Recently I asked a handful of academics, professionals in Biblical Studies, History, Science, and Philosophy for some interview time. Some responded and some were too busy, however, my good acquaintance Robert M. Price, aka the Mind Vendor, aka historian, theologian, and most notably New Testament critic was the first to reply, and so I will include his interview first. Enjoy the talk!
1) So, can you give us a brief background on your religious upbringing? I mean, were you raised with a particular religious belief system or were you more inclined towards agnosticism?
My parents were Southern Baptists in Mississippi. My impression was that their faith was genuine, but they avoided being zealots. They didn’t “witness” to people or attend Bible studies. But they were loving and compassionate. Both worked for Mississippi Industries for the Blind, then National Industries for the Blind. At public elementary school I remember enduring an evangelistic invitation to invite Jesus into our hearts. That looked feminine and childish to me, so I ignored it—at least until my family moved to New Jersey, and a welcome wagon from a Conservative Baptist congregation recruited my brother and me for Sunday School. It wasn’t long before I enjoyed peer approval among odd fish of my kind. I found I loved going to church, though I hated making time for daily devotions and prayer. Loved the Bible but hated witnessing. But I did plenty of it anyway.
2) When did you decide religion was for you and that you wanted to pursue it professionally?
I had no real vocational plans for a long time (still don’t!), but during college I began teaching informal Bible classes at college and church. I attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, focusing on New Testament, vaguely figuring I might become a missionary. I even started studying Spanish in case I went to a Latin American country to teach.
3) If you don’t mind, please briefly tell us about your academic credentials, where you got your PhD, what it is in, and what your respective field of expertise is.
I double-majored at Montclair State College in History and Religion. I graduated with a BA in 1976. I started immediately at Gordon-Conwell so I could study with the great Gordon Fee, whom I had heard speak at a retreat or two. He combined evangelical piety, even Pentecostalism, with a scholarly approach to the Bible. Not truly critical, but in dialogue with critical scholarship. I learned much from him and others there, graduating with the MTS (Master of theological Studies) in May, 1978.
In the meantime I had also taken courses at Princeton Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, and Boston University School of theology. It was while at GCTS that I reexamined apologetics and hermeneutics and concluded that evangelical theology and spirituality just didn’t hold water. After GCTS, for the heck of it, I went back to MSC and took six courses in Religious Studies that I had missed before. The semester after that I started my doctoral program at Drew University. I received the M.Phil. in Theology and Religious Studies (concentrating in Systematic Theology) in 1980, the Ph.D. in the same one year later. It took three years to get a teaching position, so grossly overcrowded was the field, especially given the prevalent racial/gender quota system. I taught at Mount Olive College in North Carolina for five years before returning to New Jersey to pastor my old congregation, a remarkable Baptist church that had once been the first pastorate of Harry Emerson Fosdick. Shortly, concurrent with this ministry, I returned to Drew to embark upon a second Ph.D. program, this one in New Testament. During this time (especially under the influence of Don Cupitt’s books, I abandoned even liberal theism. I got the M.Phl. in New Testament in 1992, the Ph.D. in 1993. I still write about theology, but my first scholarly love is the New Testament. But I fear I am beginning to tire of it.
4) Do you have a favorite Biblical story or passage? If so what and why?
I love the Book of Proverbs for its wise counsel, which has truly come in handy through my life: “A soft answer turneth away wrath.” I love the multi-faceted Garden of Eden story because there are so many levels to delve. I love the scene in John 14 where Philip asks to see the Father and Jesus says, “Have I been with you so long, Philip, and still you do not recognize me?” Wow! That is mind-blowing! Whether it happened is another matter entirely, of course.
5) Outside of the Bible do you have a favorite myth, fable, or even interest you esteem nearly as much as those found in the Bible?
The Greek and Norse myths are just as great, but what really grabs me with the same (or more!) mythic power are the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and of course the mythology of comic book superheroes!
6) Recently, Colorado State legislature has proposed a law to protect gays from slander and libel, which raises an interesting question, should the Bible be censored or better regulated (e.g. to protect people’s civil rights)? What are your thoughts?
Censorship is never a good idea. Censoring ancient documents is stupidly Orwellian, like the Taliban savages dynamiting those giant Buddhist sculptures. Why pretend the past was like the present? Besides, it is not exactly clear what in the Bible pertains to or even refers to homosexuals. I would never trust oafish government blockheads to do surgery on a cultural artifact, and “educators” least of all. Insofar as the past differs from the more enlightened thought of the present, we need the record of the past to remind us how far we have come.
7) You are notorious for your position as a skeptic and critic of the New Testament. What caused you to go from Bible thumper to Bible geek?
A simple matter: one can understand the Bible and solve its mysteries much, much better without the blinders of inerrantist dogma. When you start out with the axiom that the Bible just can’t be saying what it seems to be saying, your whole enterprise is in deep trouble. I decided it was a choice of understanding the text versus believing the text, and I chose the former. And I’ve never looked back.
8) If you hadn’t become a professor of religion what other vocation would you have likely chosen to pursue?
In fact, the professorship is not my vocation. As far as teaching goes, I am the lowest form of life, right above molds and fungi: a measly adjunct. I consider myself primarily a writer and editor.
9) Do you have any personal idols, or rather, role models which you admire or esteem? Who/Why?
The great biblical critics are my idols: David Friedrich Strauss, F.C. Baur, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Adolf Harnack, Rudolf Bultmann, W.C. van Manen. What a legacy!
10) James Lipton always finishes his Inside the Actor’s Studio interviews with a fascinating question, which I would also like to posit. If God turns out to be authentic, real, upon meeting him what would you want him to say to you?
“Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” I would like to think God would approve of what I am doing in seeking to help people think for themselves, to smash the idolatry of the Bible, and to form a more humane version of religion.