Sunday, March 14, 2010

Filtering the Data

I’ve been catching up on episodes of the NT Pod over the past week or so. I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed Mark’s series on the Synoptic Problem, especially the more complete picture provided through the extended episodes. I’ve come to realize that I’m a Hebrew Bible person primarily because it’s the fountainhead for all later biblical interpretation, and what really interests me is the history of interpretation. To that end, I’m trying to be a well-rounded generalist in Second Temple Judaism, New Testament, and classical Judaism.

One thing struck me out of Mark’s discussion of the Synoptic Problem that I think is relevant for many many many issues in biblical studies. He talked about how most NT introductions never really present the student with the problem when they discuss the Synoptic Problem. They start with one of the solutions and filter all the pertinent data through the solution. (By the by, Mark, I’m not a NT expert but you’ve convinced me in your case against Q anyway.)

Filtering the data seems to be a common way for unexamined consensus positions to get passed on intact to the next generation of scholars. We all take away a certain perspective on the biblical data from our teachers. That perspective often works like a filter preventing us from seeing the data in a fresh way. I try to be as aware as possible of my own filters, or rather, I try to be aware of when a particular perspective or presupposition is coloring how I interpret the data. It’s hard to do, but it might be a good exercise for us all to think through how we might be filtering the data when we read the Bible or study any particular problem in biblical studies.

I can think of two perspectives that I’ve gained from my teachers that color how I approach my scholarship. First, in Qumran studies, I first learned about the Dead Sea Scrolls from a non-consensus scholar, so it would probably take nothing short of an angel from heaven revealing to me that Essenes did, in fact, live at Qumran and compose the sectarian scrolls there for me to accept the validity of that consensus. Second, in biblical studies, I learned to keep theological conclusions about the truth claims of the text from overrunning what the text itself actually says. That is, I learned to identify it when I or any other interpreter has come to the text peering through a particular theological lens. The result is that I am not a fan of unexamined consensus positions, and I draw a hard line between apologetics and critical scholarship.

Well, have you thought about it? What are your filters that affect how you read the Bible? Do you think of them as strengths or weaknesses?


  1. Very fine post, Doug. I hope to get back to the issues you raise.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post, Doug, and for riffing on the theme I mentioned. I think in teaching terms it is much more refreshing for students to be presented with the problem first, and to get some kind of sense of how one works towards a solution, even if they disagree with the solution one is reaching.

  3. "I draw a hard line between apologetics and critical scholarship."
    I agree with pretty much everything you said except this concluding statement!
    Can you explain just precisely what is the hard line you draw between apologetics and critical scholarship?

    Surely every "critical" theory is not such unless it is publicly defended by argument. Such a defense is of course, from another perspective, "apologetics". The distinction seems entirely invalid and ripe for deconstruction. It seems useful only if you wish to dismiss the arguments of others without genuine engagement e.g. 'We need not even attempt to answer their arguments for they constitute mere apologetics' or 'The only people who still hold this view are apologists, not mainstream scholars'. The idea that "critical scholarship" is different to "apologetics" actually serves the rhetoric used to propagate unexamined consensus positions! For such positions are said to be "assured results of critical scholarship" and arguments in favor of alternative positions are dismissed as "apologetics".

    A great recent example is Richard Bauckham tearing apart the rational basis for a generation's worth of Gospel form criticism. He and others have critically questioned the rational basis for Gospel form criticism and found it sorely wanting. However, because the results of gospel form criticism are widely accepted as "assured results of critical scholarship" the critical arguments against the rational basis for Gospel form criticism go answered, dismissed in many quarters as mere "apologetics".

  4. Jeremy, my previous posts on apologetics and scholarship fill out what I meant by that last statement. One can be found here. Basically, I define apologetics as starting with a conclusion and then harmonizing all evidence through that conclusion. Some scholars take that approach with certain consensus positions and don't examine the data first (that's what Mark was highlighting in his discussions of Q). There is no clear line between scholarship and apologetics because mainstream scholars are often apologists for their favorite theory. In biblical studies, we also get scholars who are acting as apologists for their theological convictions. Often they argue strenuously that their convictions are based on an a posteriori examination of evidence but their conclusion and the passion with which they defend it suggest it's really an a priori commitment.

    More of my engagement with this issue can be found under all posts tagged apologetics.