Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Explaining Bias and the History of Modern Biblical Scholarship:
A Response to Thomas L. Thompson

Neither Ratzinger nor I ever claim that the “crisis in biblical scholarship reflects a conflict between the critical methods of theology and history.” The crisis, rather, reflects the lack of appreciation of the inescapable subjectivity of the modern exegete (of all exegetes of all times, Catholic or not, theological or not). This is one irony of some of the positivist approaches which still exist in modern biblical criticism.

See Also: On Biblical Scholarship and Bias

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
March 2017

Click here for article.

Comments (6)

Dear Jeffrey,
Thank you very much for your thoughtful and detailed response. I believe I understand better what you are arguing. Particularly, I think we especially differed on how we understand or perhpas better, use the word "bias" somewhat differently. For you it is very close to what I would call perspective: the subjective and limited association with a reality's objectivity, in which everyone's understanding is affected.

Thank you much. I look forward to reading your book.

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#1 - Thomas L. Thompson - 03/09/2017 - 22:40

Dear Thomas,

Thank you for your kind words. I think you are right in how we were using the term "bias" differently--that explains a lot.

All the best,

#2 - Jeffrey L. Morrow - 03/10/2017 - 20:16

There is still an issue, whichever word one uses. Mind you, it is misleading to use the word 'bias' without the usual negative connotation of the word or to use the word 'perspective' without its usual connotation of innocuousness unless an unusual definition is clearly specified.
Professor Morrow's original claim, I understand, was that the only alternative to 'bias' in favour of X is 'bias' against X. Even if one substitutes 'perspective favouring' to 'perspective opposing' for 'bias' this claim is, as a matter of logic, mistaken. For any given question there is what we would normally call a perspective which is impartial and permits objective assessment, though it may be that we often don't arrive at such.
It is not true that the only alternative to being a member of the Flat Earth Society, receiving the Daily Platitude propaganda sheet determinedly reinforcing one's existing view, is to be in effect a member of an equally organised, thought-forming Union of Sphericists. It's possible to belong to neither and to attempt to form an opinion objectively.
It is true that organised religion is - what on earth else? - an operation one of whose purposes is to influence thought and to maintain it in certain patterns by means not confined to rational argument. It has not been common for organised irreligion to exist in the same. We can all see that there is therefore a certain danger in all organised religion other than our own - of our own too, I suggest seeking no exemption for myself - if we are objective.
Uncertainty Principles are mentioned. These, I think, exist in two forms, the ancient one concerned with change induced by measurement and the more modern Heisenberg version about simultaneous determination of
position and momentum. If we look for a parallel to the latter concerning thoughts rather than particles do we find that there's a problem about determining both the position of my thought, what I am thinking now, and the momentum of my thought, leading to what I will think tomorrow? Perhaps I have appreciated the mathematical foundations of Heisenberg's argument and am beginning to work through them, so that my momentum is towards the Uncertainty Principle. I think we have to say that you can know both where I am and where I'm going, so that the UP does not apply to pure thought in the absence of physical observations, otherwise the mathematical argument would not be valid, which ex hypothesi it is. Therefore the UP does not apply to historical study, since we do not observe the past but only think about it.
#3 - Martin Hughes - 03/13/2017 - 18:42

N.T. Wrong had something to say about this use of the tu quoque defence.
#4 - Ralph Jones - 03/16/2017 - 10:27

Dear Martin,

Thank you for your response. I'm not sure where I claim, "the only alternative to 'bias' in favour of X is 'bias' against X." That is certainly not my position. Although I do think that sometimes (but certainly NOT always), a bias in favor of "x" might be a bias against "y,"----particularly when "x" and "y" are mutually exclusive. That being said, even a bias against "x," when it does imply a bias against "y," does not mean that one will come out against "y," even if that's where one's bias might have led.

I would concede it can be misleading to use words in ways we are not familiar with, as in your reference to my use of "bias," with the caveat: when no definition is provided. And yet, I provide, up front in my first article---in the last sentence of the first introductory paragraph no less---precisely how I use "bias" in that article. I hoped that would lead people to understand better what I meant in that piece by the word, rather than mislead them.

I furthermore agree that being in favor of one thing, or a member of certain group, or having a particular bias, does not imply animus toward some opposite. That is why, in the cases to which I refereed, I attempted to show precisely what sort of bias I thought they betrayed. As in Wellhausen, for example, he told us quite clearly his thoughts about the Prophets vs. the Pentateuch: I was not creating a false dichotomy, but rather trying to let his words speak for himself. The dichotomy between Torah and Prophets, was his, not mine. That's jut one example.

But, "to attempt to form an opinion objectively," might itself betray a bias, like those to which I was referring. For example, I am not a Muslim, but let's say for argument sake, that I were a Shi'a Muslim, and I believe that the Qur'an and the Imam's intepretations of the Qur'an and Hadith, gave me God's perspective on reality, and was therefore true, in an absolute sense. My Shi'a Muslim bias would likely operate in opposition to a scholar's bias in favor of "attempting an objective" (whatever that means) approach to the topic (whichever topic). Now, if my position, as a Shi'a Muslim (which I'm not) were in fact the true position, corresponded to reality independent of our perceptions and interpretations, that "bias" (as I used the term) would clarify reality, whereas the "bias" (as I used the term) of the attempted Objective investigator (which, I assume would imply they were not following the teachings of any religious tradition or religious authority) would possibly lead them to error. Bias could go either way, or in other ways besides.

With regard to Heisenberg and uncertainty principles....Ratzinger's point (which I was reporting) was not that Heisenberg or related physical/mathematical principles applied to literature and history....rather, he was challenging those who make the literary and historical studies used in biblical studies on par with the natural and hard sciences (not that uncommon my and his anecdotal experiences), explaining that such objectivity (presumably without bias) is impossible even in the hard much more in literature and history. It's not that history and literature follow the Heisenberg principle, or related physics principles. Rather, it's that the disciplines of history and literature, etc., are not immune from subjectivity.


#5 - Jeffrey L. Morrow - 03/16/2017 - 15:39

It was unfair of me not to refer back to your first article, though I did not think that you had made it clear whether the idea that 'bias' is harmful or regrettable, the common idea, survives or not - you only refer to unavoidablity.
Bias for X is certainly bias against not-X. But I think the question whether one can either in principle or in the particular case of biblical studies find a position that is biased neither for nor against X, i.e. is in the common sense of the word unbiased. I am sure that you can and have in both cases. I think Catholic scholars achieve this often!
As bias and perspective become really and objectively valued we will no longer have a critique of criticism but a proclamation from Ratzinger or a latter day Ratzinger 'De haereticorum expositionibus Sanctae Scripturae laudandis et celebrandis'.
I await it with pleasure.
It was a bit of fun but I was offering an argument that the study of literature and history could actually be more objective than atomic physics. Will this be the idea that makes me rich?
#6 - Martin Hughes - 03/18/2017 - 20:45

Use the form below to submit a new comment. Comments are moderated
and logged, and may be edited. You must provide your full name.
Inappropriate material will not be posted. Please do not post inappropriate web sites, they will be deleted.

E-mail (Will not appear online)