Like most sinners, I sometimes think the world revolves around me. Occasionally phenomena in the world seem almost to encourage the delusion.
The past week, I've been writing a chapter for our upcoming anthology, Faith Seeking Understanding, entitled "The Fingerprints of Jesus." My argument is that human nature and the gospels are such, that simple, uneducated people often come to know the "historical Jesus" better than eminent scholars who in theory have spent their entire lives trying to track him down. In part, the chapter is a condensed version of my earlier book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.
No sooner outlined, than one of the best examples of scholarly miopia in reading the Gospels falls into my lap -- Hector Avalos' "The End of Biblical Studies," which constitutes chapter 4 of John Loftus' The End of Christianity. I know theologically that the world is not my oyster, and actually I don't much like oysters, but in this chapter, one finds a baroque pearl of great price.
Not that Avalos' chapter is weak in the secondary traits of effective argumentation. It's well-written, covers a multitude of subject areas with apparent competence, does not hit below the belt as often as some of his other writings (but sometimes it does, see below), and is copiously and informatively footnoted. He even cracks a decent joke ("Biblical archeology lies in ruins.")
Nevertheless, to say Avalos misses the target, is like saying Douglas Corrigan landed at the wrong airport (in Ireland, rather than Long Beach, California!)
(Reader be warned: the two of us have a bit of "history." See first posts in this blog. I'll try to be fair, though.)
Avalos and The Bad Book
In a sense, the purpose of this chapter is to make a recommendation, rather than advance an historical argument. The historical premise on which that recommendation is based, is that several kinds of "biblical studies" have "failed," proven vacuous, misleading, or a waste of time. We should, therefore, choose between the following options, of which Avalos favors the third:
"1. Eliminate biblical studies completely from the modern world."
2. "Retain biblical studies as is, but admit that it is a religionist enterprise." (Note: Could we also elimitate words like "religionist?" --DM.)
3. "Retain biblical studies, but redefine its purpose so that it is tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world."
Why should the influence of the Bible be "completely eliminated?" Because, of course, that influence is pernicious, vile, evil, harmful, and nugatory. This is a persistent sub-theme of the chapter:
" . . . dependence on a text brought untold misery and stood as an obstacle to human progress." (110)
"Origen, the famous church father, is reported to have castrated himself in light of this verse." (113)
"Such efforts only expose the fact that scholars themselves know that 'the Bible' is a violent document that must be sanitized to keep it alive." (114)
"The Bible also has been detrimental to human beings. For every page of Hamlet that we might enjoy innocently, there is a passage of the Bible that prompted someone to kill another human being." (125)
(A strange comparison. Hamlet can be printed on 50 pages, all of which no doubt one can enjoy, let us say innocently. So is Avalos claiming that 50 out of, say, 1000 pages in the Bible have prompted killing? I suppose that's possible -- billions of people have read the thing -- but it's a rather roundabout way of making a point. Could one also say the same, percentage-wise, about the US Constitution?)
"Why do we need an ancient book that endorses everything from genocide to slavery to be a prime authority on our public or private morality?" (128)
"Modern human beings have existed for tens of thousands of years without the Bible, and they don't seem to have been the worse for it." (128)
And one loud, last blast for the road:
"Total abolition of biblical authority becomes a moral obligation and a key to this world's survival. The letter can kill. That is why the only mission of biblical studies should be to end biblical studies as we know them." (129)
So the Bible brings "untold misery:" blocked progress, encouraged murder and self-castration, "endorsed" slavery, and apparently done the world no good at all. In fact, the Bible threatens "this world's" very survival.
Perhaps I overlooked it, but I noticed no hint in this chapter of any other source of evil in life besides the Bible (lust? greed? whirlpools? angry moose?). I also found no hint that the Bible has ever done anyone any good.
So the problem, in Avalos' view, is not that people study the Bible, but that anyone does so except between the crosshairs of a high-powered rifle. Who would have thought Robert Funk should stand accused of reading the Bible with insufficient fear and loathing?
What's Wrong with Biblical Studies?
Avalos does, however, offer a litany of specific criticisms of six forms of biblical study: translation, textual criticism, archeology, the search for the historical Jesus, literary criticism, and biblical theology.
Avalos' discussion of biblical translation is the most unfair. He seems to want to smear Bible tranlators as broadly as possible, but leave the boundaries of his critique fuzzy enough so as to plausibly deny injustice:
"Indeed, the Bible is such a foreign text that translators and scholars become assistants to the reader . . . But even more surprising is the assumption that the relevance of the Bible is best maintained by using translation to hide and distort the original meaning of the text in order to provide the illusion that the information and values conveyed by biblical authors are compatible with those of the modern world."
"In short, Bible translations 'lie' to keep the Bible alive." (emphasis added)
That's a serious charge. As with his condemnation of the Bible, Avalos does not place clear boundaries around his allegation -- "some" translations, "Dr. So n So" -- no, the reader is encouraged to generalize, though also without clearly being told, "All translators" or "most translators" are guilty.
Avalos does provide a few examples, but they seem far too weak to justify the word "dishonesty," which Avalos also uses, let alone "lie."
For instance, Dr. Avalos disputes how the New American Bible renders Deuteronomy 32: 8-9 in English. Even in his accusation, however, Avalos is forced to pull his punches: "probably," "so some scholars have argued that . . . " "probably,""appears to be." In other words, he implicitly admits that his own interpretation of the passage is not that straightforward, but can reasonably be disputed.
Translation is difficult, an art not a science. Why question a fellow scholar's honesty, even accuse him of "lying," for offering a plausible but somewhat different interpretation of a Hebrew phrase? And then extend the smear by implication to all his colleagues?
It's not as if Avalos' own exegesis is impeccable. In The Christian Delusion, Avalos offered a grossly misreading rendering of the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:
"That Christian communist system also results in the killing of a married couple (Acts 5:1-11) that reneged on their promise to surrender their property. Thus, the principle of killing those who did not conform to collectivation of property is already a biblical one." (Christian Delusion, 369)
In debate afterwards, I cited the original wording, numerous commentators, and translations in several languages, to show that Avalos' read of this passage (which he expanded on in discussion) was grossly misleading. Avalos basically just ignored all contrary scholarship on the passage, or dismissed serious and even unbelieving scholars as apologists. Nor did he admit how misleading his representation of it had been. (Though his colleague Ed Babinski was honest enough to do so.)
Was Avalos a "liar?" I didn't call him that, though his abuse of that passage seems far more blatant than anything he cites by other scholars.
Avalos vs. the Jesus Seminar
Some of Avalos' criticism of biblical studies suggests that he may have given up convincing those outside of his own skeptical choir.
The longest section here is on the "unhistorical Jesus," in which he takes on, of all opponents, the Jesus Seminar:
"The Jesus Seminar has predetermined what Jesus or the early church thought, and then they have simply selected those verses that accord with what the Jesus Seminar thinks that Jesus thought. So despite no supernaturalism in their assumptions, the members of the Jesus Seminar are no different from fundamentalists who pick and choose texts to bolster their image of Jesus." (122)
As author of a book rebutting the Jesus Seminar, I'm sympathetic to Avalos' point, in this case. For one thing, not only is there "no supernaturalism in their assumptions," but key Jesus Seminar scholars make anti-supernaturalism itself an assumption: no miracles allowed, end of story.
But Avalos is being unfair even to the Jesus Seminar. Funk, Borg, King, and Crossan are smart, educated scholars, and deal with concrete historical texts: they do not (often) just make stuff up out of thin air. While the Seminar as a whole shares the faults of a committee, and the faults of radical skeptics, the individual works of these writers often deal in an interesting way with compelling bits of historical data, which Avalos glosses over, with the abolitionist arrogance of a Karl Marx, ready to end whole fields of study with a few glib "zingers." (In fact, come to think of it, Marx' followers sometimes did burn the Bible. Avalos' goal is similiar, though his own efforts do not have the laudible side-effect of warming anyone on a cold night.)
"New Gospels for Sale!"
But even while he dismisses NT scholars "left and right," skeptic and Christian, in the most sweeping terms, I see little sign that Avalos is ready to do the serious work of figuring out the 1st Century himself. He is, for example, at least as naive (or disenguous -- here the question really does arise) about fake "Gospels" as the Jesus Seminar scholars he criticizes:
"But there's more to consider, because the existence of other Gospels changes everything. Charles W. Hedrick, who discovered a 'lost Gospel,' placed the number of Gospels at thirty-four in 2002. According to him, we have four canonical Gospels, four complete noncanonical Gospels, seven fragmentary Gospels, four Gospels known only from early quotations, two hypothetical Gospels (Q and the Signs Gospels), and thirteen known only by a name mentioned in some ancient source."
Avalos goes on to ape the standard line that we can no longer "privilege" the canonical Gospels as the "earliest or best sources for depicting early Christianity."
This is sheer poppycock. As I show in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels,' there ARE no other extant Gospels, besides the canonical four.
Other books are called "Gospels," but that is just (now and then) a marketting ploy. No other extant text can be plausibly called a "gospel" either etymologically, or by analogy to the four in the Bible. (Which is the primary literary definition in most dictionaries.) None of them. The canonical Gospels stand out from the field in so many ways, it is ludicrous, and highly misleading, to pretend that any other discovered text belongs to the same genre.
I go into particular detail on Thomas, which is the skeptics' favorite, a pathetic admission of failure in and of itself.
I challenge anyone to rebut my arguments.
Not only are none of these texts "Gospels." As I show, not even fans of the Gnostic texts, like Elaine Pagels or Karen King, or even the Jesus Seminar itself, really believe any of them, not even Thomas, is on the same level as an "early and best source" for the life of Jesus, as the real gospels.
The quotes and facts are all there. Again, I defy anyone to justify these sloppy and misleading claims about other "gospels," and their supposed value for reconstructing the life of Jesus.
Will the Bible Destroy the World?
Despite his learning and talent as a teacher, Hector Avalos runs the risk of making himself into a caricature of the village atheist.
Throughout this chapter, we are told of the evils the Bible encourages. Rather than acknowledging that it can also inspire good, Avalos folds a big tarp over any benefits the world might have also derived from the Good Book:
"Modern humans have existed for tens of thousands of years without the Bible, and they don't seem to have been the worse for it."
Is that so? Are girls sold into prostitution, or burnt alive after their husbands died, or whose feet are crushed at age 6, none the worse for those customs? If not, then how is it that people inspired by this evil book, have in fact began reform movements that ended foot-binding, human sacrifice, widow-burning, and slavery around the world? How many tens of thousands of hospitals and schools have been founded by zealous Christians who thought they were following the example of Jesus? Why was it that most of the founders of modern science were so entranced by this book? Why did Francis Bacon and John Locke quote it, when instituting reforms that have benefited the whole world?
Pardon while I gape in disbelief at Avalos' refusal to recognize vast historical facts.
I argued, in a series of seven recent posts last month, more-or-less beginning here, that the Gospel has liberated billions of women.
The Bible doesn't matter, in a positive way?
It mattered to Mosab Hassan Yousee, the son of one of the founders of the terrorist organization Hamas:
"When I got to the Sermon on the Mount, I thought, Wow, this guy Jesus is really impressive! . . . Every verse seemed to touch a deep wound in my life . . . Then I read this: 'You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.' (Mt. 5: 43-45) . . . Never before had I heard anything like things, but I knew that this was the message I had been searching for all my life.”
But what do they know? Hector Avalos has been given a pony, and is determined to look all the way up its rear end.
And all he sees there, is darkness, the apocalyptic end of the world.
I find a verse in this allegedly antiquated, venile text that seems, somehow, to matter more and more as I delve into the New Atheism:
"Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?"