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On Biblical Scholarship and Bias

In the first place, it is impossible to approach the interpretation of any text, let alone one so theologically charged and with such demands of personal investment as the Bible, with complete objective neutrality, that is, without any prior assumptions. Certain biases within biblical studies, however, seem to be unrecognized (or under recognized) by scholars.

See Also: Three Skeptics and the Bible: La Peyrère, Hobbes, Spinoza, and the Reception of Modern Biblical Criticism (Pickwick Publications, 2016).

By Jeffrey L. Morrow
Associate Professor and Chair
Department of Undergraduate Theology
Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology
Seton Hall University
South Orange, New Jersey
December 2016

In 1988 Joseph Ratzinger travelled to New York City to deliver the Erasmus Lecture entitled, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis.”[1] In his now-famous remarks, Ratzinger pointed to philosophical presuppositions that are sometimes unconsciously present in specific instances of modern biblical criticism. Convinced this was a widespread phenomenon, Ratzinger issued a call for a “criticism of criticism.” Ratzinger was quite explicit that such an endeavor should not be an attempt to do away with modern biblical criticism, or even of historical criticism, which is one form of modern biblical criticism; rather he desired a more thorough examination of the “limits” of such biblical scholarship, of its origins, and philosophical underpinnings. His cautions about such biblical criticism were brought to a much wider audience when he was elected Pope Benedict XVI and included warnings of such philosophical biases present in some forms of exegesis in his 2010 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini.[2] In this article, I hope to expand a little upon this theme, focusing on the issue of bias in biblical scholarship. I am not using the term “bias” in any technical sense, but rather as a general term for the inevitable starting assumptions that we scholars bring with us when we interpret texts.

Specific Biases: Preference for “Objective” History over “Subjective” Theology

In the first place, it is impossible to approach the interpretation of any text, let alone one so theologically charged and with such demands of personal investment as the Bible, with complete objective neutrality, that is, without any prior assumptions. Certain biases within biblical studies, however, seem to be unrecognized (or under recognized) by scholars. Here I want to discuss a few of these biases that have crept into the very methods themselves, as starting points or basic assumptions. In many cases these represented the particular biases of the pioneering scholars who played a role in developing the methods we study, use, and teach. Individual scholars using these methods today might not share the same biases, but these assumptions have become inherent in the methods and scholarly hypotheses themselves. This might be one of the reasons why these particular biases are not getting more recognition today; they are not shared by the scholars using the methods and assuming the hypotheses which were themselves shaped by the fundamental guiding assumptions that the researchers and teachers no longer realize, nor share with the historical initiators of the method.

One of the broadest of these assumptions is what we might call an anti-theological bias in biblical interpretation. That is the idea that proper scholarly biblical interpretation should be historical, and thus absent theology. This was perhaps most famously articulated in Ernst Troeltsch’s 1898, “On the Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology.”[3] Troeltsch was fairly up front about how he viewed the role of history and theology in biblical interpretation: “Once the historical method is applied to biblical studies and to church history it becomes a leaven that permeates everything and that finally blows open the whole earlier form of theological method.”[4] To make things even more clear, according to Troeltsch, historical criticism requires that we treat our religious tradition (in this case, Christianity) “in exactly the same way we treat other traditions.”[5] Troeltsch’s proposal here assumes a position of formal neutrality, the real possibility of complete objectivity. In light of this, Troeltsch’s statement that, “historical criticism renders every particular fact uncertain,” should come as no surprise.[6]

Something similar can be found in Rudolf Bultmann’s project of demythologization. Bultmann famously called for such demythologizing in his essay, “New Testament and Mythology.”[7] At the outset, Bultmann asserts that the language and ideas of the New Testament are derived from “the language of mythology,” namely Jewish apocalyptic traditions and Gnosticism.[8] Bultmann’s Christianity was important to him, but his work marked him out as an important historian. Thus the problem he set before his audience was:

“To this extent the kerygma is incredible to modern man, for he is convinced that the mythical view of the world is obsolete. We are therefore bound to ask whether, when we preach the Gospel to-day, we expect our converts to accept not only the Gospel message, but also the mythical view of the world in which it is set. If not, does the New Testament embody a truth which is quite independent of its mythical setting? If it does, theology must undertake the task of stripping the Kerygma from its mythical framework, of ‘demythologizing’ it.”[9]

Bultmann extends the problems associated with the mythological setting of the New Testament message to include the crucifixion as atonement[10] as well as the resurrection.[11] Like Troeltsch, Bultmann envisions an unbridgeable gulf between faith and history.[12] For Bultmann, “The mythical view of the world must be accepted or rejected in its entirety.”[13] He has already asserted that accepting this worldview is impossible, thus he concludes, “If the truth of the New Testament proclamation is to be preserved, the only way is to demythologize it.”[14]

Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus is another example of this trend.[15] Like Troeltsch before him and Bultmann after him, Schweitzer distinguished between the “Jesus of history” and the “Jesus Christ of doctrine.”[16] Troeltsch and Bultmann, however, adopt the mantle of the hard sciences in their understandings of historical investigations. Bultmann, for example, depicts the “mythical” view as merely “the cosmology of a pre-scientific age.”[17] Bultmann goes so far as to claim that, “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”[18] Based on what he includes in the category of “New Testament world of spirits and miracles” apparently I would be one of the individuals who accomplish the impossible; and I know I am far from alone.

Prior to Bultmann, Troeltsch made the comparison with science explicit: “Just like modern natural science it [historical method] represents a complete revolution in our mode of thinking in comparison with antiquity and the Middle Ages.”[19] He furthermore linked his own “judgment only from a pure, scientific point of view, and” he appeals “only to consistent thinking.”[20] Of course. Just as everyone wants to take the via media in order to avoid any extreme position, so too, everyone wants to be on the side of “science,” whatever that might mean. In a passage clearly shaped by anti-Catholic bias, at the very least in his broader cultural context if not his own, Troeltsch writes that, “One could call the old method ‘the Catholic method’ because it was created and classically formed by Catholic theology. And one could call the new method ‘the Protestant method’ because it finally developed from the Protestant critique of the Catholic doctrine of authority.”[21]

This reflection returns us to Ratzinger’s comments at the outset of this article, from his “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” wherein he observes:

“at the heart of the historical-critical method lies the effort to establish in the field of history a level of methodological precision which would yield conclusions of the same certainty as in the field of the natural sciences…. Now, if the natural science model is to be followed without hesitation, then the importance of the Heisenberg principle should be applied to the historical-critical method as well. Heisenberg has shown that the outcome of a given experiment is heavily influenced by the point of view of the observer. So much is this the case that both the observer’s questions and observations continue to change themselves in the natural course of events. When applied to the witness of history, this means that interpretation can never be just a simple reproduction of history’s being, ‘as it was.’… Pure objectivity is an absurd abstraction.”[22]

This is where Schweitzer’s work is actually helpful. Schweitzer unmasks the bias hidden in the scholarly work on the historical Jesus when he writes, “The historical investigation of the life of Jesus did not take its rise from a purely historical interest; it turned to the Jesus of history as an ally in the struggle against the tyranny of dogma.”[23] Michael Legaspi has shown, however, that what happens in the eighteenth century in places like the University of Göttingen is that the Bible became transformed from the “Scriptural Bible” to the “Academic Bible,” wherein the Bible as sacred Scripture is dissolved and then reassembled and redeployed as a cultural tool supporting the political order.[24] An increasing number of works from scholars have emerged underscoring some of these underappreciated political histories behind the shaping of the very methods we use in biblical studies.[25]

Concrete Examples: Late Dating of Cult and Overconfident Attribution of Hypothetical Sources

One important example of how these unacknowledged biases can affect method is in the consistent late-dating of material involving priests, cult, temple, etc., in the context of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible studies. The classic example is Julius Wellhausen’s assumption that Pentateuchal stories concerning the tabernacle are later fictional creations grounded in the later temple. As he writes in his Prolegomena: “The representation of the tabernacle arose out of the temple of Solomon as its root, in dependence on the sacred ark, for which there is early testimony, and which in the time of David, and also before it, was sheltered by a tent. From the temple it derives at once its inner character and its central importance for the cultus as well as its external form.”[26] This is tied to Wellhausen’s classic formulation of the Documentary Hypothesis wherein he followed the path carved out by a number of earlier and contemporary scholars in dividing up the Pentateuch into a series of hypothetical literary documents, dating from different time periods, many post-exilic. Such formulations have received numerous scholarly challenges over the last century or so.[27]

Many of Wellhausen’s views, like the improbability of tabernacle-like structures predating the Jerusalem Temple, have since been demonstrated as obsolete; e.g., we now know that many such tabernacle-like structures existed, in Egypt and elsewhere, for more than a millennium before the Jerusalem Temple.[28] Of course, one can hardly blame Wellhausen for a lack of knowledge of findings that only became available after his time. The problem is that so much of biblical scholarship assumes his and other related outdated positions, that they too easily dismiss more recent findings and reconstructions that do not fit neatly into their preconceived notions. This is one reason, I think, for the dearth of serious engagement with more recent works like Joshua Berman’s demonstration of Deuteronomy 13’s second millennium provenance,[29] or Scott Hahn’s and John Bergsma’s demonstration that exilic Ezekiel was already familiar with traditions identified as allegedly post-exilic P, H, and D, which, received scholarly assumptions assume could not yet have existed,[30] or the problem the evidence of the northern Samaritan Pentateuch poses for such theories of Pentateuchal composition.[31] At the same time, Wellhausen discloses his own bias at the outset of Prolegomena, so we should not be too surprised by its results. He writes:

“In my early student days I was attracted by the stories of Saul and David, Ahab and Elijah; the discourses of Amos and Isaiah laid strong hold on me, and I read myself well into the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Thanks to such aids as were accessible to me, I even considered that I understood them tolerably, but at the same time was troubled with a bad conscience, as if I were beginning with the roof instead of the foundation; for I had no thorough acquaintance with the Law, of which I was accustomed to be told that it was the basis and postulate of the whole literature. At last I took courage and made my way through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers…. But it was in vain that I looked for the light which was to be shed from this source on the historical and prophetical books. On the contrary, my enjoyment of the latter was marred by the Law; it did not bring them any nearer me, but intruded itself uneasily, like a ghost that makes a noise indeed, but is not visible and really effects nothing. Even where there were points of contact between it and them, differences also made themselves felt, and I found it impossible to give a candid decision in favour of the priority of the Law. Dimly I began to perceive that throughout there was between them all the difference that separates two wholly distinct worlds…. At last, in the course of a casual visit in Göttingen in the summer of 1867, I learned through Ritschl that Karl Heinrich Graf placed the Law later than the Prophets, and, almost without knowing his reasons for the hypothesis, I was prepared to accept it; I readily acknowledged to myself the possibility of understanding Hebrew antiquity without the book of the Torah.”[32]

Or we can take the widespread assumption of Markan priority and some form of a Q-Hypothesis, within the Synoptic “Two-Source” Hypothesis. To be sure there are many strengths to this hypothesis. Quite a few points, however, complexify the standard portrait and make the typical Q-Hypothesis problematic. For example, one key idea with the Q-Hypothesis is that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are fairly independent from one another; what they share in common is either the result of their independent use of Mark, or, where different from Mark, their independent use of Q. In numerous places (e.g., compare Mt 12:31-32; Mk 4:30-32; Lk 13:18-19), however, Matthew and Luke share material in common not found in Mark but that is in the middle of material they share in common with Mark. Although adherents to the Q-Hypothesis have responded to such findings, this becomes increasingly difficult when coupled with the hundreds of examples of passages where all three Gospels contain similar passages, but Matthew and Luke agree on matters differing from Mark in minor points, like the order of Jesus’ itinerary (e.g., compare Mt 4:12-13; Mk 1:14, 21; Lk 4:14, 16, 31).[33] It should not surprise us to find a political backdrop to the history of Markan priority’s acceptance in the academy—namely Bismarck’s Kulturkampf—wherein the hypothesis became a tool directed against Catholicism (and in particular Vatican I’s use of Mt 16, Lk 22, and Jn 21 to support papal authority).[34]

The problem is not that these theories are in fact false; they might be correct. The problem is that they are assumed so absolutely that it is virtually impossible to question them and be taken seriously in the academy, and that evidence to the contrary becomes too easily ignored. One is reminded of Durkheim’s dictum, that, “The prohibition against critique is a prohibition like any other and proves that one is face to face with a sacred thing.”[35] Such views tend to dismiss alleged “traditional” interpretations, which often amount to strawmen. The best example I can think of is the blanket dismissal of “traditional” interpretations of Genesis 1 (as if such interpretations were monolithic), assuming that all ancients read the “days” of Genesis 1 as 24 hour days. All one has to do is take a peek at St. Augustine’s Literal Commentary on Genesis (De Genesi ad Litteram libri duodecim), where Augustine understands the reference to “day” in Genesis 1 as referring not simply to a 24 hour period, buts rather to a larger expanse of time. Of course, ancients like Augustine told time by the sun, which was not created in Genesis 1 until the fourth day. And yet these hypotheses, which are overly simplistic assumptions about ancient interpretations, etc., so often serve as starting points for biblical exegesis.

C.S. Lewis’ caution in his “Fern-Seed and Elephants” is helpful here: “These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight.” Lewis’ arguments come not simply from preconceived notions, nor from mere hypotheses, but rather from the example of his contemporary literary critics misattributing origins of works based on their scholarly hypotheses, but tested against known origins, as in Lewis’ own works and those of his friends. He writes,

“What forearms me against all these reconstructions is the fact that I have seen it all from the other end of the stick. I have watched reviewers reconstructing the genesis of my own books in just this way.”

Theological Exegesis is No More Biased Than Allegedly Secular Exegesis

When considering biblical interpretation, it is too easy to play the blame game. The fact of the matter is many of the players involved recognize that the stakes are high, and are personally involved. Moreover, historically, many of the pioneering figures, on all sides of the theological spectrum, experienced rejection of sorts; some lost jobs, friends, and were even imprisoned (like Johann Lorenz Schmidt). Schweitzer wrote of the personal challenges historical Jesus scholars faced.[36] My forays into the history of the Modernist Crisis in the Catholic Church have underscored for me these personal challenges that scholars often faced. The Bible and Interpretation has already included very personal articles that detail challenges scholars experienced, e.g., Thomas L. Thompson’s, “On the Problem of Critical Scholarship: A Memoire.” I think we should take these challenges seriously and sympathetically. I also think we need to recognize our own biases, and potential blind spots, when we engage in scholarship, biblical or otherwise. We should retain an openness to arguments from others, even when their starting assumptions differ so greatly from our own.


[1] Ratzinger’s paper was an abridged English edition of a slightly longer work. An English edition of that longer work is available as Joseph Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Conflict: The Question of the Basic Principles and Path of Exegesis Today,” in God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 91-126. For the purposes of being accessible to the widest audience, in this article I use English and online editions of texts where available.

[2] See especially sections 35-36.

[3] Ernst Troeltsch, “Über historische und dogmatische Methode der Theologie,” (1898) in Zur religiösen Lage, Religionsphilosophie und Ethik, Ernst Troeltsch (Tübingen: Mohr, 1913), 729-753, trans. into English as “On the Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology,” (pp. 1-17) by Jack Forstman. Citations are to this online English translation.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] bid., 3.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology: The Mythological Element in the Message of the New Testament and the Problem of its Re-Interpretation,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate I, by Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Lohmeyer, Julius Schniewind, Helmut Thielicke, and Austin Farrer, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch, trans. Reginald H. Fuller (New York: Harper & Row, 1962 [1951]), 1-44.

[8] Ibid., 3. See also 15.

[9] Ibid., 3. He writes later on 35, “We are compelled to ask whether all this mythological language is not simply an attempt to express the meaning of the historical figure of Jesus and the events of his life; in other words, significance of these as a figure and event of salvation. If that be so, we can dispense with the objective form in which they are cast.”

[10] Ibid., 7. See also 35 where he writes that the cross “certainly has a mythical character as far as its objective setting is concerned…. This mythological interpretation is a mixture of sacrificial and juridical analogies, which have ceased to be tenable for us to-day.”

[11] Ibid., 8.

[12] Ibid., 42.

[13] Ibid., 9.

[14] Ibid., 10.

[15] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, trans. W. Montgomery, with a preface by F.C. Burkitt (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1910).

[16] Ibid., 3-4. This distinction, more commonly phrased as the “Jesus of history” versus the “Christ of faith,” appears to originate in Martin Kähler’s 1892 Der sogenannte historische Jesus und der geschichtliche, biblische Christus. For a helpful critique of the application of Kähler’s dichotomy in theology see John P. Meier, “The Historical Jesus: Rethinking Some Concepts,” Theological Studies 51 (1990): 3-24.

[18] Ibid., 5. Consider, however, C.S. Lewis’ comments in his “Fern-Seed and Elephants”: “the rejection as unhistorical of all passages which narrate miracles is sensible if we start by knowing that the miraculous in general never occurs. Now I do not here want to discuss whether the miraculous is possible. I only want to point out that this is a purely philosophical question. Scholars, as scholars, speak on it with no more authority than anyone else. The canon 'If miraculous, then unhistorical' is one they bring to their study of the texts, not one they have learned from it.”

[20] Ibid., 17.

[21] Ibid., 11-12. To be fair to Troeltsch, he proceeds to explain that this “Catholic” view is fairly widespread and almost universal to the nature of humans before we became “historically sophisticated,” so he maintains we should not really call it “Catholic”; he maintains that Jews and Muslims are guilty of this older view as well. Then Troeltsch likewise faults early Protestants also, placing the real credit with the Enlightenment.

[22] It is perhaps instructive here that Ratzinger uses Bultmann as one of his prime examples. For similar but more thorough critiques of Bultmann’s unconscious philosophical presuppositions and their impact on his biblical studies see, e.g., Michael Maria Waldstein, “Analogia Verbi: The Truth of Scripture in Rudolf Bultmann and Raymond Brown,” Letter & Spirit 6 (2010): 93-140; Idem, “The Evolution of Bultmann’s Interpretation of John and Gnosticism,” Lateranum 70 (2004): 313-352; and Idem, “The Foundations of Bultmann’s Work,” Communio 14 (1987): 115-145. Waldstein is uniquely qualified to critique Bultmann’s work. Beyond the requisite ability to read Bultmann in the original German (Waldstein’s native language), Waldstein earned both a License in Scripture (from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome) and a doctorate in New Testament (from Harvard University). He likewise has a second doctorate in Philosophy (from the University of Dallas), and thus able to analyze the philosophical matters in a way that would be more difficult for someone not philosophically trained. Furthermore, Waldstein’s New Testament dissertation director was none other than Helmut Koester, who at the time was Bultmann’s last living disciple.

[23] Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus, 4. This narrative, so prevalent in historical literature, of battles between throne and altar, church and state, etc., reaching back into the medieval period, needs serious revision. Andrew Willard Jones’ forthcoming volume, Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX (Steubenville: Emmaus Academic, forthcoming 2017), is essential reading in this regard.

[24] See Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and also his article in The Bible and Interpretation, Idem, “The End(s) of Historical Criticism” (September 2010). On his book, see Jeffrey L. Morrow, “The Enlightenment University and the Creation of the Academic Bible: Michael Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies,” Nova et Vetera 11, no. 3 (2013): 897-922.

[25] In addition to Morrow, Three Skeptics and the Bible; and Idem, Theology, Politics, and Exegesis: Essays on the History of Modern Biblical Criticism (Eugene: Pickwick, forthcoming 2017); see Scott W. Hahn and Benjamin Wiker, Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700 (New York: Herder, 2013). On Hahn and Wiker’s volume see Jeffrey L. Morrow, “Averroism, Nominalism, and Mechanization: Hahn and Wiker’s Unmasking of Historical Criticism’s Political Agenda by Laying Bare its Philosophical Roots,” Nova et Vetera 14, no. 4 (2016): 1293-1340; and Idem, “The Untold History of Modern Biblical Scholarship’s Pre-Enlightenment Secular Origins,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 8, no. 1 (2014): 145-155.

[26] Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, with a reprint of the article Israel from the “Encyclopaedia Britannica”, trans. by J. Sutherland Black and Allan Menzies, with a preface by W. Robertson Smith (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1885), 45. See the broader context for his challenge to the historicity of the tabernacle accounts on 41-45.

[27] E.g., R.N. Whybray, The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study (Sheffield: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1987); Gary A. Rendsburg, The Redaction of Genesis (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1986); Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); Umberto Cassuto, La questione della Genesi (Florence: Le Monnier, 1934); and Augustin Bea, De Pentateucho (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1933).

[28] See, e.g., James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 193-222.

[29] Joshua Berman, “CTH 133 and the Hittite Provenance of Deuteronomy 13,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 1 (2011): 25-44.

[30] Scott Walker Hahn and John Seitze Bergsma, “What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekiel 20:25-26,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123, no. 2 (2004): 201-218.

[31] This goes for now dated but virtually unknown J. Iverach Munro’s, The Samaritan Pentateuch and Modern Criticism (London: Nisbet, 1911); or the implications of the findings of Gary N. Knoppers, Jews and Samaritans: The Origins and History of Their Early Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). I was able to witness this reticence firsthand at several of John Bergsma’s recent Society of Biblical Literature presentations where he presented the evidence of Ezekiel’s knowledge of P, H, and D, as well as the implications of the Samaritan Pentateuch: John S. Bergsma, “Was the Original Pentateuch a ‘Samaritan Pentateuch’? Re-Reading the Torah Through Samaritan Eyes,” (Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, 2016); Idem, “A Statistical Portrait of Shared Distinctive Vocabulary Between the Holiness and Deuteronomic Codes,” (Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, 2016); and Idem, “Ezekiel, H, and ‘Z’: The Relationship of Ezekiel to the Holiness Code and ‘Zion Theology,’” (Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, 2014).

[32] Wellhausen, Prolegomena, 3-4.

[33] For one of the best recent challenges to the standard Q Hypothesis, see Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2002).

[34] On this see, e.g., William R. Farmer, “State Interesse and Markan Primacy,” in Biblical Studies and the Shifting of Paradigms 1850-1914, ed. Henning Graf Reventlow and William Farmer (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 15-49. On the Kulturkampf background history, see especially Michael B. Gross, The War Against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004). The Kulturkampf is increasingly being identified as an important background for understanding Wellhausen’s work as well. See, e.g., Paul Michael Kurtz, “The Way of War: Wellhausen, Israel, and Bellicose Reiche,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 127, no. 1 (2015): 1-19 ; and Arnaldo Momigliano, “Religious History Without Frontiers: J. Wellhausen, U. Wilamowitz, and E. Schwartz,” History and Theory 21, no. 4 (1982): 49-64.

[35] Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Karen E. Fields (New York: Free Press, 1995 [1912]), 215.

Comments (4)

1. The intention to be fair is not an unfair intention.
2. The intention to allow propositions which one considers to have been fairly tested and to have stood the true to influence one's judgement when further, logically connected questions arise is entirely rational. Thus if Mr.X has been convicted for fraud seven times I should not be too ready to invest in his next scheme.
3. A consistent bias is surely an attitude or set of propositions which one applies universally when relevant questions arise. So maybe I always like explanations of historical events which involve romantic heroines, always tend to disbelieve stories negative to Mexican politicians.
4. However, there is no objection to a universal disposition to be fair or to be influenced by what is reasonably consistent with existing knowledge (points 1 and 2).
5. Other biases may be assessed in different ways but we should note that they, being set in universal terms, can be negated, i.e. by contradiction or by contrariety. The biased statement 'Everything Trump says is true' may face the contradiction 'It is not the case that everything Trump says is true' or the contrary 'Everything Trump says is false'.
6. It is only the contrary to a biased statement that is, in its logic, as much liable to be called biased as the original was, though it may be argued that one is a rational expression of past experience rather than the other. The contradictory is quite manifestly the rejection of a bias about - a universal attitude towards - certain topics and ideas. It does not adopt any universal, therefore any biased, attitude.
7. It is not fair to claim that the only reason or motive for contradicting a biased statement is a contrary bias.
8. Organised opinion, as with a church or a party or the International League of Scoffers and Scorners, is clearly the creation of bias.
9. The intention to free one's judgement from organised opinion is the intention to free oneself from a certain bias, not necessarily the adoption of a rival bias.
10. Let it not be forgotten that bias may lead to truth, non-bias to error or confusion. However, I think that Ratzinger is denying point 9 and to that extent that Wratzinger is Wrong. Why I am writing such stuff on Christmas Day? A certain imbalance of mind?
#1 - Martin Hughes - 12/25/2016 - 18:42

I wonder how the situation in Biblical interpretation could be compared to the situation in other historical fields.

Take any historical king and you will find a see-sawing between admirers and detractors, with periodic synthesis and reactions feeling that the synthesis has gone too far (which are sometimes valid). Injections of new information stir the pot but do not settle it.

For instance Genghis Khan, earliest historians depicted him as a savage monster (starting with historians of his conquered peoples), this transitioned to views of him as a genius but brutal ruler (starting with historians employed by rulers who traced their descent to him), this image has been periodically rejected, especially by those who wish to emphasize the destruction of the Mongols (say Russian historians lamenting the Mongol yoke), and the genius view has been embraced by those wanting to emphasize the achievements of the Mongol empires (for instance, American historians trying to emphasize the better aspects of cross-cultural exchange).

That is one of the funny things about the historical endeavor, while looking into a fixed past, the historical examination is part of a changing future. Optimistically we can say we are getting closer to the truth but it is not a straight line. At any given point we may be farther from the historical truth than our ancestors if we are chasing a false goal, and while that falsehood may be corrected in time, is that any comfort to a historian who might spend his entire limited span on a wild goose chase?
#2 - John Thomas - 12/27/2016 - 14:13

Thanks for your comments Martin Hughes. In general, depending on how one defines “bias,” I would agree with all of your 10 comments, with perhaps a few caveats or clarifications, although I think that in your comment (10) Ratzinger did/does not in fact deny the point you include in comment (9). I would add a few points of nuance. For point (2), I don’t think that the example of repeated fraud conviction is an accurate example of the sorts of “bias” in the academy that I’m bringing up. I think, more often than not, individual scholars assume—as their starting point—that the methods we’ve learned from our teachers have been tried and tested in the laboratory (or courtroom if you prefer), and that there are in fact multiple convictions of fraud…when in reality, there often have been no such convictions, or only one or two with very limited evidence that has ignored more recent contrary evidence. It would be more like the example of a single fraud conviction based more on the religious or racial minority status of the convicted than any purported evidence, with future generations assuming repeated convictions with firm evidence. One example from those I included above would be the common (albeit not universal) scholarly assumption that tabernacle structures were late imaginative inventions based on the first millennium Jerusalem temple without any possible earlier historical antecedent. This was Wellhausen’s oft-recycled position that no longer holds up under the archaeological record. With regard to point (8), I would only add that one of the main points of my piece above is just that, namely, many scholars assume various paradigms and methods taught them in fact have the best explanatory power of rival views—without ever having seriously examined the rival views—and thus are rather unconsciously relying upon such “Organized opinion,” not from a church or political party, but from a dominant strain within the scholarly community. That too is a form of “bias,” and often blinds scholars to evidence which is inconvenient, or “obviously preposterous” (in light of received scholarly opinion). With regard to point (9), it is certainly true that “The intention to free one’s judgement from organised opinion” is “not necessarily the adoption of a rival bias.”…But it might be. Point (10) is of course very important to keep in mind. Again, thank you for taking the time to read my article and respond. I appreciate your comments.
#3 - Jeffrey L. Morrow - 01/14/2017 - 18:09

John Thomas, thank you for your comments. I think your comments about comparing other historical fields with that of biblical studies is insightful. The main point of my piece not only pertains to the ebb and flow of “detractors” and “admirers,” however, but also to assumed positions that may not be taken in the first place for historical, scientific, or scholarly grounds, but rather for other reasons, like Wellhausen’s admitted distaste for the Pentateuch, quoted above. Such starting points, or biases, can then drive one to ignore certain types of potential evidence, and can lead one to a variety of hasty conclusions that might be quite different were more evidence considered. Couple this with assumed scholarly opinion that gets taught generation after generation, and such paradigms become firmly established without much questioning or probing, and can continue to blind scholars from other possibilities, even those with more explanatory power. Thanks for your insightful comments.
#4 - Jeffrey L. Morrow - 01/14/2017 - 18:09

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