After a hiatus from blogging I’m getting started again by posting here a review of Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar, by Michael Goulder, that I just posted on Amazon.
I only expected to get a mildly interesting memoir when I ordered this book, but it unexpectedly turned out to be one of the most revealing books about biblical scholarship I have ever read. As one might guess from the title and its explanation on the back cover, the book is an excellent introduction to Goulder’s contributions to biblical scholarship, which itself makes reading it more than worthwhile to anyone not already familiar with those contributions. More than that, though, the book left me with a profound admiration for Goulder, not only on account of his academic brilliance but beyond that and even more importantly for his integrity and honesty coupled with a marvelous sense of humor. The book also graphically depicts a biblical studies field in which those qualities are especially rare.
The book is written in a very accessible style. It is essentially a narrative composed of many truly "fascinating and delightful" (as Goodacre puts it) personal anecdotes but also explains in terms anyone can understand the arguments behind some of the major controversies that Goulder got involved in. Anyone who is interested in biblical studies, general reader or specialist, would find reading this book to be a rewarding experience.
For a taste of the revealing anecdotes to be found in the book I relate here one about Raymond Brown. Before this point in the book Goulder has explained his own arguments that Luke chapters 1 and 2 were created by borrowing from and reworking Old Testament texts. After Goulder published those findings, Brown came to give a lecture on the subject at the Society of New Testament Studies. Goulder writes,
. . . it was by now widely accepted that Luke 1-2 was much indebted to types and prophecies in the Old Testament; but Brown was a faithful Catholic, and could hardly come to the same skeptical conclusions as I had about the historicity of the birth narratives. At first his lecture followed my article step by step: he cited most of the passages which I had used, and referred to me by name; he thought I had gone too far in trying to explain the names, and tried to raise a laugh at my expense, but to my relief nobody responded. Eventually he turned to the crucial question of history. How much then of these two chapters could we think was historical? Three things, he answered: Johns’ parents really were called Zechariah and Elizabeth; his father really was a priest; and Jesus’ mother Mary was a virgin at the time of the conception. When he had finished Barnabas Lindars, an Anglican Franciscan, sitting next to me, rose to ask the first question: ‘You have cited a good number of passages from the Old Testament. But you did not mention Isaiah chapter 7 verse 14.’ This verse reads, ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bring forth a child . . .’ Raymond replied weakly. ‘I do not think that Luke had noticed that text.’
Goulder goes on to explain,
It was scandalous to suggest that these narratives were not historical, but I had been bold enough to draw the obvious inference. Raymond however looked as if he had ducked the clear but unwelcome conclusion. Where the parallels in the Old Testament to a story in Luke did not threaten a cherished belief, Raymond was happy to accept that Luke had inferred the stories from the OT texts, without having evidence that they were actually historical; but the Isaiah text would imply that Luke had also inferred the Virgin Birth, and this was a cherished belief which he was not willing to abandon. There are many places not only in Luke 1-2, but throughout the Gospel and Acts, where Luke shows a close knowledge of Isaiah’s prophecy, and it was just special pleading to suggest that he had not noticed Isa. 7:14. This was only the first of many occasions in which I came to find that the holding of religious belief proved an obstacle to the impartial evaluation of evidence.