Biblical Scholarship as a Form of Lying:
An Interview with Jefferson White
This interview was conducted in June of 2001. It was edited and updated in 2018. The interviewer remains anonymous. For more information about the book, Evidence and Paul's Journeys, see jeffersonwhite.com/pauls-journeys.
Q: You have recently been quoted as saying that "modern biblical scholarship is a highly developed form of lying." But you have also written an interesting work of biblical scholarship about the Apostle Paul. Does that mean that you are a liar?
A: As I stated in the prologue to Evidence and Paul’s Journeys, I was not writing a work of biblical scholarship. I was engaging in an historical investigation governed by the same kind of rules that define evidence in a court of law. And that is something very different from biblical scholarship, as any biblical scholar will tell you.
Q: And yet your book is largely based on the work of biblical scholars. Not to be irreverent, but why do you rely on liars to provide the footnotes for your book?
A: Well again, as I stated in the prologue, I use biblical scholarship in much the same way that a court of law uses expert witnesses. An expert witness may want to testify to the truth of something that, by the rules of legal evidence, cannot be regarded as proven. The profession of which he is a part may regard what he is going to say as true, or likely to be true, or possibly to be true, but the rules of evidence do not permit him to reach that conclusion. At that point, you simply stop the witness from testifying. I stopped the biblical scholars from testifying whenever they engaged in speculation, which is a great deal of the time.
Q: So exactly how is the profession of biblical scholarship “a highly developed form of lying”?
A: It is because biblical scholars claim to be dealing with historical truth. Mostly what they do is speculate about historical events, although with great erudition. They then pass those speculations off as historical truth, although they are often based on very little evidence.
Q: Can you give me an example?
A: Probably the best example is the ideological divisions that are found within the profession.
Most biblical scholars fall into one of three camps. First there are the radical scholars, who say that the historical evidence “proves” that little or nothing in the New Testament is historically true. Second, there are the liberal scholars, who say that the historical evidence “proves” that parts of the New Testament are true and parts of it are false. They then disagree among themselves as to which is which. Third, you have the conservative scholars, who say that the historical evidence “proves” that the New Testament is mostly, or even entirely, an accurate record of events.
Just on the basis of these divisions alone, one is forced to recognize that one is dealing with a profession that does not employ very rigorous standards of evidence. Like many other modern academic disciplines, biblical scholarship has more to do with intellectual gamesmanship than with an objective search for truth.
Q: I noticed that most of the scholars that you cite in your book come from what you call the conservative camp of biblical scholarship. Why is that? Aren't they liars too?
A: They are actually the most objective scholars when it comes to dealing with the historical evidence.
Q: Radical and liberal scholars would disagree. They would point to the interesting datum that most conservative scholars are theologically conservative Christians, and then argue that this bias causes them to rate the historical character of the New Testament too highly. I note that you are also a theologically conservative Christian. Are you biased?
A: There’s no doubt about it. And that’s why an objective standard of evidence is needed. Look, I agree that religious and ideological bias plays a decisive role in biblical scholarship. It always has and always will. This is a profession that simply cannot be trusted to deal objectively with historical evidence. In the absence of an objective standard of evidence, the impulse is to warp the evidence to fit preconceived notions.
Q: So you admit that conservative scholars have created a scholarship to fit their own biases?
A: It’s much more interesting than that. The empirical evidence decisively points to the conclusion that the New Testament is an accurate record of events. It is because theologically conservative scholars already believe that this on religious grounds that they end up promoting the most objective standard for deciding historical truth. It is because that standard supports their theological beliefs. It is because liberals and radicals have the opposite ideological commitment that they favor looser standards of historical evidence and speculative historical constructs.
Let me add something to that. I take an essentially dim view of human nature, in part because I am a Christian. My personal assumption is that if the empirical evidence pointed to the historical unreliability of the New Testament that we would find a complete role reversal. In that case, it would be the conservative scholars who would be engaging in speculative historical theories, while liberals and radicals would be insisting on concrete evidence.
Q: So conservative scholars are biased, but their bias leads them to the truth?
Q: Does this mean that we have found a form of biblical scholarship that is not a form of lying?
A: Not exactly. Unfortunately, conservative scholarship often shares the same underlying deficiencies as liberal and radical scholarship. Conservatives engage in historical speculation when it doesn’t have a direct bearing on the underlying reliability of the text.
Q: Can you give me an example of this?
A: Well, take biblical scholarship as a whole, which is tainted from its origins. The purpose of the first biblical scholars, working in Germany in the nineteenth century, was to provide a theoretical explanation for the existence of Christianity in order to deny the historical truth of Christianity. That enterprise was successful enough that most liberal Christian scholars began to part in this scholarship. The liberals believed that it was still possible to preserve enough of the historicity of scripture to establish “the spiritual truth” of Christianity, while in essence agreeing with the radicals that the New Testament was historically deficient as a record. But they came to these conclusions mainly on philosophical, rather than on empirical, grounds.
For a long time, most theological conservatives rejected the idea of biblical scholarship as a a legitimate enterprise, because of the radical historicism that underlies its practice. In my view, they were correct to do this. But I would also argue that they did not take seriously the need to create a counter-discipline distinct from liberal and radical scholarship. Such a discipline, had it been invented, would have been based upon a rigorous, evidence-based approach.
Unfortunately, this discipline still does not exist. Until the middle of the twentieth century, fine academic work was done by theological conservatives who were generally outsiders to biblical scholarship. These were classical scholars, archaeologists and theologians, and were also mainly British. They did some wonderful studies that demonstrated the historical accuracy of the New Testament. The problem was that this was never done as a systematic enterprise. And their findings were generally ignored or were simply adopted sotto voce by radical and liberal scholars.
The real problem begins in the second half of the twentieth century. Theological conservatives, British and American, now began to become biblical scholars. And that’s when they made their mistake, since to become part of that profession you are required to take radical and liberal scholarship seriously as scholarship. In order for you to ask liberal and radical scholars to respect your “conservative perspective,” you must also respect their “perspective.” In short, you must actually believe in the scholarly legitimacy of those liberal and radical “perspectives,” while also arguing that they don’t know what they are talking about. This has led to some very convoluted conservative scholarship.
Q: Such as?
A: Well, there’s a book by a conservative academic that is a history of the scholarly interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles. And it’s a very useful book. But the underlying structure of his study is intellectually untenable. The writer spends half his time telling us what wonderful biblical scholars the liberals and radicals are and the other half showing that they are fundamentally wrong. I think it has to be either one or the other.
However, I think that the real problem is that he portrays the various factions of biblical scholarship (radical, liberal, conservative) as if they were somehow engaged in a common scholarly enterprise, when it is clear that they are not. It's as if someone wrote a history of twentieth century law and took Nazi and Communist legal writings seriously as forms of legal theory. It’s just an obtuse way of proceeding. Yet this is the underlying approach, not merely of this particular conservative scholar, but of conservative scholars in general.
Another example is found in a well-known conservative commentary on the book of Acts that was published in 1980. On the one hand, the writer of this commentary details the empirical evidence showing the general historical accuracy of Acts. On the other hand, he spends a great deal of time presenting arguments against the conclusions of a recently published radical commentary on Acts.
Now the problem is that most of the arguments found in the radical commentary are subjective or, if you like, “philosophical.” They have nothing to do with empirical evidence. So this conservative scholar spends half his time dealing with the empirical evidence and the other half answering subjective arguments, and then mixes those two things together as if they were equivalent. Again, this is a very odd way to proceed with questions of historical truth.
Q: So you don’t think that radical or liberal arguments need to be answered?
A: Yes, but at a theoretical level and in a different kind of book. Pretending that they are legitimate arguments about historical evidence is a form of intellectual corruption. A high wall should be erected between arguments about evidence and arguments that are based upon philosophy. Unfortunately, such a wall does not exist.
Q: So you are saying that modern conservative scholars are intellectually corrupt by not maintaining this wall?
A: Many conservative scholars, who are more and more trained in the discipline of biblical scholarship, are conservative only when historical questions have a direct bearing on the historical truth of the scriptures. When it does not have that direct bearing their arguments about historicity can be as subjective as any liberal or radical argument.
The problem is that the amount of historical evidence that has a bearing on the New Testament is finite and historical certainty about the meaning of that evidence is even more limited. Unfortunately, the cult of the Ph.D. is based on discovering new knowledge and finding new things to say about existing knowledge. As a matter of course, this requires making complicated and interesting arguments that are often based on little evidence. It is this kind of professionalism, more than any ideological commitment, that is intellectually corrupting.
Q: So what is the solution to this problem?
A: There is no solution. Or rather, I can imagine one, but I don’t see it coming about any time soon. It would entail the overthrow of what the Jose Ortega Y Gasset called “the barbarism of specialization,” which he viewed as the chief intellectual defect of modern life. Today barbarism rules.
Understand that I am a complete outsider who did an in-depth study of the historical evidence surrounding Paul’s journeys. My purpose in writing was to deal with an objective evaluation of the evidence, while avoiding subjective or theoretical arguments. So I was definitely not writing as a biblical scholar. I would not want to be confused with one.
Q: What one thing would you like to see change in biblical scholarship?
One thing I’d like to see is a scholarly dictionary of the Book of Acts, or of the Gospels, which is nothing more than a verse by verse examination of the empirical evidence. “Here is what is certain, here is what is probable, here is what the evidence calls into question,” and so forth. It would be set out according to a rigorously objective criterion of what constitutes evidence. Of course, no such dictionary exists nor will we see one in the foreseeable future. Such a dictionary would not be considered biblical scholarship.
Fundamentally, modern biblical scholarship is about making subjective judgments. Even conservative scholars have bought into the main thrust of the discipline. An intellectual revolution would have to occur to overthrow this system. It is just too well-entrenched in the academy to disappear. And I don’t see a revolution happening any time soon.
Q: You don’t see anything good happening today, even in conservative biblical scholarship?
A: Of course there are good things happening. As I was completing my historical study of Paul’s journeys, a multi-volume study of Acts was published by conservative scholars. It’s called The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting. I found that series to be of great value in writing my book. I was heartened by the fact that the contributors felt free, by and large, to ignore the subjective arguments of liberal and radical scholars. They produced a work according to their own criteria of historical evidence. It was definitely an advance. It was refreshing.
A: But it was primarily a work of historical background. It was mostly concerned with the general historical setting of Paul’s journeys. It was a work by historians written for historians. However, by and large it was a wonderful study.