Thursday, April 30, 2009

Announcing Biblical Studies Carnival 41

James McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix has promptly posted Biblical Studies Carnival 41. James has done a great job of rounding up the best posts from April for your reading pleasure, and not only that, but he's made it quite entertaining as a carnival should be.  Thanks, James.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Waltke & Enns on Inspiration

Peter Enns has posted links to a recent response to Inspiration and Incarnation by Bruce Waltke in the Westminster Theological Journal.  Waltke's review and Enns's response are available. The interaction highlights the challenge of distinguishing apologetics from exegesis as one is engaged in biblical scholarship. What struck me as I read Waltke's comments was how he repeatedly insists that his "apologetic" is based on "exegetical data and a posteriori reasoning, not on doctrine and a priori reasoning" (83-84). Methinks he doth protest too much. It seemed to me that his exegesis was colored by his a priori theological commitment to an orthodox position on inerrancy - a point Enns was quick to point out in his response.

Enns notes that there was also a surrejoinder by Waltke but implies it was outside the bounds of the type of exchange they'd originally agreed on. For that reason, he didn't link to it. Was that an unfair thing for the journal to allow the last word to come from the defender of the faith? Or is it common practice?

In passing, Waltke also had me scratching my head over his insistence that Proverbs is universally true, not situationally true. Anyone who's studied Wisdom Literature knows that proverbs are contextually-appropriate guidelines, not dogmatically true doctrines.  If such is Waltke's approach to Proverbs, it may not be worth the time to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

At any rate, I commend the exchange to all who are continually wrestling with the issue of inspiration and inerrancy.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Scripture is God-breathed

The discussion of inerrancy, Bible scholarship, and the impact of Bible scholarship on faith continued recently with some related (and sometimes interacting) posts by John, James, and Scott. Follow the discussion in the comments as well to get the full effect.

John offered a four-part critique and interaction with James's earlier question on the historicity of the Conquest account in Joshua. (Find my post on the subject here.) John had weighed in the day before with a quote from Paul Ricoeur that I suspect was subtly directed at the ongoing diablogue about the nature of our understanding of Scripture, but he didn't explicitly acknowledge it. (I suppose I should read this Ricoeur guy one of these days with my interest in the problem of evil.)

My contribution to the discussion is an observation about the relationship between a Scripture text and its interpretation related to the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy.  I say "doctrines" because I think they are separate theological issues, but they are often treated as one.

The Scripture: 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
The Interpretation: Excerpts from "Inspiration, Summary" at 2 Tim 3:16 in the ESV Scofield III Study Bible
"Without impairing the intelligence, individuality, literary style, or personal feelings of the human authors, God supernaturally directed the writing of Scripture so that they recorded in perfect accuracy His comprehensive and infallible revelation to man. If God Himself had done the writing, the written Word would be no more accurate and authoritative than it is. . . . By means of divine inspiration the writers of Scripture spoke with authority concerning the unknown past, wrote by divine guidance the historical portions, revealed the law, penned the devotional literature of the Bible, recorded the contemporary prophetic message, and prophesied the future. . . . Because the Scriptures are inspired, they are authoritative and without error in their original words, and constitute the infallible revelation of God to man." (Emphasis added)
The Study Bible quite accurately sums up the essentials of what has been an evangelical/fundamentalist approach to the doctrine of Scripture - inspiration and inerrancy go hand in hand. My observation is that the logical connection between the two seems to be a non sequitur (that is, logically it does not follow). If we're discussing interpretations of Scripture, I think it's fair to ask "where is that in the text?" in response to an offered interpretation. I don't see how 2 Tim 3:16-17 supports the conclusion that the text is "perfect," "infallible," or even "accurate."  Inspired and authoritative is one thing; perfect and infallible is another.

To paraphrase, Scripture is inspired divine revelation, useful for equipping people of faith for serving God. My question for the inerrancy debate is are inerrantists attributing more to Scripture than it claims for itself? I'm not familiar with the history of interpretation for this doctrine, so maybe one of you can help me out (James? John?). When did the church start using words like perfect, infallible, and inerrant to describe Scripture? Aside from logic (God is perfect > Scripture reveals God > Scripture is perfect), what other Scriptures support the idea of a "perfect" Bible?

(Of course, one can always affirm inerrancy in the original autographs . . .)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Recently . . .

Like John, I'm preparing for preliminary exams (our version of comps - but I have until July 27). At the moment, I'm finishing up with William Dever's book Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (2003). Dever apparently likes long questions for titles. The last book of his I had to read was What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? The book gives a broad overview of the theories on Israelite origins and especially develops Dever's own preferred version of an indigenous origins model. I think he may be right in many ways, but that's not why I'm writing.

Dever has a tendency to introduce quotations from secondary literature using the adverb "recently." For example, "Thomas Thompson has . . . stated recently that . . ." or "other biblical scholars have also weighed in recently . . . Diana Edelman . . . begins her chapter . . ." (pp. 191-192). These are just two representative examples from pages that I've read in the last few minutes. It caught my attention earlier in the book, too, and struck me as odd because most of the literature he's citing in these contexts is not what I would call recent.  I consider "recent" to refer mainly to the immediate past. In scholarship, a book that came out in the prior 2-3 years is passable enough as "recent."  Now the dictionary does give a technical meaning of "recent" from geology that pertains to the last 10,000 years, so in that sense, Dever's citing "recent" literature.

Thompson's book from which Dever quotes on p. 191 was from 1977. Edelman's book - 1996. And one earlier occurrence that I noticed was directed at a book from 1989. 

Granted, an adverb of time is often relative to the perception of the user, but 1977 was before I was born.  In 1996, I graduated from High School. In 1989, I started 6th grade.

So is the last 32 years of Bible scholarship that vivid and immediate to Dever that he feels it can all be accurately referred to as "recent" or is it just a stylistic tic that a good editor should have pointed out and corrected?

Thoughts? What qualifies as "recently"?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Israelite Origins and Biblical Inerrancy

James McGrath has had an interesting month, to say the least. He started the month debating at Triablogue about his views on inerrancy (in which he's a "standard-issue liberal" and quite probably an apostate). A few days later, he posted a quote on inerrancy from Eric Reitan. That post has 79 comments running still today 11 days after the original post. (Let's just say there's a lively discussion going on there that, incidentally, illustrates why I moderate comments.) That exchange apparently led to a commenter writing to James's pastor to inform him of his status as a liberal apostate heretic. And yet, he continues to post on inerrancy, without fear and trembling. The fact that he actually attempts to dialogue with some of his commenters is quite commendable (read the comments to see why).

Today's post raises questions about Israelite origins and the biblical accounts of the Exodus and Conquest. I normally avoid engaging controversial issues head-on. My series on Apologetics and Critical Bible Scholarship has been something of an exception, but even there, I only obliquely touch on the question of inerrancy as a theological commitment that governs how evidence will be interpreted. I think the firestorm of comments that James has set off shows how passionate people are about their beliefs and about how vehemently they will defend them lest their entire belief system fall apart. Despite the fact that the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy has only been around 31 years or so, it clearly reflects the only right way to understand biblical inspiration as it is based on careful exegesis of Scripture itself. It is an exegetical conclusion, not a theological commitment. (If you're unsure how to take the tone of those last 2 sentences, go here.)

Today, James asked:
Is there any single period of approximately a century during which we
find all the relevant cities mentioned in Joshua to have been destroyed
in something like the way the Book of Joshua indicates?

The answer is No. The Joshua narrative and the archaeological record for Canaan, Israel, and Transjordan for the appropriate time frames are difficult (dare I say, impossible?) to reconcile. The problem is that many biblical sites have been identified and excavated. One can appeal to our overall lack of knowledge and the inexact nature of the science, but such an appeal is usually only made in one direction. That is, it's used to explain why the evidence does not fit the Bible. The identification of many sites is quite certain and only challenged if the city that's found couldn't possibly be the city the Bible mentioned.

Gibeon is a great example of how the narrative and the archaeology don't line up. Joshua 9 is the well-known story of how the people of nearby Gibeon tricked Joshua into not destroying them (Josh 9:3-4). Regardless of whether we date the Exodus in 1446 BCE or 1290 BCE, it falls in the archaeological record during the Late Bronze Age (ended ca. 1200 BCE).

In William Dever's survey of the evidence for Israelite origins, he says that:
Gibeon was apparently not occupied in either the late 13th or the early 12th century B.C. The American excavator who dug there in the 1960s -- James Pritchard, a well-known archaeologist and Professor of Religious Though at the University of Pennsylvania -- found Iron Age remains, but nothing earlier than the 8th century B.C.
    Nor is the problem misidentification for here the identity of the site is certain. The Arabic name, el-Jib, is the exact equivalent of Hebrew "Gibeon," as the great American Semitist and topographer Edward Robinson pointed out as long ago as 1838. And Pritchard found 56 broken jar handles inscribed "Gibeon" in Hebrew in a deep water system of the 8th-7th century B.C. The fact that this water system is probably the same one that is mentioned in 2 Samuel 2:13 suggests that the book of Joshua belongs to the 8th-7th century B.C., when the Gibeon known to the biblical writers really did exist. (pp. 48-49)
Dever also raises the point that Joshua 12 and Judges 1 have different stories to tell about the success of the Conquest. One example: Ta'anach was defeated (Josh 12:21) or was it? (Judges 1:27) Those discrepancies were probably the earliest clues for me that the Bible was perhaps not telling me a historical story in the sense that I'd previously believed. I knew how to harmonize evidence from history that didn't fit with a literal reading of Scripture, but I didn't know how to accept as literal and historical two competing versions of the story from Scripture itself. Why do we impose modern ideas about science, history, authorship, and accuracy onto an ancient text? What if God didn't intend to give us an exact historical and scientific account of things?

Reference: William G. Dever. 2003. Who were the early Israelites and where did they come from? Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What Does it Mean to be "Critical"?

This post is intended to clarify my earlier statements about apologetics and critical Bible scholarship - here and here. Clarification is necessary because I didn't adequately define my terms in a way that accounted for the diversity of my audience. Note especially the reaction and wide-ranging discussion (still going on several days later) at Nick Norelli's blog.

Some who read the earlier posts knew exactly what I was talking about through shared experiences, similar background, or similar education. (I think I can count Brooke, Jay, Art, and Calvin in this group.) For others, my thoughts were a confusing rant about something they didn't see a problem with, or more accurately, they understand apologetics in a different sense, so they weren't sure what exactly I was talking about. (I think Nick and many of the commenters there might fall in this category.)  And I'm sure a few readers likely fell into a third category - those who perceive my posts as an apologia in favor of "higher criticism" contrived as a deliberate counter-attack against the truth of Scripture.  If you are in this last group (and I can't definitely pin down any commenters as definitely coming from here), all I can say is that such is not the case, though I doubt you will believe me.

My clarification answers two main questions:

1) What type of apologetics am I referring to? Or better, who are the "apologists" in my discussion?
2) Can one engage in apologetics and still be doing critical scholarship?

First, I am not concerned with the apologists out there arguing issues of worldview from a philosophical / theological perspective.  In my mind, that's a different thing to be engaged in arguing over philosophy and belief. It also doesn't apply (directly) to my topic because philosophy and belief can exist apart from any "hard" evidence to support the system. (Yes, I know . . . our philosophy affects how we deal with the hard evidence - that's a separate but related issue.) My comments were aimed at a different sort of apologetics (though I believe those engaged in it similarly think issues of belief and worldview are at stake).

I was referring primarily to those who argue against "liberal" biblical scholars (as though critical Bible scholarship was a monolithic entity) about issues like Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, single authorship of Isaiah in the time of Hezekiah, the early date for the book of Daniel, and the early date of the Exodus.  Their mission statement could read something like this: "We believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Isaiah and Daniel predicted the future, and the Exodus happened in 1446 BC. We will defend these beliefs against all attacks and refute all the so-called evidence of the evil empire of higher criticism." Nothing anyone says will convince them that they're wrong because admitting they were wrong amounts to a denial of the truth of Scripture - the Bible clearly affirms that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, etc. The bottom line is that they're always defending the same thing - their doctrine of Scripture. Take the date of the Exodus as an example.
1. 1 Kings 6:1 says it occurred 480 years before Solomon's fourth year.
2. If the Bible is true, then it has to be talking about a literal 480 years. 
3. Therefore, 1446 BC is the only option (unless we have reasonable evidence to tweak the chronology of Solomon's ascension to the throne).
4. All evidence suggesting it didn't happen at all can be dealt with by appealing to our lack of knowledge because absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.
5. All evidence suggesting it happened later must be refuted or outfitted with a nice harmonizing explanation that allows it to still fit with the conclusion that must be true.
Is it possible to fairly deal with the evidence when one's already committed to an answer?  I'll admit this can be a problem among scholars, too, whether committed to a religious perspective or not, but it seems to show up in a particularly well-developed and dogmatic form among conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. (And perhaps Nick is right that my problem is more with fundamentalism than with apologetics per se.) In his review of G. K. Beale's The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism, James McGrath writes:
In the chapter on the question of whether the book of Isaiah could have had multiple authors, Beale purports to be defending the Bible, but he is of course defending his doctrine
of Scripture, and at times it becomes clear that he is determined to
defend his doctrine of Scripture even from Scripture itself. Rather
than allow the contents of this influential and powerful prophetic book
to determine his conclusion, he is determined to force it into a
straightjacket determined by his presuppositions about the Bible in
general, and about the meaning of the New Testament when it refers to
"Isaiah" in particular.
I think this illustrates how the boundaries between apologetics and Bible scholarship are fuzzy.  I'm not familar with much of Beale's work (not being a NT student myself), but I'm willing to recognize his commentaries as Bible scholarship. This latest book appears to have crossed the line to apologetics, defending belief more than offering an understanding of the text of Scripture on its own terms.

Now for the second question (and the title of this post), what does it mean to be "critical"? Can one be engaged in apologetics and still be doing critical scholarship? In my view, the answer is no . . . but I'll admit that one could go back and forth between the two in an otherwise scholarly work.  Once one has crossed from an argument based on evidence to an argument motivated by belief, one is no longer being critical. My opinion is based on my definition of apologetics. I don't consider any defense of one's ideas to be apologetics because there is a huge difference between defending a conclusion derived from one's careful examination of evidence (e.g., defense of a dissertation) and defending a belief or worldview because one is committed to it being right.

Being critical involves evaluating evidence, examining presuppositions, and noticing how interpretation is affected by those presuppositions. I'm not claiming that objective, neutral exegesis is the goal, though I believe some objectivity is possible (despite the fact that it's philosophically fashionable at present to deny objectivity and claim we're all slaves to the presuppositions of our worldviews, whether religious, anti-religious, or philosophical). I believe recognizing those presuppositions and being open to re-evaluating them is a measure of objectivity.

So what does it mean to be "critical" for Bible scholarship? It means continually challenging, questioning, and evaluating interpretations of Scripture, including our own, with a willingness to change our minds if necessary. I don't know many apologists (or fundamentalists) who do that.

Acknowledgments: My thinking is indebted in part to the blog posts and comments not only here but at the various posts linked to above. Some of what I've said here is responding to or affirming what's been mentioned there. Special thanks to the insightful commenters at Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (no, they're not all insightful but I'm trying to be nice.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Apologists & Bible Scholars

Yes, I think apologists and Bible scholars belong in separate categories. True, some apologists want people to think they're Bible scholars ("Look, here's my dissertation on how Wellhausen was wrong and the Pentateuch really could have been written in the Late Bronze Age"), and some Bible scholars engage in apologetics more than Bible scholarship, but it's still a useful distinction to make. Sometimes a faith-based approach to the Bible is too beholden to a theological system to objectively weigh the evidence.

I came across some apologetic "scholarship" today that claims to completely and utterly destroy the foundations of so-called higher criticism. Talk like that just really annoys me because it is immediately clear that they're engaged in battle with something they don't understand, yet they claim indisputable victory.

Job's humble confession of his ignorance comes to mind (Job 42:3) - though don't press the analogy that the results of biblical criticism are akin to the wisdom of God himself.
'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?'
Therefore they have uttered what they did not understand,
things too wonderful for them, which they did not know.
For all their talk of defending the "truth," apologists seem primarily motivated by a desire to maintain the terms under which they've determined what "truth" is. Truth = reading the Bible literally, every time. But even they fudge it a little bit. You know this is true because they aren't all one-armed, one-eyed men (Matt 5:29-30). Would admitting even a little bit of uncertainty about how to understand the Bible really destroy their faith? They sure act like it would.

There is a certain ease with which they invoke logical fallacies like "special pleading" to apply to their opponents, but they see no problems with their own logic. I'm even more convinced than I was before that apologetics is more about maintaining belief in spite of the evidence than it is about honestly considering the evidence with an open mind. Ironically, one of the sources I stumbled across urged the audience to "consider evidence honestly" and "not have closed minds."

But what bothers me the most is the complete dismissal of biblical criticism as a society of skeptics dead set on their agenda to discredit the Scriptures, constantly subjecting the Pentateuch, Isaiah, and Daniel to concerted attacks and "unremitting assaults." As I've said before, they've marshaled their forces to defend against an attack that's more perceived than real. Few of us set out to discredit the Bible, and I don't think accepting the tenets of biblical criticism amounts to a denial of the truth-value of the Scriptures.

Apologists, is it the Bible critic's fault that your faith is so small that you need to prove your Bible is "utterly inerrant" in order for it to be divinely inspired so that you can believe it's true?

[N.B. I intentionally did not link to the self-published apologetic sources from which the above snippet quotes were taken. This was mainly because a) I don't want to draw attention to stuff that's not worth anyone's time and b) I don't like arguing with apologists because they don't listen to reason. Linking and mentioning names could draw their attention. Suffice it to say that one man has successfully demolished the Documentary Hypothesis, demonstrated the single authorship of Isaiah, and proved the genuine inspiration of the New Testament. Here I thought inspiration was more something that needed to be believed than proved.]

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My 15 Minutes . . .

A reader was kind enough to point out that my name came up in passing in a NY Times Op-Ed column yesterday.  The column deals with the subtle way that Google is taking over the world and taking revenue and relevance away from traditional journalism.

Quite coincidentally, my name happened to crawl across Google's ticker at just the time when Ms. Dowd was waiting in the lobby at Google HQ.
But there is a vaguely ominous Big Brother wall in the lobby of the
headquarters here that scrolls real-time Google searches — porn queries
are edited out — from people around the world. You could probably see
your own name if you stayed long enough. In one minute of watching, I
saw the Washington association where my sister works, the Delaware
beach town where my brother vacations, some Dave Matthews lyrics,
calories Panera, females feet, soaps in depth and Douglas Mangum,
whoever he is.
I hope she googled me herself, so she now knows who I am.  Of course, I'm sure there are others with the same name.  I just don't know any of them.

HT: Christopher Hays

Monday, April 13, 2009

2009 SBL Preliminary Program Details

If you're meticulously planning your November trip to New Orleans for SBL, online access to the preliminary program is available here.

For my part, I always look forward to the Wisdom Literature sections. This year there is a session devoted to discussing David Clines' Job commentary. The long-awaited third volume on chapters 38-42 must be forthcoming; although, I can find no mention of it at Thomas Nelson's website. It is, however, available for pre-order here with a 10/29/09 release date.
Wisdom in Israelite and Cognate Traditions

Theme: Job Studies - David Clines' Job Trilogy (WBC), how we got to where we are, and what is coming next
Some of the world's leading specialists on the book of Job celebrate the completion of David Clines' third volume (Job 38-42) in the Word Biblical Commentary Series and use this opportunity to reflect on the future of the study of the book of Job.

Knut Heim, Presiding
David Clines, University of Sheffield, Panelist
C. Seow, Princeton Theological Seminary, Panelist
Samuel Balentine, Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Panelist
Katharine Dell, University of Cambridge, Panelist
Edward Greenstein, Bar Ilan University, Panelist
Michael Fox, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Panelist
Carol Newsom, Emory University, Panelist

I've also noted that one of the Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew sections is again stacked with UW-Madison people - 1 professor and 2 alumni.

Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew

John A. Cook, Asbury Theological Seminary

Reconsidering the so-called vav consecutive (35 min)

Robert D. Holmstedt, University of Toronto

Tripartite Nominal Clause or Pronominal Copula? (35 min)

Jacobus A. Naude, University of the Free State

Quantification in Biblical hebrew. The scope of the quantifier kol (35 min)

Cynthia L. Miller, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Pronominal Reference and Vocative Expressions (35 min)

Too bad the dates and times aren't up at all yet. Usually I make plans for papers I'd like to hear and then they all get stacked in the same few time slots.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Faith & Intellectual Honesty

One of my reasons in writing on apologetics and critical Bible scholarship was to highlight how theological approaches to the text can sometimes be intellectually dishonest when they prize the maintenance of the belief system over an open-minded analysis of the evidence.

The conversation continues today with Scott Bailey’s review of a book that attempts to offer an answer for balancing a Christian approach to the text with an academically faithful one. According to Scott’s review, the book fails to offer anything meaningful to move the discussion forward.  Here’s a telling quote from Scott:

But the way they read (the “right” “Christian” and “biblical” way) the Bible is  a hindrance to the sort of rigorous academic investigation of biblical studies which is quite ironic in a book about academic faithfulness.

A short while later, James McGrath posted about having an introspective faith, being open to honestly considering one’s own traditions.  Here’s his opening paragraph:

The unexamined faith is not worth having. Religion has had many critics from without, and still does. But one characteristic feature of the Biblical tradition is that it is full of critics from within, those who examine their own tradition and challenge themselves first, and then their contemporaries, to rethink it and to live it differently.

So, I recommend Scott’s review for an example of thinking that’s holding back progress (the book’s, not Scott’s) and James’s post for an example of the kind of thinking that moves things forward.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bizarre Bible Stories 2: Jdgs 19-21

As I noted in my earlier treatment of this subject, the Book of Judges is perhaps the best repository for bizarre stories from the Bible. The value of these stories in the biblical record is hard to grasp when taken at face value. At the very least, they scan as morally questionable; at worst, they appear to be completely at odds with the teachings of Torah. In the latter regard, they fit well with the rest of the Deuteronomic History, reflecting a disconnect between the Prophets and the Law already noted in the 19th century by Graf and Wellhausen.

Judges 19 and the story of the Levite and his concubine has always puzzled and fascinated me. The bizarre crime committed in Gibeah leads to civil war and the near-extinction of the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 20-21. Such a simple summary makes the narrative arc sound fairly tame, but these inter-connected stories take one bizarre turn after another as they draw the Book of Judges to a close.

Piquing the interest of the close reader even more are the frequent echoes of earlier narratives and the foreshadowings of what’s to come in 1 Samuel. For example, the story of the Levite and his concubine fits the general outline of the events leading up to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19. The ensuing battle in Jdgs 20 reflects a winning strategy reminiscent of Joshua’s conquest of Ai in Josh 8. Looking ahead, the calling of an assembly at Mizpah and the focus on Gibeah foreshadow the importance of those places in 1 Sam 10.

Let’s turn now to some of the bizarre details from Judges. First of all, we have a Levite from Ephraim traveling to Bethlehem to collect his concubine who returned to her father’s house after being unfaithful. If she’d been unfaithful, shouldn’t she have been put to death according to Lev 20:10?

When the Levite finally heads back to Ephraim with his concubine, he foregoes stopping at Jebus, a Canaanite city, in favor of spending the night at Gibeah, an Israelite city. Once there, he’s eventually taken in by an Ephraimite sojourning there. Then the events similar to Sodom unfold. The men of Gibeah surround the city and demand the Levite be given over to them so that they can get to “know” him. I don’t think they just wanted to chat over coffee since the old Ephraimite offers his virgin daughter and the concubine to them instead. As the mob got more unruly, the Levite pushed his concubine out to them where she was gang-raped and abused all night long.

In the morning, she lies dead on the threshold, but the Levite shows no regard for her, calling to her to get up so they can leave until apparently realizing she’s dead. He takes her body home and cuts her into twelve pieces, sending a piece to each tribe of Israel. How does that work to send the proper message? Something must have been sent along with the body part, but it’s not mentioned. How do the recipients know how she died? The text doesn’t even recount the Levite telling the old man that she was dead. For all they know, she died at the edge of his knife. Maybe the response recorded in Jdgs 19:30 was actually a reaction to the horror of getting a body part in the mail! (Of course, 1 Sam 11:7 makes that unlikely where Saul sends a similar message with pieces of cut up oxen. The difference is the verbal content of Saul’s message is preserved.)

The story of Israel’s war against Benjamin is not technically that bizarre.  The fact that 26,000 Benjaminites repelled attacks from 40,000 Israelites on two separate days is remarkable (though not quite to the caliber of the 300 Spartans). Of course, Israel eventually realizes they should just make use of their superior numbers (400,000) and a near-total victory ensues. All but 600 Benjaminites are killed.  This sets up the problem solved by the other bizarre details of this account.

The problem is that the tribes of Israel realize after the fact that exterminating one of their own tribes is a bad idea. But they have another problem because they all swore not to give their daughters to Benjamin as wives.  They find a bizarre solution to the problem.  Determining that Jabesh-Gilead didn’t send anyone to the summons at Mizpah, they sack the city and devote all to destruction except for 400 virgins found there. This solved the problem for all but 200 remaining Benjaminites who are instructed to kidnap wives for themselves when the daughters of Shiloh come out for an upcoming festival.

Perhaps this bizarre chain of events is meant to underscore the social and political chaos of pre-monarchic Israel. That this is likely the case is seen by the way the book ends with the well-known refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Jdgs 21:25)

On the one hand, this appears to be looking favorably on the order brought by having a king. On the other hand, the story disparages Saul’s ancestry since it suggests he must have been descended from one of the 600 survivors of Benjamin, and it reflects badly on his hometown of Gibeah.

So what to make of this story? Did it really happen or is it just a reflection of the failure of Saul’s kingship? Makes for a good story – “Yeah, Saul didn’t really work out as a good king, but you know he had it rough, came from bad stock there in Gibeah. Did I ever tell you about the time . . .”

It seems like the end of Judges is setting us up for the later conflicts from the books of Samuel and Kings, but the formulaic nature of the stories (i.e., major plot points are reworked from other stories that are likely prior) suggests they are rather retrojecting later conflicts into the time of the judges.

A.D. Riddle offered an insightful comment on my earlier post that I think deserves the final word as a good statement of what is likely going on here.

These stories certainly make the case that things are not right, and they might be setting up the tension between David (of Bethlehem) and Saul (of Gibeah in Benjamin), and the later conflict between Judah and Ephraim as the Southern and Northern kingdoms.

There are many more bizarre narratives to explore, so the series may continue. (Perhaps Tod will favor us with a discussion of 2 Kings 2 for part 3.)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

John & Acts: Life Application Bible Studies

Some time ago I received for review two of the Bible studies in Tyndale's Life Application Bible Studies series. Now I've finally had a chance to look at the one for Acts and the one on the Gospel of John enough to have a few things to say about them.tyndale john study

First of all, I should point out that they live up to their name as a study primarily devoted to application of the text to the life of the reader. In other words, they don't really fit with the academic approach that I usually take on this blog because the series is more theological and devotional.

In terms of format, the first half of the book contains the full NLT text of the biblical book with the articles and notes of the Life Application Study Bible. This is a nice feature because everyone doing the study (if you were to use it in say a Sunday School class or small group Bible study) can have the exact same text in front of them. It's also an affordable way to introduce people to the NLT.

tyndale acts study The book introductions and the notes contain a basic but adequate coverage of issues that might come up when reading John or Acts. For more in-depth treatment of background issues, I recommend using them alongside the NLT Study Bible. I will say, however, that this study's application-oriented approach did enrich my understanding of a few verses by offering in the note a way of thinking about the verse that wouldn't have occurred to me otherwise.

The second half of the study consists of 13 Lessons. Each lesson is divided into 5 segments: Reflect on your life, Read the passage, Realize the principle, Respond to the message, and Resolve to take action. I found the questions difficult to answer, probably because I spend most of my time reading the Bible academically and answering a completely different set of questions about the text.  For a church group, however, they've proven to stimulate discussion and reflection in a positive way. I think that is, after all, the point of the series.

For that reason, I would recommend this series of Bible studies for anyone looking for a good application-oriented Bible study for a Sunday School or group Bible study. The questions and notes are widely accessible to most lay people and encourage them to talk about the Bible in thoughtful way.

Apologetics, Logic, and Critical Bible Scholarship

One of my professors tells an anecdote about a prominent evangelical Old Testament scholar's visit to our (secular) biblical studies program many years ago.

According to the tale, nearly the first words out of the scholar's mouth were "I'm trained as a lawyer and I'm here to defend the Bible." My professor recounts being taken aback and thinking, "But no one's attacking it here."

This story illustrates perfectly the unilateral war waged by some conservative scholars against the evil empire of "secular" and "liberal" critical Bible scholars. In other words, the conservative side defends and "refutes" the results of the "liberal" side which in turn mostly ignores the attack completely.

Ironically, there was a time when I wanted to be that guy from the story. I was interested in "proving" the Bible was history, and his articles and books were the pinnacle of biblical scholarship in my view. I once asked one of my Bible professors if I should pursue Apologetics as scholarly career, and he gently dissuaded me. At least I realized that what I was doing in arguing against the results of historical-critical Bible scholarship was Apologetics, not critical scholarship.

I've had a lot of time to reflect on some of the issues and arguments that I was passionate about back then, and I've detected a pattern in the kind of argument that conservatives typically marshal against theories like the Documentary Hypothesis, three-part authorship of Isaiah, or the date of the Exodus. The reason their "counter-attacks" are ignored by mainstream Bible scholars is that their logic starts with theology, not textual evidence. The argument goes something like this.

Starting Point:  Theological commitment to the literal accuracy of the text.

Step 1:  Harmonize all evidence that doesn't quite jive with the literal reading of the text.

Step 2:  People who reject the literal meaning of the text are heretics, liberals, and non-believers with an agenda to prove the Bible is false.  Demonize them.

Step 3:  Reject and refute their critical arguments about the text. If those arguments are wrong, then the literal reading must be right.

Result:  Vindication of the theological commitment to the literal accuracy of the text.

The problems with this chain of reasoning should be immediately apparent. First of all, it's circular.  Classic "begging-the-question."  If you already know the answer that must be reached, how can you objectively handle the evidence? 

Second, the "if they're wrong, then we must be right" argument does not prove anything. It's just playing the fallacy of the false dilemma. There are only two options so disproving one, proves the other. doesn't.

Along with that, the uncertainty or flexibility inherent in critical arguments cannot serve as proof that their conclusions are invalid. The argument that if the source hypothesis for the Pentateuch was correct than all scholars would divide the sources exactly the same way is flawed in this way. The fact that so many scholars notice something about the text that leads them to make those divisions speaks to the fact that there's an issue there to explore. Differing on the details doesn't disqualify the question. Retreating to a literal or traditional answer is often simplistic, ignoring the depth and complexity of the biblical tradition.

Since apologetic logic starts with a theological commitment, the apologists assume that their opponents (critical Bible scholars) are similarly starting from a philosophical commitment and are motivated chiefly by a desire to prove the Bible is false. The argument is about belief first, evidence second. This is, in my view, an unfortunate caricature. I'm not saying that all Bible scholars are objective and uninfluenced by their world views. Indeed, a few seem like they are chiefly motivated by a desire to disprove the Bible. (I can think of one in particular.) But by and large, critical Bible scholars have reached their "heretical" conclusions after honestly wrestling with the evidence of the text. The conclusion is dictated by the evidence; it is the end result, not the beginning premise.

This was the startling revelation that I experienced when I read Wellhausen for myself. I came to learn that his Documentary Hypothesis was borne out of an earnest struggle to understand the text of the Bible on its own terms, driven by his love for the Bible, not a hateful desire to disprove it.

I don't want to disparage the contribution to Bible scholarship of those scholars who have taken this more defensive posture in their work. However, it is important to realize that their arguments will not be admitted in a secular biblical studies forum where theological axioms are not valid starting points for debate.

On the other hand, I wonder if they know that their war is one-sided, that the critical scholars pan their arguments if they even bother to pay attention at all. It's just occurred to me that the purpose of apologetics in this context is not to prove to the other side that they're wrong. It's to circle the wagons and keep those young impressionable minds from wandering to the dark side. 

By poisoning the well against the arguments of critical Bible scholarship, they preserve the status quo for the next generation. It's too bad really. Why not just teach them to think for themselves? Contrary to popular belief, critical Bible scholarship and faith are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Reaching for Unity in Isaiah

I was re-reading David Carr's 1993 article "Reaching for Unity in Isaiah" today. It's useful at least for the footnotes that reference many of the most important studies on the composition of Isaiah up until the early 1990s. The main point of the article is that the book of Isaiah is far too diverse to find any overarching literary structure. The last few paragraphs of his study are well worth the read, so I've reproduced them here.
[T]he above arguments for the weakness of the case for literary unity in Isaiah raise some questions about our contemporary compulsion to find literary unity in Isaiah and throughout the rest of the Bible. This tendency has emerged at just the time when attempts to recover the original words of the prophets have proven a less and less reliable guide for interpretation. Faced with such a crisis, the search for literary coherence of the 'final form' of the biblical text has seemed a godsend. Thus, for example, after describing how historical criticism 'divided' the biblical text and thus 'conquered' it, Seitz introduces his essay on 'Isaiah 1-66: Making Sense of the Whole' in the following way:
What I offer, then, is not a complex new literary theory. I hope that by demonstrating something of the Book of Isaiah's own efforts at unity and coherence, I might make our point of standing, as preacher, readers, and hearers of the Word of God in Isaiah, more stable and coherent. (p.107)
Thus Seitz presents his efforts at demonstrating unity in Isaiah as an attempt to reconstruct its authority over against us after the dissolution of the text effected by historical criticism.

Here is an important way in which our hermeneutical presuppositions have exegetical consequences. For if we believe that we must begin our interpretation with understanding of the unitary literary shape of the text's final form, we will be impelled to find such shape in texts whether or not it is there. Having surveyed in this article the limited success of previous attempts to find unity in Isaiah, this is the point to ask, to what extent is the search for unity in Isaiah truly a reflection of the semiotic potentialities in the text itself?

Perhaps texts like the book of Isaiah can teach us the limits of so generally emphasizing a search for structural or literary coherence in biblical texts. As indicated in the above survey, such a search can have great heuristic value, leading us beyond a focus on individual pericopes to see how texts like Isa. 1, 35:1-40:8 and 65-66 'reach for unity', synthesizing the varied materials surrounding them, if only partially. Yet excessive confidence in the existence of a more complete unity in biblical texts--and our need to find it --can blind us to the unresolved, rich plurality built into texts like Isaiah. Just as in its parallel process within the formation of the book, such scholarly 'reaching for unity' can achieve only limited success. At best such study can productively, yet only partially, construe and reconstrue the significance of varied materials not amenable to final closure. (pp. 79-80)
I've added the emphasis to highlight the parts that jumped out at me as particularly worthy of consideration. The rest is provided for context. I've been thinking over the issues surrounding what Carr calls "hermeneutical presuppositions." In some cases, those presuppositions manifest themselves as theological commitments which must be defended at all costs. In the process of defending those commitments, the work of historical criticism on the Bible is often disparaged, caricatured, and accused of having its own anti-faith agenda. Do faith-based seminaries and colleges engage in fair critical evaluation of the work of historical criticism or do they specialize in apologetic refutations of arguments they don't really understand? That's a rhetorical question.

Reference: David Carr, "Reaching for Unity in Isaiah," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 57 (1993) 61-80.