A God by Any Other Name: Part 2 Critique of Hector Avalos's "End of Biblical Studies"

[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.


Jason Pratt said…
{{I do not represent the standard view of the CADRE on this issue.}}

Incidentally, I am not aware of any regularly posting member of the Cadre who holds to the supreme kind of verbal plenary inerrancy that you're describing Avalos being so straw-mannish about. In fact, I'd be willing to bet a significant proportion of our contributors (maybe even more than half) do not consider themselves inerrantists at all. The others, so far as I know, are soft inerrantists at most.

Profession of belief in the statements of the Nicene Creed is the sole doctrinal requirement for contribution membership in the Cadre, and even that (as we can both testify {g}) has a certain amount of leeway built into it. (Otherwise we'd all be Roman Catholics, for example.) Inerrancy of any kind (soft, hard, chewy, whatever {g}) is not an explicit requirement of the Nicean Creed, or any of the orthodox Big Three Creeds for that matter (Apostles', Nicean, Chalcedonian trinitarian faith statement). The Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets is as close to a doctrine about scripture itself as the Nicean Creed gets.

Still, thanks for pointing out that your views on this may not represent the beliefs of all Cadre members; that's (most likely) true enough, and it was a polite and necessary thing to do.

Jason Pratt said…
Note: the Statement of Faith attested to by all contributing members can be found here, and is the Nicene Creed (though it isn't called that on this page.) The asterisk, which for some reason doesn't have a reference explanation on this page, marks where the filioque (i.e. "and from the Son") would be appended by most of us, because most of us profess the Western communion of orthodoxy. However, as an ecumenical group we recognize that Eastern and Western communions would both agree at least on procession of the 3rd Person from the Father; consequently we agree to set aside that distinction for membership purposes (though we retain the right to write about the distinction where we believe it is relevant in apologetics for orthodoxy generally: I've done so here myself, among other places.)

Jason Pratt said…
Btw, it does in fact matter in modern as well as 'primitive' societies, that a goat not be boiled in milk while cooking--not without a whooooooooooole lot of safety preparations to prevent infection, anyway; which any primitive society would not be in a position to attain.

In fact, those obscure and apparently irrelevant "purity laws", ended up (in their 'kosher' form) being a starting point for modern FDA regulations (and their Western 1st World counterparts in other countries), which food preparation services here in America are expected to toe the line on. Even in Detroit. {s!}

I read a colorful (frankly too colorful) reference book last year on the relevance of OT purity laws to modern day nutritional studies and federal codes. The overly earnest evangelical tone can be hard to plow through (it often reads like an extended Sunday school tract), but there was a lot of interesting stuff in it. I'll see if I can hunt up an Amazon ref on it tomorrow.

There are some members who are very much verbal pleanry kind of people, but as you say they don't post on the blog. DB and Layman have what I would term pretty rational views, but they are more conservative than I. Not that there's anything wrong with that. ;-)
I've heard that stuff about OT purity laws all my life. I did argued that against someone from the DC crowd, recently.But I tackle that sort of problem; big amazing puzzles that prove the bible. I think it hat to have big amazing puzzles to be valid. It probably does have a few, but I don't mess with them.

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