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 continues to be anonymous.
Jefferson White is the author of the book, Evidence and Paul’s Journeys: An Historical Investigation into the Travels of the Apostle Paul. Because he was recently quoted [in 2001] as stating that “modern Biblical scholarship is a highly developed form of lying,” it was suggested that this subject might be the basis of a useful interview.
Evidence and Paul’s Journeys, may be purchased at Amazon.com. Excerpts from the book can be read at jeffersonwhite.com/pauls-journeys.
Q: So, you wrote an interesting work of biblical scholarship about the Apostle Paul. Does that make you a liar?
A: Well, as I said in the prologue to Evidence and Paul’s Journeys, I was not writing a work of biblical scholarship. What I was doing was engaging in an historical investigation governed by the same kind of rules that define evidence in a court of law. And this is something very different from biblical scholarship, as even the biblical scholars will tell you.
Q: And yet your book is largely based on the work of biblical scholars. Not to be irreverent, but why did you rely on liars to provide the footnotes for your book?
A: Well, again, as I said in the prologue, I use biblical scholarship in much the same way as 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 their speculation off as historical truth, although it is usually based on very little evidence.
Q: Can you give me an example?
A: Probably the best example is the ideological divisions 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. Then 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.
Simply on the basis of these divisions alone, one recognizes that one is dealing with a profession that does not employ very rigorous standards when it comes to deciding what constitutes evidence. Like many other modern academic disciplines, biblical scholarship has much more to do with intellectual gamesmanship than it does with an objective search for truth.
Q: I noticed that most of the scholars that you cite come from what you call the conservative camp of biblical scholarship. Why is that? Are they not liars?
A: They are the most objective scholars when it comes to dealing with the historical evidence.
Q: The radical and liberal scholars would disagree. They would point to the interesting datum that most conservative scholars are theologically conservative Christians, and thus their bias causes them to rate the historical character of the New Testament too highly. I note that you are a theologically conservative Christian. Is a possibility that you are biased?
A: There’s no doubt of it. And that’s why an objective standard of evidence is vital. Look, let’s 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 the historical evidence. In the absence of an objective standard of evidence, the impulse is always to warp that evidence to fit pre-conceived notions.
Q: So you admit that conservative scholars have created a scholarship to fit their own biases?
A: It’s actually 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 standards for deciding historical truth. It is because those standards support their theological beliefs. It is because liberals and radicals have the opposite ideological commitments that they favor looser standards of evidence and speculative historical constructs.
Let me add something. I take an essentially dim view of human nature and only partly because I am a Christian. My personal assumption is that if the empirical evidence pointed to the historical unreliability of the New Testament that there would be a complete role reversal in biblical scholarship. In that case, it would be the conservative scholars who would be engaging in speculative 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: So 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. They just engage in speculation when it doesn’t have a direct bearing on the underlying historical reliability of the text.
Q: Can you give me an example of this?
A: Well, biblical scholarship as a whole is tainted from its origins. The purpose of first biblical scholars, working in Germany in the nineteenth century, was to provide a theoretical explanation for the existence of Christianity so that they could deny the historical truth of Christianity. This enterprise was successful enough that most liberal European and American Christian scholars soon 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 truths” of Christianity, while essentially agreeing with the radicals that the New Testament was historically deficient. But they all did this mainly on philosophical, and not on empirical, grounds.
For a long time, most theological conservatives rejected the idea of biblical scholarship, because of the radical historicism that underlies its practice. In my view, they were correct to do so. But I would also argue that they did not take seriously the need to create a counter-discipline that was distinct from liberal and radical scholarship, which would have been a discipline of scholarship based upon a rigorous, evidence-based approach.
Unfortunately, that discipline still does not exist. Until the middle of the twentieth century, fine academic work done by theological conservatives who were usually outsiders to biblical scholarship. Classical scholars, archeologists and theologians, mainly British- did some wonderful studies that demonstrated the historical accuracy of the New Testament. However, the problem was that this was never done as a systematic enterprise. And further, their findings were usually ignored, or used ad hoc, by the radical and liberal scholars.
The problem begins during the second half of the twentieth century. Conservatives, both British and American, now began to become biblical scholars themselves. That’s where they made their mistake, since to become part of that profession you have to take radical and liberal scholarship seriously as actual scholarship. In order for you to ask for them for their scholarly respect for your conservative “perspective,” you must accord respect to their “perspective.” In short, you must actually come to believe in the scholarly legitimacy of the liberal and radical “perspectives,” even while you are arguing that they literally don’t know what they are talking about. This has led to some very convoluted conservative scholarship.
Q: I would like some examples of this as well.
A: For example, 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 these various factions of biblical scholarship (radical, liberal, conservative) as if they were engaged in a common scholarly enterprise, when clearly they are not. It’s as if someone wrote a history of the law in the twentieth century and took Nazi and Communist legal writings seriously as a form of Western legal theory. It’s a very obtuse way of proceeding. Yet this is the underlying approach, not only of this particular conservative scholar, but of conservative biblical scholars in generally.
Yet another example is found in a well-known conservative commentary on the book of Acts that was first published in 1980. On the one hand, the writer of the commentary details the empirical evidence showing the general historical accuracy of Acts. On the other hand, however, he spends a great deal of his time presenting arguments against the arguments raised by a recently published radical commentary on Acts.
The problem is that the arguments that are found in the radical commentary are nearly all subjective. They have nothing to do with empirical evidence. So this conservative scholar spends half his time dealing with the empirical evidence and half answering subjective arguments, and mixes these things together as if they were equivalent. Again, this is a very odd way to deal with questions of historical truth.
Q: So you don’t think that radical or liberal arguments need to be answered?
A: Yes, but at the theoretical level and in a very 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 based upon ideology. Unfortunately, such a wall does not exist.
Q: So you are saying that modern conservative scholars are intellectually corrupt by not maintaining such a 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 intellectual problem is that the amount of historical evidence that has a bearing on the New Testament is finite and that 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 that knowledge. As a matter of course, therefore, this requires making complicated and interesting arguments that are based on very little evidence. It is this kind of professionalism, much more than any ideological commitment, that intellectually corrupts.
Q: So what’s the solution to this problem?
A: There is no solution. Or rather, I can imagine a solution, but I don’t see it coming about any time soon. It would entail the overthrow of what the philosopher Ortega once called “the barbarism of specialization,” which he viewed as the chief intellectual defect of modern life. Unfortunately, today barbarism rules.
Understand that I am an 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 that evidence, while avoiding subjective or theoretical arguments as much as I could. So I was definitely not writing as a biblical scholar. I would never 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 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 today, nor will we see one in the foreseeable future. Because such a dictionary would employ an objective standard of evidence, it would not be treated as a form of biblical scholarship.
Fundamentally, modern biblical scholarship is about subjective judgments. Even conservative scholars have bought into this. An intellectual revolution would have to happen to overthrow this view of things. It is simply too well-entrenched in the academy to disappear. And I don’t see that 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. And 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 instead 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 historical background of the evidence that has a direct bearing on the account of Paul’s journeys. It was a work for historians. However, by and large it was a wonderful study.