This is a rough time to be a religious historian.
As historian Ronald Hendel noted, studies of biblical history increasingly are leading to “charges of heresy, treason and even insanity.”
Of course, that’s not completely new. Such famed scholars as Erasmus was labeled an antichrist in the 1500s for suggesting that the Bible should be studied in its original languages: Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. In the next century, English scholar John Hampden spent time in the Tower of London before relinquishing his view that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Bible.
Both arguments today are paradigms in biblical scholarship.
In the 1800s, German scholar David Strauss’ book that emphasized the mythological elements of the Jesus story saw him lose his teaching position and be hounded by critics. Today, Strauss is considered a forerunner of modern biblical criticism.
What’s different today is the internet where religious fanatics can meet electronically and plan their assaults on scholarship with a worldwide platform. As a result, Hendel, who teaches at the University of California, has been called “un-American” and accused of “promoting leftist propaganda” in his classes.
Actually, he is simply introducing students to the work of thousands of scholars who have pored over the sacred texts for centuries.
These scholars, some of whom in the past had to flee to a safe refuge like tolerant Holland, have methodically cut through the maze of hardened belief to clarify meanings, establish a chronology and dissolve mythology.
Their findings were so carefully documented that the Roman Catholic Church, the world’s largest religion, held its own investigation in the early 1960s to determine the accuracy of the research. Their scholars confirmed the studies, leading the Church to change its position on the infallibility of the biblical text.
Now, the Gospels reflect “the belief of the authors,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. That concession confirms the detailed research that showed the religious texts do not contain authentic history.
The result has been outrage among believers who have been forced to jettison not just the centuries of biblical scholarship but the scientific research into geology, astronomy and other scientific fields to cling to their simplistic views.
“In this dawning era of right-wing political correctness,” Hendel wrote in the May/June issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, “I suppose that I ought to put a trigger warning on my books and courses, lest students be confronted with unfamiliar and uncomfortable research.”
His concern was echoed by William Dever, a famed religious historian now in his 80s. He wrote in the same magazine that ... “the majority of Biblical scholars has lost confidence in the reliability of its principal source – the biblical text.”
He encouraged scholars to continue their work despite the fact both the biblical texts and artifacts “have obvious limitations.” He said historians should look for the “preponderance of the evidence” to report their findings.
|Artist's view of David|
Even under that strict guideline, Dever conceded that the biblical accounts of King David’s seizure of Moab and military campaigns against the Arameans are “unlikely.” In addition, Dever said, archaeology cannot address the claim that David was “God’s anointed," that his kingdom succeeded due to divine approval and the many stories about his life
In essence, even Dever demotes David to a petty king in a tiny realm and not some progenitor of a great dynasty. That’s from a world-recognized scholar who disagrees with those minimalists who believe the Bible has little of historical value.
His views , however, conform with the evidence which, to date, contradicts a wide swath of biblical claims. In fact, even literalists who met with minimalists agreed in the 1990s that everything prior to David is mythology.
|Adam and Eve?|
As such, they erased Noah’s Ark, Adam and Eve, and other crucial accounts from the realm of history. At the same time, they destroyed Christian theology, which is based totally on the existence of Adam.
Such findings outrage believers, leading to attacks on the messengers. That is the refuge of the ignorant.
Despite their current virulence, they will not succeed in undermining biblical scholarship or science. As Jesus said (John 8:32), “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in communication from Kent State University. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He is the author of the famed novel The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus as well as The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Comparative Religion for Dummies. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.