Biblical Studies and the Media

By Joseph B. Tyson
Professor emeritus of Religious Studies
Southern Methodist University
March 2011

On February 27, included a piece on John Dominic Crossan.1 Crossan has frequently been featured in the popular media in a variety of ways. It may not be too far off the mark to say that he has accomplished something of a breakthrough from the academic to the public sphere. Whether he deserves the title of “public scholar” remains to be seen, but his name, if not his writing, is widely known.

Dom’s notoriety is to be admired and celebrated. About a quarter century ago, he, along with the late Robert Funk and others, recognized that the accomplishments of biblical scholars were little known by the American public. This was true despite the fact that the history of critical biblical scholarship reached back a couple of centuries and that there was wide agreement among such scholars about many basic aspects of biblical studies. Out of this recognition came the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who dedicated themselves to a renewed study of the historical Jesus that was to be undertaken in the full light of public scrutiny. This effort has clearly succeeded in making the public more aware of some of the findings of biblical scholars.

The CNN article is a reminder that there is still interest in biblical scholarship, particularly that part of it that attempts to reconstruct the historical Jesus. But it is also a reminder that it is difficult to convey the meaning of the term, scholarship, and to describe its intentions and methods. I have no idea what Dom Crossan himself thinks about this article, but what I missed in it was a sense of or appreciation for his scholarship. The writer, John Blake, seemed to be interested in comparing some of Crossan’s contentions with beliefs frequently found among evangelical and traditional Christians. This would seem to give the reader the sense that Crossan’s ideas emerged from his own religious beliefs, that they are to be examined and evaluated in the same way that one would entertain theological claims. There was no sense that Crossan’s contentions about the historical Jesus were based on tested methods of historical research. There was no attempt to deal with the ways in which his methods were applied in particular instances. We have only the contrast between his historical statements about, for example, the resurrection of Jesus and traditional beliefs about it.2

Nor was there much of an attempt to make the public aware that studies such as those of Dom Crossan focus on historical rather than theological matters. We get, rather, the impression that such studies are intended to challenge Christian beliefs about Jesus. The headline gives this impression: “John Dominic Crossan’s ‘blasphemous’ portrait of Jesus.” There are a few comments in the article that acknowledges the historical nature of these studies (“Crossan’s overarching message is that you don’t have to accept the Jesus of dogma. There’s another Jesus hidden in Scripture and history who has been ignored”). But even here the implication seems to be that the message of the Bible and the studies of Crossan are alternatives of the same order, and you can take your choice.

The quotation from Ben Witherington probably surprises no one, but it reinforces the impression that there is massive confusion between historical studies and faith when it comes to the Bible. “‘The stories are inherently theological,’he [Witherington] says. ‘They all suggest that God intervenes in history. If you have a problem with the supernatural, you have a problem with the Bible. It’s on every page.’” Of course, historians have problems with the Bible, but the irony of Witherington’s comment is the suggestion that historians must cease being historians in order to ask historical questions about the Bible. Talk about a Catch-22!

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that all of us who consider ourselves biblical scholars need to agree either on Crossan’s methods or his results. I think, however, that we should be interested in seeing how our discipline is portrayed in the popular media. We can acknowledge that reporters need to emphasize controversy to make their stories interesting, but should we not also expect them to portray our discipline with a degree of accuracy that recognizes that historical study–even of the Bible–has its own integrity? For our part we may celebrate the public recognition we sometimes get but at the same time acknowledge the risks that seem to come with it.



2 See especially, Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco:
HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

Comments (2)

Land of Goshen! To interpret Scripture apart from knowledge of the cultural period in which it was written, as well as interpreted, deprives understanding. Clauses, such as the 3/5 citizen, in our Constitution and 200 years of US Supreme Court interpretations are much better understood when the cultural aspects are examined.

#1 - Tim Solon - 03/10/2011 - 04:32

History and theology seem to me to have quite a lot in common as well as quite a lot that is separate.
We can separate questions that call for judgement on miracles, such as 'Joshua caused the sun to stand still', from questions that call for judgement of facts, such as 'Joshua conquered Canaan'. Maybe most of us would say that science causes us to doubt, but does not insist on our rejecting, statements of the former kind. On the other hand it's possible that science - or at least historical scholarship - will give us good reason to assert or to deny statements of the latter kind. Or indeed to analyse them further - what does 'conquer' really mean?
The deeper question of whether events give us some sense of God's hand at work - or at least of human progress - is a question to which both historians and theologians may be drawn.

#2 - Martin Hughes - 03/14/2011 - 20:10

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