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It all started with the threatened closure of the biblical studies department at Sheffield University – at least the undergraduate programme – with staff offered early redundancies and no fresh faces to replace them. When the students, both religious and secular, found out, they united against the decision, and letters flooded in from around the world, written to the Vice Chancellor, Professor Burnett, supporting the department and asking for reconsideration. As Professor Maurice Casey, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Studies, University of Nottingham, wrote: “I hope you are aware that this would lead to the wreckage of a quite outstanding feature of British education.” He elaborated, “the Department has a fully justified reputation for research excellence throughout the world, because of the exceptional combination of creativity and independence of mind shown by members of staff in their publications and at academic conferences. These qualities enable them to make an outstanding contribution to British education as well. At a time in their lives when students frequently form and change their views of ideology, morals and everything that matters most, and should learn how to do so, this Department’s students are exceptionally free to maintain their views or change them. The staff contribute to this process as they should, by assessing different points of view in an independent manner by means of evidence and argument, with proper awareness also of what we do not know, and they support students regardless of their point of view. England cannot afford to lose a department like this.” Other letters, with similar endorsements made it screamingly obvious that the department had an outstanding international reputation recognised by scholars from all religious and non religious perspectives.

Finally, it appears the upper bureaucratic powers saw the light. The VC shone through and the department has survived. Thank God (apologies to Simon Holloway**). The department had after all, been awarded the top rating (24 pts) in the QAA Teaching Review. However, it appears that at least one international academic didn’t deem the department worthy of support. In fact this academic has had some rather appallingly serious, false accusations against the department, attributed to him in Christianity Today:

Other faculty [at Sheffield] were “bent on the deconstruction of the Bible, and indeed of their students’ faith,” according to Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary.

This scandalous allegation is all the more alarming considering the Biblical Studies Department’s “Aims and Objectives” outlined in the 2009-10 undergraduate handbook. These might compare with Asbury Theological Seminary’s “statement of faith”. One of Sheffield’s “aims” is to “develop tolerant, professional, and informed attitudes to a variety of approaches to biblical texts”.

The question was, not whether or not this “New Testament scholar” was aware of the methodological concept of ‘deconstruction’, which he appeared not to be, but did he actually say it? So I asked him – as you do – but as there wasn’t any other forum, I asked him in the comments on one of his blog posts … a post about a book called ‘Three Cups of Tea’. He responded respectfully, saying “This is not the venue for addressing this matter. I’ve had an email exchange with David Clines about this and its been sorted”. Ah, “sorted”. As Jorunn Okland a recent member of the Sheffield staff, and now Professor of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies in the Humanities at the University of Oslo helpfully points out on James Crossley’s blog, “old gentlemen’s agreements at the back room is still what counts!” and she added, “Such agreements clearly are more important than public discussion, clear and transparent arguments, apologies, clarifications and the like. But this is perhaps representative of how things work in evangelical christianity?”. So it would seem. Nevertheless, I was delighted, naturally, but couldn’t help wondering … “We can look forward to a public apology from someone soon then”. Horrified, I received a rather terse dismissal: “I doubt there will be a public apology. There are too many wounded in action to account for. Honestly Stephanie, Sheffield did not act wisely in not hiring folks like Loveday Alexander or Andrew Lincoln once they were gone, as they at least nurtured people in their Christian faith” Wounded in action? I thought it was the wounded in action, the staff and students of the department, who deserved an apology … from someone. Besides, Sheffield had not been allowed to hire anyone new, as the powers that be had deemed it necessary to phase out the department completely. As for “nurturing people in their Christian faith”, Mike Koke correctly observed in a comment on James Crossley’s blog again, that “there are always University chaplains and Christian organizations available to nurture faith”.

I was shocked that there would be no apology and obviously the comments attributed to him in “Christianity Today” would not be withdrawn. He appeared to endorse everything they said and hadn’t tried to deny saying them. Ben reassured me “You shouldn’t be shocked. Do a little historical research. Start with F.F. Bruce and the original purpose and focus of the Biblical Studies Faculty at Sheffield. Then compare that to where we are now.” Astonishing I know, but I do know quite a bit about the history of the department and have known the current department for a little while now. I even like to attend the post graduate seminars there. Ben is also under the impression that he can give us all elementary lectures in history and consistently misreads what is said to him – misreading Dr James Crossley of the Sheffield staff for over four years now – and giving us all a little summary of Ralph Martin’s career, someone who retired from the department in 1996 and hasn’t had anything to do with it since! I think Ben assumes that universities should function in the same way ideologically as they did at their conception.

When I suggested he might not know what good critical historical scholarship was, he flew at me, accusing me of not having read his academic work. I corrected him – I have read some of his work. Indeed, I am fully aware of his theories on the authenticity of the Turin Shroud, the authenticity of the James Ossuary, and the theory that the assumed ‘beloved disciple’, whom the New Testament NEVER actually describes as “the beloved disciple”, let alone identifies, being Lazarus. I often wonder if, should he realise that any of these theories were wrong, he would ever concede his error? He has after all, made quite a success of himself with these sensational ideas. Indeed, I know quite a little bit about Ben. I also reminded him that it is “CRITICAL” historical scholarship of which I think he might have no understanding.

Critical historical scholarship … Asbury Theological Seminary, Ben’s employer, is a very conservative institution which is “called to prepare theologically educated, sanctified, Spirit-filled men and women to evangelize and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world through the love of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God the Father”. It also endorses the inerrancy of Scripture, whatever that is. Ben at least, only pays lip service to academic freedom. In the Sheffield Biblical Studies departmental handbook, the objectives include having students to “have acquired abroad understanding of Biblical Studies and the variety of approaches used to study the Bible”, to “have acquired detailed knowledge of individual biblical books”, to “have had the opportunity to take modules introducing them to some of the major scholarly issues in the study of the Bible and its understanding in the modern world”, to “be able to relate the Bible to broader cultural and intellectual contexts” and to “be able to assess critically scholarly argument about the Bible and be able to offer informed and reasoned arguments of their own”. There is quite a difference between Asbury and Sheffield.

He then proceeded to make more alarmingly false accusations, including “Sheffield has deliberately avoided hiring people of faith” which is scandalously untrue, as the most recent appointment is a committed Christian from the London Theological School who was chosen on academic qualities alone. Besides, the model for appointments that Asbury Theological Seminary uses isn’t allowed in British independent universities – thank God (apologies again to Simon Holloway*). The Sheffield University Equal Opportunities Policy and Code of Practice for Staff states that “The University will give fair consideration to all applicants for employment, supported through transparent procedures … ensuring appointments are based on individual merit” and “treating one person less favourably than another on the grounds of disability, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or belief or age is always illegal”. Italics, mine of course.

Later, echoing a comment on this initial conversation thread on James Crossley’s second post on the matter, Ben preached “Going forward one of the questions that ought to be seriously discussed is the issue of sensitivity to and tolerance of theological differences in the students and a thoughtful addressing of issues when students feel that pejorative comments about the Bible or about their faith are at the least not fair, and hardly value neutral.” But all with these allegations fired, where is the evidence? Who are these more than just one or two “disgruntled students”, and when did they attend Sheffield? And “pejorative comments about the Bible or about their faith”? Is this perhaps a reflection of his lack of ability to think critically? As I said above, one of the department’s aims is to “develop tolerant, professional, and informed attitudes to a variety of approaches to the biblical texts”. What is meant by “pejorative comments” anyway? Maybe the conclusion the student may arrive at that the Bible might not be the inerrant document they once thought it to be? These accusations could be potentially dangerous for Ben if someone took action on them. Perhaps he was talking about more than just “one or two disgruntled students” from the distant past, who “have felt both their faith and the Bible and its historical substance disrespected”, and they were not reflecting the current department at all. I discussed this conversation with friends who began to post on the matter, and I informed Ben of these responses.

SUDDENLY … The conversation on Ben’s blog comments DISAPPEARED!!! My! Did he realise he was wrong? Or did he consider the conversation inappropriate for his ‘Beliefnet’ blog? Whatever the reason, he made serious allegations against Sheffield which can no longer be seen. Dare I cast doubt on the academic integrity of Professor Ben Witherington? Kingsley Barrett, a conservative Christian, under whom he studied in Durham back in the 70s, always respected those who disagreed with him and merely asked for arguments with evidence. It’s a shame that principle doesn’t appear to have rubbed off on Ben. Regrettably, I am not holding my breath for any apology.

(This blithering scandal of Ben Witherington’s comments in “Christianity Today” has been discussed elsewhere on the blogs including those of: James Crossley (x3), Jim Linville, Jim West, and Pat McCullough, some of whom copied extracts of the original blog conversation which has now mysteriously disappeared from Ben’s blog.)

(*Roland Boer commented on James Crossley’s blog, “bewithering is becoming bewildering”)

(**Simon Holloway, a non-Christian student in Sydney, was one of those who originally posted about the controversy because he was “livid” that Ben Hinks, a Christian student at Sheffield, had thanked people for their “support, action” and, God forbid, “prayers”.)