What Is a "Bible Scholar"?

By: Ray Pseudo - March 10, 2021

Since this site is new, I thought I’d give my opinion about the nature of the title. Who are we who call ourselves “scholars”? The following is my opinion only. In order to determine what a “Bible scholar” is, there are several related and overlapping topics to address. To begin, let’s start with question of qualification.

A simple answer to who is a Bible scholar may be that it is someone with a PhD in the Bible. Most institutions don’t offer that though. Instead, people get PhDs in “Biblical Studies,” or more likely something as vague as “Religious Studies” (like me). It’s typically about specialization, and schools have varieties based on different geographical regions, times, and themes. Then there’s the topic of the dissertation, and whether the major output of their doctorate is biblical or not. Mine is on a topic in early Christianity, so my focus is not actually the Bible, rather it is on a theme in the early centuries of Christian development. This means I certainly have deep dives into biblical texts, but “the Bible” is not the focus. This is typical. All this to say, what counts as a Bible scholar is somewhat subjective. In fact, I generally prefer to call myself a “social historian” whose area of expertise is “the varieties of Christian expression in the early centuries CE.” The Bible is a very narrow selection of the available literature in antiquity; there are even Christian texts that pre-date some of the NT texts (1 Clement, Ignatius, Didache, etc), so prioritizing “the Bible” is sometimes arbitrary (unless one’s focus is reception history, in which the NT documents certainly allow more intense study).

The bottom line about this seemingly pedantic exploration is that what all of these have in common is they are doctorates, hence the title “Dr.” so-and-so (fun fact, the humanities actually used the title “Dr” before surgeons). The doctorate is, at least in Europe and North America, the highest degree awarded in the field, so that tends to be the minimum requirement of a “scholar.” Despite the field of study, a “Bible scholar” is typically one who earns a doctorate and whose specialization is the Bible or relevant social history which produced it; a person with a PhD in Sociology who wrote their dissertation on social media influence and later became interested in the Bible may not be considered a “Bible scholar.”

The next issue, which will be a bit more contentious, is the question of who decides to award a doctorate? This is the question of institutional authority. Things get trickier here. Put most simply, the reputation of the institution which grants the PhD may be a factor in assessing an individual’s status as a “scholar.” A person with a PhD in the Bible from Trump University probably wouldn’t be considered a Bible scholar. 

But where does one draw the line? There are regional accreditations which ensure universities maintain certain standards, but these standards may not be applied across the board to all fields equally. It is no secret that universities often excel in some areas, say the mechanical sciences (think MIT or CalTech), while gearing less towards humanities or the liberal arts. Usually, among the best institutions, there won’t be great disparities here but it can certainly happen.

Beyond the technical aspects of accreditation that I won’t bore anyone with, there is also the question of under whom one received their PhD; read, “Who taught you?” When you get a PhD, you write a dissertation (a very technical book, say 300 pages of heavily footnoted jargony and erudite text not intended for public consumption). This dissertation is written under the supervision of a committee, typically 3-6 faculty members, often one of which must be from a different institution than the degree-granting one (the “outside reader”). These committee members are typically each tenured faculty, with one of them being your main supervisor who has the most power and with whom you work most closely. You have to get everyone to sign off on the dissertation, basically getting all these people to agree that you have demonstrated the level of mastery in your field to earn the PhD. Put more cynically, these doctors don’t want your poor performance reflecting badly on them, their field, or their degrees; they don’t want you watering down their reputation. Academics are notorious gossips, and if you present a bonkers idea at a conference people will ask “Who gave them a doctorate?” Departments live and die by their reputations. There are plenty of fail-safes in this process to typically ensure that qualified candidates and only qualified candidates earn their degree, but of course no fail-safe is foolproof.

At this point I return to the institutional question, which will tie-in to the committee in a moment. This part…is dicey. To put it bluntly, theological conservatism may at times be a hindrance to the degree to which an individual may be considered a “legitimate” scholar in the field. Since I am a scholar of early Christianity I will limit my comments to that subfield alone, but it is not the exception.

Let’s take a look at Liberty University, because it’s an easy punching-bag and I have zero problems publicly stating (even if anonymously) that its religion program is terribly problematic. Liberty offers doctorates in the following (relevant to this topic) fields (from their website, https://www.liberty.edu/academics/index.cfm?PID=27267)

Bible Exposition (PhD)

Theology & Apologetics (PhD)

Ministry (DMin, “Doctorate of Ministry”)

The third item, their DMin, has fourteen subfields, among them “Biblical Studies” and “Theology and Apologetics.”

Liberty University is accredited. However, Liberty is also private, which means it can get away with some things that public universities cannot. This becomes crucially important in biblical studies. On their website they have a “Doctrinal statement” (https://www.liberty.edu/aboutliberty/index.cfm?PID=6907), which contains the following claim about the Bible:

“We affirm that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, though written by men, was supernaturally inspired by God so that all its words are the written true revelation of God; it is therefore inerrant in the originals and authoritative in all matters. It is to be understood by all through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, its meaning determined by the historical, grammatical, and literary use of the author’s language, comparing Scripture with Scripture.”

The doctrinal statement also affirms the following:

“The universe was created in six historical days”

"Human beings were directly created, not evolved, in the very image of God”

“We affirm that Adam, the first man, willfully disobeyed God, bringing sin and death into the world”

So in order to abide by Liberty’s official Doctrinal Statement, one must believe in biblical inerrancy and Young Earth Creationism (“YEC,” that the world was created in 6 days only several thousands years ago). Here, for example, is one of their Geology professors arguing for YEC: https://www.liberty.edu/news/2017/02/20/geology-professor-defends-creationism-in-documentary-showing-in-theaters-this-week/. That man, Dr. Marcus Ross, got his PhD in geoscience from the University of Rhode Island, a solid and accredited university. I’m not a geologist, so I won’t bother with this, but it certainly raises some eyebrows.

Getting back to the Bible, the claims are about as radical as one can get. In the same way that Liberty has cobbled together professors of geology and biology who deny core tenets of the field to be accurate, Liberty has a faculty that are contractually obligated to abide by the Doctrinal Statement. That statement is, to put it mildly, out of step with the great majority of biblical scholars.

At this point I will point out that I am not getting dragged into a debate about “What percentage of scholars think X or Y,” especially on the topic of biblical inerrancy. Biblical inerrancy is only held by particular kinds of Christians, just as Young Earth Creationism is only affirmed by particular kinds of Christians. In the top universities with strong programs in religious studies, you will not find faculty who believe this (i.e., Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Notre Dame, UNC, Duke, Emory, Vanderbilt, UChicago, Brown, etc). That is, you will not find faculty in the field of religious studies who believe this. Mind you, several of those universities are religiously affiliated with a Christian denomination. 

Liberty is certainly somewhat exceptional in this matter, but several other relatively high-profile schools share similar doctrinal creeds, such as Wheaton (https://www.wheaton.edu/about-wheaton/statement-of-faith-and-educational-purpose/), Gordon Conwell (https://www.gordonconwell.edu/about/what-we-believe/), or George Fox University (https://www.georgefox.edu/about/mission_vision_values/faith_statement.html).

Faculty must affirm these doctrines in order to get hired, and perhaps more importantly, they must maintain these doctrines in their publications or even private lives. As private universities, these institutions are free to enforce their own code of conduct, and especially when the faculty must sign their name their to the statement upon hiring, a perceived breach of that code is a legally enforceable breach of conduct (for examples, see https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/14/can-statements-faith-be-compatible-academic-freedom).

So after all this, I ask again, “What is a Bible Scholar?” Can we say that a person who affirms the complete inerrancy of the Bible is trustworthy to represent the field accurately? Can we call them “scholars”? What about people who get PhDs in the Bible from these universities?

At this point it should become apparent that we are approaching a slippery slope. If not Liberty or Wheaton, what about other Christian institutions? What about divinity schools that are part of a university but operate independently? Where do we draw the line? Can we justify such a subjective judgment on who should be called a legitimate scholar? Who are we to say?

It seems to come down to that last question: Who are we?

All fields of study have varieties of opinions, and just because an opinion happens to be shared by the majority does not make it correct. In fact, scholarship can only advance when scholars have ideas that nobody else had! There can be no advancement in a field unless someone comes along and has an idea that others have not. By definition, that person is in the extreme minority, whether they be right or wrong. So how do we decide if that idea is right?

Ideally, this is where peer-review comes into play. If someone has an idea, they send it to a publisher who then vets the book/article by assigning anonymous reviewers (also scholars in the field), who then tell the publisher whether the book/article has enough merit to warrant their stamp of approval. Like I noted with the dissertation committee, this is about whether the press can stand by their product (and make money). The better received a product is upon publication, the more likely they are to continue to publish those ideas and/or take chances on others. If the author is unable to convince the initial reviewers of their idea, they’ll have to take it to another publisher. On a very basic level, it’s simple supply and demand. If a press gets known for publishing books espousing biblical inerrancy, scholars who don’t believe that may not even send potential publications to that press lest they be lumped in with those people, and the cycle perpetuates itself.

But what if a scholar who earned their PhD from Liberty and abides by biblical inerrancy happens to be a brilliant linguist with tremendous insight into some Greek word used in 2 Peter (for instance), and makes an argument outside of any reference to biblical inerrancy? In such a case, you would have a graduate of an accredited university published in a peer-reviewed press in the field of the New Testament who also happened to have the wildly unacademic position that the Bible is the historically inerrant and divinely inspired Word of God. Is that person a scholar? By virtually any standard, yes.

The conclusion of all this is that a “scholar” is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. There are good scholars and bad scholars, there are conservative (even fundamentalist) scholars who are good scholars and there are liberal/atheist biblical scholars who are bad scholars (my flippant use of “good” and “bad” may be as simple as whether they can write a sustained argument without logical fallacies or abundant inaccuracies). There is no universal metric; there is no unassailable standard.

We may find something akin to a resolution to this in Kierkegaard’s phrase, “De omnibus dubitandum est”; “Everything must be doubted.” No scholar is beyond reproach, no scholarship beyond critique. Even among my favorite scholars whom I think are more brilliant than I will ever be, I find sometimes that I think they are completely wrong about something. Great scholars disagree all the time, and that’s how the field grows. It is constantly in flux, subject to change at any point if the data and argument are well presented. That’s what makes it science, that’s what makes it scholarship. It is only when an idea rejects argument on the basis of a preconceived opinion that it ceases to be scholarship. In a later post I will share a personal anecdote of how this may be completely unconsciously done by a scholar despite their best efforts (in that anecdote, I am the scholar who was unconsciously prejudiced against an idea).

In all this I hope to have pointed out some things to consider. The question of whether scholarship can be trusted on the basis of where one got their PhD or in what press they have published or where they currently work, these are all complicated yet legitimate concerns to bring to the table. It is only by holding each other accountable that the word “scholar” can maintain any semblance of authority, and to that end I look forward to many corrections, disagreements, and enlightenments.

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Robert - March 11, 2021, 4:19 a.m.
Thanks for the writeup, Dr. Pseudo (if, in fact, that is your real name)! I just wanted to add that for the purpose of this website, a scholar follows the standards of r/AskBibleScholars, which would be anyone with at least an undergraduate degree in biblical studies or a related field. However, for broader purposes, I heartily agree with your standards.

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