Humor in Biblical Studies

July 26, 2015

Almost a year ago I finished expanding my posts on Brodie’s Jesus-didn’t-exist book and Ehrman’s yes-he-did book into an article for an academic peer-reviewed journal, to be published later this year.  As I did more research on this controversy, one aspect of it struck me forcefully: many or most people on both sides of the fence were remarkably intolerant and contemptuous of the other side.

In what you might think of as an “academic” debate why should people get so incensed at and abusive toward those who disagree?  Realistically speaking, what palpable effect does it have on anyone whether someone else believes or disbelieves the historicity of a literary character from millennia-old texts?

In reading and thinking about this issue I reached a conclusion that may sound counter-intuitive:  the very best biblical scholars are those that maintain a sense of humor toward their subject matter and toward those who disagree with them.  And I mean a good-natured sense of humor, not a sarcastic sense of humor.  The issue is this:  I see contemptuous and abusive language as evidence that the perpetrator likely has some kind of vested interest in a particular belief about the subject.  They may be Christian believers for whom the claim that Jesus never existed threatens their own eternal salvation or their ability to proselytize others.  Or they may be anti-religion and think that the claim that Jesus did exist harms their anti-proselytization efforts.  In any case, there is probably some vested interest or they wouldn’t react so virulently.

Having a vested interest in a viewpoint or in the outcome of an investigation blinds people to opposing evidence and arguments.  A good-natured sense of humor is often evidence that someone is open to all of the evidence and all of the viewpoints.  Sometimes that attitude shows up in person but not so much in their writing, as is true of Thomas Brodie. Sometimes – unfortunately rarely among biblical scholars – it shows up in their writing. 

Michael Goulder was one of the greatest biblical scholars of our time, and part of his greatness is in the sense of humor that finds expression in his writing. A great example is in a by-now little known text he wrote in the 1970s. At the time, incarnation theology was debated as vigorously as Jesus’s existence is today.  “The incarnation” is the belief held by many Christians that “God became man” in Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ was at the same time both human and God.  For Goulder the very idea is nonsense in the same way that that the idea of Jesus’s non-existence is nonsense to Bart Ehrman, but look at how Goulder deals with the idea and its contemporary supporters.

Modern kenotic theologians,  like Professor E. L. Mascall or Fr. H. McCabe, seem to opt instead for vacuity: Jesus is metaphysically the Word of God, in his person, in his ego, but his human nature or consciousness is not affected by this. I will return to Mascall shortly, but perhaps I may make the general point with a parable. Returning from abroad with a friend, I hear that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedlam is Lord Beaver. ‘What!’, I say, ‘A new V-C?’ No, replies my friend, ‘the old V-C, Sir Robert Badger, must have become a peer’. In the distance Lord Beaver looks like Sir Robert, and the voice is similar, and the same conspicuous probity governs all his actions; but on closer acquaintance the differences seem obvious. ‘Oh’, says my friend, ‘he must have had a face-lift; and his voice is pitched deeper because of the new dignity; and he will have had a new central nervous system put in for the job: but It is the same chap.’ Soon I feel driven to ask ‘But what is in common between the V -C we knew and the V -C we know?’ If I am told, ‘Nothing. But metaphysically they are the same: It is a paradox’, two consequences will follow: first, I shall feel totally mystified, and second, I shall suspect that what began as a misidentification is being maintained from a reluctance to confess error.

– Michael Goulder, Incarnation and Myth. The Debate Continued (Eerdmans, 1979), 54-55.

Every time I read this I have to laugh out loud when I get to “he will have had a new central nervous system put in for the job: but it is the same chap.”

Why can’t more scholars write like this?  There is no contempt here for Mascall and McCabe; there is rather a feeling of “mystification” at how people could maintain a position that seems nonsensical to the author.  Notice also the tentative nature of the language: rather than expressions of certainty we read phrases like “seem to” with regard to the other’s’ position and  “I shall suspect” with regard to the author’s position.

Ironically, it is the scholars who express absolute certainty of their own views and contempt for others who should be treated with the most suspicion. This principle is an especially important guideline for readers who don’t have sufficient academic background to judge the evidence themselves. And scholars who express themselves in measured tones like Goulder are most to be trusted – partly because in point of fact, there is precious little that can be said with absolute certainty about any ancient literature, including biblical texts.