Biblical studies: September 2009 Archives

Justin Taylor posted a video of Tremper Longman discussing Genesis 1 and the historicity of a real person named Adam. His main claim seems to be that we shouldn't insist on the text requiring an actual historical person to have existed and that it's an overly literalistic interpretation that requires that. I read through the comment section, and I think a lot of people are making some mistakes both in interpreting what Longman is saying and in what it implies about his view of scripture.

Several points seem to me worth emphasizing.

1.Longman has denies neither plenary inspiration of scripture nor inerrancy. What he has done is deny a view that many people here take to be implied by (a) inerrancy or the plenary inspiration of scripture together with (b) a certain view of what Genesis 1 and/or other texts of scripture, when interpreted correctly, actually teach.

2. If Longman is incorrect about the matters (b) describes, then his view is compatible with inerrancy but incompatible with the correct interpretation of scripture. But lots of people have views incompatible with the correct interpretation of scripture, and we don't claim that they are therefore denying inerrancy. Do continuationists claim that cessationists are denying inerrancy (or vice versa)? No! They simply disagree with their interpretation of scripture. It would be another thing to say that a text really means something but that what it says isn't true. The Fuller Seminary view of scripture allows for that. Longman's doesn't.

3. Longman didn't actually say that Genesis 1 should be taken in such a way that there was no single Adam. What he said is that we shouldn't insist that it must be. He also didn't say that the same is true of other passage of scripture. It's possible, for all he said, that he thinks Genesis 1 doesn't necessitate a single Adam but other parts of scripture do. I get the sense from his language that he's more interested in recognizing that people can accept inerrancy and accept the conclusion of the consensus of science than he is at arguing that we ought to take any particular view of how to interpret Genesis 1.

He does say that insisting on the traditional interpretation is overly literalistic, but he doesn't actually go as far as saying that merely taking it that way is overly literalistic. He says that insisting on taking it that way is overly literalistic. There's a difference. One is insisting on keeping the borders of inerrancy intact rather than confusing them with heremeneutical issues. The other is insisting on a certain interptretation of a certain passage. He doesn't in this video do the latter. I'd have to hear more from him to know his full view, therefore, but I see no insistence that there was no single Adam. We ought, at least, to keep that in mind.

4. There are ways to fit the non-individual approach to Adam to the other texts people are citing. It does mean a somewhat unnatural reading of a few statements (such as Paul's comparison of the one man Adam and the one man Jesus), but it's possible to take those statements as true while not referring to an actual one man Adam but to the one man Adam in the Genesis account. I don't think this is the most natural way to take either the Genesis narratives or Paul's statement, but it's possible to take the Genesis narratives as true in the sense parables are true and Paul's statement as true in the same sense that it's true that the Good Samaritan helped the man that other passersby ignored. It's true that the Good Samaritan did this. It's just truth within a story. The character in Jesus' parable did that. It's just that he was telling a parable and not implying the existence of a real person who did what the Good Samaritan did.

Someone could take Genesis' early chapters in a similar way, teaching about how we are all fallen and how we all do what Adam and Eve did, thus in NT terms taking there to be an explanation of why there's a need for a savior, without believing there was a real individual person whom the Bible calls Adam and a real individual person whom the Bible calls Eve. So the other passages that Longman doesn't discuss don't necessitate denying scripture in other places. The fact that he only mentions Genesis 1 doesn't mean he'd have to say that someone holding the view he wants to make room for (but doesn't seem to endorse) is denying some other part of scripture. It just means he didn't address those other passages, and a fuller presentation of such a view would have to do that.

So, short of further information, I'm not seeing any justification for some of the claims I've seen in the comment section of Justin's post. Longman doesn't deny inerrancy or the plenary inspiration of scripture. He doesn't endorse the view he's making room for and doesn't say the traditional view itself is overly literalistic but just says that insisting on the traditional interpretation as the only possible one is overly literalistic. He doesn't comment on other passages but presumably could, and it's not as if there are ways to fit such a view with the rest of scripture without denying inerrancy. There's plenty of room for arguing about whether such a view is the best way to take various texts, but there's no room in my mind for claiming that this approach is a denial of a high view of scripture itself. It's just a denial of common interpretations that, together with a high view of scripture, would lead to the view of a historical individual Adam.

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.

In the opening verses of Judges 3, there's an apparent contradiction:

1 Now these are the nations that the Lord left, to test Israel by them, that is, all in Israel who had not experienced all the wars in Canaan. 2 It was only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before. 3 These are the nations: the five lords of the Philistines and all the Canaanites and the Sidonians and the Hivites who lived on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath. 4 They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the Lord, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses. 5 So the people of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 6 And their daughters they took to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons, and they served their gods. [Judges 3:1-5, ESV]

Verse 2 seems to say that the only reason God allowed some Canaanites to remain in the land and not be destroyed is so that future generations of Israelites who weren't part of the conquest would learn warfare. Verse 4 seems to say that God allowed the nations to remain in the land as a test for Israel of whether they would follow the Torah or revert to the Canaanites' ways.

There are those who conclude that these two verses must have been written by two different authors who had conflicting agendas, and somehow and for unfathomable reasons they got combined by some idiot who couldn't tell they flat-out contradicted each other. If you thought ancient writers or editors were either stupid or unconcerned with telling a coherent narrative, then you might be attracted to such a theory, but most decent literary interpretation tries to make sense of the text rather than trying to read it in the least charitable way possible. So it would be nice to find an explanation that doesn't make the author or final compiler look like a complete dunce.

I think the apparent inconsistency disappears if you think of learning warfare not as learning how to fight (which doesn't seem to be the sort of thing God ever emphasizes in the Bible anyway and wouldn't matter if there were no enemies anyway) but rather as knowing the experience of being at war. Why would God want them to have the experience of war? Verse 4 explains that. If this is right, then verses 2 and 4 aren't providing contrary explanations but are emphasizing different aspects of the same explanation. It may not be the most natural interpretation of verse 2 if that verse were taken in isolation, but these other factors should count for something.

So I've listed ten myths that I at one point just believed when I first heard them, even if in some cases it was only when I was pretty young. I also wanted to put together a list of myths that never sounded plausible to me, even the ones I heard as a kid, but that somehow get passed around as if true (and in some cases even get trotted out as if any serious scholar must believe such a thing).

1. KFC changed its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken because they don't use chicken anymore. They use clones of chickens grown without heads, and the U.S. government won't allow them to call that chicken.

2. There's such a person as Santa Claus.

3. The Bush Administration orchestrated 9-11.

4. Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S.

5. The Pentateuch was compiled over several generations by people with different and conflicting ideologies, and we can reconstruct which ideology is behind which verses or even partial verses with pinpoint precision, according to such tell-tale signs as which name is used for God or whether it happens to involve a negative or positive assumption or conclusion about a certain tribe of Israel. It amazes me how confident scholars can be of this even though no sources have ever been found for such texts, no textual statements in the text we have indicate anything about any such sources, and no two scholars can even agree on which parts come from which sources.

6. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, is a practitioner of Wicca who sought to convert Christians to Wicca by writing novels about magic.

7. Sarah Palin cut funding for teen mothers because of pro-life convictions.

8. George W. Bush attacked Iraq because he believed God told him to.

9. Sarah Palin thinks God directed the U.S. to attack Iraq.

10. Divine foreknowledge and predetermination are incompatible with human freedom and responsbility. Sorry, I suppose I should find something less controversial. How about the commonly-heard line about how Jesus' statement that it's easier for a camel to get through an eye of a needle than for the rich to enter God's kingdom once you know that there's a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle, and camels can get through it, but it's hard. (I once heard someone repeat that false background to Jesus's statement and then say that knowing that changed her life. Somehow. She never explained any further and probably couldn't have done so even at gunpoint.)

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