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Jeff Siker Part 2: Why I am a Christian (and yet a New Testament scholar): A Blast From the Past

This is re-post of an interesting set of comments from exactly four years ago by my friend and colleague Jeff Siker, a New Testament scholar who agrees with most of the critical views I have of the New Testament but who is still a believing and practicing Christian. This is part 2.  To make fullest sense of this post, you should read it in conjunction with the one from yesterday.

Jeff Siker is the author of Jesus, Sin, and Perfection in Early Christianity, Liquid Scripture: The Bible in the Digital World and Homosexuality and Religion: An Encyclopedia.



Like Bart I became interested in pursuing an academic career, but with some grounding in the life of the church.  And so after my BA and MA (Religious Studies) at Indiana University, I went off to Yale Divinity School.  And so my trajectory from Young Life in high school to Indiana to Yale was rather different from Bart’s trajectory from Moody to Wheaton to Princeton.  Whereas much of Bart’s education involved the study and practice of Christian apologetics (being able to defend one’s faith and challenge others – akin to Josh McDowell’s then very popular Evidence that Demands a Verdict, which I had also studied along the way), my own Christian faith involved a much less strident and argumentative approach to defending the truth of the Bible.  I began to understand significant differences in the New Testament as different perspectives that did not necessarily have to be reconciled to each other (anathema for those who believe the Bible is internally consistent in every regard).  At Indiana University the study of religion did not include a confessional approach.  Courses on the Bible stressed historical and literary contexts, including the history of interpretation across different approaches to Scripture (e.g., the Alexandrians vs. the Antiochenes regarding the matter of allegory).  Truth claims about faith grounded in Scripture was not part of my academic study.  There was certainly a challenge to integrate what I was learning in the classroom with my developing faith life, which was nurtured in the mainstream tradition of Protestant liberalism.

This integration continued at Yale Divinity School and after my ordination (PCUSA) in my two years as a pastor to a small church in rural Michigan.  At Yale I also grew familiar with the various movements of liberation theology in addition to classic Protestant theology.  In retrospect I would say that increasingly I came to see my understanding of biblical interpretation as a conversation between the biblical authors and modern faith in seeking to discern God’s presence and the leading of God’s Spirit in both personal faith and the life of the church. Not only was this a rich conversation between modern and ancient communities of faith, it was a banquet of conversations that involved all of church history and hundreds of biblical commentators across the ages.  This understanding only grew deeper during the Ph.D. program at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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Pressing Jeff Siker for Answers: An Intriguing Query and Response
Why He Is Still a Christian (And a Biblical Scholar): A Blast From the Past



  1. Avatar
    jhague  January 30, 2017

    I appreciate what Jeff says here but I wonder how much it enters into his decision to remain a Christian is simply to not give up entirely on what he was taught when he was young. It seems to me that someone who understands the history behind the making of God, the making of the Israelite nation, the process of changing a human Jesus to a cosmic deity and the making of the Bible, that they certainly have to understand that any religion that a person holds onto is man-made. Do you have your students long enough to notice any change of thinking with them regarding religion and the ideas that they were initially taught?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2017

      Yes, I get all sorts of reactions to what we do in class. But I should also point out that one has to choose to stand *somewhere*!

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    Erekcat  January 30, 2017

    Sounds like he’s more of a progressive christian.

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    Jayredinger  January 30, 2017

    I was hoping Jeff Siker would be able to throw some light on how people can still hold onto their faith after having been exposed to all this material, unfortunately it did not happened for me. For the life of me I cannot understand how someone can hold onto a belief in a Christian God after seriously studying the history of this religion. All the religious teachings, doctrines and explanations do not make sense to me, but seem so contradictory. I wish I could understand, I have wrestled with this for a number of years, but to no avail. I really wish someone could enlighten me, something that would make sense to me. I do however understand how one can be a fundamental Christian, I was one for 50 years, but in hindsight I believe it was all due to indoctrination. If I would have lived on another inhabited planet, I would have simply been indoctrinated by a different set of beliefs, which would have simply been whatever that culture had come to believe.

    • Avatar
      ffg  January 31, 2017

      Thank you. You have captured exactly what my thoughts were in relation to Jeff’s post. I genuinely wanted to understand but nothing coherent was put forward to help me in my own search.

  4. John4
    John4  January 30, 2017

    I remember, Bart, finding Jeff’s reasons disappointing when I first read them a couple of years ago. Re-reading them more carefully now, I better understand why.

    Jeff offers four reasons for why he still believes. I would summarize his first and second reasons this way: Having come to faith in a more moderate/liberal tradition and having studied the Bible at a secular university, he didn’t feel betrayed by the church when he encountered historical-critical approaches to understanding the Bible. Jeff’s third reason merely restates his accomplishment: he continues, as an adult, to believe. And his fourth reason is that the problem of human suffering doesn’t inhibit his ability to believe in the existence of a gracious God.

    So, for me, human suffering isn’t a problem, either. Maybe it would be if I believed in God. How could a powerful and loving God allow all this misery? But, for suffering to be a problem for me, I’d have to believe first.

    That’s where *my* problem is, Bart. Christianity posits that, in addition to our familiar physical world peopled by us physical beings, there exists a spiritual world peopled by spiritual beings and that this spiritual world is in no way dependent upon our physical world. In fact, dependence runs the other way: our physical world was created by a spiritual God and continues to be governed by Him.

    But, why would I believe such a thing, Bart? And, why would Jeff? If it makes sense to him that these independent, non-physical beings do in fact exist, more power to him. But, it doesn’t make sense to me that they should. And, nothing in Jeff’s four reasons suggests to me why such a notion would make sense to him, either.

    So, I very much appreciate Jeff offering us four reasons why he believes in a gracious God. Perhaps, if you asked him, he’d be willing to venture us a fifth reason, a reason why he believes in the existence of independent non-physical beings at all?

    Many thanks! 🙂

  5. Avatar
    Rthompsonmdog  January 30, 2017

    If I had the opportunity, I would ask Dr. Siker what, exactly, he believes on faith. If he self-identifies as a Christian, what should we take from God raising Jesus? If we should understand something important, why does it seem so difficult to get that understanding – based on the wide range of understandings within Christianity.
    If God has a message for humanity, why use humans and religious texts to express that message?

  6. Avatar
    Hume  January 30, 2017

    Those are all strange reasons to still believe – never being lied to, being conservative, from literal to critical reading, and being called to embrace human suffering! I am absolutely flabbergasted.

    Jeff should study truth claims the bible gets utterly wrong and see if faith remains. 1) The bible claims 10 000 years ago the earth was created, enormous interdisciplinary science says 4.5 Billion. 2) 99.9℅ of the universe, and most of earth is hostile to life and the Earth will be inhabitable in 900 million because our oceans will boil away, not a place conducive to life. 3) Religion with gods are new to Earth, Christianity is 2000 years old, humans are 2 Million years old. 4) We share 98℅ of our genome with a chimpanzee and 40℅ with a banana, the evidence is evolution, not creationism as Genesis states. 5) The bible has been changed and copied hundreds of times over centuries, play Telephone with 10 people for 10 minutes, tell me if original sentences remain.

    In my view Jeff has to ask himself some hard questions, especially – is truth at any cost worth it.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2017

      Jeff is not a creationist. He completely and unwaveringly believes in evolution, on the limits to the lifespan of the universe, and the scribal changes of the Bible.

      • Avatar
        Hume  January 30, 2017

        How can someone cede all that ground to science and still believe? On the sixth day in Genesis Man is created, after all the beasts of the land. This is creationism unless Jeff or anyone else does some intense language gymnastics calling this allegory or metaphor, or that this sixth day is actually millennia – which I really really really think the authors meant one day.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 31, 2017

          I think you’re confusing “belief” with “fundamentalism.” They are not the same thing at all. Enlightened believers do not have a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible or of the relationship of science and religion.

          • Avatar
            Hume  January 31, 2017

            No, I am making the point that when science contradicts the bible Jeff retreats into belief or a liberal interpretation, which is a nice way of saying allegory, metaphor, or the passage does not make sense. Belief or faith means I have no evidence and my critical thinking has been suspended, but I believe anyway.

  7. Avatar
    XanderKastan  January 30, 2017

    Bart, Great post.

    I have 3 questions related to your debate with Justin Bass. They are all separate questions and if you respond to any or all of them, I would expect it to take at least one post per question. So you might answer one at some point and save the others and try to answer them further down the road:

    1) Could you elaborate on your comments that identifying Jesus with Yahweh is the heresy of Sebellianism?

    2) 1 Corinthians 11:23 — 26. From what you said, I take it that although this doesn’t go back to Jesus, it does go back to very early in the development of Christianity. And it says that Jesus is the one God sent to suffer for others. I recall that is the viewpoint that the Gospel of Mark portrays. So, I infer that this particular view of Jesus must be a very early development (before Paul converted), even if Mark was written roughly three decades later.

    3) My second question inspired another one. Could you discuss why James Crossley dates Mark relatively early and why he is in the minority on this among critical scholars?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2017

      1. Sabellianism is the belief that Jesus the Son is the *same* as God the Father. 2. Yes, it’s an early developmenbt. 3. I don’t know his arguments. Most schoalrs date Mark to around 70 CE because a passage such as 13:1 seems to presuppose the destruction of the temple.

  8. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  January 30, 2017

    Very interesting post. My question to him would be, since You and Him both have the same information about the New Testament how can he believe along a conservative line of belief knowing the scriptures are historically unreliable. Then again, I guess it is possible to piece together a theology/philosophy based on principles within the New Testament even if the actually historical events are inaccurate.

  9. Avatar
    rburos  January 30, 2017

    Currently taking a survey of the Old Testament under Dr. Daniel Smith-Christopher from Loyola Marymount, and it has been fascinating. I’m actually upset that churches and Hollywood give us Gibson-esque portrayals of the Old Testament (as well as the NT) rather than the the much more fascinating and meaningful conversations we could actually be having based on archaeology, anthropology, sociology, history, textual criticism, etc. (I know I’m preaching to the choir here).

    Especially with the current debacle going on with certain presidential executive order, I often find myself disappointed not necessarily with the church, but quite often very disappointed with church leadership. Still, I find hope, as bulletins this week across the Catholic domain spoke out in favor of the dignity of refugees and the need for immigration reform–in other words what Jesus was referring to when he quoted Deuteronomy!

    I agree with Dr Siker–you still maintain all the best parts of being a Christian regardless of the title.

  10. Avatar
    webattorney  January 31, 2017

    Prof. Nikes seems not to believe “in” Christianity but still agree with what Christianity says about how we should live. I am not a Christian but agree with a lot of what Christ has said and acted toward others.

    • Avatar
      Crossdal  February 1, 2017

      I suppose that if judged by the common standard based on belief, I would not be considered a Christian. I agree with a lot of what a lot of religions say. I also don’t believe a lot of it. It’s just a perspective thing. For me, at this point, it’s more about where I originated. It’s like saying my first language is American English, even if I’m living in Argentina and they only speak Spanish. All of my primary concepts are formed from American English and to learn Spanish I would need to sort my understanding of the new terms based on my original terms. But in the end, el bano and bathroom are still the same thing. When you never grounded yourself in the literal interpretation theory then you can move from it and maintain a metaphorical understanding and appreciation for the text and history. I don’t know, it’s my best guess.

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