Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review: Original Sinners by John R. Coats

coats_original sinners

I just finished reading Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis by John R. Coats. (I received a review copy in mid-December from Free Press--see full disclosure text below).

I have to admit that I had low expectations when I started. It's a popular book on the Bible written by a non-scholar claiming a "new interpretation." We all know "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). What could I have to learn about the Bible from a former Episcopalian priest?

You might be surprised. I know I was. While Coats hasn't really offered a wholly new interpretation, he's provided a refreshingly relevant reading of Genesis that brings the ancient characters alive, emphasizing their humanity - their flaws and feelings - in the midst of the extraordinary circumstances of their lives.

For the faithful, Coats's perspective on Genesis as story and metaphor over history and fact may at first seem sacrilegious and threatening. However, it allows him to read Genesis in a fresh way, putting himself in the character's shoes and attempting to understand their motivation, their decisions, and their actions. His perspective helped me to see the very familiar stories of Genesis in an entirely new way as I attempted to follow the human side of the story instead of reading solely for the theological significance of divine revelation.

One of the most original features of the book is the way Coats weaves together his discussion of Genesis with stories from his own life that illustrate the attitudes and interactions he's finding in the biblical text. Coats is a masterful storyteller and I enjoyed learning more about the author through his account of his life experience.

The insights he brings to Genesis emphasize the flawed humanity of the characters using his knowledge of biblical studies, psychology, and ministry. While some might characterize his interpretation as heavily "reader-response", he is aware of the danger of reading too much of his own "conditioning" into his interpretation. His seminary training exposed him to the perspectives of critical scholarship on the Bible, and he makes use of that with frequent reference to some of the more accessible popular Bible interpreters such as Robert Alter and James Kugel.

If Coats set out to write a book challenging the ways the average reader approaches Genesis, then he succeeded. If he intended to challenge their assumptions and push them to read Genesis in a new way, inserting themselves into the story and finding new levels of contemporary relevance for these ancient texts, then he succeeded there as well. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I recommend it for anyone looking for a fresh perspective on the Book of Genesis.

Disclosure Text : I have a material connection because I received a review copy (book, CD, software, etc.), or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Hebrew University Responds to Khirbet Qeiyafa Buzz

Now it's always nice to have lots of media attention aimed at archaeological excavations because it raises public awareness of the kind of research that's being done. However, there's a tendency with finds related to the biblical world to get carried away in interpreting those finds to "prove" the Bible is true, historical, etc. This is evident most recently in Gershon Galil's very gratuitous and sensationalized reading of the ostracon from Khirbet Qeiyafa. I was browsing the official excavation website today, and I found that they've published an open letter to Galil regarding his findings and the methods he used in reporting them. Apparently, he was taking credit for readings and conclusions that weren't originally his. Tsk tsk. On top of that, his reconstructions were entirely speculative. Already knew that.

Here is the letter, reproduced in full from the "Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon Project" website of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Open Letter to Prof. Gers[h]on Galil, Haifa University
The Khirbet Qeiyafa expedition would like to draw your attention to a number of problematic statements that appeared in the Haifa University press release, dated January 10, 2010 ( These statements raise several problems of ethics and scholarship, which unfortunately have created a serious public misunderstanding concerning the Qeiyafa ostracon.
  1. While the expedition is run by two directors, only one (Yosef Garfinkel) is mentioned. This is surprising, as last year co-director Saar Ganor spent some time on guiding a tour of Khirbet Qeiyafa for you and other members of the Department of Biblical Studies of Haifa University.
  2. The letters that appear on the ostracon were deciphered by the epigraphist Dr. Haggai Misgav, who has published his reading in Hebrew and English. In the press release, however, you are presented as the person who deciphered the inscription, taking full credit for the entire reading. Again, this is surprising, as last year Haggai Misgav gave a presentation on the inscription at the Department of Biblical Studies of Haifa University.
  3. In a few cases you give alternative readings of the inscription that were published by Dr. Ada Yardeni. These, again, are presented as your original reading.
  4. From the very first reading of the inscription, the words אל תעש were understood by Haggai Misgav as an indication that the language of the inscription is Hebrew. In the press release this understanding is presented as your original contribution.
  5. Prof. Shmuel Ahituv suggested in his publication that עבד (worship) is another indication for Hebrew. In the press release, however, this is presented as your own contribution.
  6. When you examined the ostracon, you requested permission to take a few photographs for your personal use only. One of these photographs appears in the press release.
Your contribution consists not of reading or deciphering the inscription, but rather of speculative reconstruction of "missing" letters and words. Most of the third line and the center of the fifth line of the ostracon are illegible and the letters you suggest are entirely speculative. The main words that support your thesis (אלמנה, יתום, אביון) are reconstructed and do not appear as such in the legible parts of the ostracon.
On the basis of your own reconstruction, you draw conclusions, among others, about when the Bible was written. Does this sound like a scientific methodology?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Evidence in the Eye of the Beholder

Our interpretation of evidence is influenced by our perspective. We are aware to varying degrees of the conditioning that colors our interpretations. Presuppositions and theological commitments lead us to naturally bend our reading of the evidence to fit our preconceived understanding. Sometimes we're driven by an agenda - an outcome that we'd like to see proven or disproven. We're all prone to gratuitous readings of the evidence whether a biblical text or an ancient inscription. This is how difficult, fragmentary texts like Gabriel's Vision or the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon can make such a big splash in the news. The sensational reading is the one that makes news by claiming to answer long-standing questions and settle controversial debates. I found the following quote to be a helpful reminder of how we must be aware of the factors that influence our interpretations.
Am I, a man living long after the authors of Genesis, with ideas and mind-sets made possible by twenty-five hundred additional years in the development of human consciousness, using these as tools to better understand these ancient texts, or am I ascribing meanings that are simply echoes of my own time and my own life? That is always the risk.  Awaiting any attempt at biblical interpretation is the conscious and unconscious imposition of norms prevalent in one's own time and place, these having become so ordinary, so natural, so obvious, that surely they must have been typical of human culture at all times and in all places. "Perspective," writes Harold Bloom, "governs our response to everything we read, but most crucially with the Bible. Learning from scholars, whether Christian or Jewish, one still questions their conditioning, which too frequently overdetermines their presentation. Obviously, that caution applies to me as well . . . " And to me, and to you. Indeed, any one of us attempting to come to grips with the Bible would do well to consider the multiple factors that influence perspective: family, religion, education, where one was born, and even when one was born. (p. 78)
John R. Coats, Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis, New York: Free Press, 2009.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Avoiding Theological Arguments

I thought this brief post at Parchment & Pen offered a good reminder about choosing our theological battles carefully. I found it especially relevant in light of Enns' review of Erosion of Inerrancy. The issue, of course, is that we all have different ideas of what are essentials and non-essentials. Clearly for Greg Beale, his view of inerrancy is an essential. I think it's a good example of how apologetics is too much about proving or defending one's position and not enough about openly examining both the position and the evidence.
The more I study and discuss theology, the more I realize that passionate discussions concerning diversities of positions can quickly grow into the necessity of proving the point regardless of the discussion’s redemptive value.   When disagreements abound, I am increasingly asking the question of how significant it is and is it worth proving the point.  This of course is gauged by what is essential vs. non-essential, as Michael’s post here describes.  As I seek to gain discernment regarding picking my battles, I thought of adopting this modification of the Serenity Prayer as a guide in theological discussions
Lord, grant me the serenity to humbly accept the theological inconsistencies that do not make a difference
The courage to graciously challenge the ones that do
And the wisdom and knowledge to know the difference
Let’s learn to pick our battles folks.  Like Kenny Rogers said, “you gotta know when to hold em, and know when to fold em”
Update: Lisa has kindly reminded me to give credit where credit was due. The quoted piece above was originally posted on January 16, 2010 at Parchment & Pen as "The Theological Serenity Prayer" written by Lisa Robinson. Accessed via RSS feed on January 16, 2010.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Enns on the Erosion of Inerrancy

Peter Enns has reviewed Greg Beale's The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism in the latest Bulletin of Biblical Research. Art Boulet has reproduced the entire review at his blog (with permission). A wise blogger once pointed out that 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." Enns notes that very same approach as the greatest weakness of the book.

The most serious problem with Erosion, which is the source of every difficulty that burdens the book, is likely from Beale’s point of view the book’s great strength. Beale assumes the very point that many evangelicals call into question, namely, that one particular evangelical understanding of inerrancy, promulgated in CSBI, is the non-negotiable standard by which any differing assessments should be judged. Beale does not countenance the possibility that the current level of unrest among evangelicals, leading to its doctrinal formulations being so widely scrutinized, suggests that perhaps a re-evaluation of these commitments is in order through patient listening and scholarly dialogue.

By assuming the inviolability of his position, Beale’s argument is like that of a defense attorney out to defend his client at any and all costs, rather than a scholar weighing evidence.

If you are interested in the issue of inerrancy and the authorship of Isaiah (among other issues), I recommend you click through to read the entire review. It's quite thought-provoking, and, in my opinion, Enns has provided a dead-on accurate assessment of Beale's book.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Khirbet Qeiyafa: The Discussion Continues

John has provided us with the lowdown on the inscription today, mediating between the extreme caution of Rollston and the sensational overblown conclusions of the media. I agree with John's assessment and suggest you click through to his post.

He also links to the recent discussion of Khirbet Qeiyafa with Seth Sanders (author of The Invention of Hebrew) on The Book & The Spade. I haven't yet had a chance to listen, but I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More on Khirbet Qeiyafa

The seething cauldron of opinions on the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription has slowed from a roiling boil to a light trickle, but I keep stumbling across additional reactions around the blogosphere. Today John Hobbins has pointed us to a post by Neil Silberman from several days ago offering his take on the inscription and all the ensuing hoopla. This was my favorite part (emphasis added).
Professor Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa suggests that the “contents of the text express social sensitivity to the fragile position of weaker members of society. The inscription testifies to the presence of strangers within the Israeli society as far back as this ancient period, and calls to provide support for these strangers. It appeals to care for the widows and orphans and that the king – who at that time had the responsibility of curbing social inequality – be involved. This inscription is similar in its content to biblical scriptures (Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3, Exodus 23:3, and others), but it is clear that it is not copied from any biblical text.”    
These are all notable sentiments, no doubt, but their identification on an ancient pottery sherd is all a fantasy of wishful thinking that will thrill the faithful yet demonstrate little more than Galil’s clever crossword puzzle skill.
Silberman's right. The text is difficult and the reconstruction is tenuous. I hate gratuitous reconstructions of fragmentary inscriptions! It seems so disingenuous as a scholar to massage your evidence to support your conclusions. I'm not just thinking of Galil here.

In other news, the official website for the Qeiyafa ostracon has been updated with many additional photos and line drawings of the inscription including the following (via Agade):
1. Colored photo of the ostracon by Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority. 2. Infrared photo of the ostracon by Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority. 3. Drawing of the ostracon by Haggai Misgav. 4. Drawing of the ostracon by Ada Yardeni. 5. The upper left corner of the ostracon by CRI laboratory. 6. The ostracon in full flattened contrast by Megavision laboratory. 7. The heavily reconstructed interpretation of Gershon Galil with his drawing.
Update: Seconds after first publishing this post, I received an email on the Agade mailing list with another, most authoritative blog reaction from Christopher Rollston. He provides a summary of what we know and explains where the sensational conclusions are going well beyond the evidence.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rabbinic Literature Conference

This upcoming conference sounds really interesting, but unfortunately, I'm unable to travel to Bar Ilan University on such short notice or any notice for that matter -- too expensive. I don't think I could convince the department that it was essential for my independent study on rabbinic literature. The information below is copied from The Talmud Blog (though I tweaked the formatting). Go there for more details on the sessions and who's participating.
Upcoming Aggada Conference
Bar Ilan University Faculty of Jewish Studies Department of Talmud
Lander Institute Jerusalem Academic Center Graduate School of Jewish Studies
Touro College New York Graduate School of Jewish Studies
Announce a two day international academic conference on Aggadah and Aggadic Interpretation Throughout the Generations January 18-19, 2010
The conference sessions will deal with attitudes towards the authority of Aggadot, the methods used to interpret them, the use of Aggadah in biblical commentary, Aggadah in philosophic and in non-philosophic contexts over the ages, Aggadah and Halakhah, as well as Aggadah in poetry and in polemics. Participating in the lectures will be professors from the sponsoring academic institutions, prominent professors from most of Israel's major universities, as well as lecturers from the U.S.A. and Canada.
The sessions will take place on Monday and Tuesday, January 18-192010. On Monday the sessions will be held at the Mintz auditorium on the Bar Ilan University campus and on Tuesday at the campus of Lander Institute at 3 Am Ve'olamo St. in Jerusalem.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Quick Primer on Khirbet Qeiyafa

It's been brought to my attention that a little background might be helpful for my last two posts, so here is a brief rundown on the Khirbet Qeiyafa discoveries and their importance for those of you who don't have time to read all the online discussion that's hit in the last 24 hours.

The key discoveries: The excavation is led by Yosef Garkinkel. I heard him speak at SBL last November. Their results demonstrate that this was a fortified city on the border between Philistia and Judah from the mid-11th century to the mid-10th century BCE. This conclusion creates serious problems for Israel Finkelstein's assertions that there were no fortified cities in Judah before the 9th century BCE. They found evidence at Khirbet Qeiyafa of urban planning of a particularly Judean-style found also at 4 other sites in Judah including Beersheba, Tell en Nasbeh, and Tell Beit Mirsim. The inscription they found has gotten most of the attention, however. The inscription is probably Hebrew found in an 10th century BCE context. Unfortunately, many of the conclusions being claimed for the significance of the inscription would be more effective if placed in the context of the interpretation of the site as a whole.

The significance of the inscription: We're not sure if other inscriptions from this time are technically "Hebrew" or not, so if this is, that's big. The written dialects in the area looked similar and there aren't too many clues to distinguish them. This inscription probably has a few. That pushes us back 100 years or so in our knowledge of ancient Hebrew's development.

The reported over-sensationalized significance: The inscription proves there was a united monarchy and proves some of the Bible was written much earlier than some scholars think. Take with a grain of salt.

The reality about the United Monarchy: The entire site where this was found suggests there was a central government and this was a border fortress. It blows away theories that Judah at this time was a regional backwater with little civilization. The inscription mentions a "king" depending on how one reads it. It doesn't prove the United Monarchy as described in the Bible existed. It creates a plausible context for something similar being possible.

The reality about the writing of the Bible: The inscription shows that writing in Hebrew was happening during the 10th century BCE. It doesn't prove anything about when parts of the Bible were written. It has long been commonly thought that some of the earliest layers of the Pentateuch may have been written during this century anyway (though this has been challenged in recent years). This simply shows that texts were being written during this time; therefore, the sources behind the Bible could have been written during this time. One thing that confuses me though -- if Hebrew didn't really exist before the 10th-9th centuries BCE, then how did Moses in the 14th-13th centuries BCE know it when he wrote the Pentateuch?

Roundup of the Qeiyafa Ostracon Buzz

The story of the oldest Hebrew inscription ever has hit the usual news sources and lit up the biblioblogosphere. This post has all the links I've found up through 2 minutes ago.

Some of the news stories have a small photo of the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon. A few of the letters are barely legible. The photo obviously wasn't taken with the intention of providing a readable copy.

Photo courtesy of the University of Haifa

HT for the article with photo: Evangelical Textual Criticism

The ostracon elsewhere in the news and the biblioblogosphere:

Ha'aretz: Fair and balanced as always-"Deciphered etching sheds new light on Bible's origin"

Jerusalem Post: The award for best misleading headline--"Inscription indicates Kingdom of Israel existed in the 10th century BCE"

James McGrath: A NT guy wading into epigraphy in ancient Israel - but still with helpful cautions about linguistic dating of texts (which is a misguided effort in my opinion when applied to the biblical text).

Jim Getz: Why the fuss over one small stray inscription?

Jim Davila: "the more banal reading is to be preferred."

Menachem Mendel: "Never a dull moment for the history of the Hebrew language."

John Hobbins: I posted a completely different reading back in October.

Claude Mariottini: Bottom line - writing is occurring outside of Jerusalem earlier than thought.

Dr. Platypus: Something like a United Monarchy (found via link to Claude Mariottini)

Tony Cartledge: Interpretation is a Long Stretch (via Dr Platypus link)

Henry Neufeld: "Writing a small text on an ostracon and writing the final, redacted Pentateuch are substantially different things."

Joel Watts: Highlighting the press release and hounded by Hobbins. John, all he said was that it was interesting. No need to remind all of us that this has been in and out of the news for the last 18 months. (That said, I agree with John's evaluation of the importance of the find and mention him only to draw attention to his comments at these various posts which are quite helpful.)

Duane Smith: Abnormally interesting conclusion - "I do worry that some, myself included, are asking this inscription and the very few others from the same period to carry more linguistic, historical, theological and even political weight than they can bear."

If all of that doesn't keep you busy, there's more at the official site for the excavation (link via Jim Getz).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ancient Hebrew Inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa

I've been waiting since October 2008 to get more details on the ostracon discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa. Today there was finally an official press release with a translation and a line drawing of the inscription. Reading a line drawing is so much easier. See all of the outlined letters? Those are the ones the epigrapher couldn't really make out, so they made an educated guess. It's probably fairly accurate. Certain strokes are indicative of which letter is which even if it's only partially visible.
University of Haifa Press Release
Caption: A breakthrough in the research of the Hebrew scriptures has shed new light on the period in which the Bible was written. Professor Gershon Galil of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa has deciphered this inscription on a pottery shard discovered in the Elah valley dating from the 10th century BCE (the period of King David's reign), and has shown that this is a Hebrew inscription. The discovery makes this the earliest known Hebrew writing. The significance of this breakthrough relates to the fact that at least some of the biblical scriptures were composed hundreds of years before the dates presented today in research and that the Kingdom of Israel already existed at that time.
Credit: Courtesy of the University of Haifa
Some of this may echo what Bob Cargill has already said, but I think it's worth pointing out some of the over-reaching assumptions and conclusions that are being drawn by Prof. Galil as quoted in the press release.
Prof. Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa who deciphered the inscription: "It indicates that the Kingdom of Israel already existed in the 10th century BCE and that at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research."
A breakthrough in the research of the Hebrew scriptures has shed new light on the period in which the Bible was written. Prof. Gershon Galil of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa has deciphered an inscription dating from the 10th century BCE (the period of King David's reign), and has shown that this is a Hebrew inscription. The discovery makes this the earliest known Hebrew writing. The significance of this breakthrough relates to the fact that at least some of the biblical scriptures were composed hundreds of years before the dates presented today in research and that the Kingdom of Israel already existed at that time.
Yes, this is probably the earliest example of the Hebrew language, but how does it follow as proof that parts of the Bible were composed hundreds of years earlier? It doesn't. It provides a plausible context for literary activity and ability, but it doesn't provide proof that scribes were creating complex literary texts like what is found in the Bible.
As for the language being Hebrew, their proof is solid, if it accurately reflects the inscription.
Prof. Galil's deciphering of the ancient writing testifies to its being Hebrew, based on the use of verbs particular to the Hebrew language, and content specific to Hebrew culture and not adopted by any other cultures in the region. "This text is a social statement, relating to slaves, widows and orphans. It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as asah ("did") and avad ("worked"), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah ("widow") are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages.
The verb "asah" would be a good isogloss (feature distinguishing between languages or dialects), but I've struggled for some time tonight to find these specific lexical items in the line drawing of the inscription. I admit that my paleography skills are rudimentary and rusty, but I wish they'd have provided a transcription, not just a translation and drawing. Many of the letters are atypical compared to other samples of paleo-Hebrew including the Gezer Calendar. Letter orientation seems to be completely optional with aleph pointing multiple ways and dalet (if it is a dalet) attested in 180 degree different positions.
I will press on in my attempt to decipher the line drawing for myself. It may be time to break out Yardeni's Book of Hebrew Scripts. In the meantime, here is the English translation of the inscription.
English translaton of the deciphered text:
1' you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2' Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3' [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4' the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5' Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.
HT: Bob Cargill