Why I Don’t Believe in the Rapture (or, How two obscure verses in Acts could rock your world!)

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the rapture, even if it was pretty much the only option when I was younger. Yet on a visceral level, it seemed so…, so escapist. Yes, all those other folks are going to have to go through this horrendous tribulation, but not me! No, my tribe and I are special. God would never allow us to go through such a thing. So I guess all those letters that Paul, Peter and the unknown author of Hebrews wrote talking about remaining faithful through various trials and tribulations didn’t really pertain in the end. And if it’s all about escaping to some heavenly abode, then why is it that in the end of the book of Revelation, it’s about God coming down to Earth and not us going up to Heaven? 

All those things bothered me. But like I said, there wasn’t much else out there if I took the Bible seriously, or so I thought. So I gave weak assent to the belief for many years. I even read a couple of the Left Behind books. (Ugh…. How did they ever sell so well?) At some point along my road away from Damascus, I started reading some different perspectives. I hadn’t really realized that this doctrine of the Rapture was a recent innovation from the 19th century. “You mean, that’s not what Christians have always thought?” But when I started reading N.T. Wright, I finally saw huge weaknesses in the way those who believe in a rapture read the Bible. (See, for example, Farewell the Rapture.)

There are actually only a handful of verses that can be used to justify the Rapture. Principle among them is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.

16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

This, in combination with Jesus’ use of Daniel 7:13 in Mark 13:26 (cf. Matt 24:30, Luke 21:27) seem to make for an iron-clad case that Jesus will come in the clouds to take us all away at the end of the world. 

Except, it’s not.

First off, lets take a quick look at the Daniel 7. In this chapter, Daniel has a frightful dream of terrifying beasts coming out of the sea with teeth of steal, big horns and a particularly boastful little horn. These beasts wreak havoc on the world until the Ancient of Days takes his throne and puts the boastful little horn to death while allowing the other beasts to live for a time and half a time (whatever that may mean). Then Daniel states that he saw one like a son of man coming on the clouds. Note that in Daniel, this son of man is actually going toward Heaven, to be before the Ancient of Days, and not coming to the Earth. After this, Daniel tells how the kings are judged and their rule is given to the holy ones of the most high. The point is that this son of man is actually the deserving ruler, not these beasts and by receiving dominion, he is being vindicated. 

So who is the son of man? In Ezekiel, that is how the prophet is addressed. In the Gospels, this is how Jesus refers himself (contra Bart Ehrman at times, e.g., How Jesus Became God, loc 1600). The son of man is, therefore, one who God has sent to the nation to proclaim its judgment; one who is largely ignored, even scorned. But by picking up the Danielic imagery, Jesus is saying he is more than an ordinary prophet.  He is using imagery portraying him standing before God (not returning to Earth!) where he will receive the rule accorded to him by his father and hence, proven in the right. Or in other words, completely vindicated.

If we see the imagery from Daniel 7 as describing vindication and not a literal coming or going on the clouds, there is one other interpretive benefit. There is a long standing problem with how to interpret Mark 13:30 (cf. Matt 24:34, Luke 21:32), “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” If we don’t think Jesus has already returned on the clouds, we have to figure just what this somewhat embarrassing verse means. Several of the more outspoken atheists point to it to demonstrate their contention that Jesus was a false prophet and therefore not from God. “He predicted he’d return right away,” they say, “but he didn’t.” Others say that this verse was fulfilled in that first generation and that Jesus has already returned but maybe nobody realized it. Still others attempt to tweak the meaning of “generation” so that it means something quite a bit longer than the usual 20-40 years that is common in the Bible. But if we think of Jesus’ use of Daniel 7 as an imaginative, biblical way of talking about being proven in the right, then we can see the destruction of the temple around 70 AD as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Mark 13:2, vindicating Jesus.

What does this have to do with 1 Thessalonians? The message of Daniel 7 is that the faithful in Israel will be vindicated when God judges the nations (the beasts) who are oppressing them. Likewise, Paul is letting the oppressed Christians in Thessalonica know that their faith in Jesus is justified; that they are in the right. In point of fact, Paul says those who have died will be the first to be vindicated because through Jesus, these deceased brothers and sisters will be raised first.

So, what else is Paul alluding to in this passage?

The trumpet here is likely an echo of Moses and Israel at the base of Mount Sinai. In Exodus 19:16, before God convenes with Moses on the mountain, there is a trumpet blast so loud that all the people of Israel tremble in fear. Shortly afterwards, God comes down to Mount Sinai and gives the Decalogue to Moses. The trumpet heralds God’s coming down to the mountain.

But you say, “All very well and good, but in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, it’s quite clear that believers go up to the clouds to meet Jesus and be with him forever. So, nothing you’ve said contradicts the Rapture.” Yes, yes, this doesn’t contradict the rapture, but it does start to give us a bit of context. The real question is, what is Paul talking about when he talks of meeting the Lord in the air?

This is where translations fail us, because it’s not about words, it’s about images. If I refer to “a day that will live in infamy,” as an American, you should immediately recognize what I’m talking about. When we hear those words, in our mind’s eye we see black and white images of smoke pouring from decimated ships slowly sinking into the oily harbor. If I say “9/11,” it’s not the numbers that are important, but what it represents. We see planes hitting the twin towers; the explosions; the buildings collapsing; we remember where we were when we first learned of it. In both cases, the words have meaning well beyond mere vocabulary. Their power is in the images they conjure up within us and that’s what Paul is doing when he talks of meeting Jesus in the air.

Even today, in the Middle East, it is the custom to go out and meet important dignitaries outside the city when they come to visit. The more important the dignitary, the further one goes outside the city to meet them. This custom has ancient roots, going back to biblical times. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus, describing how the citizens of Rome greeted Vespasian as their new emperor says,

as this good will to Vespasian was universal, those that enjoyed any remarkable dignities could not have patience enough to stay in Rome, but made haste to meet him at a very great distance from it (The Wars of the Jews, VII.4.68). 

From there, they would accompany the victorious Vespasian back into Rome. The farther you went out, the more respect it showed.

Here is where a couple of obscure verses in Acts that we almost always skip over when reading should cause you to pause, if not rock your understanding of the Rapture. Toward the very end of the book, Luke briefly narrates an event when Paul is heading into Rome (Acts 28:14-15).

… And so we came to Rome. 15 The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us.

It turns out that the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns were as much as 30 miles(!) outside of Rome. We don’t pick up on it because that’s not our custom, nor are we familiar with the geography, but Luke is emphasizing just how important Paul was! If traveling more than 30 miles, by foot, to meet Paul outside of Rome showed his importance, how much more important must the Lord be if believers meet Jesus in the air? The imagery, then, that Paul is evoking in 1 Thessalonians is that of a returning dignitary or even the emperor himself, coming back to his home country and being greeted by his faithful citizens.   

Now to be sure, some have found weaknesses in this argument. While Erik Peterson, in his book Die Einholung des Kyrios (1930), provides much supporting documentation as to this custom, he neglects key differences between what Paul describes here and the formal Hellenistic receptions documented in ancient literature. According to  Michael R. Cosby there are several key differences in Paul’s account, including: The unexpected nature of the return; the lack of special garments; the lack of a herald and that there was no collection taken up for the dignitary. However, I would argue almost all of these are actually present in Paul’s description.

The most obvious is the supposed lack of a herald. The archangel fills this role when he cries out as well as God’s trumpet sounding out. Second, Jesus’ return in itself is not unexpected; it’s the exact moment that’s unknown. We should be careful to remember that in an era long before radio, TV, cell phones and the internet, one would know that the dignitary was coming, but not the exact moment, hence Josephus’ comment about those of high rank growing impatient. This is no different then the situation the Christians found themselves in during Paul’s day, expecting the Lord’s return but not knowing the exact moment. Not coincidently, Paul addresses this very concern subsequently in chapter 5. As for the garments, Paul seems to allude to this in 1 Corinthians 15:53 where he says, “For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” Therefore, contra Cosby, there is ample imagery in Paul’s words to stimulate the connection for his audience in Thessalonica. And considering that we have inscriptions from the time of Augustus that declare, “Caesar is Lord,” it seems that when Paul says that we will “meet the Lord in the air,” it would almost certainly bring to the minds of the believers in Thessalonica a picture of a formal reception to meet their returning sovereign, the Lord.

To sum up, then, Paul is mixing and matching three distinct images in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. One, he evokes the trumpet at Mount Sinai in Exodus but this time, it heralds Jesus’ return. Two, he is utilizing the Danielic imagery for vindication, with the son of man coming in the clouds to the Ancient of Days. Finally, by employing common imagery for greeting an important dignitary, or even the emperor himself, Paul draws upon the cultural imagination of his audience in Thessalonica to see themselves as going out to meet their Lord and returning triumphantly to Earth (not Heaven!) with him.

What role does the rapture play in your faith? If it’s not an accurate understanding of the Bible, how does that affect your faith?

Review: The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, Part 2

Last week I posted the first part of my review of the massive volume, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, edited by D.A. Carson. This week we’ll cover what I consider some significant weaknesses along with some brief concluding remarks.

And now the negatives

There are several essays that are particularly weak, either because they seem to beg the question or their arguments don’t hold up well under the weight of the evidence. I was a bit surprised given the intellectual gravitas represented by the authors in this volume, that several of them were of such mediocre quality.  This part of the review will highlight four of them: Carson’s Introduction, Dempster’s essay on The Old Testament Canon, Waltke’s essay on Myth, History and the Bible, and Birkett’s essay on Science and Scripture.

We will begin with Steven G. Dempster’s chapter, “The Old Testament Canon, Josephus, and Cognitive Environment,” in which he seeks to demonstrate that a canon of books was well known and closed at the time of Josephus and that it had been so for quite some time. He calls the position of those who think the Jewish canon was not set until the second century CE and that the Christian canon until even later, minimalism. This in itself is an interesting choice of words, since that term is usually used (pejoratively) of those who think the biblical books largely lack historical usefulness by those who think otherwise (so-called maximalists). His contention is that the lack of (written) evidence for a well defined canon of books in the first and second centuries actually points to the idea that the issue wasn’t a concern because it was already settled. While this may look suspiciously like an argument from silence, he cites Josephus in Against Apion (8:37-43), to point out that Josephus explicitly asserted that there were 22 books in the Jewish canon, five of Moses, 13 books from Moses to Artaxerxes, and four books containing hymns and precepts for living (10224-10242).

Dempster draws the conclusion that this list is canonical, that it limits the scope of canonical works to a particular time (no later than the Persian period) and that the canon was clearly enumerated and already divided into three sections (10248). He argues against several scholars who advocate that Josephus’ choice of books was “reflecting the gradual emergence of a small circle of Pharisees” (10295) because if that were the case, Josephus would forfeit his credibility. This of course, seems to ignore that for Josephus’ broader project, credibility was about making the Jews look good, especially to the elites in the Roman empire. He does so here by pointing to both the antiquity of the Jewish books and their much more manageable number. Dempster goes on to note that in 4 Ezra, a work contemporaneous with Josephus’, it states that there are also 22 books. He then helpfully gives several citations of early works, from the Babylonian Talmud, with 24, to Bishop Melito, who mentions 25. To defend the books that Melito enumerates, Dempster considers the omission of the book of Esther accidental. This, of course, is hardly likely, given that Esther was not found at Qumran either, making it clear that this book was on the periphery of canon, at best.

This highlights the broader problem with Dempster’s assertion of a fixed canon by the time of Josephus. Even from his own evidence, it appears that the lists of sacred books he references are at best a centered set, not a bounded set. By this I mean that there were books that were considered at the core of the scriptures by virtually all Jewish groups. This would obviously include the Pentateuch, which was even acknowledged by the Samaritans (in their own redaction, of course) and likely included almost all of the books we number among the prophets as well. But the rest of the books, which later became known as the Writings, were much less definitive (Sidnie White Crawford. Rewriting Scripture in Second Temple Times, 113). So which particular books belonged to the overall list of sacred books was not so well enumerated because they were not so well defined. And if, by definition, a canon is a closed set (Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible, p57; Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, p7), then as much as Dempster may believe that Josephus had a canon that was representative of the broader contemporary Jewish community, the evidence does not appear to support this. The mere fact that the number of books was in flux shows that a canon was, at best, specific to particular communities. For example, we see that at Qumran, 1 Enoch and Jubilees appear to have been considered scriptural and there is a possibility of others (White Crawford, 146).

Dempster’s defense of a Canonical Epoch is pretty traditional, following Josephus’ testimony, which has the closing of the canonical epoch with Artaxerxes. Here, Dempster attempts to separate a form of prophecy that was common, such as with the high priest, John Hyrcanus mentioned in 1 Maccabees, from a form of prophecy that led to scriptural writings. Dempster also cites 1 Maccabees as evidence that prophecy had ceased from Ezra-Nehemiah onward, although in truth, at least two of his citation (4:45-46 and 14:41) could be interpreted to imply that there was an expectation that prophets would come in the foreseeable future. This is not to say that the mainstream consensus wasn’t that prophecy was disappearing from Israel, at least as advocated by those in positions of power. That does indeed appear to be the case.  But it’s possible that treating prophecy as coming to an end in the Persian period legitimized the Hasmonean endeavor, at least in part, by positioning themselves as the saviors of Israel’s heritage (Carr, 158-59). Other data from Qumran, as we saw above, shows that later works were considered scriptural for that community and that they functioned with a belief in active prophecy, as did the early Christian movement. (At this point, I’d like to see research regarding the role of prophecy among marginalized groups in the second temple period, but that’s a different issue.)

One of the reasons that prophecy ending with Ezra-Nehemiah is important for Dempster’s argument is that Daniel is widely considered among modern scholars to stem from the Maccabean period. To his credit, he acknowledges this and that scholars see an uncanny similarity in the prophecies portrayed in Daniel to the events leading up to just prior to the death of Antioches IV Epiphanes. But his response is to simply wave it off.

The only difficulty with this interpretation is that one must conclude that, unlike all the other pseudonymous works that claimed an ancient, canonical pedigree, the book of Daniel “fooled” everyone and made it into the canon! (10647-10649).

That isn’t actually an answer. It ignores that some groups did indeed treat particular pseudonymous books as Scripture (including, at least a bit later, Christians!) and that many of the books may have had their last major revision during the Maccabean period as part of the process of centralizing books (technically, scrolls) containing important traditions for Jewish self-understanding. 2 Maccabees states that during this period, Judas Maccabaeus “collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war” (2 Macc 2:14). However, this is almost assuredly not just the collection of ancient works considering that the multiple books of the Maccabees were also written during this time, but likewise, the formation and/or redaction of many. So to state that Daniel would’ve had to have “fooled” everybody else cannot be sustained in light of the evidence.

Throughout the chapter, it seems surprising how much weight Dempster gives to Josephus and other late evidence over against what was found in Qumran. “If this textual pluriformity at Qumran provides a window into the wider Jewish world, it seems to suggest that Josephus’s view of the canonical text is totally out of touch with reality” (10794-10795). But while “this may be something of a hard intellectual pill to swallow” (10801-10802), the evidence does indeed appear to support that Josephus provides only a single data point, albeit one that eventually grew to become the majority.  Even as far as Josephus is concerned, it is likely that the actual texts he was using were at times at variance with the Masoretic Text we now have, what Dempster sees as a sort of majority text. For instance, Ulrich argues that Josephus uses a text for 1-2 Samuel that most closely resembles 4QSama (Q), a text that does not agree with the Masoretic Text (MT). There are “at least four readings in which the biblical scroll use by J [Josephus] agrees with Q against MT, but no reading emerge in which J agrees with MT against Q” (Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible, p186). So it would appear that “Josephus’s claim that nothing had been added or subtracted from the biblical texts was not hyperbole” (10845-10846) is unsustainable, even as witnessed by Josephus use of variant text forms himself. (Assuming the manuscripts of Josephus we have were not revised at some point as well. Cf. Karen H. Jobes, Invitation to the Septuagint, pps 283-84 n33).

We have gone on much too long already in reviewing this particular essay, but that’s largely because it requires some of the most detailed reasoning to understand its faults. If nothing else, it highlights that the same evidence can be interpreted multiple ways. On the positive side, this is one of the few essays in the book that acknowledges some of the textual difficulties, especially of the Hebrew Scriptures. But I wish that significant scholarly research had been better engaged and not simply brushed aside with the wave of a rhetorical hand.

I found Waltke’s essay, “Myth, History and the Bible,” particularly unpersuasive in large part because its reasoning seems to beg the questions. He defines myth as fundamentally ahistorical, which I would agree with in general, although this needs fleshing out, as well as “a story informed by pantheism and magic” (17015), which seems to predetermine where he wants his argument to go. Methodologically, Waltke is attempting to classify texts along the same lines a biologist would classify organisms; kingdom, phylum, genus, etc… with the goal that myth be defined more narrowly.  It’s an interesting approach and he looks at several ancient Mesopotamian myths to tease out the difference between them and the Bible.  But his definition of myth as innately tied to pantheism exposes a predefined bias for the Bible being of a completely different category than other ancient writings. His definition of myth can be contradicted by several examples of modern day myths that do not fall in this category, whether the myth of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree or, possibly a bit more controversially, the myth of redemptive violence so popular in our culture. In both cases, there is nothing pantheistic or magical about them! Even if we grant ancient myth is necessarily referring to the supernatural and ahistorical, it’s hard to understand why Genesis 1-11 would not qualify, given typical ancient mythical markers of heroes from days gone by, extraordinarily long lives and even an unusual beast, in the form of a talking serpent.  However, for some reason he classifies the Bible as poetic history because he believes it is anchored in history but the tale of Gilgamesh as myth because he does not. Of course, given that the Sumerian King List includes Gilgamesh, it appears that the Akkadian epic would likely have been considered in the genus, to use Waltke’s categories, historio-poesis. And this is the overall weakness of this essay. It continually privileges the biblical text. Nowhere is this clearer than in the conclusion, where he states, “the Mesopotamian myths bastardize the historical reality, which the Bible preserves in pure form” (17782-17783). It is fine to make this assertion from a confessional point of view, but it does not hold much weight in a volume meant to employ scholarly approaches to the Bible. In part, this is disappointing because it overshadows some very interesting work where Walke helpfully addresses how ancient Israelite writers borrowed Canaanite imagery but not necessarily the associated theology, concepts also mentioned by others, such as in Robert Alter’s, The Five Books of Moses (cf. p425 n16), but very clearly articulated here.

We will now move on to look at Kirsten Birkett’s chapter, “Science and Scripture.” I had high hopes for this essay, as the interplay between what we know (epistemology) and science in how we understand scripture is an important subject. She first argues that in the case of Galileo, the problem was that the church was too pro-science, not that it was anti science. This is an interesting perspective and to a degree I find her argument persuasive, although the subheading seems to overstate her case. Her contention is that the church had bought into the science of its day, a form of geocentrism derived from Aristotelian physics. At least since Thomas Aquinas tied the beliefs of the church to an Aristotelian framework, “to question Aristotle was to question theology” (29189). She uses this fascinating tale to present her central argument, that “Christians should never allow Christianity to be tied to a secular system of thought” (29258). She then goes on to discuss different ways the age of the earth has been understood through Church history. Interestingly, she cautions not just against a scientific reading of Genesis, but also against the rise of creationism, saying “interpretation in reaction can be just as problematical as interpretation in accordance with science” (29409-29410). Finally, she goes on to discuss models for how science can interact with Scripture, focusing primarily on Denis Alexander, John Polkinghorne, and to a lesser extent, Arthur Peacock, finding all three have “not let Scripture guide his science, but science guide his reading of Scripture” since they “simply go against Scripture” (299913-29915). This is because all three, to one degree or another, let science influence or determine how scripture should be understood and what the God in those Scriptures can and cannot do. Using the grid of science these three assert God cannot do things that are logically or scientifically self-contradictory. Yet for Birkett, this restricts God because “God is clearly described in the Bible as sovereign, and predetermining; he not only knows what happens in the future, but he makes it happen” (29915-29916). For Birkett the problem is that they interpret scripture using systems from outside scripture. “External philosophies, even ones as successful in explanatory power as modern science, do not have the final say” (29934-29935). Of course, what boarders on ironic here is that her reading of scripture seems to be through a distinctly Reformed lens, with it’s focus on “God’s sovereignty and divine freedom” (29937).  Doubtless, she would claim that this is derived from scripture itself but that’s also how Aquinas understood his work.

In essence, it appears that Birkett is advocating that we read the Bible from some detached position, unaffected by what we learn from outside the Bible, something that I don’t know how to do and seriously doubt is even possible, given our own situatedness. What makes this essay ultimately unsatisfying is that it never gives any examples of what it would look like to do this. For a rather trivial example, science tells us that the mustard seed is not the smallest seed. Should we believe the Bible when Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest seed on earth (Mark 4:31)? Obviously, Genesis 1 is far more important, but why should we allow science to change how we think of Mark 4:31 and not Genesis? This is the question left unanswered in the essay and why this essay is ultimately unsatisfying.

We will conclude this review, rather paradoxically, with D. A. Carson’s extended Introduction, which serves as both a literature review as well as an introduction to the present work, with his own concerns sprinkled in. One would hope that in the introduction to a volume that seeks to provide a solid intellectual foundation for both the authority of Scripture and ultimately, its inerrancy, that the introduction would reflect sound academics and a thorough understanding of the essays within it. Unfortunately, it does neither. Carson steers into ad hominem attacks at times, referring to Stephen L Young’s essay as being “snide” (474) as well as Kenton L Sparks and Peter E. Enns as “both slightly angry and slightly self-righteous” (565-566). He criticizes J. R. Daniel Kirk for saying “that an inerrantist must hold to a young earth” (913), yet ignoring that the CSBI, as we have seen, virtually requires it (a document he himself has signed, mind you).  He also displays the virtually de rigueur conservative Protestant misrepresentation of Catholic teaching, stating that inerrancy is less of a problem for Catholics because for them “the ultimate teaching authority is not Scripture” (897). The irony, as we have seen, is that the essay that he sites within this very volume clearly states otherwise.

In his discussion of Carlos Bovell’s work, Carson conflates, as do many of the authors in the book, high views of Scripture with inerrancy. For example, he states that we find high views of scripture across “many philosophical and theological contexts” (1078) followed by criticizing Bovell for condemning “inerrancy for its (ostensible) dependence on Cartesian foundationalism” (1084-1085), thereby tying a high view of Scripture and its authority inextricably to inerrancy. Yet, as Rea’s essay points out, this is not necessarily the case. And finally, he brings up the classic bugaboo that “We need to adopt a certain cautious skepticism … regarding some of the claims of science” (1133-1134), although to his credit, he does say that this shouldn’t “sanction arrogant dismissal” (1145-1146) of it. It’s unfortunate because he sets up a type of Christian certainty against the provisional nature of science. However, this overlooks two things: First, as the essay by Vanhoozer notes, Christian Doctrine is also provisional and second, by the very nature of science, it is self correcting. Given the understanding of Scripture advocated in this essay, could the same be said about Christianity?

Conclusion

I found this book to be surprisingly helpful in several ways, albeit, perhaps not in the way the editor may have intended. Principally, it demonstrates, however unwittingly, that academics are starting to move beyond the definition of inerrancy asserted in the CSBI and at the same time, lays some of the theological and philosophical groundwork on how this might be done, while still maintaining what it considers the essential doctrine of inerrancy. It was helpful to include a section on world religions, given our highly connected and at times, politically charged world. I felt Glaser’s essay in this section did an excellent job of introducing the reader to some of the similarities and broad differences in how Muslims understand the Qur’an compared to how Christians understand the Bible. (I do not feel qualified to speak to the other essays in that section.) Unfortunately, as large works like this are wont to experience, the quality of the essays varies dramatically overall. Most disappointing, though, is what is missing: a rigorous look at the nature of Scripture given the biblical, archeological, linguistic and textual evidence available to us today. Instead, a predetermined answer is assumed rather than critically explored and developed.

What about you? What’s at stake in how science and Scripture might interact? Do you think that the Bible deserves a privileged position in terms of treating it as history as compared to myth? 

Review: The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures

This week and next, I will post my review of the massive volume, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, edited by D.A. Carson. This week we will start with an overview and the positives of this work while next week I’ll cover what I consider some important weaknesses along with some brief concluding remarks.

img_0087-1The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Edited by D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids, Michigan : Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016) sets out to provide, in one rather large volume (over 1200 pages!), a defense of, not so much the authority of the Christian Scriptures, but of their inerrancy. The book contains numerous essays on Historical, Biblical, Theological, Philosophical and Epistemological topics, along with a handful of essays regarding Comparative Religions as it relates to the authority of the Bible. In the introduction, which in itself contains a wonderful bibliography of non inerrantists’ works, the editor, D. A. Carson, surveys a wide variety of fairly recent (and some not so recent) monographs on the nature of the Bible. His overarching concern seems to be that these recent works “go beyond” the fundamentals of the doctrine of scripture and “for better or for worse, break fresh ground” (Kindle location 383; all locations are Kindle locations unless otherwise noted), which I take to mean denying inerrancy.

As others have remarked, it is telling that the book does not start by developing a doctrine of scripture, but rather dedicates the first section to looking at the historical development of the authority of Scripture within the church in an attempt to show that church luminaries throughout history not only understood the Scriptures as authoritative, but inerrant. This is indicative of what the book is: An attempt to defend a predetermined understanding of the nature of Scripture, namely Inerrancy. However, this is not simply The Battle for the Bible redivivus; the essays in this volume attempt to bring fresh insight into current debates about the nature and importance of biblical authority usually in the form of inerrancy.  For those who already agree with this understanding of Scripture, it will be a welcomed addition to their library. However, it almost feels like a lost opportunity to look at just what does the Bible claim for itself, how has that been understood in the past and how might we understand those claims today. As a result, for those with differing views on the nature of scripture, even those who hold to a high, but not necessarily inerrant view, the essays will often be found lacking in evidential support, sound argumentation, or both.

First the positives

Overall, this compendium of essays brings together a variety of voices, not all of whom appear to agree with each other. This is to be admired for a volume whose chief purpose is defensive.  Hill’s essay on Scripture in the Patristic Period, Lane’s on Catholic perspectives since Vatican I, Vanhoozer’s on whether we may move beyond the text and Rea’s on Authority and Truth were especially insightful. Also helpful for non-specialists is Glaser’s essay on Qur’anic Challenges for the Bible Reader in the Comparative Religions section. One of the more interesting aspects of this work as a whole is that some of the individual authors seem to distance themselves from particular aspects of inerrancy as defined in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. For instance, Webb’s essay on “Biblical Authority and the Diverse Literary Genres” acknowledges inner-canonical contradictions (or “tensions,” in his words) between James and Paul, something that, on the surface at least, challenges “the unity and internal consistency of Scripture” spelled out in Article XIV of the CSBI.

We will begin our more detailed look at specific essays with Charles E. Hill’s chapter, “’The Truth Above Demonstration’: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine” which gives a very helpful overview of how the church fathers viewed scripture. This essay is full of helpful quotes from the primary sources. In it, he acknowledges that Origen, a very influential early church father, believed there were errors, at least as it relates to history and some facts, in the Scriptures. It is very helpful for Hill to acknowledge what appear to be contradictions to the belief that the church has always understood the Scriptures as inerrant. Hill then attempts to explain this contradiction by looking at Origen’s larger theological project, that of delving into the “spiritual realities” of the Scriptures.  According to Origen, “A desire to showcase the benefits of spiritual exegesis can open one’s eyes to literal contradictions where others may not see them” (1977-1978). In essence, Hill seems to be saying that Origen understood there to be errors based on his “Spiritual” hermeneutic but it seems that perhaps the reverse is true: That Origen developed his spiritual/allegorical hermeneutic in response to what he perceived to be errors in the narrative of the text. Still, overall Hill’s essay does an excellent job of surveying the early church fathers and their views on the authority of the Scriptures, if not necessarily connecting that authority to inerrancy.

Bookending Hill’s essay in the Historical Topics section is a fine summary of Roman Catholic thought by Anthony N. S. Lane, “Roman Catholic Views of Biblical Authority from the late Nineteen Century to the Present.” After a brief overview of Trent, in which he highlights the importance of changes made from the early drafts where the final draft removed the word “partly” from the clause, “partly in written books, partly in unwritten traditions” (9401), Lane goes on to give a thoroughly helpful overview of the formal development of Catholic thought regarding Scripture from Vatican I (c. 1870) through the end of the 20th century. The bulk of his essay, however, focuses on one of the dogmatic constitutions from the Second Vatican Council, Dei verbum (c. 1965). Lane helpfully notes that official church teaching spelled out in Dei Verbum contradicts Protestant assertions that Catholics subordinate the Bible to the teaching office.  More importantly, apparently under the influence of Hans Küng, it moved the church away from more dogmatic approaches to Scripture. The next section covers the commemorative work, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (c. 1993), in which Lane reviews how the changes represented in Dei Verbum, especially the new found emphasis on the “genuine human authorship” of the Bible, freed Catholic scholars to employ critical methods that are usually considered anathema by Fundamentalists. (And I would add, to many of the gatekeepers of Evangelicalism, including some of the authors in this volume.) Overall, this essay gives a very informative overview of recent Roman Catholic work and dispels several protestant misunderstandings, making it a worthwhile read in itself.

I found the essays in the Biblical and Theological section to be largely bland and sometimes even outright unhelpful.  An exception to this is Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s chapter, “May We Go Beyond What Is Written After All? The Pattern of Theological Authority and the Problem of Doctrinal Development.” In this essay he seeks to do several things. One, he makes a case for the on-going task of constructive theology, what he refers to as Christian Doctrine. Second, he encourages a movement beyond what he calls naïve biblicism (which he claims is actually the target of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible) and accept instead a “critical biblicism” (emphasis his). He then seeks to delineate ways that we can move beyond the text “with a limited degree of extrapolation” (23859), while still putting boundaries on that movement. Vanhoozer spends the remainder of this essay spelling out how this could be done, using a narrative, or (theo)dramatic context. This approach will likely resonate with readers of N. T. Wright.  Vanhoozer’s essay is thoughtful and worth reading more than once.

Some of the most interesting essays were among the Philosophical and Epistemological Topics. R. Scott Smith’s essay, “Non-Foundational Epistemologies and the Truth of Scripture” points out that there are many foundationalisms, so at the very least, critics must be willing to define what they are critiquing when it comes to foundationalism (which he claims neither Grenz nor Franke do in their works). Smith shows a willingness to move toward a soft foundationalism, although his overarching concern seems to be that we can know reality in itself accurately, albeit not exhaustively, as opposed having simply “our interpretations or conceptualizations” of reality (26560-26561). His primary exemplar for the need to maintain some sort of foundationalism is Paul’s (so-called) conversion.  He says that Paul’s “Pharisaical grid” could not have provided the framework for Paul to come to know Jesus as Lord without somehow coming to see “Jesus for who he truly is” (26566-26567). The concern is that “if we cannot access reality (even Scripture) directly, albeit in ways that are accommodated to our finite minds, we will not know reality” (26559-26560). But this seems to break down in at least two important ways. First from the biblical witness, it appears that at least Nicodemus, with a similar Pharisaical interpretive grid, also became a follower of Jesus (John 3:1-10, 7:50, 19:39) so this supposed interpretive grid did indeed provide the necessary conceptual framework. Second, from a linguistic standpoint, cognitive linguistics points to all language being metaphor so that we don’t have any way to interpret reality, except through conceptualization. It’s ironic in a way, then, that in an essay on epistemology, Smith’s foundational assumptions here seem inadequately grounded. All that said, I still found this essay very helpful in attempting to spell out a more chastened foundationalism.

Probably one of the most profound chapters in this volume, and one that non-inerrantists and inerrantists may read quite differently, is Michael C. Rea’s “Authority and Truth.” In this essay, Rea argues that authority and truth do not need to be inherently linked, but instead, it depends on the domain in which the text is authoritative and the centrality of the errors to the main subject of the text. “No ascription of authority to a text is complete without the specification of the domain within which it has authority” (27014). Indeed, if this is the case “then no text — and certainly not the Bible — is authoritative simpliciter” (27010-27011), meaning authoritative in everything. He then goes on to discuss different kinds of authority (practical and theoretical), what makes something or someone an authority and authority defeaters. “Authorities are sources of information or directives” (27032-27033). Authorities are defeated when we have conflicting authorities. In other words, we come to learn that one authority has priority over another. For example, if I say a particular Hebrew word means X and you go look it up in the dictionary and it says, Y, then you are more likely to give the dictionary priority over me. (Which is not to say I may not be correct, but simply that by default, an academic Lexicon has priority.)

The next section of this essay covers truth. After a very brief acknowledgement that defining truth is much too unwieldy for such a short essay, Rea goes on to give a high level overview of some of the categories in the literature (realist/anti-realist, epistemic/non-epistemic and correspondence theories vs. everything else). Here we get to some of the key questions of the essay: How can a text can be considered true if it contains falsehoods? His answer: If “the falsehoods simply aren’t central — that is, they are not part of ‘the most important message’ of the text,” then they do not falsify the text (27417-27418). This, of course, requires that we must be skillful interpreters of the text in order to determine what the central message is, as well as the domain in which it exercises authority. Rea then draws six conclusions, which I will quote at length:

  1. To say without qualification that a text is authoritative is to say nothing definitive about whether it is true. (27439-27440)
  2. if a text has theoretical authority over an individual in some domain, then the text’s assertions within that domain must be reliable enough to warrant belief in the absence of defeaters (27452-27454).
  3. if a text has foundational theoretical authority over S in D, then it must be at least as reliable as any other authority for S in D (27465-27466).
  4. (β) G is the author of the Bible, and, necessarily, for any text τ authored by God and for any individual S other than God, τ has foundational authority over S in the domain defined by the text itself (27496-27498). If God is the author β implies that the Bible is perfectly reliable within the domain defined by the text itself. Thus, if β is true, then every proposition that the Bible semantically asserts or intentionally conveys must be true, and all of its directives constitute decisive reason for action (27499-27501).
  5. it is not clear that any (non-question-begging) assumption weaker than β will forge the same link between authority and inerrancy. We have already seen that a text can be foundationally authoritative for an individual in a domain without being perfectly reliable in that domain (27522-27524). So it seems that those interested in maintaining a connection between scriptural authority and scriptural inerrancy will be best served by devoting their philosophical-theological energies to a defense of β (27527-27529).
  6. Our views about the nature and scope of biblical authority shed, all by themselves, relatively little light on the most interesting questions about the truthfulness of problematic passages in Scripture. Consequently, it is a mistake to treat the topic of biblical authority as somehow lying at the heart of debates about the reliability and inerrancy of Scripture. Far more pertinent to these latter debates are questions about the nature of God and divine authorship: In what sense is God an (or the) author of Scripture? What are God’s aims in Scripture? What might be God’s aims in this or that part of Scripture? Is God the sort of author about whom β is true? (27540-27545, emphasis added).

This has important ramifications for the nature of authority. First off, we can see that authority need not be tied to inerrancy, as is done in so many of the essays. Second, it leaves the door open on how to understand the Bible as authoritative but not necessarily inerrant although I’m not sure that was Rea’s intention. But if, say Genesis, is not meant to be authoritative in the scientific domain, then reading Genesis 1 as a type of etiological poetry would not weaken the authority of Scripture, contrary to Article XII in the CSBI (“We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”)

All in all, I have devoted the most time to this essay because I think it provides the philosophical groundwork on how to understand a non-essential correspondence between authority and inerrancy. Next week we will proceed to some of the less satisfying essays in the book.

What are your thoughts? Does the Bible have to be inerrant to be authoritative? Does a high view of Scripture necessarily entail inerrancy?

A brief start on the nature of Inspiration

In my previous post, I laid out several factors to consider as far as the nature of inspiration in light of the phenomena of the Bible. Today we will look at the first of these, although admittedly, very briefly.

  • Scripture is clearly written by people who were culturally and linguistically bound to their own time and place.

That Scripture was written long ago, by a people very different from us, in a culture very different from ours shouldn’t need much explanation. We are products of modernity, shaped by its way of thinking (even post-modernity is a direct reaction to and hence, shaped by modernity), its technological innovation and its priorities. The people who wrote the books that eventually became what we call the Bible were shaped by very different ways of thinking, different kinds of innovation and different ways of understanding the world and their place in it.

One of the tasks of translation is to make the source language understandable in the target language. So at times, cultural references are translated into meaningful references in the target language. As a result, some of the “alienness” of the original is intentionally translated out. And that is at should be. But in the case of ancient texts like the Bible, one of the side-effects  is that it can leave us reading our own circumstances and understandings into the text, since it all sounds so familiar. Take, for example, Psalm 37:3.

בְּטַ֣ח בַּֽ֭יהוָה וַעֲשֵׂה־ט֑וֹב שְׁכָן־אֶ֝֗רֶץ וּרְעֵ֥ה אֱמוּנָֽה

We will look at a couple words in this verse. The Hebrew word amun(ah)  has the connotation of faithful or true. It’s used of relationships, both between people and between people and God. The second word we will look at is shekan, which means to dwell and is rooted in the word for “tent” or “tabernacle” (a particularly large tent). The NRSV renders the Hebrew:

Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security

A more literal rendering might be

Trust [in the sense of “rely”] in/on the Lord and do good. Dwell [possibly in tents]  in the land and pasture [or cultivate] faithfulness.

Do you see how the translation has removed the cultural alienness of the text? This is based in an agrarian society where people lived a semi-nomadic life. Since we don’t live in tents anymore, the translation simply renders the word shekan as “live.” Likewise, we are not semi-nomadic shepherds, moving our flocks around in the land looking for hospitable grazing land.   Now don’t get me wrong, this is a reasonable translation (although not without its particular linguistic problems). But the point is, we don’t live in tents doing seasonal field labor and most of us don’t pasture sheep or grow things on a farm. So the idea of cultivating faithfulness is translated as enjoying security, something that is much more understandable to us but largely removed from the alien circumstances of the Ancient Near East.

Another area that is more controversial is the multi-tiered understanding of the cosmos. This is clearly identified in Proverbs 3:19-20 (CEB).ancient_science_diagram_giberson

19 The Lord laid the foundations of the earth with wisdom,

establishing the heavens with understanding.

20 With his knowledge, the watery depths burst open,

and the skies drop dew.

יְֽהוָ֗ה בְּחָכְמָ֥ה יָֽסַד־אָ֑רֶץ כּוֹנֵ֥ן שָׁ֝מַ֗יִם בִּתְבוּנָֽה

בְּ֭דַעְתּוֹ תְּהוֹמֹ֣ות נִבְקָ֑עוּ וּ֝שְׁחָקִ֗ים יִרְעֲפוּ־טָֽל

Here we see multiple tiers explicitly grouped together: The earth on its foundations, the heavens above, the watery depths below and the water that comes from the sky. When Genesis 1 talks about the firmament or dome (רָקִיעַ), we tend to read it metaphorically. But that’s probably not how the ancients understood it. The sky really was a structure that separated the waters above from the waters below. Based on ancient carvings and writings, the idea that the sky was a solid dome does not appear to be merely poetic imagery or metaphor.  Hence, in Job 22:14, God walks on the dome (חוּג, an admittedly different word, but the same imagery). This is just how they seem to have understood the cosmos.

These multiple tiers are seen in other ANE literature as well, albeit in somewhat different form. For example, In the Epic of Creation (Enuma Elish), after Marduk has slain Tiamat (tablet IV), he splays her body in two, with half of her “put up to roof the sky” (Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, 257). Similarly, in several Egyptian texts and funerary inscriptions, we see reference to the primordial waters. In the book of Nut, it says “The upper side of this sky exists in uniform darkness, the southern, northern, western and eastern limits of which are unknown, these having been fixed in the Waters” (Trans. James P Allen, The Context of Scripture, Vol 1, 6). Here we see several references that correspond to the ideas found in Genesis 1, “And the land was tohu vbohu (usually translated formless and void but with the connotation of chaos and a lack of any organization) and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” For our purposes, the important thing to note is the idea that the deep, or primordial waters, make up one of the levels of the cosmos, just as they do in Genesis, exemplifying this broader, multi-tiered cosmological worldview of the biblical context.

This view of the universe is significantly different from ours and we pretty much can’t help but think of it as metaphorical or poetic. In fact, that’s probably why it hasn’t been translated out, as we saw in the passage from the Psalms. But the idea of the Earth orbiting around the Sun, suspended if you will, by nothing, is completely alien to the Ancient Near East. This is not to say these people  were ignorant. It’s just to say that their understanding of the universe was distinctly pre-scientific and the multiple tiers was how they envisioned the cosmos.

The point being, that the people who wrote the books we now call the Bible wrote from within their own distinct culture(s) and were just as much a product of their times as we are of ours. This becomes our first point about inspiration. The Bible was written and sometimes updated by people in specific times and specific places and those times and places are very far from where we are today. To ignore or minimize this fact would be to dismiss one of the most basic understandings of where and when Scripture comes from.

So what does this mean for inspiration? To start with, it means that we need to understand the books of the Bible in their ancient context. Nothing too controversial there. But to understand that, we need to look at the the broader literature and other artifacts from the Ancient Near East and use it to compare and contrast with the Bible. I’m sympathetic to a grammatical and historical grounding of our interpretations, even though it’s clear the Church has not always used that method, especially in light of the traditional four-fold senses of Scripture (literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogical). The multiple layers allowed the Church to read the whole Bible as inspired, even when they felt the literal sense could not be describing the God they saw revealed in Jesus.

The Bible is a very human work and that means we can’t just interpret the Bible by the Bible, but that we need to bring in external sources, not just literary and archeological, but also other disciplines whether sociology, linguistics,  or even musicology to help us understand it and act as a control on our interpretations. It also means that it will be very helpful to ascertain the times and places the books were written. We need to understand the history of the books and their textual history. The texts have a past, sometimes a very checkered past, and to understand the texts we need to come to grips with that past. It will no longer do to simply say the originals were inspired when we know that what we treat as inspired aren’t the originals. In fact the very idea of originals, at least as far as the Hebrew Scriptures are concerned, is dubious. Whatever inspiration may be, it must be rooted in God acting upon and through some very human works, works that have changed to one degree or another over time.

So what about you? What are ramifications of the Bible being a human book, albeit not merely human? Does that diminish its authority? Do you see problems with using extra-biblical literature to help us understand the Bible?

How might we understand what the Bible is?

As we’ve seen, the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures (aka, the Old Testament), is a complex phenomena, with different authors, from different times. The text was demonstrably not static, likely up until at least the second century after Jesus. And these revisions do actually affect the meaning at times. Additionally, different books in the Bible appear to speak contrary to that of other books. So what we have is a collection of works from different, occasionally contrary voices built up over centuries. Again, this is not some sort of literary theory. This is what the physical manuscript evidences tells us. (Although, as we saw with Judges 6, the textual evidence does indeed at times support the assertions of higher criticism).

If we are to understand the Bible as having some sort of authority in the life of both the Church and the individual believer, how might that look? For the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, authority is inextricably bound up with inerrancy, as the conclusion to the initial five statements declares,

5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

But to tie authority to the inerrancy of scripture ends up being unsustainable.  As the past several posts have argued, authority can neither rest on the belief that the specific words were inspired, since the words of the books have never been consistent, nor on some putative original, in whose words that authority would reside since there often never was an original in the sense that the CSBI needs there to be.

Now some may argue that this makes the Bible merely a human book, a collection of writings that are no different than those of other ancient authors, whether Homer or the semi-anonymous scribes who recorded and updated the Gilgamesh epic.  But even if the Bible is a collection of works by human writers, it does not need to be merely human. So the question becomes, what does inspiration mean in this situation? Is inspiration conveyed by the qualitative (what it is) or the quantitative (lack of errors) nature of scripture?

While the authors of the CSBI assert both, in truth we see that for them the nature of inspiration dictates that it be inerrant. In the short statement after the preface, we see that scripture is understood to be a derivative of God himself.

1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture…

2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word…

3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author…

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault…

The progression is pretty clear. God is true and he inspires Scripture, which makes scripture God’s own Word, with the Holy Spirit as its Author. Therefore, Scripture must be without error or fault. But inerrancy is an assertion based on a particular understanding of what the authors of the CSBI think inspiration should mean in turn based on the presupposition that God is not just the ultimate author, but the proximate one.

Article VIII, which we have already looked at in a previous post, asserts that even though God may have utilized human authors, “causing them to use the very words that He chose,” He somehow does not override their persons to do so.

God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.

We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities. (Article VIII).

This actually makes sense when viewed from a perspective in which God is absolutely sovereign over all things and yet somehow does not override the individual will. This is, however, self-contradictory. It is not a mystery but rather, incoherent (cf. Roger Olson’s recent post, A Crucial but Much Ignored (or Misunderstood) Distinction for Theology: “Mystery” versus “Contradiction”). So how else could we understand what inspiration means, especially in light of the the phenomena of Scripture?

Going forward, we will sketch out aspects of inspiration that better fits the Bible we actually have.

  • Scripture is clearly written by people who were culturally and linguistically bound to their own time and place.
  • By the very nature of classic literature, its impact goes far beyond its original time and place.
  • What we find, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a description of how those people experienced phenomena they understood as God. As such they faithfully recorded their experience of God and what they understood Him to be doing. Because that understanding changed over time, it was also updated over time. But their understanding was limited and is distinct from the reality that is God. If this were not the case, revelation would not need to be progressive by its nature.
  • The job of the Holy Spirit, then, is to breath God’s life into human writings. Inspiration becomes about how God took very human works and used them in the process of revealing himself, making them more than what they were, but still limited by their earthiness.
  • The authority of Scripture, then, cannot rest on its “very words” because that limits God’s self revelation which can never be contained in written words but is most fully expressed in the incarnation of His son, Jesus.

That’s enough for now. We will start to unpack each of these going forward.

What would you add to or subtract from this list? Is there anything here that disturbs you?

The Bible: A Unified Voice or Multiple Voices?

The last several weeks we looked at the issue of what an original is, in light of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy’s heavy dependence on an original. And while the statement never defines what it means by an original, it is clear from the manuscript evidence that it cannot bear the weight imposed on it by the CSBI. This week, we will change tacks and look at the belief that the Bible never contradicts itself and therefore speaks with a unified voice, even while being progressive in its relation. Article V says,

We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.

We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it. We further deny that any normative revelation has been given since the completion of the New Testament writings.

In addition, Article XIV declares:

We affirm the unity and internal consistency of Scripture.

We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible.

These articles, combined, insist that scripture is unified in what it says (down to the very words, as we noted in previous posts), even while progressively revealing God more and more clearly. This has spawned a virtual cottage-industry of apologetics attempting to harmonize any apparent discordant voices. One example from the Hebrew Scriptures is the different motivators for David’s census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. In these two narratives, the cause of David taking a census are disparate, with the Lord being said to have incited (סות) David in Samual, but with Satan (NRSV), or a heavenly adversary (CEB) (שָׂטָן – the lack of the definite article makes the CEB translation preferable to the NRSV in this case), being the one who incites David in Chronicles. While there are better arguments, the typical  way to harmonize these verses is based loosely on the book of Job, where God basically sends Satan to torment his faithful servant. Likewise, the argument goes, God incited David, but he did so through Satan, whom he sent. Of course, the big problem with this is that no text actually says this. So in essence, what becomes canonical is something that has never actually existed.

For this post, though, we will leave that particular issue aside. Instead we will look at whether the canonical books might provide multiple disparate internal voices that do in fact provide conflicting perspectives. Specifically, we will examine three representative samples: A quick look at how Paul understands Abraham’s faith in Romans 4 compared with that of James (2:23-24); Ezra 9-10 in light of the book of Ruth; and the Yehu rebellion (2 Kings 9-10) contrasted with a brief mention of it in Hosea 1:4. What I hope to show is that the canonical books of the Bible don’t always speak with one voice but that this is actually a strength of the scriptures we have, allowing for a canonical dialogue between multiple voices and providing an inherent internal self critique.

Abraham believed God (Romans 4 and James 2:23-24)

With the reformation emphasis on justification by faith, Romans 4 was a key for unlocking the chains of works righteousness that Luther felt bound the Church. Our purpose here is not to, as NT Wright has said, debate 16th century questions giving 19th century answers. Here I simply want to contrast how James and Paul interpret Genesis 15:6 to substantiate their point.

4;2 Because if Abraham was made righteous because of his actions, he would have had a reason to brag, but not in front of God. What does the scripture say? Abraham had faith in God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Workers’ salaries aren’t credited to them on the basis of an employer’s grace but rather on the basis of what they deserve. But faith is credited as righteousness to those who don’t work, because they have faith in God who makes the ungodly righteous. (CEB)

Paul is making the argument that it is Abraham’s faith that justifies him, or makes him righteous, depending on how you understand the word δικαιόω, not works. Now while I personally side with the idea that Paul here is talking about identity markers of belonging as opposed to how a person is forensically justified before a holy God, either way, what is clear is that Paul is using the passage in Genesis 15:6 to say that works are not how it’s done, but rather, faith alone.

James on the other hand, seems to be directly opposing what Paul is saying, or at least, what Paul was being understood to be saying. And he does so based on the same passage, Genesis 15:6, that Paul uses.

2:21 What about Abraham, our father? Wasn’t he shown to be righteous through his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 See, his faith was at work along with his actions. In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions. 23 So the scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and God regarded him as righteous. What is more, Abraham was called God’s friend. 24 So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone. (CEB)

James here clearly interprets Genesis 15:6 as necessitating works, or “faithful actions,” as the CEB translates it. It is these “faithful actions,” that makes one righteous.  Protestants especially have spent significant energy attempting to show how these two passages don’t actually contradict each other, although Luther himself once referred to this letter as an “epistle of straw,” words he seems to have later reconsidered. Let us not lose the main point of the argument, though. The reason protestants, and Evangelicals in particular, have spent so much time trying to harmonize these two passages is rooted in a theology of the Bible, one that requires the Bible to speak with one voice, because ultimately, the “very words” come directly from God, meaning that it ultimately has a single author. But in this case, we seem to have James providing at the very least, a balance to Paul, if not an outright contradiction.

Ezra 9-10 and the Book of Ruth

In Ezra 9-10 we find the story of how Ezra realized that the men of Israel had married foreign women, and that the women were the reason that Israel had fallen away in sin. Our issue here isn’t with the blatant misogyny represented by this passage (it’s all the women’s fault!) but with its demands for ethnic purity.

9:1 When these tasks were finished, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites haven’t kept themselves separate from the peoples of the neighboring lands with their detestable practices; namely, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. They’ve taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and the holy descendants have become mixed with the neighboring peoples. Moreover, the officials and leaders have led the way in this unfaithfulness. …

10:10 Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful by marrying foreign women and adding to Israel’s guilt. 11 But now, make a confession to the Lord God of your ancestors and do his will. Separate yourselves from the neighboring peoples and from the foreign wives.” 12 The whole assembly shouted in reply, “Yes. We must do as you have said. (CEB)

The root of the problem is that the people of Israel have taken foreign wives and this is amplified by their leaders doing the same thing. They have become “mixed” with those who are not holy descendants.  This demand for ethnic purity does not come out of the blue. Deuteronomy 7:3 explicitly warns against intermarrying (חתן) with the inhabitants of the land they are entering. And although the Moabites are not mentioned in this particular passage, the implication is that the prohibition against marrying foreign wives is universal because intermarriage will turn the people away from the Lord. Indeed, this is exactly where Ezra lays the blame for Israel’s apostasy.

Yet, what are we to make of the positive portrayals of foreign wives in other places? Joseph marries Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera (Gen 41:45) and Moses marries Zipporah from Midian (Exod 2:21-22) and a woman from Cush (Num 12:1) (“Intermarriage, Gender and Nation in the Hebrew Bible,” Esther Fuchs, in The Passionate Torah” ed. Danya Rutterberg, 73-78). But maybe the most interesting story about intermarriage is the story of Ruth.

In the book of Ruth, Naomi marries Elimelech, who lives outside of Bethlehem, and they have two sons before settling in Moab. While there, her two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Unfortunately, Elimelech dies and subsequently, so do both their sons, leaving Naomi in a very difficult position, unable to support herself. Telling her daughters to return to their own land and seek husbands there, she begins to return to Judah, where she hopes to live off the traditional charity reflected in the Torah. Orpah follows her mother-in-law’s wishes and returns, but Ruth refuses and returns to Judah with her mother-in-law. Ruth eventually captures the heart of Naomi’s well-to-do relative, Boaz, and marries him according to the customary social support for widows known as levirite marriage (Deut 25:5-10). All of this sounds like an ancient romance with a happy ending. But it doesn’t end there. The final verses provide a remarkable plot twist. It turns out that Ruth the Moabite is actually the grandmother of David! Therefore the archetypical ruler David himself was not of pure blood.

I cannot help but see this story, especially the ending, as a deliberate contrast to the edict of Ezra, whether consciously or not. In Ezra, we have a voice clearly saying that the ethnic bloodlines must remain pure. Yet with Ruth, we have a voice saying that David, the hero of Israelite history, the one who united all the tribes, was actually not of pure decent, with a Moabite grandmother. Therefore, the book of Ruth provides a critique of the ideology espoused in Ezra.

Before summing up, we will look at one more example of disparate voices found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Jehu Rebellion (2 Kings 9-10 and Hosea 1:4)

In 2 Kings 9-10, we find the story of Jehu and his rise to power. Jehu is anointed by one of the sons of the prophets in Elijah’s prophetic order and told to “strike down the house of your master Ahab, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord” (9:7). And Jehu does just that, killing Joram in Jezreel with a bow shot as he fled and commanding the death of Ahaziah as well. After this, he confronts Jezebel, has her thrown from a window and subsequently trampled under foot and eaten by dogs, fulfilling Elijah’s earlier prophecy (1 Kings 21:23). From there, Jehu presides over what can only be called a massacre, slaughtering the remainder of Ahab’s family (10:1-17) and later, the followers of Baal (10:18-28). The massacre of Ahab’s family was “according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah” (10:17) and he is given credit for wiping out Baal worship in Israel.

This portrayal in Kings is nothing but positive in that regard. Although he didn’t quite follow YHWH whole heartedly, it was “only the sins of Jeraboam” that he didn’t turn from. In the narrative, Jehu is fulfilling the command of Elijah, the most powerful prophet in the Deuteronomistic History. Indeed, YHWH says that Jehu “did well to do what was right in my eyes, all that was in my heart you did to the house Ahab” (10:30, my translation).

And yet, oddly enough, there is a strong hint of opposition to Jehu. In Hosea, the Lord commands Hosea to name his first son, “Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will destroy the kingdom of the house of Israel” (1:4 CEB). It seems clear that for Hosea, the bloody massacre that took place in Jezreel is being condemned and will eventually result in the fall of the house of Israel.

Andersen and Freedman appear to disagree that Hosea is condemning the massacre perpetrated by Jehu. They rightly argue that it wasn’t Jehu’s sin, per se, that condemned Jeroboam four generations later, since God doesn’t punish future generations. Instead, they argue, “Hosea is saying that what God did to Ahab and his brood by means of Jehu is exactly what he will now do to Jeroboam and his family, and for the same reasons” (Hosea, 181, emphasis in the original). They go on to say

Jeroboam is blamed, not for resembling Jehu, but in part for the opposite. He was a traitor to the good done by his great-grandfather, he did not maintain Jehu’s “zeal for Yahweh,” zeal shown in his merciless extermination of the Baal cult and all its devotees (ibid).

Their argument in support of this is that Hosea is ostensibly following Elijah (1 Kings 18:18) in the condemnation of Jeroboam, apparently in verse 4:10, although they don’t say specifically. However, the only similar language is that of leaving, or rejecting (עזב), a word that shows up over 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, including over 20 times in Isaiah, with over half of those in First Isaiah. So the linguistic connection is tenuous at best. But even if the connection were there, it is unclear how Jeroboam is being blamed for not showing Jehu’s zeal. So, while I hesitate to go against such esteemed scholars as Andersen and Freedman, I do not see any solid evidence to support their position. As best as I can tell, the reason to conclude that Jeroboam, and Israel as a whole, are not being condemned for continuing in the massive bloodshed perpetrated by Jehu is a desire to bring Hosea into alignment with the prophecies of Elijah.

Conclusion

I think it is clear that the canonical books of the Bible do not always speak with one voice. The books were written by people who lived in different times, who had different ideals and different agendas and at times, may even have been altered by scribes so as to support perspectives different from what was originally intended. But if the Bible contains multiple voices, then those voices can be used to provide a form of internal self critique with an on-going dialogue between them. We see this in each of the three examples above, with James providing a critique of Paul, with the book of Ruth providing a critique of Ezra and with Hosea providing a critique of Elijah and the Deuteronomistic History. Now I am not saying this critique was necessarily deliberate on the part of the authors of the books, just that the canon has developed in such a way that it is self critiquing. By ignoring this phenomena and attempting to harmonize those discordant voices, we limit Scripture.

However, there is no reason this need to be thought of as diminishing the Bible’s authority for the modern day believer, although it does make the task of understanding and applying the truths of Scripture much more difficult. No longer can we simply look for a verse to support an assertion.  Instead we must look to the community of voices in the Bible and let their dialogue play out in our contemporary setting in light of God’s ultimate revelation, Jesus Christ.

The thrust of this series so far has been to show the weaknesses of the CSBI trying make the Bible something the phenomena of Scripture itself doesn’t support. In the next few weeks, we will begin to look at constructive ways in which we might understand what the Bible is.

Do you find the idea of scripture being self-critiquing helpful or threatening?  What are some of the ramifications if this is the case? How might this affect our own questions about God?

What is an original when it comes to the Bible, Part Tres

damascus_pentateuch

via Wikimedia Commons

Previously we looked at some of the main textual traditions for the Old Testament: The Masoretic Text (MT), composed in the middle ages and exemplified by Codex Leningradensis and the Aleppo Codex; the Septuagint (LXX) text, which is the Greek translation(s) of the Old Testament books (defined loosely); and the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), the textual tradition of the Samaritans containing the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scroll (DSS) found at Qumran, although not actually a textual tradition, give us a glimpse into relatively early forms of the text, with individual scrolls witnessing to each of the main textual traditions and possibly others that are no longer  extant.  This week, we will look at a handful of examples of how the manuscript evidence points to a much more complicated situation when it comes to the idea of an autographic, or original, text.

First, though, a brief reminder that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy says about the transmission of the biblical texts.

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved, so that we are amply justified in affirming, with the Westminster Confession, a singular providence of God in this matter and in declaring that the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free.

We will save a more detailed analysis of this particular paragraph for later. For now, what’s important to note is how favorably the CSBI understands the “science” of text criticism. It is, in fact, necessary for their project, since they acknowledge the obvious fact that there are variants in the manuscripts.

The question for our purposes is, what do these variants tell us?  How well do these manuscripts agree and how do they reflect on our understanding of a purported original? In this post, we will look at four different examples: Judges 6, which shows evidence of late textual additions, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both of which show evidence of multiple editions, and finally, a comparison between Stephen’s martyrdom speech in Acts 7:4 with the texts of Genesis 11 and 12.

Judges 6.

Going back at least as far as Wellhausen (Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, 234), verses 7-10 have been thought to be a late addition, with the original going directly from verses 2-6 to 11-13. The ostensibly added verses here serve as an apologetic for why the Medianites were able to oppress the Israelites. The suspicion that these verses were late additions was confirmed with the discovery of the manuscript 4QJudgesa (4Q49). While fragmentary, this document does not have space to have contained the verses in question.  Line 5 has the end of verse 6 and line 6 of the manuscript contains the last view words of the first half of verse 11 (אשר ליואש האביעזרי), so it is clear that there isn’t space for the additional verses found in the MT.  This evidence not only tells us that the text we have in the MT has changed, but that it was changed relatively late in the transmission process.

Jeremiah

The MT of Jeremiah is roughly 1/6 longer than the LXX. But not only is the LXX shorter, leaving out passages in places, it also presents the narrative of the book in a different order. For instance the MT Jeremiah 25:15 – 26:24 show up in chapters 32 and 33 in the LXX whereas chapter 46 shows up in the Chapter 26 in the LXX. Passages that are missing in the LXX include verses 39:4-13, 48:45-47 and 49:7-22, just to name a few. The generally accepted conclusion based on text critical criteria (remember, text criticism is understood as necessary and good by the CSBI) is that the numerous additions and alterations in the MT compared to the LXX point to the book of Jeremiah circulating in multiple editions from a very early time, with the Greek being based off a now lost Hebrew edition (or vorlage). Esteemed DSS scholar Eugene Ulrich (c.f. “The Evolutionary Composition of the Hebrew Bible” in Editing the Bible, eds. John S. Kloppenborg, Judith H. Newman, 36) believes that the fragment(s) 4QJerb shows strong evidence of this Hebrew vorlage. However, Karen Jobes (Introduction to the Septuagint, 173-77) points out the tentativeness of this conclusion, given the fact that this fragment contains only around 300 Hebrew letters and that the eminent DSS scholar Emanual Tov concludes that these fragments didn’t even come from the same scroll. So we are left without any direct evidence for the Hebrew vorlage of the Greek version of Jeremiah, but nonetheless, clear evidence that there were at least two distinct editions.

It is possible that the book of Jeremiah itself evidences an early tradition acknowledging multiple editions. In Jeremiah 36 (MT, LXX 43) Baruch is told to write all the words of Jeremiah on a scroll.  This scroll is eventually read to king Jehoiakim, who cuts it up and burns it. Afterwards, Baruch is told to rewrite the scroll and does so (36:32), adding many words to the text (וְע֨וֹד נוֹסַ֧ף עֲלֵיהֶ֛ם דְּבָרִ֥ים רַבִּ֖ים כָּהֵֽמָּה), demonstrating that the new scroll was an expansion of the original. Of course, in Jeremiah 36, the original scroll was burned up. But it may be possible by implication that it had been secretly copied by Elishama the scribe when it was in his possession (36:20) prior to it being read to the king and subsequently destroyed.  Either way, we are left with possible evidence supporting multiple text forms, which does not fit neatly into the category of a single original.

Ezekiel

The book of Ezekiel also shows evidence of having circulated in multiple editions. Our earliest, nearly complete manuscript of Ezekiel is papyrus 967, which dates back possibly as far as the second century AD. This predates our Hebrew editions by around 700-800 years.  While there are fewer discrepancies between the Greek and the Hebrew editions than we find in Jeremiah, the ones that are there are very instructive. In P967, the end of chapter 36 (17b-35) is missing (this is an Eden text in the MT). In addition, chapter 37 has been moved to after chapters 38 and 39 relative to the MT. Chapter 37 is the famous dry bones chapter and chapters 38 and 39 contain the narrative about Gog and Magog. The belief is that by moving chapter 37 before chapters 38 and 39, as we have in the MT, the revivifying of the bones signifies an historical horizon for the restoration of Israel, one in which they are currently in the land, albeit oppressed on all sides and looking for a Davidic ruler to rise up militarily, whereas the Greek text of P967, with the dry bones coming after Gog-Magog, posits an eschatological horizon, without the need for the Davidic ruler to be a military champion (c.f. Ashley S. Crane, Israel’s Restoration, 250-257). The meaning, then, changes rather dramatically depending on which version you read.

It’s not, however, entirely clear anymore whether the version in P967 is actually earlier than the edition represented in the MT. For years, scholars have treated the Greek P967 as the primary text of Ezekiel, representing the earliest version of the book. But with the publishing of the Masada Ezekiel fragments, which as we saw above, date to no later than 70AD and are probably at least several decades older, the conclusion that P967 represents an older form of the text is no longer beyond question. This is because the Masada Ezekiel fragments contain chapters 36-39 in the MT order. Since we clearly have an older manuscript that supports the MT, it makes it difficult to conclude with any level of certainty that P967 represents an older text form of Ezekiel. Not that it’s impossible; it’s just much more difficult to assert.

These differences, do however, support the conclusion that two distinct editions of Ezekiel circulated from an early date, both of which likely preceded the Christian era. (See Ingrid A. Lilly’s published dissertation, The Two Books of Ezekiel, for a well argued and detailed look at the broader reasons for considering P967 and the MT as representing two distinct editions.)

Acts 7:4 and Genesis 11:26 – 12:4:

In Stephen’s martyrdom speech in Acts 7:4, he says “So Abraham left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After Abraham’s father died, God had him resettle in this land where you now live” (CEB, emphasis added). Why is this interesting in terms of the Hebrew Scriptures? Well, it turns out that a minor discrepancy with Gen 11 and 12 points to the idea that Stephen used a different version of the Genesis account than what modern Christians consider canonical. In Genesis 11:26, we read that Terah was 70 years old when Abraham was born. And in 11:32, we read that Terah died when when he was 205 years old. Now note that Stephen says that after Abraham’s father died, he left Haran to settle in Canaan. So that would mean that Abraham was at least 130 years old when he left Haran (205 – 75). However, Genesis 12:4 says that Abraham was 75 when he left Haran. So how do we reconcile these two different chronologies?

The short answer is, we don’t! At least not in the traditional sense. This is a definitely a case where it doesn’t seem to make a difference to the meaning of the narrative. After all, Stephen was in the process of being martyred for his faith, so we might not expect him to have gotten every detail right in the heat of the moment. Some, then, say that Luke inerrantly recorded Stephen’s errant speech.  However, there’s a much more reasonable explanation, although one with significant theological ramifications. It turns out the Samaritan Pentateuch matches Stephen’s narrative. The SP records Tarah’s age as 145 in verse 11:32 instead of 205, as in the MT. This matches up perfectly with Stephen’s narrative (70+75). But it causes problems for the doctrine of inerrancy since it implies that Stephen accepted the SP, a textual tradition that is not considered canonical by Christians. Yet if it was apparently considered sacred scripture to Stephen (and presumably Luke didn’t see it as a problem, either), how can adherents of inerrancy logically reject it? What if it turns out that the SP is actually a better exemplar of the supposed original?

Conclusion

This post has already gone on quite long enough. We have seen that the idea of an original, or autographic, text is difficult if not impossible to sustain in light of the evidence. In fact, using the very techniques of textual criticism that the CSBI relies upon, we find the idea of an original likely cannot mean what the authors of the CSBI need it to mean. As Eugene Ulrich notes, “everything we know about the biblical text prior to the end of the first century C.E. … indicates that the text was pluriform” (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origin of the Bible, 9). He goes on to point out that

The principal evidence we have for confirming that the texts of the books as found in the medieval manuscripts of the Masoretic Bible are closely faithful to the ancient texts is the evidence from Qumran. And that evidence from Qumran, when seen in perspective, demonstrates that there were multiple editions of the biblical books in antiquity” (11).

What gets even more intriguing is that with the book of Jeremiah, we may have support within the canon itself for textual diversity. If this is the case, then I do not see how the kind of verbal, plenary inspiration based on a putative original in the CSBI could be maintained, since the textual traditions themselves would not support it.

We have seen from our examples four things. One, that texts assumed to be canonical have clearly been changed and updated, throwing the idea of an original into confusion since texts considered canonical end up having been updated from earlier versions. Two, that translations were considered inspired by the NT authors, as opposed to how the CSBI understands inspiration. Three, that in some cases the editions that the NT authors apparently considered inspired would be rejected by the authors of the CSBI. And four, that several of the Old Testament books circulated in multiple forms and that this plurality of texts was not considered a problem. In fact, we have almost the opposite situation where Jeremiah may provide validation for differing textual versions. So, the foundation for our understanding of what the Bible is and its authority cannot rest on the concept of a single, inerrant original when the phenomena of the Bible strongly mitigates against it. Not only that, but if the very books that must be inerrant do not support the foundational assumptions of inerrancy, then inerrancy in this form is incoherent.

If this is the case, how does it affect your faith?  Is there a way for the Christian to understand their faith apart from an inerrant Bible?

Next week we will look at the idea that scripture never contradicts itself, which is a logical consequence of the CSBI, but actually ends up constraining the diverse voices within the canon.