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How Can You Still Believe? Guest Post by Judy Siker

One of the questions I get asked the most frequently from blog members is how someone can possibly continue to be a believing Christian if they understand the enormous problems presented by the critical study of the New Testament.  I always tell them that in fact it’s not only possible – it happens all the time.  Sometimes they are incredulous, but it’s not only true, it’s so true that my friends who know everything I know about the Bible and are still believers often find the question / issue completely puzzling.  They have trouble understanding why anyone thinks it’s a problem.  As we learned from “Cool Hand Luke” (a great movie, btw, with tons of Christ-images), “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

I have asked my former student and long-time friend Rev. Dr. Judy Siker to write a couple of posts from a personal standpoint, indicating why/ how she continues to be a believer and faithful church person even though she is, at the same time, a critical scholar of the Bible.

I first came to know Judy thirty years ago, when she applied for our graduate program in New Testament/Early Christianity at UNC Chapel Hill.   She did both an MA and a PhD here, and developed a number of academic interests, including especially the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew in particular) and Jewish-Christian relations in antiquity.  Her dissertation dealt with what we can know about the tensions and conflicts between followers of Jesus and the non-Christian Jews in the community behind the Gospel of Matthew.

Judy had a long and distinguished career in teaching, with positions at Meredith College, the American Baptist Seminary of the West, the Graduate Theological Union, San Francisco Theological Seminary (where she was also Vice President of the institution), and Loyola Marymount University.   In addition to being a professional academic, she is also an ordained minister.   Here is a first post in which she begins to explain how both are possible

 

*********************************************************

…and you still believe?

              I am a recently retired professor of New Testament and Christian Origins and an ordained Presbyterian minister (PCUSA), and I have enjoyed a rich and fulfilling career in both fields. As someone who has spent decades teaching in the area of New Testament, I love the Ehrman blog, the questions Bart raises, and the discussions his work (both on the blog and in his many publications) engenders. I am continually intrigued by the academic discourse and debate on issues in the field of New Testament and Christian Origins and have enjoyed exploring those with my students. And yet…

Throughout my teaching career folks have asked me how and why, given my scholarly pursuit of the Bible, do I continue to believe? My response is, “How or why would I not?”

This answer, of course, is not satisfactory for those who see insurmountable contradictions between the academic pursuit of the biblical text and the life of faith. I suppose at this point it goes without saying that I do not. So, when Bart asked me if I would be willing to write a couple of posts about how I can both acknowledge that there are serious problems with the Bible (more on that to come) AND continue to live in my faith tradition, I agreed.

As you the readers know, guest posts are often about a specialty of the guest, the topic of a recent book or an invitation to delve into a detailed question by one of the members of the blog on a matter of New Testament or other ancient texts.  This guest post is none of those things. Rather it is a very personal reflection on a question that I have been asked since I first went to seminary and throughout my career as a NT professor: How can you know what you know about the NT and still believe?

In this post I will introduce some of the factors that went into my development as a woman of faith and in the next post I will address more specifically how, in my experience, the scholarly world of the New Testament and my Christian beliefs are mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive. These reflections are not designed to convince or convert; they are simply one woman’s reflections on how she lives both in the academy and the church.

I was raised in eastern North Carolina in a moderate protestant church. From the time the pediatrician said this baby can be in public until I left for college, I was in church. We were there on Sunday mornings and sometimes Sunday evenings, and–not infrequently–other days of the week as well. I went to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School and Youth Group. If we were visiting my North Carolina grandparents, the visit included attending church, a Baptist Church. If we were visiting my Minnesota grandparents we were in church, a Lutheran Church. We were in church.

I sometimes think I was born believing. I do not remember ever feeling pressured to go or to believe; it was simply who we were and what we did. There were prayers at meals and prayers at bedtime and in my little girl brain, it all made sense—as much sense as it could to a child.

I have vivid childhood memories of my paternal grandmother and her Bible. She did not have the privilege of extended formal education but her knowledge of the Bible was enviable. I can see her now sitting in her chair, Bible in hand, preparing to teach any number of lessons. It was a well-used, well-worn book filed with old church bulletins marking favorite passages. Its pages were dog-eared, many of its passages highlighted or underlined. It has only been in later reflection on these memories that I have realized the strong unspoken lesson of this familiar scene. The Bible is a book to explore. The Bible is a book that calls us to read it over and over again.

My recollection of church is that questions were not discouraged but neither were there long, in-depth discussions of the biblical text. So over the years growing up I felt both a freedom and a sense of incompleteness.  I remember having lots of questions about the stories in the Bible, and I was curious about lots of things I was taught at church. Yet I was also moderately satisfied with the answers that came and so I just kept on believing.

Similarly, there wasn’t a great deal of discussion about the Bible at home, but it was clear that my parents’ faith was important to them, that the church community held a prominent place in our lives, and that God had certain expectations of us as His (my understanding as a child) children.

For whatever reason (I cannot explain) I did not rebel. I continued to stand in this tradition in which I was raised, faithful but filled with questions as I headed off to college.

The women’s college I attended required six units (two courses) of religion. It was only when I landed in that first religion course my freshman year that I began to tackle my latent questions head on from a scholarly perspective. I remember quite well sitting in that course and being so excited by the lectures. I was delighted that some of the questions I had carried for so long were beginning to be answered. (I especially remember my relief at learning that the first eleven chapters of Genesis were considered by many scholars to be primeval history or etiologies and not actual recorded history suggesting that there was at some point in time one man and one woman and then voila an entire world was populated.)

I also remember quite well that my delighted response was not that of all my classmates. In fact, a number of young women who had been raised in conservative Christian homes and churches were greatly distressed by the lectures. Some of them were angry that the professor was spreading lies; others were angry that they had been lied to all their lives. I was puzzled by all of this as I continued to drink in these thought-provoking lectures.

Intrigued by the field and always thirsty for more, I decided to add a Religion major to my Early Childhood Education major. It was a decision that would serve me well, for after teaching elementary school for a number of years and beginning to raise three children, I longed to go back for more studies and it was the field of biblical studies that I wished to pursue.

I had been active in churches in my young adult life, teaching classes and leading studies and I wanted to be equipped to teach at the college or seminary level. So much to the bewilderment of family and friends I headed off to seminary for a Master of Divinity degree and then on to the university for a Master of Arts and a Ph.D. I remember the warnings of well-intentioned friends when I set off to seminary. They feared I would lose my faith if I started studying the Bible from a scholar’s perspective. Their fears were not realized, however, and my curiosity about the text and my belief in God were not, and did not become, mutually exclusive.

As I sit composing this post, I realize happily that I have spent an entire career exploring the biblical text (mostly NT), dealing with the issues and contradictions within the pages of these ancient texts, and I continue to be a believer. And not only a believer, but a preacher and a teacher within the Christian community.

So that’s a bit of the history of my journey, and in the next post I will tackle more specifically how I can know what I know and still believe, how believing makes more sense to me than not believing, and how I can stand firmly in my tradition with arguably more questions than answers.

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If you’re a member of the blog, you get substantial posts, five times a week, every week of the year — with archives going back seven years.  If you’re not a member of the blog, you don’t.  So why not join???

 

 

 

 

 


Blog Dinner, Chicago IL, Friday October 18
Is It Ever Right to Lie? Or Was It? Even in Early Christianity? The Relevance for Forgery.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Phil  October 2, 2019

    This is such a fascinating post -thanks so much and I can barely wait for tomorrow’s episode.

    • JYS
      JYS  October 3, 2019

      Thanks, Phil.They will actually be spaced out over a few days, so keep on the lookout.

  2. Avatar
    rburos  October 2, 2019

    thank you!

  3. Avatar
    Hon Wai  October 2, 2019

    I look forward to Judy’s next post which would explain how she maintained her faith despite knowledge of biblical problems. I have never taken the view that the Christian faith depends on inerrancy or even the related but weaker notion of infallibility (i.e. concerning matters of doctrines, as per Catholic theology). Historical inaccuracies in the gospels and myths in Genesis creation story (as per Metzger, there is no reason why God couldn’t inspire myths) don’t seem to challenge central tenets of the Christian faith as formulated by the patristic creeds (e.g. affirmation of God as creator of the world, Jesus as unique Son of God and saviour of the world, forgiveness of sins through the cross). Yet, some findings of biblical scholarship do challenge the basis of Christian faith: Jesus as an apocalyptist who expected imminent end of the world (a compelling but not conclusive thesis; if he got this crucial detail wrong, it opens the door to thinking he got other details wrong as well); much of the pre-Exile Israelite narratives in the Hebrew Bible are legendary. I think devout Christians who view Jesus as fully God will always struggle to come to terms with the contention that Jesus got wrong a central premise of his earthly mission. Sure enough, a kenotic God incarnate may not know about quantum mechanics and everything about botany such as the relative size of the mustard seed. But how could God incarnate get wrong the central background premise of his mission on earth. While presence of myths here and there in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Jonah & the whale, a talking donkey, a talking snake) can be accommodated by a sufficiently nuanced biblical hermeneutic, the likelihood that the big picture of the story of Israel as depicted in the Hebrew Bible is legendary does undermine how the Bible can be an authoritative source of faith, given that Jesus, Paul and other NT authors presuppose the broad picture in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. calling of Abraham, the deliverance of God’s people via the Exodus, the origin and history of the Israelite people, the law given to Moses). Given evidence of human fallibility is found throughout the Bible, the traditional believer who acknowledges findings of historical-critical scholarship, will struggle to present an evidential case for divine inspiration of the Bible. In other words, why still believe that God has anything to do with the Bible? Perhaps Judy will address this problem in her next post.

  4. Avatar
    mombird903  October 2, 2019

    I will be curious to what she has to say. Perhaps she means she believes on some kind of metaphorical level? Can’t wait for the spin.

  5. Avatar
    Zak1010  October 2, 2019

    Discovering problematic or enormous problems in the NT does not prove nor can it conclude to the non existence of God our Almighty Creator.
    There are books before the NT( in the NT and outside the NT ), during the compilation of the NT and after its compilation that shed lots of light on the existence of God, believing in God, worshiping God, repenting to God and the eventual meeting of God. ( Lest they know )

  6. Avatar
    stokerslodge  October 2, 2019

    I enjoyed this, it’s very interesting – thank you!

  7. Avatar
    jhague  October 2, 2019

    Thank you for this first post. I can relate to your childhood as I was also in church whenever the doors were open. We were at church a minimum of three times per week. And I always enjoyed it and never thought of doing anything different. I raised my children the same way and they enjoyed church as much as I did or maybe more.
    As an adult now who has read Bart’s books and other similar books and also read Bart’s blog every day, my current struggle is with trying to teach within the community church model. The people that I know in the community style churches take the Bible literally so most of them believe that the world was created in six days, there was an exodus and all the other discrepancies/contradictions that we know. As a teacher in the church, how do you teach people who have these type of beliefs and become angry and defensive if there is a discussion stating that the Bible has discrepancies?

    • JYS
      JYS  October 3, 2019

      I should say that I am ordained in and teaching in a mainline denomination (PCUSA). That said, I do encounter people whose beliefs are much different than mine and much closer to the beliefs you describe. My style of teaching is invitational. This has worked for me for years in both the academy and the church. While it is quite difficult to introduce the idea of discrepancies in the Bible (along with a wide array of other ideas that biblical literalists find offensive), I have been most successful in creating a dialogue when I invite them to consider some different approaches and then listen carefully to their responses. Minds are not necessarily changed, but the dialogue (when anger can be kept at bay) is beneficial for all.

      • Avatar
        mwbaugh  October 7, 2019

        That is a wonderful answer. You listen with respect, and that builds respect in your listeners. Even if they never come to agree with you, they learn that people who hold your views can be good, reasonable, and faithful. That is so often missing in religious and political discussions these days.

        • JYS
          JYS  October 7, 2019

          Thank you. I agree with you that there is a great dearth of civility in contemporary discussions of religion and politics. I don’t know how we can expect to learn from one another if we refuse to listen.

  8. Avatar
    Damian King  October 2, 2019

    I disagree with that language. I disagree that there are “problems” with the Bible. I disagree with this language, because we NEVER use this language when discussing other literature. Have you ever heard anyone describe Homer this way, Dante this way? No. I have not. We simply refer to them as curiosities, fun facts etc. Dante has a geocentric view of the Solar System. Have you EVER heard any scholar describe this as a “serious problem”? Why should the Bible be described as having a “serious problem” if it were true that certain books assume a geocentric view? Shakespeare was influenced by Italian court romances, have you EVER heard anyone describe it as a “serious problem”? Why is it a “serious problem” that the Bible shows influence of surrounding culture? And this could apply to other areas. I just don’t see other literature referred to this way. I am sure atheist activists would like this language, but we, as people interested in scholarship of the Bible as literature/history should employ the same language we employ with Dante. I don’t see why we should call advanced Biblical scholarship, “serious problems with the Bible.” It just doesn’t make ANY sense to me, personally.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2019

      I’ll let Judy answer this in full. But I should tell you that other literature is talked about like this *all* the time. I’ve spent the day reading articles on Virgil’s Aeneid book 6, and every article is dealing with the “problems” of the book, it’s inconsistencies, discrepancies, and so on. These problems are very serious and are taken that way. So too with Homer (all over the place) Dante, and so on….

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2019

      I’m going to disagree with you on that one. Scholars are *always* talking about the “problems” in other texts/authors. I spent the day yesterday reading scholarly articles on Virgil’s Aeneid book 6, and every one of that articles was on the “problems” it poses — internal inconsistencies, contradictions, conflicting sources on and on. Today I’ll be doing the same on Homer, Odyssey 11 — again, all about the problems and how to resolve them. This is simply what scholars who deal with literature deal with. (If there were no problems, there would be no reason for scholarship!)

      • Avatar
        Damian King  October 5, 2019

        Hmm… That is interesting to hear. I still don’t think I personally remember that kind of attitude towards other literature. Like, when we hear that we do not know what the earliest origin of Homeric tales were, or if there even was a single person who composed the Odyssey… usually, we hear about these stories with a sense that someone is telling us a “cool fact”, not some problem that has to be confronted. That was my issue. If we are writing about the Bible from a literary point of view, why should we treat it differently than Homer?

  9. Avatar
    flshrP  October 2, 2019

    It’s no surprise that many academics, including biblical scholars, check their brains at the church door. All religious belief is based on the most primeval of human fears–fear of non-existence. Religion plays on that fear by using the fantasy of an invisible, immaterial, immortal human soul and the equally fantastic nonsense of an eternal afterlife of pleasure if the believer does exactly what the religious authorities order them to do and the barbaric threat of eternal punishment in fire for those who stray.

    In so doing, religion manipulates another universal human weakness, namely, greed, by offering, for the low, low price of your critical thinking faculties, to provide infinite satisfaction of your greed, namely, an eternal afterlife of pleasure. Many people will buy into this bogus deal and fall on their knees believing they are saved and have become eternal.

    Religion uses the universal human feeling of guilt starting with the filthy doctrine of original sin (children inherit the guilt of their parents, which is a barbarism that is completely opposed to our constitutional guarantee of innocent until proven guilty). And then religion whips the believer with additional fantasies of sin and guilt and threats of eternal punishment to keep believers in a perpetual state of high anxiety (am I really saved?).

    And what is most insidious, starting with the nonsense of Adam and Eve and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, religion shows its true face by threats of eternal fire for any believer who uses his faculty of critical thought to question doctrine and belief–thought control, the essence of totalitarianism. Apostasy, the unpardonable sin, is the chain that religion uses to keep the believer on his knees, thinking that he has cheated death due to the grace and merit resulting from a single vicarious human blood sacrifice (scapegoating).

    Face with this barrage of existential fear, greed, guilt and threats, all of which induce continual anxiety in the believer, it’s understandable that many highly educated believers never cease to be full time residents of the Christian fantasyland.

    • JYS
      JYS  October 3, 2019

      That is quite the summary/analysis of “religion.” I don’t happen to agree with all you say, obviously; nor do I count myself, as you might, as a biblical scholar who has checked her brain at the door. There are other ways to approach the text and Christianity itself. I will address that in part in my next post.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  October 4, 2019

      My goodness, what faith did you come out of? While I may be an atheist, I don’t condemn nor believe that most Christians check their brains at the door. Quite the contrary for many of them…they have thought deeply about their faith and their place in this world. They’ve explored and read extensively. I’ve read many believing people’s views and am amazed at the depth of their reasoning, even if I don’t agree with their conclusions.

      I’m very interested in your further posts, Judy. I left religion long ago and it was a heart wrenching process and decision. For me, it was an inability to believe even though I wanted to so very much. I’m still fascinated by those, like you, that have kept your faith when I was unable. Why do people come to very different conclusions? Looking forward to your story!

      • JYS
        JYS  October 6, 2019

        Thank you for this honest response. I suppose it depends on

          what

        one believes and what one believes

          in

        that leads to such different conclusions. In my next post I will try to shed some light on what I mean–and don’t mean–when I say I still believe.

        • Avatar
          Steve Clark  October 7, 2019

          Yes – that’s what it all comes down to. What does it mean for someone to call themselves a believer in Christianity? Ask 100 people get a 100 different answers as mega-church preacher Andy Stanley says.

          Certainly not belief in literal eternal torture for non-believers. Anyone with a heart and mind knows that has to go. It’s sadistic to the extreme. The view Jesus was perfect? The NT shows a less than perfect figure – smashing a temple up with a whip, being verbally abusive at times. Even Jesus said “Why call me good ? No one is good but God alone.”

          The Scholar Hector Avalos has pointed out he thinks there is a bias in Academic Biblical Scholarship that resists seeing any flaws in NT Jesus at all, even among those who think he was mortal. He lays this out powerfully in his last book The Bad Jesus The Ethics of New Testament Ethics.

          To say one is a Christian believer is almost to model ones own religion out of the various contradictory accounts and stories of New Testament Jesus – some good, some bad. Take your pick !

          • JYS
            JYS  October 7, 2019

            You are certainly correct in recognizing that to say one is a Christian believer leaves an endless array of possibilities for definition. It is among the reasons I find it so unhelpful to label ourselves or others without a conversation or discussion.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  October 5, 2019

      “It’s no surprise that many academics, including biblical scholars, check their brains at the church door…In so doing, religion manipulates another universal human weakness, namely, greed, by offering, for the low, low price of your critical thinking faculties…”

      I think somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 2, 2019

    Great post about a question I have asked for decades. Please keep going. And thanks.

  11. Avatar
    Lindylou  October 2, 2019

    Looking forward to your next post. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Robert
    Robert  October 2, 2019

    I appreciate your sharing your personal experience of Christian faith as a biblical scholar, I really do, but perhaps you would also consider a third guest post on your own scholarly views of the community in which ‘Matthew’ lived and wrote his gospel, the author’s redactional perspective, the problem(s) about the gospel that you think cannot be resolved and why. These are questions that occupy believes and unbelievers alike and are perhaps even more interesting to many here.

    • JYS
      JYS  October 3, 2019

      Thanks for the comment and the question. I’m happy to consider a third post on Matthew; it just happens to be my favorite!

      • Lev
        Lev  October 9, 2019

        Bart – if you could permit this to happen, there’s at least 8 of us who would love to read it! 🙂

  13. Avatar
    LWH  October 2, 2019

    To understand your position as “believer,” it would be helpful to know what it is that you believe. Is it the Apostle’s Creed? Or some fewer specific things? My personal history through my first year at a Methodist-related college sounds almost the same as yours, but we turned out very different, so what it is that you believe is important to know for me to try to make sense of your experience. Thanks for your contribution.

    • JYS
      JYS  October 3, 2019

      Absolutely. In my next post I will be much more specific about what I believe and why it makes sense to me.

  14. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  October 3, 2019

    Great post. Can’t wait to read the next one!

  15. Avatar
    johnsotdj  October 3, 2019

    Thank you Dr. Siker! I look forward to tomorrow’s post. The church of my youth was the UPCUSA.
    Tom Johnson

  16. Avatar
    webattorney  October 3, 2019

    Thank you Judy for sharing. I also look forward to reading your future posts. I also thank Prof Ehrman for giving us this opportunity to read your posts.

    I personally am not surprised that one can be a critical scholar of the Bible and be a follower of Christ. I personally have been an agnostic all my life, but as long as one thinks that the central tenet of Christianity is that Jesus was Son of God, and he was sent here to redeem our sins, he died on cross and rose from the dead, and whoever believes in him will have an everlasting life, they will continue to believe. It really has to do with how one views and interprets the cause and reasons for the inerrancies in the Bible. Conan Doyle believed in the Spiritualism because he so very much wanted to believe in it after he lost his loved ones, so he can communicate with them. I see an example in my wife who is a strong Christian and wants me to believe in Christianity so I can be saved and be with God for all eternity.

    One of the strongest reasons why I do not believe I will go to Hell even if I am not a Christian is this: As parents, we all love our kids to certain extent and when they do wrong, we will punish them, but nothing they will do will make the parents put them in Hell for all eternity. It reasons God must be one mean God to be able to banish his children to Hell for all eternity. Note I am not arguing whether God is being unfair but I am merely trying to understand on a “gut” level whether certain things make sense to me.

  17. Avatar
    turbopro  October 3, 2019

    Thanks Prof Siker.

    I’ve been waiting for this answer for a long, long time. And, would you know it, this blog creates the space for us to give audience to a scholar to shed light on this subject, on which I have pondered and continue to ponder.

    More generally though, I wonder why anyone–learned or unschooled–believes.

    And, specifically, I find difficulty in fathoming how an omni*-god (if this be a reasonable apprehension of the Abrahamic God) would create a system (if atonement theology holds sway) where a blood sacrifice is required, not just for salvation, but for any reason at all.

  18. Avatar
    Hormiga  October 3, 2019

    Thanks much for this, and I look forward to more.

    A good deal of my own unbelief comes from what, I suppose, could be called the epistemological perspective. That is, what we know about the world, particularly that which has been learned in the past three or four centuries, is incompatible with the views traditional religions have of such things. What used to be called materialistic reductionism and now goes under the somewhat ugly name of “physicalism” seems to be the last paradigm standing that’s compatible with the evidence.

    Is this something on which you have a view?

  19. Avatar
    roy  October 4, 2019

    JYS, appreciate the time and work you will be putting in on this particular subject, as I often wonder how educated people in today’s times can still believe, what with the ever expanding anthropological and archeological evidence, not to mention what we have learned about the cosmos. I agree with the statement bart made about religion doing a lot of good in society(although I think it has actually done much more harm since it was developed, and every society seems to have created their own versions of gods and religions. but my single biggest question I suppose is this: a perfect god that created mankind, the fallen angels,lucifer, an extremely dangerous earth, seems to have not been particularly adept at creation, and secondly since we were supposedly created in god’s image would (he?) have been anatomically correct, and if so why?(not trying to be funny)

    • Madawaska
      Madawaska  October 4, 2019

      Violence in religion is not subject to religion only as such, but especially to other factors such as geography, politics, culture, and feeling threatened either because of foreigners, immigrants, or by natural phenomena such as an eclipse, an earthquake, a volcanic eruption. Purity and corruption is fundamentally embedded in the social fabric throughout human history.

  20. Avatar
    mikezamjara  October 4, 2019

    Thank you Judy. Can´t wait for the post of tomorrow.

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