Saturday, February 27, 2010

Apologetics is for the Weak-Minded

or maybe just those who have deluded themselves with misplaced zeal to argue “proof” for something they’ve already subscribed to as “belief” by faith that should, therefore, need no proof (Heb 11:1-3).

I lost interest in apologetics because it seemed so pointless. Why bother looking at evidence if your conclusion is pre-determined? The answer Christian apologists would give is that the evidence needs to be interpreted through the lens of the Bible as ultimate authority.

Special pleading aside, why is it that when we try to approach evidence as objectively and honestly as possible, we are accused of having a secular agenda, driven to undermine the Bible’s truth?

I came across a newsletter recently from a Christian creationist group and a few things struck me that led to this musing. First, all their experts are scientists who approach the Bible with a literalist hermeneutic. Clearly, this is the only way to correctly read the Bible. Otherwise, we’d be accusing God of not being able to clearly communicate what he wanted to say. (Note sarcasm behind the previous two sentences. The second sentence is actually an argument they make.) That argument for a literalist hermeneutic actually conflicts with one of the traditional assumptions driving biblical interpretation – the Bible is a cryptic document.

Second, why don’t they have any experts who are trained first in biblical interpretation? Because they’ll have a very different perspective on the significance of Genesis 1 for the creationist debate. See books by John Walton and John Sailhamer, for examples. I’m sure the apologists will have ready answers deconstructing any but their literal approach to the biblical text.

To me it requires much more intellectual honesty to start humbly with evidence to test my presuppositions and theological conclusions, rather than start with presuppositions to test the evidence.

In closing, a word about the blog post title. If you’re an apologetics nut who’s bristling with a flaming response provoked by my title, you’ve played right into my hands. Take care lest your comment prove my point.

For the rest of you defenders of the faith, what are you really defending? Your view of Scripture? Your ability to believe in God? What? Because true faith doesn’t require a defense.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

RBL Review of Fox’s Proverbs vol. 2

MVF Prov 2 Image
The latest commentary by my professor Michael V. Fox has been reviewed in the Review of Biblical Literature by Bruce Waltke.

I have not finished reading either the commentary or the review, but early on, Waltke comments that his volume published in 2007 was not interacted with. He rightly surmises that Fox had ended interaction with commentaries before 2007. The truth is that this volume was all but ready for publication in 2006 and was delayed due to the transitionin publisher for the Anchor series from Doubleday to Yale.

I am very glad that it has finely been published. As I interact with it more, I will post my own review. In the meantime, it would be worth your time to read Waltke’s take on the volume.

Michael Fox
Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary
Reviewed by Bruce K. Waltke

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Punic Child Sacrifice

A study has been released claiming to debunk the millennia-old belief that the citizens of ancient Carthage regularly sacrificed their children to their god Baal (a version of the Canaanite deity mentioned in the Bible). This has biblical significance because the Old Testament is one of the ancient sources used to connect the discovery of burial urns with cremated infant remains with the Canaanite practice of child sacrifice. [Aside: Carthage is in North Africa. What does that have to do with the biblical world? Carthage was a Phoenician colony. The Phoenicians were nearby Canaanite neighbors of the Israelites based mainly in the Tyre and Sidon area.]

The article is, in my opinion, scientifically objective and their conclusions make sense. For those of you concerned about the integrity of the Bible as a historical document, their study leaves open the possibility that some of the burial urns were from live child sacrifice. This is the practice chronicled by the Bible and other ancient sources. If you read closely, you'll notice their evidence accounts for 20-50% of the cremated infants being stillborn, miscarriages, or deaths within the first two weeks after birth A high rate of infant mortality was not uncommon in the ancient world.
Researchers examined 348 burial urns to learn that about a fifth of the children were prenatal at death, indicating that young Carthaginian children were cremated and interred in ceremonial urns regardless of cause of death. [...] "The idea of regular infant sacrifice in Carthage is not based on a study of the cremated remains, but on instances of human sacrifice reported by a few ancient chroniclers, inferred from ambiguous Carthaginian inscriptions, and referenced in the Old Testament. Our results show that some children were sacrificed, but they contradict the conclusion that Carthaginians were a brutal bunch who regularly sacrificed their own children." [Jeffrey Schwartz] 

 Via Agade

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ancient Interpreters & Biblical Criticism

One of the benefits of studying at a top university like Wisconsin-Madison is the opportunity to hear guest lectures by world-class scholars. Two weeks ago I had the chance to hear James Kugel, a scholar whom I would regard as one of the leading experts on early biblical interpretation. His talk eloquently made the study of biblical interpretation immediately relevant for both readers in religious communities and scholars of biblical studies by highlighting the fundamental assumptions about the Bible shared between the ancient interpreters who preserved the text and the traditionally-minded modern reader.

Ancient interpretation is preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha (and even in the Bible itself – though Kugel didn’t emphasize it) -- basically, in Jewish literature from the Second Temple period, the early part of which should be considered the end of the “biblical” period. The interpretation preserved in this literature reflects the agenda of these interpreters. It provides a window into their program of interpretation. Today, we might call it the “spin” they put on the reading of the text. Their “spin” focuses on the relevance they believed the Bible had for their own day. It was prophecy, not history.

This program of interpretation accompanied a change in assumptions about the Bible. Kugel said this change probably came about by at least 500 BCE or earlier (but I know of no way to date it firmly). These assumptions provide a framework in which interpretation happens: 1) The Bible is a cryptic document; 2) The Bible is a book of lessons for us today; 3) All parts of the Bible are perfectly consistent; and 4) The texts are divinely inspired or have some sort of divine approval.

With these assumptions in place, interpretation becomes essential as problems in the text challenge the assumptions. For example, all parts of the Bible don’t appear on the surface to be perfectly consistent. Some parts of the Bible must have a secret meaning because they can’t be saying what the surface meaning seems to imply (e.g., Song of Songs).

Eventually, exegesis provides an overlay of tradition that transforms the biblical characters until the tradition bears little explicit resemblance to the original. For example, tradition has turned Abraham into the first monotheist and David into a prophet. Biblical law is transformed until “an eye for an eye” (Lev 24:17-21) is weakened to a monetary fine as compensation. Prophecy is transformed from a parenetic pronouncement to an original audience to either a timeless ethical teaching or an eschatological prediction.

The relevance of studying these ancient interpreters comes in the realization that their assumptions continue to live on and many religious readers approach the biblical text with similar methods.

Kugel continued describing the rise of modern biblical criticism and the move toward examining the Bible as a historical and literary artifact. Exegesis to the modern critic is figuring out what the text meant to its original audience. But the text was not immutable and its meaning was never inherent. Meaning is created out of the interaction between text and reader. The tradents preserving the biblical text passed it along with a set of assumptions shaping how it should be read. The result is that theology motivated conscious changes to the meaning of the text by affecting the active assumptions of the reader, not through direct textual tampering.

Since we would never have had a Bible without the work of these interpreters, it is this “book of changed meanings” that was the original Bible. Therefore, the Bible of modern scholarship is a Bible that never was. Rather, it is the raw material used to create the Bible. Investigation of the Bible chapter by chapter and book by book needs to look at what the Bible came to mean, not just what the text originally meant. And that is why studying early biblical interpretation is so important.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Value of Paleography

Jim Davila and Mark Goodacre have already drawn attention to the announcement that the UK's last chair in  paleography is being cancelled by King's College-London. I'm sure others will continue to spread the word. There is a Facebook group dedicated to saving the position (which I've joined) and an online petition available (which I have signed as the 6,024th to do so).

The news story at The Guardian is well worth the read, especially if you were drawn to this post by the title. The article does a great job showing the real value of paleography for the study of history and culture.
Either way, the point is much the same. It's not just that we wouldn't have a clue what the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Cyrus Cylinder (over which the British Museum and the Iranian government are currently locking horns) actually mean without palaeography; we wouldn't know how to evaluate their historical importance. Multiply this by every fragment and every hand-written folio, and the history of the world begins to be up for grabs.
Giving up on palaeography is like giving up on art, history and culture. It's like deciding we know all we want to know about the past, so we're not going to bother to find out any more: "It's not as if we can come back to it in 15 years' time if we then decide there's enough money," says Beard. "Palaeography can't be taught in an online tutorial; it's a skill handed down from one academic to another. If King's does go through with its decision, it's the end of the subject in this country."
Read on to find out "what paleographers have done for us" at the end of the article.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Was Adam an Historical Person?

Joseph Kelly has interacted a bit with that question today. He doesn’t answer it so much as point out the wrong way to approach the discussion. I agree with Joseph that defending a list of theological implications of Adam NOT being historical is not an intellectually honest way to approach the issue.

I posted on a similar issue a couple of years ago: Using the NT to validate OT historicity. Does the fact that a NT writer mentions an OT character support the historicity of that OT character? Not necessarily, in my opinion.

Read Joseph’s post if it’s an issue you’re interested in.

NAPH 2010: Diachrony & Biblical Hebrew

I had the privilege to sit in on some of the papers at the 2009 NAPH sessions on Diachrony & Biblical Hebrew. It's a fascinating topic, but it's even more fascinating as an opportunity to observe human behavior in the scholarly back-and-forth on a controversial topic where neither side has a chance at convincing the other because neither has any willingness to compromise their own positions based on any available evidence. Ahh . . . minimalists and maximalists. Scholarly apologetics. (Is that an oxymoron?) Of course, being in the middle - I would get shot at from both sides.

To a point, the historical change in Biblical Hebrew CAN be demonstrated from evidence. Dean Forbes showed that pretty convincingly in New Orleans. But, the underlying uniformity of Biblical Hebrew suggests that actually dating the texts based on the fact that historical change happened is difficult-some would say impossible. I think Ian Young, et. al., have argued a good case at least in the sense that they've drawn awareness to the problems inherent in attempting to date texts based on linguistic variation. (Ironically, my move to the center on this question was influenced by what we learned in a seminar on Linguistics & Biblical Hebrew with Dr. Miller combined with a linguistics class at UW on socio- and historical linguistics.) Below is the official call for papers issued by NAPH for their 2010 sessions.
Subject: NAPH 2010 Session at SBL Meeting: Diachrony and Biblical Hebrew
The NAPH session on Diachrony and Biblical Hebrew organized by Ziony Zevit and Cynthia Miller in 2009 will conclude with three additional sessions at NAPH 2010.  While some of the presenters will be invited, we welcome paper proposals for the 2010 sessions to be held in conjunction with the SBL meeting November 20-23, 2010 in Atlanta.
The proposal should include a description of the aspect of diachrony (or language variation or stylistics) to be examined, the methodology employed, and the language data analyzed.  Please send the proposals to and to no later than February 15, 2010.
We are in conversation with several interested publishers concerning the publication of a volume on Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew with the papers from the 2009 and 2010 sessions, along with some invited papers from leading scholars of historical linguistics and language variation.
Cynthia L. Miller, Professor and Chair, Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies, 1220 Linden Drive, 1344 Van Hise Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53706, (O): 608-262-9785, (F): 608-262-9417,
Ziony Zevit, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90077-1519, (O) 310-440-1266,