CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: see here for the previous entry; and see here for the first entry of the series. (It explains what I'm doing, and how, and contains the Johannine prologue.)

Since some of the later chapters are long enough that I'll want to break them into two parts, I'm taking the opportunity to consolidate some shorter chapters here.



The Nobleman and the King

When Jesus went on up into Galilee (says the Evangelist; meaning from Sychar in Samaria, via Nazareth as implied the Evangelist’s peculiar callback to Luke 4:16-30), the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things He had done in Jerusalem at the (Passover) Feast; for they themselves had also gone to the festival.

And what He preached in Galilee (adds the Follower)--after leaving Nazareth (adds the Disciple)--was: "The time is now fulfilled; the kingdom of God is near! Commit to doing better, and trust in this good news!"


.......

Thus He came again (from Nazareth) to Cana of Galilee (says the Evangelist), where He had made the water wine. [Footnote: Cana would also be the first town of significant size on a road between Nazareth and the northwest laketown district, where Capernaum was located.]

Now, there was a certain court official whose son was sick in Capernaum. [Footnote: perhaps Chuza, steward of Herod?] This man, hearing that Jesus is now coming up into Galilee from Judea, went to Him, requesting Him to go on down (to Capernaum, perhaps another ten miles east or so, probably through Magdala) and heal his son, for he was about to die.

Then Jesus said in his direction, "Unless you all see testifying signs and miracles, you absolutely will not believe!" [Footnote: the plural ‘you’ probably isn’t addressed to the Capernaum nobleman.]

The courtier is saying to Him (perhaps 'toward Him', trying to get His attention), "Sir! Go down, before my little boy dies!"

Jesus is saying to him, "Go on. Your son is living."

And the man trusts in the word that Jesus has said to him; and went away.

Now, as he already is going back down (the next morning--having spent the night on the way in Magdala perhaps), his slaves meet him; and they report, saying his boy is living.

He then made certain from them the time in which he was better; they said to him, "The fever left him yesterday at about 7 pm."

The father knew that had been the hour in which Jesus said to him, "Your son is living."

Now he believes--he, and his whole house!

Here again (says the Evangelist), is a second sign Jesus does; coming out of Judea into Galilee.


First Night in A New Home

So (says the Disciple), Jesus, leaving Nazareth, goes to settle in Capernaum; by the lake (of Galilee) which is in the region (formerly inhabited by the tribes) of Zebulon and Naphtali (before the deportation of the Ten Northern Tribes centuries earlier).

This (adds the Disciple) was done so that the prophecy declared through Isaiah would be fulfilled:

The lands of Zebulon and of Naphtali
The lakeroad and the other side of the Jordan
Galilee of the nations--
The people sitting in darkness perceived a great light;
A light arises for those in the province and shadow of death!



.......

Now (says the Follower, taking the lead for this part of the story) as He was passing along beside Galilee Lake (on His way to Capernaum), He saw Simon--who would be known as 'Peter' (adds the Disciple)--and Simon's brother Andrew purse-netting in the sea, for they were fishermen.

And Jesus is saying to them, "Come here! Follow Me!" Immediately leaving their nets, they follow Him.

Now moving along a little further from there, He sees James bar Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with their father Zebedee, adjusting the nets.

And straightaway He calls them; and leaving their father in the ship with his hired men, they came away after Him, entering into Capernaum.

Very soon (at sundown) it was the Sabbath, so entering the synagogue (the following morning) He taught; and they were astonished at His teaching, for He was speaking as having authority, and not (constantly making reference back to judgments of others) as the scribes.

Now, a man having the spirit of an unclean demon went straight to the synagogue; and he cries out: "Aha!! What are we going to do with You, Jesus the Nazarean!? Did You come to destroy us?? I am aware of You, and of Who You are--the Holy One of God!"

Jesus rebukes him, saying, "Be strangled!--and get out of him!"

And, pitching him into their midst with convulsions, the unclean spirit came out of him, shouting with a loud voice--but in no way harming him (adds the Scholar).

Everyone was amazed, and discussed this among themselves, saying, "What new word is this? He is commanding the unclean spirits with power, and they are obeying Him!" [See first comment below for a footnote here.]

Many people ran straight out into the streets, to spread the news throughout the Galilean countryside. (Literally, "His fame went out at once into all the...")

But Jesus went straight to the house of Simon and Andrew, along with James and John, after leaving the synagogue. [See second comment below for a footnote here.]

Now, the mother of Simon's wife was lying in bed, pressed down with a fever; and they immediately spoke to Him, asking Him about it.

Jesus goes to her, standing over by her; and rebukes the fever, touching her hand. Then rousing her, He lifts her by her hand--and the fever leaves her.

At once, she serves them dinner.


.......

Now after sunset (after the end of the Sabbath day), all the city gathered at the door, and people began to bring Him everyone who was sick; and He lays His hands on them, and cures them. Many unclean spirits were driven out this way as well, clamoring and trying to blurt out: "You are the Christ, the Son of God!"--but He rebuked them, and would not let them tell what they knew.

This happened (adds the Disciple) so that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled: "He took our infirmities, and He bears away our diseases."

But in the very early morning, while it was still dark, He arose, and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed.

Simon trailed Him, though; and others followed afterward.

When they found Him, they said: "Everyone is looking for you!"

But He said to them, "Let us go on to the next towns. This is why I came out here."

The throngs of people (who had trailed Simon), however, tried their best to detain Him, so that He would not be going from them.

But Jesus told them all: "To other cities also, I must be bringing the good news of the kingdom of God! This is why I was commissioned!"

And (so) He went into their synagogues, all around Galilee, heralding, and casting out demons.

(Yet, implies the Scholar: Andrew and Simon and James and John once more stayed behind--but that is another story...)


Matthew 4:13-18
Matthew 4:20-22
Matthew 8:14-17
Mark 1:15-17a
Mark 1:18-39
Luke 4:31-43
John 4:45-54


[Next time: Actions and Consequences]

[Editor's note: part 1 of Joe Hinman's critique can be found here. Joe's original critique of an article by Dr. Hector Avalos on the same topic, along with some subsequent commentary discussion, can be found here.]


Dr. Avalos charges that errors have been intentionally made in the standard translations of the Bible to cover up theological difficulties stemming from the Bible's (alleged) irrelevance. In this section I will be exploring some of these charges, and also some of the problems Avalos charges to the sub disciplines. Before going into this, however, I feel it necessary to discuss my views of Biblical revelation. This is because Avalos's criticisms really don't stack up against most theologies except the verbal plenary version--and only a strict interpretation of that!


Biblical Revelation

This issue really cuts to the heart of the relevance issue, because most of Avalos's understanding of "relevance" has to do with an understanding of verbal plenary inspiration, or the view that the Bible is totally inerrant in every word. "Inerrancy" is really important to atheists because the more literal they can force the demand for all interpretations to be, the easier it is to find problems with it. Now, my views on this subject are not like those of the CADRE at large. I'm the group token liberal so my views are much more liberal than those of the group. I do not represent the standard view of the CADRE on this issue.

The standard view of many Evangelicals is something like this: Scripture is "God breathed" meaning God communicated word for word to the authors and they put it into their own words, but basically very close or exactly what God gave them to say. Some Evangelicals of this sort might tolerate a minor scribal error such as inaccurate numbers being copied, but basically word for word God delivered to us the Bible he wanted us to have. My problem with that, is that it is based upon a model of what I call "memo from the boss." It basically understands God as "the big man upstairs" who is going to send a memo to the factory workers: it's up on the bulletin board just the way the he dictated it. That's the crass version. There are Evangelicals with more sophisticated views then this (see the link above). But basically this is the model being discussed by Avalos.

What I find that this model doesn't address, is a much more human point of view in much of the Bible. This is at the heart of the relevance issue because it is the difference between Avalos using outmoded purity laws as the basis of his attack, vs. a theologian (even among Evangelicals) understanding general principles that can be extrapolated from the outmoded areas and translated into modern context. In other words Avalos can demand that every word be demonstrated as relevant: we must show that it matters in modern society not to cook a goat in its mother's milk. But my view would say: that sort of thing is outmoded, but it is not the main thrust of the Bible. Similarly, one of these more sophisticated Evangelicals (such as any member of the CADRE) would say those kinds of laws were obsolete with the coming Christ, and they served some purpose for desert nomads but we need not worry about them.

I see the Bible as a collection of works that are all indicative of and influenced by divine-human encounter. It is a diverse collection, and the inspirational factor varies from work to work. Some texts are borrowed from pagan mythology and reworked to turn that mythology on its head. This is how I see the Genesis creation story. Mythology is not a lie; it's a genre. It uses psychological archetypes to speak to the psyche. So mythology is a form of truth, but it's a form of truth that does not require literal history. I would draw an analogy to the writings of Tolkien, which make use of Christian and universal themes, but is not a flat out allegory. Other writings are directly inspired, such as those where the prophet says "this is what the Lord says." Or "The word of the Lord came to him saying." They are reflective of the human side of the encounter, told from the human point of view, but there are instances where God did speak directly. As the book of Hebrews tells us, he spoke most directly through Jesus. Jesus is the revelation of God to humanity. The Bible is the record of human encounter with that revelation, and its unfolding in the history of a certain people. I see the Hebrew scripture as serving the primary purpose of setting up a framework in which the mission of "Messiah" is meaningful. That means the little purity laws and all the oddities and what I call "fiddly bits," are unimportant. God commanded the Israelites to wipe out certain people?--I think some of those are errant readings, bad redaction.
Others are idealized history told from a certain point of view, but for me they are not important and they are not the point.

I really don't have time to explain my views in full here. I will try to say more about it in the comments; please read my views of Biblical revelation. For an in depth look at a view that has influenced me the most, see a book by Cardinal Avery Dulles which is: Models of Revelation.


a few of Avalos's examples:


Starting out we need to observe that Avalos is charging intentional bad translations. He does talk about problems of Dynamic/functional Equivalence (aka "DE"). "The basic principle... is to use readings that would make sense in the reader's culture rather than exact word equivalents.” (p 41) Now I do not claim to be a big deal Greek Scholar. I have not studied Hebrew. I have read the entire New Testament in Greek, but when I say "I read it" I mean I sloughed through it in a living nightmare that lasted three years. Every morning at I-hop with my coffee and oat meal I would meet with a friend who is a linguistic whiz (now studies Coptic at Tübingen) and tortured this patent soul with my attempts at conjugation. But I’ve also discussed dynamic equivalence with a Wycliff translator. From my experience and point of view, I think it is not problematic. I find most of the major English translations of the New Testament to be pretty good; none of them suffer from any major errors. There are some infamous exceptions, such as the (incidentally non-orthodox) Watchtower reading of John 1:1, which was denounced by my Greek professor. (I took classical Greek at a secular University from a Yalie who couldn't give a rat's hind quarters about Christian doctrines.) The translations on the passages (NT) about women keeping silent and other things, are notoriously biased. I do not rely primarily upon standard reference books printed for Biblical helps, in my study. I mean works like Strong's, or Art, Bower, and Gingrich. I use them as secondary material, but primarily I rely upon Liddell and Scott. That's how I got my hernia. L&S is classical Greek done by Classicists and has no doctrinal bias. The unabridged version requires a fork lift.

But Avalos spins this issue to make it seem as though "DE" is an attempt to cover something up. He calls it "the primary modern example of the effort to suppress the actual meaning..." (p 40) Of course the rationale for it is the need to bring ancient world concepts into the modern world. One would think that would be the job of a good translator. The problem is it is an ancient book, and it is not the only source of the Christian tradition. It's the bedrock, in terms of textual sources it is the foundation, but it's not the whole house. Yet Avalos is conducting what the postmodernists call "a hermeneutics of suspicion." You start from the standpoint of assuming your opponent is bad until SHE/ he proves HERSELF/himself worthy. This is what Al Sharpton does in starting from the assumption, all whites are racist, you have to prove to me you are not racist (by backing me politically). This is identity politics. Avalos is going to suspect the motives of Christians until they are proven benign. The only difference is, Sharpton might actually allow one to prove one is not a racist. I don't think any evidence will ever count for Avalos against his thesis.

But this is actually a double bind. The Wycliff Translator with whom I discussed this question (this discussion took place years ago in my old Greek study days), noted that standing behind the urge to use DE as a tool is Noam Chomsky and modern linguistic realizations of the importance of generative grammar and the need to represent whole chunks of thought rather than each individual word. One wonders: if they did not use this technique wouldn't Avalos be castigating them for not being modern enough in their translations?!


Specific issues: Hebrew Polytheism; Most High vs "the LORD"

One of the most radical and potentially faith destroying issues (for some people) that he brings forth is the amazing, earth shattering evidence of Polytheism in the origins of the Hebrew culture.

According to Avalos the Jews began by worshiping many gods, and J (Y) emerged as the major one (some think in relation to the political triumph of some faction). In reality this view has been around a long time. The information he gives is not amazing or secret, but let's look at how Avalos uses that information: the terms translated "Most High," and "The LORD" are not only two different proper names in the original, but (says Avalos) represent two different Gods. (p 43) Most High = "Elyon." The LORD is translated in place of J.

But here Avalos does something of a bait and switch. He turns to the discovery of Ugaritic texts which show that Elyon is mentioned among different Ugaritic gods as a separate entity. "Some of the Israelites deities probably derived from Ugaritic" (Ugaritic is related to Hebrew). So the assumption of Hebrew Polytheism is actually made prior to this data. But, no matter. "In other West Semtic cultures," Avalos informs us, "Elyon is more clearly a separate deity." (ibid.) So, not actually having any such examples from Hebrew culture, he has to turn to examples of other cultures to prove his point, merely extrapolating and assuming that the Hebrews also used those names in this way. El/elyon can't be a descriptive loan word adopted as a name/title to speak of J, even though we see this same term used in descriptive ways in the OT such as speaking of angels and judges--but because of the hermeneutics of suspicion we must assume otherwise. Of course El was a separate deity from other Urgaritic gods. This does not prove that El was separate from J for the Hebrews.

He also gives a second example, the "sons of God." (p 44) This is the translation of the NAB. Avalos writes,

"The Dead Sea Scrolls...still preserve the probably older reading of the 'sons of Elohim. The sons of El would be the gods fathered by the god named 'El.' The fact that ancient editors recognized the polytheistic nature of this expression ('sons of El') probably led the editors of the standard text (Masoretic) of the Hebrew Bible to change 'gods' to 'sons of Israel.'" (Ibid.)


Several things to say about this: First, notice there is no evidence given here as to why the DSS editors see this as indicative of other gods. This is not proven, because he doesn't even footnote another source. He is asserting it. But that is really no big deal because there is no evidence at all anywhere that the Hebrews actually worshiped more than one god, and since they were using the term "EL" as a borrow there is no reason to assume they didn't realize it referred originally to other gods. That doesn't mean they worshiped other gods. Secondly, this translation is in other versions rendered "sons of God." Thus it doesn't make sense to think the translators willfully tried to deceive when half a dozen major translations already spilled the beans. More likely it really is just what the translators thought. Thirdly, this is hardly big top secret evidence that is kept from the public. I have read scholarly articles which document the DSS use of that phrase and even show the reading comes from a Ugaritic passage. I could give him documentation on that point which his book is sorely lacking! I first came upon this problem of El and J in a book called The Pictorial Bible Dictionary, published by Wheaton college in 1965. It was a nice coffee table sort of book that one might buy to back up Bible study or just look nice on the table. It was clearly intended for laymen, yet drew upon scholarship of the day. I remember quite clearly it made no bones about the fact that El was the name of a Ugaritic god and was borrowed by the Hebrews to use of their God. If I am not mistaken I belief the Bible Almanac by Packer, Tenny and White (circa 1981) also deal with this information.

Fourthly, even if it could be demonstrated to me that Hebrew monotheism evolved out of a prior Hebrew polytheism, and that J. was just one of many Gods in their pantheon who became the major god, this would not affect or damage my faith one iota. First, because we know that Abraham came out of a polytheistic culture. We know that the Hebrews, if they were in bondage in Egypt, probably were exposed to polytheism. We know Israel and Judah throughout their time as nations were largely polytheist. Every other day Israel fell away from God and worshiped other gods. It doesn't mean God was pleased, it doesn't mean the prophets condoned it, but they were polytheistic to a large degree at the "folk religion" level. It's only natural that they would borrow words from surrounding peoples. It may be disputed that they were ever in Egypt, there is a good chance that they just came up out of Canaanite culture. But they are so affected by the idea of slavery in Egypt, preserving it in their major ceremony for thousands of years, it seems obvious they were. But who are "they?" Israel took people not of their own blood when they left Egypt (according to the Exodus literature) and they picked up the Midionites along the way. They also absorbed Canaanites once they took over the land. So if a segment of Israel were descendents of Abraham and came through Egypt, they also had copious infusions of other bloods and other cultures and with that they would have much exposure to other Gods.

Moreover, it just doesn't matter if they were polytheistic. Logic tells us, courtesy of Occam, that one God is enough ("do not multiply entities beyond necessity"). We experience the divine at the "mystical" level, meaning beyond word, thought or image. To make sense of it we translate that into cultural constructs. This is the way it must be to even speak of these experiences. This means that we have one reality behind all religions; the rest is just a filtering process. This is basically what Paul is telling us (Rom 2:6-14; Acts 17-12-29). But the difference is Jesus was a real guy, not a cultural construct. Of course what we think about him is laden with many constructs, as needs must be. Jesus himself was not a metaphor and not a construct but a real guy. This is the crucial focal point of the Bible; it’s what makes it true and what makes it relevant. Everything else is just "fiddly bits." Many of the fiddly bits are not relevant to modern life. I grant him that. But it is not these aspects that make up a life of faith for the modern Christian.


Textual Criticism

Avalos attacks all the sub disciplines of Biblical studies, such as Biblical archeology. But I will only focus on Textual Criticism. Textual Criticism is central to the project of inerrancy, even though many Evangelicals mistrust it, because it’s the only way to recover the original reading. Evangelicals will often assert that the autographs (the original texts written by the author) were inerrant but some error has crept in of a minor sort due to scribal error. The problem is, if we don't have the original what good does it do to know that?

Avalos, however, argues that restoring the original is a hopeless task. He indicts the Masorectic text. This is the prototype for all modern texts of the Hebrew Scriptures; it was compiled between the fourth and eleventh centuries by Rabbis. The Masoretic text has many problems when compared to older texts found at Qumran (i.e. the Dead Sea Scrolls). (p 73)

In this section Avalos uses a lot of well-known evidence as though it were new and dramatic. He establishes the superiority of the Hebrew parent texts of the LXX over that of the Masoretic. This is common knowledge. The scholarly world as a whole has to embrace the idea that the Hebrews had multiple texts all of which floated around at the same time and it didn't bother them because they were not hung up on every single word being literally inspired. I have been arguing this for years. I myself have argued for the superiority of the LXX Hebrew parent texts for years.

James Sanders tells us:

"There are remarkable differences between the LXX and MT of 1 and 2 Sam., Jeremiah, Esther, Daniel, Proverbs and Ezekiel 40-48, and on a lesser level numerous very important differences in lesser books such as Isaiah and Job. Before the discovery of the Scrolls [Dead Sea] it was difficult to know whether most of these should be seen as translational, or as reflecting the inner history of the Septuagint's text, or all three. [sic?] Now it is abundantly clear that the second period of text transmission [which is BC], actually that of the earliest texts we have, was one of limited textual pluralism. Side by side in the Qumran library lay scrolls of Jeremiah in Hebrew dating to the pre-Christian Hellenistic period reflecting both the textual tradition known in the MT and the one in the LXX without any indication of preference. So also for 1 and 2 Sam." (James A. Sanders, Inter-Testamental and Biblical Studies at Clairmont, Cannon and Community, a Guide to Canonical Criticism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984, 15-16.)



Avalos winds up arguing for the impossibility of arriving at a final text. I wont go into the "ins" and "outs" of that argument. That would be too time consuming. A lot of what goes into Avalos arguments on textual criticism are really just stories about people's careers in connection with it, and the political games that professionals play in "the paper chase." They don't call it a "chase" for nothing. Really I don't see argument he makes that explodes the science of textual criticism, that aren't already made by textual critics. All one need do is study carefully the current struggle between the valiant little anti-Q faction, led by people like Mark Goodacre and the late Bill Farmer, vs. the rest of the scholarly world, to see those assumptions questioned all the time.

Avalos tells stories such as that of John Allegro (aka "the mushroom man"). Allegro was the only non-believer on the original Dead Sea Scroll committee. He wrote a wonderful little book called The Dead Sea Scrolls (circa around 1964). It had a lot of material that uses DSS material to dislodge conventions about Jesus and the nature of early Christian belief. When I was an atheist I found that little book and thought it was a gold mine of disproving the Bible. Then I went back to it in internet debate with Tovia Singer's Anti-missionaries, and found it to be a gold mine of Christian apologetics!

Avalos decries how the publication of subsequent works by Allegro about the early church as a secret mushroom cult (hallucinogenics) destroyed his career. But Avalos never comes to terms with the fact that it was not textual criticism or the injustice of the propaganda machine that ruined it for Allego--it was a stupid thesis. The things Allegro said about the early church that were DSS based didn't hurt his career. He really didn't say anything that damaging. But the thesis that the church was a mushroom cult was a wacky idea.

Be that as it may, it has nothing to do with textual criticism. But that's the kind of thing Avalos peppers throughout the book: a pervasive spin to conduct a hermeneutics of suspicion always casting a pall over the motives of believing scholarship.


But the issue is only important if we have to have every single word intact. I don't believe we need to reconstruct an original. It would be impossible to verify it anyway! One reason we don't find any textual fragments of Q, for example, is because people stopped copying it when it was incorporated into Matthew. The original copies just rotted away and thus Q no longer exits. The original autographs have probably rotted away, even from Revelation and later NT works. Thus we can never verify the original. But we should not have to. It doesn't matter. Salvation is not so fragile that unless we get every single word right we will go to hell. We the have the basic gist of Jesus' teachings, they are verified by the manuscripts, by the witnesses, by extra Gospel writers such as Paul**, and by the teachings of the so called "fathers."

Textual criticism is a valid science. It is not prefect, but anyone who thinks that means it can't be a science has never studied social sciences. I do consider sociology to be a science; it was my major as an undergraduate. If you can accept sociology as science, there is no reason not to accept textual criticism. What we have to do is to narrow the focus of what we expect to achieve with textual criticism. We don't need to recover the original text, and that doesn't need to be a goal.

Overall we have a tradition, a community. The community preserved the basic gist of the teachings. The need to fill in the fiddly bits is unimportant. That is what Luther called "Minutia." The Christian tradition is interactive, it has served as the basis of western culture, even modern thought. No issue in modern life is really devoid of some kind of Biblical influence, save highly technical things such as scientific research. But even in terms of modern science, the ethical ramifications are replete with Biblical issues: free will vs. determinism is just an updated version of free will vs. predestination. All struggles for political justice are foreshadowed in the exodus. All one needs do to, under the possibility of how a Biblical understanding interplays with modern intellectual life, is to read Bonhoeffer's Letter's And Papers From prison. He discusses the prophet Isaiah and philosophers Nietzsche and Hegel in the same breath with no trace of any kind of incongruity.

The living Christian tradition is informed by both its foundation in Biblical revelation and the precedence of interpretation by councils, popes, saints, theologians, philosophers, mystics and all manner of faithful from every walk of life. It is only if we have to see it as the tablets in stone that we have to reconstruct the originals. I don't think the Bible was ever meant to be the tablets God carved for Moses on the mountain. To understand the tradition we need to have the base, the foundation. Jesus is the foundation, and the Bible is the best framework in which to understand Jesus.

Avalos is isolating one aspect of the vast tradition, attaching a spin that would make suspect any motive, casting a pall over the works of believing scholars, and then declaring the whole thing irrelevant. In so doing he is supporting the trend which has ripped the heart out of western culture and seeks to destroy the inner life of modern humanity and create in its place Marcue's one-dimensional man.



**Helmutt Koester argues that Paul must have had one of the original saying sources available to him; he alludes to many of Jesus' teachings and events in the Gospels. Koester concludes that Paul either knew a narratival Gospel or tried to write one himself. See link above.

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: see here for the previous entry; and see here for the first entry of the series. (It explains what I'm doing, and how, and contains the Johannine prologue.)

Since some of the later chapters are long enough that I'll want to break them into two parts, I'm taking the opportunity to consolidate some shorter chapters here. These have some interesting plot-notes that I'll go ahead and include in the main entry rather than deferring them to comment entries below.


The Woman at the Well

Now Jesus had to pass through Samaria (says the Evangelist, meaning on Jesus' way to the Galilee region). So He came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the freehold which Jacob (one of the Hebrew patriarchs) gave his son Joseph.

[Plotnote: as far as I can tell, Jesus is actually going to Nazareth now, which lies on the border between the Samarian region and the Galilee region; after which, as the storytellers know, He will go up further into Galilee. If Jesus had gone upriver from where He had been baptizing in the Jordan, after the events of His first Passover ministry, to where John most likely was baptizing, at the place of 'many waters' near Aemon and Salim; then the shortest route from there to Nazareth (though not necessarily to Cana!) might easily be along a road winding along the western river branch to Sychar: remember, there is a place on the Jordan where the eastern river Jabbok and the western river leading to Sychar flow out of the surrounding hill country. Thus, many waters. Sychar stands a little past the headwaters of this western river--the name of which I haven't discovered yet, but which did exist (although it may not anymore.) In fact, the road might not follow this brook all the way, but cut west across a pass to Sychar. The town would be about 17 miles west from the Many Waters Triad, and maybe 4.5 miles south of the headwaters of this western river. From Sychar, a trail might go north (toward and along the hook of those headwaters) to Nazareth, or else Jesus might have had to go west a little further to the city of Samaria itself to find a road going north to the town He grew up in.

Also, if Andrew, Peter and/or John had been traveling with Jesus after their first meeting this far, they will now have been left with JohnBapt back at Aemon. Indeed, bringing them back to the Baptist, if he was working along the western fork of the Many Waters, would have been a good reason for taking this route at all. (However, I doubt Peter and John were with Jesus up to this point, based on data elsewhere in the Synoptics. The unnamed disciple might have been, though...) In any case, the geographial connections to Jesus’ movements, are interesting; though unstated, they do topically cohere in not-immediately obvious ways.]


Jacob's wellspring is there. So Jesus, being tired from His journey, was sitting by the well (on the curbstone). It was (adds the Evangelist) about 6 PM.

A certain woman of Samaria is coming to draw water.

Jesus is saying to her, "Give Me a drink"--for His disciples had gone on into the city to buy food (for the trip further north along the trail. These would be Nathanael and Philip at least.)

So the Samaritan woman says to Him: "How is it that you, being a Jew, are asking a drink from me--a Samaritan woman!?" For Jews (especially the Pharisees, whom Jesus kind of resembles) have no dealings with Samaritans (explains the Evangelist).

Jesus answered her, saying, "If you knew the generosity of God, and Who is saying to you 'Give Me a drink', you would ask Him--and He would give you living water."

She says, "Sir; you don't even have a bucket. And this well is deep. Where then do you get this 'living water'? You aren't greater than our father Jacob, are you?--who has given us this well, and drank of it himself, along with his sons and the cattle he fed."

Jesus replied, "Everyone who drinks of this water shall be thirsty again; but whoever may be drinking of the water I shall be giving, shall under no circumstances whatever be thirsting again--forever. The water I give, shall become in him a well of water springing up into God's own life."

The woman is saying in His direction ('toward' Him--perhaps over her shoulder while she's working): "Then give me this water, sir, that I may not be thirsting, nor coming out to this place to draw!"

[Plotnote: it should be probably noted that the prophetic reference Jesus is making, not only is to something God Himself would be fulfilling, but uses language-imagery that might be considered a bit risque! Considering the woman's character, and how friendly Jesus is being, there's a good chance she would think He was trying to flirt with her.]

Jesus says, "Go call your husband, and come back here." [Plotnote: which would put a stop to any impropriety on her part, or at least gently signal that He isn't trying to flirt with her.]

The woman replies, "Not a husband do I have." [Plotnote: a bit of a sigh to that!--and a possible attempt on her part to check if He's only checking about whether she's available.]

"You put that very well," says Jesus, "'I do not have a husband'... for you have had five husbands!--and the one you are 'having' now is not your husband! So, you have certainly spoken the truth."

"... ... Sir. I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers have worshiped on this mountain; but you (Jews) say the place we should worship is in Jerusalem."


[Plotnote: taking Him rather more seriously now! Jesus' kind humor about a touchy situation is probably helping, too.

At least two people-groups lived in this region, commonly known as the Samarians and the Samaritans. The former were pagans brought in to repopulate the region centuries earlier after the fall of the Northern Kingdom and the depopulation of ten of the tribes of Israel into exile. The Samaritans were the people they had intermarried with; Jews who still tried to worship God, but who were considered pagans for living and having families with the Gentiles. Mount Gerazim, near Sychar, was and still is a place for Samaritan Jews to worship God, rather than in the Temple at Jerusalem, especially once the original Temple fell centuries before Jesus' day. The Temple being used and referred to in the Gospel stories, was begun by Herod the Great and completed (though not finished) by his sons; and many Jews, including naturally the Samaritans, did not consider it to be a legitimate Temple of God. This was the source of much political and religious strife.

The Samaritan woman wants to know what kind of prophet He is--which side of this dispute is He on?]


Jesus tells her: "Woman, believe Me--an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem shall you be worshiping the Father.

"You are worshiping without really knowing what you are doing; whereas we do know what we are worshiping about--for salvation is of the Jews.

"However--an hour is coming... and even now is!... when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit, and in truth; for these are the kinds of people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is a Spirit; and those who are worshiping Him must worship in spirit and truth."

"... ... I have heard Messias is coming," says the woman, meaning He Who is called ho Kristos (adds the Evangelist for his audience, i.e. the Anointed, a royal title) "Whenever he should be coming, (it is said that) he shall be declaring all things to us."

Jesus says to her: "I am the speaker to you." ('ego eimi ho lalon soi'; possibly "I AM (is) the speaker to you")


.......

At this point (says the Evangelist), His disciples returned; and they marveled that He spoke with a woman! However, no one said to Him, "What are You doing!?" or "Why are You talking to her!?"

So the woman leaves her water pot, and goes into the city, saying to the people: "Come here! See this man who told me everything I have ever done! This is not the Anointed King--is it?" So they went out of the city and came to Him.

Now in the meanwhile, the disciples were insisting, "Rabbi--won't You have something to eat?"

But He said to them, "I have food to eat, that you don't know about."

So the disciples said to each other: "No one has been bringing Him food to eat... have they?"

Jesus tells them: "My food, is that I should be doing the will of the One Who sends Me, and should be perfecting His work!

"Do you not say, 'Still four months, and then the harvest comes?' Look! I am saying to you, lift up your eyes, and see the fields!--they are white for harvest already!

"He who reaps is receiving wages, and is gathering fruit for God's own life; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this case, the saying is true: 'Over here is the sower, over there is the reaper.'

"I commission you (therefore), to reap what you have not toiled; others have worked, and you have entered into their labor."


.......

So from that city (says the Evangelist), many of the Samaritans put their trust in Him, because of the word of the woman who testified, 'He told me all whatever I do!' And when the Samaritans came out to Him, they asked Him to stay with them--and He did stay with them a couple of days, with many more trusting Him because of His words, so that they now were saying to the woman, "We aren't only believing any longer because of what you have said, but because we have heard Him ourselves--and so we know: this truly is the Savior of the world, the Anointed King!"

And after two days, Jesus continued on up (all the way) into Galilee...

...for as Jesus Himself has testified, a prophet has no honor in his own country...


The (semi-)Triumphant Return

Now (says the Scholar) when Herod (Antipas, son of Herod the Great) the tetrarch (of Galilee, under the Roman occupation) was publicly denounced by John the Baptist, for what he had done concerning Herodias, the wife of his brother--as well as for all the other evil things he did--he added this above the rest: he locked up John in prison.

John had been saying (adds the Disciple) that it was not lawful for Herod to marry Herodias, who was the wife of Philip, his brother; and this is why Herod put John in chains. But although Herod wanted to execute him, he feared what the people would do--for they considered John to be a prophet.

It was after John had been delivered up into custody (the Follower agrees) that Jesus went back into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.

Now Jesus returned to Galilee (agrees the Scholar), being about 30 years old when beginning, and empowered by the Spirit. And His fame spread throughout the surrounding district; and He taught in their synagogues, being praised by all.

But He went to Nazareth (first), where He had been raised (as a boy)...


.......

That Sabbath-day (the Scholar tells us, taking up his turn of the tale), Jesus went to the synagogue, as was His custom; and stood up (by request) to read.

[Plotnote: the scholar’s account here shows, in a very abbreviated form, Jesus fulfilling the role of a traveling Sheliach Tsibbur, or delegate of the congregation. Such visiting preachers were highly popular in synagogues, and a number of interesting conventions grew up around them--some of which Jesus probably wouldn’t do, such as read from the Prophets in as quiet a voice as possible while someone standing nearby translated into the local vernacular for the audience. The two most important though unofficial elements, however, are key to the plot of this anecdote: the visiting preacher must be attractive to the audience; and under no circumstances must the visiting preacher criticize Israel.]

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Him; so, opening the scroll, He found where it was written (and so read aloud):

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me;
for this reason He anoints Me: to preach the good news to the poor!
He has commissioned and sent Me to herald a pardon to captives whose hearts are contrite,
healing them, and promising recovery of sight to the blind!
--to send free with a pardon those captives who have become crushed!
--to proclaim the year of acceptance and favor, of the Lord!


Then, furling the scroll and giving it back to the deputy (the attendant in charge of the synagogue's scriptures), He sits (in the teaching chair where a visiting preacher would conduct a question and answer session after the service)--with the eyes of all in the synagogue focused intently upon Him.

And to them He begins (the Q/A session) in saying: "Today, this Scripture is being fulfilled as you listen!"

The people were complimenting Him to each other, and wondering at His joyous words and manner; and they said, "Is this not Joseph's son?" [Plotnote: shallowly appreciating that Jesus has fulfilled the first unofficial requirement of a Sheliach Tsibbur; and evidencing the start of mere local pride in having such an accomplished speaker coming from their community.]

But He said to them, "No doubt, you now will quote this proverb to Me, 'Physician, heal thyself!' [Plotnote: not the full proverb but the “sting” of the it. The moral of the full proverb, known to later rabbis, too, could also be phrased, “Charity starts at home.” As Jesus proceeds to illustrate by his rephrasal...] 'Do for us here in your home town, what we have been hearing rumors about from Capernaum!' [Plotnote: remember, Jesus had chosen to go down to Passover, followed by His mother and brothers, with the caravan from Capernaum this year; not from the Nazareth staging area.]

"I tell you the truth: no prophet is welcome in his own town.

"Yet... I will say to you: on truth! --there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah (the greatest prophet-hero of Israel after Moses), when the sky was sealed, and for three years and a half a great famine covered the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a widow in Zarephath of Sidon. [Note: a 'pagan' town on the western Syria coast, just over the northern border from Israel.]

"And there were many lepers in Israel under Elisha the prophet (heir of Elijah); but none of them were cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." [Note: a Syrian military officer who had been staging raids into Israeli territory.]

Hearing these things infuriated everyone in the synagogue.

[Plotnote: Jesus has now violated the second unofficial requirement of a Sheliach Tsibbur: under no circumstances criticize Israel. Not incidentally, the portions of Isaiah excerpted in this anecdote, involve God announcing the freedom of Israel from punishment after their misbehavior--insofar as they are penitent. Jesus has exposed what they are being impenitent about. They don’t want God to be also caring for the oppressive pagan overlords and traditional enemies of Israel.]

So they rose up and cast Him out of the city, leading Him to a brow of the hill on which their city is built, in order to throw Him down the cliff (probably to stone Him to death afterward--similar to the injunction of Moses in the book of Numbers chp 15:35.)

But passing through them, He went away.

[Plotnote: the general image is of them hounding Jesus out of the settlement, surrounding Him in a protesting crowd. If Jesus follows a road around the brow of the hill, sooner or later He will either have to keep following the road around to the place where it goes down the hill to the south, or He’ll have to turn left and go north instead into Galilee--toward Cana, among other places. When the outcry starts to verge into actual threat, Jesus turns north “passing through them”, away from any incline nearby.

Geographically, three things should be remembered: first, we’re almost certainly talking about a small settlement near a watchtower traditionally placed on one of the two ends of the horsehoe-shaped slope down to a fertile plain and nearby road from the Mediterranean coast (leading to the Southern Galilee Lake region.) We aren’t talking about a large town, which would probably be nearby Sepphoris. Second, there’s been about 2000 years of erosion in the area, some of it intentional during subsequent military occupations, so the geography isn’t going to be quite what it used to be. Third, while traditionally people imagine some kind of great escarpment off of which Jesus would be tossed, that really wouldn’t be necessary for a mob to fulfill the injunction from the book of Numbers. A six or seven foot bluff would work fine; anything so that the crowd would be above the victim and able to throw stones.]


Matthew 4:12
Matthew 14:3-5
Mark 11:14
Luke 4:14-30
John 4:4-44


[Next time: the Nobleman, the King, and the First Night in a New Home]

I just finished reading Hector Avalos’s fascinating work, The End of Biblical Studies, in hopes that he will debate me. I will isolate what I think are three major issues that run through the theme of the book, and I will deal with them in three separate essays. These three issues are:


(1) The relevance of the Bible to modern life and culture.
(2) Several examples of the sub disciplines and how he thinks they have contributed to the illusion of relevance.
(3) His chapter “Unhistorical Jesus.”

The topic for this week is “relevance.” Dr. Avalos charges that the Bible has no relevance to modern life. Its value system is ancient and based upon a form of cruel feudalism that no longer applies in a post enlightenment world (my term, not his). The major worldview of the Bible is based upon ritual purity laws that really must be classified as pure superstition. The effect of these two aspects is an oppressive set of presuppositions that have stunted the progress of our own culture. In response to this situation Dr. Avalos lays out his major purpose:



(1) Modern Biblical Scholarship has demonstrated that the Bible is the product of cultures whose values and beliefs about the origin, nature and purpose of our world are no longer held to be reliant, even by most Christians and Jews.

(2) Paradoxically, despite the recognition of such irrelevance, the profession still centers in maintaining the illusion of relevance by:

(2a) a variety of scholarly disciplines whose methods and conclusions are often philosophically flawed (translation, textual criticism, archaeology, history and biblical theology); and

(2b) an infrastructure that supports biblical studies (universities and media publishing complex, churches and professional organizations.)



Ah, yes, the scandal and the shock that people who study the Bible tend to be religious, and organizations which support Biblical scholarship seem to do so for religious reasons--what is the world coming to?!

From here he moves into the explanation of what he means by irrelevance. We will see, however, that his major trick in this introduction is to play spin-doctor.

He places a spin upon Biblical interest such that: if you have any interest you are part of the propaganda machine maintaining the illusion of relevance; if you try to defend the relevance of the Bible you are part of this propaganda effort; and if you have no real knowledge or interest in the Bible then you prove the irrelevance of it, no matter how small the minority you represent may be.

Of course no evidence could ever count in favor of it! This is the major trick of Avalos’s style: everything is a trick, it’s all spin.


What does he mean by “relevance”? The major predication for this term is the value system espoused in the Old Testament. The Bible reflects an ancient world culture that we no longer understand. The values of the ancient Hebrews are no longer connected to anything modern people think or feel. (p 17) For the most part Avalos focuses upon practice rather than value. So he’s majoring in the fiddly bits, pointing to the ritual purity laws as examples. (Ibid.) He argues that lectionaries ignore such books as Joshua and Judges since they demonstrate a violent core of genocidal conquest (he quotes Michael Coogan, p 17). Then of course he has to rag on an ancient-world understanding of science and medicine. That’s such a natural for an atheist to pick on. Yes, they lived along time ago, God did not set up a modern medical school in the fertile crescent, what more proof do you need that there’s no God? He picks on the historicity of figures like Moses and David. (For my own opinions about their historicity, and its relevance to Biblical Relevance, see this page). Of course he alleges the lack of any independent evidence for the life or teachings of Jesus. (My own discussions of this can be found here). Thus, he asserts that we can’t really be following the teachings of Jesus (since we don’t know what they are). Wouldn’t you know it, here’s one of my favorite hobbyhorses: “Biblical authors generally believed that women were subordinate to men.” Did they now? Little does he know that he’s dealing with an egalitarian!The major swing in scholarship today Is not toward covering for the patriarchal assumptions of the past, but in uncovering the egalitarian dimensions of the Bible that have previously been missed by the egos of male expositors. Finally he castigates scholars for not being more forceful about the outmoded nature of ideas like creationism.

I can’t say I blame him on that last one, but why that means the Bible is irrelevant is beyond me. It seems more like that demonstrates that the Bible is in need of exposition, and the expositors are irrelevant. Avalos himself could be filling this need, but he chooses to conduct medicine-shows. Rather than offer a coherent understanding of why the Bible is irrelevant to modern life, Avalos has thrown up a smoke screen. At this point we do not know if irrelevance means we can’t use it, it’s scientifically wrong, we don’t believe it, it isn’t true, or what it means.

Clearly he is saying that modern culture no longer holds the values of the ancient world, but of course he’s treating the ancient world like one monolithic repository of obsolescence. It is safe to say that the values of the culture of First Temple (certainly pre-Temple!) Judaism were out of date and no longer shared by Jews in the Second Temple period, except for a core belief in the mighty acts of God in history and the law. No doubt attitudes and understandings were different in these periods. We know this for a fact since the Jews of Jesus’ day had been Hellenized. They had been exposed to internationalism in the form of Babylonian and Persian culture, too, but even that was an outmoded bygone era by the time of the Hellenists. The wisdom literature of the OT is as different form the early tribal pre-temple Mosaic literature as are Hawaiians from Mohawks. Yet the Jews of Jesus day still found the OT relevant.

My beef with Avalos is not so much that he says the values of the Bible are outmoded, or that the attacks the worldview of the Bible as being based upon pre-scientific superstitions and mythologies. I agree with all of that. In fact, I will go one better and point out that the purity laws of the OT are basically taken from foreign cultures and based upon sympathetic magic!

The problem is we do not need to find the relevance of the Bible in laws that, at the very foundation of Christian theology, are seen as obsolete, and are taught to be so even in Christian scripture (e.g. Rom 4, Gal 3). We have a host of fine theologians who have maintained a living tradition; these people have spoken the OT into relevance in modernity many times. Avalos acts as though Reinhold Niebuhr never existed.

But this maintenance requires deep thinking. Avalos is willing to sleep, to slough off, to give up, and to actually promote others’ laziness in thinking about these things. Any attempt to demonstrate relevance prompts his hermeneutic of suspicion: the relevance seekers are part of the propaganda machine. He tries to create a catch-22 in which the believer is always in a double bind.

From the irrelevance of Biblical thought he moves to the general ignorance of the population. (pp 17-18) He sites Gallop polls: seven in ten Americans say they are Christian, but only four in ten know that Jesus gave the "sermon on the mount." Only 27% of UK seminary students could accurately trace the Biblical time line. (pp 18-19) He quotes Theologians such as Daniel J. Estes saying that aspects of the Bible are irrelevant, but of course Avalos doesn't show the context--in which that quote actually means that we need more people to learn the Bible because they are missing the relevance.

Or, if they stick up for the relevance, they are part of the propaganda machine that props up the illusion. He doesn't acknowledge any sort of possibility that people who actually think deeply and learn about it could come up with a few honest issues where it is relevant.

Moreover, the way he butchers the concept of the religious a priori makes me wonder if he knows anything about religion at all. He offers no data, no evidence, no logic, nothing of any kind other than mere suspicion in the true tradition of fascistic political correctness. By that, I mean that in trying to deflect the possibility of religion itself being intrinsically meaningful, he sites hostile reductionists who merely refuse to believe, dogmatically, that religion is valuable (Russell McCutcheon’s Manufacturing Religion and Timothy Fitzgerald); who merely suspect that the religious a priori is a gimmick designed to keep religion going. Of course Avalos has no data; these "prominent scholars of religion", as he calls them, have no data, and no logical reason other than that speaking of the religious a priori actually does help keep religion going so that must be all it’s good for.

Here he's pulled off a little bait-and-switch. In the case of McCutcheon he's mainly talking Eliade and history of religion. He’s not talking the religious a priori at all. (Avalos uses the term Sui Generis--meaning that it is good in itself--the Westernmister Dictionary of Christian Theology uses the term "religious a prori" but either is correct, they come to the same thing.) McCutcheon’s is not an argument about challenging the validity of the feeling of utter dependence for example. On the other hand Fitzgerald is not talking about this either. Both are making professional critiques of their disciplines. They are not saying that religion as a metaphysics or an ontology has no value. They are basically talking about studying them as science. Now, that is a valid goal; but it is something we have to discuss in a different context. That is a very different matter from saying that actual religious belief is of no value.

While I'm sure that unbelieving religious studies people who detest Christianity would and do attack religious experience of the kind Maslow discussed, they have no data. There are no studies that counter Ralph Hood's "M scale" or Maslow's Peak Experience. The M scale does have good data verifying it, which is why it is the major instrument used to study religious experience. This data in and of itself proves the meaningful nature of religion intrinsically and the meaningful nature of studying religion in some sense. There is no counter data. The only thing the naysayers have going for them is their cynicism.

Avalos tries to hitch his fortunes to success of Reaganite propaganda, yet at the time distance himself from its right wing implications. He merely demonstrates that the atheistic movement of today is nothing more than a one-dimensional totalizing hegemony bent on destruction of the inner life.

...Our work is part of the proliferation of books preoccupied with the finality of different aspects of human experience. Perhaps the most famous recent example is Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (2000) the most famous recent example, in which he argued that liberal democracy constitutes the "end point of mankind's ideolgoical evolution..." history ends when a stasis in the development of new ideas is reached. (p 25)


So he's at the cusp of the mega trend; the future belongs to Avalos. Avalos, Avalos, uber alis!

But what is rich is that in trying to set himself apart from the Reaganite implications of linking with Fukuyama, he demonstrates that his view is just another approach to, as Dyan put it, "sleepy time down south." He castigates Howard Clark Kee for arguing that we need a two-tier approach to Biblical studies, one for Laymen and one for scholars: "What is being proposed here is nothing short of paternalistic deception." (p 24) Then he takes to task Richard Horsley for wanting to preserve religious studies as a means of critique against imperial power; quoting another critic of Horsley he says "substituting his own hegemonic view of what he deems religious studies should be for what he deems inadequate." (p 26)

So wanting to make things better is paternalistic? Of course, Avalos also lays down his own view of what would be better in Biblical studies:

Biblical studies should be geared toward helping humanity wean itself of the Bible and toward terminating its authority completely in the modern world. Focus could then shift to the still thousands of other ancient texts still untranslated and unread.


But he's not being hegemonic? He has his own view of what we need and he's going to tear down our inner lives to give it to us, for our own good, but he's not paternalistic. Thank lack of a God for that! Of course, the other ancient world texts won’t be weird or alien and won’t contain value systems oppressive or opposed to modernity; like sacrificing children to Baal, now there's a value we can all get behind.

But Avalos knows he's hegemonic. He admits so!

...Rather than pretend that I am not hegemonic, I hold that (1) all world views, even those that claim pluralism, are hegemonic because they inevitably seek power over those that have a nonpluralistic world view; (2) a pluralistic religious hegemony is a politically expedient means to persuade people to adopt a secular humanist hegemony. (p 26)



What does this double talk mean? It means "I know I'm a hypocrite, but I'm an honest hypocrite so support my view because I want my piece of the pie!” He thinks his honesty will gain him slack on the hegemonic thing, but all it really means is, he too is paternalistic. He means his hegemony for the good (unlike us Christians of course who just want to hurt people) so that means he's being paternalistic. Avalos wants his place in the sun; and so he's asking us to destroy everything that is meaningful about being human.

The relevance of religious belief and experience is demonstrated empirically by hundreds of studies. There are no counter studies. We are born with a sense of God consciousness; our brains are wired for it. Those who have religious experiences such as Maslow's "Peak Experience" find
vast advantages across the board: more self-actualization, better physical health, less depression, better mental health, better integration into society, much higher sense of purpose and meaning, much higher sense of loss of fear of death. This is demonstrated through
hundreds of empirical studies.

That is relevance of the highest order.

Relevance is where you find it. It's true that the "fiddly bits" of the Bible are not relevant in modernity (the ritual purity laws, the tendency to promote war, slavery, etc.) The ritual purity laws of the Hebrews are not relevant unless one is studying to be a Rabbi. The Genesis creation story is not relevant scientifically in the modern age. Sorry to disappoint any creationist readers of the CADRE, (of course Layman and BK would urge me to say this is my view not necessarily that of all the group) but that's the way I see it. But so what? The Bible isn't supposed to be a science textbook. We have modern science for that. Just because we don't need to turn to the Bible to understand the natural process of the development of life on Earth doesn't mean the Bible is worthless. It means it's relevant in a different way. It is relevant as mythology, because mythology is based upon the manipulation of archetypes and that speaks to the psyche in a powerful way (see Campbell, Hero With A Thousand Faces.)

Avalos is banking on the idea that most people are too lazy to seek out what that way is. Relevance is where you find it, and if we find the Bible to be relevant then it is so. Why are we seeking to take our clues about relevance from a guy who thinks Shakespeare has no intrinsic value? Shakespeare is the most profound writer in the English language and one of the most acute observers of human nature. His themes are universal. Avalos seems not to know the difference between ancient and timeless. Universal themes are timeless.

Of course, we don't find timeless themes in the Bible? Minorities struggling for freedom and trying to find their place in the world; those who are past their prime and giving up on their dreams finding new hope; the courage of a family to seek truth in the unknown; a man who works for years to obtain his goal, only to be cheated out of it and given something else, but who continues to work again to obtain it; sibling rivalry, love, honor, betrayal, forgiveness, redemption. None of that is in the Bible!

Or maybe none of those things matter--those are all inner life things, we need to stop that inner life because it's not quantified and we can't have certain knowledge about it.

Relevance is where you find it; and two billion people on Earth find it in the Bible. True, many of them don't understand much about the Bible, but they know that "love your neighbor as yourself" and "for God so loved the world" get them through their Mondays. There is no greater test of relevance.

Of course Avalos might accept greeting cards with nice little Bible verses, but the identity politics PC crowd he seeks to placate would not allow one to have an inner life of intellectual nature where one studied the world and made her/his own judgments of it.

Those of us who came up in the 60s want that. If we find little niceties in the Bible we should seek to understand it better. Understanding it in the historical and cultural context of his day, and seeking to translate its values into modern parlance, is simply the job of theologians. This is one of the main tasks of outfitting one's intellectual life as a Christian--and Avalos has no right to squawk. On the contrary, that's what he should be doing, too, as the bearer of the knowledge!--but instead he uses that mantel to destroy the source.


But let us back up and address the major issue, which laces Avalos's introduction, as well as his article to the SBL, and I suspect much of Avalos's work. That is the issue of values. The Bible teaches old outmoded values; it offers examples of slaughter and genocide and slavery, so says Dr. Avalos.

Of course, as a good liberal Christian I would seek to understand those things in context and to understand the ancient in context of the contemporary. Not only Avalos but most atheists I see on the net, want us to believe that these passages in the Bible not only legitimize social oppression but that they actually cause it!

I will argue that this is not only untrue, it is empirically disproved. In fact I will argue that the Bible is always of great social relevance because it has always spurred social consciousness and reform. These are matters of historical fact.


We know that the civil rights movement was largely motivated by the Bible. Civil rights workers tapped into an old tradition, very much at the core of the abolition movement, that found the Bible not a source of oppression but of encouragement and liberation. They did not call the major Civil rights organization "The Southern Christian Leadership Conference" for nothing! The major figure in the Civil Rights movement was not a minister for nothing. The link between the Bible and liberation goes way back, in the history of liberalism (first abolition group in America, Pheobe Palmer and the Methodist Woman's Association--same people did the first Women's Suffrage group in America) but also in the history of American social justice. But have we forgotten the Baragan brothers? Christianity and the Bible were a big influence upon the anti-war movement in the 60s as well. In fact we can find historically that Christianity has influenced and led to reform, revolution, and radical movements throughout history.

From Joachim of Flora and his thirteenth century revolt of the poor, to sixteenth century peasant revolts in south Germany, to the folks at Lo Chambo (who hid Jews from the Nazis and some of them died doing that--where Camus stayed when the wrote his great novel Le Peste--but I'm sure Avaols would find that of no intrinsic value, being literature and all.) The Ranters, the Levelers, The Diggers, the Quakers--all were revolutionaries or social activists inspired by the bible. Read the Journal of John Woolman to see how this major voice in the early abolition movement was inspired by the Bible. Also consult William Wilburforce, and the abolitionists of the early nineteenth century as well.

Avalos's arguments are themselves totally irrelevant, because he ignores liberation theology as though it doesn't exist. I was a seminary student and (if I do say so myself) a very active political activist in the Central America Solidarity Movement of the 80s. I can tell you liberation theology was a major movement of the day, and the Bible was a source of its inspiration. Liberation historians demonstrate that the Christian left is very old, and it has been involved in every movement in every time period including the beginning of Imperial Christianity, when Olympia the Deaconess gave away her family fortune to free slaves (Constantinople of the 300s). Most people begin to date liberation theology with the radical priests of the `60s. If they know the history of the modern movement, they begin with CLAMB and Christians for Socialism in the `50s. If they are really historically minded, they start with A Theology for the Social Gospel, by Walter Rauschenbusch. But, Rauschenbusch, while he could be viewed as a forerunner, and while he called himself a "Christian Socialist," may really represent the end of an older tradition of Christians in the labor movement of the late 19th century (his work was written in 1917). Those who came before him, in the labor movement, represent a vast movement of religiously minded reformers with antecedents in the Second Great Awakening, much of which Hudson documents. (Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion In America: A Historical Account of the Development of American Religious Life. Second ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965, 1973, 310-315.). Enrique Dussel uncovers a long history, far more indepth than we have time for here.

The point is that the "religious left", including all forms of Christian socialism, and left-leaning social reformers, is very old and represents a whole world unto itself. It is well worth learning, and demonstrates the irony and tragedy of the current climate in the academy, a climate in which academics would rather feed their urge to bash religion rather than create a dialogue with thinkers who have access to a vast tradition they themselves know little about. (History and the Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1976). Another excellent source is Smith's book on revivalism (Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War. Baltimore, London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957, 129-80.)

While many conservative readers of the CADRE may feel that they have another side to the issues of the Central America movement, one thing we can both agree upon, weather for good or ill: a large part of the support given the FSLN (National Sandinist Liberation Front--the "Frente", the dreaded "Sandinistas") and those who took part as Nicaraguans in that movement, drew their inspiration from their Christian faith.

For a strong sense of the crucial nature of religion to the struggle in Latin America see Penny Lernoux's book, (Penny Lernoux, Cry of The People. Penguin Books, 1982. 29-30). Let us remember priests such as Father Camillio Torres, who was the first priest, but not the last, to take up arms in the struggle. He died in Colombia in 1966. His example sparked much interest in liberation movements throughout Latin America. For a look at religious involvement in the Nicaraguan revolution in particular, see Margaret Randal, Sandino's Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle. (Vancouver, Toronto: New Star books, 1981.) The example of Thomas Borge in Nicaragua, the FSLN Minster of Interior, is awe-inspiring in that he confronted the torturer who tortured him and killed his wife. He forgave the man and let him live because Borge had become a Christian and read in the Bible to turn the other cheek and forgive. Nothing is more touching than the letter he wrote to Father Ernesto Cardinal about his new found faith. Borge was the leader of the FSLN, the "Sandinistas" in Nicaragua. He was one of the first to help start the Sandinista party. Some might argue that his commitment to religious belief was mere propaganda; but, while he was yet a guerrilla on the run in the mountains, he sent for a priest (Ernesto Cardinal, later to become a member of the Sandinista party). He wished to discuss religion with the priest. The simple note he sent is one of the most moving documents of the Latin American struggle.

"I knew a God who joyfully rang the church bells and dressed up when General Somoza visited León... a God who forgave the heavy sins of the rich... I slew that God without mercy within my conscience. It would seem, however, that God does not wish to die. In the jungles of Colombia there has been a new Bethlehem. Camilio Torres told us before dying, or perhaps told us in dying. Father I await you..."


The priest made his way through the mountains to talk with the revolutionary, and the Nicaraguan revolution kicked in the womb. (Andrew Reding, Christianity and Revolution: Tomás Borge's Theology of Life. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987.) Liberation Theology was spreading to South Korea and all of Asia as the Berlin wall came down. (see James H. Cone, Minjung Theology: People as the Subjects of History. ed. by the Commission on Theological Concerns of the Christian Conference of Asia. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1981)


I have no problem with finding more scholars to read more ancient texts that are now being ignored. The study of the Bible is not forcing anyone away form such study. Dr. Avalos himself could have chosen to spend his time studying these texts--then we would be enlightened by his brilliant scholarship!

People are ignorant of the Bible; we need more scholars to teach it. Ignoring the Bible is not the answer. The Bible is not all there is to the Christian tradition. Christianity is a living tradition, with many sources, not the least of which is one's own inner life. The inner life consists of prayer, but also intellectual understanding, literacy, and not just how to read the labels of aspirin bottles but an understanding that there is a world of letters. I cannot abide academics who hate the world of letters. This is the essence of the one-dimensionalizing tendencies of atheism and reductionism that the PC crowd have taken up--and Avalos is their spokesperson. They want to further one-dimensionality at the expense of Western culture. The Bible is at the heart of Western culture. Avalos wants to persuade us that Biblical values are ancient-world and thus foreign to us, but they are the heart of our culture. All of our modern values are the grandchildren of Biblical values. Democracy; autonomy; selfhood; the individual; basic human rights; humane treatment of the poor; worker's rights; even modern science--it all comes out of the Christian tradition.

Arnold J. Toynbee observed that Christianity freed humans from the cyclical understanding of time. Christianity made “history” in the modern sense possible. Ancient paganism, the texts with which Avalos wants to replace Biblical studies, would not have allowed us progress in history, or even a modern concept of history at all; they were focused upon the eternal return of the god/goddess from winter to spring. The same things over and over again. But Jesus died and rose once for all, and then we venture forward in time toward an eschatological horizon. There will be no end of history. History will continually sublate itself until the final and once for all return of Christ.

We can make progress. But we can only make progress if we remember who we are and where we came from. We cannot abandon the inner, the world of books and letters, our ability to think, faith in God, or our understanding of culture as it was and as it will be. This makes the Bible far more relevant than anything, and it means that people with Ph.D's in Biblical studies have an awesome responsibility: a responsibility to promote the world of letters, not to abort it. One is called to teach, not to persuade the student to give up learning. We need to learn more about the Bible. We need to talk up the Bible, we need to educate people on it, and we need to help students develop their own little worlds lined with books so they can understand the interrelationship between the Bible and the culture. I fear this is something for which many of our modern teachers are not equipped.

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.

This entry continues a fourth chapter, begun here. I highly recommend reading at least as far back as this, first.]



It seems to me (as an initial expectation, based on my previous considerations), that every 'real' belief requires an acted inference of some sort on the part of the believer; although the exact inference may not be what the believer claims it is with respect to the belief.

In other words, I question whether there can be any such thing as a real belief that is irrational (in the very limited sense I am using of ‘irrational’.)

As I roll on the ground in delirium after being snakebit, I might be muttering "Snake... in hole..." But that doesn't necessarily mean I actually 'believe' it: because I might not be conscious. The sounds coming out of my mouth might be the same type of non-intended effects-by-association which produced my delirium in the first place.

Dentists and some other physicians (or people like myself who have undergone special forms of anesthesia) know quite well that a human can be unconscious yet still respond to sensory stimulus in a manner not entirely different (but still somewhat different) from how the person might consciously respond. This can even include an anesthetized person answering questions. Yet the person is not conscious; he is purely reacting, not initiating events. Memory artifacts which happen to be processed during this period for retrieval later, might give that person some data to draw inferences from and thus to form beliefs later; but I do not see how the unconscious person as an 'unconscious' person can have a real 'belief' connected to his statement. [See first comment below for a footnote here.]

Similarly, a parrot can react to the environment (given proper prior conditioning) so that it responds with words which have some 'meaning' in connection with the keywords used as stimulus. An unconscious human, having a brain with better capabilities of that sort and a lifetime of already-ingrained habits, could be expected to respond more efficiently as an unconscious entity than the parrot.

But the parrot doesn't have a 'belief about what it is saying'. It might be able to consciously infer that it will get food if it replies correctly to the sensory stimulus, but that is not the same as believing what it is saying. [Footnote: my sceptical reader will probably know of some politicians and religious leaders, who consciously understand they’ll be well fed if they say certain things, but who do not believe what they are saying...!]

Many people would deny the parrot is conscious in any way, and most people would deny it is conscious of what the words mean as human language (rendering it effectively unconscious in that limited respect). Therefore, it either cannot have beliefs about the ideas expressed as English language contained in the words, or if it does it will be by accident. [See second comment below for a footnote here.]

A very few people might suggest the parrot 'believes' what it is 'saying'; but if so, the corollary to this would be that the parrot is conscious of what it is saying and is actively drawing inferences from that conscious perception.

I might even be willing to agree that this happens in the case of particular parrots! But the parrot's belief depended on its conscious perception of the meaning, and a parrot unconscious of the meaning (either by being ignorant of the meaning although otherwise capable of inferences, or by being utterly unconscious and thus completely reactive) could not have a belief linked to the content of the phrase, as such. It would be a contradiction to claim otherwise.

Not only do I therefore think that beliefs certainly can be produced by reasoning (which leaves the door open for me to continue, even without this extension to my chapter); but my further (somewhat more speculative) opinion is that every belief requires a train of reasoning in order to exist.

And 'every belief' includes 'religious belief'.

It seems to me unlikely (even contradictory) that beliefs can really exist without reasoning; therefore, I certainly want my beliefs to have the best reasonings possible (within the limitations of my capabilities, of course.) I have made some effort to discover what other people have tried in this venue, and to puzzle out for myself as much as I can.


Some philosophers, however, would admit much of what I have said above, yet still deny that beliefs necessarily require reasoning. A fideistic theist (for instance) would claim that the sheer action of asserting to a proposition entails a belief; she would reject all support as spurious and debatable, and perhaps even unbecoming the dignity due to God.

Some of my brethren might think this sounds just fine! But notice I said all support. The dedicated fideist would reject scriptural support as well--including doctrines drawn from or backed by Scripture.

Most of my Presuppositionalistic fellow-believers would at least say "I believe God has such-n-such characteristics because the Bible tells me so, or because such a presupposition is the only way that a non-crashing reality (or at least certain aspects of reality) could exist."

But the fideist would reject both of these supports. She flatly asserts God's existence; she denies (at least for as long as she remembers the implications of her stance) that any definite characteristics of God can be discovered through any means. She would say that even His existence cannot be discovered; and that even she has not 'discovered' it. She would say she purely asserts it, without proof, argument, or even evidence. [See third comment below for a footnote here.]

There are several reasons for a person to choose fideism. She might have been exposed to numerous strong counterarguments involving every support to her theism, and so to ‘protect her belief' she renounces all supports other than flat assertion.

Or, she might advocate one of the theories about the unfeasibility of reasoning-to-God that I have been discussing during the previous chapters, and take such a stance to the ultimate conclusion that no reasoning at all can support theism (so if she is going to remain a theist, she must abandon all supports).

Relatedly, if by taking a faith/reason disparity to its ultimate end she decides that faith must mean pure assertion, then she would reject anything except pure assertion.

She might also choose this path because she wants to recognize God's glory and/or believes the highest level of trust (or similar personal relationship with God) involves 'faith without any supports'. But remember, 'without any supports' means without Scriptural support, too, as far as the robust fideist is concerned.

There could well be other reasons to be a fideist. My goal here is not to launch ripostes against every possible reason to be a fideist. That isn't necessary, because every fideist stance has an intrinsic problem that transcends particular reasons for being a fideist:

The fideist invariably has reasons for choosing to be a fideist.

In essence, the fideist has the same problem as a more traditional 'faith-only' theist: both groups have particular beliefs about God (and religion in general) which are based on inferences they have drawn--their beliefs are in fact derived through reasoning. Indeed, a fideist may have long recognized the hidden inferences that a more traditional 'faith-not-reason' advocate doesn't recognize he himself has. What she then does (provided this is the particular path to fideism she follows), is draw an inference from the unintentional error of her fellow-believer to the conclusion that she must rid herself of what is obviously yet another reason to accept God's existence and character (for example, "the Bible tells me so").

But in doing so, she has still grounded her belief through a chain of inferences herself.

For instance: "If faith should be kept separate from reason, and if I discover that traditional faith-not-reason positions actually use reasons, then I should also renounce those reasons." But her 'if-then' is itself an inferential path and so is itself a 'reason' to be a fideistic theist rather than some other kind of theist.

The attempt must fail: no matter how well-intended the fideist may be, she cannot successfully argue that our beliefs and attitudes toward God should not and/or cannot be grounded on reasons--because she will be tacitly ignoring the chain of reasoning that led her to her own attitude and belief about God (including the inferences which led her to accept a faith/reason disparity in the first place).

Other routes to fideism carry the same intrinsic fallacy, although the expression of the fallacy will differ according to the path taken. Of course, having gotten to fideism, our philosopher (she would probably not consider herself as having anything to do with 'religion' in a 'real' fashion, although she might still appreciate it aesthetically) could make a blanket raw assertion of being "a fideist"--a "believer in God", per se.

But I think 99% of the time she will find herself explaining to the non-fideist why she is a fideist and perhaps even why the non-fideist should also reject all support of God's existence. And this immediately undercuts her position at the most fundamental of levels: by claiming God's existence and character cannot be discovered by reason, she herself makes a positive characteristic claim about God which she almost always will try to justify by showing her reasons for that stance.


What about my hypothetical 1% of fideists who refuse to give any reasons at all for being a fideist?--who, when asked "Why do you hold this belief?" respond "There is no why; I just do."

I know this cannot help but sound insulting to them, but I am not sure these 'hyperfideists' have a 'belief' either in or about God at all.

To begin with, when other topics are discussed I see very clearly that sheer assertions are not necessarily beliefs. I can quite easily assert "The sun and all the stars revolve around the earth" without believing it myself.

And if an assertion is not necessarily a belief, how am I to agree that a hyperfideist does have a belief? A further discussion beyond the flat assertion requires some kind of inferential analysis, which means a justification on the part of the fideist. But the extreme fideist will not provide any justification, because she understands perfectly well that such an act would undercut her claimed position of 'faith without justification'. But without some kind of inferential train to follow, I have no way of discerning whether her flat assertion reflects some kind of a belief on her part or not.

Second, a belief must have content; propositions must be accepted. A fideist's position either has content, or it does not (and with no content there simply is no position). Typically the fideist has one content to her belief: God exists. [Footnote: actually, she would claim another content as well, although the claim might be only implicit: God is such that no reasoning about God can reach true conclusions.]

But existence is a positive characteristic, even if the most basic of characteristics. Why stop there? Why not make other assertions?

The fideist will say she can have no grounds for making those other assertions. But then, she can have no grounds (specifically as a fideist) for asserting God's existence, either. If she refuses to assign other characteristics to God because no grounds can be sufficient for those characteristics, why does she assign the characteristic of 'existence'?

If she follows the actual implications of her position, she ends either with a mere zero (indistinguishable from atheism in all but name) or with an ultimately arbitrary set of characteristics (even if that set only contains one characteristic: existence. Plus the tacit characteristic of ‘no reasoning about God can reach true conclusions, of course.) If the propositions are arbitrary, then what use is it to say she 'believes' them?

She has no grounds for belief and she restricts content for the belief in a fashion that, if rigorously applied, ends with the removal of even the characteristic of 'existence' from her idea of God. Thus, what she calls her 'belief' is either utterly alien to any concept of 'belief' I can understand or even imagine; or else she is fudging, whereupon she might as well try to figure out as much as she can of God's characteristics by reasoning.


And that leads me to one more conclusion about fideism: if it is held rigorously as fideism, it is inaccessible to other people. In fact, technically it should have been inaccessible to our fideist, too! But given (for sake of argument) she has reached that point, the content of her position (such as it is) renders further cogent discussion impossible--or else, not without cheating a bit.

At the very best, if fideism is correct, it is impossible for someone not a fideist to know it is correct (I would say it is also impossible for the fideist herself to know it is correct, as long as she sticks to the implications of her assertion); and therefore I cannot be faulted (on that ground at least) for continuing to derive and reinforce my (and other people's) beliefs about God through reasoning.


There is one possible fideist 'justification' (I know no other apt description for it) which could also be held by other philosophers, be they religious or not: if an ultimately transcendent God does exist, then it would be arrogant fatuity for me, or any other thinker, to claim that particular characteristics of God can be known or at least discovered.

I have plenty of sympathy for this view, because I do believe in God's ultimate and infinite transcendence. At least, I accept that unless we are discussing that type of God, we are not yet discussing supernaturalistic theism. [See fourth comment below for a footnote here.]

The question here is whether God's characteristic(s) as an Ultimate Being necessarily prevent us from discovering any positive characteristic about Him. And I immediately point my reader back to an earlier discussion of mine on this topic: whoever holds this position must have discovered at least one positive characteristic about God--He is such that no other positive characteristics may be discovered. Otherwise, if characteristics are merely asserted, then we are only playing word games about we-cannot-say-what, and we might as well become atheists.

My simple assertion "God exists" does not make God exist. Nor does any reasoning I do about God, of course; but then, I am looking to discover particular characteristics of God (characteristics I have not invented) through this process. The sheer asserter does not claim to be discovering any facts about God--she is only asserting them. But one of the things the sheer asserter is sheerly asserting, is that no reasoning can discover attributes of God. If there is no defense for this position (and by its own character there can be no defense) then I may safely continue.

But does this absolve me from the arrogance of claiming I can discover something about God? Yes; or at least I will be no more arrogant than the fideist who either has discovered one particular fact about God ('no other particular fact may be discovered') or who sheerly asserts this proposition as being itself a fact.

Personally, I would consider the sheer assertion of anything, to be potentially more arrogant (if we must talk of such attitudes) than any process of potential discovery, which at least might be qualified (as I try to constantly do in my own work). I certainly think a person, be she sceptic or believer, might possibly humbly search out a trail where it leads without forcing the issue. The discovery of God's existence and attributes (even the discovery of God's non-existence, if that is where the evidence leads) need not necessarily be an exercise in prideful self-acclimation.

[Next week: a return to religious belief and reasoning]

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