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When Biblical Scholarship Challenges Your Faith

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

A very tiny boy on a cliff reaches out to touch the nose of a gigantic wolf.

What happens when biblical scholarship challenges your faith? What do you feel like when a Bible scholar tells you things that pull the rug out from under your feet? What if you know they are telling you the truth, but the knowledge undermines the things you lean on for your faith?

Sometimes, what scholars tell us can cause a crisis of faith. I think it’s happened recently to some of us who follow the Bible and Beyond posts, discussions, and podcasts.

For me, some words spoken by people who are experts in the study of ancient texts and early Jesus people have caused a good deal of soul searching, and I want to devote this post to how I have held onto my faith and hope.

Many of us, people of the Christian faith, sincerely want to learn more facts and history surrounding biblical narratives because we lean so heavily on the Bible to give us strength and confidence. We don’t want to think we are leaning on blind faith alone, so we willingly open our eyes and minds to deeper insights and knowledge of the ancient world.

But, for me, when scholars start to deconstruct just about everything I’ve loved and depended on for my truth-foundation, I dig in deeper and try to understand what I’ve really been leaning on.

What I’ve discovered is that the more I understand about the world in which these ancient texts were written, the more I can relate to the God-experiences these writers wanted to pass on to us.

I encourage those of you who have faith rooted in only certain biblical teachings to join me in looking a little deeper, searching for a more expansive foundation.

A recent example

In our March 2023 Bible and Beyond Discussion, we learned that what many of us have been taught about the apostles is based on very little historical evidence. Most of what is written about the disciples came generations later from writers who wrote about this history from very different perspectives. But this can actually be very helpful to us! No matter what these writers had heard or learned of Jesus’s disciples, something inspired them, and that faith, that inspiration, is what they passed along to all of us, their readers!

In examining the Gospel of Judas, for example, we discussed how Judas was considered more of a hero than any of the other disciples – which is utterly contrary to what we’ve been taught, that Judas betrayed Jesus in an unforgivable way.

We can’t simply let this conflicting information stop us at the door. If we let it do that, we’ll miss the inside message. Because there actually is something valuable about this other view of Judas.

Listening to wildly different ideas that contradict our educated notions of Judas or anyone else in the Bible can be jarring. But if we can hold them aside momentarily, we would hear the writer of this gospel making a point we may never have considered before. Remembering that the Gospel of Judas (along with most of the other gospels) was written at least a century or more before the theological debates of the church councils took place, it’s interesting to see how this author is wrestling with a deep question about Jesus’s crucifixion. The author is essentially asking, “How do divinity and humanhood work together?”

The prevalent theories in his day didn’t make sense to him. How could a wise and loving God require sacrifices to be appeased? Offering sacrifice to gods was the primary means by which people worshiped any god in antiquity. But requiring a good man – Jesus – to be sacrificed to make things right with God was simply impossible for the author of the Gospel of Judas to accept.

An alternative explanation

The author’s alternative explanation was that Jesus must have had two natures: his divinity and his humanity. Although the human, or mortal part, suffered and died, his divine selfhood could not be tortured and killed. Throughout the gospel, Jesus speaks of the ‘suffering mortal selfhood’ in the third person and not as the full expression of his own identity. “That is the one who carried my body to the cross.” Jesus was making it clear that he remained whole and untouched by mortal suffering.

When I heard this newer (to me) interpretation of Judas, I found myself suddenly considering two inconsistent views of Judas. Both of which may have been circulating around the same time in the first couple of centuries after Jesus. Contrasting views don’t necessarily help me understand Judas as a person all that well. But the ideas expressed through different authors do provide two valuable sources of inspiration.

From the traditional view of Judas, I can still appreciate that selfishness and greed ultimately lead to self-destruction. And from the Judas in the other story I can appreciate the idea that one’s true selfhood—which is immortal—is untouched by injustice and cruelty. This is inspiring. When we feel the pain of our mortality, we can appeal to our own higher (or original) selfhood to feel the fullness of our relationship to the divine.

How does the Gospel of Judas help our understanding of the Bible?

Here are some of the benefits I notice:

1) Being exposed to more than one perspective helps us look to the Bible for something deeper than human history. Depending too heavily on historical accuracy is what causes an unnecessary crisis of faith when facts are disputed.

2) Learning new and challenging information encourages us to consider biblical stories from a broader perspective. It helps us understand that there is more than one way of interpreting the cruel and unjust crucifixion of a good person. Considering multiple views of the most important events surrounding Jesus’s story discourages us from holding tightly to certainty — to thinking that there is only one correct perspective on complex issues.

3) Hearing about how Jesus distinguished between his mortal and immortal selfhood, while even in the human condition, strengthens the meaning of immortality in our here-and-now state of humanhood.

Does the Gospel of Judas change my view of Judas?

Only somewhat. In this Gospel, Judas is still not terribly likeable. He’s angry and haughty, considering himself above the other disciples. His portrayal doesn’t really inspire me, in the biblical canon or in the extracanonical texts. But I do have a more complex image of Judas now, and perhaps that expands my view of all the disciples in a more informed way.

Most importantly, though, I learn from another kind of Judas that my view of him as a historical person is not as important as the spiritual ideas conveyed through and about him.

My biblical faith is less prone to earthquake damage when it leans less on shifting sands of historical accounts and more on inspired and enduring ideas.