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IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?AN INSIDER'S STORY AND ADVICE ON BECOMING A BIBLE SCHOLAR
By BEN WITHERINGTON III
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Ben Witherington III
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIN PRINCIPIO ERAT VERBUM: PRELIMINARY CONSIDERATIONS
The students were sitting everywhere imaginable. In the seats, in the aisles, in the huge windows that were open, even in chairs on the platform, from which Dr. Boyd was teaching in old Saunders Hall. We must have been violating the fire code in forty different ways, but it didn't seem to matter. Everyone was riveted by the lectures of Dr. Bernard Boyd, who on this day in 1972 was holding forth on Old Testament history, intermingled with quotes from Shakespeare, anecdotes from his time as a chaplain during World War II, and the occasional buttonholing of this or that student on some topic du jour. We were in the middle of the winter of our discontent over the Vietnam War, and yet somehow this professor had us all excited about studying the Bible and learning it well, studying it in its historical, archaeological, literary, theological, social, and cultural contexts.
For me these were formative years, not only because I came to embrace fully the Christian faith and make it my own during my time at the University of North Carolina, but also because I began to have an inkling of what God would want me to do with my life. It has been said you become what you admire, and I suppose that old adage has proved true in my life. I admired no teacher more than the James A. Gray professor of Bible at Carolina—Bernie Boyd. And I was not alone. It has been estimated that several thousand of us went into some kind of ministry, including the ministry of Bible teaching and scholarship, because of him, despite the stern admonition of St. James that "not many of you should become teachers" (James 3:1).
Let me be clear that Dr. Boyd had not suggested or even hinted it would be easy to become a real Bible teacher, much less a Bible scholar. After all, as he said, it required an exacting knowledge of the biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic), not to mention the languages in which Bible scholarship was mostly done (English, French, and German). It required a love for history and archaeology and things arcane. It required a love for literature, literary genres, and a certain literary sensitivity. It required an understanding of theology, and ethics, and ancient religions and philosophies. You had to have a working knowledge in a plethora of fields just to have the background to be able to deal with a book as rich and complex as the Bible.
Dr. Boyd made it evident from the outset: to be a Bible teacher, much less a Bible scholar, was a daunting task, and the faint of heart and the unmotivated and undisciplined should just abandon ship before the ship even sailed. As the British would say, you had to be polymath to be a Bible expert. No doubt about it. Although there are levels of expertise in various subdisciplines of biblical studies to be had and cultivated, in one sense every Bible teacher has to be a G.P., a General Practitioner, just to be able to get to the point of focusing on one particular dimension of the Bible and its literature. The foundation on which any Bible teacher or scholar stands must necessarily be broad and well-built to bear the weight of whatever special construction one might wish to build on top of it.
For me, what crystallized during those many hours and days of sitting under the tutelage of Bernard Boyd was not merely a love for the Bible and its teaching and teachings, but a dawning realization that my love for languages, for history, for literature, for the Latin and Greek classics, for Western culture—in short, my love for all those subjects I was most keen about—could all be furthered and further developed if I became a Bible teacher and Bible scholar. The Bible entailed all those subjects, and much more. I didn't have to choose between a love for languages or a love for history or a love for literature or a love for theology or philosophy as a career, if I chose to pursue a career in learning and teaching and writing about the Bible. For me, it was one-stop shopping. All the things that God had given me some ability to study and learn, and a joy in doing so, were the very prerequisites I needed to be a good Bible student, then teacher, then scholar.
What about my love for and degree in English literature? Beside the fact that the KJV is the greatest work ever in English literature, it is also the most influential piece of English literature on the great masters of our language—writers like Shakespeare and Milton, and Herbert and Donne, and so many more. I discovered that to focus on the Bible didn't mean I had to give up English literature. It meant I had to focus on certain kinds of English literature—for example, English Bible versions and translations. But is all this study and language preparation really necessary to be a good Bible teacher or scholar?
Educated Fool or Fool for Christ?
Because so many people tend to think that the Bible belongs to everyone and everyone can interpret it—which, of course, in one sense is true (it is, after all, the people's Book) —there is a tendency to think that a person can become a Bible expert just by rolling up one's sleeves and studying some English translation of the Bible. "The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that's the book for me"—plus nothing, seems to be the assumption in some quarters.
I remember the advice some folks gave me before I went off to Carolina and then later to seminary: "Don't be so open-minded your brains fall out." Of course, I understand that warning—the Christian pilgrimage should not become something that could be called Gullible's Travels. Ideas have consequences, and they are seldom neutral. You shouldn't believe everything you are taught, even if you are taught it by your favorite professor.
The essence of the advice I was given was not to become so educated that you lose your religion. It is true that some people have lost their religion in the process of seriously studying the Bible. This sad fact has caused an overreaction in some cases. There is an anti-intellectual bent to some forms of conservative Christianity, and I ran into that before, during, and after my process of higher education.
Some years ago I had a student come up to me after a seminary class at Asbury who said, "I don't know why I need to learn all this stuff you are teaching me. I know my Bible and I can just get up into the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance."
I replied, "Yes, Billy, you can do that, but it is a shame you are not giving the Spirit more to work with." Beware of using the Holy Spirit as a labor-saving device!
Billy's approach will never do if one wants really to know and understand the Bible. Profound contextual study of the Bible is necessary for such understanding. As I like to put it, a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.
The Difference between a Student, a Teacher, and a Scholar
At the outset of this book, it would be good to make some distinctions. One can become a serious student of the Bible without becoming a teacher of the Bible, and one can become an excellent teacher of the Bible without becoming a well-published Bible scholar. This book is about all three of these things, but the focus of this book is on what it takes to become a good and even well-published Bible scholar.
There are many excellent teachers of the Bible who know their field well but hardly ever publish. Bernard Boyd was one such person. This in no way meant he wasn't a scholar. It just meant he wasn't a well-published scholar. In fact, decades ago he did some remarkable archaeological work in Israel and helped discover one of the first horned altars there.
I would say, however, that to be a truly good teacher of the Bible at a college or seminary level, one does need to aspire to be a scholar of the Bible. You need to know your field. You have to boil it up before you can boil it down for your students. The bar is set higher for those professions. If, however, your goal is simply to be a good Bible study leader, Sunday school teacher, or Christian high school teacher of the Bible, at a minimum you must be a serious student of the Bible and read good biblical scholarship as you prepare your lessons and Bible studies. We must all "study to find ourselves approved," as the Good Book says (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15 KJV).
In other words, to be a serious student, much less a teacher or scholar of the Bible, you must have a love for learning—and not just learning during a particular period of your life, but lifelong learning. At the outset of my journey toward becoming a biblical scholar, I realized that this huge undertaking would require much more than just a commitment to some intensive years of education. I would have to follow Johannes Bengel's dictum: "Apply the whole of yourself to the text, apply the whole of the text to yourself." It has been said that the hammer shapes the hand, but I say the Bible shapes the man or woman who picks it up and tries to learn it. The Bible has done far more to and for me than I have ever done for it.
It's still a work in progress for me, as it is for any other serious student, teacher, or scholar of the Bible. The work is never finished, and our knowledge is only partial, even at the end of one's life. Consider this book an invitation to strive to become an expert student or teacher or scholar of the Bible. It is a noble if daunting task, and in the subsequent chapters we will deal with the various aspects of what it takes to become a real Bible scholar.
A Revelation in the Mountains
It was the summer of 1969, after Woodstock and after Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon. I was a high school student with a driver's license and a love for adventure, potentially a volatile combination. I had borrowed my father's 1955 Chevy two-tone Bel Air—column shift, and more metal in it than a Patton tank. My friend Doug Harris and I had slipped off up to the mountains on the weekend, to joy ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway. All of a sudden, something untoward and unexpected happened. The clutch blew out on the car, and as the Bible says, "My countenance fell." I knew there were no gas stations and no help to be found on the Blue Ridge Parkway, so we ended up pushing the car off the Parkway and down into a Texaco station. We were stranded—stranded, that is, until we realized we could stick out our thumbs and hitchhike back to High Point, North Carolina, where we lived.
The first persons to give us a ride were an elderly mountain couple dressed in black and driving an old black car—a Plymouth, if memory serves. As we began to ride down the road with these senior citizens, Doug, now a lawyer in North Carolina, decided to strike up a conversation. His opening gambit was, "What did you think about Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, and all those beautiful pictures of the beautiful blue sphere of the world revolving in space?" The answer he got stunned even Doug....
"That was all fake. Just a T V stunt. Any sensible person knows the world is not round and revolving," declared the man driving the car.
Doug, who did not recognize invincible ignorance when he saw it, was prone to argue (doubtless it is why he later became a lawyer). He retorted, "Why in the world would you say that?" asked Doug. As for me, I was whispering to Doug in the back seat, "Hush up. We need this ride."
The answer was definitive: "It says in the book of Revelations that the angels will stand on the four corners of the world. Couldn't be round if it has four corners, now could it?" said the elderly driver. We had been picked up by some of the last remaining Flatlanders in Appalachia. Beware of anyone who begins a sentence, "It says in the book of Revelations [plural]." That is not the exact title of the last book of the Bible. The man's reason for saying the world was not revolving was explained in a rhetorical question he asked Doug, "Have you ever walked out of your house at night and been standing upside down? I don't think so!" the man snorted.
Now what was wrong with this student of the Bible? It wasn't his piety, nor was it his knowledge of what the Bible says at one juncture in Revelation. It was that he read the Bible anachronistically and just assumed that the Bible was teaching cosmology in addition to theology, when in fact saying that "the angels will go to the four corners or come from the four corners of the earth" is no more than saying they will come from or go to all the major points on the compass. The passage wasn't trying to teach the shape of the earth at all!
It was precisely experiences like this growing up in the Old South that led me to realize two things: (1) the Bible is the most widely known, misunderstood, and misinterpreted book on the planet, and (2) it would take everything I could muster to do the Bible justice and help correct a lot of the misconceptions and misreadings of the Bible. What follows in this book is something of a how-to guide to becoming a budding Bible scholar, because frankly, in an age of growing biblical illiteracy, we need more of them or else we may expect more encounters like the one I had on that hot day in the mountains of North Carolina. That encounter demonstrated to me beyond cavil that a little knowledge of the Bible could be a dangerous thing. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to the truth of and about God's Word. Indeed, ignorance is the enemy of the truth. The only question is whether or not one can handle the truth about the Bible and keep listening to its voice.
Shattering the smattering
Of calm I had created
Grace, a gratuity
Disrupted my day
Interrupting the ennui
I kept on feeling
An alien intruder
Stepped in my way.
Pacifying the pestering
Voice that kept nagging
I sought out a sanctuary
Any port in a storm.
To divine solicitation
The carols and bells
Beguiled me again.
Joy overcame me
In spite of reluctance
Immersed once more.
Stuffed with the sacred
I wondered as I wandered
Out the back door.
Who sent out the signal
That lured and allured me
Called me and caught me
On that cold day?
A Father frantically calling?
A Son prodigally prodding?
A Spirited homing device?
Or was it the familiar
Of a newborn child
Who was Heaven sent?
Some calls must be answered
Some cries must be heard
Some voices are insistent,
Especially the Word's.
BW III, 2007
Excerpted from IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE? by BEN WITHERINGTON III Copyright © 2011 by Ben Witherington III . Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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