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Earth viewed from space

Is a young earth necessary?

Preemptive apology – Trump shall be mentioned.

In some of the circles I found myself in these days, I have found just as much contempt for newly elected Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, than for the new President himself, Donald J. Trump. One American colleague went as far as to say that a Trump assassination wouldn’t do America any good because then “a pro-life, homophobic, evolution-denying evangelical” would ascend the throne.

To avoid contributing to the countless words already spent and spilt on this latest election, I am only going to focus on the last part of this blanket statement. Are evangelicals – those who trust and share the Good News of God saving sinners through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – fairly criticised as the science-haters that so many people seem to think they are? To put the question differently – are Christians required to read the first three chapters of Genesis in a literal sense?

Some readers may be shocked that I am not “taking the Bible seriously” in rejecting a literal interpretation of this passage. Others may be relieved that I have broken the chains of orthodoxy, freeing myself from absolute meaning altogether. These are those who declare “Ask not what this text means, but what this text means to you.” Sorry to disappoint both of you.

What does literal even mean?

Literally

The word literal and its derivatives are having a rough time at the moment. Modern English speakers use the word all the time, ridding it of all meaning in the process. The word means literally nothing right now. In fact, Justin Taylor has recently called for a moratorium on the use of this word in biblical interpretation, due to the varying meanings this word can take.

My experience with literal in a biblical interpretive setting is that of the ‘plain interpretation’ of any given text. In other words, interpreting something in a basic or common sense way, without metaphor or exaggeration. A plain sense reading of Genesis 1-3 seems to suggest a six 24 hour days view with the varying genealogies of Genesis adding up to a rather youthful 6,000 years old.

We could go at it for hours over exegesis and hermeneutics and be no closer to unlocking the meaning of Genesis’ beginning. While I personally think that the text itself does provide strong arguments for particular positions, a much simpler point of view provides some much needed clarity:

What is the purpose of the Bible?

Two Books

In a previous post, I mentioned the distinction between the two books that God has written – creation (God’s general revelation) and salvation (God’s special revelation). Theological concept becomes reality when we approach the creation account with this distinction in mind. God’s intent in Genesis, as with all other parts of the Bible, is to communicate his great plan of salvation for all of those who would trust in Christ. This means that he is not primarily (or even at all) concerned with teaching his people the age of the earth or the precise processes by which it came into existence.

Any serious student of Scripture knows that the plot of the biblical drama is the salvation of sinners by a gracious God, who has cast Jesus Christ in the leading role of Saviour. This story of salvation is only found in the pages of special revelation – nothing in nature contains words this sweet. If God’s book of salvation (the Bible) has the story of salvation as its content, then what does nature contain? A whole lot of juicy content for sure, but nothing salvific, nothing of utmost importance to beggars like us.

So what about the age of the earth? God may well have had a different intent in these chapters of Genesis 1-3, but can we still discern anything concrete via exegesis? I believe so. Study. Read. Discuss. THINK. But if you miss the forest for the trees, as so many “defenders of the faith” have done in advancing a young-earth-or-go-home ideology, you will end up doing an injustice not only to yourself, but to the world at large. 

A sin-sick world doesn’t need to hear the evils of evolution. It needs the gospel.

Old Antique Book

Foundations for interpretation

bible-08Some of mankind’s most enduring questions have been those surrounding the topic of epistemology, or the study of knowledge. What is true knowledge? Where does it come from and how do we obtain it? Are some forms of knowledge more authoritative than others? 

Throughout history, man has sought to understand reality (ontology) and how we can know this is so (epistemology). From the pre-Socratics to their namesake, from Plato to his infamous student, Aristotle, from Kant to Nietzsche – a major part of Western philosophy has been the question of, “How can we know what there is to know?” As we will see below, Christianity is no different.

A  primer in Christian epistemology

A distinctly Christian epistemology is grounded in revelation – God stopping down to our level to communicate truth to us. While modern philosophy believes that man possesses all that he needs (his autonomous reason) to scale the summit of reality, Christianity is a little more pessimistic about man’s ability to reason their way to Knowledge. Due to the noetic effects of sin, we are prone to bias and hubris in our philosophical pursuits. At risk of oversimplifying – we need a helping hand in our epistemology.

In Christian theology, there is a distinction between God’s two books –  general and special revelation. General revelation is the truth of God as revealed in creation and providence – his existence, wisdom, power, goodness, and righteousness perceived through the things around us (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p41). All man has access to this level of truth through a logical and scientific interpretation of the world. What we choose to do with these truths – suppress or embrace – is an entirely different matter.

Special revelation, or God’s second book, is his authoritative written Word as found in the Bible. This provides particular knowledge about God, salvation and the human condition that we attain through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, correcting our systematic distortion of general revelation at the same time (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p40).

An important question then arises – how do we, as fallible human beings, faithfully interpret what God is communicating to us through his Word? If God’s general revelation can in some ways be interpreted through reason and the scientific method, how should Christians approach his covenantal Word? To our detriment, various philosophical trends have attempted to answer this question for us and we may not have even noticed.

Philosophy check

The development of postmodern thought in the 20th century has lead to a form of linguistic reductionism where words are removed from their context and given an entirely different meaning from that of the original author. Rather than the locus of meaning being found in the author’s intent, it is now found in the interpretation of the reader. “What does this text mean to you?” becomes an all-to-frequent question at Bible studies.

Christians are naturally affronted by this turn of events and seek to reclaim the meaning of the author for interpreting texts. The reaction to this postmodern hermeneutic is often not balanced – instead of reclaiming ground via a convincing interpretive framework, the reaction to this textual twisting is to force texts through a grid of literalism that the Bible does not require. Passages containing clear figurative language are interpreted literally and much confusion abounds.

Think about your own experience – we use turns of phrase and figures of speech constantly. Do we ever interpret these with the same degree of literalism that we enforce on Scripture?. A few examples will suffice:

  • “Are you getting cold feet?”
  • “I’ve been kept in the dark on that one”
  • “Speak of the devil”
  • “She has a bubbly personality”
  • “You got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning”
  • “He let the cat out of the bag”

Why would we demand a literal interpretation of all biblical texts, regardless of form, if we don’t do this in our everyday use of language?

A more holistic approach is required – one that takes into consideration the original languages, literary features, historical context, redemptive-historical context, and theological truths to name a few. The Bible is definitely more than a text to be critically interpreted, but it is no less than this and so we should seek to interpret faithfully and in a way that does honour to author and Author alike.

Stand to Reason (logo)

Challenge: A Real God Would Have Protected the Original Gospel Manuscripts

From our colleagues at Stand To Reason comes this challenge:

Christians claim that God directly inspired the authors of the gospel books, even to the point of dictating each word, so as to make the text inerrant. But if God was so concerned about getting the historical record of Jesus’s ministry correct, why would he have allowed those original, and supposedly inerrant manuscripts to be lost for the generations of Christians to come? Why would he not have protected these documents to ensure there would be no ambiguity as to the ultimate truths he was trying to convey. The loss of the original manuscripts is entirely consistent with a human-inspired product, not one overseen by an unlimited deity.

Is this really the case? Could God have a reason for not wanting us to have the original manuscripts today?

Answer the challenge in the comments below and check back in on Friday to see Alan’s response.

Ten Basic Facts about the New Testament Canon Every Christian Should Memorize

Michael J. Kruger (President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina) has began a series to help believers better understand their New Testament and hopefully correct a pattern he has witnessed in recent times:

Almost every couple of years it happens.  Usually it occurs around Christmas or Easter.   And it is typically associated with a massive media blitz.   I am referring to sensational claims, made by either scholars or laymen, that something definitively “new” has been discovered about the historical Jesus.

Examples of such claims abound in just the last number of years.  The so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was “discovered” last year and purportedly taught Jesus had a wife.   The Gospel of Judas was all the talk in 2006, as were told that the traditional Gospels may have not given the whole story.  And, of course, we all remember the Da Vinci Code phenomenon in 2003 and after.

Our modern culture loves “new” things.   They don’t want to hear the same old stories again and again—particularly when it comes to religion.  They want something fresh and exciting.   They want something different.   This fascination with the “new” is why people feel they must reinvent church (or Christianity) for each generation.  People like to believe they have discovered something that no one has ever discovered before.

While this regular pattern of sensational claims about Jesus is quite well-documented, there is another pattern that is also well-documented, namely Christians being unprepared to respond.    As each new claim about Jesus is made, most believers in the pew find themselves inadequately equipped to provide an answer.   For whatever set of reasons, the church has not adequately taught its members about the origins and reliability of the Scriptures.

Here are the first four parts of his series (I’ll update the rest when they’re available):

  1. “The New Testament Books are the Earliest Christian Writings We Possess”
  2. “Apocryphal Writings are All Written in the Second Century or Later”
  3. “The New Testament Books Are Unique Because They Are Apostolic Books”
  4. “Some NT Writers Quote Other NT Writers as Scripture”

His series is designed for a lay-level audience and is a great resource for conversations with skeptical friends. For more on the subject, check out his book: Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Crossway, 2012). Here is a short video of him responding to Bart Ehrman’s claims about the NT canon:

Visualizing the Reliability of the New Testament Compared to Other Ancient Texts

Dan Wallace (professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary):

“NT scholars face an embarrassment of riches compared to the data the classical Greek and Latin scholars have to contend with. The average classical author’s literary remains number no more than twenty copies. We have more than 1,000 times the manuscript data for the NT than we do for the average Greco-Roman author. Not only this, but the extant manuscripts of the average classical author are no earlier than 500 years after the time he wrote. For the NT, we are waiting mere decades for surviving copies. The very best classical author in terms of extant copies is Homer: manuscripts of Homer number less than 2,400, compared to the NT manuscripts that are approximately ten times that amount.”

To illustrate this, Mark at Visual Unit has produced a great infographic comparing the NT manuscript evidence with other ancient writings:

For other helpful diagrams, illustrations, and infographics related to the Bible and Christianity visit Visual Unit.

HT: Tim McGrew

Thinking Matters Tauranga: Is the Bible Reliable?

Next week Thinking Matters Tauranga is starting a new series titled Is the Bible Reliable? Building the Historic Case.

Is the Bible a book of myths and fairy tales, or is it a book of history and truth?  This DVD series provides a thorough overview of major archaeological and historical discoveries that demonstrate the veracity and accuracy of the Bible.  This series will help you to respond to critical arguments against the historicity of the Bible with solid evidence, and gain a better understanding of the geography, culture, and history of events in the Bible.

This is a fascinating look at the latest historical and archaeological evidences for the reliability of the Bible.  Those in the Tauranga area should put it in your calendars now so you don’t miss it!

View the trailer and get more information here.

WHEN:  All the Tuesdays in May:
Tuesday 1 May The Patriarchal Narratives and the Documentary Hypothesis.  The Exodus: From Egypt to Canaan.
Tuesday 8 May The Israelite Conquest. The United Kingdom of David and Solomon.
Tuesday 15 May A Tale of Two Conquests: Hezekiah versus Sennacherib.  The Babylonian Conquest of Judah.
Tuesday 22 May The New Testament: Canons of Historicity. The Early Composition of Luke and Acts.
Tuesday 29 May External Corroboration of the New Testament. The Trial of Jesus.

TIME: 7:30pm – 9:00pm

WHERE: Bethlehem Community Church, 183 Moffat Rd, Bethlehem, Tauranga, New Zealand.

FORMAT: 60 minute DVD lessons followed by discussions.  This is the second set of DVD’s from Focus on the Family’s True U series and is presented by Dr Stephen Meyer (author of Signature in the Cell).

COST: Free

The Dead Sea Scrolls Online

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In a joint project with the Israel Museum, Google have put the Dead Sea Scrolls online for the first time. Considered one of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century, the Dead Sea Scrolls date from around 250 BC to 68 AD and comprise some 800 documents in many tens of thousands of fragments. The ancient scrolls were first discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947 and continue to be studied and scrutinized by scholars. As well as shedding a great deal of light on the Jewish world at the time of Jesus, the scrolls also demonstrate the accuracy of our modern-day Old Testament in representing what the original authors first wrote.

Explore the scrolls here: http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/

In this video, New Testament professor Craig A. Evans discusses the Biblical manuscripts, textual criticism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (HT Brian LePort):

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His book on the Dead Sea Scrolls is available from Amazon and B&H Publishing.

Tim McGrew on Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels

The argument from undesigned concidences is a little known argument for the historicity of the New Testament. Once popular in the nineteenth century, the argument has more recently been brought to light by Professor Tim McGrew of Western Michigan University. Very simply, the argument shows how incidental details that are left out by one gospel writer are often filled in by another writer to answer questions raised by the first. This provides good evidence to conclude that at numerous points the authors of the gospels were accurately and independently reporting actual events rather than merely copying one another or engaging in creative myth-making.

Read more

Penal Sanctions in the Mosaic Law Part II

In Part I I suggested that the capital sanctions found in The Torah in most cases were not intended to be carried out, that instead there operated an implicit assumption that a person who committed a serious crime had forfeited their life and hence was to pay a ransom as decided by the courts as a substitute. One area where this claim seems to make particular sense is in the laws governing adultery that occur in the book of Deuteronomy.

In the article I cited in the previous post, David Brink, addresses Deuteronomy 22: 13-21. Brink claims this teaches “that the community can and should stone to death any women whose husband finds she was not a virgin on her wedding night.”

I’ll start with two minor points. First, Brink assumes that this is addressed to “the community,” by which I assume he means contemporary communities. This is false; it is addressed to ancient Israel’s community as any reading of the opening chapters of Deuteronomy clearly show. How The Mosaic Law relates to contemporary Christians is a detailed and vexed topic of biblical hermenutics yet Brink ignores the issues and simply assumes that it addresses us directly.

Second, this text deals with adultery and not pre-marital sex. As Gordon Wenham notes pre-marital sex is addressed a few lines later in Deuteronomy 22: 28-29.[1] Wenham notes that the case Brink cites (Dt 22:13-21) deals with adultery.[2] In ANE law, betrothal was considered a binding marriage; women were betrothed young and often some time before they consummated the marriage. This case deals with betrothed women who after betrothal and prior to consummation has sex with a third party. As I note in footnote 15, this is a minor point. I am sure Brink is not allayed by the fact that she is to be executed for adultery as opposed to pre-marital sex, his problem is clearly execution related; that said, it is important that one not exaggerate what the text says.

Third, as I argued in Part I, when The Torah prescribes that a person be executed, the implict assumption is that this will not be carried out but some lesser financial penalty will be inflicted as a ransom. This seems to be borne out by an examination of this law.

Brink refers to Deuteronomy 22:13-21, in particular “if … the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found … the men of her town shall stone her to death.” What Brink does not focus on is the sentence if the charges prove to be false; if the husband is simply slandering his bride. In this instance the husband suffers three penalties, first he is subjected to some unspecified punishment which would be at the discretion of the court. It is clear that this is not execution because the text assumes that he will continue to be married to the women in the future. Second the husband shall pay “100 shekels of silver” to the father and lose his right to divorce. Wenham explains the rationale for this price:

The husband claims that by giving him a dud wife (for his 50 shekels) his father in law had in effect stolen the sum from him. Two legal principles are therefore applicable those dealing with theft and false witness. The penalty for theft of deposited property is double restitution according to Ex xii7. But according to Deut xix19 and other ancient near eastern laws false witnesses were punished with the punishment the accused would have suffered if substantiated”[3]

This explains the 100 shekels; the problem is that it raises an issue which Wenham is aware of. “[A]ccording to Deut xix19 false witnesses were punished with the punishment the accused would have suffered if substantiated.” If this law meant that substantiation of the husband’s accusation would actually result in the execution of his wife then the failure to substantiate his claim would mean that the husband would be executed, but he is not. Apart from the fine to the father, his other punishment is an unspecified punishment (which is not execution) and loss of his right to divorce. It appears then that the actual execution of the woman was not envisaged. Wenham suggests then a substitute must have been envisaged in this text if it was to be read as coherent and consistent with the other laws in Deuteronomy.

This conclusion seems to be strengthened by several other passages that deal with the same topic. Two chapters later, Deuteronomy 24:1-5, The Torah deals with a case where a man divorces his wife, “who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her.” This same passage is cited by Jesus in the synoptic gospels. David Instone-Brewer has argued, convincingly, that the reference to “something indecent” is interpreted by Christ as referring to adultery.[4] This passage then deals with the same situation as Deuteronomy 24; the text tells us she is divorced and by implication loses her mohar money but is silent on any other punishment. However, the woman is clearly not executed as she marries another man in v 2. This makes sense if the capital sanctions for adultery function as admonitory devices and in practice, a ransom was made as a substitute (possibly alongside a lesser sentence) but it does not make sense if a women who was discovered to have committed adultery by her husband was required to be executed.

A similar picture emerges in a second passage Wenham cites. In the book of proverbs the author warns his son about adultery and refers to the judicial consequences that will ensue if he does not heed this warning.[5] It is clear that a ransom substitute is envisaged, moreover, it suggests that if the husband refuses to accept a ransom payment the adulterer will suffer blows and disgrace, note that execution is not envisaged. In fact, the discussions in Proverbs suggest the consequences will be financial loss and social ostracism. This all makes sense on the hypothesis mentioned in Part I but does not make sense if adultery was in fact punished by death. Wenham notes this point and draws the conclusion that in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 the law envisaged a substitute.

In conclusion, sceptics like David Brink often cite passages like Deuteronomy 22:13-21 in horror to discredit Christianity. However, they erroneously assume superficial literalistic renditions of the passages in question. In this instance, the genre of the passage, in light of the common ANE legal practices and customs suggests that capital sanctions function as a kind of hyperbole and in practice a ransom was paid and the punishment mitigated.

This practice is implicitly assumed in many of the Old Testament laws about homicide. Reading it this way renders the laws in Deuteronomy consistent with each other and with the reference to adultery in the book of Proverbs. Further, it also coheres better with our moral intuitions in the way a literalistic reading does not.

In my final post in this series I will look at Brink’s response to the kind of argument I have advanced in this series and his appeal to dialectical equilibrium.

[1] In “Bethulah: A Girl of Marriageable Age,” Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972) 326-348, Gordon Wenham points out that the same law is also spelled out in Exodus 22:15 and it is treated as a relatively minor offense; the penalty is simply that the man must pay the “mohar” to the bride’s father. A mohar was security money (50 shekels) that the groom paid to the bride’s father. It was held in trust for the woman in case the man later abandoned her or divorced her without just cause. See the discussion in David Instone Brewer Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
[2] Wenham “Bethulah: A Girl of Marriageable Age.”
[3] Ibid 332.
[4] Brewer Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible.
[5] Proverbs 6.

Cross Posted at MandM

Penal Sanctions in the Mosaic Law Part I

In my recent debate with Raymond Bradley I questioned Ray’s understanding of the death penalty in the Old Testament. Since then a few people have asked me to explain and elaborate on my position. This three-part series is a response to some issues within secular ethicist and philosopher David Brink’s article “The Autonomy of Ethics” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, which I wrote last year. Brink’s position is similar to Ray’s so this series should explain my position further.

In “The Autonomy of Ethics,” David Brink writes that a literal reading of the Old Testament,

[Y]ields problematic moral claims, such as Deuteronomy’s claims that parents can and should stone to death rebellious children (21:18-21) and that the community can and should stone to death any wife whose husband discovers that she was not a virgin when he married her (22:13-21). We have more reason to accept secular scientific and moral claims than we do to accept a literal reading of these particular religious texts.[1]

In a footnote Brink refers to several other references to capital punishment in the Old Testament for various different crimes.[2]

I respect Brink’s stature as an ethicist, however, as an interpreter of scripture his work has left a lot to be desired. That said, I find the kind of hermeneutics he employs common in sceptical literature, so I will address what he says here.

One principle of interpreting literature is to interpret a text according to its genre. One does not read poetry, for example as science or scientific theorems as songs or math texts as romantic fiction. The book of Deuteronomy, in terms of its structure, literary form and language, parallels the structure and language of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) legal texts. Many of the cases given are similar to the cases and laws in these texts. As such, this raises the issue as to how references to capital punishment function in such texts.

In a study of ANE legal corpus, Raymond Westbrook notes that seemingly harsh penalties are common in such codes. In old Babylonian law, the hand that assaults is severed; a man who kisses another’s wife has his lips cut off; a person who steals bees is to be stung by bees; a person who had thrown his victim into an oven was to be thrown into an oven; a man who raped another’s wife would be sentenced to having his own wife or daughter raped; a negligent builder whose house collapsed and killed another’s son would be sentenced to having his own son killed, and so on.[3] In fact, the Code of Hammurabi states that if a man knocks out the eye of one of the upper classes, his eye must be knocked out.[4]

Not only are these punishments harsh but they both appear inconsistent with the legal practice that occurred in these cultures and also with themselves in some instances. Westbrook notes “[s]ome law codes impose physical punishments and others payments for the same offenses, while some codes have a mixture of the two.”[5] Westbrook notes that the contradiction is only apparent because “in highlighting one or the other alternative, the codes are making a statement as to their view of the gravity of the offence.”[6] The laws “reflect the scribal compilers’ concern for perfect symmetry and delicious irony rather than the pragmatic experience of the law courts.”[7] The method used in legal texts was “to set out principles by the use of often extreme examples.”[8]

Westbrook points to the practice of “ransoming” as providing an explanation of how this worked in application. In ANE legal practice a person who committed a serious crime would be considered to have forfeited their life or limb, this, however, did not mean they were executed or mutilated. Instead they could ransom their life or limb by making a monetary payment and/or agreeing to some lesser penalty, usually decided by the courts. This background was implicitly accepted and understood to apply.

Westbrook is not eccentric in this view. J J Finkelstein makes a similar point reflecting on what appears to be very harsh capital (and sometimes vicarious) sentences in the code of Hammurabi and the absurdity and impossibility of putting them into practice. As Finkelstein notes, one law which states that a physician whose patient dies in surgery or is blinded by surgery is to have his hand cut off. Finkelstein remarks that “it is inconceivable that any sane person in ancient Mesopotamia would have been willing to enter the surgeon’s profession if such a law were literally enforced.”[9] On the other hand, “if a system of ransom were assumed where the life of the builder or his son could be redeemed and the hand of the physician could be redeemed by pecuniary ransom, these laws would not only have an admonitory function (for which the more graphic statement of the penalty–execution or mutilation–is more effective), but would also be practical as law.”[10]

He concludes that Mesopotamian penalty prescriptions,

[W]ere not meant to be complied with literally even when they were first drawn up, [But rather they] serve an admonitory function. If one would be bold enough to restate Hammurabi’s 230 as a direct admonition it might run to this effect: “woe to the contractor who undertakes construction and in his greed cuts corners”.[11]

Interestingly many commentators of The Torah have noted it appears to operate with the same assumption. This is particularly evident with the laws regarding homicide. Ex 21: 29-32 deals with a case where an ox gores another person to death due to negligence on the part of the owner. The penalty stated is that the negligent person shall be put to death. However, immediately preceding this, provision is made for a monetary fine to be paid instead of execution. Joe Sprinkle comments,

[V] 29 applies the principle of [life for life], a man whose negligence has caused the loss of a life forfeits his own life. But v. 30 goes on to show that this operates within a system that permits a payment of money to take the place of the actual execution of the offender.”[12]

Sprinkle goes on to conclude, “In sum, there is good reason to suppose that the death sentence of v. 29 is mostly hyperbole to underscore the seriousness of negligence which threatens the life of another human being.”[13]

A second example cited by Sprinkle occurs in the book of Kings. Here an incident is mentioned where a person has committed a capital crime. The sentence is announced “a life for a life”; however, the immediate context shows what this sentence was. “It will be your life for his life or you must weigh out a talent of silver.” Sprinkle notes that here again “’life for life’ in the sense of capital punishment has an explicit alternative of monetary substitution.”[14]

Perhaps the clearest example is on noted by Walter Kaiser. In Exodus 21:13-14 the law clearly distinguishes between accidental and premeditated homicide. If a man who has struck another and killed that person (an analogous case to a man striking a woman and killing her) seeks sanctuary, he is to be provided it unless he “lay in wait” for his victim. Jackson notes that “lay in wait” referred to premeditated homicide.[15] In Numbers 35 the same law is expounded in more detail; a homicide where a person “lay in wait” is contrasted with a homicide where the assailant “attacked him suddenly without enmity.”[16] This appears to be a reference to an intentional but not premeditated attack such as a ‘crime of passion.’

After laying out clearly and repeatedly that the a person who kills in pre-meditation “shall surely be put to death” the text goes on to state “’Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death… .” Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it.” Unless there was an assumed practice of “ransoming” the lives of those under a capital sentence, this comment seems superfluous. Sprinkle notes “The availability of ransom seems to have been so prevalent that when biblical law wants to exclude it, as in the case of intentional murder, it must specifically prohibit it”.[17]

In, Towards an Old Testament Ethics, Walter Kaiser draws the same conclusion,

The key text in this discussion is Num 35:31: “Do not accept a ransom [or substitute] for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death.” There were some sixteen crimes that called for the death penalty in the OT…. Only in the case of premeditated murder did the text say that the officials in Israel were forbidden to take a “ransom” or a “substitute”. This has widely been interpreted to imply that in all the other fifteen cases the judges could commute the crimes deserving of capital punishment by designating a “ransom” or “substitute”. In that case the death penalty served to mark the seriousness of the crime.[18]

In Part II I will argue that this understanding of the references to capital punishment in The Torah makes best sense of the laws regarding adultery that Brink cites.

[1] David Brink “The Autonomy of Ethics” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed Michael Martin (Cambridge :Cambridge University Press, 2007) 159.
[2] Ibid, note 17, 164.
[3] See Raymond Westbrook, “The Character of Ancient Near Eastern Law,” in A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, Vol. 1, ed. Raymond Westbrook (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003) 74.
[4] Code of Hammurabi, 195-196, also 199.
[5] Westbrook “The Character of Ancient Near Eastern Law,” 71-78.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] J. J. Finkelstein The Ox that Gored (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1981) 34-35.
[10] Joe Sprinkle “The Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 (Lex Talonis) and Abortion,” Westminster Theological Journal 55 (1993) 241
[11] Finkelstein The Ox that Gored 35.
[12] Sprinkle “The Interpretation of Exodus” 238.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid, 233-53.
[15] Bernard Jackson. “The Problems of Exodus 21:22-25 (Ius Talionis),” Vetus Testamentum 23 (1973) 288-290.
[16] Num. 35:22.
[17] Jackson “The Problems of Exodus” 239.
[18] Walter Kaiser, “Gods Promise Plan and his Gracious Law,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35:3 (1992) 293.

Cross Posted at MandM

Genesis, Myth and History

Wright makes some good points here. The Genesis 1-3 debate is stalked by generalizations and false antitheses. There is always a real danger in distorting and domesticating the Bible via the preoccupations of our own modern situation. As much as possible, we should start with Scripture and the priorities and structures within the text itself, instead of those of our own context. We should always seek to faithfully and accurately embed the text in its own literary, historical, and canonical context.

Understanding the genre is crucial. Just as, today, different literary genres have different means of making rhetorical effects and of taking about reality, so do the varied Biblical genres. And this diversity of literary forms means we must sensitive to the fact that the Bible contains more (though not less) than propositional truth. This isn’t to say that all literary genres convey truth plus something else but that some genres shape their purposes and priorities differently. Wright is correct to point out that if we reduce a passage (say, a narrative passage) to a number of propositions or single notes we miss the way the (narrative) genre can speak through themes, character development, plot, etc.

Furthermore, the ancient literary categories do not neatly overlap with ours and that is why we must be careful when we talk about biblical genres (I think this cuts against the the current definition of “myth” invented by modern anthropologists as much as it does against a scientific reading). Whatever category we do use for the opening chapters, a fair amount of nuance is necessary.

Even if we do understand the purpose of Genesis 1-3 as primarily theological/mythical, we haven’t escaped the question of whether it belongs to a matrix of thought that implies or is undergirded by historical events and characters (the “primal pair” that Wright affirms). Just because the message is theological, this does not mean that it is not also historical (or that it can be disentangled from the historical). Take some examples in the New Testament (some borrowed from D. A. Carson), where, although the writer is making a theological point, in each case the argument is grounded in and inseparable from a historical claim:

– In Galatians 3, Paul’s theological argument is made via appeal to the order of events in redemptive history. He argues that the law is relativised by the fact that both the giving of the promises to Abraham and his justification by faith preceded the giving of the law.

– In Romans 4, Paul makes an argument about the relation between faith and circumcision that again depends on the historical sequence of which came first.

– In Hebrews 3:7-4:13, the author argues that entering God’s rest must mean something more than merely entering the Promised Land because of the fact that Psalm 95 (which is still calling for God’s people to enter into God’s rest) is written after they were already in the land.

– Again in Hebrews, the theological point of chapter 7 is that because Psalm 110 promises a further priesthood and is written after the establishment of the Levitical priesthood, the Levitical priesthood is therefore obsolete.

-Paul’s argument about the reality of the resurrection in 1 Cor 15:12-19.

Wright is correct to say that we must read Genesis for all its worth. And to do this, sooner or later we are going to need to ask what the ancient readers (and other Biblical writers) themselves thought about the correspondence between the Biblical account of creation and what actually happened. It won’t fly to say that the ancient Biblical writers weren’t concerned with history or couldn’t distinguish between fable and reality (observe how much Judges 9 stands out from the rest of that passage). The early chapters of Genesis are certainly not a scientific treatise, but even if we understand that the point of these chapters is explain that all of creation is God’s tabernacle and that creation itself is finite and not divine, are we completely off the hook? We need to ask if the writer is telling us true things about God, and about real people and events that took place in history.

A response to Glenn Peoples's 'No, I am not an inerrantist'

A while back, one of New Zealand’s more prominent Christian bloggers, Glenn Peoples, wrote an article titled ‘No, I am not an inerrantist’. In it, he outlines his understanding of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and why he disagrees with it. I’ve been meaning to respond for some time, but have only now gotten the opportunity.

As Glenn notes, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is the widely accepted benchmark for what this doctrine entails. Very briefly stated, it affirms that the Bible is without error. That is what “inerrant” means. Glenn singles out the following parts of the Statement for disagreement:

WE AFFIRM that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

WE AFFIRM that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.

One of the obvious problems with this disagreement is that it severely undermines one’s apologetic with regard to the witness of Scripture. By disagreeing with these statements, Glenn commits himself to admitting that the Bible is not guaranteed true, trustworthy, and reliable; and may be misleading and contain falsehood, fraud, or deceit. That is a difficult situation for a Christian apologist like him to be in.

For my own part, I am an inerrantist, and I find Glenn’s critique of inerrancy shallow and unsophisticated to the point of attacking a strawman. Here’s why.

The Objection Evaluated

Glenn provides the following evidence for discarding inerrancy:

If the texts of the Bible contain not a single error, then two biblical accounts of the same event will agree. They need not cover all the same aspects of the event, but they will agree in the sense that there will not be any conflict between them. Otherwise there is an error present, since two accounts of an event that conflict cannot both be fully correct. However, we know that this is not the case when it comes to the four Gospels. There are some cases where this is fairly obvious. For example, all four Gospels contain sentences attributed to Jesus, but they differ from one Gospel to the next.

What is obvious to anyone with even a little exegetical training is that Glenn is implicitly evaluating the Bible against a modern, scientific or journalistic standard of reporting. It should go without saying, however, that the Bible is an ancient, prescientific compilation. While, in the Modern West, it is considered “inaccurate” or even “dishonest” to quote someone without doing so verbatim, in the ancient Near East no such view existed. On the contrary, it was customary to quote the essence of what a person said, without concerning oneself over the minutiae of the words and sentence structure used. This fact was not lost on the framers of the Chicago Statement, as indicated by Article XIII:

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

Variant Selections & Topical Arrangement

I highlight the latter items—topical arrangement and variant selections—because of additional evidence Glenn moves on to allege against biblical inerrancy. He presents for consideration the differences in who is reported to have visited the tomb on Sunday morning in Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10, and John 20:1–2; concluding, reading all four accounts, could you tell who was there and who was not?

The answer, however is obviously yes. As the ESV Study Bible notes on Luke 24:10, It was Mary … and the other women indicates that at least five women went to the tomb. And of John 20:2, contra Glenn’s claim that according to John 20:1–2, the only woman involved was Mary Magdalene, it observes: The plural we suggests the presence of other women besides Mary. Since Luke 24:10 lists Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, and Mark 16:1 lists at least one of those women as Salome, it’s trivial to deduce that these were all present—with at least one other, unnamed woman.

The only way in which one can find a difficulty in this passage is to suppose that each of the authors intended to exhaustively list everyone present. Yet even reading modern writing, that’s far from a reasonable or normal assumption. Imagine I were emailing someone to tell him about our going to an apologetics conference. I might say that “Thinking Matters went to the conference”; or, if the person I was telling knew particular people in Thinking Matters, but not others, I might say that “Jason and Stuart and I went to the conference”; or I might just mention Jason if the other people were less important in the telling. None of these even suggest that the rest of Thinking Matters wasn’t present; let alone entail it.

A final evidence alleged against inerrancy is as follows:

Another type of difference between different Gospels is the way that different events are placed in a different order. A well known example is the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. In the Synoptic Gospels this event occurs after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, fairly late in the narrative. In John’s Gospel however, this event occurs in chapter 2, before much else has happened.

But it’s a well-documented fact that adhering to a strict chronological order when reporting is a relatively modern invention. In the ancient Near East, arranging anecdotes by topic or by idea was an extremely common, not to mention effective, story-telling technique. It’s called block logic. It’s not wrong, unless you’re specifically intending to present a chronological description of events. It’s just a different way of recounting things. Someone claiming enough exegetical competence to reject the doctrine of inerrancy should know this.

Standards of Truth

Now, Glenn even acknowledges that standards of truth in the ancient Near East may differ to those in the modern West. Yet in doing so, rather than seriously considering the issue and recognizing the relevant cultural distinctions, he appears to mock the notion:

Maybe you want to rescue it by saying that inerrancy is not only compatible with individual writers using their own style, but it is also compatible with the fact that writers are doing no more than adhering to standards of accuracy that were acceptable in their day, and that is why there are no problems with the existence of conflicting accounts, because the fact is, standards of the day just weren’t very high. But this is inerrancy in name only, and it creates a hilarious spectacle for the sceptics to pour scorn upon. […] If we qualify inerrancy this much to save it, it becomes a useless idea altogether.

There is simply no way to overstate how theologically inept—not to mention culturally prejudiced—this statement is. It amounts to saying that using the grammatico-historical method of exegesis to determine our doctrine is a hilarious spectacle. It’s akin to saying that all we need are English Bible translations, because qualifying our understanding of Scripture against its sociolinguistic context is to qualify it so much that it becomes useless. It’s to say that putting ourselves into the shoes of the authors and audience of the scriptural autographs is not merely irrelevant, but an exercise in comedy.

What Glenn wants us to believe is that how the original authors and audience of Scripture understood errors merely indicates that their standards were too low. And, if we qualify inerrancy to mean that the Bible is free from error as its original authors and audience understood errors to be, then it’s a “hilarious spectacle” and a “useless idea altogether”. This objection is dead on arrival for two reasons:

Inerrancy is supposed to be defined by Scripture

Firstly, even if standards of truth in biblical times were sub par—tsk, tsk—it remains that the biblical authors wrote in those times. Now, maybe Glenn thinks those scamps should have used modern Western standards of reporting, even though these were totally alien to their culture, where the retelling of stories was a largely verbal affair and the manner of conceptualization was quite different. But the fact remains that they didn’t use our standards. They used their own. Probably because the ignorant peons they were writing to, wretched, barely hominid gimps that they were, expected it.

Thus, taking into account what the Bible itself considers an error when we’re defining inerrancy is not a “qualification”. It is a central tenet of the doctrine. When Scripture attests to its own inerrancy, it does so assuming an ancient Near Eastern concept of truth and error.

Modern journalistic standards are not an objective ideal

Secondly, what justification does Glenn have for taking his view that the “standards of the day just weren’t very high”? High compared to what? It isn’t as if our modern Western conventions for journalism constitute an objective standard against which any kind of story-telling should be judged. They’re not some pinnacle of reporting—a gilt-edged ideal that any writer in any culture should be looking up to and trying to imitate, even if that were possible without the use of technologies unavailable to them. In fact, these standards aren’t even commonly used in Western society.

Does Glenn really believe that the genre of the gospels is functionally identical with modern journalism? Does he seriously believe that using any other story-telling conventions actually amounts to error? If I tell him that “Thinking Matters went to an apologetics conference last month”, and he tells his wife that Bnonn said, “Last month, Thinking Matters went to an apologetics conference,” should we say that his standards of testimony are so low that, in fact, he has reported what I said erroneously? Even in the modern day there is no presumption that we retell the exact words someone used unless we’re doing so in very specific circumstances—such as writing for a newspaper, or using a blockquote tag. Certainly, the advent of copy and paste has made this much easier, and thus raised our expectations. But that hardly implies that reporting the gist, if not the precise words, is a lowlier method, and in fact constitutes error. The only time that would be true is if there is a presumption of a verbatim quote. Unless Glenn has remarkable evidence to the contrary, in the case of Scripture, there is not.

Moreover, even in modern journalistic writing it is never expected that the author report everything, or that he not be selective about the facts he conveys. In fact, basic common sense tells us that every reporter must do these things, because it is inherent to the nature of reporting as a subjective exercise. And this may become more pronounced depending on the kind of story-telling techniques an author is using, and the specific reasons he has for writing. In short, Glenn appears to ignore even the most obvious facts of literary criticism in his efforts to make his case.

Conclusion

Overall, Glenn’s understanding of inerrancy is too inadequate for his critique to gain any actual traction against the doctrine. The fundamental exegetical principles of genre, language, cultural context, and intent are all ignored, meaning that inerrancy itself is essentially ignored, while a strawman is burned in its place. Indeed, it’s as if he’s unaware that inerrancy is an exegetical issue at all. Instead of looking at the scriptural foundation for the doctrine, and the linguistic nuances of the term “error”, he imposes upon Scripture his own arbitrary conventions of reporting, finds it lacking, and then declares that inerrancy must be false. Sadly, the comments on his blog suggest that many other Christians don’t see anything immediately problematic with this approach. Hopefully this article can serve as a corrective.