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Humean Inconsistency

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I once thought David Hume's reasons for being skeptical about scientific laws were inconsistent with his arguments against miracles. He argues that we can't know about scientific laws or causes, because all we perceive are one thing happening followed by another thing happening. We don't perceive any causing, just the things we take to be cause and effect. Our taking it to be cause and effect is thoroughly irrational, Hume says, and thus we know nothing about whether there are any causes or scientific laws. For all we know, a ball you throw into the air could come back down, as you expect it, or it could turn into a bird and fly away. We expect it to do the former, but there's no reason we have to think it can't do the latter.

Hume goes on to say that we should never believe in miracles, because you should always proportion your belief to the evidence, and there is zero evidence for miracles. He rules out the very possibility of miracles, it seems, and he does this in the very same work where he has spent so much time setting up worries about whether our entire scientific understanding of the world might be wrong, leaving us with the result that, for all we know, basketballs might turn into seagulls and fly away. How can he consistently say both of these things?

But then I read Hume more closely in subsequent readings, and I came to the conclusion that Hume's approach is consistent after all. What he says in his skepticism about science is that we don't know there are scientific laws of the sort that we believe in if we think one thing makes another happen. He also says that, for all we know, unexpected things that would seem to violate the laws of physics that we believe in could be possible. But he does go on to give a pragmatist account of why we might as well believe in scientific laws anyway, since it's served us well so far, and it's not as if we can help it anyway. It's also not as if we have a choice.

But then in the miracles chapter, he gives a careful argument. He first defines probability as how often something happens in our own personal experience. Then he says that, if you haven't experienced miracles, it follows that miracles have zero probability. But why, then, could he say that plants could sprout legs and start walking around, as far as we know? Isn't that like a miracle? But he's careful here. If we believe that a plant did such a thing, we'd be believing in a miracle. We shouldn't do that, because it has zero probability. It's never happened, in my experience, so I should think it has zero probability. At the same time, I can't rule it out. So it's not impossible, as far as I know. If I did witness it, I'd have to proportion my beliefs with the evidence I then had. But as it is, I shouldn't believe in such things. I should just believe in their possibility, but I shouldn't allow for anything more than zero probability.

The key here is in defining probability in terms of how often it's happened in your experience, while defining possibility in terms of whether it's consistent with your experience. Something could then have zero probability but be well within the realm of possibility. So, because of that, I came to think that Hume's view was indeed consistent, even if it's a strange set of views.

But now I've become convinced again that there's a deep inconsistency in Hume's approach to these two issues. It has to do with his willingness to extend pragmatist arguments toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with respect to the scientific skepticism he begins with, while not extending pragmatism toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with the issue of miracles. He accepts our ordinary views on scientific laws, even though he insists that such beliefs are irrational and not grounded in anything more likely to produce true beliefs than crystal-ball gazing, at least as far as we can be sure. He relies on the testimony of other people in order to believe in regularities in nature that he can rely on to live his life. He refuses to accept the testimony of other people when it comes to miracles, however.

He does have a reason why he treats these two areas differently. He says that he has witnessed regularities in nature himself, and he relies on other people's testimony that coheres with his own observations but extends them. He has not witnessed miracles. He has witnessed people being dishonest or gullible, and so he has higher than zero probability of even honest people lying or even intellectually careful people being deceived, yet zero probability of miracles occurring. The higher probability, even if it's very low, is still higher, and so he should believe any possible explanation that's above zero even if low over the zero probability of miracles.

Will this work, though? I'm not convinced. Why does he give miracles a zero probability? Purely because he hasn't witnessed any himself. That's his criterion for belief. But he hasn't witnessed any of the scientific research that he relies on to accept scientific laws. He hasn't witnessed any of the events history tells of that he's willing to believe in. He relies on the testimony of other people about all manner of things, except miracles. He says the difference is between a kind of events he hasn't personally witnessed and a kind of events he has. But many of the events he hasn't witnessed are of a sort he hasn't witnessed and rely on expertise and specialist knowledge that he would have no access to. He's willing to be a pragmatist in accepting those beliefs even though he knows none of it. He rules out even the possibility of pragmatically accepting the testimony of other people whose specialized experience would support miracles. I'm not sure his pragmatism about many other sorts of beliefs would hold up if he refused to extend his pragmatism to those areas the way he does with miracles. I think his whole pragmatist belief system would fall apart. He's willing to relax his tighter, skeptical approach and go pragmatist with a number of other areas, and doing so with miracles would leave him not insisting on believing in them only if he's ever experienced a miracle himself. The same standards he applies to history, science, and many other areas of belief would leave him without his insistence on zero probability if he hasn't experienced something, and that would end his argument for ruling out miracles from the outset. He would then have to consider testimony about miracles as having at least some positive value in his pragmatic belief system.

None of this is to say that he would end up believing in miracles. He might not. But he wouldn't be ruling them out without consideration. He would be giving miracle reports some level of credence, even if he might ultimately not decide they are credible enough for his pragmatist acceptance to kick in. As his argument actually goes, however, he does seem to me to be treating miracle reports and other kind of specialized experiences differently, and that leads me to conclude that perhaps I was initially right that he is inconsistent, even if my original diagnosis of that inconsistency didn't locate it properly.

Genesis and Camels

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Earlier this week the NYT published a critique of Genesis based on, of all things, the appearance of camels within its narratives, and I'm starting to see more and more discussion of this, virtually all of it simply repeating the claims of that article, without much at all in the way of careful reflection on the problems in the broader thesis that it puts forward, which I don't think the evidence actually supports.

This isn't actually a very new objection. Scholars have long objected that there isn't a lot of evidence of domesticated animals within the Canaanite region during that time. But there is evidence of domesticated animals in Egypt and Mesopotamia during the period Genesis describes, and the NYT article even mentions that, and it says they were more commonly used more by those nomadic peoples living in the more desert regions. The only thing new here is some carbon dating of the bones of camels, along with techniques for measuring properties of the bone, which can allow them to determine whether they were wild or domesticated and had to carry greater weight for much of the time.

I think there are several reasons to be very skeptical of the conclusions the NYT article draws. Here are a few:

1. Genesis doesn't report lots of camels being used during the time of the patriarchs, as the article claims. They are sometimes listed among the animals they owned, but usually it's in smaller numbers, and the only reports of their being used for riding are to cross the desert regions or when referring to nomadic peoples like the Midianites who lived within such regions.

2. Abraham and Lot had to cross that desert to get to Canaan, and the only animals they could have used would have been camels. The NYT article even says that no other animals would be able to make that journey so easily, and even their skepticism doesn't apply to that sort of trip. So if Abraham did come from a region where camels were used regularly at this time (as the article admits), and he had to use them to cross the desert (as the article admits), it stands to reason that he wouldn't have killed them all when he got there and would have had at least a small enough number remaining when he had to send his servant to find a wife for Isaac and so on, and we know they kept their own cultural identity and may have been hesitant to trade their camels because of their relatively small number and inability or procure more while there. They might  have increased in number during the time he was living in Canaan, as long as there were only a relatively small number of them in this period, belonging precisely to his family, but that doesn't mean we should think there would be evidence of the larger number of them that the NYT article seems to expect there would be if they had them.

3. Abraham is portrayed as being rich, and the existence of a small number of camels in the lists of animals he owned is presented in the book as evidence of his wealth. If they were common around him, the small number of camels would seem insignificant compared with the huge number of other animals he had. But even a smaller number is presented as evidence of his great wealth. So the portrayal of his camels in the book fits nicely with the claim that the locals didn't have them.

4. If his family only used them when traveling across the desert or on long journeys (as the narrative itself indicates) but just maintained them as domesticated by not pack animals or riding animals, then even the ones that they did have might not have appeared to be domesticated by the methods of measuring the bone density and such that these scientists have been using.

5. So I think at best the conclusion being put forward here goes way beyond the evidence. If someone were to conclude from the Genesis narrative that camels were being used throughout the Canaanite region the way the article assumes the book presents things, then it would create a problem. It's still an argument from silence, but it would be odd for there to be no preserved camels from this period if they were that commonly used. But the Genesis narrative doesn't present such a picture, and there's no reason to think the picture it does present is unlikely to have produced the (lack of) evidence this new research provides.

I recently rewatched the 1975 Doctor Who episode "Genesis of the Daleks" by Terry Nation. Some online discussions I looked at about "Genesis of the Daleks" made some interesting, and to my mind obviously false, claims about how it fits (or doesn't) into the overall canonical fictional world of Doctor Who.

One claim in particular claim that caught my interest was the accusation that Terry Nation contradicted some of his earlier Doctor Who episodes about the Daleks in giving the origin of the Daleks in this serial. One discussion pointed out that Nation had made an effort not to contradict his first serial "The Daleks" from 1963, where he establishes the Daleks as creations of a race called the Dals in their war against the Thals. The supposed contradiction comes with "Genesis of the Daleks" when Nation actually shows us this war between the Thals and the race that created the Daleks, and the creator race is not called the Dals but is called The Kaleds.

Here's my problem. This is not a contradiction. A contradiction takes the form 'P and not-P". There is nothing of that form here. What you do have is:

1. The race who created the Daleks at the time of the Daleks' creation called themselves the Kaleds.
2. The Thals also called them the Kaleds at that time.
3. At a much later time, probably many centuries later, after an apocalyptic destruction of all civilization and a loss of a good deal of accurate information about the details of that earlier time, someone speaks of the race that created the Daleks as the Dals.

I'm sorry, but I'm not seeing how any of that makes for an inconsistency. If we were sure the person telling us they were called the Dals was speaking the truth, that would even be difficult to get a contradiction, because it's possible they came to be called the Dals at some time after "Genesis of the Daleks" or that they were called that at some earlier time, and that name came to be the more common one to use again after the apocalypse. But we can't even be sure the Thal telling us this has the right information. Maybe it's just that the wrong name was preserved. There are quite a number of things that could explain how 1-3 might all be true. Terry Nation simply did not contradict his earlier Dalek stories. What he did is use a different name without explaining why different names were used at those two different times, but it's not a contradiction.

I think there's a certain personality type that just likes to find contradictions in everything. A lot of fan criticism of science fiction and fantasy stories exhibits similar problems to the one I've been discussing here. I could point out lots of other examples. That doesn't mean there aren't legitimate criticisms to level against authors. I've criticized J.K. Rowling in print about her concept of changing the past in the third Harry Potter novel, although I did so after pointing out some rather implausible ways of making the story work to avoid the problem I raised. The implausibility there would involve reliable narrators who would know better telling untruths, however, which is more of a stretch than someone centuries after an apocalyptic event getting a name of an extinct civilization wrong or the possibility that the group was actually called by two different names.

How you evaluate such attempts to make canonical worlds coherent in part does depend on how plausible the explanation might be to avoid the contradiction. It's nice for fictional worlds to be coherent. Sometimes that's impossible. Sometimes it involves an implausibility but is possible. And sometimes it's not all that implausible if you just think a little harder to see how things might fit together, when at first they seem not to.

It's hard not to think of critics who like to find contradictions in the Bible when I look at these stories. There are some genuine difficulties in fitting together some parts of the Bible. I've never seen one that guarantees a contradiction, especially when you take into account that inerrantists don't take the current manuscripts to be inerrant but allow for errors in transcription from manuscript to manuscript. But I have seen places where it's not easy to come up with one highly plausible explanation that shows for sure why the apparent contradiction is not a real one. In most of them, there have been several explanations, where not one stands out as the most plausible, and even most of them involve something somewhat unlikely but possible. There's none I know of where I would judge all the explanations as so implausible as to require rational evaluators to think it has to involve two contradictory statements that can't be resolved. But I'm coming from an epistemological standpoint where I think the prior plausibility is relatively high. I consider myself to be in a position where I think I have good reasons for taking the Bible as it presents itself, as God's word, and it follows from that that it's more likely that there is a solution even if I don't know what it is than that there isn't. So I'm going to take the less-plausible-sounding accounts as less certain, but I'm going to be more likely to think that one of them is probably true.

That's one difference with fictional worlds. I don't believe there even are Daleks or Time Lords, never mind that the entire Doctor Who canon is consistent. (I think it certainly isn't coherent when it comes to fundamental questions of time travel, for example.) But someone who thinks God is real and is basically the way God is presented in the Bible is going to place a higher prior probability on there being some resolution to a proposed contradiction than someone who has no prior trust in those documents. And I would argue that someone doing this is right to do so if the prior probability is based on a good epistemic state to begin with. And that makes accepting truth in texts that are hard to fit together much easier to do (and not in a way that undermines rationality, assuming the prior probability itself has a rational grounding.

That assumption of prior probability, of course, is one of the fundamental disputes to begin with, but you can't just assume at the outset that someone who is more willing to trust a set of scriptures is wrong in doing so, and pointing to potential contradictions isn't necessarily going to turn the tide of the conversation unless you first undermine the prior probability. Supposed but not actual contradictions, even if they are difficult to put together, are therefore very weak evidence against the coherence of a worldview when the person who holds that worldview is more sure of it than they are of the irresolvability of the supposed contradiction. That makes for people coming from very different standpoints evaluating the supposed contradictions very differently, and from within their world view each seems to themselves to be right in how they do that. That's something that I think not enough people on either side of such debates can see.

Seven years ago I wrote a post explaining why I think a common theory among biblical scholars is both against our best evidence and unnecessary in order to explain a few puzzling features of the texts we have. The puzzling features are as follows:

When Aaron dies in the Torah, it says his son Eleazar takes over the high priestly position, and then Eleazar's son Phinehas inherits that role when Eleazar dies. Yet the line of Eleazar does not seem to maintain that position by the time of Samuel. Eli seems to be occupying a high priestly role, and he's descended from Eleazar's brother Ithamar. Yet the biblical texts do report of the line of Eleazar being preserved, notably in a man named Zadok, whom David seems to elevate to a high priestly role of seemingly equal authority with a continuing high priestly descendant of Ithamar. It's only when that man betrays David that we seem to have a return to one high priest.

The common scholarly theory takes the texts to be unreliable reports of events. There's no direct evidence that Zadok was anything other than a Levite descended from Aaron through Eleazar. There's no direct evidence that the Eleazar line was invented wholesale in the Torah in order to retcon Zadok as a more legitimate priest than Ithamar's by-then-disgraced servants who had sided with the coup against David. But the suspicion because of the puzzling facts of the previous paragraph has somehow become unquestioned and even is presented as obvious by a lot of biblical scholars, when there are several other explanations of why the text reports what it does, none of them less likely to my mind than the suspicious explanation. I give two in that post seven years ago, and a third occurred to me this morning.

One possibility from the previous post is that the descendants of Eleazar had forsaken their responsibilities during the time of the Judges, which is entirely fitting with how Israel is described during that time, and the descendants of Ithamar were left to run the operation of the tabernacle and early pre-Solomonic temple structures (like the one we see in the early chapters of I Samuel).

The other possibility from the earlier post is just a decentralization of worship, not really being faithful to the tabernacle set up in the Torah (which would also fit with what the book of Judges tells us of that period). In this second case, Phinehas' descendants might still have been operating as priests, and indeed may even have considered themselves high priests, but other priests were operating in other locations, contrary to Torah specifications, and in each location someone was functioning like a high priest for that location.

The third explanation that occurred to me this morning is that there was a pattern for selecting the high priest that didn't consistently follow our expected rules of succession. Perhaps Phinehas' selection of high priest to succeed Eleazar has wrongly suggested to us that it would always continue as father to eldest living son. But perhaps instead the rule was eldest living male descendant of Aaron. If Ithamar died before Eleazar, then Phinehas might well have been the oldest male descendant at that time, as the eldest son of the eldest son of Aaron who had children (the oldest two seem to have died without children, or else their entire lines were disqualified for their fathers' sins). But the next high priest might have been a younger brother of Phinehas or an uncle or cousin from the Ithamar line. And this might not have had to have been a rule adopted at the outset. It could even have been a modification implemented later on, whether legitimately or not. The Torah doesn't ever specify, from what I can remember, how the high priest would be chosen. It might have been by Urim and Thummim or something, in which case the high priest could even be the youngest priest of age.

I think any of these explanations could be true, and all of them seem more likely to me than the possibility that the texts were all fabricated in order to explain a non-Aaronic family becoming pretenders to the Aaronic line. In a culture with such a high emphasis on geneaology, especially as evidenced in the narratives of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles to establish credentials beyond a shadow of doubt before someone could serve as a priest or Levite, I find it incredibly unlikely that someone could craft such a massive conspiracy that would rewrite all these texts that would have been so known and loved by the faithful Israelites who returned from exile. There's such an emphasis in those books on the careful study of the Torah that the conspiracy theory has to be far less likely by any reasonable weighing of the alternatives than any of the three possibilities that I've proposed.

There are a few other facts that might help us sort through the options. I'll look at just one, because it's sometimes used as an argument against the kinds of reconstruction I'm putting forward here. The texts from Samuel and Kings never refer to any of these priests as high priest. The conspiracy theory takes that to signal that the Samuel and Kings texts were earlier, and the language of high priest wasn't developed until much later and inserted into the Torah along with the concocted genealogies and stories that either invent Eleazar altogether or fabricate his genealogical connection with Zadok. But there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why this would be that completely fits with the texts we have without the massive reinterpretation required by the conspiracy theory. Taking the texts at face value, we have a scenario where there's a high-priestly position set up, and at least on the first two explanations, something goes wrong with that scenario. Someone is functioning as high priest who, ideally, shouldn't be.

1. On the scenario of the fallen line of Eleazar, the rightful high priest isn't even functioning as a priest. So the person who takes on that role, knowing that he's not really the high priest, refuses to call himself high priest. Then that becomes the habit, and when David restores the Eleazar line with Zadok he maintains two leading priests until Zadok takes over fully by himself, and even then we have the habit of simply referring to him as the priest (as opposed to a priest).

2. On the decentralization hypothesis, the leading priests in each location might have been hesitant to call themselves the high priest, and it became habit to refer to even the rightful high priest as the priest, because there wasn't a lot to distinguish him from the other chief priests in other locations.

3. On the alternate method of deciding the high priest, there may actually have been a continuing high priest, who was called high priest all along, but the rightful high priest may have been faithful to Saul and not David. David, perhaps too loyal to the man who had been functioning as priest under him, was willing to bring Zadok on as a parallel leading priest in order to comply with some of the Torah regulations, but did not make him (or at least did not call him) high priest until he was the sole leading priest.

I don't think we have enough information to sort through which of these three might be more likely with respect to each other, but they all seem more likely to me than the conspiracy theory that many scholars seem to have adopted as the only obvious reconstruction of historical events. And the mere possibility of three coherent reconstructions that could easily be imagined to have happened should give us pause at any attempt to reconstruct the historical scenario in a way that actually conflicts with the only evidence we have about these events.

Most New Testament scholars agree nowadays that Mark 16:9ff. is not the original ending of Mark. Either it ended with v.8, or there was an original ending that's been lost (sometimes thought to be something like Matthew's ending but with differences similar to how Mark normally is different from Matthew). A certain breed of skeptic often found on History Channel or Discovery Channel Easter specials will sometimes use this to claim that Mark doesn't actually report the resurrection, with the insinuation that Mark is the earliest gospel and therefore the most reliable reporting of events. Therefore, we might be expected to include, Christians invented the resurrection after Mark's gospel was fully composed.

Mark Heath nicely presents several reasons why such skeptics have to be ignoring what the Gospel of Mark really says and what else is in the New Testament. According to standard dating of Mark (by scholars across the theological spectrum), Paul's first letter to the Corinthians church is earlier than Mark, and chapter 15 of that letter is the lengthiest discussion of the resurrection in the entire New Testament. Furthermore, the entire gospel of Mark forecasts the resurrection and leads to its expectation, even explaining elements of it long before it gets to the actual events. But most importantly, the resurrection is the very last event reported in the section of Mark 16 that most scholars consider authentic. The disciples are told that he has been raised and told that they will see him. There aren't chronicles of what Jesus did after the resurrection, as there are in all three other gospels and in the book of Acts, but the resurrection is very clearly reported right there in the section that no one questions.

I'm less convinced on the fourth reason, so I'm not mentioning that here, but you can see Mark's post for it and my comment for my response.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

In his commentary on on II Kings 12, which deals with King Joash's temple repairs, T.R. Hobbs argues that the chapter could not have come from a priestly author:

The record of the events undoubtedly has a Judean origin, but it is highly unlikely that it can be attributed to priestly circles. The Kings account of the temple repairs, compared to that found in 2 Chr 24, is decidedly critical of the priesthood. The blame for the lack of repair to the temple after Joash's original order is laid upon their shoulders ... and, as a result of that failure, new regulations are introduced.... In the procedure outlines by those new regulations the priests play a minor role. In 2 Chr 24:4-7 it is the failure of the Levites, not the complete priesthood, which is noted.

The reform also takes place at the initiative of the king, not the priesthood, nor one of its members such as Jehoiada. The king's accountant actively participates in the reform ..., and the priests themselves are eventually refused access to a source of income they had hitherto enjoyed ... because of their failure to obey the king.

The tone of the chapter then is far from "priestly," and is in fact highly critical of the priests.

The background to this is Wellhausen's hypothesis that the biblical narratives came from a number of hands across several centuries, with one source specificially coming from a priestly hand in order to promote priestly agendas in opposition to the other agendas of biblical authors that conflicted with priestly concerns. Wellhausen's specific proposals have largely been rejected, even if some of his structure has been retained by many critical scholars. None of them can agree on any of the details, which is some reason for wondering if the whole thing should be rejected as thoroughly unfounded, but the fact remains that many scholars accept something of Wellhausen's source proposal. As for this chapter, I wonder if we can really say much about the authorship. Hobbs overstates his case in several places.

For one thing, the priests are not a larger group than the Levites, as if pointing to them means a smaller subsection of the priests. The reverse is true. Sometimes the Levites are treated as a contrast with the priests, and so the context makes it clear in such cases that the non-priestly Levites are in mind. There is such a reference to "the priests and the Levites" in the Chronicles parallel that Hobbs refers to. But the Levites are the broader category, and failing such a context we might just as easily take a reference to the Levites to include the priests, who were indeed from the tribe of Levites. There is some reason to take the Levites in Chronicles as the non-priestly Levites, given that both are mentioned earlier, but it could just as easily be a shorthand to reference both groups mentioned earlier, since the priests are Levites. If so, then the Chronicles mention of Levites rather than priests might simply indicate that all those who served in the temple were responsible, and the Kings reference to priests might reflect the fact that the priests were ultimately responsible for whatever happened in the temple, even if non-priestly Levites were partly at fault.

But that isn't something I'd rest a lot on. Even so, I'm not following the reasoning here. Is the argument supposed to be this?

1. This passage is critical of the priests at this time.
2. No priestly writer would ever be critical of priests at any time.
3. Therefore, this passage couldn't have been written by priests.

The second premise is undoubtedly false. Why couldn't a priestly writer be critical of other priests, even an entire generation of them? Perhaps this is what is meant:

1. This passage is critical of the priests at this time.
2. Wellhausen's supposed priestly source P is never critical of priests at any time.
3. Therefore, this passage couldn't have been written by the supposed priestly source P that Wellhausen concocts out of thin air.

That argument I can agree with. Wellhausen proposed a certain agenda for his priestly writer(s). But Hobbs says that it's "highly unlikely that it be attributed to priestly circles". I just don't see how that follows from the conclusion of this argument. It's not likely to be from a circle that uncritically seeks to justify or excuse everything the priests might ever have done, but I'm not sure any of the biblical texts come from anyone like that. I certainly don't think Wellhausen's supposed P author, if that's an essential characteristic of that source, could have produced the biblical material we actually have, unless a later editor thoroughly reworked things to remove such assumptions.

I'm open to source theories of composition, especially in Samuel and Kings, where the text tells us that sources were used. But too often we get this sort of argumentation passing for scholarship with rhetoric about scientifically determining what those sources must have been and what the agendas of the various source traditions were. Sometimes you even get some kind of nonsense about the final editor stupidly placing contradictory materials side-by-side as if the final editor had no clue or no care about the supposed theological contradictions going on. Or you might instead get some proposal of an agenda being portrayed by the narrator that conflicts with the agenda in one of the sources, and the editor comes out as someone who must have been pretty poor at masking alternative agendas in the source materials. I have a hard time calling this stuff serious scholarship, since there have long been ways to deal with supposed contradictions that can just as easily deal with supposed conflicting agendas. Literary scholarship in recent decades has shown how anachronistic, Western-centric, and uncharitable such readings are.

High Priest

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The Hebrew term for "high priest" is often not present in the Samuel-Kings narrative. Instead there's often just "the priest" with a context making it clear that this is a priest who is over the other priests. Sometimes the Torah passages that discuss the high priest are therefore thought to be a late addition (the implication being that the Pentatechal narratives are deceptive in presenting a false history to justify a later practice, or else some view gets concocted according to which everyone knew it was presenting a fictional history of Israel so that it only deceived later generations).

I have little patience with speculative reconstructions of the history of Israel that don't actually have evidence supporting them, especially when the actual evidence we have is only what we see in the actual historical narratives we have, narratives that certainly present things in the order of Exodus coming before Kings and not the other way around. The onus of proving an alternative hypothesis seems to me to require a bit more than things like the absence of terms like "high priest" in the writings discussing later periods. We'd have to have no available explanation for why the term might have dropped out for that to count as much evidence.

Nevertheless, the fact that the term "high priest" is hardly ever used in the Samuel-Kings narrative is at least a very small piece of evidence, even if I wouldn't consider it enough to outweigh the strong presumption of the only chronology we're ever given. It's still something that ought to have an explanation, and it's worth thinking through what that might be. The usual term is "the priest" in Samuel and Kings, and that isn't what you'd expect given the Pentateuchal narratives that precede Samuel-Kings in the traditional chronology.

There seem to have been two figures taking that title during the time of David, and there's no statement that they were back-to-back. They seem to have been simultaneous. I've explained in another post why I disagree with the speculative reconstruction about Zadok that holds sway among most liberal scholars and why I think a better reconstruction of events is that the high priesthood changed hands from the Eleazarites (descended from Aaron's third son) toward the Ithamarites (descended from Aaron's fourth son). That seems to have ended when the line of Eli finally died out. From that point on, there was one priest called "the priest" among the other priests, and it was always a Zadokite from Eleazar's branch of the priests. The only geneological information we actually have traces Zadok to the line of Aaron's third son Eleazar and Eleazar's son Phinehas. (The oldest two were killed in Leviticus during their early days as priests, and presumably they had no offspring.)

But why the terminology of "the priest" rather than the Torah term "high priest" if the Kings narratives were indeed written after the Torah texts that discuss the high priest? Remember that the period of the judges led to such decentralization, with every priest doing what's right in his own eyes, that there was in effect no one high priest but just people taking that position in particular locations. Perhaps Eli was one of them. You might have had relatively faithful descendants of Aaron here and there, and the evidence suggests that other descendants of Levi were functioning as priests also, but there's no reason to think very many of these priests or Levites were faithful and much reason to think many weren't. It's quite possible that Eli was the highest geneologically-descended priest who was faithful in his time, and thus he was called high priest because he was the most rightful high priest willing to serve the proper function of a high priest. If the entire line of Eleazar was unfaithful during this period, we might expect something like that. But when someone faithful to God's law like David came along and began to rely on Abiathar, a descendant of Ithamar, as his sole priest, he might have been loath to call him the high priest because the high priest should be descended from Eleazar. Then when he found Zadok, who had every reason to be called the high priest, he was unwilling to demote his close friend and confidant Abiathar, and they were thus both listed as "the priest" in parallel for David's early reign. Eventually, Abiathar betrayed David and sided with Absalom, and that ended. From that point on, Zadok was "the priest". I wonder if terminology just stuck, at least in some quarters, and you didn't get a resumption of high priestly terminology until a later revival reintroduced the scriptural term.

That reconstruction of events makes a good deal of historical sense, given the text's presentation of chronology (which, again, is our only strong evidence of chronology). Scholars pick at little things that are hard to make sense of without some thought about what might have happened, such as the sudden appearance of the Zadokites and the use of the term "the priest" instead of the term "the high priest". But it seems to me that there are explanations available for these things, and the speculative reordering of events to suit some contemporary fad at undermining the historical accuracy of the biblical narratives seems less intellectually-motivated to me than does the simple effort to find a way to make sense of the historical texts we've got, which does take some speculation but not on such a grand scale. So even without any motivation to maintain the historical reliability of scripture, I think there are good intellectual reasons to resist the revisionist readings.

Michael Kruger reviews Bart Ehrman's latest offering Forged: Writing in the Name of God -- Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. [ht: Justin Taylor]

A common strategy among anti-Christian apologists (and some skeptical sorts in liberal theological circles, I should add) is to attribute complete idiocy to the biblical authors and editors. See my discussions of Exodus 22 and Judges 3 for particular cases where I've complained about this before.

Michael Kruger has identified a strategy in a recent book by Bart Ehrman that does that sort of thing, but in this case it's even worse. It attributes complete idiocy to the entire history of the church. In this case, the issue is whether Ephesians could have been written by Paul. Ehrman joins that 50% of scholars who manage to find some reasons to deny Pauline authorship (reasons I've never thought came even close to showing such a thing). One of his arguments has to do with a supposed conflict between Paul's theology in I Corinthians and this supposed other author of Ephesians. Ehrman goes as far as claiming that the Ephesian letter, in saying we're seated with Christ in heavenly places, adopts exactly the view that Paul condemns in I Corinthians when he says we don't have spiritually-resurrected bodies in this life.

Kruger points out that it requires theological unsophistication of a severe order to confuse these statements as if they're in conflict, but he notices an even worse problem. Here's the key quote:

Beyond all of this, are we really to think that early Christians would have widely affirmed the canonicity of Ephesians if it so plainly denied the bodily resurrection, one of the most cherished beliefs in early Christianity? Ehrman would have us believe that all early Christians (not to mention later Christians) were just too blind to notice such a thing until modern scholars have come along to point it out for them.

We thus have a kind of cultural superiority about modern, western biblical scholars whereby they can proclaim themselves literarily and theologically more acute than the entire history of the church. It's not just attributing simplicity and moronic behavior to an editor of a text who can't manage to figure out that contradictory ideas are placed side by side, as in the Exodus and Judges cases I linked to above. It's attributing the inability to recognize that Ephesians and I Corinthians flatly contradict each other and insisting that the theological understandings of those texts that have lasted two millenia have basically misunderstood what the text actually says, even though the people who were much closer to the cultural milieu and who actually spoke the language the documents were written in saw no such contradiction and could even attribute the books to the same author.

Ehrman's thesis here is pure hubris. It amazes me how easily this sort of thing passes for responsible scholarship in certain circles.

Andy Naselli has posted a short excerpt from D.A. Carson and Tim Keller's Gospel-Centered Ministry, one of the new series of Gospel Coalition booklets. The excerpt explains why the Gospel Coalition's statement of faith begins with God rather than with scripture. I hold both Carson and Keller in high regard, and it's very rare that I can identify anything to question from either of them. But this excerpt strikes me as being either ignorant about the meaning of a basic philosophical term or completely mistaken in how to apply it.

Carson and Keller's reasoning is basically that they want to resist what they see as a fault in the elevation of reason in the Enlightenment. Evangelical statements of faith in the past begin with a doctrine of scripture and then proceed to derive theological commitments in a systematic way via exegesis of that scripture. The result, according to Carson and Keller, is the presentation of a system of thought that gives the appearance of being deduced by unquestionable reasoning from the starting point of scripture.

It's their next move that I find problematic. They criticize such an approach by calling it foundationalist. The only hint as to what they mean by that is what they go on to say. They resist it because our cultural location affects our interpetation and relies too much on a rigid subject-object distinction, and we need to pay attention to historical theology, philosophy, and social reflection.

I'm not sure what any of that has to do with foundationalism. I have no problem with pointing out that our cultural location affects our interpretation. The subject-object distinction is a bit rigid if we ignore that we can be both subject and object in different respects, and being one can influence the ways in which one is the other. We certainly do need to pay attention to historical theology, philosophy, and social reflection. But how is any of that non-foundationalist? Foundationalism in epistemology is the thesis that our knowledge has a structure with a foundation, a basis upon which everything else is built. The beliefs in the foundation ought to be the best sort of beliefs we could have, ones that we can know to be true or have very good reason to believe. Some such beliefs would be self-evident or knowable just by thinking about them. Others might be learned by reliable processes that we can't prove to be true or reliable but that are genuinely reliable and thus lead to knowledge or justified beliefs.

I can't figure out how foundationalism creates any problem for any of what Carson and Keller are worried about. If the idea is that we shouldn't start with the foundation of scripture and instead start with the foundation of God, then that's still foundationalism, just with a different foundation. If the idea is that there are sources of information that we assume to be perfectly good that can be bad and lead us to false information, then foundationalism accepts that. Our biases can influence what we take to be a good foundation and thus end up with beliefs in our foundation that shouldn't be there. If the idea is that it's legitimate to have sources in the foundation that philosophers of the Enlightenment wouldn't want there, it's still foundationalism. It's just arguing for a different foundation.

The alternative to foundationalism is coherentism. Coherentism uses the raft model to contrast with the pyramid model of foundationalism. The idea behind coherentism is that your beliefs can be perfectly justified or a set of knowledge even if they're not based on anything legitimate. All it takes is for your beliefs to cohere. If they're not inconsistent, if there's no contradiction anywhere in there, then you know everything you believe. Such a view is so radically incompatible with Christian teaching in scripture that I can't imagine Carson or Keller seriously entertaining it. They hold that you can't know God without your information coming from God in some way, either by scripture or by coming through the testimony of a believer (or, in rare cases, by a more miraculous way of coming to understand, but the source would nonetheless be God). In fact, Carson and Keller are both Calvinists, and their Reformed theology has it that any of our beliefs leading to salvation are put in place by God, either directly or by some human means. What grounds them as knowledge is that God places them there and allows them to serve as a legitimately-held belief. The basis of any Christian's theology is therefore beliefs bestowed upon us by God that are epistemically grounded by God's miraculous working in our hearts and minds. Knowledge and belief-justification in Reformed theology strike me as particularly foundationalist. Coherentism is basically relativism about truth or knowledge (depending on whether you're a coherentist about truth or knowledge). I'm 100% sure that both Carson and Keller would consider coherentism incompatiible with their understanding of truth, knowledge, what justifies our beliefs, and so on.

Now there is a tendency among emergentists and pseudo-postmodernists on the fringes of evangelicalism to use the word 'foundationalism' to refer to a very narrow version of foundationalism held by Enlightenment philosophers and then to mis-label all evangelicals as foundationalist and thus living in the dark ages. But foundationalism itself is much broader, and it surprises me to see Keller and Carson giving the term up so easily while defending a view that seems as far as I can tell to be just as foundationalist as the view they're criticizing. I find their reference pretty puzzling, unless they're taken in by this group that they've both spent a good deal of time not giving in to, co-opting a mistaken understanding of what foundationalism is merely because some of their philosophically amateurish opponents have adopted a jaundiced view of what foundationalism is in order to strike it down with little argument. If that's what's going on here, then I would have expected better of both Keller and Carson. If that's not what's going on, I'm at a complete loss.

Philosophy TV posted several reflections on issues related to Christmas during Christmas week last year. Jason Brennan's contribution presents the Christmas story (i.e. the gospel) as a bad story about an immoral divinity.

I chose not to post this actually near Christmas, but when I saw this I thought it would be a great exercise to identify exactly where Brennan gets the gospel message wrong (and Brennan's final question actually invites that).

In particular, there seem to be two general kinds of responses to a criticism like Brennan's. You might disagree with his portrayal of what the gospel message actually says, or you might think he gets the message right but applies a problematic moral framework. (And you might think he makes mistakes in both arenas). But if you're a Christian, you ought to think he does at least one of the two. The question is exactly which elements does he get wrong in what the gospel says or in the moral theory he applies to it, and I'm curious what people would say about that. What do you think?

[cross-posted at Evangel and Prosblogion, whose commenters will likely have very different things to say in response to this]

The following passage is sometimes taken to teach that suffering and death aren't always because of the sins of the individuals who suffer or die:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." [Luke 13:1-5, ESV]

This passage does not teach that. You can find a teaching close to that in the book of Job. It isn't quite that, though. What Job teaches is that the immediate cause of suffering need not be the particular sins of the person suffering. It never says that there's any suffering that's not because of the presence of sin in the world, though. This passage in Luke, in particular, strikes me as in fact teaching something in the opposite direction of Job's point.

What is says is that the people who died weren't any worse sinners than the ones who didn't die. This wasn't to illustrate they were innocent and suffered anyway. Jesus' point is for his hearers to repent so that too won't perish, as if the reason for the perishing was indeed because of sin but that many of the people hearing his message were simply spared that out of God's mercy, at least so far, but they should not presume upon that mercy continuing for much longer. So the point does seem to me to mitigate the Job point. While it may well be that suffering can occur without its being directed against someone because of that person's sin, this passage isn't teaching anything about the suffering of innocents. It's teaching that those who die because of their sin aren't any worse than those who haven't yet met God's judgment as fully as they might. Consider the very next words of Jesus in Luke:

And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"[Luke 13:6-9, ESV]

This seems to be a clear presentation of the patience point above. God is merciful, and that's why some continue to live despite deserving death. God puts it off to give them time to repent, but God need not do this. God doesn't owe this to us.

I've been thinking about two different themes that run together here, both of which came out in the still-ongoing discussion of the Canaanite genocide issue. One is the Punishment Theodicy, and the other is the Patience Theodicy. These aren't where theists typically start when dealing with the problem of evil, but I think that's unfortunate. The Punishment Theodicy is usually dismissed by contemporary philosophers pretty quickly, mainly because of the Job point. If there's innocent suffering, then the Punishment Theodicy won't do all the work. Also, you need a reason why God allows the sin that's being punished for a large amount of evil to constitute punishment. But I think the Punishment Theodicy does do a lot more work than contemporary philosophers want to give it credit. The claim isn't that every bit of evil is punishment directed against someone for a particular sin that's being punished by that particular bit of suffering. It's that the vast majority of evil in the world today is the result of sin's being in the world, and one reason God allows it to the point it gets to is because we deserve it (and indeed much worse). It's allowed, at least in very large part, in order to punish us.

Another reason this isn't popular, I suspect, is because punishment is not popular, at least not for retributive reasons. But retributive justice is very popular when you put it the right way. It's unpopular to suggest that we deserve suffering for anything when you talk in terms of sin and God, but just try telling a graduating senior who didn't get hired that it's perfectly all right for someone who had lower qualifications to get the job, as if any choice would have been equally good, and you get responses that assume some notion of retributive justice. We can't make sense of the notion of an ironic punishment if we don't think people can deserve suffering because of their sins.

The Patience Theodicy is an explanation why evildoers seem to get away with it, why God doesn't judge sin immediately. Habakkuk worried deeply about that question, and God's response is that the sinner seeming to get away with it will indeed be judged. I don't think we ever get in Habakkuk why he's delaying, though. One place we do see an answer to that is II  Peter 3, where we're told that it's out of God's patience, to allow more time for people to repent. This theodicy explains a kind of evil that seems counterintuitive from one perspective. Normally, we want a reason why God allows evil. In a sense, this is an explanation of why God continues to allow a certain kind of evil. But on another level, this is an explanation of why God refrains from doing something that causes something that's intrinsically bad -- suffering and death. So it's a funny kind of theodicy, but it's a theodicy nonetheless, and it's also a pretty powerful one in that it explains quite a bit. The Punishment Theodicy explains a good deal of suffering on a very general level (without offering any claim about the details of particular cases, which is where those who apply it often end up mistaken). The Patience Theodicy explains a more specific kind of suffering by giving a reason why it might be allowed to continue when there's an easy way of cutting short evil by ending its existence altogether. It's an answer to the "how long" kind of question, i.e. the duration of evils, in Peter van Inwagen's way of putting it.

I'm not sure I had any specific point here, just some stewing thoughts after reading Luke 13 this morning, but I wanted to record some of these thoughts.

Paul Copan's "Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?" presents what struck me, on my first exposure to it, as a relatively novel (to me, anyway) thesis defending God as presented in the Hebrew scriptures from the charge of genocide. He claims that the commands to wipe out Canaan and not leave anyone standing, including women, children, and even livestock are hyperbole and that such expressions were commonly used to indicate a severe attack but did not literally mean that no one at all would survive.

I was a bit hesistant to rely on such a view, because it seemed to be to require more evidence than Copan gave, and there are certainly some occurrences when the expression in question simply cannot mean what Copan wants it to mean, e.g. when Saul is roundly condemned by Samuel in I Sam 15 for not fully carrying out the wiping out of the Amalekites. Saul's failure in that chapter was precisely his willingness to leave some alive, as Wes Morriston pointed out in the comments on Robert Gressis' Prosblogion posting on this last year. That objection struck me as decisive.

It occurred to me very recently, however, that Morriiston's objection doesn't quite do it. I'm still a little skeptical of Copan's thesis without more evidence than I've seen, but I'm not sure anymore that Morriston's objection really defeats the thesis. Consider the following version of Copan's claim. There's the literal meaning of the expression to wipe out everyone and everything. Saul did not do that. He spared Agag and the best of the livestock. Copan could then come along and point out that the passage doesn't include in Saul's failure that he spared women and children, for example. So it's compatible with what the text says that (a) Saul did wipe out all the women and children (and spared just Agag and the best animals) and that (b) Saul didn't wipe out all the women and chilfdren (but never was supposed to kill all of them, just all of the animals and King Agag).

So I'm not sure anything in I Sam 15 disproves Copan's thesis. Saul did sin, according to I Sam 15, by sparing Agag and the best livestock. But it may well have been that Agag and the livestock should have been killed according to the correct Copan-modified translaton or paraphrase of whatever the hyperbolic command really insisted on. In other words, Saul really should have killed Agag and these animals according to the command of God, but that doesn't mean he literally was expected to wipe out the whole Amalekite people. So I don't think I Sam 15 is really a counterexample to Copan's proposal.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I anoint you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel. And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord. For the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah. And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her. [ESV, II Kings 9:6b-8]
These are the words of an unnamed prophet to Jehu, the first king in the last dynasty of the northern kingdom of Israel. The prophet instructs Jehu to supplant Ahab's heir and kill of the remaining heirs. Every male of Ahab's house will perish. This isn't just a command. It's a prediction.

The only problem is that Ahab's daughter Athaliah was married to King Jehoram of Judah, and Jehoram's son Ahaziah was also killed off in Jehu's purge as a descendant of Ahab. In fact, all of Jehoram and Ahaziah's children were killed, except Jehoash, who would eventually become the next king of Judah, thus preserving the line of David. But isn't Jehoash a male descendant of Ahab? Do we actually have conflicting prophecies here, one confirming the Davidic dynasty in perpetuity and the other confirming the dying out of Ahab's dynasty? If so, then there's no way they could both be fulfilled, but even one false prophecy disqualifies a prophet. The author of Kings seems to treat this prophecy as fulfilled, however. So what's going on?

It doesn't do to treat the text's author as a bunch of unrelated, ignorant buffoons who edit a text without allowing for quality control enough for the text to be consistent with some of the driving ideology purposes of the very book itself, which would include the 100% reliability of prophecy from genuine prophets. I haven't seen anyone do that in this case, though. (Not to say that I've never seen biblical prophets make that kind of mistake. They often do. I just didn't see anyone doing it here.) Surprisingly, I couldn't find any commentary that raises this issue at all. I looked at several. Someone whose work I didn't look at might have raised it, or maybe one of the commentaries I looked at raises it in a different place (there are other prophecies about this transfer of power and references back to it later on). But it apparently never occurred to any of them that there might be some issue with a prophecy here that seems to conflict with a different one (and indeed seems not to have been fulfilled if taken the way I took it above).

So what might the author or final editors of this text have taken this text to mean if they obviously did think it fulfilled? If Ahab's line was preserved in the very line of David that was prophesied to go on perpetually (and on the Christian view leads to Jesus Christ as great David's greater son), then the prophecy must not mean "every male descendant of Ahab". This expression is literally something like "everyone of Ahab who urinates on the wall", and it's possible but unlikely that it means something else besides "every male of Ahab". Nonetheless, I find those proposals much less likely than just the males of his household. But that's the key, I suspect. Perhaps the males descended from Ahab aren't included among the males of his household that this passage refers to. So Jehoash would then not have been part of the intended end to Ahab's house, since he's not actually of Ahab's house but David's.

So it turns out this isn't that difficult question. It just surprises me that no one whose work I looked at on this verse had even raised it.

The Author Theodicy

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My friend and sometime co-blogger Wink likes to think of God as the author of creation in a much more literal way than most people do. He sees God as writing a story, with human beings as some of the main characters, and one response he has to the problem of evil is that the story overall justifies certain instances of badness occurring throughout the story.

This also serves as a helpful analogy for him in thinking through the relation between divine sovereignty and human freedom, since the characters in a book can easily have free will of whatever sort you'd like even if every step of their fictional lives is written by an author. Within the story, their choices are all free. They make choices, and those choices need not be determined in any way by anything outside their control (although if it's a story in a deterministic world, then of course something outside their control does determine their actions, and they at most have only compatibilist free will).

It was hard to resist thinking about the author theodicy when I heard this quote on a recent podcast (see writeup here) by the executive producers of Lost:

We're sorry that it happened, but we're not sorry that we did it, and we make no excuses for it. It is a very intense and dark time on the show. Obviously the deaths of these characters provides a tremendous emotional catalyst for the survivors, because now they're at war. The sides were a little hazy before now. Now, there's great clarity. -- Damon Lindelof

Then consider the specific reasoning given:

We felt it was really important that the audience understand that, going into the end of this show, nobody is safe. One of the problems in television is that you innately know that certain characters aren't going to die, and that strips certain shows of their jeopardy. We want there to be a feeling that anything is possible, and that going into the end of the series, that is very much true. There will be some surprising things.

It's the author-theodicy version of a point made by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in sections of their work that I've taught in my history of philosophy intro class. Augustine asks us to consider a painting. There will likely be spots that, taken apart from the whole, would look ugly. But in the context of the whole painting they fit and make the painting itself more beautiful than it would be without them. Aquinas similarly says that the occurrences of evil in the world are indeed intrinsically bad. The fact that they occur is unfortunate, and other things being equal a good God who could prevent them would do so. But other things aren't equal, because the macroscopic picture of the history of the universe (which, of course, goes on forever into eternity according to Aquinas, with evil defeated forever after a certain point) is better as a whole if that evil occurs, even if the microscopic look at just that bit of evil should lead God to declare it bad and worth avoiding.

Lindelof seems to be making a similar point. It's unfortunate that these beloved characters had to die, but they thought things would be best for them to die at this point given the story they are trying to tell. The macroscopic look determines whether it's worth doing. They're not sorry they did it, because of that macroscopic effect. The microscopic look determines whether the event is unfortunate in itself, and in this case they admit that it is. But the macroscopic effect is what matters for storytelling, even if sometimes honesty requires acknowledging the microscopic picture as Lindelof does in this quote.

Jesus the Jew

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Prov 19:17 says those gracious to the poor are lending to God. It's hard for anyone familiar with the New Testament to think about such a statement for very long without being reminded of Jesus' discussion in Matthew 25, where he says, "whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me."

It amazes me how far people will go to find sources outside the Hebrew tradition for some of Jesus' ideas. So many of his statements are steeped in the language and conceptual framework of the Hebrew scripture. The extent of these connections don't often enough get noticed, and not all of them are as obvious as others, but enough of them are transparent enough that I have to wonder if the people who make such statements know the Hebrew scriptures very well.

Christians will look at this example as a proverb in the Hebrew scriptures teaching a principle that would come to be exemplified in Jesus' teaching about himself, with the implication that Jesus is according himself divinity by taking on a feature the Hebrew scriptures reserve for God. But even those more skeptical of such notions should at least admit that Jesus' teachings are so strongly influenced by the Hebrew Bible and that it's contextually insensitive to take Jesus to be primarily something more like a Roman Stoic or an adherent to the teachings of some kind of eastern mysticism. Where there might be similarities there, his actual background, language, and cultural milieu serve as a far better explanation even of the teachings that are fairly distinctive in the gospels and not found with such close parallels such as this one.

The word 'creationism' has become a bait-and-switch term in the mouths of certain people. It first gets used to mean some very general thing when you figure out who counts (i.e. someone who believes God created or someone who believes God fashioned the universe via some means that wouldn't be likely if naturalism would be true). But then it gets applied as if it means a much more specific view, one seen as implausible by many who hold to creationism in the broader sense. When you want to say bad things about all the people who count in the more general sense, you call them creationists, and thus you associate them with those who hold to the more specific view that's much less tolerated.

For the sake of this post, I'm reclaiming its meaning in the general sense as perfectly legitimate for all who believe God created the universe. It therefore applies as much to those who accept a divine explanation behind the standard scientific account of the natural causes of human origins as much as it does to those who accept a supernatural method to begin with.

Now here are some possible views:

Naturalism: God doesn't exist, and so God had no role in human origins.

Non-creationist theism: God exists, but God didn't guide the origins of human life in any significant way, certainly not with any intention that we or any beings like us would come along.

Barely-creationist theism: God did guide along the causal processes that led to human life to some degree, but God had no concern for that aspect of the process. We're just a side-effect.

Creationist evolution: God fully guided the process of human origins by means of the standard scientific model (or something close enough to it), including natural selection and common descent of humans from animals, with the goal of producing the life forms that resulted, including human beings. Random chance, as usually thought of in evolutionary theory, is really just statistical frequency, with God guiding the process. This view is sometimes called theistic evolution, but that name technically applies to the above two views as well.

Old-Earth, non-evolutionary creationism: The Earth is as old as the standard scientific account takes it to be, and the universe is as old as the standard scientific account takes it to be. But the standard scientific account is wrong about human origins. The mechanism usually described as natural selection and random chance (which is really divine guidance) are real and observable on the small scale, but inter-species evolution did not occur (or, on a variation, it occurred for other animals but not for humans). This view is sometimes just called Old-Earth creationism, but that view technically could apply to the above view (or even the above two).

Young-Earth creationism: The Earth is about 6000 years old, and the creation framework of Genesis 1:1-2:3 describes God's creation process chronologically and with the creation days of the poetic narrative corresponding exactly to 24-hour periods in real time. Sometimes this view is simply called creationism, but that name could apply to all the views in this list except the first one.

Those who hold to the young-Earth model criticize all of the other above views. Here I'm interested only in biblical arguments. Naturalism is easily ruled out biblically, since it denies the very existence of God, and non-creationist theism and barely-creationist theism also seem a little hard to fit with the biblical view of God creating human beings with particular intent. So among those who accept the Bible as authoritative, you're not going to find very many people who accept any of those views, even if conceptual space allows for them.

I'm interested in the arguments Young-Earth creationists use to argue against the other two remaining views. They argue that those two views cannot be held consistent with a high enough view of the Bible as authoritative and infallible scripture, and I can think of three arguments along those lines.

One argument targets common descent, because they think "created according to their kinds" cannot mean that animals were created according to their kinds by means of creating other species first and then slowly evolving them to new kinds. The above sentence would be meaningless if it couldn't mean that, and it's not, so I think that debate is easy to resolve. It can indeed mean that.

The second argument is directed against all old-Earth views, namely the less-than-convincing argument that Genesis 1:1-2:3 has to be taken so that the days within that account must refer to periods of time rather than an organization according to theological purposes. You first have to assume that it means 24-hour periods within the text's framework, which I think is indeed plausible, indeed almost certain, but then you also have to go beyond that to assume that the text's framework corresponds to an actual chronology rather than a theological organization according to the themes the author intended to bring out in contrast with similar creation myths from the time. It's the second assumption that I don't see a strong enough warrant for to counteract the overwhelming scientific evidence for a contrary view.

But there's another biblical argument against old-Earth views that I think has more punch to it. Old-Earth views require animals to have been around for much longer than human existence, killing and eating each other. I suppose there's no absolute requirement for that. Maybe they just had the teeth for carnivorous lifestyles long before they needed them or something, because God foresaw what they would need for after the fall. But such a view seems unlikely to be true. So it seems the fossil record as it stands does require believing that animals killed and ate each other before the first human sin, and animals would have been as much as a threat to the first humans, it seems, whether humans were created wholesale out of dust or out of dust by means of a long chain of natural selection and random chance moving through different species until you got the level of complexity of a human being.

The problem is that the biblical narrative does seem to assume that death came as a result of the fall. So it seems there's a conflict between the biblical narrative and the old-Earth view, even the old-Earth view denying common descent. This isn't just from Genesis 3 saying that death is a result of the fall. Isaiah 11 has the wolf, lamb, and leapard lying down with a young goat in the restored creation undoing the fall, and children play with snakes, with lions eating straw. It's as if the fall is undone, and part of that is undoing carnivorous animals' diets.

There are a number of things old-Earth views have had to say about this problem. One that I think makes some sense is that the Garden of Eden might have been a special place protecting humans from this, where the animals present were different miraculously. It's only human death that the fall brought on, not all death. But that doesn't solve the problem of how restoration undoes carnivorism, when carnivorism was never part of the fall.

It occurred to me when reading Isaiah 11 recently that this assumes something that most Christians don't actually believe. Hardly anyone who holds the Bible in high regard takes the human fall to be the first fall. How did the snake get to be tempting Eve to begin with if there was no sin in the world (and thus no death in the world)? We have to infer an angelic fall from elsewhere in scripture (although I don't think Isaiah 13-14 is a legitimate place to find direct support for that). I wonder if the use of the snake image for the tempter indicates that this angelic fall did affect non-human animals, and God generated human beings (whether by direct creation out of dust or by means of descent from animals affected by the fall) in such a way that human beings were not fallen (after all, animals here aren't fallen, just affected by the angelic fall).

Putting that together with some special provision in the Garden for removing the affects of the angelic fall from animals, I think the problem is pretty much resolved. I'd grant that it's a bit complex to be the most natural thing you'd think from reading the text. However, the issue here is never just the most natural reading of the text vs. a less-plausible reading of the text. It's a whole set of issues that complicate each other. You have the most natural reading of the text on one side with a completely impossible reading of the scientific evidence, and then you have a less-natural but certainly-possible reading of the text with a rather straightforward reading of the scientific evidence on the other side. Unless you want to make our interpretation of the Bible infallible rather than just restricting that infallibility to the Bible itself, it seems the less-plausible but possible reading of scripture with the possible interpretation of the scientific evidence is much more likely than the more-natural reading of scripture with its impossible reading of the scientific evidence.

So, although I said this objection has more force, I think there's enough to say about it that I don't think it's decisive or even worth all that much time worrying about. Those who hold to a high view of scripture can without too much effort accept either of the old-Earth views without this objection really being a problem.

Basic Inerrancy

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Matt Flanagan's Inerrancy and Biblical Authority discussed Glenn Peoples' Inerrantly Assuming Inerrancy in History. There are so many things I disagree with in the latter post that it was very hard to pull myself away from my desire to write a detailed response, but I didn't have the time.

I actually agree with much of what Matt says, if you frame it as a hypothetical, which he does: If Peoples is right that inerrancy as currently held by contemporary interrantists is not the historical doctrine of scripture throughout church history, then it's still possible to claim that the Bible is true in all God intended it to teach us. I think you lose much of what God actually did intend the Bible to teach us, but you can hold a view that God intended it to teach us less than that and still think the Bible teaches all those things.

I've written before about historical figures' attitudes toward scripture, including the biblical authors' own attitudes, and I've concluded that the mainstream Christian attitude toward scripture throughout church history has not been mere inerrancy but the stronger claim that scripture is infallible. [There are those historical revisionists today who claim that they hold to infallibility but not inerrancy, but that's logically impossible without contradiction given what these terms have historically meant. What such people are calling infallibility is not infallibility of scripture but infallibility of certain claims of scripture and not others. Inerrantists hold to the infallibility of all scripture, which entails the inerrancy of all scripture on all matters that it speaks of.]

As I was looking through the text file I keep of things to blog about, I came across a link the Bart Barber's An Errant Bible: The Gateway Heresy (ht: Russell Moore), which I never got around to posting about, but I'm using Matt's recent post as an occasion to do so. Barber's piece is excellent for a number of reasons, but one thing that struck me especially was his response to the first argument he presents from Jim Denison. Denison thinks inerrantists, in responding to objections, have brought inerrancy to the point of death by a thousand qualifications, where the view is so thin that it means hardly anything anymore. In response, Barber says the following:

Actually, Denison's argument works against him, not for him. Yes, many different people have defined "inerrancy" in different ways. And yes, several inerrantists have offered a number of qualifications of the term "inerrancy" in order to forestall misunderstanding regarding the meaning of the term. Denison has suitably demonstrated that people with an impressive array of varied beliefs about the precise nature of the Bible can all claim to be an "inerrantist" in some fashion or another. Denison's suggestion is that this complex state of affairs makes it not very meaningful for one to affirm that he is an inerrantist.
Yet even if this fact makes it mean less when someone affirms that he is an inerrantist, then it necessarily makes it mean more when someone cannot affirm that he is an inerrantist. The denial of inerrancy then means that, out of all the various definitions of inerrancy and with all of the various reasonable qualifications of inerrancy applied, a person still cannot find a way with all of that flexibility to affirm the word in any sense.
I hadn't quite thought about it that way, but I think Barber is right. I myself have argued for a lot of these qualifications. (See my The Broadness of Inerrancy and Longman, Literalism, and Genesis 1.) I don't think inerrancy really is as strong a claim as a lot of people make it out to be. There are several other things a doctrine of scripture will need to affirm to be as conservative as I think fits with what most inerrantists do believe about scripture, and inerrancy itself is only one part of that. I think Barber is right to notice that those who do end up denying inerrancy, as thin as it is given all the qualifications inerrantists bring in, says something about those who do. Their view of the authority and trustworthiness of scripture is even thinner.

This is why it's my view that inerrancy is the basic starting point for a doctrine of scripture. Those who can't hold to it in any sense seem to me to be at odds with orthodox Christian teaching on the nature of scripture. So I can agree with Matt's post only in that his hypothetical is true. If you deny inerrancy, you can still believe that aspects of the Bible's teaching are true, and if those are the only ones that God in his limited sovereignty over scripture cared to influence, then all God attempted to communicate in scripture is present in scripture's infallible teaching. But it reduces the divine role in scripture to a very thin slice of what Christians have historically held to say that God deliberately allowed errors into the Bible of the form that inerrantists deny, and I think it does raise questions of doubt. If you believe the Bible is unreliable in matters of fact that it affirms (but on the view we're considering somehow doesn't teach), then the problem is in figuring out which things it affirms but doesn't teach and which things it teaches via its affirmations. On this two-level view of the Bible, what criteria are there for sorting those out? I suggest that it will be your own preferences for what you want the Bible to teach, even if the position itself doesn't entail that (as I've seen inerrantists claim).

Stargate: The Ark of Truth introduces a very old artifact into Stargate mythology. The Ark of Truth was designed to give knowledge of the truth to those who look into it. In particular, it was designed by those who were resisting the Ori, advanced beings masquerading as gods in order to gain power from those who worshiped them. Somehow (we're not told anything more than this of how), those who look into the Ark of Truth suddenly know that the Ori are not really gods and are not really good at all, that they've been lying to their followers about rewarding them upon their death, and that their primary purpose is to gain enough power to be victorious over their similarly-advanced fellow ascended beings who had departed from their galaxy into ours.

So what is it exactly that the Ark of Truth is supposed to do? It's presented as giving this knowledge somehow to those who look into it. I'm not so much interested in the process of how it accomplishes this as I am in the result. What does this knowledge consist of? It doesn't seem to involve being given any actual evidence in terms of beliefs that then support a further belief. It must involve their somehow seeing what is wrong with their previous beliefs, somehow simply being given the ability to know something that they didn't have enough information to know beforehand. It seems almost like a miraculous ability to know something. One reason for thinking this is that they explicitly say in the movie that the Ark of Truth can't be reprogrammed to convince those who look into it of some falsehood, so it could never be abused if it fell into the wrong hands. It could only be used to give knowledge of the truth. So somehow its mechanism leads to genuine knowledge and doesn't just operate in a way that convinces someone that something is true without being connected to its actual truth. Whatever it does is somehow tied to the thing's actually being true.

I've seen the movie several times now, but it wasn't until the most recent time a week or so ago maybe that this even occurred to me, and it reminded me of a suggestion John Hawthorne offers in his "Arguments for Atheism" chapter of Reason for the Hope Within. He calls it the Gift of Faith. He's responding to the no-evidence argument for atheism, i.e. the claim that we should believe what we don't have enough evidence for and that there isn't enough evidence to believe in God, so we should be atheists.

The Gift of Faith is a possibility Hawthorne proposes for why it might be perfectly fine to believe in God without any evidence at all. He says that, for all we know, some people might be given this ability simply to know that God exists. This ability might just be something God gives to some people. Faith here is nothing like the notion of a leap of faith, where you believe despite having no good reason to believe. Faith here is a kind of knowledge, an ability given by an omnipotent being to allow someone to know of the existence of that being and enough of the nature of that being to know that it's worth following that being. Hawthorne argues, then, that since atheists can't rule out this possibility, they can't go on to argue that the lack of evidence makes theists irrational. Perhaps they have this ability to know God's existence that the atheists making the argument against theism don't have. They can't rule out that possibility, so their skepticism about God by the very skeptical standard they propose (not believing in something without enough evidence) has to falter (because they don't have any evidence for the claim that no one has the Gift of Faith).

The Ark of Truth, then, seems like a nice science fiction device that captures some of what Hawthorne had in mind with his Gift of Faith. The Gift of Faith seems to be very much the same sort as what the Stargate writers (particularly Robert Cooper, in this case) were thinking the Ark of Truth would do. A lot of people I've discussed this with have found the notion of the Gift of Faith hard to make sense of, but Robert Cooper at least found something very similar comprehensible enough to base an entire Stargate movie on.

Stephen Meyer is a the leading proponent of intelligent design arguments. I was surprised when a friend directed me toward Thomas Nagel's brief review of Meyer's new book, and Nagel had only positive comments.

Here's his review in full:

Stephen C. Meyer's Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter - something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

It's especially notable that a pretty mainstream philosopher not known for any work in philosophy of religion would give such a positive review of a book on intelligent design. I've long thought the origin of life issue had a lot more going for it than the complexity of life arguments that most people think of when they hear the expression "intelligent design". I've also long thought of this as a clear example of how intelligent design isn't about the evolution issue at all. It's about whether there are good philosophical arguments for accepting intelligence behind the natural world, completely independent of whatever natural processes were involved in bringing about the way things are now. Since evolution (i.e. natural selection, as Nagel puts it) isn't at issue with the first living cell (evolution can only occur after that), this is about another issue entirely. It's about whether we can infer purpose from the unlikelihood of natural causes producing a living cell, not about whether natural causes could happen to produce a cell.

Bock on Erhman

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Darrell Bock reviews Bart Ehrman's book Jesus, Interrupted. I especially liked this paragraph, which captures very well my own concern about what I've read by Ehrman:

I think what is most bothersome in this book is the way it sets up discussions. It pursues a topic for several pages, often noting in one or two quick and embedded sentences that the point is not as devastating as the impression given by the rhetoric of the whole section. Such qualification involves a quick almost aside that qualifies things so the author has cover. But it becomes a faint cry in light of the more skeptical thrust of the whole work. The result is to launch a discussion in a direction that implies more than the evidence really gives, leaving a greater impression about what is said than the author claims in the qualification. More than that, by excluding other key factors, the discussion leaves the impression of making a point clear that actually is not as cut and dried as the presentation suggests.
It does strike me as a rhetorically-successful but intellectually-illegitimate methodology. It even seems a little intellectually dishonest, because it shows that he does know that his point doesn't show as much as he's using it to show, but he goes ahead and emphasizes it well beyond its significance in order to maximize the effect among those whose trust in the text might therefore be undermined.

That so exactly fits what Ehrman does in Misquoting Jesus, which I've read in its entirety, and his appearances on shows like The Colbert Report and online interviews I've read seem to confirm the general strategy.

Ken Miller gave a talk tonight at Le Moyne College, where I teach. I'll probably put together the thoughts I recorded as I listened to him in a separate post later, but I wanted to comment on one issue that I've written about before. I think I was wrong about him here (which I repeated here). He gave an criticism of intelligent design arguments that ID requires believing in a God who is actually a bad designer. From the way he gave that argument, it seemed to me that he couldn't really endorse what he was saying unless he thought there was no sense in which God is a designer. Basically he'd have to hold the view that God didn't design the evolutionary process with all its dead-ends but that it came about through a long evolutionary process that God didn't oversee in any way, because then that would make God responsible for the bits that are failures.

But apparently that's not his view. I still need to continue my conversation with him over email, because I'm not sure of some of the details of his view on divine providence, but he was very clear in rejecting the view I was assuming he held. 

At the very end of his talk, he gave his stance on God's role in creation. While it wasn't in-depth enough to satisfy me, and I'm not sure yet that he's answered about every question I'd like to nail him down on to understand what the above argument is saying, I think my conclusions about him from his argument on Stephen Colbert were wrong. I'm not sure yet that I was being unreasonable in drawing that inference given what he said, and I'm not satisfied yet that I understand the details of his view, but the view I thought he must hold turns out not to be his view.

He quoted the current pope as accepting the following two claims (and he said he agreed):

1. Evolution as a radically contingent materialistic process.
2. True contingency in the created order is not incompatible with God's providential plan for creation.

If he means contingency the way Aquinas or a modern compatibilist might, then I'd agree. But I'm not sure if Miller agrees with that. How does God's design through evolution work? Is it by building it into the laws of nature? But if it's radically contingent, the laws of nature couldn't assure any outcome, right? The only way it can be contingent in a way that can ensure the outcome is if it's compatibilist contingency, where God really does control all the details of what happens at least by deliberate allowance, and I don't think that's what he was saying.

Miller insists that he's not a deist. He says God is active in the world and in our lives but not in what he calls empirical way. God does it in a way that doesn't interfere with our free will. If God intervened constantly, it would undermine human freedom. We'd cease to rely on moral  choice, so God has to withdraw to allow us to be ourselves. The Holocaust is humanity's work. God allows us to do the most horrible things to each other but also to do wonderful things, including sacrificing to resist evil. Deism is about the personality of God as a creator, and he doesn't accept that approach. Miller believes God answers prayers and believes in actual miracles around him in his life. There might be a perfectly natural explanation for any miracle, but that doesn't rule out God's role.

I talked to him afterward about his problem of waste argument. I was able to get him to agree that the argument didn't apply to every ID position that there might be (although he thinks it does apply to Behe, but I'm not as sure it does even for the reasons he gave, but that occurred to me only later). I wasn't able to get all of the details that I think I need to know to be sure what his view of providence really is. Some of how this argument works depends on that, so I'll hold off on concluding anything further about the argument itself. But he clearly does not hold the view that there is no sense in which God designed the world. The evolutionary process is part of God's design, and the parts of that process that led to evolutionary dead-ends are part of the process God used, which includes death and dead-end species, because it's a process that uses natural causes, which will do that.

I want to pursue this with him over email, because we didn't have time to finish the conversation, and I think I need to know more before I take a definitive stance on his argument. But I wanted to record my re-classification of his views. In my classifications in this post, I have to revise my judgment that he would hold to 1 and 6 and not 2 and 8. He might hold 1 if that just means that the best scientific arguments assume no God. But he would accept 2, and he told me that he's even open to 3, as long as it's clear that he doesn't think we have any scientific evidence of 3. It might nonetheless be true.

He would deny 6. I'm not sure if he would accept 7, although it's probably the closest in the second list to his view. He does think the evolutionary process is a more glorious process for God to have used than special creation would have been, and that might be an indication that he does think the natural world has marks of design, but he's clear that he doesn't think the best scientific conclusion from such things is that there's a designer. I don't think he accepts 8, but I haven't seen him comment on that specifically. He certainly denies 9 and below.

Puddleglum's Wager

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We've been listening to C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles on CD. I read them when I was about ten years old, and I never got around to re-reading them, so some of it is almost as if I'm experiencing them for the first time. When I got to the following scene from the Silver Chair, it struck me as a strange argument, sort of like Pascal's Wager, but something rubbed me the wrong way about it. The main characters were in the Green Witch's underground domain and had fallen under her influence, which was causing them to lose their belief in the above-ground world. Puddleglum the marsh-wiggle then gives the following speech:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say.

What rubbed me the wrong way was that it sounded as if he didn't care whether the world was real. He was going to believe in it anyway, because it's more pleasant to believe in it. How can the upper world be so much better than the underground world that its mere finite value of being better would be worth believing in a lie if it's not true?

When I raised this issue with a friend, he said, "But it's Pascal's Wager!" I said, "No, it's not!" He insisted that the upper world is Aslan's world, which I'd been thinking of as the place at the end of the world that they went to in the previous book, and the upper world was just Narnia, which is the analogue of Earth. But we were interrupted and never managed to finish the conversation.

I realized later, when teaching Pascal's Wager, what Lewis must have been up to, and it's actually a neat trick. If he was seeing Narnia as a placeholder for the eternal reward of Pascal's Wager and the underworld as a placeholder for this life, then you have an interesting argument that isn't quite Pascal's Wager. Pascal's Wager concedes for the sake of argument that life in this world is more pleasant if you don't believe in God but then argues that the chance of eternal reward in heaven compensates for that in terms of rational decision theory. You shouldn't even need 50% likelihood of God's existence for the wager to be worth it given that the reward is infinite and the cost merely finite if you bet wrong. But Lewis' Wager is different in exactly one way: it doesn't make the concession. It takes the finite value of life in this world to be better if you believe in God than if you don't. So life is finitely better if you believe in God, and the afterlife is infinitely better if it turns out there is one. Therefore, it's a no-brainer. You might as well believe in God. If it turns out you lose the bet (i.e. God doesn't exist), you still end up finitely better off, and if you win (i.e. God does exist) then you get an infinitely better result.

One interesting result of Puddleglum's Wager is that it easily avoids the problem Mike Almeida raises against Pascal's Wager. Mike's problem (which I'm not taking a stand on at this point) relies on its being better in this life not to believe.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

Every once in a while I run into someone criticizing the Bible because it contains some depiction of someone doing something immoral, usually when the text never endorses that act or even if it's clear from the general context that the narrator considers the act downright evil. For example, Richard Dawkins objects to the story of Jephthah's rash vow, that if God gives him victory he'd sacrifice the first thing coming through his gates to greet him as he returns home, only to be greeted by his daughter, so he sacrifices her. His reason for objecting? Well, Jephthah did something obviously wrong. So the Bible must not be a good guide to immorality.

As has been said many a time, Dawkins would fail an introductory philosophy or religion course if he submitted materials from his book or similar quality work for such classes. This idea that the mere inclusion of an immoral act in a narrative somehow makes that narrative immoral is downright crazy. No one really believes that. Murder mysteries would suddenly because evil, for instance, because a murder does take place in them. You couldn't have crime-fighting stories of any sort, because those would contain evil acts to be fought against.

Nevertheless, despite this idea being absolutely ridiculous, it apparently comes up in contexts that have nothing to do with the Bible. There's been a campaign against the forthcoming Stargate Universe, the third (and I think what may well be the best) series in the Stargate franchise. Darren Sumner of Gateworld has an excellent discussion of what these objections are and why they fail completely.

Aside from the fact that it's pretty dumb to criticize a show you haven't even bothered to wait to see when you have at best partial information, the argument itself seems silly. It's been rumored that there will be some temporary body-switching, with the consciousness of one person controlling the body of someone else in a different galaxy (which the Stargate franchise has done several times before), only this time the controlling parties will have sexual encounters using other people's bodies. That raises obvious moral questions, in particular if the owner of the body in question didn't consent to have their body used this way. But merely depicting them something doesn't imply endorsement, and it's almost certainly true (given what I know from the Stargate writers) that they will want us to question whether this is ok, again assuming no consent (and we haven't been told if there will be consent to use each other's bodies this way by mutual agreement, which for all I know will be part of the arrangement).

The claim (see the comments) is that it's rape, and they shouldn't be depicting it. Well, we don't know if they'll be depicting it. But they do depict rape on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or at least they sometimes come close enough. They did depict rape on Battlestar Galactica. There were people who objected to the latter, but I never understood why the mere depiction of rape, especially when it's absolutely clear that the people doing it are being downright evil, is somehow wrong. It was, in that case, an easy way to show the morally degenerate state of the Pegasus crew under Admiral Cain's command. The Galactica crew were certainly not perfect, but the Pegasus crew had gone well over the edge to true evil. That scene made that abundantly clear, and it was good storytelling.

The difference here, as some commenters in that thread point out, is that main characters carry this out. But main characters can be morally flawed in a good story. They can even be pretty evil. Why is it immoral for a storyteller to have a main character do something as bad as raping someone? I see no argument for this claim anywhere in any of these discussions.

But comparing these two kinds of fallacious criticisms at least helps me understand that such shoddy thinking isn't present just among those seeking to have any argument, no matter how bad, against the Bible. Those who want to have any argument, no matter how bad, against a forthcoming TV show will resort to the same tactics. So maybe this isn't a problem just among those who want to attack Christianity, the Bible, or religion. It occurs much more generally than that.


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