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.
Judy Siker is author of Who is Jesus? What a Difference a Lens Makes.
…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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