Inside Biblical Research with Duke’s Mark Goodacre


This is part two of a two part series; last week we looked at what biblical research is and why it matters – this week we look at how it is conducted.

“Sometimes I have to start using the word ‘religion,'” says Mark Goodacre, chair of the religious studies department at Duke.

A beautiful emotion.

He corrects himself: “That is to say that I have trouble saying the word itself. I often have to stop and think so I don’t trip over it.

A thoughtful pause: “Department of…Re-lig-ious Sstudies*.* There you go.

Goodacre has a New Testament podcast. His students have admitted to using his soothing British timbre to fall asleep with a sense of peace. When I caught up with him via Zoom, he was back in Cambridge visiting his brand new granddaughter. Besides being one of the foremost New Testament scholars in the world, he is also a super fan of ABBA.

Professor Mark Goodacre

Goodacre consulted the Gospel of Matthew for the new, updated edition of the Revised Standard Version – the most modern scholarly edition of the Bible. He argued to the council that commonly translated ‘leper’ should be considered ‘person afflicted with leprosy’ and ‘deaf-mute’ as ‘person who could neither see nor hear’.

Goodacre is one of hundreds of New Testament scholars around the world working to better understand historical and theological Christianity.

Coming from outside the world of biblical research, it can be difficult to understand the relationship between religious texts and academia. You can think of it like this: in a university setting, the Bible is heavily seasoned with nuances, slowly roasted for decades at a time, separated, chopped into small pieces of knowledge, placed in boiling vats of an outdoor context and served objectively with a new analysis pad.

“You take the tools you have in the arts and sciences, and you don’t treat religious texts any differently,” Goodacre says. “People often think that sacred things should be treated differently, but they are always the product of human beings in specific contexts at specific times in history. Subject them to scrutiny, as you would for any modern writer.

Last week we looked at why biblical research is important. But perhaps this relationship goes both ways; scholars are constantly inspired by the world of arts and sciences, the conversations they have with students, and more, current events. Today, as much as in any decade, the Bible is a central subject of debate in public policy and ethical issues that affect people everywhere. Goodacre gives us some examples:

“For example, take slavery in America; sometimes the same Bible passage was mentioned by both abolitionists and slave owners. Modern scholars are able to provide context for these passages and truly defend the arguments of abolitionists.

As a Brit, Goodacre finds the American separation of church and state an interesting concept. As a researcher, he is able to provide context and voice to the arguments made on both sides.

“It is healthy for our politics and our culture to have people who can have intelligent Bible discussions in our courts on issues like marriage, divorce, sexuality, abortion.”

Goodacre makes sure to teach the tools of historical analysis in its courses. These tools include the ability to view texts from different angles; beyond being able to move away from politics to offer an outside perspective, researchers also need to be able to get even closer to the text. Different views of the text have reached consensus at different times in history, and often scholars find reasons to visit and revisit translations and interpretations for different analyses.

Some books written by Goodacre, images courtesy of Google Books.

For example, Goodacre teaches a class at Duke called Jesus and the cinema, and in the classroom, he repeatedly revisits the issue of the persistent depiction of white, European Jesus, even in modern art. Since graduating from Oxford years ago, he has revisited the same material he had studied from a feminist perspective despite teaching in a male-dominated space.

“For someone like me who went to college a few decades ago,” he says, “it’s a liberating thing to take feminist and racial perspectives with the weight they deserve.”

What does this have to do with us non-religious students? Maybe some of us follow the scientific method to conduct our experiments, some the engineering method and even some use literary analysis or investigative methods or whatever we need to get to the root of a problem. All of these methods and many more are encompassed within the field of religious studies and biblical research; by looking at a problem from all angles, and without treating holiness as an exception to the examination, scholars are able to work.

Message from Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

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