Humor in Biblical Studies

July 26, 2015

Almost a year ago I finished expanding my posts on Brodie’s Jesus-didn’t-exist book and Ehrman’s yes-he-did book into an article for an academic peer-reviewed journal, to be published later this year.  As I did more research on this controversy, one aspect of it struck me forcefully: many or most people on both sides of the fence were remarkably intolerant and contemptuous of the other side.

In what you might think of as an “academic” debate why should people get so incensed at and abusive toward those who disagree?  Realistically speaking, what palpable effect does it have on anyone whether someone else believes or disbelieves the historicity of a literary character from millennia-old texts?

In reading and thinking about this issue I reached a conclusion that may sound counter-intuitive:  the very best biblical scholars are those that maintain a sense of humor toward their subject matter and toward those who disagree with them.  And I mean a good-natured sense of humor, not a sarcastic sense of humor.  The issue is this:  I see contemptuous and abusive language as evidence that the perpetrator likely has some kind of vested interest in a particular belief about the subject.  They may be Christian believers for whom the claim that Jesus never existed threatens their own eternal salvation or their ability to proselytize others.  Or they may be anti-religion and think that the claim that Jesus did exist harms their anti-proselytization efforts.  In any case, there is probably some vested interest or they wouldn’t react so virulently.

Having a vested interest in a viewpoint or in the outcome of an investigation blinds people to opposing evidence and arguments.  A good-natured sense of humor is often evidence that someone is open to all of the evidence and all of the viewpoints.  Sometimes that attitude shows up in person but not so much in their writing, as is true of Thomas Brodie. Sometimes – unfortunately rarely among biblical scholars – it shows up in their writing. 

Michael Goulder was one of the greatest biblical scholars of our time, and part of his greatness is in the sense of humor that finds expression in his writing. A great example is in a by-now little known text he wrote in the 1970s. At the time, incarnation theology was debated as vigorously as Jesus’s existence is today.  “The incarnation” is the belief held by many Christians that “God became man” in Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ was at the same time both human and God.  For Goulder the very idea is nonsense in the same way that that the idea of Jesus’s non-existence is nonsense to Bart Ehrman, but look at how Goulder deals with the idea and its contemporary supporters.

Modern kenotic theologians,  like Professor E. L. Mascall or Fr. H. McCabe, seem to opt instead for vacuity: Jesus is metaphysically the Word of God, in his person, in his ego, but his human nature or consciousness is not affected by this. I will return to Mascall shortly, but perhaps I may make the general point with a parable. Returning from abroad with a friend, I hear that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedlam is Lord Beaver. ‘What!’, I say, ‘A new V-C?’ No, replies my friend, ‘the old V-C, Sir Robert Badger, must have become a peer’. In the distance Lord Beaver looks like Sir Robert, and the voice is similar, and the same conspicuous probity governs all his actions; but on closer acquaintance the differences seem obvious. ‘Oh’, says my friend, ‘he must have had a face-lift; and his voice is pitched deeper because of the new dignity; and he will have had a new central nervous system put in for the job: but It is the same chap.’ Soon I feel driven to ask ‘But what is in common between the V -C we knew and the V -C we know?’ If I am told, ‘Nothing. But metaphysically they are the same: It is a paradox’, two consequences will follow: first, I shall feel totally mystified, and second, I shall suspect that what began as a misidentification is being maintained from a reluctance to confess error.

– Michael Goulder, Incarnation and Myth. The Debate Continued (Eerdmans, 1979), 54-55.

Every time I read this I have to laugh out loud when I get to “he will have had a new central nervous system put in for the job: but it is the same chap.”

Why can’t more scholars write like this?  There is no contempt here for Mascall and McCabe; there is rather a feeling of “mystification” at how people could maintain a position that seems nonsensical to the author.  Notice also the tentative nature of the language: rather than expressions of certainty we read phrases like “seem to” with regard to the other’s’ position and  “I shall suspect” with regard to the author’s position.

Ironically, it is the scholars who express absolute certainty of their own views and contempt for others who should be treated with the most suspicion. This principle is an especially important guideline for readers who don’t have sufficient academic background to judge the evidence themselves. And scholars who express themselves in measured tones like Goulder are most to be trusted – partly because in point of fact, there is precious little that can be said with absolute certainty about any ancient literature, including biblical texts.


Lemche on the Prophets

April 26, 2015

I’ve already devoted a couple of posts to Niels Peter Lemche’s survey of modern biblical scholarship, The Old Testament between Theology and History.  But there’s more to it worth mentioning, such as its discussion of the prophetic books.


The prophets are literary, not historical, characters

Lemche points out that extra-biblical sources witness to the existence in the ancient world of “prophets” in the sense of people who claimed to foretell the future, but “prophet” in the sense of moralizing gadfly is found only in the Bible.

The prophetic literature in the Old Testament remains unique. With their emphasis on moral disorder and social injustice, the biblical prophets are still more lay preachers than prophets in the proper sense. (3015-16)

He suggests that the image of the preacher-prophet was made up at a late date and then injected into the early history of Israel by the Old Testament’s ultimate editors and authors.  Thus both the activity and discourse of the prophets that we find in the Old Testament is largely fictional, each prophetic book having been constructed or substantially elaborated much later than its putative author lived. This is not an uncommon conclusion among biblical scholars.

Today, many scholars are more hesitant when it comes to attributing certain passages to prophets who might have lived several centuries before their books achieved the shape in which they have been handed down to posterity. (3025)

The prophets’ discourses as we have received them in the prophetic books often don’t even address issues relevant during the supposed time of the prophets’ lives.

These basic prophecies were worked over in several phases in such a way that they represented the sentiments and ideas of the time of their reworking rather than their original situation. (3044)

Likewise, the biographical details found in prophetic books may be complete fabrications.

Much of this construction [of the prophet’s life and career] might only be literature, and the handling of Jeremiah’s biography in his book might be compared to the way early Christianity elaborated the traditions about Jesus, resulting in the present construct of his life in the Gospels. (3033)

What is striking about Lemche’s discussion of the prophets for one who has read New Testament scholars such as Brodie is the degree to which the literary handling of the prophets, and the limited degree of historical knowledge we can have about them, parallels the way New Testament authors handled Jesus and the limited degree of historical knowledge we can have about him.

Just as some scholars have come to question Jesus’s existence as a historical character, so too with the prophets. Lemche points out that ultimately we don’t even know if any given prophet existed historically, even in the case of such an important one as Isaiah.

When scholars argue in favor of the existence of a prophet of this name attributable to the eighth century BCE, it is no more than the scholar’s assertion, which has no support in other ancient documents. This does not mean that there never was a prophet of the name of Isaiah; it only tells us that we have no information that proves his existence. (1542-44)

Because of a lack of evidence, it cannot be denied that fragments of prophecies may originate … in the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Whether such fragments go back to prophets like Isaiah or Hosea is basically a question that cannot be answered. It is probably also a question of no real importance. (3285-87)

Protestant theology distorted modern scholars’ interpretation of the prophets

Lemche explains that modern scholars realized early on the questionable historicity and late origins of the bulk of the prophetic books, but it didn’t suit their theological inclinations. They were predominantly Protestant and wanted to see a division between Protestant-like prophetism and later rules-bound Judaism. So they portrayed the prophets as predating the Law.

In this way the prophets was considered to be “proto-evangelists” and their religion much closer to Christianity than later Judaism. (3141)

Their groundless historicizing of the prophets led to interpreting fictional texts as historical in ways that misrepresented what they were about, and also to inconsistent translations of English versions of the Bible.

According to this line of scholarship, the prophets used the word torah without the connotations that became part of its semantics in Judaism. This is the reason for the many times when, even in the NRSV, torah is translated as “instructions” in texts believed to belong to preexilic prophets, and as “law” in texts considered “Jewish.” (3142-43)

Another thing that struck me from reading Lemche’s book is the degree to which a putative division between “early Israelite religion” and Judaism is a figment of the imagination of historians who are mistakenly attributing an early date to certain texts that in reality are much later. Just as Trobisch argues for the unity of a New Testament that appears to have been published as a literary unit, the Old Testament appears to be composed of texts that were substantially molded at a given time — making them to a great extent a literary unity as well.

In both cases the scriptural authors and editors devoted their efforts to creating narratives and treatises intended to influence people’s behavior. In both cases we see a determination to depart radically from historical reality wherever doing so would better serve the intended function of the text, to the degree that anyone who today interprets a scriptural text as a reliable historical source will be largely misled.

Bike-walking Buck

April 5, 2015

It’s been a while since I wrote a dog-hike post, mainly because I’ve only been doing familiar, close-in trails. Buck has not been entirely happy with this state of affairs, as he considers even a six hour hike covering 14 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain disappointingly short.  So I’ve been keeping him active in other ways.

For a while I gave him more run-free time by going to a large unofficial off-leash area near the Microsoft Advanta campus in Bellevue. This is a former airport, later garbage dump, and now a grassy field east of 156th Ave NE across from the State Troopers facility.  There a group of dog owners regularly congregate around a bench to talk while the dogs play.  In the picture on my About page I’m sitting on that bench.


Taking Buck there had its disadvantages.  He’s not a fetch-and-retrieve dog, so he didn’t get much exercise.  And the area is teeming with rabbits.  It would have been fine if his only rabbit interaction was chasing them from grass to blackberry thicket, but he spent far more time seeking out and eating “rabbit nuggets.”

Then it occurred to me that we could go farther on our daily walks if I rode a bike.  At first I resisted the idea, thinking it would be really awkward and the leash would get tangled or I’d run into Buck or he’d stick his nose through the spokes while the wheels were turning.  But I decided to try it, and it worked out much better than expected, with one exception.

The leash-tangling hazard was resolved by using a retractable leash – it always stays taut between you and the dog.  I have two – a 16 footer and a 26 footer.  The 16 retracts more reliably, the 26 allows more freedom of movement for the dog.


This all worked out well until one day I was biking with Buck along 156th Ave NE on the sidewalk the other side of the road from the State Trooper facility.  Suddenly he took off running hard, after I knew not what.  The leash spun noisily out to its limit and yanked me forward. Brakes were useless and soon I was speeding along much too fast for safety.  Then Buck crashed into the bushes and I knew I was next.  I let go of the leash just as my bike plunged into the undergrowth in the ditch.  The thicket stopped the bike abruptly and I went head over heels past the handlebars.  At least the thick branches cushioned my fall – a little to the right or left and I’d have landed head first in rocks. 

Meanwhile I heard a pitched battle going on somewhere beyond me in the woods, growls and snarls and yips and barks, and it sounded like Buck was getting beat up.  But I couldn’t see anything, as my glasses had come off.  And when I found them the lens on one side had popped out.  Never did find it.  Slowly I climbed up out of the bushes and made my way over to the battleground where I found Buck tangling with a raccoon.  I found the leash end, and with great effort dragged him away.  I bicycled home with one-eyed glasses, keeping Buck on a shorter-than-was-really-necessary leash. irrationally upset with him though of course the mishap was my fault for not being prepared for such an eventuality. 

Buck paid for that encounter by having to wear the “cone of shame” after getting treated for Raccoon scratches. 


I had to get a new pair of glasses.  And a new plan for bike-walking Buck.  I developed a new strategy:  whenever bike-walking the dog I am prepared to let go of the leash immediately if Buck takes off after something (usually it’s a squirrel hustling to get the nearest tree).  Then I catch up at a safe bike speed, dismount, and retrieve the end of the leash.

(Why not just train him to stop when commanded, you ask.  I’ve done that, and sometimes it works.  But over time between refresher courses the strength of that training wanes.  And even when the training is fresh, sometimes instinct trumps even effective obedience training. Different dogs respond differently to training, and so-called dog training experts who assume you can achieve anything with any dog don’t realize dog personalities are as varied and unique as humans’. )

These events don’t happen very often, but I’ve avoided a couple crashes that way since the raccoon affair, and we’ve done a lot of bike-walking.  Here’s a picture of my bike and Buck at Enatai beach in Bellevue, with the leash hanging from the fence rail in the background.


Of course, it’s also nice to be able to ride without holding on to a leash where that’s possible, and I’ve been doing more of that too over the last year. Here’s a picture taken near lake Keechelus. The yellow bottle in the bike water carrier is the dog water bottle you see in the Granite Mountain post.


Lemche, Certainty, and the Obama Crusades Controversy

March 14, 2015

Obama hit the nail on the head when he ascribed religion-inspired violence not so much to particular religious doctrines as to “fierce certainty” — shared by some Christians as well as Islamic militants — “that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others.” Adherents of any religion who firmly hold in mind the humble thought, “I might be wrong” are likely to be more respectful of other religions.  For Christians who find that difficult because they think their religion is unique, Niels Peter Lemche’s survey of modern biblical scholarship, The Old Testament between Theology and History, may be an eye-opener.


Lemche explains that over time scholars have come to realize that from beginning to end what the Bible presents as one long history from Adam to Ezra and Nehemiah has very little actual history in our sense of that word in it.

Scholars have long recognized the creation, flood, and other narratives preceding the story of Abraham to be legendary, but since the 1970s the stories about the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) have also been recognized as fictional.

Apart from some conservative authors, no serious Old Testament scholar will nowadays accept the age of the patriarchs as a historical period. (1732*)

The story of Moses and the exodus has gone the same way.

Thus the story of the exodus is about as legendary as the patriarchal narratives. It definitely has a different topic, but when it comes to the historical content, these two biblical traditions are on the same level. (1818)

The next presumption of historicity to fall was regarding the supposed conquest of Canaan by the Israelites after the exodus.

… it still remains certain that the Israelite conquest of Canaan as related by the book of Joshua lacks every historical foundation. (1890)

The period of judges following the conquest must also be discarded. For years scholars confidently talked about the existence of a tribal confederation called the “amphictyony” and that too has passed into the realm of once-solid scholarly consensuses later abandoned.

The sad end of the hypothesis of the amphictyony showed how fragile the edifice of the scholars had been. Old Testament scholars had constructed the amphictyony rather than reconstructed it on the basis of available sources. (1925)

What about mighty David and wise Solomon?

… about the two great kings of Israel there is complete silence [in contemporary records]. Not a single inscription has been found from their time, not a single fragment of an imperial construction. Not one contemporary document from the ancient Near East mentions either of these two imperial monarchs. (1974)

From the perspective of the tenth century, David and Solomon are invisible. It is as if they never lived. (1978)

(Thomas L. Thompson’s Biblical Narrative and Palestine’s History points out that archeological evidence also leads to a similar conclusion:  “… we lack evidence of a city of the tenth century in Jerusalem and, even more importantly, evidence of any significant population in the Judean highlands.” p.147)

After David and Solomon the Old Testament tells us about a series of kings of Israel and Judah. Many of the royal names are accurate, but the stories told about them are largely fiction.

Near Eastern documents indicate that the history of Israel and Judah-at least between about 850 BCE and 587 BCE-is not totally an invention. (2072)

Perhaps the perspective is not totally wrong, but it is also possible that the perspective on the history of Israel and Judah presented by the historiographer has as little to do with history as was the case of the traditions of the earlier parts of Israel’s history. (2090)

Lemche points out that the Old Testament historiographers actually had little documentation to work with and in one instance where we can see what they had, we see that they expanded very little data into a largely fictional story.

The conclusion must be that the historiographer writing the story of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah possessed some exact information as short annalistic notes. The historiographer was hardly in possession of much additional material. It probably was of little importance to the historiographer, who was not shy about rewriting his information into legendary tales. The best example-an example that can be examined by modern historians-is the story of Sennacherib’s attack on Judah in 701 BCE. Here a short note (2 Kgs. 18:13-16) of definite historical importance has, at the hand of the historiographer, been vastly expanded into a fairy tale about God’s deliverance of his beloved city (2 Kgs. 18:17-19:37). (2224)

The same expansion of a tiny historical seed into a gigantic fictional tree may be true of the famous Babylonian exile.

The lack of information about the Babylonian exile in and outside of the Old Testament means that we know almost nothing about this exile. … At some point the scholar has to ask himself, was this exile real? … Could it be an ideological construction created at a later date to legitimize the right of the Jews to Palestine in spite of the fact that they were not the only ones whose ancestors had lived in the country? (2140)

Finally even the post-exile stories about Ezra and Nehemiah are largely just that – stories.

The consequence is that biblical authors may have invented a hero of Jewish faith by the name of Ezra who is the person who recites the Law of Moses to the people and completes an ethnic cleansing of the Jewish nation. Ezra is the true father of Judaism, although he seems to have no family and an invented genealogy. (2205)

In conclusion the entire sweep of Old Testament “history” is a collection of made-up stories wrapped around a remarkably thin framework of historical facts.

It has to be maintained that the story of ancient Israel in the Old Testament from Abraham to Ezra and Nehemiah is about a history that never happened. (2220)

… the biblical version of Israel’s history “never happened.” There was never a historical development of the kind narrated by the biblical historiographer. (2915)

Nothing indicates that the [Old Testament] historiographers were very interested in the past as it really was. (2525)

It is not possible to reconstruct the history of Israel in ancient times on the basis of the information in the Old Testament. This circumstance has not deterred scholars from writing such impossible histories. (2231)

It is clear that the Old Testament perspective of history absolutely distorts the facts. The historiographers of the Old Testament have absolutely no interest in the real history of Palestine in ancient times. (5655)

Does this matter to Christians?  It does for those whose faith depends on the New Testament stories about Jesus being “true” in the sense of reflecting historical reality. The New Testament is built firmly on the foundation of the Old Testament, and if the foundation is not about historical reality, neither is the edifice built upon it. I’ve already written elsewhere about problems with the historicity of Jesus stories, and everything Lemche reports about what scholars have found in the Old Testament adds to those problems.

The belief by Christians that the Bible as a whole reflects historical reality is what necessitates the belief that Christianity is uniquely “true” compared to other religions.  That in turn is the first step on a road to the kind of “fierce certainty” that leads at best to a condescending attitude toward other religions and at worst to ISIS-like behavior.

Lemche cites a statement by James Albright that shows what I mean. Albright was a prominent scholar who led the effort to use archeology to prove the historical reliability of the Bible. Regarding the Biblical account of how after the exodus the Israelites – at God’s command — killed off and drove out the residents of Canaan (Palestine) and took over the land, Albright assumed it was historically true and had this to say about it:

It was fortunate for the future of monotheism that the Israelites of the Conquest were a wild folk, endowed with primitive energy and ruthless will to exist, since the resulting decimation of the Canaanites prevented the complete fusion of the two kindred folk which would almost inevitably have depressed Yahwistic standards to the point where recovery was impossible. Thus the Canaanites, with their orgiastic nature worship, their cult of fertility in the form of serpent symbols and sensuous nudity, and their gross mythology, were replaced by Israel, with its pastoral simplicity and purity of life, its lofty monotheism, and its severe code of ethics. (4405)

How different is this from a Muslim who today justifies ISIS beheadings as necessary in order to promote the victory of Islam?  Does it really make a difference whether you’re approving atrocities that were done days ago or three thousand years ago?

So Obama was right: “fierce certainty” of having a lock on “the truth” makes Christianity and Christians a part of the problem no less than Islam and Muslims.  Where he missed the boat – deliberately for political reasons perhaps – is by omitting to mention that the same issue applies to Judaism and Jews and the state of Israel. 

In the article Obama and Palestine’s Forgotten Past, Old Testament scholar Keith Whitelam decries statements made by Obama while in Israel, in which the president one-sidedly supported Israeli views about biblical history, views which depend wholly on this now-discredited view of Old Testament history.

Lemche too points out the real-life consequences of misinterpreting biblical texts, in his introduction to the Albright quote cited above.  He warns that such interpretations have been used and continue to be used to inspire and justify violence in our own day:

The modern “translation” of this ideology formed the intellectual background of the Jewish return to Palestine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, now with the sword replaced by a gun. The Arab population, whether Muslim or Christian, had to be viewed as foreign intruders without any right to the country. The Bible turned into a tool for suppressing other people and for ethnic cleansing … (4400)

*References to Lemche’s book are to location numbers in the Kindle edition.

Obama, the Crusades, Niels Peter Lemche, and Old Testament History

February 11, 2015

On February 5, President Obama made a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in which he reminded listeners that Christians too, not only Islamic terrorists, have done horrible things in the name of service to God. The ensuing storm of protest is well represented by the expression of outrage that Governor Jindal of Louisiana posted on the state government website:

It was nice of the President to give us a history lesson at the Prayer breakfast.  Today, however, the issue right in front of his nose, in the here and now, is the terrorism of Radical Islam, the assassination of journalists, the beheading and burning alive of captives.
We will be happy to keep an eye out for runaway Christians, but it would be nice if he would face the reality of the situation today. The Medieval Christian threat is under control Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today.

Reading comments like this makes me wonder, how many of these people actually listened to or read the president’s remarks in context before condemning them? 

It’s as though everyone heard a short sound bite including the word “Crusades” and jumped out with guns blazing.  But anyone who actually reads the whole speech will find a remarkably well balanced and thought-out composition.  For those without time to read its 2,900 words, here’s a recap of the main points, illustrated with selected quotations.

Obama begins by posing the paradox that religion can be a force for good or misused as a force for evil:

… around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another [examples follow] …

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. [examples follow, including ISIL barbarism] …

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious [faiths] for their own murderous ends?

Some Christians are tempted to blame Islam itself for the evils perpetrated in its name, and so Obama pointedly reminds them that their religion is equally subject to “hijacking for murderous ends.” Notice that “Crusades” is just one out of four examples Obama cites, all of them valid evidence to make a valid point that this is not a case of good religion vs. bad religion.

… lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. [example of religious strife in India follows]

So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.

Having pointed out the problem, he moves on to say that we all have a duty to do something about the intolerance that lies at the root of terrorism.

In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

The first of three guiding principles for how to combat the evils of religious violence is humility:

… we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

… we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.

… as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.

A practical way to foster humility is to uphold freedom of religion and freedom of speech:

And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion …

There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility.  They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

…  the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment …

The second guiding principle is separation of church and state:

… the result [of separation of church and state] is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion … So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world, and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States. [examples follow showing U.S. support for people persecuted abroad for their religious beliefs]

And the third and last guiding principle is the Golden Rule:

And, finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths … that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated. … Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, and bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred. [examples follow showing how people of different religions endorse this principle] …

The speech ends with a call to action, after reiterating the primary guiding principle:

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose.  We can never fully fathom His amazing grace.  “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love.  But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required:  To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I’m not one to get excited about politicians’ speeches, and I’m usually on the opposite side of the political fence from Obama, but this is a magnificent speech. Content such as this could have come from a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Dalai Lama. It’s the perfect call to action against terrorism for a prayer breakfast.

Contra Governor Jindal, Obama’s speech did indeed address “the issue right in front of his nose, in the here and now, … the terrorism of Radical Islam, the assassination of journalists, the beheading and burning alive of captives.” The speech explicitly mentions ISIL’s barbarism as an example that springs from the kind of intolerance that we all have a responsibility to counteract.

Obama’s prescription for counteracting such evil – maintaining an attitude of humility, affirming freedom of speech and religion, and living by the Golden Rule — is precisely the way that each of us can play a role however indirectly in dealing with the root cause of terrorism. Jindal’s dismissive remark “The Medieval Christian threat is under control Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today” totally misses the point. It’s not a long gone “Medieval Christian threat,” it’s a very real modern Christian threat. When modern Christians assume with “fierce certainty” that their religion is right and Islam is wrong, they are part of the problem rather than the solution.

In a national prayer breakfast speech Obama had no need to mention that he is dealing with the terrorist threat militarily where appropriate. He’s given ample proof in other contexts that he’s not naïvely assuming we can always forego that kind of response. The appropriate subject of a prayer breakfast speech would be how people of faith can best respond to the situation, and he hit that nail right on the head.

That said, what does all this have to do with Old Testament?  The issue is this:  some Christians tend strongly toward that “fierce certainty” which is the opposite of humility and breeds the intolerance that is behind so much evil in the world.  Obama’s attempt to help them see a different perspective by reminding them of past horrors inspired and condoned by Christianity seems to have aroused more indignation than humility. But a different approach might work better: what if you could show Christians that a basis for that tolerant perspective can be found right in the pages of their own Bible?

Enter Niels Peter Lemche’s survey of modern biblical scholarship, The Old Testament between Theology and History.


Lemche is one of a growing body of biblical scholars whose work, if understood and taken seriously, undermines the “fierce certainty” of some Christians “that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others.” In subsequent posts I’ll recount how what we have learned about the Old Testament can help Christians accept that other religions have equal access to truth and equally inspire “the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths.”

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor versus Thomas Brodie

July 20, 2014

I’m developing my posts on the Brodie and Ehrman books into a review article for an academic journal. That has led me to read a lot of material written to debate whether Jesus was a historical person, and the most prominent characteristic I’ve found is acrimony. Relatively few people seem able to engage in this debate without sounding indignant about or contemptuous toward the opposing side.

Thomas Brodie is an exception. Even when responding directly to Bart Ehrman in his book Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, he maintains a respectful, matter-of-fact tone. Search high and wide through Brodie’s writings and you’ll find no expressions of contempt for those who disagree with him or anger at them for disagreeing. I attended several of his sessions at the 2012 SBL conference and met him for lunch, and found him to have a good-natured sense of humor at all times. Great enthusiasm for the study of scripture and nothing negative to say about anyone. I believe his respectful attitude toward all, including those who take opposing stands, is part of the reason why so much of what he writes shows more insight than most of his peers. I am not personally convinced by everything he’s written, but I respect his scholarly judgment and consider him to be one of the half-dozen or so greatest New Testament scholars of our time.

But most people are not so affable about disagreement when they perceive it as relating to religious beliefs. Brodie paid a heavy price personally and professionally for “coming out” publicly with the belief that Jesus was strictly a literary character. Although his book also eloquently expressed the strength of his Christian faith, the first consequence was the loss of his job as director of the Dominican Biblical Institute. The situation is described well in Thomas Brodie and Intellectual Honesty in Biblical Studies, a blog post by a colleague who had been one of his students:

While arguing for the non-existence of Jesus is nothing new and not unheard of in scholarship (where the term is mythicism) it is controversial when it comes from the pen of a Dominican priest. Sensing trouble over this publication Brodie did not consult the Church first – something which he was required to do. This resulted in a ban from publishing, teaching and preaching, and Brodie resigned his position as director of the Dominican Biblical Institute in Limerick. This resignation was not of his choosing, I am sure of that. I was a student of Brodie for the past 5 years and he would be in his office before 8am every day and would not leave until at least 9pm – 7 days a week. He was extremely dedicated and passionate and would not walk away from his work lightly.

What it comes down to is intellectual honesty in biblical studies and that can be fairly limited depending on your background. Thomas Brodie gave a great display in intellectual honesty in the publication of his last book and he was crucified (ahem!) for it. … Someone remarked to me that he was intellectually dishonest in not saying this sooner and that this was underneath all his previous research and we did not have the full picture. My answer to that was that he had little choice until now. He made clear in the first page of this book that if he didn’t say it now he never would as he is an aging man. He threw caution to the wind and paid the price.

Another consequence for Brodie was a public attack against him in print. The official journal of the Dominican order, Doctrine & Life, devoted its July, 2013 issue to a collection of articles that critiqued Brodie’s arguments against Jesus’s historicity. Now, you might expect that a close-knit group of Christian academics within the same religious order would treat each other with love and kindness, and when they disagreed they would do so courteously and respectfully.

That’s not what happened.

It’s not unknown for an academic journal to publish a collection of articles critiquing a controversial book. When they do that, typically they give the book author a chance to respond to the reviewers. And of course typically the reviewers address the author respectfully as an esteemed colleague with whom they disagree about certain points.  The Dominicans took a radically different approach. What is striking about this collection of articles is the predominantly condescending and disdainful tone not only toward Brodie’s arguments but even toward his person. And that attitude is implicitly reflected also in the editorial decision not to publish a response from Brodie himself.

The critique of Brodie’s book consists of four articles, one by a well-known biblical scholar and fellow Dominican, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Murphy-O’Connor, who died shortly after writing this article about Brodie, was one of the foremost scholars of the Pauline literature, with many books about Paul and the Pauline literature to his credit.

In his article “Understanding the World of the Ancients,” Murphy-O’Connor’s language frequently sounds indignant and contemptuous:

Brodie evidently knows little about antiquity He several times emphasizes that he came to his essential conclusions very early in the 1970s; the proofs came later. One might suspect that the only evidence he considered seriously was that which appeared to fit his preconceived thesis. (p. 11)

Evidently, suspension of the reader’s (or student’s) critical sense is indispensable to Brodie’s methodology, which is dominated by wishful thinking. (p. 14)

Brodie does not help his case by writing that he would need 30 pages to work out the parallel clearly (p. 142). He evidently recognizes that persuasion would be difficult without a thick smoke screen! Here he provides barely a page. To appeal to faith is much easier. (p. 14)

If any one passage can be said to highlight the wishful thinking of Brodie’s methodology this is it. One has only to read the passages in Numbers that he suggests, to realize the abyss between the two texts, which Brodie vainly attempts to camouflage by the weasel language ‘largely a synthesis and adaptation’. (p. 14)

Logic is totally lacking. Perhaps it has been replaced by special revelation! In any case, Brodie never offers the slightest evidence against Pauline authorship of any of the letters. (p. 15)

This last triumphal proclamation closes the article.

Some of the parallels Brodie points out when he asserts a New Testament text was written by adapting an Old Testament text are indeed subtle. Such arguments are not necessarily convincing for everyone, but they’re part of a large body of evidence in which some points are stronger and some weaker. The conclusion you reach depends on the cumulative impact of all of the evidence. Murphy-O’Connor seizes on the weakest links without addressing the stronger ones. And he is not above creating a straw man and demolishing that. He states:

… Brodie believes that the intention of Jews in writing Genesis was to preserve for their people Homer’s Odyssey, and the way that Matthew’s community preserved Paul’s letter to the Romans was in the First Gospel! (p. 10)

Murphy-O’Connor cites page 133 in Brodie’s book for this assertion. Go there and you find that this is not at all what Brodie was saying.  What Brodie says there is that “within Genesis lies a transformation of Homer’s Odyssey and “within Matthew lies a transformation of Romans,” not that the transformation was done primarily to preserve the original text. On p. 130 Brodie explains that the purpose of transformation is “to respect and preserve the text in adapted form so that it fulfils some other function.” But Murphy-O’Connor uses the belief he falsely attributes to Brodie as the basis for questioning Brodie’s reasoning: “The absurdity of the conclusion strongly suggests that the basic principle is somehow flawed.” (p. 10)

As in personal relationships, so in academic debates, you’re often guilty of the very thing you criticize in others. Murphy-O’Connor repeatedly accuses Brodie of wishful thinking, but a significant part of his article is about why a historical Jesus is required for Christian faith.

Thus, to walk on the moon is no longer a utopian idea; it has been done. Similarly the lifestyle demanded by Jesus of his followers is known to be really possible because Jesus lived that way. The ideal, in other words, is not a utopia; it has been achieved, and can be achieved by other human beings. … To follow Christ is not to chase a utopian dream but to imitate the exemplary life of Jesus. (p.13)

Clearly, Murphy-O’Connor’s Christian faith requires a historical Jesus, so for him, Brodie’s thesis can’t possibly be true. And that standpoint is arguably the root motivation for the intemperate attacks on Brodie.

Murphy-O’Connor’s article and the other three in the Doctrine and Life issue don’t add much substantive content to the debate. They express worries that the Catholic faithful will be led astray, they assert that Brodie did not prove his point, and their tone is condescending in two of the three.

The only one of the four articles that maintains a respectful attitude toward Brodie is “Lessons from an Offbeat Intervention” by Fergus Kerr.  Kerr finds Brodie’s book unconvincing but sees value in it as something that challenges people to think about and question their religious beliefs.

Kerr does argue that it’s hard to believe a character like Paul could be completely made up. “To believe this, one would have to admire the control that the scribes possessed of the geographical details, the twists and turns of the plot, the numerous dramatis personae and so on, as the story unfolds from Tarsus to Rome.” (p.27) Brodie acknowledges there might have been an individual behind the portrayals, and Kerr asks, “Why could this genius not have been the historical Paul?” (p. 28) But Kerr doesn’t dismiss Brodie’s position on Paul and Jesus out of hand – “And again, as with the fictitious Paul, these inventive narrators would have had to maintain remarkable control over very heterogeneous material – not an impossibility, perhaps.” (p.29)

In my view Kerr and the other Dominicans are correct that Brodie’s confidence in his conclusion goes beyond what the evidence warrants. But overconfidence is endemic among scholars of scripture and ancient history. When all we have to go on is ancient literature, little is certain and nothing can be “proved,” but scholars want to feel confident about something. Nevertheless, in order to be a milestone positive accomplishment for the world of scriptural scholarship, Brodie’s book doesn’t have to convince everyone. What is does accomplish is help establish that that a serious scholar can indeed take a mythicist position. It helps show that mythicism an intellectually viable position even if not universally convincing. And you can reject Brodie’s absolute denial of Jesus’ historicity while accepting his point that we should focus our efforts at understanding Jesus on literary rather than historical investigations.

It’s a truism among scholars that everyone has assumptions and presuppositions, and no one can completely escape the impact of that.  It’s a valid principle, but there are serious differences in degree of impact. When I see contempt and acrimony in a scholar’s writing, to me that’s a red flag that something is clouding the person’s judgment. And when I see strong devotion to a religious idea that demands a particular conclusion, that’s another red flag. The stark contrast between the attitude toward others evidenced by Thomas Brodie and that evidenced by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor helps confirm for me that Brodie is by far the greater scholar, and his scholarly judgment is in general more reliable.

Philip Davies on Minimalism and Mythicism

April 20, 2014

A few posts back I wrote reviews on books by Bart Ehrman and Thomas Brodie that debate the question of whether Jesus ever existed as a historical person.  I’m currently revising and expanding the scope of those posts to create a review article on the subject for an online journal.

An interesting aspect of that topic is the parallel between the debate about Jesus’s historicity and the debate about the Old Testament patriarchs’ historicity. Forty years ago it was as scandalous to assert that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were strictly literary characters as it is today to say that about Jesus.  But in the course of a few decades, such views about the patriarchs became commonplace.

There are, of course, scholars who still want to believe in the historicity of the Genesis narratives, and they have branded those who don’t agree with them as “minimalists” (i.e., those who see minimal historically accurate narrative in the Old Testament). In my research I ran across some great Internet articles by one of the so-called minimalists, Philip Davies.

Much of what Davies says about the Old Testament historicity debate applies equally to the New Testament equivalent, as he himself points out. The following quotations come from these articles:

For starters, Davies points out that the “minimalism” debate as well as its New Testament “mythicism” equivalent is ultimately driven by personal agendas more than disinterested scholarship. This can be seen from the emotional dismissive language employed by many people who decry “minimalism” or “mythicism”:

What else explains language like “dilettantes” (Rainey 1994: 47) or that minimalism is “a passing fad” (Dever 1996: 8), “trendy” (Dever 2001:25), or ‘twaddle” (Rendsburg nd)? What else leads to the claim that it is motivated by anti-Judaism, anti-Zionism, or anti-Semitism?

… surely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case, and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous.

Such attacks today against “mythicism” correspond to attacks a few decades ago on “minimalism”:

This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. The ‘amateurs’ are now all retired professors, while virtually everyone else in the field has become minimalist (if in most cases grudgingly and tacitly). So, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again.

Today the common view among scholars even goes beyond the narrow rejection of historicity for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

The mainstream view of critical biblical scholarship accepts that Genesis-Joshua (perhaps Judges) is substantially devoid of reliable history and that it was in the Persian period that the bulk of Hebrew Bible literature was either composed or achieved its canonical shape.

And this view was not new in the late 20th century:

“Minimalist” positions were common early in the 20th century; perhaps American scholars just need to read more German! If one takes the mid-20th century “biblical archaeology” movement as a temporary departure and not as the new direction, we can easily see how “minimalism” is resuming the older agenda (one that never disappeared, anyway) …

As far as Old Testament narrative goes, Davies questions the historicity not only of Genesis-Judges but also of Israel as a nation and David as one of its kings. What is especially interesting here is the way in which he questions their historicity:

The point at issue is not whether an Israel ever existed, but rather whether the historical ancient Israel was like the portrait in the Bible. But perhaps the distinction is for many not so important. It was, after all, the Biblical Israel that was chosen by God, given a covenant, and promised the land west of the Jordan. Are these things true of the historical people or state that went by the name of Israel? If not…? Well, let us ask “what if not” since the question has to be faced, as Ze’ev Herzog recently did in an article in Ha-Aretz.

Baruch Halpern and Steven Mackenzie each wrote books recently about David. Each one said that a David existed, but not the one described in the Bible. This position is not that far from mine, except that I don’t share their faith in our ability to separate a “historical” one from a “biblical” one. But we can continue to debate (and I am good friends with both). At least we all agree that when we speak of “David” historically we are not speaking of the biblical one.

You could frame the mythicist debate in the same terms. Ultimately what separates “mythicists” from those who dismiss them as cranks is one’s degree of faith in scholars’ ability to separate a historical Jesus from the biblical one. From the ongoing disarray in the historical Jesus field, it’s hard for me to see how a strong faith in that ability could possibly be justified.

In any case, pretty much everything Davies writes makes sense to me, which is something I can say of relatively few biblical scholars. I highly recommend the three articles listed above as well as his books to anyone interested in the question of Bible and history. Other Old Testament scholars who offer a similar perspective and who I also highly recommend include Thomas Thompson, Keith Whitelam, Niels Peter Lemche, Kurt Noll, and of course Paul Nadim Tarazi.