I have been asked by a reader to comment on the relationship between a scholar’s personal faith and his/her scholarly work. This is a very tricky and often touchy subject. Some scholars, such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, hint at their current personal faith-views in their writings, but never actually confirm their nature (so far as I have noticed). Others, such as James D. Tabor, seem to me, if I have it right, to prefer to discuss their faith-views on a private basis, not publicly. I hate to generalize, but I think most mainstream scholars are more or less along these lines, hesitant to discuss publicly their personal faith, or lack thereof. When they do describe their personal faiths, mainstream scholars often sound hesitant, even apologetic for their stances.
On the evangelical and charismatic end of the spectrum, it is quite different: many — probably most — scholars proudly proclaim their theological views. Their theological views, with fanfare and without apology, are prominently displayed in their scholarly writings, if I may use the latter term loosely. There are exceptions, of course; there are several scholars of a more conservative theological view who, while they are clear as to their faith, provude us with scholarship that is excellent and free from polemic; I might include here such luminaries as Richard Bauckham and the late Raymond Brown.
For mainstream scholars, the brash proclaiming of faith on the part of the “religious right” is often a part of the problem, and for two reasons.
First, the “religious right” so often attacks “liberals” that the latter feel defensive, and so they react defensively, pulling their faith (or lack thereof) inside their turtle-shells of self-protection. Every New Testament scholar is aware of the shameful and scurrilous attacks on, for instance, Reza Aslan, a scholar who wrote a fine book about Jesus, who was mercilessly trashed on “Faux Noise” (the Fox News channel) simply because he happens to be a Muslim, forgetting that Jesus is vastly important in the Muslim faith, with more about Jesus in the Qur’an than in the New Testament! One also recalls the vicious attacks on François Bovon and James D. Tabor simply because their scholarly views were “popularized” on television shows (such that the shows didn’t necessarily nuance things correctly, and may have dramatized things up a bit); to his credit, Tabor holds firm, though sadly Bovon backed down and “changed his mind”. There seems to be a certain hesitation in the work of scholars such as Karen L. King, for instance in her discursus about the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” she keeps her conclusions extremely small and (to be blunt) shy; without at all impugning her research or her writing, I sense a nervousness on her part, a fear of being attacked by the “religious right” for daring to write about an ancient text that says Jesus was married – in view of the fact that the “religious right” is monolithic in its dogmatic insistence that he was not only unmarried, not only a virgin, but entirely devoid of the least shred of natural human sexual desire. King may hesitate to elicit the kind of screaming denunciations in the popular media to novels like The Da Vinci Code and pseudo-research like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which has created such a negative climate that serious scholars usually make a wide detour around serious consideration of the possibility that Jesus was married, that he had children, that (despite the stunning work of scholar Edward Conze) he might have heard about Hinduism or Buddhism, and so on. Given this situation, one can understand if mainstream scholars, those outside the pugnacious Christian right wing, are hesitant to share their personal views publicly.
Second, many mainstream scholars, including I myself, agree that there should be a one-way street between a scholar’s personal faith (or lack thereof) and her or his scholarship. Good scholarship can and should deepen and strengthen one’s faith; good scholarship is only a “threat” to faith that is weak to begin with. On the other hand, faith should never influence good scholarship.
When faith influences scholarship, the latter suffers.
When scholarship influences faith, the latter flourishes (or should).
An example is the one faced by Karen King: the notion that Jesus might have been married. The nearly universal position among scholars, even mainstream scholars, is that the burden of proof lies on those who assert Jesus was a husband, and not on those who assert he never married. King herself, for instance, has noted that no canonical New Testament text says Jesus was married, and thus we should start with the default position that he was not.
I say that this is an example of how mainstream scholars have been so cowed by the religious right that they have lost track of their own strength: the objectivity of facts and logic. In Jesus’s time among his people, it was nearly universal for a young adult male like him, especially a rabbi, to be married; those who were not married usually spent a great deal of time defending their bachelorhood: Jeremiah the prophet and Paul, for example. Therefore, I say the opposite of Karen King: I say that the canonical New Testament does not say Jesus was un-married (as it does Paul), and thus we should start with the default position assumption that he was married, and that the burden of proof rests on those who assert Jesus was a bachelor, and not on those who assert he was married (though this is not to say the latter do not need to support the view that he was married with facts and logic). Further, if we read with care several scenes in the canonical gospels, especially those of the anointing of Jesus’s feet and his resurrection, we may realize that in fact the New Testament does tell us rather clearly his marital status. It is clear to me where objective facts and logic lead. Shrill polemic only suffocates objective facts and logic — which, indeed, is all too often its point, for instance on the Faux Noise channel.
I, for one, don’t hesitate to take on those subjects that invite attacks by the “religious right” — e.g., Jesus possibly being married and having children — if, and only if, the scholarship, the facts themselves, uncolored by faith or polemic or creed, lead me to a consideration of such matters. I often am attacked by “religious right” folks — and not a single one of them has evidenced that they have read even the first page of my scholarly work, and yet they have no hesitation to tell me I am going to Hell, judging where Jesus said not to judge, hating where Jesus said to love, and condemning where Jesus said to forgive and embrace. When I am faced with such attitudes, the conversation is as far as I am concerned at an end; there is no point discussing facts with those who have blinded themselves to them. I remain always eager to discuss facts with anybody, including those of a theologically conservative bent, as long as they remain open to an unbiased. logical consideration of them.
I don’t make any secret of my personal faith, since I’m not afraid of the “conservatives”, but with the same breath I always make it extremely clear that my faith has absolutely no influence on my scholarly work – which I undertake strictly in accordance with the facts. I never practice selectivity with the facts in order to promote some faith-stance. And, while I do not hesitate to state my personal spiritual views, I always point out that they have deepened as a result of my scholarly work, and that I hope my scholarly work — and the work of all scholars of quality, whatever their personal faith or lack thereof may be — will likewise deepen the faith of their readers, or encourage nonbelievers at least to take more seriously the rationality of believing.
I strongly urge other New Testament scholars to join me in this matter: not to cede the battleground to the “religious right”. We should insist on our right to speak out about our personal faith (or lack thereof), whenever we so choose, without fear of scurrilous attacks. We should insist on the use of unbiased logic and unweighted facts. We should demand that scholarship be judged for its own sake, and not on the basis of irrelevancies such as the scholar’s views on matters of faith. We should be proud of our work, and not ashamed.