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Response to Reader42 Review

“Reader42” has reviewed my book on Amazon. Here is my response.

<blockquote>I do completely agree with him that the historical-grammatical approach to reading scripture does not work because it assumes that everyone can derive the same correct interpretation on their own which the Bible denies can be done (cf. Luke 24:27, 2 Pet. 3:16) and it forces a singular monist conformity of the texts which are all shaped by different backgrounds and written in different styles.</blockquote>

I never made any such argument, so this reader is “completely agreeing” with a misunderstanding. There is no reason whatsoever that a historical-grammatical reading of the text should prevent us from recognizing the different backgrounds and genres of the texts. In fact, that’s precisely what the historical-grammatical approach sets out to do.

<blockquote>Stark rejects progressive revelation because he thinks that it is too easy but really progressive revelation is what makes sense and if we believe that God speaks through scripture then he have to understand how God might do this.</blockquote>

Again, this reader is not a careful one. I do not reject progressive revelation. I reject “progressive revelation” as an explanation for contradictory views about God, both of which purport to be revealed to us by God. I believe in progressive revelation, but not as a way of explaining away contradictions.

<blockquote>Progressive revelation makes sense because otherwise everything would have been revealed from the start and there would be no such thing as revelation at all.</blockquote>

Yes, quite obviously.

<blockquote>Paul may have affirmed a form of progressive revelation as well (eg. Gal. 4:4).</blockquote>

This is an inadequate prooftext to use to assign progressive revelation to Paul. Nevertheless, obviously Paul (like everybody else) believed in progressive revelation, as do I. The reader is confusing the issue.

<blockquote>Furthermore I think it is a severe mistake when someone reads scripture as if the Bible is some immutable dictation and treats it as if it is God. But it is also a severe mistake to treat scripture as if it is just a cultural byproduct that has nothing to tell us other than the theological views of an ancient culture. I feel that Stark tends to go down the latter path. He seems too eager to wholly assume a political agenda behind the formation of the Bible and that seems to be his starting point in trying to understand it instead of treating it like it is inspired by God.</blockquote>

It’s clear that the reader is offering criticisms from a non-scholarly perspective, which is fine, but not very useful. This also reflects circular reasoning. Moreover, I do not assume a “wholly … political agenda” behind the texts, but it is obvious that politics played a large role in the formation of many of our texts, particularly the ones written inside the king’s court. If the reader wishes to dismiss wholesale critical scholarship as an enterprise, that is his or her prerogative, but such a dismissal does not constitute a rejoinder to the conclusions of critical scholarship. Such a dismissal simply asserts the superiority of an alternate paradigm.

<blockquote>My approach to scripture is to recognize the human elements as well as the divine working through them. I think this is the approach that Jesus and the Biblical authors took.</blockquote>

No argument from me, neither now nor in my book, since this is in fact what I argued.

<blockquote>They recognized that scripture did not flat out say certain things but at the same time they knew that scripture speaks the truth and that we can derive truths from passages even if the passage does not explicitly say what is being derived and even if we do not agree with everything the passage says.</blockquote>

Again, this is precisely what I argued in my book.

<blockquote>When Jesus was confronted by the Sadducees about the resurrection (Matt. 22:23) He didn’t respond by finding a passage that explicitly talked about the resurrection but rather interpreted God’s address to Moses as being compatible and implicit of the resurrection. The author of Exodus may not have been aware of the implications but Jesus knew that the resurrection is true and that God speaks the truth through history and scripture so Jesus saw the conclusion that this passage supports His view. This is what Mathew did in that he knew that the virgin birth was true so he derived the truth by reinterpreting Isaiah 7:14. Paul also did this in reinterpreting the law about the ox eating the grain. Instead of expecting scripture to be a straightforward dictation that says everything we affirm out right we need to recognize that it is written by humans guided by the Spirit. So every statement in scripture is `yes tainted by human hands and thinking’ but also lead into truth by the Holy Spirit.</blockquote>

This reader is simply articulating the hermeneutic of second temple Judaism that I outlined very plainly in my book. S/He is adopting it, which is fine. Again, this is not a rejoinder to my conclusions or to the conclusions of critical scholarship. It is simply the assertion of the superiority of a different paradigm, without argument. Whereas I offered explicit arguments in the book why more honesty with the “human side” of the texts is requisite for faithful interpretation. These arguments have not been addressed by this reader.

<blockquote>If we affirm that God is ineffable then we of course can’t expect for any single verse to fully capture and understand the divine because “the Spirit speaks with sighs too deep for words”, but the alternative isn’t to say the verse completely got God wrong either (which I don’t think Stark would believe that but he doesn’t seem to share the view that God speaks real truths through the authors either).</blockquote>

What seems clear to me is that the reader doesn’t know how to accommodate the perspective I articulate, thus s/he keeps getting it wrong. I obviously don’t believe that the Bible as a whole completely gets God wrong. I expressly state that it very often gets God right. I also expressly state in my book that God often speaks “real truths” through the biblical authors, just not in every case.

<blockquote>So some verses have a fuller picture of God than others because the writers had a better understanding at that point, but that does not mean that the other verses were not inspired.</blockquote>

Whether the genocidal texts, for instance, were inspired or not is beside the point. The point is, this idea that certain discrepancies between texts or ideological opposition between texts can be explained away this idea that one author didn’t have “the fuller picture” is completely wrong. I’ve argued this at length, but the reader (who says I get my “facts” right but my “truths” wrong) hasn’t offered a rejoinder to any of my actual arguments. Some texts, yes, reflect an incomplete picture that is filled out later, and that is fine. Some other texts, however, contain clear and important contradictions. This cannot be explained away by identifying them as an “incomplete picture.” If this reader wishes honestly to disagree with my conclusion, it is incumbent upon him or her to engage in actual specifics.

<blockquote>We have to read scripture in light of reason, all of scripture as a whole, and guided by the Holy Spirit through the Church. So when it seems that something in scripture has not been fulfilled or is not true that is only because we are looking at it from a human perspective and focusing on the human side but if we trust in God and see that He will fulfill and has inspired every verse then we can trust that what it says is the truth. This is how prayer works and I can affirm that God answers prayers, He just may not answer them in the time frame that I expect Him too. We should approach scripture from the view point of how prayer works not how we expect human speeches to work. This view seems to be incompatible with sola scriptura though because the approach goes outside of the direct explicit words in scripture but I reject sola scriptura.</blockquote>

Again, the assertion of a different paradigm (without argument) does not a rejoinder to critical scholarship make.

<blockquote>So I agree with Stark that we cannot look at the human elements of the Bible and think that is how God inspired the Bible by making the authors write down exactly every detail as it happened or in the way they should be understood. So we shouldn’t read stories like the conquest of Cana [sic] or Jonah as if they are history. There may be some historical truth to them but we need to recognize that their style of writing is legendary and not strict history and that not everything they affirm about God or history may be completely factual. But we can recognize the divine truths in them.</blockquote>

I recognize the divine truths in Jonah (and I advocate that recognition in my book). I also recognize what the authors of the book of Joshua were attempting to do with these legends, and I gave an exhaustive list of reasons why (if we are in fact to use reason) the authors’ intended moral message in the book of Joshua should not be accepted as a divine truth. If this reader wishes honestly and actually to engage my conclusions, s/he needs to engage the specifics of my arguments. Otherwise, this is all so much hand waving.

<blockquote>Likewise if certain authors of the Bible didn’t believe in the afterlife we can still see the Sprit speaking through their attempt to understand the necessity or possibility of it (also the Jewish idea of Sheol doesn’t disaffirm the afterlife only it looks to the afterlife as a state of dullness and not a heavenly paradise but that is compatible with theology and scripture as a whole because Christ opened the gates to heaven).</blockquote>

I’ll ignore the fact the this reader obviously doesn’t really understand these issues and is apparently unfamiliar with the relevant scholarship, and just remind him or her that an adequate response to an argument necessitates actually engaging with it. Please examine the specific arguments I make and respond to those. Otherwise one is simply preaching to the choir.

<blockquote>A point I was uncertain on is that Stark argues that belief in the resurrection came later which is apparently true but he says that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the Resurrection because it was a relatively new idea but my understanding of the Sadducees’ approach was that they only accepted the Torah not that they only rejected recent material like Daniel and the Maccabbees, which is why Christ used the passage from Exodus to argue for the Resurrection because it is in the Torah.</blockquote>

As this reader has already noted, Jesus’ use of this passage in Exodus was novel and not historical-grammatical. He invested new meaning in the passage based upon later revelation which the Sadducees rejected. Thus, they had no reason to accept Jesus’ innovative reading of Yahweh’s statement in Exodus. I’m not sure what this reader’s point is or where exactly the confusion lies.

<blockquote>In one of the chapters in his book Stark argues that ancient Israel believed in human sacrifice. The main disagreement I have here is that one of the passages that he uses for support is Micah 6:6-8 because it says “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression” but I am not sure that this verse proves Micah was talking about human sacrifice in the sense of killing because in Ex. 34:20 it says “all the firstborn you shall redeem”. Stark says though that this verse was not used as the normative but was utilitarian. That may be true but that doesn’t mean that Micah didn’t understand it to mean `that the firstborn were not to be sacrificed but to be redeemed as the normative’. Micah could have been talking about offering the firstborn while still redeeming the child.</blockquote>

This is of course utter nonsense, and a cursory look either at the text itself or at my treatment of the text will show why. In Micah there is a crescendo from lesser sacrifices to greater sacrifices, culminating in the greatest sacrifice of all—the sacrifice of one’s firstborn son. If Micah is envisioning the redemption of his son, that would amount to the sacrifice of a lamb, which is anticlimactic after the previous line’s mention of the sacrifice of “thousands of rams.”

<blockquote>Stark also implies that Jesus’ atonement is an example of human sacrifice in the same sense as child sacrifice, but Jesus’ sacrifice should be understood in its own context which is in the backdrop of the Maccabean sense of self sacrifice for others and not in the sense of child sacrifice to appease a blood thirsty deity.</blockquote>

This is false because it’s a quarter-truth. There are many interpretations of Jesus’ death in the New Testament. Paul identifies the death of Jesus as a “hilasterion” (Rom 3:25), which is a propitiatory sacrifice meant to appease an angry deity. Moreover, in the Gospels Jesus himself regularly cites the Isaian Suffering Servant as predictive of his death, investing it with a sacrificial, propitiatory meaning.

<blockquote>Stark says that today’s society still sacrifices people by sending soldiers to die for their country, an example he did not mention though is that parents still sacrifice their children through the act of abortion.</blockquote>


<blockquote>Stark seems to view Jesus as if Christ was just a person of His times. Stark not only thinks that it is problematic to view the Bible as if it fell from heaven but equally problematic to believe that Jesus came down from heaven! Stark argues that Jesus falsely predicted His Second Coming and while I agree with Stark that Jesus was fully human so He must have held human views which possibly may have not been correct it is important that we recognize that Jesus was also fully God as well. I do not think that Jesus was mistaken about His purpose so I cannot agree with Stark that Christ was mistaken about His Second Coming.</blockquote>

This is a fine example as any of circular reasoning. Please engage the actual texts and the specific arguments.

<blockquote>Stark says Christ wrongfully predicted His Second Coming in Mark 9:1 where He says “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” And then again in the Olivet Discourse found in the Synoptics (eg. Math. 24).

I don’t see why Christ’s words in Mark 9:1 are referring to the Second Coming. They could simply mean that some of Christ’s followers would have a realized eschatological view of the resurrection within their own life or they could be in reference to the Transfiguration. Stark doesn’t deal with the first alternative.</blockquote>

In fact I do. Please read it again.

<blockquote>but he does say that the Transfiguration can’t be the fulfillment because it occurred a week later so the promise wouldn’t have been that great, also angels weren’t present, and it doesn’t follow the logic of the discussion. First off we don’t know if the statement in Mark 9:1 was made in the context of the other statements because it is even included in a new chapter in Mark’s Gospel, while at the end of the chapter in Mathew and Luke, but regardless if could have been made at a different point in time than the preceding statements.</blockquote>

This is quite humorous. This reader seems to think that the author of Mark included the chapter demarcations in his original text. In fact, the chapter demarcations were added by Stephen Langton in ca. 1200 CE.

<blockquote>If it was made at the same time though as the preceding remarks there is still no indication that because Mark 8:38 talks about the Second Coming that Mark 9:1 has to coincide with the same statement. Jesus could have been saying `I will come and repay but don’t worry some of you will already know what the Second Coming will be like because I will reveal it to you ahead of time when I am Transfigured before you.'</blockquote>

That is clearly not what Jesus is saying; this reader is simply rewriting the Bible to suit his or her own purposes.

<blockquote>Also I don’t read Greek and maybe the English reads differently but the fact that Jesus said “not taste death until” or “not taste death before” seems to indicate that the Apostles would still die only they would see the kingdom first which would be fulfilled at the Transfiguration.</blockquote>

Yes, this reader doesn’t read Greek.

<blockquote>Now to address the Olivet Discourse. This place is very tough because it does seem that Jesus links the destruction of the Temple with His Second Coming. It is also difficult because each of the synoptics has different wording so it is impossible to know exactly how the conversation went. Mathew’s account is the only one where the disciples ask about the end of the age “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? (Math. 24:3b)” and is the only one that mentions “the sign of the Son of Man (24:30)” and is the only one that talks about the immediacy of the events following the desecration (24:29).</blockquote>

No, it isn’t. The Son of Man coming on the clouds is referenced in all three synoptic accounts, and all three accounts place the coming within the generation of Jesus’ disciples.

<blockquote>In both Mathew’s and Mark’s account Jesus says that the Gospel must be preached throughout the world (Math. 24:14, Mark 13:10) and Luke says the time of the Gentiles must be fulfilled (Luke 21:24). Mathew and Mark mention the abomination of desolation but Luke mentions Jerusalem being surrounded by armies. But those can be seen as two separate things because armies are not an idol being set up in the temple which is what the abomination of desolation is a reference to though it is unclear exactly what idolatry actually took place as the indication.</blockquote>

They are clearly references to the same event.

<blockquote>Jesus also said that He didn’t know the day or hour that all these things would be fulfilled, but Stark says that that is only in respect to the exact day that they would be fulfilled within the next 40 years and shouldn’t be understood as showing complete ignorance of the time of the event.</blockquote>

Correct. I’ve argued this at length in the book and at further length on the book’s website.

<blockquote>While all of Jesus’ words were fulfilled before the destruction of the temple they were not perfectly fulfilled because the Gospel was not proclaimed to all the nations, some (but not many) false prophets arose and I don’t know if any claimed to be Jesus having returned, and a complete fulfillment of the abomination of desolation may not have occurred (although there would have been some sign to indicate as perhaps some form of idolatry or even the armies as Luke indicates).</blockquote>

This is all nonsense. The Gospel had proceeded to the known world by the time of the temple’s destruction. Many “false prophets” had in fact arisen between Jesus’ death and the temple’s destruction. As for the abomination that causes desolation, the Roman standards were erected in the temple, and the temple was destroyed. That seems pretty complete to me.

<blockquote>So we are still waiting for all of Jesus’ words to be fulfilled.</blockquote>

The only thing left unfulfilled is his promised return, which is some 2,000 years past due, according to Jesus’ prediction.

<blockquote>Scriptural prophecy often times has multiple fulfillment as when something is not properly fulfilled at one time it is completely fulfilled at another.</blockquote>

This is a hermeneutical strategy, not an actual property of biblical prophecy, unless expressly delineated in the prophecy.

<blockquote>For example God warned Adam that if he ate from the tree he would die on that day, except that Adam did not die on that day.</blockquote>

The story of Adam and Eve is a fable, not a prophetic prediction.

<blockquote>Christ though being the second Adam did die as He was hung on the tree and said to the thief “Today, you will be with me in paradise (Luke 24:43).”</blockquote>


<blockquote>Another example is that David was promised an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam. 7:16) but David’s earthly kingdom is not around anymore, that is because it is fulfilled by Christ who has an everlasting heavenly kingdom and is the fulfillment of David. This is how Acts 2 applies Psalm 16 and 110 to Christ as well.</blockquote>

Yes, this is a hermeneutical strategy, not a property of the original prediction. The original prediction of David’s eternal kingdom was false.

<blockquote>There are many more examples and the principle of multiple fulfillment can be applied to the Olivet Discourse as well (this idea is argued by Fr. William Most SJ. In his book Free from All Error). So it is possible that after the Gospel has been preached to the whole world that these events will be fulfilled again in the wars, earth quakes, false messiahs, and abomination of desolation which could be the antichrist since Christ’s body is the true temple (John 2:21) and the antichrist may come and establish himself as if he is the second Christ in imitation of Christ and will be the abomination of desolation (but I obviously don’t know).</blockquote>

I agree with that last bit.

<blockquote>Furthermore, Stark brought up that Jesus said “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” as indication that the Second Coming would occur within the next 40 years but while the things leading up to the destruction of the temple did take place within the next 40 years Jesus’ Second Coming and the things that would be needed to fully take place in order (like the preaching to all the nations) for that to occur had not so we can conclude that the generation has not ended.

There is no reason to think that generation must mean a 40 year span, it can be understood to mean establishment (as well as have a double sense like the other aspects of the discourse). So Jesus can be understood to mean this established mindset of people which is the way the word is possibly used in Math. 11:16, 12:39, 16:4, 17:17, and Duet. 32:20. Jesus spoke in universal terms that transcend time, so He would not be bound to mean people of the next 40 years when He uses the term generation.</blockquote>

No, “generation” cannot be understood to mean the “established mindset of people.” It does not mean this anywhere in Matthew, nor in Deuteronomy, nor anywhere else in all of world literature.

<blockquote>Stark also argues that when Christ said “flee to the mountains” that the expectation was that Jesus would come and rescue them and destroy the Romans. But that is not stated anywhere in the text. Jesus told them to flee to the mountains because Jerusalem was going to be destroyed by the Romans. Fleeing to the mountains is an indication to wait for destruction. There is no indication in the text that the followers were to wait for Christ to return and destroy the Romans there or anywhere in scripture.</blockquote>

Yes, there clearly is, as I showed in my book. This reader simply ignores the argument.

<blockquote>Stark implies that Jesus’ kingdom is viewed as earthly in the synoptics because in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus says “thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is heaven” but this is not an indication that Jesus’ kingdom is earthly. It is prayer for this world to reflect and imitate what God wants.</blockquote>

This is just one example of the earthly kingdom envisioned in the synoptics, and, despite this reader’s objection, it remains a firm example. We cannot change the meaning of Jesus’ words by using other words with different meaning to define them.

<blockquote>Stark says in John’s gospel the kingdom is spiritualized but there is no evidence that John’s Gospel takes back anything from the synoptics nor is there any evidence that John’s Gospel is unhistorical or inaccurate.</blockquote>

Yes, in fact, there is, on all counts, and ample evidence at that.

<blockquote>But it still must be addressed why Jesus answered His followers’ questions about the destruction of the temple and the end times by talking about things that happened and included things that weren’t fully fulfilled.</blockquote>

He didn’t.

<blockquote>To understand this I think that we must understand what Biblical prophecy is. Biblical prophecy is not fortune telling. Rather it is speaking divine truths that we know that God will eventually fulfill, after all the only sign that we will get is that of Jonah.</blockquote>

This reader mischaracterizes my presentation of the character of biblical prophecy, and goes on to display that s/he doesn’t understand what biblical prophecy is either. An education would be useful here. Further, s/he misreads the sign of Jonah. Jesus did not say that “we” would only get the sign of Jonah; he said that his religious opponents would only have that sign. He gave many other signs to those amenable to believing in him.

<blockquote>Stark has a problematic outlook. He thinks that looking for God to intercede in the world and solve all our problems is just looking for a way out. Apparently Stark wants us to try to figure things out on our own (or at least that’s what it seems like) the problem with this is that that approach fails. That is what Adam and Eve wanted in the Garden. In actuality we need God to be the one who comes and saves us and ends our suffering. The best way for suffering to end is to follow Jesus but that means actually following Jesus and not just picking and choosing what we like about His message. If we actually did follow Christ then earth would be as it is in heaven.</blockquote>

I never argued that God’s involvement with our salvation is problematic. It is essential. What I argued is that God struggles with us, and guides us, and corrects us, but a Deus ex Machina doesn’t help us. It simply consigns us to failure. This reader can call my outlook “problematic,” and most Catholics and Evangelicals will agree. That’s fine. They are entitled to disagree. I find their expectations of a Deux ex Machina both factually and morally problematic, for the reasons I articulated in my book.

<blockquote>Stark has a problem though with treating reality with the same sort of consistent logic that he wants people to treat the Bible with. For instance he says that God is beyond categories of monotheism and polytheism. I am confused what sort of category God can be placed in then.</blockquote>

Um, Trinity?

<blockquote>Stark also wants the Bible and religion to totally be about morality. He thinks the message of Christianity should all be about social justice, except again that is an attempt at making heaven on earth on our own means. Christianity is about conforming to the image of Christ.</blockquote>

Am I to understand that conforming to the image of Christ does not involve the pursuit of social justice?

<blockquote>If we do that then earth will be better but until God comes and drives out evil then we are not in paradise because there are people who reject God and prefer darkness to the light.</blockquote>

Who ever said anything about paradise?

<blockquote>Stark doesn’t like the idea of black and white though because he says things are more complicated than that. Except we are all sinners so at the end of the day we either follow Christ and are conformed to His image or we are not.</blockquote>

In other words, black and white because, well, black and white. Apparently there are no shades between conformity and non-conformity to Christ’s image, and apparently the long history of disagreement over exactly what conformity to Christ’s image entails shouldn’t be seen as evidence that such conformity isn’t a black and white matter.

<blockquote>We can’t do it on our own! That is why we must have the Catholic Church and the sacraments in order to guide us in interpreting scripture and help us conform to the image of Christ by the grace we receive through the sacraments.</blockquote>

That’s actually precisely what I argue in my book.

<blockquote>I appreciate Thom Stark for writing this book because he brings forth a lot of good evidence in a clear fashion and he speaks from a sincere perspective and I would recommend that people read this book as I learned a lot from it. It must be read with proper discernment though because Stark is mistaken in his overall conclusions.</blockquote>

I appreciate that this reader learned from my book, but I would also appreciate it if s/he would provide evidence, rather than mere assertions, in substantiation of the claim that my “overall conclusions” are mistaken.