Biblical Studies in November

Biblical Studies Carnivals are like people, some are longwinded, others mercifully brief, some are careful or even careworn, others care less. Yet these month by month listings of posts on biblical scholarship, especially when they cast the net widely, but use a large mesh so that only the serious or seriously funny posts get included do us all a great service.

Bob McD has done a typically thorough and careful carnival for November 2018. If you are interested in the Bible and its scholarship, especially if you are interested to hear its scholars think aloud, then at least glance through the carnival. For as Bob demonstrates despite the dearth of commenting and cross referencing (features of this technology of publication we all anjoyed in ‘the old days’ and miss terribly) biblical studies online is a thriving and interesting common room of ideas, and in this carnival you will find treasure – I guarantee it.

The End of the World: important announcement

It must be such fun to be a literalist with an interest in End Times. The whole Bible becomes a playground, the smallest detail can be twisted into place. For such literalists Scripture becomes a sort of intellectual Lego set from which all sorts of fun and frightening robots can be made.

But, next time someone seeks to scare you with the imminent end of the world, if you read this post to the end, and totally free with no donation required, you too can have the answer. [No, you pagan, it is not ’42’.]

Reading a student essay on one of the less interesting (at least as this student presents it) books of the Bible, I found the key. No, not in the student’s work, that would be plagiarism, but in the simple literal meaning of Scripture. The text at issue is Deuteronomy 7:9, there we read:

Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations…

The world will end in somewhere between 25,000 and 46,000 years from now (approximately and allowing nothing for errors). I need no longer fear each creative  but, oh so, literal reading of Revelation, or even from the mysterious apocryphal book of Revelations.

Why am I so sure? Well if a generation is between 30 and 40 years and Moses, the speaker of the words, lived about 4,000 years ago or perhaps quite a bit less, we have a yonk or three before this earth-bound promise ends. Namely, between 30 and 40 thousand years from Moses, or at least 25,000 years from now, though thankfully not more than 46,000, which would be far too long to wait.

Since I am not now, nor have I ever been, a literalist,instead I will continue to pray along with John ‘Come lord Jesus!’ and given the sad state of the world the sooner the better.

PS naturally there is plenty of room for minority opinions not only about the length of a generation but also about the timing and influence of ‘the millennium’.

A lesson we need to keep on learning and an argument from silence with the power to convict

[Fill in the blank] are people, treat them as such!

It’s a lesson we (human beings, poor broken and ‘fallen’ as we are) need to keep on learning. Three things have reminded me of this recently.

First encouraging students to discover this message in composing essays on Ruth or on Jonah, and leading a group in a local ‘village’1 to study the same beautiful little books.

Second Hannah’s Blog-On Still Believing and a Little Narnia posted a beautiful quote from Dorothy L. Sayers (from her brilliant article “The Human-Not-Quite-Human.”

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man-there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them! ”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them, and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.2

[See aside below.]

The other was an equally, but quite differently, brilliant combination of research from several disciplines reported in “How To Get Kids To Pay Attention“. The gist of which is so simple, be like the Maya, and not like ‘Modern” Westerners, and treat children like real people, and they will learn to pay attention, and so learn much better.

So, two recent posts in the electronic world remind that women are people, and that children are people, and two little stories from the ancient world remind that foreigners are people. Revolutionary!

[Aside: Dorothy Sayers’ argument is a really neat example of the untruth of the claim that arguments from silence always lack force. That Jesus’ words and actions, remembered by four different (often quite different) streams of tradition3 and recorded in dozens of pages each, NEVER not once patronise a woman because of her gender – however we read them not matter how we twist them! It is an argument from silence with the power to convict.]

  1. In NZ a ‘village’ is a retirement settlement, usually a mix of houses and apartments with a medical ward for those needing more assistance. []
  2.  Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” in On the Contrary: Essays by Men and Women, ed. Martha Rainbolt and Janet Fleetwood (SUNY Press, 1983), 13. []
  3. Plus, if Mark Goodacre and others are quite mistaken, a fifth Q. []

BibleWorks

I have just read the news that BibleWorks for many many years the best Bible program for PC (if you have a powerful computer and/or lots of time the Logos e-library system is also good Bible software, but BibleWorks just worked, and so for many years has been my daily goto) is closing.

I could see no information about why, and the announcement was vague about the future – probably because it is still unclear. It would be a real pity if the program were to simply die!

Does anyone have more news?

Evangelicalism Lite?

Mike Bird, on Facebook pondered saving the word ‘Evangelical’:

The only way to save the word”evangelical” is to seize it from the non-denominational, civic & consumerist religion, mega-church industrial complex and orientate it towards “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

I can’t help wondering what would happen to such an attempt to create an Evangelicalism Lite. When stripped of the oh so commercial worship songs, the politico-religious shibboleths that serve as loyalty tests, and the rest of the 20th century trappings of power that have accereted to, and so changed beyond recognition the simple faith of Newton and the Clapham Sect1 and other social activists in the name of Jesus, what would be left?

Mike thinks Evangelicalism Lite would be ‘one holy catholic and apostolic’ I suspect like an onion when the last layer was removed the onion would be gone. I have many friends who value the word, some who point to the fine work of the World Evangelical Alliance and remind me that it is nothing like the industrial strength power Evangelicalism of the USA (even in the USA). Yet my experiences were different, brought up as Evangelical first and Baptist in a poor second place, I had to rebel against the shibboleths to protect my faith in the Creator God, and I had to learn that following Jesus meant working with all his other followers (except the ‘Evangelicals’ who could not be ‘unequally yoked with sinners’ and so could only support a mission to the University if every speaker signed their declaration of faith).

In my experience in Britain in the 60s the religious life was divided between Evangelicals and Followers of Jesus, and I chose the Christians over the lions.

  1. Wouldn’t that be a fine name for a 60s band? []

Dear Mr Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is visiting NZ currently, to preach to the faithless and rouse them to new heights of Atheist fervour.

Or should I call you Professor?

If you were here in NZ to talk about Biology then sure Dear Prof Dawkins would be appropriate and polite, but if I waded in to debate biology I would not expect you to call me Dr Bulkeley all the time. My PhD is not in your discipline, and my remarks would be expected to contain the sort of silly mistakes and probably egregious errors that amateurs often make. And that in a way is the point of this post. You make egregious errors and silly mistakes when you talk about my discipline. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll show my lack of respect for your lack of learning by calling you Mr.

One god less?

There’s an argument your followers like to use as a fine knock-down, I think of it as the one god less fallacy. You expressed it in A Devil’s Chaplain like this:

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.1

Far from a knock down argument, this is egregious bunkum. You don’t disbelieve in one less god than me, we both fail to believe in the same number of gods. All of them!

God, the one and only, the maker of all, is simply the opposite of a god. The pernicious, fickle yet convenient powers that humans across the years have imagined and worshiped, and nearly as often used as excuses to force others to worship them (the priests and kings whose support and service these gods are claimed to need) are nothings. (Or more precisely and exactly are idols.)

Most intelligent Christians who think a little about their faith realise, sooner or later, that the maker of all cannot be like them. A being responsible for the almost incredible and literally unthinkable reaches of space and time, or even the mind-boggling complexity of the organisms you study professionally, Professor, cannot be cajoled or bribed in the way we both know the devotees of gods assume their creatures (for the gods are indeed made by human minds) can.

God, on the other hand, is wholly other — unknowable indeed. Except that God chose revelation, and is supremely found in the human life of Jesus, the man whom clever and powerful men nailed to a cross and executed. But God is not a god! God comes to us, not in power and might as befits a god, but as a victim as befits a non-god. Not with cleverness and ‘wisdom’, but in all the foolishness of a lover. And that, sadly, you have failed to discover for yourself.

I pray for you

So, Professor Dawkins (for your learning and research in biology deserves respect) I pray for you, that one day you will discover for yourself the one and only ground of all being because whatever you mistake God for (even a tinpot god) God loves you.


PS In discussion of this post on Facebook two things prompted me to add this postscriptum.  First comments about my tone in the presentation above (from an Atheist friend whom I respect) caused me to notice how I had fallen into the trap of fighting fire with fire. Then an enthusiastic Christian friend posting a video that used a mix of vox pop interviews with random passers-by, very short clips of scientists, and hectoring interventions by the makers of the video to pillory the notion of the evolution of species. That video and Dawkins present a picture of two Fundamentalists shouting at each other as mirror images. I have no wish to descend to that level. I therefore apologise to you for my tone and rhetoric above.

  1. Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (HMH, 2004), 150. []

Women should be seen and not heard!

The Bible says

Well actually, of course, it doesn’t. What it does say, at least in a couple of places is shocking enough:

…women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. (1 Cor 14:34 NRSV)

And as many famous US pastors with powerful ministries have noted and proclaimed:

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1 Tim 2:12 NRSV)

Which, you have to admit, sounds pretty close to my deliberately inflammatory title!

At this point, if you are like me, all your hackles are rising and you are muttering to yourself: What about the gospel? What about Paul? Paul summed up the consequences of being baptised ‘into Christ’ and so being (each and together) ‘clothed in Christ:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28 ESV)

Indeed, if we just look at the question of women teaching men, what about Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman who when he suggested that he should not offer her daughter the healing mercy that he was offering to proper Israelites, argued back against him and evoked the response:

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matt 15:28 NRSV)

You are just twisting the Bible

Anyone who tries to explain how context, careful attention to the wording, and other cues might cause us to understand the two passages about women being silent differently from their literal surface meaning will have met the response: ‘You are just twisting the Bible to avoid its plain meaning.’

This sounds like a ‘nice knock down argument’,1 after all surely we must all prefer the plain obvious meaning?

But that is precisely the problem. By their focus on the plain, simple, obvious meaning of a couple of passages, and their staunch and principled refusal to consider revisionist readings of these passages, these teachers must twist the plain, simple, obvious meaning of the gospel and of loads of whole passages and stories from across the Bible from at least as early as Deborah (in Judges) to at least as late as Jesus and Paul (in the New Testament).

Here is a rule you can trust

Whenever the plain, simple, obvious meaning of a few passages seems to conflict with, contradict, or merely seems uncomfortable alongside the great truths of the gospel that are proclaimed across the whole of Scripture then we have somehow misunderstood those passages!

  1. This phrase was chosen because it echoes Humpty Dumpty, because I believe these famous pastors with the powerful ministries are followers of Dumpyites. []

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

In these glorious Antipodes a storm has blown up in the conventional and the social media — not the series of sub-tropical storms that have been wreaking havoc with our homes and power poles, but a storm of opprobrium. It concerns (as you might expect)1 a rugby player. This rugby player expressed a theological opinion concerning the eternal destiny of some other people. Since rugby players are quasi-divine, naturally, his opinion on this matter is of huge importance….

Many of my Christian friends are (rightly) concerned about issues of tolerance and the possible suppression of religious views that dissent from the majority opinion (especially when those dissenting views are our own). In this respect several decades of liberalism have made us unprepared for such a resurgence of the Spanish Inquisition. But then no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

I am more interested in the theological question, is Israel Folau correct that gays are going to hell?

On what grounds might we say this with theological authority? If sin alone is the grounds then we are all doomed, if unrepented sin, I suspect likewise… Or is there a scale of sins with some (mine and your’s perhaps?) being venial and others (on whose unacceptability to God we agree) being mortal – ah, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  1. You might expect this since rugby players here play the quasi-divine role that billionaires and film stars play in the USA, or royalty in some more conservative places. []

Coherence and the limits on interpretation

Clearly texts do mean what their authors intend them to mean, but it also seems evident that texts (and especially texts within a highly intertextual canon, like the Bible) can also mean more. Once one allows this, what are the limits on such interpretations? My suggestions revolve around the notion of coherence, a text that holds together and makes sense is coherent, a text that is too fragmented or that does not make sense is incoherent.

Since the Bible is a canonical collection, it seems reasonable to expect its parts to be coherent. This does not mean that each part necessarily agrees with every other, or that there are no contradictions between parts. To claim that would be to deny to Scripture the sort of freedom of ideas and opinions that we take for granted in community life. For example in a Baptist Church we meet together to try to discover ‘the mind of Christ’ on matters that concern us, by listening to the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures and through our fellow believers. We do not expect that we will all think alike, but we hope and pray that out of our listening the mind of Christ will emerge.

Yet, if the parts do not ‘fit’ one with another, and thus appear incoherent, this is surely an indication that we have understood one or both wrongly. How might coherent disagreement work?

Take the examples of Dt 23 and Ruth. Deuteronomy 23 seeks to preserve the holiness of the ‘assembly of the Lord‘, it therefore warns that Moabites should be among the groups of people excluded from the assembly, in the light of the history of Moabite interaction with the chosen people. By contrast Ruth tells the story of a Moabite woman (and her ethnicity is stressed by being mentioned seven times, more than half the total biblical usage of the word) who displays (by contrast) unusual and praiseworthy faithful commitment to a Bethlehemite family. These two passages argue in strikingly opposite ways, yet they are not incoherent, but can be thought of as two aspects for Israel to consider when thinking of relationships with Moabites.

By contrast, 1 Tim 2:12 appears (especially as it is rendered in most English translations) at the least to deny that women should speak in the church community.1 However,  1 Cor 11:5 presumes that women pray and prophesy in the assembly and in Acts 21:9 the gift of prophecy shown by Philip’s four daughters seems to be approved. Such an apparent incoherence might in this case lead us to examine the texts more closely, and perhaps suspect some contextual situation that has provoked the advice in Timothy (the comment in 2 Tim 3:6 may hint at such a situation).

There is however a second sort of coherence which may prove even more useful. Any Christian reading of the Bible claims that in some sense the Old Testament texts are preparing for or looking forward to the coming of Christ, which fulfills them (or reveals their full meaning). Equally, the New Testament texts look back on Jesus life, death, resurrection, and rule at the Father’s right hand. Therefore, our reading of any Bible passage should cohere with what we know of God in Christ.

People often present this criterion in terms of cruciformity (our readings of Scripture should reveal the crucified God) however, despite the centrality and importance of the cross it is not the whole of the story of Jesus Christ thus I prefer the broader version.

Our readings should cohere with how we understand other parts of the Bible, and also they should cohere with what we know of the God who is supremely revealed in Jesus the Christ. Readings which by these standards are incoherent are suspect and need further investigation.

  1. Leaving aside the debates surrounding the meaning of authenteo. []