not yet given birth to the Messiah; they are much more appropriate if composed by those who know that through the resurrection God has reversed the crucifixion' (p. 124)."
In this passage Brown is quoting from the work of a New Testament scholar who has apparently given many reasons for thinking that the birth narratives are not historical. I have nothing to say here about those reasons or that scholar's work. But the reason Brown singles out as showing the lack of historicity in the birth narratives seems to me to tell us only something about Brown and nothing at all about their historicity. Because his language is imprecise, it is hard to be definite about his argument, and his conclusion in particular is presented suggestively rather than stated explicitly; but taken in context, his reasoning is apparently something like the following.

  1. The Magnificat reflects the victory of the Resurrection.
  2. Sentiments reflecting the victory of the Resurrection are not sentiments appropriate to Mary in the period before the birth of the Messiah.
  3. They are sentiments particularly appropriate to "those who know that through the resurrection God has reversed the crucifixion."
  4. Therefore, the Magnificat was composed by "those who know that through the resurrection God has reversed the crucifixion" and not by Mary.
There are three problems with this argument. In the first place, the first premiss seems to me just false. The Magnificat contains no mention of or direct allusion to either victory or resurrection; in fact, as far as I can see, except for the clear references to the female gender of its author, the Magnificat could easily enough pass for one of the Psalms. The closest the Magnificat comes to reflecting the victory of the Resurrection (and it is not very close at all) is in the positive view of God as rejecting the rich and mighty while helping the poor and hungry and in general being an aid and comfort to his people. But such sentiments might have been (and sometimes were) uttered by Jews well before the Christian era. Consequently, the sentiments reflected in the Magnificat do not seem to me peculiarly appropriate to post-Easter Christians; and so premiss (3) even if true seems to me irrelevant to the argument's conclusion.

Now if its first premiss is false, the argument is of course unsound regardless of the truth or falsity of the other premisses. Nonetheless, it is worth reflecting on the second premiss for what it shows about the methodology of biblical criticism. The second premiss is vague; but if it is to support the conclusion in (4), then by "not . . . appropriate to Mary" it must mean something to the effect that (given human nature and the world we live in) Mary could not have uttered sentiments reflecting the victory of the Resurrection. Furthermore, "sentiments reflecting the victory of the Resurrection" is a vague phrase, the meaning of which is not clear. But suppose the strongest interpretation of it and the strongest textual basis supporting it; suppose that in fact there were a line in the Magnificat which said 'the crucifixion will eventuate in a victorious Resurrection', or words to that effect. Would (2) be true in that case? The answer to that question depends entirely on one's religious presuppositions. For atheists (or even deists), the answer is 'yes', because it is at best extremely improbable that an ordinary human mind would be able to foresee accurately detailed particular events and beliefs of the sort in question. But, of course, if there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God who sometimes communicates his purposes to his creatures, then the answer is clearly 'no'. Sentiments reflecting the victory of the Resurrection are not appropriate to Mary in that period if she was left to herself; but God might not have left her to herself, and her utterance of such sentiments might reflect something given her by God. Hence, an acceptance of (2) presupposes a denial of the existence of such a God. So Brown's assessment of the historicity of a Christian sacred text is based heavily not on certain historical data but rather on an implicit denial of a central Christian tenet. There is consequently no reason why a Christian (or anyone else without a warranted belief that such a God does not exist) should take seriously this particular argument against the historicity of the birth narratives. And there is certainly no basis for thinking of this argument as a historical argument or as a historical investigation of the biblical narrative, as Brown seems to do. This is simply a philosophical or theological argument based largely on a religious presupposition which the author neither examines nor justifies.

Finally, something needs to be said about the conclusion. It is not formulated in so many words in Brown's text, but it is strongly suggested in the context. If this is, as it seems to be, the conclusion Brown intends for this argument, then it should be noted that even if all the premisses were above reproach, so that Brown could support his claim about the non-historicity of the birth narratives, the conclusion in (4) is nonetheless not validly inferred. At best, what could be derived from these premisses is that the Magnificat was not composed by Mary in that period of her life. There is nothing in the premisses to rule out, for example, the possibility that Mary composed the Magnificat later in her life.

This sort of exegesis is hardly an isolated instance in Brown's book; on the contrary, the book is replete with such arguments. To take just one more example, Brown says he "is led to doubt whether Jesus ever turned water into wine" in part because "it flies in the face of the type of God revealed elsewhere, where miracles exhibit some deep pastoral concern" (p. 65). Here as in the preceding case we may question his interpretation of the text. Why should we suppose that Jesus had "no deep pastoral concern" in this case? The story in John, after all, concludes by saying that in this miracle Jesus manifested his glory and his disciples believed on him (Jn. 2. 11); such a result, if foreknown and intended, does in fact seem to indicate pastoral concern. And, secondly we may also question the validity of the implicit inference. Even if the miracle at Cana showed no pastoral concerns, why should we believe that all Jesus' miracles have to be motivated by pastoral concern because most of them are? On anyone's account, Jesus was a person, not a simple programmed machine. Even if virtually all his miracles were motivated by pastoral care, why couldn't he have had a auxiliary motive which operated in a few cases, or why couldn't he have acted outside his usual pattern of action? Finally, here too there is an implicit presupposition concerning a religious belief. For if we approach the text with Christian beliefs rather than with atheistic or "deistic" presuppositions, if we take Jesus to be divine (in one sense or another), we will not automatically suppose that we as finite creatures can clearly know all his motives or can always discern from the narrative what motive was governing one of his historical actions.

No doubt much of the current historical exegesis of the Bible is based on strong historical evidence, clear reasoning, and uncontentious assumptions. But a great deal of it, like these examples from Brown's book, is marked by arguments which are invalid, textual interpretations which are at best dubious, and nonhistorical philosophical presuppositions which are unexamined and unjustified.

Lest anyone unfamiliar with the field of biblical studies suppose that because my preceding examples all come from Brown's book, the problems I point to are somehow peculiar to Brown, I think it is worthwhile examining one more instance from a different source. Here is the Anchor Bible's argument that the final chapter of John, chapter 21, was not part of the original Gospel.[2]

From textual evidence, including that of such early witnesses as P" and Tertullian, the Gospel was never circulated with ch. xxi. . . . This still leaves us with two basic questions. First, was ch. xxi part of the original plan of the Gospel? Second, if not, was it added before "publication" by the evangelist or by a redactor?
. . . Few modern scholars give an affirmative to the first question. The principal reasons are these: (a) The clear termination in xx 30-31, explaining the author's reason for what he has chosen to narrate, seems to preclude any further narrative . . . (b) In ch. xx, after describing the appearances of Jesus to his disciples, the author records a beatitude for those who have not seen (xx 29). Thus, it is highly unlikely that he intended to narrate more appearances of those who did see. (c) The story in xxi stands in awkward sequence after that of xx, so that it is hard to believe that the events of the two chapters are in their original order . . . After having seen the risen Jesus in Jerusalem and having been commissioned as apostles, why would the disciples return to Galilee and aimlessly resume their ordinary occupations? After having seen Jesus twice face to face, why would the disciples fail to recognize him when he appeared again? . . .[3] And so we consider it certain that ch. xxi is an addition to the Gospel, consisting of a once independent narrative of Jesus' appearance to his disciples."
In what follows I am not concerned to address the general problem of the status of John 21 or to contribute to the current scholarly discussion of its purpose and authorship. Rather I want to say something just about what the author of this Anchor Bible volume, Raymond Brown (RB), labels the principle reasons for thinking that Chapter 21 was not part of the original Gospel.

To begin with, RB takes Jn. 20:30-1 to be verses which are obviously a closing to the Gospel; in fact, he takes the verses to be such a definitive closing line that they preclude further narrative. Now here are vss. 30-1 in the Anchor Bible translation (p. 1055)

"[30]Of course, Jesus also performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, signs not recorded in this book.[31] But these have been recorded so that you may have faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may have life in his name."
If this is supposed to be the conclusion to the Gospel as a whole, it strikes me as odd, because in the first place Jesus performed signs in the presence of others besides the disciples, and secondly he did many things such as preaching sermons which even in RB's view do not count as signs (cf. p. 1058). So not only do these verses not strike me as a definitive closing for the whole Gospel, they do not strike me as even a barely adequate or appropriate finale for the Gospel. On the contrary, it seems to me much more plausible to interpret vss. 30-1 as a closing for just the immediately preceding narrative of the risen Christ's appearances to his disciples. These appearances, according to RB (cf. p. 1058), do count as signs in the vocabulary of the Gospel's author; and unlike some other signs of Jesus' the appearances described in Jn. 20 are performed only in the presence of the disciples. So vss. 30-1 seem to me most naturally taken as a conclusion not to the whole Gospel but simply to the narrative in Chapter 20 of the resurrected Christ's first appearances to his disciples. Read in this way, the two verses explain that the preceding narrative is not exhaustive but selective and that the selection has been made with a view to stimulating belief in the reader. That considerable attention in Chapter 20 is given to Thomas's initial doubt and subsequent conversion to belief reinforces the plausibility of this reading. On this reading, then, verses 30-1 are an articulate analogue to our typographical convention of three dots, used to point out to the reader an ellipsis between what has gone before and what is to follow.

RB's second reason for bracketing chapter 21 as not originally in the Gospel would have struck me as lame even if I had been convinced of the weightiness of his first reason. Why shouldn't the Gospel author interpose a beatitude into the middle of a narrative designed to stimulate belief in those who haven't seen? Why should we suppose that he must have pronounced his blessing on unseeing believers only at the end of his narrative? But in light of the alternative reading I have suggested for verses 30-1, reason (b) strikes me as no reason at all. On my alternative reading, the purpose of the recitation in Chapter 20 of Christ's appearances is to stimulate the reader's belief in the risen Christ. The one post-Resurrection appearance recorded in Chapter 21, on the other hand, obviously has a very different purpose. In Chapter 21 the emphasis in the narrative of Christ's appearing to the apostles is not on the conversion of their doubt into belief. Instead the narrative clearly focuses on the mission of the apostles, especially the nature and end of Peter's mission. Chapter 21 presents a picture of Jesus feeding his disciples when they could not feed themselves and then points to the lesson of that feeding with Jesus' thrice-repeated injunction to Peter to feed his sheep. And so I see no reason at all for thinking that anything in the beatitude in Chapter 20:29 obviates the lesson and emphasis of the post-Resurrection appearance described in Chapter 21.

Finally, as for reason (c), I do not share RB's subjective evaluation of the awkwardness of Chapter 21. And the two rhetorical questions which RB raises apparently to bolster this evaluation seem to me to have ready and plausible answers. It is true, as RB points out, that the apostles were commissioned in Chapter 20. But not every commissioning is immediately effective. 'As the Father sent me, so I send you' (20:21) is hardly a clear blueprint for immediate action; and we are also told in Chapter 20 that the disciples are meeting behind closed doors for fear of the Jews, so that they seem to lack some of the boldness and fervor necessary to translate their vague commission into definite action. Furthermore, even commissioned apostles need to eat, and fishing is the way in which they have provided for themselves in the past. Their resumption of "their ordinary occupations", then, is not "aimless", because there is something obviously sensible about their providing their own food in this way. But there is something clearly zestless about what they do. And perhaps that very zestlessness accounts for the appearance in Chapter 21. In that appearance the risen Christ vividly brings it home to the apostles that he can provide for their daily needs if he chooses to do so. And he stimulates them all to missionary action by his public conversation with Peter, in which he ties spiritual feeding of his people directly and poignantly to a love of himself.

As for RB's second question about why the apostles would have failed to recognize Jesus after having seen him at least twice before, two different answers are possible. When the apostles see Jesus, he is standing on the shore as the morning dawns while they are still out on the sea "two hundred cubits" from shore (21:8). Perhaps they simply could not discern him clearly at that distance in the twilight of the dawn. But another answer is suggested by 21:12, which reads in the Anchor Bible translation (p. 1066):

'"Come and eat your breakfast," Jesus told them. Not one of the disciples dared to inquire, "who are you?", for they knew it was the Lord.'
In other words, this verse says that although they knew in some way that it was Jesus, they might have asked him who he was if they had been bold enough to do so. This verse suggests, then, that in this post-Resurrection contact between Jesus and the apostles Jesus' appearance was somehow and for some reason altered from what it had been before, even from what it had been in the preceding post-resurrection appearances, so that even when the apostles were sitting next to him his external appearance (but not his interaction with them) left room for doubt in their minds about his identity.

So both of RB's questions seem to me to have plausible answers, and consequently reason (c) for excluding Chapter 21 from the original Gospel seems to me no real reason either.

I want to make quite clear what I think my discussion of the controversy over Jn.21 has accomplished. I do not suppose that I have proved that Chapter 21 is part of the original Gospel or that I have satisfactorily rebutted all the scholarship arguing that it is not. My aim has rather been to show the incredibly weak case on which RB, the author of the Anchor Bible volume, bases his claim to certainty about his view that Chapter 21 is not part of the original Gospel. I am certain, and I hope to have shown convincingly, that he has no grounds for certainty regarding his conclusion. On the contrary, his conclusion about the historicity of Chapter 21 is based entirely on dubious interpretation and subjective evaluation, and what he builds on this uncertain foundation can have at best the epistemic status of speculative conjecture.

In my examination of these cases of biblical exegesis I have considered examples that seem to me typical of the contemporary historical approach to biblical scholarship now dominant in the field of biblical studies. I have said nothing about the burgeoning new methodologies in the field, such as structuralist criticism or the sort of narrative analysis represented by Robert Alter's outstanding book The Art of Biblical Narrative.[4] I have also focused on those areas of historical biblical scholarship where it seemed that a philosophical approach would make a significant difference to the conclusion reached. Without question, historical scholarship on the texts and times of the Bible have made important contributions to our comprehension of the origins of Judaism and Christianity, and I have no wish to belittle or neglect any of the field's useful work. But I have concentrated on what seems to me a major weakness in the historical approach to the Bible in order to make two points.

The first is a corollary to David Brown's urging (which I heartily endorse) for a dialogue between biblical scholars and philosophers of religion. Undoubtedly philosophers of religion have a great deal to learn from such a dialogue; but they also have much to teach, and what they have to teach should significantly alter some of the historical conclusions reached by biblical scholarship. It would be a good thing, then, both for philosophy of religion and also for biblical scholarship if philosophers of religion in their training of graduate students as well as in their own teaching and research were to give some attention to biblical scholarship, to its importance for philosophical theology and to its philosophical weaknesses as it is currently practiced. If some study of biblical texts and contemporary biblical scholarship were to become a recognizable and respectable subdiscipline of philosophy of religion, I think it would be greatly to the advantage of both disciplines.

But secondly, and much more importantly, until such a dialogue takes place, I think it is important for all scholars and especially for those Christian scholars who hold to traditional Christian doctrines to take an aggressive and skeptical response to current biblical scholarship. In the university we are strongly inclined to accept experts in their field of expertise as authorities who are not to be gainsaid. But the seemingly authoritative historical tenets of contemporary biblical criticism are often enough based largely on unwarranted and unexamined interpretations and philosophical presuppositions, some of which constitute a denial of central Christian beliefs; what is presented as objective historical conclusions demonstrated with certainty is often enough only subjective speculative conjecture heavily dependent on unanalyzed religious (or irreligious) assumptions. So although there is something to be said for not gainsaying experts in their field of expertise, much of contemporary historical scholarship on the Bible is not sound historical research but rather just weak philosophical argument, to which the expertise of philosophers is appropriately applied. Thus when we are told by biblical scholars, for example, that they have shown with certainty that John 21 was not part of the original Gospel, we need to consider the evidence for ourselves, undaunted by the authority of the biblical experts making the claim. And when we do consider the evidence and the arguments of historical biblical scholarship for ourselves with careful philosophical analysis, I am persuaded that the result will be far less detrimental to classical Christian theology than historical critics of the Bible have generally supposed.[5]


  1. David Brown, The Divine Trinity (LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1985).
  2. Raymond Brown, The Anchor Bible. The Gospel According to John (xii-xxi) (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970), pp. 1077-1078.
  3. The omitted lines here contain a brief description and rebuttal of one scholar's weak and uninteresting attempt to argue that chap. 21 was part of the original gospel.
  4. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1981).
  5. I am pleased to have been asked to write a paper for the initial issue of this journal, and I expect the journal to prove a useful scholarly tool. I should like to add that while I appreciate the good qualities of Paul Johnson's paper, I disagree very strongly with its politics. This is not the place to discuss that disagreement, but I think it is important to make clear that not all Christians see Christianity exemplified in 19th-century industrial Europe.